In this new series, Dubspot guest blogger and synth guru Ross Kelly investigates some classic pieces of gear that have influenced our music history. This month he starts with a breakdown of the widely popular Prophet 5 synthesizer by Sequential Circuits.
In 1978 Sequential Circuits, then a fledgling company run by Dave Smith out of his Garage in San Jose, introduced the Prophet 5 polyphonic synthesizer at the Winter NAMM show and opened the doors to a new age of synthesizer technology. The Prophet 5 was the first synthesizer to feature full digital patch memory and 5 full voices of polyphony. This has lead to the Prophet becoming one of the most imitated and sought after synthesizers in history.
Prior to the introduction of the Prophet 5, most polyphonic keyboards were string synthesizers that used octave-dividing organ technology to create a polyphonic sounds. In contrast the Prophet 5 featured five individual synthesizer voices comprised of two voltage controlled oscillators (VCO) and white noise generator, a low pass filter (VCF). Both the VCOS and VCF are modified by two separate four stage voltage controlled envelope generators and an analog LFO. The polyphonic modulation (POLY MOD) section of the synth allows OSC B and the filter envelope to be used as modulation sources that can effect OSC A’s Frequency and pulse width or the Frequency of the filter. OSC B can function as both an Oscillator or an LFO. The Poly Mod sections allows for amazing sweeping effect, wild noises and frequency modulation type sounds that the Prophet is famous for.
During its manufacturing life from 1978 through 1984, the prophet went through 3 major revisions, some to add or change features and some to improve reliability. The first revision, known as rev 1 were the original prototypes, built in Dave Smith’s Garage. Very few are still in existence and/or working. Rev 2 is the first manufactured version and varies little from rev one in use, features, or sound. The third and most common revision features some major changes in features and function. One of the major changes is the Synthesizer IC chips used to build the synthesizer voices where changed from the original SSM brand chips to CEM chips. This was mostly done to improve reliability, as the SSM chips were known to be extremely unreliable. The general consensus is that the SSM chip revisions have a grittier and more musical sound, which may be due to the fluctuations that made them unreliable.Also, rev 1 and 2 where not able to have midi added down the road, which the rev 3 can have added with a factory retrofit or some 3rd party kits from companies like Kenton. Another major change was to the way the patch memory functioned. In the first 2 revisions there were preset buttons in the Modulation and Filter sections that had to be pressed in order to be able tot edit the preset settings. These buttons also functioned as controls for the Cassette backup functions. In the rev 3 units, just turning the knobs allows you to edit the preset, which is how most modern synths function.
Upon its release, the Prophet was THE synthesizer to have. At the original $4995 retail price, it was still considered to be the first affordable polyphonic synthesizer with full patch memory. It can be heard in many hits of the time, taking the lead roll in many pop hits such as “Let’s Go” by The Cars, which features multiple Prophet 5 sounds including the Sync II factory patch, one of the quintessential prophet sounds as the lead. Disco legend Patrick Cowley Composed much of his solo work with just a Prophet 5 and a few other pieces. It is also heavily features in the early solo recording of Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and on host of other 80s albums by artist such as The Talking Heads. Their hit “Burning Down the House” features the sync lead sound as played by de facto member and Parliament/Funakdelic genius Bernie Worrell.
Throughout the years, the Prophet 5 has continued to be a sought after and valuable instrument that has spawned a host of imitators, emulators and virtual instrument re-creations. Yamaha, who became the owners of the Sequential Circuits brand in 1987 due to financial issues, based their AN1x Virtual Analog synthesizer on the Prophet 5′s technology (which Yamaha still currently owns.) Nord’s famous Lead line of synths are also loosely based on the architecture of the Prophet and even include a factory bank of sounds that are made to emulate the factory presets of the Prophet. Dave Smith, the original owner of Sequential Circuits has released a continuation of the Prophet legacy with the Prophet 8 and Prophet 12, both Made by his new company, Dave Smith Instruments. There have also been some soft synths based on the Prophet 5 such as Arturia’s Prophet V, Creamware’s Pro-12, which also was later turned into a hardware emulator Pro-12 ASB. Native Instruments also made a software synth called Pro-52/53 which was discontinued in 2009.
As one of the most important developments in Synthesizers of its time, it was used by many artists of the through out the years such as: Kraftwerk, Carl Craig, Tom Tom Club, Bernie Worrell, Gary Newman, Ozzy Osbourne, Pink Floyd, Vince Clarke, Tears For Fears, Berlin. Eurythmics, Joy Division. Dr. Dre, The Prodigy, Kitaro, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Public Image Limited, Derrick May, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tangerine Dream, Jeff Mills, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, New Order, John Carpenter, The Cars, Vangelis, Patrick Cowley, Sylvester, The Cars, Phil Collins, John Carpenter, and Peter Gabriel.
Some Audible Examples of the Prophet 5
The Cars “Let’s Go” features factory preset “32 Sync II” as the lead. This is one of the signature sounds the Prophet is known for. The prophet can be seen in this video starting at 1:47. You can also se the Star Synare 3 drum synth being used for the clap by the drummer at 1:10.
A very nice run through of Factory preset bank 1. The intro music is Ryuichi SakaMoto & The Kakutougi Session – Neuronian Network which features the Prophet 5 prominently along with the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.
New Order on Top Of The Pops on March 31st 1983. Gillian Gilbert is shown playing both pads and sync lead on the Prophet 5.
James “D-Train” Williams and Hubert Eaves III featured the Prophet heavily in most of their hits.
Besides being the synth brains behind both Parliment and Funkadelic, the creator of the Minimoog bass line, Bernie Worrell, was also responsible for keys in this Talking Heads song. Herehe is seen putting the Prophet 5 through its paces.
Dubspot guest blogger Ross Kelly is a Chicago based DJ, Producer and synth guru. He is a one half of Night Moves, a cosmic disco party at Danny’s in Chicago. He is also Partner at Kokorokoko Vintage, an 80s and 90s themed vintage clothing shop in Chicago.