Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2 synth reviewed

October 28, 2014

Dave Smith’s conquest of the hardware synth market is now a simple fact of modern history. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly every keyboardist for the past 35 years has either owned or coveted a Prophet this or a DSI that—an achievement paralleled only by Bob Moog. After the Prophet 12 (reviewed Oct. ’13), it was hard to see how Dave could go much further. Enter the Pro-2. At first glance, it looks like a monophonic P12, but it’s a different beast entirely. In fact, it’s actually more powerful than the P12 in some ways. Don’t believe me? Read on.


Overview

The Pro-2 is a hybrid synth, meaning it feeds flexible digital oscillators into real analog filters. Like the P12 (and Tempest) there’s a brilliant OLED display that offers access to deeper parameters and visual representations of waveforms and routing. The only caveat is that the OLED fonts are really tiny. They’re crisp and clear, but you may find yourself grabbing those reading glasses as you design your own patches. 

Some artists bemoaned the fact that the Prophet 12 didn’t include the step sequencing that made the Prophet ’08 so compelling for rhythmic patches. The Pro-2 includes those tools, but implements them in a more intuitive and versatile fashion.

The Pro-2 is no slouch in the performance control department. Its keyboard senses both velocity and channel aftertouch. In addition to pitch and modulation wheels, there are two position- and pressure-sensitive touch sliders that can remember your finger position or snap back to a default value as soon as you let up.

Here’s our first look video, shot by my esteemed colleague Tom Brislin. Scroll down for more of the full review.

 

 


CLICK HERE

for a downloadable 7-pack of Pro 2 loops you can use freely in your music productions.

 


Synthesis Engine

With the hardware details out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the overall structure of the Pro-2. Like the Prophet 12, its voice begins with four digital oscillators, but unlike its daddy, the Pro-2 sports dual discrete filters that can do a lot of tricks that are outside the range of the P12. In addition to dedicated envelopes for the amp and filters, there’s a gargantuan array of modulation sources, including four LFOs, two additional envelopes and up to 16 step sequencers. In the effects area, there are four discrete delays, stereo analog distortion, and Dave’s legendary tuned feedback processor. Taken as a whole, this is more raw synthesis power than any hardware monosynth to date – and that’s just the architecture.

Oscillators. The Pro-2’s four oscillators are essentially identical to those on the Prophet 12. That is, they’re all-digital affairs with an added sub-oscillator for oscillator 1. In addition to analog-style waveforms, there are also 12 digital waves and three flavors of noise. The 12 digital waves include “left” and “right” sub-waveforms that serve as the extreme ends of each oscillator’s bipolar Shape parameter. For example, if you select the “Ahhh” waveform, you can assign its “Tines” wave to the left and “Buzzzz” to the right. You can then smoothly transition between the three in wavetable fashion by sweeping the Shape parameter from left to right. In practice, this marshals a few easy-to-understand settings into a lot of timbral variety.

In addition, all the waveforms include “super” variants that fatten the sound via detuning, giving the illusion of even more oscillators. Granted, the “super” function replaces the wavetable features, but with four oscillators that can do all these tricks, it’s hardly an issue.

For the three noise options, the shape knob tilts the frequency spectrum of the noise, reminiscent of a simple EQ.

The Pro-2 also includes the Prophet 12’s circular sync and modulation options. In this system, each successive oscillator syncs to the previous one. For example, when sync is enabled for oscillator 1, oscillator 2 is the master. When sync is on for oscillator 2, oscillator 3 is the master and so on until you get to oscillator 4, which circles back to oscillator 1. The front panel includes a dedicated switch for the sync function, but if you dig into the OLED menus, you’ll also find FM and AM for each oscillator configured in the same manner. Naturally, envelopes, LFOs and such can modulate these amounts, so ultra-complex evolving textures are part and parcel of the Pro-2. We’re talking rabbit-hole deep here.

Last but not least, the four oscillators can perform polyphonically when switched to paraphonic mode, which makes the Pro-2 capable of some synthesis tricks that haven’t been in the mainstream since the Korg Mono/Poly. While the obvious application is to set all four oscillators to the same wave shape and tuning and then play chords, that’s merely scratching the surface.

One of the classic Korg Mono/Poly tricks was to assign different octaves and waveforms to each of its four oscillators, so that each note in a riff triggers a different oscillator, giving even simple melodies a much more sophisticated character. You can do this on the Pro-2 with minimal fuss, but keep in mind that each oscillator can also be modulating another via FM (or AM), so that when you play intervals and chords, the FM relationships change. This be used for subtle timbral shifts or tweeter-shredding harshness, depending on the configuration. What’s more, even though all oscillators are playing through the same filters in paraphonic mode, each oscillator still gets its own envelope for articulation. As far as we know, this is unique.

Character. Before the oscillators hit the filter inputs, they pass through the Pro-2’s “Character” section, which is basically identical to the Prophet 12 and includes bit-crushing tools for sample rate and resolution, drive (which emulates tape saturation, as opposed to filter overdrive, to be clear), girth and air. The last two parameters govern low and high frequency enhancement in a manner that’s more like an exciter than an EQ. Either way, these parameters add a final bit of polish to the oscillator output.

It’s worth noting that the character controls affect all four oscillators simultaneously, regardless of the filter configurations (see below). This is hardly a drawback, just an observation.

Filters. The Pro-2’s analog filter section includes a design based on the original Prophet-5 four-pole lowpass filter (not the later Curtis versions) and a two-pole state-variable filter that bears a strong resemblance to the one on Tom Oberheim’s SEM. 

State-variable filters are astonishingly flexible as sound design tools. Here’s why: In a state-variable arrangement, the filter’s curve is a smooth continuum between low-pass, notch, and high-pass that’s adjusted via a single knob. This allows the filter’s character to morph and twist in truly unique ways. There’s also a bandpass option for wah-wah effects. What’s more, if you dig deeper into the filter via the menu options, you can smoothly transition from “normal” mode to bandpass mode by making the filter state a modulation target.

The dual filters also offer a variety of really useful configurations. For starters, you can smoothly shift the filters between serial and parallel modes, with serial mode passing the output of the lowpass into the state-variable filter. What’s more, there’s an oscillator split function that routes the first two oscillators into the Prophet filter and oscillators 3 and 4 into the state-variable module. Combined, these options make the Pro-2’s filter routing more complex than any synth I’ve encountered to date, except for large modular rigs.

Each filter also has its own ADSR envelope with dedicated knobs on the front panel. Having so many filter parameters at your fingertips makes whipping up complex textures a breeze and encourages real-time experimentation.


Well Connected

 

The back panel of the Pro-2 has as many connections we’ve seen on a modern slab synth. Of note are four CV ins and outs, letting you integrate the Pro-2 into a modular rig. An audio input lets you process external sources through the Pro-2’s filters and effects. Want to use complex oscillators from your Eurorack as modulators, then route the output of a Moog into the audio input—and control the whole thing from the Pro-2 keyboard? How about using the Pro-2’s step sequencers to control your Buchla? Done and done.

Modulation

The Pro-2’s modulation options eclipse all but the most comprehensive modular rigs. Almost every parameter in this synth can be modulated by multiple sources. You can easily twist and warp parameters like FM, AM, filter state, and the various integrated effects with minimal effort. And of course, modulation sources can modulate other modulation sources, which allows everything from classic mod-wheel-to-LFO-depth assignments to step sequencers modulating individual envelope segments.

A full account of what’s possible would take up an entire issue of Keyboard, so let’s stick to the highlights. First off, there are the standard four LFOs that can be found on every Dave Smith product. These include all the classic shapes—triangle, sawtooth, square, and pulse—along with subtler parameters like phase and slew rate. Everything can be synced to tempo, of course.

There are also two additional DADSR envelopes on top of the amp and dual filter envelopes. These are great for adding plucky transients or slowly evolving timbral shifts, especially when assigned to parameters like wave shape.

While the LFOs and envelopes can be used for standard swirly stuff, the real madness happens when you start tinkering with the step sequencers. At first glance, it looks like there’s only one per patch—and there is—but it’s 16-track in default 16-step mode (or eight-track in 32-step mode). In addition to pitch, each “track” can be assigned to any parameter in the instrument and best of all, you can actually record your step sequences in real time by simply hitting record and turning a knob. The software then quantizes each step based on the knob’s position at that point in the sequence, which you can edit later if desired. If you’ve ever painstakingly entered individual values in a step sequencer, this feels like magic and it’s astonishing that no one has implemented this feature in a hardware synth before.

If you make electronic dance music, you’ll be lost for days. If you’re a keyboard player focused on searing solos, you can use the Pro-2’s performance controllers (like the pressure-sensitive sliders or aftertouch) to sweep entire groups of parameters in macro fashion.

Then there are the four CV inputs. Got a modular synth? You can use any of its modulation resources here. Got a Korg MS-20 Mini or Arturia MicroBrute? You can join the game, too—and you can scale the modulation from within the Pro-2 via its matrix. The inverse is also possible, so you can take any of the above modulation sources, including the step sequencers and performance controllers, and route it to your modular gear. Insanity.


Effects

Like the Prophet 12, the Pro-2 includes some unique implementations of now-standard effects. A dedicated knob, conveniently located next to the master volume, controls the amount of analog distortion applied to the stereo outs.

There are also four individual delay lines, each with panning. The first three are standard digital delay affairs, but the fourth is designed to emulate old-school analog delays with their “bucket brigade” circuits. As someone who owns a Moogerfooger analog delay, I can attest that this emulation is rather good indeed.

These delays are extremely flexible, with delay times up to a second for each. With these you can do all kinds of multi-tap tricks, including pseudo-reverb effects. Of course, they’re also great for chorus and flanging. Just modulate the delay time with an LFO or step sequencer and you’re in business.

Lastly, there’s Dave’s tuned feedback effect. First introduced in the desktop Evolver synth, it delivers truly intense results, even at low settings. This effect works by running the VCA’s output through a short delay that tracks keyboard pitch, then feeds it back into the oscillator section right before the character modifiers. The result is a bit like a resonating static flange, but even more bizarre.

 

Conclusions

It’s become cliché to call a synthesizer “limitless,” but when it comes to monophonic synths, the Pro-2 just might fit the bill. With four oscillators that can generate a panoply of waveforms, the dual filters, and the rest of the synth engine described in this review,

the Pro-2 sounds absolutely massive. Plus, it can serve as a basic polysynth, which should make its $1,999 price tag more palatable to anyone who might balk at a monophonic instrument that costs as much as a Prophet ’08. Throw in the ability to process external audio and you have a studio Swiss Army knife that can tackle nearly any sound design task. The “desert island synth” bar has been raised, and it looks to be a long time before real competition arrives.

 


PROS

Four oscillators! Hybrid signal path features real analog filters based on classic designs. Sounds absolutely huge, and digital oscillators provide many waveform options beyond classic fare. Sixteen-track step sequencer also does real-time recording. Lots of CV I/O for interfacing with modular synth gear. Paraphonic mode allows four-voice polyphony.

CONS

Though display is clear, onscreen fonts are tiny. Price tag is arguably steep for a mainly monophonic synth—though we know of exclusively mono synths that sell for more. 

Bottom Line

The most powerful and versatile monophonic synth on the planet, bar none.
$2,199 list | $1,999 street | davesmithinstruments.com

 

 

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