Last spring, Dave Smith won a Grammy for his technical
achievements. Aside from being the primary inventor of MIDI, Dave is the
brains behind milestone technologies like the first programmable analog
polyphonic synth (the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5), digital vector
synthesis (the Prophet-VS), wave sequencing (the Korg Wavestation) and
the first soft synth (Seer Systems Reality). With a résumé like that,
what do you do for an encore? Release the Prophet 12, of course. Dave
calls it the finest synth he’s ever designed. After spending some
quality time using it, we think he’s being modest.
Four oscillators that include virtual analog, wavetable,
FM, AM, and multiple hard sync options—plus sub-oscillator. Dual
resonant lowpass and highpass analog filters. Extremely comprehensive
modulation routing. Tons of realtime performance features. Dual stereo
outputs. Two simultaneous synths can be layered or split. Sounds
Not everyone can afford three grand for this experience. Unlike Poly Evolver, no step sequencers onboard.
Not only is the Prophet-12 the finest synth Dave Smith has
yet designed; it’s also the finest hardware synth for synth geeks
currently on the market.
$3,299 list | $2,999 street
First off, the Prophet 12 (P12 for short from here on) is
not a workstation. It’s a synthesizer for players who love synthesis.
While its oscillators are digital, its filters and amplifiers are
analog. While some purists might pause at the oscillators not being real
analog, I think they’re missing out in this case. For one, the
oscillators’ virtual analog waveforms are rendered so smoothly that even
diehards will quickly forget that they’re listening to digital. Second,
the P12 goes so far beyond analog capabilities that everyone will be
too busy creating and playing amazing sounds.
The high-level architecture of the P12 is as follows:
There are two supremely capable synths running simultaneously. You can
layer them, split them, or have both play the same sound, either in
monophonic unison or with 12-voice polyphony. Dual stereo outs let you
process each synth differently and MIDI over USB lets the P12 quickly
fit into studio rigs. There’s also a plethora of performance tools like
two touch-strip sliders for realtime modulation, aftertouch as well as
velocity sensitivity, and a pair of arpeggiators waiting to percolate as
you play. As to factory presets, there are 792 to be exact.
But other synths can say a lot of the same things, so
why’s the Prophet 12 so special? Because of its synthesis engine. As
synthesizers go, this one is a Pacific Rim-sized sea monster. So let’s rip it open and dive inside the innards.
The Prophet 12’s digital oscillator section is the deepest
and most flexible I’ve ever seen in a hardware synth. Even more
impressively, its knobs are laid out in a way that makes it extremely
accessible to new users. In addition to the de rigueur coarse and
fine tuning knobs, there’s a clever array of parameters that all affect
the sound in dramatic ways, regardless of the selected waveform. The
sonic variety available in the oscillator section alone is so broad that
I got lost in it for several hours before remembering that I hadn’t yet
touched the analog filters.
Skating across the surface of the oscillator section,
you’ve got 19 waveforms to choose from: Four classic analog waves (sine,
triangle, square and sawtooth), 12 digital wavetable options, and three
noise generators. Each waveform is affected by the Shape Mod knob in a
pronounced manner. For the analog waves, this knob adjusts the duty
cycle of each waveform. On a square wave, this knob adjusts the pulse
width in classic fashion. On a sawtooth or triangle wave, it does a
similar trick, but with vastly different sonic results. In simplest
terms, the Shape Mod knob functions as a way to manipulate the structure
of each waveform without getting all mathematical ’n’ stuff.
The digital waveforms are a brilliant implementation of
Dave Smith’s revolutionary work on the Prophet-VS and the Korg
Wavestation. When one of these waves is selected, the “Wave Right” and
“Wave Left” options on the P12’s OLED display become active. From there,
you can select two different digital waveforms. Then, using the shape
mod knob, you can smoothly morph between the three waveforms’ harmonic
spectra, yielding thousands of waveform permutations, depending on what
The three noise waveforms are red, white, and violet. Here
the Shape Mod works a bit like an EQ, allowing you to “tilt” the
frequency spectrum of each. For newcomers, red noise has emphasized
lower frequencies, violet noise emphasizes highs, and the classic white
noise is more balanced. In practice, the Shape Mod knob can blur those
Remember, we’re still only talking about one
oscillator here. There are four of these babies in the P12, plus a sine
wave sub-oscillator that tracks the first oscillator. Taking everything
up a notch, you can do much more than simply mix the oscillators. The
P12’s oscillator bank also includes FM, AM and sync tools for all four oscillators.
In a manner that reminded me of Rob Papen’s brilliant soft
synth Blue, the P12’s oscillators can do all kinds of sideband tricks
that you just don’t see in hardware synths. Better still, despite the
underlying complexity of the technology, the default implementation is
pretty straightforward once you learn the basics.
With hard sync, the oscillators are all connected to each
other in a cascading manner. That is, oscillator 1 slaves to oscillator
2, oscillator 2 slaves to oscillator 3, and so on, with oscillator 4
slaving to oscillator 1. The whole concept flows like a big circle,
which is why Dave designed the front panel with a big silkscreened
circle around the oscillator select buttons.
Frequency Modulation and Amplitude Modulation synthesis
tools are configured in a very similar manner. In both instances, the
lower-numbered oscillator functions as the carrier. Again, the “circle”
topography holds: Oscillator 1 is the carrier and oscillator 2 is the
modulator, which is then modulated by oscillator 3, and so on. If you’re
familiar with FM synthesis, it’s easier to think of this implementation
as reminiscent of algorithm 1 on Ableton’s Operator soft synth or on a
Yamaha DX9. (I’d say DX7, but since the DX9 had four operators, it’s the
If you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, you
can use the P12’s modulation matrix—and we’ll get to that in a bit—to
alter these modulation routings in even more complex ways.
Rounding out the oscillator tools are per-oscillator
glide/portamento, key follow on/off, wave resetting (so the oscillators
always begin “speaking” at the same point in their wave cycles), and the
clever Slop parameter, which lets you dial in analog-style pitch drift
in subtle to copious amounts.
The Prophet 12’s innovative “Character” section further
sculpts the oscillator bank’s output with five unique parameters that
operate on a per-voice basis before they hit the filter section. The
parameters are as follows: Girth, Air, Decimation, Hack, and Drive.
The Girth and Air parameters function like a cross between
shelving EQs and harmonic enhancers. In practice, these work a little
bit like Aphex Aural Exciters, with extreme amounts of Air adding
high-frequency sparkle. Cranking the Girth knob to max is also a bit
like the Aphex “Big Bottom” feature, boosting low-end warmth in
extremely musical ways. These two knobs alone will be a huge benefit for
live performance, allowing keyboardists to EQ their patches before they
hit the mixer.
The Decimation and Hack knobs are essentially an
integrated bit-crusher, with Decimation modifying the sample rate and
Hack reducing the bit depth of the oscillator output.
Finally, the Drive knob is a fantastic addition for more
analog-style patches, adding overdrive and saturation enhancement to the
overall tone of the oscillators. It’s worth noting here that the Drive
knob interacts with the oscillators’ frequency modulation tools in an
extremely intense manner, so if you’re dabbling with FM as you work and
things start to spin out of control, double-check this parameter. In
many cases, a little goes a very long way.
Next: Filters, Modulation, Envelopes, and more!