Even amidst the ever-evolving world of electronic music, there's one timeless piece of hardware that has left an enduring imprint on the industry: the Sequential Prophet-5. When it was unveiled by Sequential Circuits in 1978, the Prophet-5 was revolutionary and it's not hyperbole to call it the instrument that ushered in a new era for music.
Revolution in Sound
The Sequential Prophet-5 was not just another synthesizer; it was the world's first fully programmable polyphonic synth, a game-changer in the music industry. Before its introduction, musicians were confined to monophonic synthesizers, capable of producing a single note at a time. Polyphony, the ability to play several notes simultaneously, was a feature usually found only in expensive and large modular systems.
Yet, here was the Prophet-5, a compact, user-friendly machine offering five-note polyphony, giving musicians the ability to form chords and create richer, more complex layers of sound. The ability to save and recall patches was equally revolutionary, enabling musicians to reliably replicate sounds across performances and recording sessions.
The Sound of the Future
The Prophet-5 used a particular type of sound generation called subtractive synthesis. At its heart were two Voltage-Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) per voice, providing a rich tonal base that could be shaped using a Voltage-Controlled Filter (VCF) and a Voltage-Controlled Amplifier (VCA). Coupled with an onboard analog delay and modulation section, this architecture allowed musicians to sculpt and animate an astonishing variety of sounds.
The Prophet-5's rich, fat, and warm sound became a hallmark of the late 70s and 80s, heard on countless recordings across genres. From the lush pads of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" to the incisive leads of Talking Heads' "Remain in Light", the Prophet-5's influence was everywhere.
The Wizard Behind the Curtain: Dave Smith
Understanding the Sequential Prophet-5 also requires understanding its creator, Dave Smith, an engineer, innovator, and musician who fundamentally reshaped the world of electronic music. Smith was an employee at Sequential Circuits when he designed the Prophet-5. His vision and understanding of what musicians needed were instrumental in making the Prophet-5 the success that it became.
Smith's innovation was driven by his goal to create a machine that was both accessible and sonically rich. He combined the latest in solid-state technology with a deep understanding of musical needs. The result was a compact, user-friendly synth that broke new ground while still delivering the powerful, expressive sound that musicians craved.
The Prophet-5 was a marvel of engineering, but Smith's innovation didn't stop there. He was also instrumental in the development of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the ubiquitous technology that allows electronic instruments and computers to communicate with each other. MIDI was another game-changing development in music technology, further solidifying Smith's reputation as a visionary in the field.
Smith's influence on the world of synthesizers cannot be overstated. Today, as the head of Sequential, formerly known as Dave Smith Instruments, he continues to push the boundaries of synthesizer design. His commitment to innovation, coupled with a profound respect for the legacy of the Prophet-5, ensures that Sequential's instruments continue to set the standard for quality, usability, and sonic excellence in the world of electronic music.
The Prophet's Progeny
The legacy of the Prophet-5 is visible in every corner of the modern synth landscape. From the countless hardware and software emulations to the numerous successors directly built by Sequential, the Prophet-5's DNA runs deep in the world of synthesizers.
Modern incarnations of the Prophet, such as the Prophet-6 and Prophet X, carry forward the groundbreaking work of their ancestor. The Prophet-6 captures the spirit of the original while improving stability, adding effects, and increasing polyphony. On the other hand, the Prophet X combines the vintage analog warmth with modern sampling technology, creating a sonic palette that's as extensive as it is expressive.
Perhaps the most notable progeny, however, is the Prophet Rev2, an 8 or 16 voice polyphonic analog synthesizer designed by Dave Smith himself. It took the original Prophet-5 design and updated it with modern enhancements like expanded modulation and effects, more voices, and a step sequencer. The Rev2 is a testament to the enduring strength of the Prophet-5's design, demonstrating how it continues to influence and inspire even decades later.
Emulations and Modern Interpretations
Over the years, the Prophet-5's distinctive sound and iconic design have been recreated in various forms. Some developers have tried to capture the essence of the Prophet-5 in software, while others have sought to reimagine it in new hardware designs.
In the realm of software, companies such as Arturia and U-He have created meticulously modeled emulations of the Prophet-5. These digital clones allow producers to harness the classic analog sound of the Prophet-5 within the comfort of their computer-based production environments. These software emulations have made the Prophet-5's legendary sound accessible to a new generation of producers who might not have access to the original hardware.
In the hardware domain, companies like Behringer have taken up the mantle, producing synthesizers heavily influenced by the Prophet-5's design. Behringer's DeepMind 12, for instance, shares similarities with the Prophet-5, boasting analog circuitry and design principles that harken back to the Prophet-5, albeit with modern enhancements.
The Impact of the Prophet in Modern Music Making
Today, the influence of the Prophet-5 is as strong as ever. Its warm, rich sound can be heard in countless records, its character imbuing tracks with an unmistakable sonic quality.
In pop music, artists such as The Weeknd and Dua Lipa have leveraged the Prophet-5's warm, nostalgic tones to create a modern spin on 80s pop. In film scoring, composers like Hans Zimmer and Johann Johannsson have used the Prophet-5 to provide a retro-futuristic sound palette that brings a unique aesthetic to their work.
Furthermore, in the world of electronic music, the Prophet-5's imprint is undeniable. From the synthwave genre, which wholeheartedly embraces the Prophet's 80s sound, to techno, house, and ambient music, the Prophet's tonal versatility shines through.
More than just a sound source, the Prophet-5's influence extends to the way music is made. Its revolutionary patch memory feature transformed the way musicians approached synthesis, allowing them to save and recall their patches and thus speeding up the creative workflow. This feature, taken for granted today, was groundbreaking at the time and paved the way for the presets we see in modern hardware and software synths.
In a world that's increasingly digital, the continued relevance of the Prophet-5 is a testament to the enduring appeal of analog sound. Even as music production moves further into the box, the Prophet-5 remains a reminder of the warmth, character, and tactile experience that hardware can bring to music making. Whether you're creating music with the original Prophet-5, one of its hardware successors, or a software emulation, its timeless sound continues to inspire and influence, as it has done for the past four decades.
More than four decades since its debut, the Sequential Prophet-5 remains an iconic instrument, an integral part of music history that continues to inspire musicians worldwide. It is a testament to the enduring power of good design and the transformative impact of technology on music. From the heart of the disco era to the modern EDM scene, the Prophet-5's unique voice continues to echo, a timeless beacon in the ever-evolving landscape of electronic music.
Whether you're an aspiring electronic musician or a seasoned producer, there's something magical about laying your hands on a Prophet-5. Its familiar knobs and sliders, its comforting weight, and above all, its signature sound, all serve as a reminder of its enduring impact on music history and its continued relevance in today's music scene. The Sequential Prophet-5 is not just a synthesizer. It's a piece of music history that continues to shape our sonic future.