FIG. 1: With eight analog voices and sophisticated programmability, the Prophet ''08 is the most advanced analog poly synth you''ll find in its price range.
Ever since synth designer Dave Smith launched the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 at the 1978 NAMM show, it has held a special place in the pantheon of synthesizers. It was the first truly polyphonic synth that could instantly call up every parameter in dozens of stored patches. Since then, its warm and punchy analog timbres have graced innumerable recordings and withstood the test of time, making it an enduring object of desire. The Prophet-5 rev. 3 and its subsequent offspring — the Prophet-10, Prophet-600, Prophet-T8, and the monophonic Pro-One — owe at least part of their sound to the Curtis Electromusic (CEM) integrated circuits Smith used to build them.
Fast-forward 30 years: Dave Smith Instruments (DSI) has unveiled the Prophet '08, a traditional subtractive synthesizer with a 61-note keyboard and two independent voice layers, each with two digitally controlled analog oscillators (DCOs), a voltage-controlled amplifier, a white-noise generator, three digital 5-stage envelope generators, and four LFOs. Like its predecessors from the '80s, the Prophet '08 incorporates a CEM-based analog lowpass filter for each layer. Although the instrument's signal path is entirely analog, it offers many of the advantages of digital electronics, including memory storage for 256 rewritable programs, a sophisticated modulation matrix, an arpeggiator, and a 4-channel, 16-step gated sequencer.
Peeling the Layers
For the most part, the Prophet '08's synthesis architecture and front-panel layout are very clear-cut. Each program supplies as many as two complete timbres in layers that load simultaneously — an arrangement that effectively doubles the number of oscillators, filters, and all the other elements that make up a sound. If a program contains only one sound or you split the keyboard, you can play as many as eight notes at the same time; programs that layer one sound atop another have 4-voice polyphony.
Functional sections containing knobs and buttons are arranged in two rows (see Fig. 1). The lower row contains sections for the Oscillators, Lowpass Filter, and Amplifier, as well as the Master Volume knob and buttons for transposing octaves and enabling unison mode. Eight LEDs indicate which of the eight voices are firing, giving you instant visual feedback about the triggering mode. The upper row contains sections for Envelope 3, LFOs, Misc Parameters, and Modulators.
Knobs and buttons clustered around the LCD allow you to select programs and change whatever parameters are displayed. These parameters include global settings such as MIDI channel and damper-pedal polarity and program-specific settings that appear whenever you touch almost any knob or button. I was disappointed that the Prophet doesn't provide a means to instantly jump to any program by pressing buttons; you step through programs sequentially using the +/Yes and -/No buttons or by turning the Parameter knobs. If you want random access to programs, you'll need to send a MIDI Program Change from an external source.
FIG. 2: In addition to the expected main outputs, pedal jacks, and MIDI ports, the Prophet ''08''s sparse rear panel furnishes a pair of separate outputs for the second layer of sounds.
Also in this section are buttons for stacking the two layers or splitting them on the keyboard; you can specify any note as the split point. Pressing the Edit Layer B button assigns all the control panel's knobs and buttons to the second layer. You can easily copy timbres between programs or from one layer to the other. Unfortunately, though, you can't address the two layers over separate MIDI channels.
DSI had to make some minor trade-offs to hold down the Prophet's cost. One of them is the display: rather than the generous (and costly) graphical LCD you find on many recent synths, it displays 2 rows of 16 alphanumeric characters. That's enough to convey the necessary information without cryptic abbreviations, and the bright-red characters are easy to read at any angle. Considering all the knobs and the lack of menus, a larger LCD is probably unnecessary, anyway. Another trade-off is the placement of the pitch-bend and mod wheels: they're mounted on the control panel above the keyboard rather than to its left, contributing to the instrument's somewhat compact form factor. I like the semiweighted keyboard, which has a slightly springy feel and predictable, adjustable Aftertouch. Its action feels consistent across its entire 5-octave range.
On the rear panel, audio connections comprise two main ¼-inch outputs, another pair of ¼-inch outputs for the second layer, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack (see Fig. 2). Two more ¼-inch jacks accommodate a sustain footswitch and a control-voltage pedal for controlling any of six assignable parameters. A 5-pin DIN Poly Chain jack for connecting a second Prophet '08 to double the polyphony accompanies the MIDI In, Out, and Thru jacks.
Unlike virtually every other synth made in recent years, however, the Prophet has no USB connection. Depending on your setup, no USB may or may not be a problem. Your computer will need a USB/MIDI interface, even if it's only another synth or an audio interface with both MIDI and USB ports. A helpful Prophet '08 editor-librarian ($49.95) developed by Soundtower Software is available for Windows or Mac OS X (see Fig. 3); it exchanges data via the MIDI ports.
Knobs in the Oscillators section control the frequency, waveshape, and glide rate of each of the two DCOs, as well as the white-noise level and the balance between the oscillators. Independent glide rates let you create patches with really thick portamentos (see Web Clip 1). Four analog waveforms are available: sawtooth, triangle, variable-width pulse (in 1 percent increments), and a combination of triangle and sawtooth. The Sync 2→1 button enables classic hard-sync sounds. You can find additional oscillator parameters in Misc Parameters. One of them, Oscillator Slop, introduces a bit of randomness to simulate the drift typical of analog oscillators that aren't digitally controlled.
In the Lowpass Filter section are knobs for controlling cutoff frequency and resonance, and the depth of four modulators: a dedicated envelope generator (EG), Velocity, key tracking, and noise. The 4-Pole button toggles between 12 and 24 dB-per-octave cutoff slopes, approximating the lowpass responses of classic Oberheim and Prophet-5 lowpass filters, respectively. Five additional knobs control the filter's EG, which adds an initial delay stage to the standard ADSR envelope. Being able to delay the attack is especially useful for programs with a second layer. Although the fast response times of analog EGs usually give them an edge over digital EGs, the Prophet's digital envelopes sounded sufficiently snappy to me. The Audio Mod knob lets you create clangorous FM sounds by applying one oscillator to modulate the filter's cutoff frequency.
FIG. 3: Prophet ''08 Sound Editor provides a graphical user interface for your Mac or PC, making it easy to instantly access any parameter in either layer.
The Amplifier section furnishes an identical DADSR generator, as does the Envelope 3 section on the control panel's upper left. The third EG is capable of looping, and its Destination knob allows you to assign it to any one of the Prophet's 42 available modulation destinations. Likewise, you can assign each of the LFOs to modulate any destination. You can also select from five LFO waveforms (including random) and press the Key Sync button to restart the cycle from zero whenever you play a new note. For additional FM-type sounds, LFO frequency can spin up into the audio range, as high as middle C. Because they're digital, the LFOs can also sync to the sequencer's tempo at rates ranging from 16 cycles per step to 1 cycle every 32 steps.
Only two knobs are in the Misc Parameters section, one for selecting the parameter and another for selecting its value. These control a dozen program-specific parameters printed just below them, including glide mode, Aftertouch sensitivity, and pitch-bend range. This section works a lot like synth interfaces in the early days of MIDI — you just dial up a parameter and then dial in its value.
The Modulators section provides four flexible modulation routings. Each routing lets you choose from 20 sources — ranging from any of the four sequences to any of the three EGs — to modulate one of the 42 available destinations. Destinations include several uncharacteristic but creatively useful choices, such as noise level, output pan, and audio modulation amount.
Just to the left of the display are two knobs and two buttons for controlling the rather basic arpeggiator and the analog-style digital sequencer. Because you must play a note to trigger the sequence, it's called a gated sequencer. You can route each of the four sequencer tracks to affect any modulation destination, with at least one of them usually (though not necessarily) controlling oscillator pitch. When you press the Edit Sequencer button in the Modulators section, LEDs alongside 16 knobs in the Lowpass Filter and Amplifier sections blink at the sequencer's tempo, and those knobs control the value of 16 individual steps. Values range from 0 to 125, and you can also specify that a step is a rest or the final step in the sequencer. With careful programming, you can even create sequences that play notes of varying duration.
Return of the Prophet
In terms of functionality, the Prophet '08 is light-years ahead of the Prophet-5 and all its previous progeny. Even without two layers for each program, it has more of everything, including more envelopes, more LFOs, more versatile modulation, and more user parameters. Its MIDI implementation runs rings around most instruments; you can address absolutely every parameter with MIDI, and almost every knob sends MIDI Control Changes. All these features wouldn't mean much if it weren't a great-sounding synthesizer; happily, it sounds every bit as warm and punchy as its forebears. It cuts through in a mix, and Prophet '08 tracks layer quite well with other Prophet '08 tracks (see Web Clip 2).
Like its predecessors, the Prophet '08 delivers a hands-on immediacy that makes it loads of fun to play. Its two patch banks are stuffed full, with 256 expertly programmed factory patches shamelessly flaunting the variety of lush, animated sounds it's capable of producing. Most remarkably, it sells for about two grand, making it the most affordable synth of its kind in decades (see the online bonus material). No doubt about it: the Prophet '08 delivers a lot of synth power for the money.
Still, I bet many users would pay a little more for some additional features. I don't miss having an onboard effects processor, but instead of the glowing pitch-bend and mod wheels, leopardwood end panels, autographed overlay, and editor-librarian software included with the Special Edition ($2,449), I'd prefer traditionally mounted pitch-bend and mod wheels, even though that would increase the instrument's footprint slightly. I'd also want to address the two layers on different MIDI channels.
At the 2008 NAMM show, DSI announced a tabletop/rackmount version that retails for $1,649. Thanks to the instrument's Poly Chain port, the new module should address the needs of Prophet '08 owners who want more polyphony (and more of everything else).
Most buyers will choose the Prophet '08 for its sound, its economy, its programmability, and, compared with older analog synths, its dependability. On all those counts, I feel confident that none of them will be disappointed.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton wrote and published the first edition of The Rock Synthesizer Manual in 1983 and has been writing about electronic musical instruments ever since.
polyphonic analog synthesizer $1,999
PROS: Lush, vintage sound. Flexible modulation routing. Detailed programmability. Thorough MIDI implementation.
CONS: No random-access program changes. No USB connectivity. MIDI can't address layers independently.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
Dave Smith Instruments
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