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Review: Dave Smith Instruments Prophet '08

April 1, 2008
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My allegiance to Dave Smith's work dates back to his early days with Sequential Circuits, when I cut my analog teeth on a borrowed Prophet-5 and experienced a polyphonic richness and warmth that sent chills down my spine. No “virtual analog” or soft synth has been able to fully duplicate that to this day.

I'm also a die-hard fan of new Dave Smith Instruments (DSI) creations. As one of the first to review the Poly Evolver Keyboard (Remix, February 2006), I cited it for the best synth design, “possibly ever.” Later, after glowing comments on the Poly's little brother, the Evolver Keyboard (Remix, October 2006), I bought it outright, unable to bear the thought of returning my little buddy. But those were decidedly digital-analog hybrids.

With the Prophet '08, Smith aimed to rescue the classic Prophet name from a bevy of simulations and provide the only eight-voice, 100-percent analog signal path on the market. This keyboard also marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Prophet-5 and the 25th anniversary of the introduction of MIDI (another Dave Smith initiative). So, is this the return of a legend or the beginning of a new era?

CLASSIC TYPEFACE

There's something comforting about having the original Prophet script logo emblazoned on this keyboard. It represents an era of grabbing controls and easily changing sound in the moment. The 51 endless rotary knobs (plus volume) and 27 backlit buttons become your lifeblood; all program parameters can be edited from the front panel, with selected parameters and values appearing in the 2-by-16-character red LCD.

The logo acts also as a stamp of authenticity to the basic voice structure of the original Prophet-5, including those famous Curtis analog resonant lowpass filters and two beefy oscillators per voice. The oscillators generate sawtooth, triangle, saw-tri mix and pulse waves selectable from minimum width (0) to maximum (99); a true square wave can be found at Pulse 50. Coarse tuning happens over a 10-octave range, and fine-tuning has a precision of ±50 cents. Glide can be set independently for each oscillator, and a Sync 2->1 button forces Oscillator 1 to reset every time the second oscillator cycles, for the classic hard-sync sound. Analog in sound but digitally controlled for stability, the Prophet '08 oscillators are very accurate. If instability is your thing, the oscillator Slop function will inject a subtle amount of frequency drift for authentic analog character. Oscillators can be blended and white noise can be mixed into the filter.

The filter and amp section looks a lot like DSI's Evolver line, featuring both classic and some pretty novel controls. Coupled with a four-stage ADSR envelope featuring pre-delay, the lowpass filter is selectable between 2-pole and self-oscillating 4-pole operation, with a filter cutoff frequency of more than 13 octaves and controls for envelope amount, velocity and key-tracking. The Audio Mod parameter adjusts the output of Oscillator 1 used to modulate the filter cutoff frequency, making all sorts of harmonically rich material possible. By cranking up Mod and turning off Oscillator 2 completely, you can generate FM bell-like sounds — essentially creating filter-only audio.

The voltage controlled amplifier (VCA) similarly sports an ADSR envelope with pre-delay and controls for level, envelope amount and velocity tracking. Though oscillators cannot be panned individually, there is a Pan Spread circuit after the VCA that pans each voice in the stereo field. With Pan Spread set to zero, all eight voices are sent straight down the middle, but as you turn it up, each voice gradually moves away from the center. One note results in a ping-pong effect; chords give you a lush stereo image.

A third envelope is freely assignable to one of 42 destinations, including oscillator level/mix, noise level, oscillator pulse-width, filter frequency/FM amount, LFO rate, output pan, envelope and more. Heck, you can even set it to loop into itself. Regenerating in that manner, Env3 lets you fluidly create all sorts of custom LFO shapes by adjusting its four stages in real time, and that's cool.

The automated modulation possibilities are much deeper than the original Prophet-5. Four identical and MIDI-syncable LFOs per voice each range from 30 seconds (slowest) to a maximum of 261 Hz or middle C (fastest). That lets you create clang-y and twangy FM-style inharmonic tones without eating up a main oscillator to act as modulator. The LFOs can also be set to musically relevant intervals for tempo-synced operation.

A 4-by-4 modulation matrix animates sounds in many ways, such as using any or all of the 16-step sequencer's four tracks as mod sources. Each track can vary in length and modulate a different destination per step, which is a flexible way to create polyrhythms containing pitched phrases, dynamically stepped filtering, envelope shaping, pulse width modulation and more. Because it is a “gated” sequencer, a note must be played either from the keyboard or via MIDI in order for the sequence to be heard. A tempo control (30 to 250 bpm), as well as a wide range of clock divisions (including swing), is shared between the sequencer and the basic, nonprogrammable, arpeggiator.

The Prophet '08's keyboard is semiweighted for fast action, featuring velocity and aftertouch/pressure sensitivity (lacking on the original Prophet-5). The wood end panels and retro-style knobs are a nod to the Prophet-5's aesthetics, but I'm not fond placing the spring-loaded pitch wheel and an assignable mod wheel above the keyboard; it feels bizarre. Everything remains relatively status quo around back: two unbalanced stereo output pairs — Main/A and B — headphone output, ¼-inch jacks to receive Sustain and Expression Pedal/Control Voltage sources, MIDI In/Out/Thru ports and a special Poly Chain Out MIDI port for linking up a second Prophet '08 to double the polyphony. Finally, the included external wall-wart power supply is one of those handy snap-on international socket adapter types, with plenty of cable length.

FAT IS WHERE IT'S AT

Programs are composed of two layers, A and B, each capable of holding a different patch. Those can be split into two zones of four-note polyphony each, or stacked for a four-oscillator and double-filter tone (again resulting in four-note polyphony). Pressing the Edit Layer B button once flips controls to affect the second layer patch and, subsequently, back to the first layer. In normal eight-note mode, that's a great way of quickly toggling between two completely different sounds within a single patch for a live performance. The eight voice-assignment LEDs on the front panel give you a clear indication of how voices get consumed as you play.

If it sounds like things can get fat in a hurry, you ain't heard nothin' until you try the various unison modes: The monophonic 1 Voice mode produces a classic, two-oscillator unison that is sleek but not chorused; All Voices stacks every available voice in unison for a maximum blend; and All Detune 1-3 does the same, but with three selectable levels of detuning, from fat to morbidly obese, making 16-oscillator trance leads and super-Hoover sounds possible.

Unison, arpeggiator and gated sequencer are set and stored independently for each layer, allowing some very interesting sound control combinations. If you hold Edit Layer B while in Stack or Split mode, it links both layers of parameters for simultaneous control in a live show.

AURAL DIVINITY

The Prophet '08's 256 factory programs pay homage to the Prophet-5 and other synths, as well as explore modern sound design and IDM/electronica. Superthick sub-wobbles, explosive kick basses, chunky electro-organs and pianos, massive trance pads, detuned Euro stabs and leads should please artists from dub to club.

Many programs use the gentle 2-pole filter to re-create the lush tones of the Oberheim OB-series. But with heavily resonant 4-pole dialed in, the filters scream. I squeezed out some juicy squelchbox riffs with ease and hauled the old OSCar synth from the trashcan by boosting resonant peaks of identical layers and separating their cutoffs with modulation. Rippin' raunchyness.

On other presets, sharp cutoff-resonance settings make you forget that the Prophet '08 has no physical highpass or bandpass filter, allowing for silky Roland Jupiter-type strings and Korg Mono/Poly arpeggio fare. Taking on the venerable Yamaha CS-80, several patches show off the '08's rich and wide detuning, including the gorgeous “40scStrings” preset, Vangelis pads and Toto-esque brass presets. Some hip-hop and electro-inspired presets — such as “bOOmChick” — use step sequencers to make simple yet highly organic beats. I got a kick out of tweaking the bass and lead layers of “No Corn Yet” to put my own spin on the classic sequence.

Accustomed to the grungy distortion and multiple chorus/digital feedback delay lines of my Evolver, I was a surprised to see that not even a basic effects section was included. Apparently, Dave decided to take the analog high road and not incorporate a stage of A/D or D/A conversion into the Prophet '08 signal path; I can't fault him for that. As consolation, external processing is straightforward and flexible; plugging cables into Output B will automatically extract the sound of Layer B from the main outs and route that portion to the secondary outputs, letting you apply two independent buses of effects. I would love to see some auxiliary inputs, however, for true analog processing of external signals through the Curtis filters and snappy envelopes.

REVELATION

I'm a soft-synth junkie, but nothing beats the immediacy and density of true analog. The Prophet '08 stands up against any of my museum-piece mono synths, sounds thicker than my beloved Jupiter-8 and delivers the overall sonic character of the original Prophet-5, only with significantly more power. Neither software nor virtual analogs can compete with the snappiness of the '08's envelopes or its porterhouse-thick oscillators. Detuning the VCOs slightly imparts a buttery texture, while unleashing the glide function is positively trippy.

The Prophet '08 encapsulates everything that is great about analog synthesis, favorably extended with modern features we now take for granted. With no menus to surf, it makes a dream axe for the stage. It marks a new era of Dave Smith classics. The Prophet '08 gets my vote for best analog poly synth…ever.

DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS
PROPHET '08 > $2,199; PROPHET '08 MODULE, $1,649

Pros: Gorgeous sound that is 100-percent analog from beginning to end. Eight voices featuring the same Curtis filter chips as in the original Prophet-5. Retro 4-by-16-step gated sequencer, arpeggiator, quad LFOs and powerful modulation section. Knob-per-function design. Intangible cool factor.

Cons: No USB, effects section or analog input.

Contact: www.davesmithinstruments.com

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