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Sequential Prophet VS


Article from International Musician & Recording World, August 1986

Fingers on the joystick. Tony Mills at the controls

When was the last time you heard a new noise from a synthesiser? It's ironic that instruments designed to give infinite scope should become so quickly cliched, but whether it's the scream of a MiniMoog, the twang of a Prophet 5 or that bloody tubular bell sound on a DX7, there's nothing more annoying than a synth sound which provokes only the response 'heard it before'.

Refreshing, then, to get one's grubby mitts on a synth which really does sound vibrant and new. The Prophet VS takes its name from the Vector Synthesis system of sound generation, which simply means the mixing of four waveshapes using a joystick with Up/Down and Left/Right movement.

The VS does a hell of a lot of things, and has a very advanced MIDI specification. The Vector Synthesis system gives endless possibilities, and so to some extent its use is a matter of trial and error. But — and here's the rub — while the DX7, probably the last milestone in synthesiser development, continues to baffle all but the most ardent programmer, the VS is dead easy to use.

In fact your humble reviewer got the hang of playing and editing the VS in about 15 minutes without even opening the handbook, and that's despite some unusual terminology such as Envelope Group 1 and 2, Link Select, Modulation/Control Routing and Point Select.

So let's take a look at the VS one facility at a time, and try to end up with some kind of picture of what it can offer.

The VS has a five-octave C-C velocity and pressure sensitive keyboard and is eight note polyphonic (two by four notes in split mode or four doubled notes in Dual mode). Each voice has four oscillators labelled A, B, C and D, and these are balanced by a left-hand freely moving joystick. Sprung pitch bend wheel and non-sprung modulation wheel, an LCD parameter display, a two-digit LED patch number display and a set of 10 Program Select buttons complete the basic setup.

Although the VS is programmed with a Data Entry slider, it does have a couple of real knobs for Balance and Volume, and real buttons to select various parameters and effects such as the chorus and arpeggiator. On the right-hand side of the panel there's a slot for a cartridge to load further sounds, plus a table of the source and destination combinations possible for the modulation functions. At the top of the panel is a small diagram of the five-stage envelope which can be applied to the filter, amplifier, wave mix or all three.

The VS has a perfectly conventional Prophet filter with cutoff, resonance and envelope amount settings, and a selection of rear panel connections as listed below:

Aux is a jack socket duplicating some of the control functions of the arpeggiator; Alternate Release is a jack socket for a footswitch to bring in an alternative envelope release time usually used as a piano-type sustain pedal; MIDI In, Out and Thru DIN sockets are provided, with a switch to select Out or Thru functions on the third of these; The audio jack outputs are Left/Mono and Right/Headphones.

The viewing angle of the LCD display can be changed with a rear panel preset, and once that's done you're ready to go. Just hit two buttons to call up a new sound, of which there are 100. Balance the left and right components of the sound using Balance; each of the four oscillators can be set to a different stereo position, and there are several ways of altering the positioning during the course of a note.

As mentioned before, Single, Split or Dual modes are available, plus a Unison mode for powerful lead or bass lines with 32 oscillators! Velocity and pressure sensitivity depth and the way in which they affect a sound can be programmed for each memory.

The pitch wheel range is programmable up to a fifth; this range is remembered while the power is off, and latched notes on the arpeggiator are not affected by pitch bend. The modulation wheel can be programmed for each patch to control LFO 1, LFO 2 or chorus speed, which is great for simulating Leslie cabinet effects.

The Waveform Mix joystick can be altered at any time while playing, but the amount of effect it has depends on the original make-up of the sound. Some very subtle performance effects are possible, and these effects are unique to the VS.

The VS has 96 basic waveforms including White Noise, plus 32 waveforms you can program yourself. There's no real list of what these waveforms are (a fault shared with the PPG synths), but your own sounds can use any of the waveforms. RAM and ROM sound cartridges will also be available; the RAM has blanks for 100 programs and 32 waveforms, the ROM contains 100 programs which use the 96 basic waveforms only.

If you want to make any changes to a sound, simply hit Program Edit and the 32-character LCD display allows you to call up any parameter for editing with the data entry slider. You can store an edited sound to internal memory or cartridge, comparing it with the original before deciding if you like it, using Review.

All programs or all waveforms can be dumped to the cartridge almost instantly and each program can be named, with letters being called up with the data entry slider. The VS even has a Random Program Creation function which assigns random values to every parameter from mixer envelope to program name (avoiding a few pointless combinations), so that's one way to speed up those programming chores.

It's possible to link two programs together quite independently of whether you want to use single, split or dual mode. Just hit Link Select while you're on one program, and choose another sound to set up the link. It's possible to generate a delay of up to 500ms between the original and linked program, which can make for some impressive cascading echo effects, ADT or thickening effects. Double mode allows you to perform velocity or pressure-controlled mixing of two linked sounds by applying positive modulation to one and negative modulation to the other.

The arpeggiator on the VS is an over-the-top design typical of Sequential. Why they can't just provide a sequencer and get it over with is anyone's guess, but for some reason they seem happier with an arpeggiator even though it has to cram in the following features.

Overdubs, latching, sequence storage during power-off, programmable rate, external MIDI synchronisation, transposition, 'note adding' up to a total of 120 notes, six kinds of scan (Up, Down, Up/Down, Assign, Reverse and Random), one to five octave range, one to four note repeat, playing of either or both sides of a split, selectable velocity response, layering of a second arpeggio, selectable insertion of rests using top C, and selectable clock rates.

Rather than performance modes, let's look at the actual sound creation on the VS. Sequential point out that the power of the Vector Synthesis method means that more synthesising can be done at the waveform stage. As you move the joystick, the proportions in which you hear the four oscillators in a voice are altered. Each oscillator has its own waveshape anyway, so the sum can be very complex. At the A, B, C or D joystick points, that oscillator has 100% of the mix — in the central position, each one has 25% of the mix, and the LCD display shows the latest values in real time as you move the joystick.

But the mix point can also be moved along either axis by an LFO or by keyboard velocity or pressure or an envelope; obviously it's impossible to guess the overall effect of such complex changes, so although the VS is a good imitative synthesiser (there are some very useful string, brass and voice patches as well as electric pianos equalling those on the DX7), its real forte lies in creating sounds no-one has ever heard before.

The oscillator being edited is chosen with Oscillator Select A-D, and the wave number (0-127, with 126 as silence and 127 as White Noise), coarse and fine frequency can be chosen. A basic organ-like mix and envelope patch can be called up as a start point if desired.

As previously mentioned, the filter is fairly conventional, but it does have two LFOs, pressure, velocity, envelope and keyboard position to modulate it. Each voice has three five-stage envelopes with looping functions (which we'll explain later) for wave mix, filter and amplifier. If you move the joystick to a new position you can program that position as the destination for one stage of the mixer envelope; the envelope then 'moves the joystick for you' automatically at the desired speed, which can produce very strange effects.

The first three segments of the envelope path are covered while a key is held down, while the fourth is covered after the key is released. The points of the envelope are numbered 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4, and a loop can be defined between points 3 and 0, 3 and 1 or 3 and 2. The loop can be forward only or backward and forward, so you can produce some very complex echo, repeat and chopped sounds.

Modulation for a patch is easily defined; hit Source repeatedly and you'll step along a list of LFO 1, LFO 2, Pressure, Velocity, Keyboard, Filter Envelope and Mod Wheel, while hitting Destination gives the choices Frequency, Filter, Mix, LFO 1, LFO 2, Amp, Pan and Chorus. Not all combinations are possible (you can't modulate LFO 2 with LFO 2 for instance, although it would be fun if you could), but the possibilities are still enormous.

Other features on the VS include Glide, Voice Pan and Panning Modulation. You can set up the Pan controls so that a note comes out in the stereo field at a point related to its position on the keyboard, which is handy, and the stereo effects available under the control of the LFOs and wave mix section have to be heard to be believed.

Edit Waveform Mode calls up a new set of rules for the controls and allows you to define a new waveform with the joystick and save it to one of the 32 cartridge or built-in waveform positions. In this mode the oscillator fine tune controls become harmonic controls which step each waveform along to the next harmonic.

The MIDI implementation on the VS is highly advanced and includes program select, patch change, MIDI clock for the arpeggiator, MIDI channel split, Arpeggiator channel, left or right sound MIDI control and program or wave data dump to a computer are all available.

Single mode allows each VS voice to respond to a different MIDI channel for more versatile MIDI control of glide and other effects rather than for true multi-timbral playing, and Overflow mode allows all notes played above the eight available to be passed on to another keyboard for 16-voice playing.

MIDI also defines a standard data dump for sound samples now, and it's possible that a sampled sound from a suitably equipped keyboard could be copied into a VS waveform file.

But what does the VS sound like? The answer lies somewhere between 'nothing on earth' and 'a PPG Wave 2.3 for a third of the price'. Patch #23 Heavy is a mono fuzz guitar sound not unlike an overdriven MiniMoog, while #34 Triad slowly sweeps open through a selection of wave positions. #45 Sasinam combines glide with a slow filter opening with resonance, while #78 Resbass is a more conventional synth sound reminiscent of the Prophet 5.

Patch #64 Space is a slow, sweeping sound useful for backdrops, while Filmusic is so active that it is almost a complete piece of music in itself, with a linked choir and string sound slowly panning back and forth in stereo while the wave mix position alters in subtle ways.

So you can see that the VS is pretty versatile. There are a couple of organ sounds — a decent Hammond and a squeakier sound slyly named FilGlass — plus some good metallic electric pianos, silly noises such as Toy Plane, deep doomy mono sounds such as Wrokrock and some electronic percussion sounds.

But most of the best sounds on the VS are indescribable. Although most of the wave changes are smooth (you can't simulate a fixed table of random waves as on the PPG, although you can choose mix positions randomly using the LFOs), many PPG-like effects are easily available and when combined with Prophet 5-like synth sounds the effect is amazing.

The stereo effects are stunning as well, the one complaint being that the pressure sensitivity is far from that — it's highly INsensitive, requiring the player to virtually lean on the keyboard to make it work. Perhaps it is an eccentricity of our review model, or something which can be adjusted mechanically inside the machine.

Overall, though, the VS is the most exciting new keyboard to be launched since the Yamaha DX7. It's easy to use, although to some extent you will find yourself making sounds up by trial and error. There's less danger of the VS sounds becoming cliched because they're very easy to alter to your personal taste, although RAM cartridges to store new sounds will be expensive at over £70 each.

The VS would be great in the studio but could be a fine performance instrument too, since it is rapid and easy to use and its Link facility will speed the selection of split and layered sounds. It's equally suitable for lead, background and very cutting chordal sounds — a real jack-of-all-trades, and master of most of them.

Of course, the VS is a little on the expensive side (much more expensive than the Alpha Juno 1 and 2, the DX7, the Matrix 6 or the DW8000), but it does offer one very important feature — originality. And there's no substitute for that.

Sequential Prophet VS - £1,895

Thanks to Rod Argent's Keyboards, (Contact Details) for demo facilities.

Sequential UK, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Aug 1986

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