Gear | April 19, 2012

Prophet ’08 PE Review

Note: this review is not written from the usual perspective of examining an instrument and comparing knowledgeably it with its peers in the market, it is written more as a personal journey from a very specific viewpoint. If you’re after the former, the review in Sound on Sound is an excellent place to start.

As mentioned previously I am in the process of re-educating myself on the subject of synths. When I first started playing keyboards it was in the early days of S+S keyboards like the Yamaha SY35.  I had missed the eras of analogue and was catching the tail end of FM, which was no longer considered exciting. Sample And Synthesis was the future.

In coming at synthesis again a second time, I am trying to view it through the same eyes I now view my Hammond, pianos or clav — not as a musical chameleon but as an instrument with an individual but definite character, even if it has a much more obviously varied sound palette.

Fundamentally, the Prophet ’08 has two main sounds generation sources: an analogue oscillator and a the resonance of its low pass filter. The former has of course got the classic buzzy saw wave but I was surprised that even the square (or pulse) waves were quite buzzy. I suppose this is the first taste of its analogue nature: a true square wave is quite hollow sounding but the analogue oscillator had much more fizz to it.

As for using the filter as a sound source: at its simplest a low pass filter is a bit like a simple tone control, rolling off the higher frequencies and softening the sound. The resonance however allows it to generate a slightly unstable sounding tone, which sounds to me a bit like a sine wave having a nervous breakdown. As its pitch is tied to the cut-off of the filter, which is applied to both oscillators and the white noise source, there is an inherent limit to the sorts of sounds you can get because tuning the filter’s resonance also (of course) cuts out the upper harmonics from the oscillators.

This is all a bit of a digression but the point is that these limitations are what gives the instrument its individual characteristics, in the same way as the strings of a piano or the tonewheel in a Hammond mean that they can only make a certain set of sounds.

Moving onto the modulation and other more practical implementation details, there are some limitations I find surprising. The glide (portamento) effect can be controlled separately for each oscillator. While this flexibility is good, there isn’t a way of controlling the glide time for both oscillators at once. Despite the near-comprehensive modulation options, this appears to have been overlooked. This is a shame as one of the things I have done with other synths is tweak the glide time as I play to swoop between two notes in a more controlled (and easy to reset) fashion than changing the oscillator pitches.

Talk of changing oscillator pitch, I found the modulation routing for oscillator pitch quite broad.  The minimum setting seems to be one semitone whereas I’d have expected to be able to mess with the fine tuning. The separation of fine and semitone tuning is also a bit of a shame. From a knob point of view it’s fine, but again it makes it a bit of a pain to move slowly and smoothly over a range of, say five tones. Perhaps I’ve overlooked something.

The PE edition has potentiometers instead of rotary encoding, which I understand is more to the purists’ taste, but I found it a bit frustrating for live performance. Relative mode is particularly unhelpful because you have to turn the knob to one extreme or another to reset its range, and with something like filter resonance this can make a racket. Pick-up mode is the best of the compromises here but it’s still sometimes a bit of a fiddle to tweak something slightly in a hurry unless you are clear on where the current value is. I also found on several occasions that the pitch of an oscillator would drop unexpectedly by a semitone if the pot was on the border between two values. Detented rotary encoders would be immune to this.

There is also a bug in the Last Note Retrigger mode which for me makes it useless for any fast runs. Having discussed this with DSI, they consider it to be a feature of their implementation rather than a bug. In short, if you play in monophonic mode, last note retrigger will only work if you are playing at holding at most two keys at once. As soon as you involve a third (perhaps anchoring a root note and trilling between third, fifth and open) the “last note” in fact reverts to the lowest note.

Between these two omissions, I find that for certain pieces and performance tricks I need to revert to using my Nord Stage or Novation Nova which is a little disappointing.

So, aside from all of this pseudo-technical navel gazing, how am I getting on with it? Well, first up I am noticing the lack of effects. Not so much for anything wild and outlandish. More the opposite really ­— I’m looking for things to soften the what feels to me a very electronic sound. Much like I put my Hammond through a valve amp and spring reverb to stop it sounding quite so clinical, I find the raw sound of the Prophet pleasant but very bright. It’s not a fault by any means, but it means that in terms of the sorts of tones I’m after it’s note quite finished.

I now have it hooked up to a Line 6 M9 pedal for  reverb, modulation and distortion effects. Yes, it’s digital and that’s sacrilege when connected to an analogue synth but my recording studio is digital and frankly, when I play live there is so much going on I very much doubt anyone could tell the difference, golden ears or not. The combination of the two is a revelation and though I still have a lot of learning my way around to do, I find the combination of a saw wave with with filter resonance and pitch bend through overdrive and reverb gives me a very expressive lead sound to work with. Likewise, allowing external reverb and chorus effects to take more of the sound defining workload for pad sounds gives me more elbow room as it were for playing tweaking sounds expressively without, for example, having the release time needed to simulate reverb, or fine tuning of oscillators for chorus effects.

The final thing I’m going to note is that the new sounds stump me a little compositionally. I wasn’t really aware how much I take for granted the fact that I can hear in my head what a certain Hammond or piano part will sound like in the mix. I find can’t do that with synth sounds yet and so there’s going to be a lot more need for experimentation and perhaps serendipity when it comes to putting a track together with synth parts. It would probably be wise for me to start by adding a part here and there to things that are still largely based around the instruments I already know if I don’t want to find myself getting totally lost.

All in all though, the Grand Synthesizer Research Project’s first subject, the Prophet ’08, has proved successful and inspiring so far.


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One Response to “Prophet ’08 PE Review”

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