Blast from the past: Sequential Circuits Prophet VS

Today's musicians take features like sampled waveforms and X/Y pads for granted, but there was a time when they were cutting edge

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6dqqaUXXH0

Image courtesy of Perfect Circuit Audio

With the recent announcement that Dave Smith, the man behind Sequential Circuits, has reacquired the Sequential name, we're reminded of the company's contributions to music technology.

Perhaps their most well-known release was the seminal Prophet-5, the programmable polysynth that put Sequential on the map back in the 1970s - but it wasn't the only innovative instrument to trundle out of their factory.

The company was also responsible for the very first MIDI synth (Prophet-600), a brilliant monosynth (the Pro-One), one of the first multitimbral instruments (the Six-Trak), and a super-cool drum machine/sampling workstation called the Studio 440 that predicted the later MPC series from Akai.

However, only the company's Prophet VS, released in 1986, would be held in anywhere near the same reverence as the beloved Prophet-5, and for good reason. Sequential's mid-80s products had been seen by some as cheap, and sales were not what they once were. The Prophet VS resurrected the Prophet name and attached it to a product as innovative and inspiring as had been the Prophet-5 so many years before.

The Prophet VS was a hybrid instrument. Like Ensoniq's ESQ-1 and the PPG Waves, the VS made use of sampled waveforms - 128 of them, to be precise - and fed them through an analogue filter and VCA section. What set this instrument apart were two very important factors. First, of the 128 waveforms, 96 were factory supplied. The remaining slots could be filled by the user using the then-new MIDI Sample Dump standard. More importantly, four waveforms were used for each sound, blended together using a joystick - the "vector" part of the process. To put the icing on the cake, the joystick path could be recorded, allowing the user to create patches with evolving waveforms for instant, interesting timbral variations.

That was only the beginning. The onboard filter was a classic four-pole Curtis design and was accompanied by a dedicated five-stage envelope generator. Dual LFOs also had their own envelopes. Further modulation was provided by an aftertouch and velocity capable keyboard, and if the keyboard itself was prone to failure, the arpeggiator was one of the coolest seen up to that point.

Such power did not go unnoticed, with the Prophet VS finding favour with the likes of horror movie maestro John Carpenter, David Sylvian (Gone to Earth) and Nine Inch Nails. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to resuscitate the company's coffers. Sequential would shut the doors only a year after its release, effectively stalling the new Prophet's innovations before they'd even had a chance - or so you'd think...

Yet a funny thing happened. Yamaha, who had just done a deal with Korg, snapped up the engineering team behind the VS, divided them up and put them to work. The technology behind the Prophet VS would be refined and re-introduced in 1990 in the form of Yamaha's SY22 and Korg's now-classic Wavestation. Like the latter, the Prophet VS has also since been virtualised so that it can be enjoyed by the modern desktop producer - and for far less than the cost of a second-hand VS!


Three great Prophet VS emulations

Arturia Prophet V

The masters of mimicry strike again. Arturia clone not only the Prophet VS, but the venerable Prophet-5 as well and sandwich them together in an interesting hybrid. All of the original 96 factory waveforms are here, as are the VS's extensive modulation options. Better still, you can mix and match the two Prophets for unique timbres.

FULL REVIEW: Arturia Prophet V

SmartElectronix Augur

If you're in a bind for cash, you can seek out Augur, a freeware clone of the Prophet VS. No longer being developed, it offers vector synthesis in the form of a virtual joystick along with a very nice modulation matrix. Smartelectronix no longer host it, but you can still get hold of it at the link below.

Download SmartElectronix Augur

UVI Vector Pro

Like Arturia, sample mavens UVI have combined the qualities of the Prophet VS with another synthesiser, this time the direct descendant of the Prophet VS, Yamaha's SY22. It's based on samples so requires quite a large amount of space (30GB), but you get 500+ patches to play with. It's nice to see the SY22 getting its due, too!

FULL REVIEW: UVI Vector Pro

Discover how to FINISH TRACKS FASTER…
…with the latest issue of Computer Music magazine!