Like other manufacturers of the '70s and '80s, Sequential Circuits, once a mighty giant in the synthesizer world, now exists in memory, as well as in the hearts and studios of the lucky owners of the various groundbreaking synths that the company spawned. Fortunately for non-Sequential owners, software wiz Arturia has reanimated Sequential hardware-synth legends in virtual form. France-based Arturia has already played Dr. Frankenstein with such classics as the ARP 2600, Minimoog, Moog Modular and Yamaha CS-80. Now it has painstakingly virtualized Sequential Circuits' very first and last monsters, the Prophet-5 and the Prophet-VS, with a curious twist.
Arturia Prophet-V is a soft synth that operates in stand-alone mode and under compatible host sequencers via Audio Units, RTAS, VST and DXi plug-in formats. The synth operates in three modes: one for Prophet 5 emulation, one for Prophet VS emulation and one for Hybrid mode, which essentially stacks the two synths on top of one another for simultaneous play. I am familiar with the rich, wide-ranging tones of the original Sequential boards, and as an owner of Arturia's ARP 2600V, I am aware of Arturia's potential.
I tested Prophet-V with a 1.33GHz Mac iBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM connected to an Edirol UA-25 audio interface and Tannoy monitors. Despite the conservative Mac specs (the RAM just barely met the minimum requirements while the CPU is a tad short) Prophet-V still ran smoothly. Unlike all of Arturia's former products, Prophet-V employs strong copy protection in the form of a Syncrosoft USB dongle. It's annoying that rampant pirating has pushed companies to employ such strong-arm methods (I own two 4-port USB expanders that are nearly filled with dongles), yet I also understand the need to protect a hefty time and monetary investment. The dongle is designed to work with future Arturia products, as well as Prophet-V. Installation and configuration, including a downloaded upgrade and the online dongle authorization, were all trouble-free processes. I also installed Prophet-V on a 2.4GHz Windows XP laptop and experienced no problems. Once installed and launched, getting Prophet-V to respond to the audio interface and two keyboard controllers was easy, though only a single MIDI controller can be used at a time. Prophet-V doesn't include a PDF or other online manual, but the paperback manual is a short and easy read with an entertaining history of Sequential Circuits and some good tutorials on creating basic patches with both synths.
BEHOLD THE BEAUTY
Arturia clearly put a substantial amount of emphasis and development time into the look of Prophet-V; from the gorgeous wood-simulated panels to the meticulous reflections and shadows on the keys, the graphics are sharp enough to serve as a benchmark for other virtual-synth makers. A hip fold-in/out animation accompanies the change from one synth view to another. The navigational portion of the user interface is simple and elegant; directly below the menus sit controls for selecting MIDI input source and channel, keyboard split range, octave up/down and audio output. Those controls, while handy, aren't labeled save for mouse-over tool tips. The octave selector pitches Prophet-V up or down three octaves, but it doesn't allow for semitones. Below that is a toolbar that includes Save and Save-As buttons; Bank, Sub-Bank and Preset drop-down menus for quick patch navigation; Import and Export buttons; a MIDI-in indicator; a MIDI channel-selector button; a polyphony note selector with settings of 1 through 8, 16 and 32 (very cool); a button for various legato playing modes; synth view buttons; and chorus/delay on-off and effects edit buttons.
JUST LIKE MAMA USED TO MAKE
Prophet-V features 400 presets out of the box, ranging from ho-hum to spectacular. Like Arturia's other synths, they reside in an intuitive hierarchical structure consisting of Bank, Sub-Bank and Preset folders. Custom directories can be created to store new preset creations and downloads. Arturia re-creates all the original factory presets from both the Prophet-5 and -VS. A smattering of talented programmers devised plenty of presets for all three synth modes. It's impossible to accidentally overwrite the factory presets (a good thing), yet you can alter them to your liking and save them separately. One drawback I found with the presets was the inability to load discreet patches for each instrument individually while in Hybrid mode; if you want to carry a factory preset into the Hybrid synth, you have to re-create it manually, parameter-by-parameter.
CLASS OF '78, CLASS OF '86
Many of the Prophet-5 patches sound distinctively late '70s, early '80s, and the Sequential tones are well emulated. Aside from the original factory preset emulations (which are arranged by number but also have names, unlike their original hardware counterparts), the Prophet-5 presets are ergonomically organized in folders by type: Bass, EFX, Pad, Percussive, etc. Like a real Sequential synth, the preset tonal range is all over the map — from thick and gritty to fat square basses, strange effects from Pac-Man sounds to helicopters and ascending/descending sounds, big faux-brass tones, mandolin-like string plucks, overdriven sitarlike sounds and a plethora of patches flaunting one of the greatest sonic assets of a Prophet-5: the George Lucas — esque sci-fi effects and percussion sounds that are obviously fake, yet charmingly space age. In all, the Prophet-5 presets represent a well-rounded variety of functional to bizarre tones; browsing through them left me craving more.
Programming the Prophet-5 is a cinch for anyone familiar with analog synthesizers. Arturia's version has all of the parameters and controls of the hardware original, except for a few unnecessary ones such as Save to Tape. The Prophet-5 is essentially a 2-oscillator-plus-white-noise synth with individual mix controls for the three sound sources, a 24dB-per-octave lowpass filter, a VCA amplifier, a 3-waveform syncable LFO and two ADSR envelopes — one on the filter and one on the amplifier. Everything that made the original hardware unique, such as the Poly Mod and Wheel Mod sections, is present, and the vast majority of buttons and knobs are MIDI-assignable via a simple Command + click (Mac) or CTRL + click (Windows) MIDI-learn function.
The Prophet-VS sound is clearly different from the Prophet-5; its vector synthesis sports a completely different architecture that begins with four fine-tunable (48 semitones) oscillators, each driven by 96 selectable waveform samples. Three 5-point adjustable envelopes and two LFOs with five waveforms are onboard, along with the rest of the sound-sculpting parameters found on the original hardware. The modulation matrix, which was largely responsible for the original VS's cult status, has been lovingly reproduced. Five-point filter and amplifier envelopes allow users to graphically draw attack levels, hold times/levels and the end of the release. A third 5-point envelope is uniquely situated in conjunction with another gem of this synth, the joystick. With it, you can create mix automation over the four oscillators. The joystick itself is a treat. It moves in a circular, 2-D manner, allowing smooth sweeps through the mix of the four oscillators, and its x-y axes are individually MIDI-assignable.
In Hybrid mode, Prophet-V sounds huge. The factory presets range from percussion noises such as kicks and resonant bells to Hammond-esque organs and complex pads. To my surprise, the presets are not muddy at all, despite their dense sources. There's not much technicality to describe; the two synths are stacked on top of each other, as if a real Prophet-5 and VS were connected via MIDI cables and played together. The one surprise feature, however, is the addition of three Prophet-5 modulation sources and nine synth-parameter destinations to the matrix; that truly fuses the two instruments together at the core.
Despite some very good presets, Prophet-VS just begs to be programmed. Diving into this beast unleashes an endless array of sonic possibilities. With four simultaneous oscillators, each with 96 possible sound sources, nearly 85 million unique tones can be cooked up before even laying a finger on the modulation matrix or the other controls. The raw waveforms range from synth fundamentals such as sine, square, sawtooth and noise to round, bell-like tones. There are also waveforms with natural harmonic thirds and fifths and a cornucopia of buzzing noises.
The modulation matrix is still one of the cutting-edge features of the Prophet-VS. It can connect any modulation source to any modifiable synthesis parameter, which further expands the infinite horizon of this instrument. Arturia's graphics make using the matrix easy; as you move your cursor around, the nearest x-y axis lines light up in red to indicate exactly where you are. A simple click on any intersection point connects the source to the destination, and a second click disengages the connection.
A LITTLE EXTRA ON TOP
Prophet-V supplies global chorus and stereo delay, which were not available on the original hardware. They can be turned on and off independently and edited to taste. I really dig Arturia's ARP 2600V reverb, chorus and delay effects, but I have mixed feelings for Prophet-V's effect. I like the delay quite a bit, though I'm not especially fond of the chorus. The delay exhibits excellent stereophonic qualities, and there is a depth of field and smoothness of decay that sounds rich and creamy. Delay controls include Time Left, Time Right, Dry/Wet, Feedback Left, Feedback Right and Sync (on/off). Sync allows Prophet-V to sync delay to tempo. The three different choruses in Prophet-V didn't do much for me. The chorus rate, depth and dry/wet parameters are all adjustable, and while the effect is functional, it just doesn't spice up the patches much.
V FOR VERDICT
Other than a modest wish list including reverb, a scalable user-interface (Prophet-V occupies a lot of screen real-estate), the ability to load individual synth patches in Hybrid mode and the ability to use multiple MIDI controllers simultaneously, there's little to complain about. Prophet-V is easy to load and learn, it sounds excellent and looks stunning, it is relatively CPU friendly and it carries a sweet price tag (especially versus the hardware). If you want to go deep into the heart of both traditional analog and vector synthesis without going deep into your pocket, look directly at Prophet-V.
PROPHET-V > $249
Pros: Excellent sound. Gorgeous user interface. Works in stand-alone mode or as a plug-in. Stable. Inexpensive.
Cons: Requires a dongle on a free USB port. Occupies large screen real estate. Can only be accessed in stand-alone mode by a single MIDI controller.
Mac: 1.5 GHz; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.2 or later; compatible VST, Audio Units or RTAS host for plug-in use.
PC: 1.5 GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows 98 SE/2000/XP; compatible VST, DXi or RTAS host for plug-in use.