Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dave Smith Interview: We talk Tempest with a synth legend


As some of you may have noticed, I recently changed the header of the site to a certain familiar font-- that of Dave Smith Instrument's logo.  It's commemorating the release of the new Tempest, DSI's brand new analog/digital hybrid drum machine.  I'd been trying to score an interview with Dave for a couple months now, but he's been quite busy at work on his newest classic.  Finally, that interview is up today.

To call Dave an audio electronic engineer who owns is own company just doesn't quite cut it.  He's very much a legend in the world of synthesizers.  If you don't know why, you'd have to try hard to not find his influence.  Dave started Sequential Circuits back in the mid-70s, a music company.  They created the first programmable polyphonic synthesizer, the Prophet-5, in 1977.  Prophet-5s are still highly sought after today and is arguably the greatest synthesizer ever made.  In addition to that and other great products made by SCI, Dave helped create MIDI, the universal music standard we all use for our keyboards-- he even coined the term.  Sequential Circuits was eventually bought out and Dave had stints at other companies making digital products, only to return to his roots more recently with Dave Smith Instruments, who've also remade his classic Prophet-5 as the Prophet '08, in addition to other new classics like the Evolver and Mopho.

I can't help but feel lucky to get a chance to chat with such a legendary name in electronic music.  I sit here with my Mopho Keyboard and my Tetra just within reach, two of DSI's recent creations, which I love to play.  The Tempest marks a huge moment for many synthusiasts as it's a truly rare breed-- drum machines aren't as popular, let alone an analog and digital hybrid.  While I haven't tried a Tempest yet and there aren't many (if any) reviews out yet, early impressions say Dave has once again set the bar incredibly high for competitors with a new classic.  Check out what Dave has to say on Roger Linn and the Tempest below.

Dave and Roger in the early days
First thing I'd like to talk about is your new release, the Tempest, which is a Dave Smith/ Roger Linn collaboration. There's a great picture of you two from the Prophet 5/ LinnDrum days. How did you meet Roger Linn? What were the early days like back then? How did being competitors (ie. you had the SCI DrumTraks, he had the LinnDrum) affect your relationship?
Dave Smith: Roger and I met in the late 70s when he made his first drum machine. Back then the industry was small, and we all knew each other, and were friends even though we were competitors. It was actually a very exciting and fun time since it was really the growth period for synthesis and electronic music in general.

The Tempest seems to be really special because there aren't as many drum machines, especially analog, coming out these days. Not only that, but it's backed by you and Roger, two of the most renowned music equipment makers of the past 30 years. How did the collaboration on the Tempest start with you and Roger? Did he have an idea and come to you, vice versa, or had you wanted to work on something together for a while? Had you worked together previously? Is it more fun to work together?
A few years back we realized the world needed a new drum machine. Plus, there has never been a true programmable analog drum machine, and Roger had a lot of new ideas for the UI and design approach for a beat-oriented instrument. We had a couple false starts over a couple years before zeroing in on a design that became the Tempest. It’s always a challenge working together on such a project, but very roughly I was driving the sound aspect of the design, and Roger the UI. Obviously there was a huge amount of overlap. And more than a few arguments!

An early concept of the Tempest, called the "BoomChik",
released 4 years ago.
I've heard quite a few demos of the Tempest, and I can tell it's really going to be a hit. What are you most proud of in terms of the engineering behind it?
We have taken analog synthesis to a new level. I don’t know that there has ever been such a responsive, dynamic voice assigned analog synth engine like this. It sounds great, and you would never guess that there are just 6 analog voices. Compared to digital and soft instruments with often hundreds of voices, the Tempest just sounds better.

The Tempest, as it looks now.
Your company is in an interesting position because it still makes analog synths while many other companies, especially the larger ones, have abandoned it for cheaper, all-digital instruments and plugins. I've read that you don't really believe in plugins because of their tendency to get outdated, etc. What does analog synthesis mean to you at a time like this? Where do you see the future for keyboards, especially synthesizers, going?
Analog synthesis has passed the test of time. Musicians tell me that our synths sit very well in a mix, but at the same time they cut through the mix, unlike digital synths. The only downside with analog is the cost, but we’ve been able to reduce the cost significantly compared to the older designs, so musicians can afford analog now.

I was told DSI is a very small company, only a handful of people. Is it much different than the early days of SCI? Would you ever want to expand DSI?
Sequential had up to 170 people; DSI has 7. I have no desire to build a large company. Our target is to stay very efficient, and have fun crafting superb musical instruments with lots of personality. This means we purposely do not push our products with big (or sometimes any) marketing campaigns; we prefer to sell based on word-of-mouth, magazine reviews, etc.

How does it feel knowing that some of your earliest instruments are still some of the most sought after pieces of gear?
Of course it’s a nice compliment to see the old instruments still in use, though I’d prefer if they bought a new synth from us now!


I've also heard that you meet with Roger Linn, Tom Oberheim, Don Buchla, and a few other famous names in the electronic instrument world weekly at a local coffee house in Berkeley-- it sounds a bit like the Super Friends of Synthesizers. Can you give any insight into what these meetings are like? What stops you all from joining forces to make the greatest piece of gear known to man?
I’m not too close to Berkeley, so I do not join very often, but it’s always an interesting gathering. Topics can be (and are) almost anything, not that often about synths. I don’t know that it would be possible to get all of us to agree on anything to make a single instrument; that’s the beauty of instrument design, it can be very personal to the designer, so a group design can often end up a mixed-up disaster.

Finally, what's next for DSI? A new product? Can you give us any hints?
No plans yet; still busy on the Tempest. Probably nothing new for another year.

Thanks again, Dave!  Be sure to check out the Tempest.  You can buy it from Sweetwater or Sam Ash here and here.

3 comments:

  1. Mrz03
    djyucatec
    Dein Kommentar wartet auf die Überprüfung.
    Xpensive like it s made of Gold? Hey Grand pa ,we have a crisis out there ,and we r not rich BH (2000 dollars is annual salary in roumania!)…The price of this TOY is way ,way too xpensive specially in the day where software are barely free…Even Akai mpc are way cheaper..I suggest you change your price strategy,You will have to anyway! Otherwise this product will have no Future!!You seems to forget the Future are the kids out there,and the kids do not have 2000 dollars just to experiment !!!!

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