St. Helena’s Dave Smith wins Grammy

Since its invention in 1983, MIDI has allowed electronic musical instruments to “talk” to one another. It was the result of cooperation between five companies, including Smith’s Sequential Circuits Inc. Smith shares the award with fellow MIDI creator Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation.

Smith received the award in Los Angeles on Feb. 9 as he was surrounded by his family — wife Denise and children Haley, 22, and Campbell, 20.

“It was a bit overwhelming, though it was a lot of fun, too,” Smith said.

“Many of the performances at the Grammys used the technology,” said Denise Smith.

“One of our instruments was on the stage and was used by Taylor Swift’s band,” her husband added.

The Smiths are both Bay Area natives and have resided in St. Helena for more than 20 years. “We moved to St. Helena in the late 1980s to start a family,” Denise said.

“We were ready for a change and always loved this area,” Smith added.

Their children, Haley and Campbell, were born and raised in St. Helena and were active in local music groups.

“Our daughter Haley was always in chorus and was also the bass player in the St. Helena High School Jazz Choir, while Campbell played guitar and drums with his friends,” Denise said.

Today, Haley is a software engineer and Campbell majors in electrical engineering at Sonoma State.

Smith’s 40-year career building musical instruments started in the Silicon Valley in the 1970s. Back then, Smith, who has a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley, was building accessories for musical instruments as a hobby.

“In the early 1970s, synthesizers were brand-new,” he said. “I purchased one and built some accessories for my own personal use. I had a regular day job working with microprocessors, and at night and on weekends, in the second bedroom of my apartment at the time, I built these accessories.”

He decided to try to sell some of the accessories through a small classified ad in Rolling Stone magazine. He ended up selling four of this first product, a device that controlled synthesizers.

In 1974, Smith started his own company, Sequential Circuits Inc. (SCI), and quit his day job three years later to focus on building musical instruments. Thanks to starting his own company, Smith met future wife Denise, who worked at SCI.

His first big product, the Prophet 5 keyboard, was a noted instrument at the time.

“It was the first synthesizer with a microprocessor, which allowed musicians to play five notes at the same time and save their sounds to computer memory,” Smith explained.

“It was all over MTV,” Denise said. “Everyone used it and it became the new industry standard.”

It also led to the development of MIDI.

“After we shipped the Prophet 5, other companies started to manufacture similar products,” Smith said. “However, different products from different manufacturers couldn’t communicate with one another. MIDI allowed these instruments to ‘talk’ to one another.”

The impact of MIDI was notable. “Musicians could play several keyboards at the same time just by using one keyboard,” Denise said.

“It generated a lot of the 1980s dance music, techno music, and was used in many movie and TV soundtracks,” Smith added. “It was used in all types of music: rock, jazz, even country. It allowed a single user to create sound affects of an orchestra, roughly saying.”

Another impact was the development of home recording studios, since MIDI allowed users to compose and record at home.

“One good thing about MIDI is that any electronic musical instrument made in the last 30 years has it,” the inventor said. “We made it low cost so that it was easy for companies to integrate into their products. It was given away license-free because we wanted everyone to use it.”

Smith said he doesn’t regret giving MIDI away license-free.

“I think it was still the right decision, as it was widely used and was implemented 100 percent,” he said. “Though MIDI is on cellphones, the initial technology hasn’t changed in 30 years.” As a result, a three-decades-old instrument can communicate with one made today.

For most of the past 25 years, Smith has worked from his St. Helena home, which allowed him quality time with his family while he developed new products. A year ago, he said, “it was time to open an office in San Francisco.”

His company, Dave Smith Instruments, manufactures keyboards that are sold all over the world.

“Our products that use analog technology provide unique sounds that musicians appreciate,” he said, explaining the popularity of his instruments with artists like Chris Martin of Coldplay and Anthony Gonzalez of M83.

“All of our instruments are manufactured in the city of San Francisco, while the majority of our competitors’ instruments are manufactured in China,” he noted. “We have much more control over the production this way, and people appreciate products that are made in the USA.”

The proof is in the keyboards.

“The synthesizers we built in San Jose 35 years ago are still being used today. I hope that DSI instruments will be used for another 30 years,” he said.

It is not hard to tell Smith loves his job.

“Building musical instruments is a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s a certain art to it. It’s all about the personality of the instrument and the sound it produces. Listening to them on recordings and seeing them in concerts feels very rewarding.”

Over the years, the Smiths have attended many concerts where they got to see the instruments in action.

“We got to see a lot of music thanks to my work,” Smith said. “In the ’80s we saw Pink Floyd, the Cars, Yes, Genesis, Talking Heads and many others. At most of the concerts we would go backstage and talk to the artists.”

For Smith, these events represent his work’s ultimate reward. “My payoff in this job of designing musical instruments is to see them being used.”

The Smith family — from left, Campbell, 20, Denise, Dave, and Haley, 22 — attends the Feb. 9 Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles. Joanne McGowan photo

The Smith family — from left, Campbell, 20, Denise, Dave, and Haley, 22 — attends the Feb. 9 Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles. Joanne McGowan photo

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