Effects and Sound Design

Prophet Rev2 II

What I’ve noticed in listening to many Prophet Rev2 demonstrations is just what should be expected – that Rev2 patches are likely to use the onboard effects as important elements in the programs.  This obviously wasn’t possible with the Prophet ’08.

I normally design a sound with a bit of reverb, but basically dry.  More substantial amounts of effects may be added later to enhance the sound, but the effects are seldom absolutely needed.  This is the case even when I’m using the Poly Evolver Keyboard, which has onboard delay that can naturally be used to create a chorus effect as well.  But most importantly, the effects are only enhancements.  The programs themselves must be strong enough to stand on their own, unenhanced.

This was a major issue of debate when the Behringer Deepmind 12 first appeared.  A common complaint was that its sounds seemed always to be effects-saturated.  Hence, you couldn’t get a sense of the instrument’s quality, which became a legitimate cause of suspicion.

The Rev2 has a superb quality of sound, so that there’s no need to hide it under a thick deceptive blanket of effects.  It is, after all, a Prophet ’08-plus.  Still, onboard effects do have their…effect…on programming.  They can tempt a synthesist to stop short of perfecting a patch, to quit early the tedious work of designing a patch to its end, with all of its subtle nuances, since everything sounds fabulous when awash in reverb, delay, and stereo chorus.  Even a broken kazoo would sound rich and sonorous with the right amount of effects!  But when a synthesist leans too heavily on such enhancements, then his or her finished sounds can amount to effects themselves.  And that – most importantly – tends to lead to something less than fine musical compositions, and more likely to monotonous synthesizer demonstrations.

The Prophet ’08, in its relative simplicity, didn’t naturally allow for this sort of tangential programming, but encouraged a good discipline in sound design: namely, first complete and perfect the sound, and only then, add some effects to enhance it.  Perhaps this is one reason there are so many musical demonstrations of the Prophet ’08 online, and that it has seldom been used as a caustic noise gadget.

There’s beauty in simplicity.

Searching the Evolver’s Digital Wave shapes

Evolver Wave Shapes

One of the challenges of using a Poly Evolver Keyboard is that it is an immense musical machine with a potential that can easily be overlooked.  This is especially true regarding the 96 digital wave shapes.  How on earth do you explore the whole lot of them and come to understand the musical value of each?  Randomly and haphazardly?  But this will certainly miss much or most of the power that lurks below that blue panel.

Because I’m very much centered on the fundamentals of synthesis – rather than such non-essentials as “Hack,” “Distortion,” and so on – the oscillators are one area where I spend much of my Evolver designing time.  So, I’ve devised a method of exploring those oscillators that works well for me.  First, I decide which category of sound I’m interested in designing.  Will it be an ethereal pad type, a percussive piano/harpsichord/bell type, a sustained organ type, an instrument imitation type (such as flute or oboe), or some other type?  I generally choose only one sound category per session, since the whole effort is rather time-consuming.  Once I’ve decided on a category, I then set up the envelopes and filter to match it.  I like the 2-pole filter setting for choir, strings, and all sorts of pads, so that has to be considered as well, as does the setting of Keyboard Amount, which is essential to choir type sounds and many others.  For the sake of making the search somewhat thorough, I also program the modulation wheel to open the filter so that I can easily and quickly hear the patch at different timbral settings.  This is important, since the filter has remarkable effects on some of the digital wave shapes that I don’t want to miss.  Next is the LFO modulation; I’ll usually add a bit of vibrato and possibly a slight and slow sweep of the filter.  If I’m exploring melodic type monophonic sounds, then I’ll usually add a delayed vibrato with the third envelope.  As a last touch – presuming that the digital oscillators will need a little reinforcing – I’ll add two analog triangle wave forms at about half the volume of the digital wave shapes.  This adds a bit of transparent warmth and depth, without at all obscuring the unique characteristics of each digital wave shape.  Finally, I’ll add a moderate amount of reverb.

After I’ve designed a generic sort of setting according to a sound category, I’ll then slowly Evolver Digital Wave Shapes IIdial through each of the 96 digital wave shapes, taking the time to play each one for perhaps several minutes in order to find its strengths and weaknesses.  This has to be done with great care and thoroughness, and it can easily go on for two hours.  Some patches will be gorgeous almost from the first try, but only within a narrow range, due to digital aliasing.  Others will demand much more fine designing in order to discover their potential.  The challenge is to search and find in a methodical way the right combination of elements that will present you – alas, after perhaps a long night – with a patch worthy of a piece of music.

This method has served me well for several years.
It’s time-consuming alright, but the effort is worthwhile because it’s thorough.  Best of all, it prevents me from missing the many musical gems hidden in that big blue blinking monster.

Imitation for Poly Evolver Keyboard

A short improvisation using the style of “imitation” – repeating a melodic theme at different pitches and with variations. The highest development of imitation is a Fugue.

The piece was played on one keyboard – the eight-voice Poly Evolver; no bass pedals were used.

The patch uses a distinctive digital wave shape which is happily typical of the Evolvers. It is slightly raspy, due to the use of Audio Modulation, which adds to an otherwise transparent sound a greater definition of pitch. Otherwise, the lower notes seem to consist almost entirely of partials, with no apparent fundamental. The original wave shape (minus the Audio Modulation) has an ice cold crystal blue quality. Hence, the color of the instrument itself seems to be most fitting.

The picture was taken after a long night in the music room. The late hours allow for uninterrupted concentration unlike any other part of the day, as every artist appreciates.


DSI Poly Evolver Keyboard
DSI Poly Evolver Rack

Lexicon MX300

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


Prophet ’08 Resources

Prophet '08 KeyboardThe following are various useful Prophet ’08 resources:

1) Prophet ’08 Facebook page:

2) Soundtower:

3) Custom Dust Covers

4) Kryptonite Cases:

5) DocTs:

6) 2008 NAMM Introduction:

7) Sonic State Review:

8) Up-Close Photos of the Earlier DSI Products:

9) The official Dave Smith Instruments Forum

The Official DSI Prophet ’08 Case (which doubled as a case for the Mono Evolver Keyboard; hence, the insert):

Prophet 08 Case

Prophet ’08 Soft Strings

I’ve been focusing on the Poly Evolvers for a full nine months now, with the exception of a number of Prophet 12 improvisations. I deliberately did so while the new Prophet Rev2 fervor was at its height, and now that it’s slowly passing, I thought I’d return to its predecessor, Prophet ’08. But a comment on that.

One of the predictable reactions that follows the release of a revision of an instrument is the public trashing of the older version by the enthusiasts of the revision. Suddenly, after years of popularity and praise, the original version is considered a heap of shortcomings. It was almost impossible to make decent music with it – so limited was it and crippled with problems – so that it now deserves an ongoing public flogging. I knew, once the Rev2 was released, that the Prophet ’08 would receive this sort of mistreatment. Well, I can only praise the Rev2, but I can also only praise the old Prophet ’08. It won’t be trashed here. The Prophet ’08 is, and remains, a magnificent synthesizer, even if a “new and improved” version is now available. In a word, it is a modern classic.

Oh yes, I intend to buy one or more Rev2’s myself, because that would be the natural progression for a Prophet ’08 enthusiast. It would be to get a Prophet ’08-plus. But the existence of the revised version in no way discredits the original; rather, it simply builds on it. And it would manifest an utter lack of talent if one could not produce beautiful music with the original simpler version of the instrument. Enough for now.

Somewhat in imitation of the “Soft Strings” piece I did on the Prophet 12, I thought I’d begin with the Prophet ’08’s version of the same patch. This sound uses the usual Keyboard-Module pairing and panning at the mixer for stereo breadth and depth. Only one keyboard was used, and every note is Prophet ’08 except the bass, which is, as usual, the Evolver Desktop controlled by the Hammond Pedalboard. My intention with this improvisation and patch was to achieve the delicate and the gentle.

By the way, the photographs used throughout this channel were all taken by my beloved wife. These are the glorious local places that we weekly walk or hike in western Massachusetts. The present picture was taken just this afternoon, on a humid drizzly Columbus Day, as the last remnants of the exhausted hurricane “Nate” passed through the area.  I think it wonderfully captures the mood of a drizzly Autumn afternoon in southern New England.

DSI Prophet ’08 Keyboard
DSI Prophet ’08 Module

DSI Evolver Desktop
Hammond XPK 200L Pedalboard

External Effects:
Lexicon MX300 for reverb

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