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The Prophet 5 was an instant hit in the synth world when it was first released in 1978 by none other than Dave Smith, the founder of Sequential Circuits.
One of the worlds first fully programmable polyphonic analog synths, the Prophet 5 pushed the boundaries far and wide, not only in the sound capabilities, but this synth was aesthetically pleasing as well with its wooden exterior.
Sequential’s series of Prophet synthesizers produced superb analog sounds and the Prophet 5 was the leading design, a trailblazing synth that was synonymous with 1980s music.
What makes the Prophet 5 such an iconic synthesizer?
The Prophet 5, also widely known as the P5 and Prophet V, sold over 6,000 units between the years of 1978 and 1984, making it one of the most popular analog polyphonic synthesizers ever made. Other well-known synths such as the Memorymoog and Roland Jupiter-8 were left trailing behind.
The P5 was expertly designed with many features and effects, the instant popularity shows just how well this synth was built when it was first introduced to the public back in the late 1970s. The analog sound engine with its five voice polyphony is where the real power of the P5 lies.
Each of the five voices comes with two VCOs, both capable of producing square and sawtooth soundwaves, with the second VCO also bringing a triangle waveform to the table. You also have a white noise option that can be mixed in with the low-pass VCF (voltage-controlled filter).
The filter can be used to adjust the tone of the voices via its own envelope generator, and it can also resonate and act as an individual sound source. A VCA (voltage controlled amplifier) is next in the signal path and will shape each of the voices amplitude via its dedicated envelope.
The POLY-MOD feature is embedded within each of the five voices signal paths, adding to the original voice sounds and opening up the modulation options on the first oscillator via the second oscillator and the filter’s envelope generator.
You also have one LFO (low-frequency oscillator) and a pink noise source to add to the wide range of modulation options on the five voices, these can both be adjusted via the MOD wheel. Further features of the P5 include a Unison mode which, when activated, gives you a total of 10 VCOs, resulting in some seriously big sounds. A Glide option is also available, although this only operates whilst you are in Unison mode.
A Tune function is present and it’s a necessary feature with the analog polyphonic nature of the P5 synth, you’ll find that the voice tunings will start to drop after around 20 minutes, the Tune function will soon correct this and a simple button tap will auto-tune everything back to normal.
The P5 comes with patch storage as well with 40 memory banks available, it also memorizes all of the knob settings for quick and easy sound recall. This feature was unheard of back in the 1970s and was highly welcomed by producers and it paved the way for other synth designs.
Why did the Prophet 5 become an instant hit?
The sound potential from the Prophet 5 has always been a big selling point. That true vintage analog sound is hard to find nowadays. Sure, you can find software emulators, but they never match up to the true sound and playing experience, but it wasn’t just the sound that caught the public eye.
The look of the P5 is simply beautiful and there is a certain nod towards the Minimoog’s design. Most synthesizers back then were big and clunky, they were powerful instruments but their designers never really cared much for the visual side of things. The P5 changed that overnight.
The natural wooden casing is what first catches your eye, giving the P5 that sleek and sophisticated look. The two mod wheels on the left of the keyboard and the intuitive interface layout across the top all add up to the making of a classic synthesizer.
In terms of the sound and internal design of the P5, it was again very innovative and was often described as the digital-analog hybrid. An on-board microcomputer is designed to act as a hub and receives data from the keyboard and controls, which it then uses to program the voices.
The microcomputer looks after three main functions. The first is to manage the five sets of control voltages and gate signals from the keyboard. The second is to provide storage for the memory settings and the third function is to keep all of the oscillators in tune.
The P5 is capable of producing some impressive sounds from punchy bass to sweeping pads and strings. Many professional artists jumped on board and used the P5 to great effect, artists and bands such as Phil Collins, Pink Floyd, and even Dr.Dre put the P5 through its paces!
Although the P5 was an instant hit with musicians and the public, it did go through several model designs from the original Rev 1 (which were assembled in a garage) through to the Rev 3. Each new model came with increased memory, micro-tuning and the capability of being able to take a MIDI retrofit.
The connections are plentiful and offered up CV/Gate IN for one voice, CV/Gate OUT, CV IN for the VCF and VCA, and CASSETTE IN/OUT. You also have a connection for a release pedal, spare jacks for a remote keyboard and the possibility for MIDI, as mentioned, on later models.
The Prophet 5 from Sequential Circuits is firmly placed in the synthesizer hall of fame.
The mix of analog polyphony sound capabilities, the sophisticated looks, the intuitive layout, the P5 ticks off all of the required characteristics that make a classic synth.
The issue with tuning is a problem for some, but in all honesty, isn’t that where the beauty lies in music? A slight case of unpredictability brings a natural charm to music so don’t let those comments discourage you.
The P5 paved the way for programmable polyphonic synths and is considered the perfect example of analog synth design.
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