Improvisation #80 for Prophet 12 and Poly Evolver Keyboard

A friend was kind enough to allow me to borrow a Prophet 12 for a few weeks. My main interest in trying out the instrument is to see whether or not it’s capable of filling the spot of a Poly Evolver Keyboard. So, this recording, and the next several recordings I suppose, will try to answer that question.

The improvisation uses a solo brass patch from the PEK, while the P12 provides a common sound in my music – that of a string patch having a swirling filter sweep in the 2-pole setting, the rate and depth being controlled by the LFO. The modulation wheel opens the cut off frequency for additional dynamic changes.

At first I didn’t care for the mono signal of the Prophet 12. That was to be expected. So, I followed my usual method and sent the two pair of signals from the instrument to the mixer, and then panned them to opposite sides. Alas, stereo! As usual, the instrument was instantly transformed. Of course, this method, which keeps the two layers stacked at all times, also reduces the instrument to six voices.

In my opinion, the Prophet 12 sounds excellent – much better than I had expected. I had anticipated disliking it, thinking it would be cold, shrill, sterile, and metallic in tone. By no means would I describe it in that way now. But…is it AS GOOD AS a Poly Evolver Keyboard? That’s the big question for now, and I’d be happy to hear your opinions in the comments section.

The picture is of the “Old Manse” in Concord, Massachusetts, once home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and later, Louisa May Alcott.

DSI Prophet 12
DSI Poly Evolver Keyboard
DSI Poly Evolver Rack

DSI Evolver Desktop
Hammond XPK 200L Pedalboard

Lexicon MX300

Performed live and recorded directly to a Tascam CD-RW900 Mk II.


Prophet ’08 Forte Piano Patch

I wrote this exercise specifically to demonstrate the forte piano patch. The entire piece was played on one keyboard.

Only one comment on the sound. There is obviously a fair amount of reverb added to the forte piano patch, but there is also a delay effect. However, the delay is not an offboard effect, but from the Prophet ’08’s filter envelope Delay parameter. This creates an echoed plucking quality that is very acoustic sounding. It’s fundamental to this patch.

I really like this sound. It has beautiful nuances to it, depending on the keyboard register and the filter cut off frequency setting, which is adjusted by the modulation wheel. I expect to be using it quite a bit in the future. And it may be a rarely appreciated fact, but early forte pianos generally had only a five-octave keyboard, just like the Prophet ’08. So there’s plenty of music to be made on this instrument and others its size, and no room for excuses that the keyboard is too short for making serious music. The 88-note piano is the exception in keyboard development, and it would be musically tragic to feel that good keyboard music required such a massive keyboard.

The wind is produced by the second P’08 Keyboard. The whooshing was created by two LFOs modulating the filter at different rates and depths – one with resonance and the other without it. The volume of the wind was adjusted while I played by a foot pedal to the right of the pedalboard. The sound fades out at the beginning, creeps back in here and there during the piece, and then appears again at the end and fades – all by use of the foot pedal.

Prophet ’08 Keyboard (2)
Prophet ’08 Module

Reverb from Lexicon MX300

Performed live and recorded directly to CD.


Evolver Resources

Evolver LineThe following are various useful Evolver resources:

1) Anu Kirk’s excellent Definitive Guide to the Evolver:

2) Carbon 111’s DSI Evolver Resource page:

3) DocT’s DSI Evolver pages (includes some Prophet ’08 material as well):

4) Wav2Evolver

5) For those interested in the history of the Evolvers (the Desktop version was first released in 2002), nothing is more informative than the old EX5 forum:

6) A bit of background from Wikipedia:

7) Dave Smith Instruments Tech Support page:

8) The official Dave Smith Instruments Forum:

9) DSI’s old website (lots of fascinating background information on the Evolver models):

How to calibrate the Poly Evolver Keyboard:

– Turn the mod wheel all the way off (down), and while also holding the pitch wheel off, hold down Reset and press 4 on the keypad.
– Return the pitch wheel to center, and hold Reset and press 5 on the keypad.
– Move the Mod wheel all the way on (up), and while also holding the pitch
wheel all the way on, hold Reset and press 6 on the keypad.
– Please note: There is no visual feedback that the calibration is occurring and the numbers—4, 5, and 6—will be entered just as if you are
changing programs. This is normal.
– If, after calibrating, the synth seems not to be tuned to concert pitch, calibrate the wheels again.

And now…the most gorgeous-looking synthesizer in the world:

Poly Evolver Keyboard

Evolver Memorabilia

The following are some fascinating images from ye olde Evolver days, when Dave Smith Instruments consisted only of Dave Smith and his Evolvers.  The second picture shows that the Evolver Keyboards were once considered the new Prophet 5 and Pro One.

I admit there’s a bit of personal nostalgia involved in posting these images.  But I wanted to preserve a bit of the past for those who have come only recently to discover DSI.  I have a special appreciation for their first generation of synthesizers, which I’ve used extensively since 2008.  They possess wonderful traits that are distinct from the company’s more recent instruments.  Both groups of instruments are superb, but there’s just something about those that have been nearly forgotten – an attractive mystique.


Poly Evolver Keyboard Advertisement III

Poly Evolver Keyboard Advertisement II

Evolvers Brochure


Improvisation 75 for Prophet ’08

As often happens when I sit to improvise, I start at the massive eight-voice Poly Evolver Keyboard with the intention of creating both a new patch and a new piece of music. The habitual presumption is that the greater the resources the greater the outcome. Then, at some point, I turn to the much simpler Prophet ’08 for a few chords or a little melody, and the next thing I know, I’m thoroughly engrossed with that instrument, both sonically and musically. This is what happened tonight, so here’s another piece of Prophet ’08 music.

I find two qualities constantly helpful in composing: simplicity and limitation. I find complexity terribly distracting to creativity, like trying to write the next line of a difficult poem in a messy cluttered room. So, I would never want the sort of instrument that “does it all.” As much as I love working with the fairly sophisticated Poly Evolver and its wide range of tones, I often prefer the simplicity and directness of the Prophet ’08. The limitations of its design help to get and keep me focused on music, rather than on other technical tangents. Limitation challenges the mind to work extra hard and doubly search and strive for beauty with a smaller set of resources; and in so exerting itself, the mind achieves a higher good, a nobler beauty.

This piece uses a complex pulse width modulation pad that includes four oscillators of pulse width, each being slowly modulated at different rates. Between the four oscillators and the two P’08 units, there is an immense amount of detuning, making for a rich if slightly nasal end result. And although the patch should come across as resembling a reed organ, because of the detuning, it sounds more string-like. As usual, the modulation wheel is set to open the filter.

The musical idea behind this piece is simply contrary stepwise motion – the keyboard lines descending, with the pedal lines often ascending, or vice versa.

DSI Prophet ’08 Keyboard
DSI Prophet ’08 Module
DSI Evolver Desktop
Hammond XPK 200L

Lexicon MX300 for reverb

Performed and recorded live and directly to CD


Evolver Digital Wave Shape Descriptions

Evolver LineHere is an invaluable list of the Evolver’s digital waveshapes, with abbreviated descriptions of each one.  I’ve gathered it together from two or three different sources.  Unfortunately, I’ve never found a key to each abbreviation.

As the Poly Evolver Keyboard manual says,

“Waveshapes 1-95 correspond to ROM (preset) Waveshapes 32–126 in the Prophet-VS. Waveshapes 97–128 are user programmable via the software editor. In the VS, the user waves were 0-31, and wave 127 was noise, which is not included because the Poly Evolver has a separate noise generator. Wave 96 has a Waveshape that is unique to Evolver in place of the VS noise. Wave 95 (126 on the VS) is a “blank” wave, which can give some options while sequencing waves. The Poly Evolver ships with waves 97–128 the same as 1-32.”

One interesting point.  The Evolvers derive their digital wave shapes from the old Sequential Prophet VS.  Apparently, the designer of these wave shapes used little “rhyme or reason,” but followed a random method, designing wave shapes that merely sounded interesting or appealing.  Although the VS manual did offer some brief descriptions, the following wave shape names are primarily someone else’s attempt to name them.  They are in no way official, nor the names given by Dave Smith himself.

1 Sine
2 Sawtooth
3 Square
4 WmBell
5 RdBell
6 R2Bell
7 W2Bell
8 FmtBell
9 FzReed
10 FmtAOh
11 FmtAhh
12 TriPlus
13 DisBel
14 Pulse 1
15 Pulse 2
16 Square Reed
17 Oohh
18 Eehh
19 FeedBack
20 Piano1
21 Electric Piano
22 M.Harm
23 HiTop
24 WmReed
25 3rd and 5th harmonics; fundamental absent
26 Hollow
27 Heavy 7th harmonics
28 BelOrg
29 BASSBELL (14th and 28th harmonics)
30 Tine1
31 PhSQR
32 Orient
33 HiPipe
34 Mass
35 ReedOrg
36 OrgAhh
37 MelOrg
38 FmtOrg
39 Clarinet
40 AhhFem
41 AhhHom
42 AhhBass
43 RegVox
44 VOCAL 1 (Detune oscs using either wave to bring out the vocal)
45 VOCAL 2 (Detune oscs using either wave to bring out the vocal)
46 HiAhh
47 Bass
48 Guitar
49 Nice
50 WoodWind
51 Oboe
52 Harp
53 Pipe
54 Hack1
55 Hack2
56 Hack3
57 Pinch
58 BellHrm
59 BellVox
60 Hi Harm
61 Hi Reed
62 BellReed
63 WmWhstl
64 Wood
65 Pure
66 Med Pure
67 HiHarm
68 FullBell
69 Bell
70 Pinch
71 Clustr
72 M.Pinch
73 VoxPnch
74 OrgPnch
75 AhhPnch
76 PnoOrg
77 BrReed
78 NoFund
79 ReedHrm
80 LiteFund
81 MelOrg
82 Bell Partials 1
83 Bell
84 Sawtooth 3rd and 5th
85 Sine 5ths (2 sines an octave and a 5th apart)
86 Sine 2 Octave (2 sines, 2 octaves apart)
87 Sine 4 Octave (2 sines, 4 Octaves apart)
88 Sawtooth 5ths (2 saws, an octave and a 5th apart)
89 Sawtooth 2 Octaves (2 saws, 2 octaves apart)
90 Square 5ths (2 squares, a 5th apart)
91 Square Octave+5th (2 squares, an octave and a 5th apart)
92 Square 2-Octaves (2 squares, 2 octaves apart)
94 Bell Partials 2
95 Null (Blank) Wave
96 ?
97-128 User Waves (same as 1-32 above)

The Sequential Prophet VS:

Prophet VS

Creating a Stereo Field with the Prophet ’08

Prophet '08 KeyboardI’ve tried my best to imitate the Poly Evolver Keyboard’s rich stereo ambiance on the Prophet ’08 Keyboard. It cannot be done by means of onboard panning (except to some degree with monophonic patches), because this is only an effect added to a patch.  It creates, not a sense of width and depth, but only an unnatural jumping around of notes. If it’s at all possible, it would have to be achieved by a setting that affects the entire instrument, as is the case with the PEK.

The best way to achieve deep stereo on the Prophet ’08 is by means of the two pair of audio outputs on the back panel – “Main” and “Output B.” Using Output B will automatically separate layer A from layer B, so that each one is sent to a separate channel. Then, pan on your audio mixer each of the two channels to separate sides. In theory, this achieves the desired end: when in Stack Mode, one layer will go to the right channel and the other layer will go to the left channel.  And most importantly,notes will stay on either the right or left side, rather than modulate back and forth.

However, it’s not nearly so simple or effective as the Evolver’s in-built stereo. First, if the Prophet ’08 is in Stack Mode, then it’s obviously reduced to a four-voice instrument, and one that is strangely more clumsy then the PEK. Second, activating Output B terribly alters your original patches, so that they sound quite different. The main problem is that this setting upsets the volumes or balance of each layer, so that one dominates the other, and at times even produces distortion. And third, the same happens if you’re using external stereo effects, such as reverb or delay. In other words, to use both pair of outputs in order to achieve a stereo effect is to unleash stereo chaos on your patches.

The obvious solution is to create entirely new patches specifically designed to meet the arrangement of Layer A and Layer B sounding in different channels. The problem is, this setting also requires panning on your audio mixer. It’s only too easy to forget about this when intending to switch back to the normal Prophet ’08 mode.

The bottom line is, deep stereo cannot be easily achieved on the Prophet ’08, certainly not as it is on the Poly Evolver Keyboard with the simple turn of a single “Output Pan” parameter. In fact, it seems as if the Prophet ’08’s Output B option was not actually meant to imitate this deep stereo ambient sound, but rather – as the manual says – to enable you “to process the two layers separately.”  The Prophet ’08 is a mono synthesizer with stereo panning, and that’s just the way it is.

The most effective (and expensive) way to achieve ambient stereo on the Prophet ’08 is to Midi connect – not poly chain – a keyboard and a module, and then pan on your audio mixer each instrument’s channel to a different side. This simplifies matters immensely and allows you both to leave the Prophet ’08 output arrangement and the mixer in a normal setting.  And the result is a beautiful stereo depth akin to that of the Poly Evolver Keyboard.

Organ Trio Meditation for Poly Evolver Keyboard

This is a free improvisation using a standard church organ registration and style. “Organ Trio” means that three parts are played – one line in the bass, one line of accompaniment in the left hand, and one line of solo in the right. (This piece is not a perfect trio, since I occasionally used two voices in the left hand while playing the bass and solo.) The three parts are registrated in such a way that they sound very clear and distinct from each other, as is the ideal with counterpoint. The organ trio is an easy way to fill a few liturgical moments.

I was very happy with the Evolver on this one. The solo reed sound – a combination of two different digital waveshapes plus two soft analog triangles for added depth – is just perfect for the part. It sounds quite similar to the actual reed stop on a pipe organ.

Pardon the fact that the solo stop is a bit flat in tuning. I don’t know how that got past me. I guess it’s time to get the Evolver’s pipes tuned!

DSI Poly Evolver Keyboard (2)
DSI Poly Evolver Rack
DSI Evolver Desktop
Hammond XPK 200L

Lexicon MX300

Performed live and recorded directly to CD


The Prophet ’08 Compared with the Poly Evolver Keyboard

Poly Evolver KeyboardIt’s inevitable that, sooner or later, someone would make a comparison between the two main lines of DSI synthesizers. Let’s face it: the Evolvers are on one side and the Prophet ’08 and the other little instruments derived from it are on the other. I’m always debating within myself the vices and virtues of each line, so this morning I put one against the other – the P08 against the MEK – each with identical monophonic patches. For my test, I didn’t use the Evolver’s digital oscillators.

My only authority was my musical ear, and I only compared those aspects of the instruments that musically matter to me.  This is not a technical comparison, but one based merely on general impressions.  That’s my disclaimer.

The obvious differences between the two instruments are objective enough: the envelope times of the Evolver are perhaps double that of the Prophet. You can walk away from the Evolver and leave it singing for a good while; the Prophet can’t come close to this. But the Prophet has a crisper filter, and brass-type settings have more of a snap, while the Evolver is looser, with notes slightly running into each other, in spite of a short release time.  This is true also for sounds with instant attacks: the Prophet’s zero time seems more immediate and exacting, whereas the Evolver has a slight pluck to it.  In other words, regardless of the setting, the envelopes of the two instruments behave differently.

The resonance also differs on each instrument, with the Prophet sounding a bit richer, especially when the filter is wide open.

The LFO’s on the Evolver increase by smaller increments, so that you can introduce a subtle vibrato. The Prophet fails in this area, because the smallest LFO amount is already too deep. However, adding a delayed vibrato from the third envelope reverses the situation, in that the Evolver’s increases by too much even from the first increment.

The Prophet’s keyboard touch sensitivity is finer and more responsive to subtle pressure, whereas the Evolver’s keyboard responds more like an on/off switch. It’s difficult to gradually introduce a subtle amount of vibrato with pressure. I had to keep the LFO amount set to only “1,” so as to avoid amusical amounts of modulation from suddenly appearing. Yet even with this, it was difficult to very slowly increase the modulation depth.

Interestingly, I would consider the Prophet ’08 to be a finer monophonic instrument than the Mono Evolver Keyboard, except for that obnoxious clicking that sounds primarily when the P08 is in unison mode and you’re using pulse width modulation and no glide. But otherwise, the P08 in mono is quite nice, especially with its roomy five octave keyboard, which I would say is the highest quality keyboard on any DSI synthesizer so far. With only a few minor improvements, then, the P08 would make a superb full-time mono synth, especially considering that the stack mode gives you four analog oscillators with which to work – just like the MEK. Contrary to this, I find myself running out of keys on the MEK. Oh, for a low B flat! Three octaves is just too few.

The real test for me, though, came down to a classic synthesizer sound – very basic and very revealing: two sawtooths closely tuned to each other with a moderately bright filter setting, medium attack time and short release time, and vibrato provided by the modulation wheel and keyboard pressure. I programmed each instrument with the exact same patch and compared the two overall characters. The truth is, I could hardly tell them apart. I had expected the Prophet ’08 to sound substantially richer than the Evolver, but it didn’t. The Evolver matched it almost perfectly. In fact, I could detect ever so slightly a lower frequecy that added a faint rounded mellowness to the Evolver sawtooth. It was as if a soft triangle waveform had been added, or perhaps a sawtooth-triangle combination. This is where I’d like to have verified on an oscilloscope what my ear told me. Are the two instruments really identical in their waveforms?  No, and I’m suppose it comes down to a matter of A/D-D/A converters on the Evolver.

Although there’s no doubt that the Evolvers can far surpass the Prophet ’08 and its descendents in sonic versatility, in the end, the Prophet ’08 comes out the finer musical instrument., in my opinion. The two DSI lines compliment each other well, in that they sound very much alike but excel in different areas.

I had lazily held to the much-repeated opinion that the Evolvers are digital-thin, compared with the Prophet ’08. Well, I put this presumption to the test – kneeling down in front of the speakers and listening from different angles – and found the presumption to be wrong. After my sawtooth test, I could not call one instrument thick and the other thin. They were substantially equal. I suspect that the supposed thinness of the Evolver sound comes from the digital oscillators’ influence on the analog oscillators, and perhaps on the Evolver resonance as well. The resonance issue may be key. I suspect also that the Evolver filter, when opened wide, is somewhat sterile sounding, compared with the Prophet ’08. But in many filter settings, the two instruments are like twins.

Using the Prophet ’08 as a Monophonic Synthesizer

Prophet '08 KeyboardI try to stretch my synthesizers in order to get the most out of them.  Rather than many, I’d rather have only a few that are well-used.  Since I’ve long been searching for a professional analog monophonic synthesizer and still haven’t found the right one, I’ve experimented quite a bit with the Prophet ’08’s monophonic side. For one, the P’08 offers the ideal keyboard size – a full five octaves. There’s no need ever to hit an octave button when you run out of keys, as you constantly need to do to transpose a melody beyond the range of the typical three or three-and-a-half octave keyboard. You’ll simply never run out of room on the P’08 keyboard, so that problem is solved once and for all. In addition, the “Split Mode” essentially allows you to have two independent mono synths ready to play, without having to switch between keyboards or hit program buttons to change sounds. This is a tremendous advantage over the usual one-sound-per-instrument arrangement, and it also cleverly adds to the total number of programs you have available.

The biggest problem in using the Prophet ’08 as a monophonic synthesizer is due to an actual flaw in the instrument: in the unison mode, it makes a nasty “click” sound in between notes when played in a legato style. This is especially true when using pulse width modulation. Recent operating system updates have improved this problem, but it still requires a bit of finessing in order to entirely hide it.  If I remember correctly, older analog synthesizers did the same.  I’m sure I remember this same “click” issue from when I had an Arp Axxe and Odyssey, almost a thousand years ago.

This problem annoyed me for a while, so that I had given up on the Prophet 08’s monophonic abilities. But I finally figured out a way around it. Nothing brilliant here, I realize, but I thought I’d mention it for others who may not have entirely resolved the problem or who are using an older operating system (A later OS somewhat improved the issue.).

First, when using “Unison Mode,” select only the “1 Voice” setting; avoid the “All Voices” settings if you can. Second, when using pulse width modulation, leave the “Key Sync” button off, so that the pulse width isn’t retriggered every time you strike a note. These two techniques alone eliminate much of the clicking problem. If you want to improve the sound even more, then add an amount of glide, extend the attack time, and shorten the release time.  These last two settings will avoid notes from running into each other.

The final touch that will almost entirely eliminate the clicking sound is only possible when the music allows for it: a detached playing technique.  Certain patches require this anyway, such as when you want to articulate notes somewhat like a violinist.  A slower attack and a complete cessation of sound before the next note strike will ultimately resolve the problem.  To compensate for an overly brief release time, add a generous amount of reverb; it smoothen out the musical lines and keep the melodies from sounding overly detached.

I’ve found the monophonic sound produced by this setting to be happily satisfactory, allowing the Prophet ’08 to double as an excellent monophonic synthesizer.