Friday, June 12, 2015

Review: The Prophet 12 Synthesizer from Dave Smith Instruments

My Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12 arrived a while back. I haven't yet made an album with it, but have used it enough to have some opinions and thoughts.


This is the new DSI flagship. It says "this is the best of our experience and knowledge". They have taken everything they've learned from their previous synthesizers, incorporated user feedback, and improved it all.

It is easily the "best" synth they have made, and arguably the best polyphonic synthesizer available today, especially if you are someone who plays synth with your hands (as opposed to all-MIDI/computer sequencing).

It offers an incredible amount of live surface control, and several features aimed at "live performance".

Build Quality

This is one of the best-built synthesizers I have touched. The knobs are solid (and appear to be the same quality as other DSI gear) and reference the legendary Prophet-5. The buttons are firm and satisfying. The wood is nicely finished.

The synth looks great, too. The LEDs aren't as blindingly bright as the Evolver. It is less "flashy" in every sense than many other DSI synths. I suppose some people may find that a drawback. I like the more understated approach. And they did include a bit of flair with the large lighted "12" in the upper right corner.

The front panel is all silk-screened paint-on-metal, with no plastic overlay, save a small lip around the OLED screen. The plastic overlays were never popular with the synth community, which at the moment has become oddly resistant to change.  The layout and typography are also clear and attractive. And they spelled "filter" correctly this time.

Prophet-12 has an integrated power supply with a standard IEC cable - no wall wart.

The keybed feels different than the Poly Evolver - stiffer, and the keys are flatter. This may just be a function of the age of my Poly Evolver Keyboard - maybe it was stiffer when I first got it years ago. I'm not a particularly skilled piano player, and key feel isn't something I have much opinion about.

Pitch and mod wheels have grippy rubber around the outside edge. They may not look as amazing as the all-clear Poly Evolver Keyboard wheels, but they are much easier to use.

Prophet-12 also has the same kind of position and pressure sliders the Tempest has. These are fun, and I find them far more useful for performance than the standard pitch and mod wheels on most keyboards, as you can tap, slide, and/or press with precision and speed in a way that wheels don't often offer. Using the extensive modulation matrix, it is easy to assign multiple parameters to these.

The OLED screen is bright and legible without being overpowering, though like all OLED screens, it does weird things in my eyes when I look away suddenly.


DSI's interface design is logical and clean. The synth interaction is clear, easy to use and learn, deep, and most importantly, fast.

The bottom "half" of the control panel shows signal flow, from oscillators to "character" to filters to VCA to feedback to delay. The upper "half" has effects, arpeggiator, and modulation (LFOs, slots, envelopes).

Every synth parameter has a dedicated knob on the front panel. Once you turn a knob, the relevant "section" appears in the screen. This allows you to see what you're adjusting quickly. The soft knobs over the screen are also detented, so if you're having a problem getting the exact value you want with a smooth knob, you can turn a soft knob to click to the exact value. A brilliant idea.

DSI has mentioned this before, but the new modulation path assignment method is great, and I expect lots of people will agree:
  • Hold the "Assign Mod Source" button
  • Turn the knob controlling your Mod Source
  • Hold the "Assign Mod Destination" button
  • Turn the knob controlling your Mod Destination
  • Set amount using "Amount" knob or soft knob on mod screen (which pops up as soon as you start doing this)
You've just assigned a modulation routing! It is incredibly intuitive and again, fast. DSI goes further by automatically assigning the first free modulation path. And you can sort the modulation path list.

Improving on Evolver, DSI offers 16 fully-configurable modulation paths plus the 8 "fixed" paths (hard-wired to the 4 LFOs and 4 envelopes). This is particularly exciting, because these make the synth semi-modular. These paths were my favorite programming feature of Evolver, and I constantly wished I had more. Now I have plenty.

You can also manage all of this with soft knobs in the menu.

Sound and Architecture

The oscillators are all-new, and all-DSP-based. There's already a ton of internet griping about this, but the Curtis chip-based DCOs of the previous DSI line had some intractable problems. Going digital solves these problems, and opens up a wider range of sonic possibilities.

The new digital oscillators have 3 modes - An "analog modeling" mode (Sawtooth, Pulse, Triangle, or Sine), a "wave shape" mode, and 3 types of noise. (the synth doesn't actually consider these specific modes, but different features are available depending on which wave you select, and it's convenient to think of them this way).

Analog modeling produces great-sounding basic shapes. These appear to be actual DSP models, and not merely single-cycle waves.  The "Slop" parameter adds some very nice liveliness to the sound at low settings, and goes all the way up to totally broken "this is why we abandoned analog" territory. The "shape" parameter allows for various deformations of the wave shapes. For example, deforming the Square shape yields pulse width modulation.

Aside from the classic analog shapes, you can choose from a variety of wave shapes. Some of the sources and character are obvious ("Tines", "Ahhh", etc.) and some less so. All are harmonically rich and interesting.

When these kinds of wave shapes are chosen, you have the ability to pick 3 different shapes - a "Left", a "Center", and a "Right". You can then modulate across the 3, and sound will smoothly transition and morph.

For example, you could pick 3 different shapes for the oscillator, then assign an LFO to that oscillator's "shape" mod parameter. This will sweep through the various shapes, back and forth. Or you could use an envelope to get motion through them. Or velocity. Or key number. Or mod wheel. Or whatever.

It's conceptually similar to the wavetables of the PPG. On the plus side, you're not limited to PPG's wavetables. You can effectively build your own, by picking a left, center, and right. On the minus side, these aren't as big (in size/length) or diverse (in selection) as PPG's wavetables.

Ultimately, this architecture allows creation of the kind of evolving digital tones the Prophet-VS was known for.

(By the way, picking the same shape for 2 or 3 of the slots still produces interesting results.)

There are 3 noise types available as well. Plus a sine sub-oscillator.

And all of that is for just one oscillator. You get four oscillators per voice. Go back and read all that again. Let it sink in. You can have 4 different wavetables per voice, each modulated differently.

Looking at what you can do with the oscillators together, Prophet 12 continues to shine. It's got analog-style exponential Frequency Modulation (FM). You can't do DX7-style linear FM on it, but you can get some very cool effects.

FM on the Prophet-12 has a deceptively simple architecture, where the oscillators are connected in a loop: O4 is modulator for carrier O3, which is also modulator for carrier O2, which is also modulator for carrier O1, which is also modulator for carrier O4.

You can use the basic sine wave shape for all the oscillators for simple tones. But you can also use any of the other shapes available as carriers or modulators. And that also means that any of the modulation parameters you use for shaping oscillators can apply to carriers or modulators. And since they're connected in a loop, you can get "feedback".

And unlike the DX synths, you also get the analog lowpass filter, the highpass filter, the delay, the feedback, etc.

There's also amplitude modulation using the same methodology. And you can use both FM and AM at the same time.

Hard sync, too, which works in the same O4 → O3 → O2 → O1 fashion. So you can hard-sync more than one oscillator, or 2 discrete pairs.

The net result is a very flexible synth, that can easily produce some beautiful/crazy digital-but-alive sounds in addition to the analog basics that are so much in vogue these days.

If all of that doesn't have you excited enough, there's a few other unique qualities to this synth. It has a resonant high pass filter. You don't see that very often in synthesizers.

It has a tuned feedback loop (like Evolver), and yes, you can do Karplus-Strong synthesis.

The "Character" section is also unique. DSI offers decimation (sample-rate reduction) and bit depth reduction ("Hack") to make the synth sound more digital and lo-fi. Turning these up a bit is a quick path to recreating PPG-style grit. There's a soft saturation "Drive" parameter. "Girth" and "Air" are smart EQ - bass and treble, respectively.

Of course, you can modulate all of that.

Standard Things

As for the "standard" stuff, you've got:

  • ADSR envelopes for LPF and VCA, plus 2 envelopes as assignable modulation sources
  • 4 LFOs, which can be set to sync to MIDI tempo, have slewable shapes, and can reset with keypress and have user-controlled phase start!
  • An arpeggiator (which includes the ability to set up to 4 hits per note)
  • Analog stereo distortion (per layer!)
  • 4-tap digital delay, which has modulatable panning (aside from the obvious delay fun, you can construct flangers, choruses, and even reverb with this). A software update added a resonant lowpass filter, independent for each delay tap. Incredible.

You have 12 voices to play with per patch. You can choose to set it all to Unison, with as little or as much detune as you want.

You can set up 2 patches per program, either stacked or split (each patch gets 6 voices).

And you get storage for 396 user programs on top of the 396 "factory" programs (which are read-only).

You can even build a "playlist" of the programs you like, in order, for gigs.

So what's not to like?

Well, I have a few criticisms so far, but they are minor:

The Presets
This is largely subjective. Most people don't care for their synth presets. But I have only walked through the 396 Factory sounds a couple of times, and there are few I found immediately inspiring or useful.

That said, there are a few really great ones in there, and some that did make me sit up and start playing.

But given the preset's unwritable/unchangeable nature, I would have expected a few more basic, usable sounds somewhere, and perhaps some better organization (the Alesis Ion is still my gold standard for this, with 4 banks filled with usable sounds, and the banks consistently organized so the first 10 sounds are always basses, the next 10 leads, then 10 pads, and so forth).

I also would have expected a more standardized and comprehensive set of modulation routings. Many of the sounds do not take advantage of all of the available controllers (particularly slider pressure and aftertouch), and they don't typically use the controllers the same way when they do use them.

396 user sounds is plenty for me, but it's hard not to look at the 396 factory sounds and wish there were more I liked, especially given the considerable talent and effort that went into the batch provided.

It's expensive.

$3,000 street price. But it is difficult to think of another synthesizer offering this particular feature set at any price.

The Nord Lead 4 is similar in price, knobs, and polyphony, but it is all digital, no analog filters or distortion, and has a far more limited architecture.

There's the Waldorf Blofeld keyboard, which is perhaps a third the price of the Prophet 12, but it is also 100% digital and requires quite a bit of menu-diving or a PC editor to program it.

Moog Voyager is the only thing that remotely approaches Prophet 12's quality or cachet, but you get only one voice.

I suppose there's the John Bowen Solaris, which is even more expensive and 100% digital, but supposedly is quite nice (I haven't used one, so I can't say). It's also available in very limited quantities, and you can get a Prophet-12 right now.

It's complex and deep

This is a pro as much as a con, but this synth will require some work to get the best out of it. I'd say it's much easier than Evolver, due to some workflow improvements and the great oscillators, but I expect some users will have a hard time at first.

Conclusions: Get One!

Software synths are wonderful, but I consider most of them to be disposable. I find programming with a mouse to be tedious, and the PC, operating system, and software updates required to use them make them far less expensive and useful than you might think.

A good hardware synth will last you decades. The Prophet-12 sounds great, works great, looks great. You can use it to create the same sounds any other analog or digital 2- or 3-oscillator synth can create. You'll be happy.

Or you can create vast new sonic landscapes, the likes of which have never been heard. I'm off to explore right now.

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