Prophet 12 new user review

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Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Jinsai » Sat Jun 29, 2013 10:28 pm

My Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12 arrived a week ago. I have had several hours to investigate it - far from comprehensive, but enough to have some opinions and thoughts.

Overall
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).

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). 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" than many other DSI synths in every sense. 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 (which I never minded), save a small lip around the OLED screen. The layout and typography are also clear and attractive. And they spelled "filter" correctly this time. ;-)

P12 has an integrated power supply with a standard IEC cable - no wall wart.

Keybed feels different than the Poly Evolver - stiffer, and the keys are flatter. This may just be a function of age. I'm not a particularly skilled piano player, so key feel isn't something I have much opinion about.

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

Also has the same kind of position + pressure sliders the Tempest has. These are fun, and far more useful for performance than the standard wheels.

The OLED screen is bright and legible without being overpowering.

Interface
DSI takes a logical and clean approach. The synth interface is clear, easy to use and learn, deep, and most importantly, fast.

The bottom "half" of the 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.

DSI has mentioned this before, but the new modulation path assignment method is great, and I expect lots of people will agree:
  • HOLD "Assign Mod Source" button
    Turn knob for Mod Source
    HOLD "Assign Mod Destination" button
    Turn knob for Mod Destination
    Set amount using "Amount" knob or soft knob on mod screen (which pops up as soon as you start doing this)
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).

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

Sound and Architecture
The oscillators are all-new, and all-DSP-based. They 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 a Square, it gives you 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 actually pick 3 different shapes - a "Left", a "Center", and a "Right". You can then modulate across the 3, and they will smoothly transition.

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 PPG, but on the plus side, you're not limited to PPG's wavetables. On the minus side, these aren't as big/diverse as PPG's wavetables. It also lets you easily get 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.)

It's got Frequency Modulation (FM), but it's Evolver's analog-style exponential FM, not DX7-style linear FM.

P12 has a relatively simple but powerful 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 DX-ish 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. The net result is a very flexible FM synth, that can easily produce some beautiful/crazy digital-but-alive sounds.

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

Hard sync, too, which works in the same O4 → O3 → O2 → O1 fashion.

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.

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.

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

The "Character" section is unique. DSI offers decimation (sample-rate reduction) and bit depth reduction ("Hack") to make the synth sound extremely digital and lo-fi. There's a soft saturation "Drive" parameter. "Girth" and "Air" are smart EQ - bass and treble, respectively.

You can modulate all of that.

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) [The delay has been upgraded and now includes a resonant lowpass digital filter!]
So for all of that, 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).

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.

Given the preset's unwritable/unchangeable nature, I would have expected more basic, usable sounds, and a 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 they don't typically use the controllers the same way when they do use them.

[The presets have since been updated. Many of the new ones are better.]]

A minor annoyance was the lack of a "basic patch" from which to start, especially given the reserving of a few slots for things like "LPF test" and "HPF test" [DSI have a shortcut for loading their basic patch - press LATCH 1 and HOLD.]

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.

Relatively weak stereo implementation.
Evolver has oscillators hard-wired left and right, which allows for some great stereo sounds and tricks. Prophet treats each of its huge voices as monophonic. You can't pan individual oscillators, or even specify voice panning for a patch.

The best you can do is to pan individual notes in the stereo field using a "spread" parameter or some other modulation sources. I suppose you could also hook up both sets of outputs and use a mixer to pan different patches in a program. Given the massive options for internal routing of modulation, I'm surprised more effort wasn't put into the mixer portion of the synth to enable some of this. Then again, perhaps most people don't care.

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 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 many users will have a hard time at first.

I am happy to upload MP3 demonstrations of whatever you like, or clarify anything - just ask here, I'll try to get to it.
Last edited by Jinsai on Sat Feb 07, 2015 5:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by synthroom » Sun Jun 30, 2013 2:23 am

Thanks for that! I'love to hear some demos.
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by ColorForm2113 » Sun Jun 30, 2013 1:42 pm

Thanks for the review! thats what i was hoping to hear. as far as demos, id love to hear some dx7-ish fm stuff and some super analogy strings and brass. thanks
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by philip » Sun Jun 30, 2013 3:04 pm

demo please

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Jinsai » Mon Jul 01, 2013 4:59 am

As requested, some very simple demonstrations of wave shapes with sweeping/modulation, FM synthesis, and a "warm analog bass".

http://alonetone.com/anu/playlists/prop ... nstrations

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Bitexion » Mon Jul 01, 2013 6:38 am

I liked the wavetablish sweeps, even though they're not as long as the PPG/Waldorf ones.
Is it so you just pick one for one oscillator, another for DCO2 and a 3rd for DCO3 and sweep between them smoothly?
Or are there actual wavetables with several waveforms lined up in series and you sweep through those?

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Jinsai » Mon Jul 01, 2013 1:31 pm

For EACH oscillator, you can pick the "main" wave shape, plus a "left" and a '"right" shape. When the shape parameter is greater than zero, it starts morphing to the right shape. At 127, it's all right shape. When the shape parameter is less than zero, it starts morphing to the left shape. At 127, it's all left shape.

So you can pick 3 shapes per oscillator. It's sort of like "build your own wave table".
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by ColorForm2113 » Mon Jul 01, 2013 3:06 pm

thanks for the demo, im really jonesing to get my hands on one now. love the idea of the build your own wavetable, too. thats brilliant
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by droolmaster0 » Mon Jul 01, 2013 4:20 pm

Jinsai wrote: So what's not to like?
Well, I have a few criticisms so far, but they are minor:

...
A minor annoyance was the lack of a "basic patch" from which to start, especially given the reserving of a few slots for things like "LPF test" and "HPF test"
It takes but a few seconds to go into the global menu and initialize a program. This is probably faster than having a basic patch that you have to choose from...
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.
I can see how people can get hung up on presets, but really, if you're really into exploring soundscapes (or substitute your own term) with this instrument, you don't want any of these silly presets anyway.

...
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.
I'd say that the closest comparison to the 'feel' of the p12 has actually been another Waldorf synth, the Q. While they actually made a much more expensive version (the Q+) with analog filters, I always found that the analog filters there were actually detrimental to the overall sonic concept. While the Q sounds very different, I personally find that the overall quality is certainly comparable with the p12, and in some ways I think that it hits a lot harder, and is probably better for making very extreme sounds. However, to my mind, where the p12 dramatically exceeds it is in the interface. The overall experience of editing the p12 is really extremely good. It might be, in my experience, the best UI on a complex synth that I've ever encountered, with the possible exception of the xpander/matrix 12 or possibly ob-mx. And the fx are much more helpful on the p12.
Moog Voyager is the only thing that remotely approaches Prophet 12's quality or cachet, but you get ONE voice.
? Really? If you're going to bring in analog monosynths, there are certainly others. One example is the cwejman s1m2. I recently picked up a Knas Polygamist, and I'm quite thrilled with that....there is something to a synth that focuses on non-traditional sonic explorations, rather than traditional synth cliches.

....
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 many users will have a hard time at first.
It's totally a pro if the user interface is easy and intuitive, unless one is comparing to a 'one knob per function' type analog synth, but obviously this is something very different in concept.

But yes - the interface here is much better than that of the Evolver. I like the Evolver, but the desktop interface is rather awkward, and I really didn't like the interface on the mek. The polyevolver, well, I won't touch that because of the ridiculous implementation of the multimode.....

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Jinsai » Mon Jul 01, 2013 4:26 pm

PYM (the guy who does all the software for DSI) posted on another site that there is a shortcut to create a basic patch: Latch 1 button + HOLD in the arpeggiator section. He's fond of these kinds of undocumented shortcuts.
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by droolmaster0 » Mon Jul 01, 2013 4:30 pm

Jinsai wrote:PYM (the guy who does all the software for DSI) posted on another site that there is a shortcut to create a basic patch: Latch 1 button + HOLD in the arpeggiator section. He's fond of these kinds of undocumented shortcuts.
I see no advantage to 'undocumenting' features that are quite helpful.

I just tried this, and it works. Excellent. Don't look for a 'hold' button in the arpeggiator section though. He is referring to the main hold button ....

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Bitexion » Mon Jul 01, 2013 5:01 pm

Shame that you can't find out about those undocumented shortcuts without asking the actual developer.

Every synth made these days should at least feature an "init sound" button or easily accessible menu. One of the first things I found on the Jupiter-80 I played was the "init patch" button in the menu.

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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by Jinsai » Wed Jul 03, 2013 6:09 am

To clarify a few things:
- Regarding the basic patch trick, I consider this a bonus feature, rather than an essential. It only took me a few minutes to set up the basic patch the way I like, and it helped me learn all the parameters.

- I agree these things should be documented. Usually they do get around to listing some of these shortcuts eventually. I wonder what else is lurking in there.

In case I wasn't clear, this synth is fantastic.
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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by matia » Wed Jul 10, 2013 2:10 am

I wanted to add to this thread. These are some of the factory patches I submitted to DSI. Great review btw!


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Re: Prophet 12 new user review

Post by dubold » Thu Jul 11, 2013 6:04 pm

Thanks for the review. Some good info in this thread, much appreciated.

Now to find $3000....

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