Dave Smith has just announced that the company bearing his name -Dave Smith Instruments (DSI), founded in 2002- will be renamed Sequential; a move that started with the Prophet 6, and that will now culminate in the complete resurrection of Dave’s legendary synthesizer brand.
In the history of musical instrument manufacturing, many entrepeneurs have witnessed the loss of rights to use their brand names -like Leo Fender or Alan R. Pearlman did-. Unfortunately, to get your name back is not such a common ocurrence in this little world, and maybe that’s why the Sequential story is so special and unique.
So, to celebrate this happy ending tale, we thought it would be great to recall how all of it happened, as a little homage to one of the most celebrated makers in the business.
THE BIRTH OF SEQUENTIAL CIRCUITS
When he was finishing his studies in electrical engineering in Berkeley, Dave Smith started to get interested in synthesizers after hearing Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos. He was working in the aerospace industry but he found that a bit monotonous as a day job. Ultimately this fascination with electronic music, coupled with his technical background, led him to buy a Minimoog in 1972. After analysing Bob Moog´s creations -and business model- Dave probably began to think about the musical instrument industry as a viable career.
Smith, making use of his own knowledge and expertise, started making accessories for his newly bought Minimoog. The first of these was a sequencer. Since he couldn’t afford Moog’s sequencers, Dave Smith -according to a few interviews and DSI’s site- made a sequencer of his own with 3 rows of 16 knobs each -making it a 16 step, 3 channel machine- which would have been his first product, of which he sold four units via a series of ads in Rolling Stone magazine. This marked the birth of his now classic synth company, Sequential Circuits Co. (later to become SCI, Sequential Circuits Inc.) in 1974. Of course, it’s name had a lot to do with that very first offering and a later better known unit, the Model 800 (another sequencer, this one having 256 events, organized in 16 memories of 16 steps each).
The Model 800 did quite a bit better, selling a few hundred units. Given these sale numbers SCI was still a fairly small business by this time, but big things were ahead. Little did he know, Dave Smith was just about to revolutionise the synthesizer business in a matter of months with his most classic product: the Prophet 5.
THE PROPHECY OF POLYPHONY
Smith continued to market his Model 800 sequencer while developing another synth companion unit, the Model 700 programmer. This was a similar strategy to the one chosen by fellow synth designer Tom Oberheim, who started making standalone effects and synth modules -like the Oberheim Ring Modulator and SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module)- meant to complement other instruments such as the Minimoog.
The Model 700 was an auxiliary unit designed to work, via CV signals, with synthesizers like ARP’s 2600 or Moog’s modular and fixed architecture products. Since there were no real means of patch storage or preset memories with these designs back then (other than old school patch sheets or Polaroid pictures), the idea of the Model 700 was to put together a pair of envelopes and a bunch of voltage sources that could be -you guessed it- programmable, allowing you to recall the sounds of your favourite synth from it’s 8 banks of 8 presets each (making it 64 total memories).
This was a brilliant idea to market, since in situations like professional studio work or live shows the instant recall of a synth sound was a growing necessity. The problem was that it could still not be viewed as an autonomous product, since it always had to be bought as a second or third machine -a companion to an existing synthesizer-, limiting the possible sales to a chosen few. But this was about to change really soon as sequential prepared it’s first actual synthesizer. Some of the technology inside the Model 700 -and also it’s looks- would take part in the birth of this first Prophet synth.
Early attempts at polyphony and programmability had been made already with synths like Oberheim’s Four Voice, but these designs were still quite cumbersome to work with -for example, each of the Oberheim’s voices had to be pretty much tuned and programmed separately-. With the advent of microprocessors, integrated synth chips -from the likes of SSM or CEM- and computer memory, Smith envisioned a modern programmable polysynth as early as 1975, but thought it was “too obvious” of an idea, thinking that Moog and Arp where already designing the first proper polyphonic analogs. Then, by 1977 he thought maybe he should give it a try seeing there was no real competition.
By that time, Smith already had most of the technology required to overcome such challenge. Having previously designed preset systems -for his Model 700-, all he needed apart from the synth ICs -that would add reliability, lower cost of manufacture and lower the size by making pcbs smaller-, was a polyphonic voice allocation system. This was provided by Dave Rossum and Scott Wedge of E-MU, using a microprocessor that would read the keyboard and “assign” one of the five voices to each of the keys pressed. This same processor would also read some of the knobs positions allowing the patches to be stored and later recalled via memory. This made the Prophet-5 a little more advanced and cutting edge than the first Model 700 programmer units, which still used a discrete logic architecture.
With it’s sleek minimoogish wooden look, the Prophet 5 took the world by storm when it was first shown in 1978’s winter Namm show. It would later be recognized as one of the staples of the late 70s to mid 80s sound, becoming the de-facto standard synth in most pro studios, selling more than eight thousand units worldwide. From it’s endless list of users you could find such greats as Duran Duran, Yes, Takeshi Kitaro, ABBA or Michael Jackson, amongst others.
THE RISE AND FALL OF SEQUENTIAL
After the success of the Prophet 5, Sequential would follow with a ten voice dual keyboard version -the Prophet 10, in 1980-, a polyphonic digital sequencer and an affordable non programmable monosynth -the Pro-One, in 1981-. At that time many manufacturers started implementing digital technology in their designs, not only in regards to polyphony and presets but also around sequencing and control. A control standard was an obvious necessity, since each company had it’s own protocols -like Roland’s proprietary DCB-, so Sequential Circuits, Roland and a few others started developing a universal communication system.
This would lead to the creation of MIDI, which would first appear in Sequential Circuits next product: the Prophet 600. Released in late 1982, it was a 6 voice lower cost version of the Prophet 5, using lesser quality build and materials. SCI would later manufacture a drum machine -the Drumtraks, an affordable Linndrum style beat box- and a deluxe 8 voice Prophet synth in 1983, with similar voice architecture to the 600, but using better materials and a weighted action keybed. This was called the Prophet T-8, and it also featured velocity sensitivity, which was quite new at the time -and, of course, MIDI-.
Competition was fierce as the japanese manufacturers slowly caught up. Yamaha, Korg and Roland were beginning to outsell the classic american brands, a circumstance that was making these western companies struggle to keep up with the increasing quality -yet lower cost- of the asian offerings. The nail in the coffin was the release of the Yamaha DX-7 in 1983, that took technology a little further by making an affordable all digital synthesizer using a synthesis method called phase modulation -later renamed frequency modulation by Yamaha-, a technique developed by John Chowning in Stanford University.
Designs like the SCI Six Track tried to compete in a lower price bracket, but times were tough for analog instruments. ARP closed it’s doors in 81, selling it’s R&D to Fender, and Moog would later declare bankruptcy in 1986. The previous year Dave Smith’s company had shortened it’s name to Sequential, and tried to survive by adapting to the changing tastes of the buying public. Digital was the new “cool” thing, so they made a sampler -the Prophet 2000- and an hybrid synthesizer, the Prophet VS, which used a variation of wavetable techniques called vector synthesis -consisting of crossfading waveforms via a joystick-, along with analog filters.
These were innovative designs, specially the VS that would later plant the seed for Korg’s Wavestation, but they did not make enough sales to keep the company afloat. After making their last three samplers -a rack version of the 2000 (called Prophet 2002), the Studio 440 and the flagship Prophet 3000-, Sequential closed it’s doors in 1987 selling it’s remains to the Yamaha Corporation.
FROM DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS TO THE REBIRTH OF SEQUENTIAL
After working for Yamaha’s R&D, and also for Korg -on the already mentioned Wavestation-, Dave Smith would develop the first virtual software synth running on a PC: 1997’s Seer Systems Reality. But his heart was always with hardware, tactile physical machines, so he formed Dave Smith Instruments in 2002 to that effect. DSI was, at least in spirit, the natural successor of Sequential, since Smith was no longer in possession of the rights to his former brand name.
DSI’s first product was the Evolver, a hybrid synth that took the concept of the VS much, much further, adding a mixture of analog and digital oscillators, analog and digital filters, feedback paths and bit-crushing capacities, plus a wealth of modulation options. A more traditional synth would follow, the Prophet ’08, that evoked the Sequential heritage in a much more obvious way. Others like the Prophet 12 and Pro-2, while definitely new under the hood, also brought back memories from it’s model names, but they still were not Sequential branded products.
All of this changed in 2015, when Roland founder Ikutaro Takehashi -now sadly disappeared- asked Yamaha to return the Sequential name back to Dave Smith. Much to Dave’s surprise Yamaha accepted and let Smith get his name back at no cost, a rare gift in these times of roaring capitalism. As a result of this, Smith’s next design -the Prophet 6-, would be the first instrument in almost 30 years to bear the Sequential name.
It was uncertain if this was a one-off decision for DSI or if all their newer designs would use the Sequential name. But now that the company has finally changed it’s name back to Sequential -as they announced about a week ago- it’s likely that we will see more designs making proud use of this badge. As synthesizer lovers we could not feel happier.
Long live Sequential!
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.