Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000
More money means Mirage-mangling, maybe? Tony Mills sizes up the latest sampling supersynth
Fresh from a holiday in the sun and two weeks away from musical instruments (and indeed from musicians) of all kinds, what should Mills find on his return but a bleeding great synthesizer bristling with knobs, switches and floppy disc drives. Nothing like plunging backin at the deep end though, and so it is with great pleasure that we present to you father of MAX and grandfather of TOM, the Prophet 2000.
Now before you all fight your way to the front, we can get one question out of the way very rapidly. How does the 2000 compare to the Ensoniq Mirage? The Mirage sets a new standard in affordable polyphonic sampling, and it's quite astonishing in the absence of any information about custom chips or new design techniques that Sequential could have come anywhere near it price wise.
In fact the new Prophet looks set to overshoot the psychological £2000 mark, which is a shame. Obviously it's going to cost a little more than the Mirage since its control layout is more luxurious and its weighted keyboard must cost a pretty penny, but there are cost advantages to the Prophet too; the first of these is that it formats its own minidiscs, which you can obtain from computer shops at about £50 per box often. This contrasts sharply with the Mirage's method of using only discs pre-formatted by the manufacturer at around £14 each; so while the Mirage is relatively expensive to run, the Prophet is fairly cheap.
The disc storage capacity is also different, which seems odd since exactly the same discs are used. The Mirage will fit three sampled sounds and nine synthesizer-modified versions onto a disc; the Prophet, as we understand it, will put up to 24 sounds in two sets of twelve on a disc (depending on what type of sounds you store), but it isn't storing sequences as the Mirage has to.
If you insist on some conclusions before reading the whole article, they would be that the Prophet has some facilities that the Mirage lacks, misses a few others, is easier to use and has slightly better sampling quality and capacity but is more expensive. However, let's look at the Prophet's facilities in a little more detail, and get back to the comparisons with the opposition later.
As we mentioned, the Prophet has a five-octave keyboard which is in fact manufactured by Panasonic in Japan. It's similar to the types found on some JVC machines and only slightly less similar to the keyboard of the Roland JX8P. Like the JX8P keyboard it's weighted to give a piano-style action, but this is partly offset by the fact that the keys have a very short travel — there's not really a lot of movement available if you want to slowly dig into a string sound, for instance.
To the left of the keyboard are conventional pitch and modulation wheels; the pitch wheel is sprung, and the modulation wheel is 'intelligent' in that it will set itself to zero effect when the 2000 is switched on whatever position it's in fact left at. No more starting the first number of the set to find you've got four octaves of vibrato on your sounds; and on top of that, the pitch bend range and modulation type is programmable for every sound.
The rest of the 2000's front panel consists of three 1950s-ish rotary knobs for data entry, volume and lower/upper balance, four individual touch membrane switches, and a column of four and a row of sixteen membrane switches to provide all sampling and editing functions.
Four down and sixteen across provides you with a grand total of 64 functions which occupy one little square each on the front panel. Don't try pushing the function labels like I did — they're not buttons, so you won't succeed in doing anything except making yourself look silly. The four vertical buttons are for Preset mode, Sample mode and two banks of functions, which we'll go into shortly.
Let's suppose you've just bought a Prophet 2000 and are clutching the pawn ticket for the wife in your right hand. This leaves your left hand free to turn on the power, at which stage you'll see a lot of flashing lights and find yourself in Preset Mode. The first twelve of the lower switches then relate to twelve ROM memories which hold analogue sounds. These sounds can be edited and stored to disc, but they'll always be there in their original form when you switch on. The sounds are Rhodes piano, organ, brass, strings and so on — fairly conventional polysynth effects with a touch of the digital about them which probably derives from their use of velocity sensitivity. Nothing special, but nice to know that at least you have some sort of noise always available — pity they aren't samples though.
As mentioned earlier, the other emergency backup is the fact that any disc in the drive will load automatically on power-up. Alternatively you can do this after listening to the ROM sounds by selecting LOAD (the last of the bottom switches) and pressing EXECUTE (one of the individual switches to the left of the panel). You can load a sound into either or both of the keyboard halves, each half taking ten seconds (as opposed to the six seconds of a European Mirage). LEDs below the first five switches flash while loading is taking place, and once this stops the sound is ready to play.
If you define a sample as a multisplit sound it will come up as a multisplit after loading with no further trouble. Demos on the prototype model included a very impressive set of orgasm sounds taken from Marilyn 'Insatiable' Chambers films, a massive chunk of Monty Python's 'Spam' sketch interspersed with National Lampoon jokes, and more prosaic examples such as multisampled pianos and strings. Multisample facilities are available on the Mirage too, although they're more difficult to define and the Prophet has more sampling memory to spare. Figures quoted are 16s at 8k, 8s at 15k and 6s at 20k.
So the membrane switches let you get at 12 'keyboard combinations' (single or multisampled sounds) from disc, but they also allow you access to 16 synthesizer-treated versions of a sampled sound. Like the Mirage, the Prophet 2000 has a filter with variable resonance, a velocity-sensitive ADSR for volume and for the filter, modulation, and many other conventional synth parameters. All these are selected on the membrane matrix and edited using the single Data Entry rotary, with values coming up in a two-digit LED display which shows all the system statues in the various modes.
So now you can use ROM sounds, load and modify sampled sounds and re-store them to disc. If you want to make your own samples you can connect a mike or line input to the rear jack of the 2000 (the level is switchable) and go to Sample mode. The sixteen LEDs under the switches act as a VU meter (peculiarly, from right to left) and when the last LED illuminates you have a decent level to sample. This can be done by hand, or automatically with variable threshold, with the two-digit display telling you what mode you're in at all times. Samples can be played as soon as they're taken; all you have to do beforehand is to decide which sample number this is (from 1 to 12) and what memory capacity should be assigned to it (from a total of 264k).
You can alter the sampling rate from the default vault if you like, giving as we mentioned a maximum of 16s at 8kHz if you want to use up a whole keyboard half for one sound. Once a sample's made you can press Execute to obtain a Middle A tone, against which it can be tuned using the Up/Down buttons next to the LED display.
In terms of sampling quality the 2000 seems to perform well. We sampled a set of Minimoog sounds, putting them in different sections of memory and assigning them to different ranges on the keyboard. All the top end of the Minimoog filter effects was preserved well, and the envelopes were reproduced accurately with no clicking or glitching. We then set out to make a loop in some sections of the sound, which of course is a more difficult process. The 2000 gives you more help than the Mirage though — there's an Auto routine (as on the Greengate DS:3) which finds a 'zero crossover' and 'zero slope' point accompanied by mucho flashing of lights, and the routine seems to get a good loop point fairly quickly. Start with a Minimoog sound and by the time you've looped it and played a few notes or a single-finger chord (definable up to eight notes) — voila! Instant Memorymoog.
So what else can you do with your samples once you've stored them? The 2000 offers many methods of combining and overlapping samples; you can layer two or more sounds on the keyboard, play in 'Stack Mode' which gives powerful unison effects with delays between the onset of different samples, you can truncate and mix samples, you can cross-fade between two samples using the keyboard velocity (which can also effect the depth of modulation, although the keyboard isn't in fact pressure-sensitive as well), and you can control the sample's start point with velocity.
The 2000 also features an arpeggiator, although the Mirage has a full polyphonic sequencer which puts this in the shade a little. However, using the lower function set you can change the number of octaves the arpeggiator covers, how many times it plays each note, whether it plays up, down, up/down or randomly, and so on, so it's reasonably exciting. Speed is controlled from the data entry rotary and you can latch arpeggios on using a footswitch. Incidentally, there's also a footswitch for 'alternative release' which would normally be used for piano-type sustain effects.
The 2000 of course features MIDI, and the MIDI THRU can be switched to a second MIDI OUT function. Information recognised includes key down in Omni, Poly and Mono modes, velocity, pitch and modulation, main volume (for all of you out there with Akai MIDI Digital Faders), clock (to or from the arpeggiator), preset number, wavetable access and sample transmit. The last two of these features mean that you'll be able to edit sounds visually using a computer, as you can with the Mirage/Apple setup, once Sequential have written the software; and that you can dump sounds to another 2000 via MIDI, which is faster than using discs. There is talk of developing a universal code for sample recording so you'd be able to use sounds from other machines too, but that's some way off yet.
The 2000 we saw looked a bit rough — it was a prototype after all — and there's more to come in the way of minor cosmetic changes. The more important point is that we weren't listening to final factory samples — most of the sounds we heard had been made from cassette and edited only very roughly, so there was plenty of glitching to be heard.
But from the quick samples we took ourselves and the promise of the early sounds (lookout for the harp pluck/arpeggio — it's stunning!) the 2000 does have slightly better quality than the Mirage, which as if to emphasise the difference has been put on the market with some seriously duff factory sounds. Hopefully this won't be the case with the 2000 by the time it hits the shops from the end of September.
You can see many of the points for and against the 2000 below, but the fact of the matter is that it's bound to sell — demand will always outstrip supply for polyphonic samplers such as the 2000 and the Mirage. It's just a question of how long the thing will remain economical, because next year's Frankfurt show in February promises to be a real breeding ground for polyphonic samplers. However, if you do get hold of a 2000, you won't be disappointed. It's going to be great fun while it lasts.
Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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