The recent revival of all things '80s has spurred a newfound appreciation for the decade's signature sound, which was largely produced by the synthesizer. Until the late 1970s, synthesizers had been finicky and difficult instruments to play, but the Prophet-5 in 1978 and the Oberheim OB-Xa two years later changed all that. For example, the pop-synth riffs on Cars hits like "Let's Go" were produced by the Prophet-5, while everyone from Prince ("1999") to Eddie Van Halen ("Jump") ran their fingers across Oberheim keyboards.
Still, advances technology were changing more than just music. South of San Francisco, the Silicon Valley that only a few years before had been dominated by the aerospace industry was suddenly poised to be a proving ground for what would become the personal-computer revolution. Among the region’s watershed moments was the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in March of 1975. Hosted in the garage of a programmer named Gordon French, the meeting was attended by a computer engineer named Steve Wozniak, who, with the marketing and sales support of his friend Steve Jobs, released the first Apple computer in the summer of 1976.
In short, the musical-synthesizer revolution was taking place at the exact same moment as the dawn of the personal computer. What was a computer science and electrical engineering graduate to do?
As it turns out, Smith was not completely divorced from events taking place around him, and had been keeping an eye on both developments, as the geeky name of his San Jose, California, company suggests. “Obviously, my first product was a sequencer, so that’s where the ‘Sequential’ part came from. I don’t remember why I came up with Sequential Circuits, although there is such a thing as a ‘sequential circuit.’ At the time, though, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue to have a company, and if I did, I didn’t know if it was going to be about musical instruments or not. Like probably a hundred thousand other people, I had an idea about getting a microprocessor and putting it in a box with a little screen and a couple of floppy discs. So, I wanted to keep the name somewhat vague, rather than using my own name or a music-oriented word.”
Smith can be forgiven for having reservations, because at the same time that synthesizers were being embraced in the mid-1970s by the prog, Kraut, and classic rockers, they were being rejected by a new, noisy contingent called punk, which viewed the artificial sounds synthesizers produced with undisguised scorn—it’s difficult to imagine a synthesizer contributing anything to the sound of the Ramones or Sex Pistols. In the end, though, synthesizer manufacturers didn’t need the punks because their instruments were quickly becoming the mainstay of an even more popular—and lucrative—genre called disco, particularly in tunes written and produced by Giorgio Moroder, such as the 1977 Donna Summer hit, “I Feel Love.”