Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08

From the rather prolific Dave Smith Instruments, the 8-voices analogue wonder that is the Prophet 08…
First thing that should actually be said is that the Prophet 08 isn’t meant to be a recreation of the Prophet 5. Hence the name. I’d like to be nice about it, but the truth here is that online comments about how the Prophet 08 isn’t a Prophet 5 are badly misguided, if not completely stupid. They’re tantamount to criticize the Oberheim Xpander from not being, say, an OBX. It’s a brand new synth for 2008. Now, is it indeed a true Prophet or not? Well, on the one hand I do think it is, but on the other hand I’m not really sure that I give a damn anyway because it sounds fantastic in its own right and comments like “I just played some Prophet 08 presets in a shop this afternoon and it’s not like a Prophet 5” make me, if not mad, at least slightly out of balance.

That said, whether it's the good synth for you or not is matter of personal taste. Some people seem to think its sound it's too thin. I do believe it's rich and musical (possibly light on the low-end on pad sounds, but that's actually a bonus in my book, since it usually fits better in the mix for that very reason). Not all analogues need to be gritty... some, like the aforementioned Xpander, are smooth and sophisticated. The Prophet 08 fits in that category, while still being able of nasty, snappy sounds. In any case, it wouldn't be the first analogue gear to be found unimpressive by early "specialists", then to be considered a classic...

But enough with the geekery and to the point…
The synth is well-built, lighter than most polysynths, especially analogue. It is unfortunate that the power supply be a wall wart, but other than that, it feels like a serious piece of gear. The interface is clean and well thought, with solid knobs – note here that they are very sensitive, and endless rotary, something I don’t care much for since it prevents you from acknowledging the parameters of a sound at sight.

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Sound-wise, what we’ve got here are 8 voices of good analogue signal, with a very sophisticated modulation system. More precisely, its analogue oscillators are digitally controlled, which ensures a very stable tuning while a special “slop” function takes care of the random drift we’re bound to expect. The result is most satisfying, and can be best described in good Trekkian fashion as “the best of both worlds” (and I promised myself I wouldn’t geek it up again…). You won’t get crazy over the oscillators going haywire at random, but at the same time the Prophet 08 sounds reasonably “sloppy”, as in “analogue sloppy”, not “G. W. Bush sloppy” (all right, all right, that was an easy one…).

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The Prophet 08 sound can be rich and smooth, even creamy, or – especially if you push the Audio Mod knob up – gritty and mean. The Prophet 08 makes excellent use of the stereo field too (you can “pan spread” the sound so that the voices are played alternatively on both sides, which can also be linked to the LFO), and the keyboard lets you control the sound with subtlety and character. Furthermore, each patch comprises two layers A and B, which can be stacked or splitfor deeper, more interesting sounds.

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Now, the shortcomings… First, while the low-pass filter can be set to 4 or 2 poles, it stands a bit lonely in there. A bandpass filter would have been nice too, and so would have been a sub-oscillator, in order to beef up some sounds, but then again, stacking up 2 or 3 Prophet 08 parts will already fill up much space in your mix without the single sounds having to be too thick. Furthermore, patches can be split on the keyboard, or stacked, and the unison mode guarantees you won’t have to worry about getting powerful leads.

Another minor bit of criticism, there’s an arpeggiator all right, and I’m always fond of that, but it doesn’t have a random mode. I don’t understand why, but I would qualify this as minor, because it can still be addressed in a further OS update. There’s also a primitive sequencer, useful to work out some grooves and complex sounds, but it’s a gated one, meaning that you have to press a note (or send one by MIDI to the synth) to make it work. Here again, I don’t quite understand the rationale behind that decision, but I guess I can live with it. More importantly, you can’t process external sound through the filter. That’s always a neat trick and it’s a shame the Prophet 08 is lacking it.

Overrall, the Prophet 08 is a great synthesizer, which should probably be preferred to most virtual analog synth in the same price bracket, especially if you go for the rack module. It’s not a workstation, and arguably it ain't the most complete polyphonic synth, but in a way, that's beside the point. The Prophet 08 is an instrument with its limitations, and there’s vast amounts of character and musicality here. It's complex enough to be versatile and thrilling to experiment with, but at the same time, elegant and straightforward, an instrument for musicians who don't care for fumbling through zillions of options and want something to play music with.

Some noise and FX
Some noise and FX, the sequel

Useful links

Specifications (from DSI's site)

5-octave keyboard with semi-weighted action, velocity, and aftertouch.
Spring-loaded pitch wheel and assignable mod wheel.
256 fully editable Programs (2 banks of 128) with 2 Layers (2 separate sounds) in each Program.16 x 4 gated step sequencer.
2 digitally controlled analog oscillators (DCOs) per voice with selectable sawtooth, triangle, saw/triangle mix, and pulse waves (with pulse-width modulation), and hard sync.
White noise generator.
1 Analog Curtis low-pass filter per voice, selectable 2- and 4-pole operation (self-resonating in 4-pole mode).
3 Envelope Generators: filter, VCA, and assignable (four-stage ADSR + delay); Envelope 3 can loop.
4 LFOs.
Glide (portamento): separate rates per oscillator.
Analog VCAs.
Dimensions: 12.1" (30.73 cm) W x 34.8" (88.39 cm) L x 3.875" (9.84 cm) H (2.25" at front edge; the feet account for 0.25" of the total height).
Weight: ~22 lbs. (9.98 kg).
Ins and Outs.MIDI In, Out, Thru, and Poly Chain.Main stereo audio output: 1/4" unbalanced.Output B stereo audio output: 1/4" unbalanced.Sustain pedal input: accepts normally on or normally off momentary footswitch.Pedal/CV input: responds to expression pedals or control voltages ranging from 0 to 5 VDC (protected against higher or negative voltages).Headphone output: 1/4" stereo phone jack.

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