Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Revised Review : Prophet 08

Going on my 1-year blog anniversary retrospective, here's a consolidated/revised review of the Prophet 08, which I first oversaw on dec. 3rd 2008. I've added a deeper review of the internal sequencer and lots of audio snippets and songs made only with the Prophet 08.

Prologue : there are two ways of testing a synth in a music shop. The first is to peruse the factory patches for 15 minutes and rush back home to post on the web how bad a decried instrument fare against this or that so-called vintage classic. I like to call this the Retarded Way. The other one is, with previous knowledge of the basic functions of the instrument, to carefully test each function and try to imagine beyond the factory settings how good it'd be for you.

This is 2009, not 1978 : the Prophet 08 isn’t the Prophet 5. It's not the same name, you see. One is called 5, and the other is called 08. The difference in naming tells you that it is a different instrument. If you've followed my reasoning so far, let's add that it isn't that important to decide if it's a real Prophet or not. It's more relevant to judge the instrument for itself. But our good man Dave called it a Prophet, so I might as well take a side : I do believe it's a Prophet, that is, true to the Prophet line.

The sound is 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...

Unpacking : the instrument 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.

audio example 1

audio example 2

audio example 3

The sound structure : 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”.

audio example 4

audio example 5

audio example 6

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.

audio example 7

audio example 8

audio example 9

audio example 10

The sequencer : it is a gated sequencer, meaning that you have to press a key to play the sequence (or send a MIDI note), and it’s also a 16 steps sequencer : you have to program the sequence step by step, old school way… you can’t just record a pattern by playing the keyboard.

The sequencer, incidentally, is one reason why the Prophet 08 is a wonderful tool for creation. It allows you to juxtapose four different sequences on each layer (the Prophet 08 is able to layer two different patches, each one with their independent sequences running).

For instance, you can have the 1st sequence going to the oscillators (thus playing a melody), the 2nd sequence going to the filter cutoff (thus changing its value on certain notes), the 3rd sequence going to the filter resonance, the 4th sequence going to one of the four LFOs, etc, etc...
Multiply this by two if you're using the two layers and you got a pretty complex atmospheric track going on already.

To access the sequencer mode, press Edit sequencer, then assign the sequencer to a destination, using the Mod Dest knob. For basic melody programming, what you want to do is assign to OscAllFreq. By now, the 16 knobs that were controlling filter and envelope are reassigned to step programming. Turn each knob up to the note you want to program, and so on… If you want a step to be silent, turn the knob to the right until “Rest” shows on screen. If you want to use less than 16 steps, turn to “Reset” on the knob just after the number of steps you need (9th knob if you want an 8 step sequence).

The following examples are done with the Prophet 08 only, processed by the Small Stone.
Two Pads
One Pad
Prophet beat phased to death

Now, one important note : always remember that the Prophet 08 has two different layers, meaning two different sounds that you can stack up or play in split mode. Layer A and layer B are independent… when you press the Edit Layer B button, all knobs are reassigned to the B patch parameters. Whatever settings you use for layer B have no effect on layer A.

The same is true with the sequencer. You may program a melody on the layer A sequencer, and program a different melody on the layer B, or program a bass line on the A and a drum beat on the B… You can also program a sequence on one layer and no sequence on the other (for example, to produce a pad with a background melody).

Note also that the BPM and Clock Divide values for A and B are independent as well. If you change the tempo for the sequence in layer A, you have to change it as well in layer B, unless you’re after a polyrhythmic effect.

One last word : the sequence is part of the overall patch. You can’t program a sequence on a patch, then play it with a different patch, and to my knowledge, you can’t copy a sequence from a patch to another. The Prophet 08 is not a workstation! The gated sequencer wasn’t conceived to build complete songs, but to program grooves, complex and evolving pads, etc...

There’s a lot more that could be said, because the sequencer benefits from the extended modulation possibilities of the Prophet 08, but that’s the basic idea.

That said, the following sequences are singles patches, without effects or overdubbing.




On the run

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.

Some noise and FX

Some noise and FX, the sequel

In summary : overall, 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.

All Prophet 08 :

Place of Dead Roads

Bruce Springsteen's "The Promise"

Analogue, Numan-esque improvisation.
Apart from the big beat that comes in halfway through, everything was done with the Prophet 08, including the opening groove :
Fading Fast

Single live take of a Prophet 08 patch, without external sequencer or effects :
Prophet Jam

Patches :

Here's four simple Prophet 08 sounds I made :

To load them into your synth, use anything that transmit sysex - on Windows, I'd suggest

The B-xxx at the beginning of the sysex indicates where the sound is going to be put, so back up your own sounds first, because the corresponding patches will be replaced!

B1-15-StrangeWind.syx : It's a complex, ambient-rhythm pad. Use the mod wheel to change the tone.
As indicated in the file, it loads on 15, Bank 1, so back up your own sound in that slot beforehand if you don't want to lose it.

B1-25-Speedallish.syx : Electronic sequence, quite dynamic

B1-35-DoublePad.syx : An experiment with the Prophet's dual layering : a low pad morphes into a higher one

B1-36-4VoiceDreampad.syx : Another 4 voices analogue pad... use mod wheel to add some nice vibrato

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. Arpeggiator.

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.


Philippe said...

Vraiment excellent. Bravo !

khoral said...

Des nouvelles de Miss Tracy?

Philippe said...

Oui, elle m'a envoyé le produit. Pour l'instant je n'ai pas encore "osé" démonter la bête... Faut que je sois serein pour m'y mettre, d'autant plus que moi et le bricolage ça fait deux !

khoral said...

C'est impressionnant à première vue, mais tout est installé très proprement et logiquement à l'intérieur
En suivant les instructions ça va tout seul!