July 24, 2014

DSI Prophet 12: New Landmark Synth [REVIEW]

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Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of reviewing many Dave Smith Instruments products, including the company’s renowned synthesizers and its Tempest drum machine that Smith helped his fellow pioneer, Roger Linn, create.

The heralded Prophet name has a new flagship, the Prophet 12. Gone from the feature list of its lineage and DSI brethren is the sequencer, but the beautiful new build and extra voices might certainly make up for that.

The unmistakable red illuminated buttons, mod wheel, LEDs, and “12” logo grace the large, knob-laden front panel of the keyboard synthesizer. Some 50 knobs and 50 buttons are used to sculpt sound. Clearly, this is a tweaker’s paradise. The wood sides and the piece below the keys are pure class. Also immediately noticeable is the black & white OLED display. Almost all parameters have a dedicated knob or button with the four soft knobs and buttons around the screen either doubling them or providing a few extra features. For such a powerful synth, the layout and architecture are fairly straight forward.

Off the bat, it’s worth noting (to the collective dismay of many analog purists) that this is a hybrid synthesizer with digital oscillators as its source material and analog VCAs and filters. I do not think this takes away from its organic sound, though. In fact, this is the most alive-sounding synth I’ve ever heard. Many patches, when held with sustain, could be listened to and enjoyed on their own, almost like a song, thanks to the large amount of oscillators and modulators.

Each of the 12 voices is made up of a whopping five DSP-based oscillators, one of them being a sub-oscillator to oscillator 1. Their shapes can be one of four classics (sine, triangle, saw, or square), 12 more complex ones, or three types of noise. Each oscillator has a large variety of independent settings and it is possible to make chords by tuning the multiple oscillators—and this is only utilizing one of the 12 voices!

By pressing and holding an oscillator button, the four digital oscillators are all controlled together by the parameter knobs for making fat uniform sounds. Unison mode allows either six or 12 voices to be utilized to create a single note. Each oscillator can also be made to be very different from each other for complicated timbres.

Oscillators can be hard-synced and modulated in a great variety of ways including their shape, FM, and AM. The large sound palette does not end there by any means.
Following the oscillators is a unique collection of five knobs that are known as the “Character” section. Girth and Air are low and high shelves, respectively. Drive is a soft saturator and Hack and Decimate handle sample and bit-rate reduction. These Character effects are pre-filter. Also, on the top left of the synth is a stereo analog distortion (per layer) for more dirt. And at the end of the signal path after the VCA (but before L-R panning) is a feedback loop with its own tuning knob. Also post-VCA is a large set of four independent and tempo-syncable digital delays. These, too, can be universally controlled by holding any one of the four delay buttons. Combining all of these sound-shaping effects gives such vast potential from subtle coloration to full-on experimental noise composition. Of course, the Prophet is equipped with the legendary Curtis 2- or 4-pole lowpass filter with a full-featured dedicated set of envelope knobs. A most welcome feature is the 2-pole high-pass filter that follows the LPF for further sound shaping. Both of these filters sound warm and have a large range. Having the two filters eliminates the need for a lot of EQ in post-production. It’s remarkable how well some of these sounds fit into the mix—yet they stood out and still sounded huge.

Modulation is always a DSI specialty and the P12 does not disappoint with four envelopes and four LFOs. The entire modulation matrix is thought of as 16 x 2 with 26 sources and 97 destinations. This might explain why some of the sounds seem to have a life of their own, never repeating and always evolving. It’s not short on player modulation control either, with a mod wheel, pitch wheel, two pressure-sensitive touch sliders, and aftertouch. The semi-weighted keys offer a quality feel—something you’d expect from a high-end synth.

The sequencer was a great feature of the previous models. It would have been nice to access all this voice power and other modulators with it. Having four LFOs does open the door to some very alive and sequenced-sounding patterns, though. The arpeggiator is OK, but pretty basic in terms of patterns.

The back panel has two stereo outputs which can play either Part A or B of a program. These separate parts can either be independent, stacked, or split. When sequencing the Prophet, it’s a huge bonus to have two sounds with six voices each that can happen simultaneously. It is the type of synth you want to utilize as much as possible, excelling as a bass, pad, lead, and both subtle and noisy effects.

A slew of programs (792) are spread amongst four factory and four user banks of 99 programs each. There are jacks for two different expression pedals, a sustain pedal, headphones, and MIDI in/out/thru. A USB jack allows the P12 to be a MIDI controller and medium through which MIDI can be received.

The new Prophet 12 ($2,999 MAP) is nothing short of incredible, with its creator Dave Smith saying that it is his favorite Prophet of all time. That might irritate some hardcore Prophet 5 owners, but this synth is not trying to be that—it is its own landmark in synthesizer history. It is a beautiful instrument in its build and creates many moments where you are blown away by its lush sound.

Also available for those with no need or space for a keyboard is the Prophet 12 module ($2,199 MAP), which utilizes four soft knobs and buttons surrounding the display to handle most synthesis parameters.

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