The Prophet 5 was released in 1978 by newcomer California company Sequential Circuits. Big deal, at the time who had ever heard of Sequential Circuits? However the Prophet 5 offered users to store their sounds in preset memory—with the press of a single button the Prophet would instantly call up another pre-programmed sound. In 1978, this was simply miraculous and the Prophet 5 became THE synth for professional users to own. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Prophet 5 also featured five voices of polyphony, a killer tone, quality hardware and a beautiful finished wooden chassis. Thus a legend was born and Sequential Circuits redefined the world of synthesizers.
In fact the Prophet 5 would have been a landmark instrument with just its programmable memory. However, the Prophet 5 was also an instrument capable of amazing power and grace—as well as being blessed with bags of character. Compared to other synths that existed before and long after the Prophet 5′s heyday, the little Prophet can still hold its own. Truly a remarkable instrument in capable and knowledgable hands. Time has not diminished one iota of the greatness of the Prophet 5.
In fact, the history of the Prophet 5 is an entrepreneur’s bedtime story: created by garage synth-designer David Smith with the assistance of voice programmer John Bowen; two guys that had very little money and limited business experience. But through their brilliance and hard work they rose to the top of their market—laying to waste all their competitors. Not since Bob Moog had a single person impacted the synthesizer market so drastically, and nobody has managed to single-handedly recreate an upset this large in the synthesizer industry since.
The Prophet 5 was the first synthesizer that looked like a proper instrument since the Minimoog debuted seven years earlier.
The Prophet came at a strange time in synthesizer history. Established leaders Moog and ARP were still fussing around with relatively minor advances in their instruments and seemed more interested in rehashing their early successes and spinning off older designs—not creating instruments with the types of features and sounds that musicians craved. The Prophet 5 was so successful that Moog and ARP never properly recovered, and both companies continued to falter until their collapse in the early 1980′s.
At first glance the Prophet 5 offers pretty straightforward subtractive synthesis, borrowing heavily from ARP and Moog and adding some of its own ideas into the mix. The Prophet 5 features dual oscillators that can be sync’d—both with sawtooth and variable width pulse waves; oscillator B features a triangle wave, can be detached from keyboard voltage control and may be used as an LFO by pressing a button. Immediately next to the oscillators is a voice mixer, allowing the user to independently mix the volume levels of oscillator A and B, as well as add in a dose of digital white noise. The filter is a real wicked son of a bitch, featuring a 24db/4 pole lowpass filter that just kills; the resonance on the Prophet 5 lightens out the low end a bit, but the filter can self-oscillate at the drop of a hat producing spooky high-Q sounds with ease. Keyboard tracking of the filter is available as on or off, and you are allowed to variably control the VCF envelope amount. Both the VCF and VCA have independent ADSR envelopes. The attack time on the Prophet 5 is amazingly zippy and fast, allowing the Prophet to create edgey, biting and punchy tones with great ease.
So much for the basics, the Prophet 5 also features a number of other useful optoins for voice programmers—notably the polymod section and LFO, both of which are well specified and elaborate. The polymod section, from which the Prophet 5 draws much of its charm and character, consists of the ability to modulate the pulse width of oscillator A, the frequency of oscillator A or the filter by either the filter envelope or the frequency of oscillator B. All of these modulations are simultaneously available and scalable. The LFO allows the user to select positive sawtooth, square or a triangle wave to modulate: oscillator A frequency, oscillator B frequency, oscillator A pulse width, oscillator B pulse width or the filter. Any or all of these modulation destinations may be selected to be mangled by the LFO. The amount of LFO modulation is governed by the modulation wheel position.
Depending on the version of Prophet 5 that you have there may be other features on hand including: a slow autotune program, a 440 hz tone button, an edit button, and various types of MIDI, control voltage or interfaces for hooking up to a digital Sequential Circuits sequencer.
There were three major revisions of the Prophet 5: the original—and highly unstable—revision one featuring SSM chips, the much sought-after revision two that featured greater stability and the original SSM chipset. Finally, the revision three Prophet 5 featured re-designed internals and was re-tooled to accept the more readily available Curtis chips. Many consider there to be major differences in sound between the SSM based Prophets versus the revision three CEM Prophets. However, revision two Prophets are notably difficult to repair, impossible to MIDI, and in short order… so most Prophets you encounter will be revision three’s.
The Prophet 5 sounds amazing with proper tweaking. Sometimes it can sound pretty cheesy or thin, but a skilled programmer can easily remedy this with a little detuning or manipulation of the filter. However, even the cheesy tones sound pretty damn amazing. Hardly a weak sound on the entire board. The frequency response is bright and crisp… thinning out a little bit as the resonance is pushed to the upper stratosphere. In many ways, the Sequential “sound” can be best approximated as a hybrid between the warmth of the Minimoog combined with the razor sharp edge of the ARP Odyssey.
For analog sounds, the Prophet 5 is incredibly versatile for a synth only equipped with a lowpass filter. A whole range of basses, effects, swoops, high-Q sounds, strings and brass are waiting to be sprung into action. By using oscillator B as an LFO—and taking advantage of the variable pulse widths on the pulse wave—a large number of strange sounds can be evoked using two LFO’s at once. Although it may not seem so at first, the Prophet 5 is capable of more modulations than most monosynths of that period.
If any synth begs to be played it’s the Prophet 5. Chunky knobs to tweak, a comfortable (if somewhat stiff) keyboard that feels responsive, gorgeous looks… the Prophet 5 is a consummate player’s board. It just feels good. The only thing that might screw with a new user is the calibration on the pitch bend wheel, which is capable of going an octave up or down; it requires a lot of dexterity and practice to consistently bend in tune.
The Prophet 5 isn’t the greatest synth in the world when it comes to external controllability. MIDI retrofits are available and highly advisable, but the Prophet will NEVER respond to velocity, nor will it recieve pitchbend or modulation wheel changes. This is a serious, serious disappointment. However, the Prophet 5 does typically feature CV and gate control, as well as a number of other (mostly worthless) interfaces for 70′s sequencers.
Prophet 5′s are, by modern standards, fairly feature light. No velocity, no aftertouch, not even an adjustable pitch bend wheel. However, the Prophet 5 does feature programmable memories—its primary selling point back in its production days—having either 40 or 120 memories depending on which revision you have. Overall, the Prophet 5 is fairly average for features and really only gives the user the bare essentials of an analog synthesizer. Some Prophets, the revision 3′s, allow the user to define the pitch of each note, allowing the user to play in microtone scales and unusual tunings. Nice.
The Prophet 5 is remarkably simple to use as all of the parameters are immediately visible on the front panel. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about subtractive analog synthesis should immediately be at ease. However, some of the Prophet’s more endearing features aren’t very predictable, such as the polymodulation. Inobservant programmers may be slightly put off by the sound until they realize the they haven’t latched oscillator B to follow the keyboard pitch, or accidently switched it to LFO mode. For most applications synthesis has never been so easy, so powerful, and so fun.
Here’s the major sore-point of Prophets: they are unreliable and pricey to fix and maintain instruments. As with most Sequential equipment, the Prophet 5 suffers from heat buildup, tuning instability and generally poor powersupplies. If you buy a Prophet expect it to have a few problems and need a good going-over by a competent technician. Also expect it to develop some problems later down the line, or at least require yearly maintenance. Above all, be prepared and informed about what can and might go wrong and always keep it safely in your cooled studio. In the studio it runs very stable after it has heated up for twenty minutes or so, and will keep reasonable tune… better than an Oberheim OBXa anyways.
The Prophet 5 is the synthesizer that defined classiness. Solid wood casing that was built to last, solid construction used throughout the entire unit. Everything about the Prophet reeks of extravagent, quirky class. Simply put, nothing is as classy as a Prophet 5 short of a fully complimented modular system. Even the Minimoog, as classy as this instrument is, takes second billing to the luxurious Prophet 5.
All things considered, the Prophet 5 is one of the best synthesizers, and certainly one of the best analog synthesizers, ever created. It was a pivotal product in synth history—but unlike many other world-changing instruments the Prophet 5 was not only a good idea released at the right time, it was a wonderful instrument as well that would have been a major success regardless. In many ways, the Prophet 5 was a bridge between older companies like Moog and ARP and combined many ideas began in both companies but fully explored by neither.