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Arts & Entertainment

Dave Smith, SF-born electronic instrument pioneer and founder of North Beach’s Sequential, dead at 72

Dave Smith was awarded a Grammy in 2013 for his role in developing the MIDI communication protocol. | Steve Jennings/WireImage/Getty

Dave Smith, the San Francisco-born, UC Berkeley-educated electronic instrument pioneer and founder of the North Beach-based keyboard maker, Sequential, has died. A post on the official Sequential Instagram account confirmed his passing yesterday. The co-creator of the MIDI communications protocol language and the Prophet-5 programmable synthesizer was 72.

Multiple music publications, including Pitchfork and Mixdown, ran remembrances of Smith. He was one of a number of highly influential Bay Area-based trailblazers in electronic music—including Doug McKechnie of the San Francisco Radical Laboratories and Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros of the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

Smith’s Prophet-5 analog keyboard synthesizer was revolutionary upon its release in 1977. The machine deployed the then-new technology of microprocessors to allow users to save customized sounds rather than remembering the precise settings and positions of numerous dials, switches and cable patches, as was required with earlier analog synths.

The Prophet-5 has been used by many high-profile musicians over the years. It is featured extensively on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Radiohead’s pathbreaking Kid A.

But Smith’s biggest contribution to the world of electronic composition may just be the Musical Instrument Digital Interface communications protocol. Developed in the 1980s by Smith and Chet Wood, in consultation with other electronic music instrument creators, MIDI technology is now central to live and studio music production, and is used by musicians the world over.