The Legend of Prophet-5

The Prophet-5 is up there with the Minimoog as one of the all-time timeless synths...

Released in 1978 after being developed by Dave Smith and John Bowen at Sequential Circuits, the Prophet-5 was the “worlds leading polyphonic [analogue] synthesizer” as of the late 70s and is still loved even today for its great string sounds, analogue effects, and punchy analogue basses.

One of the keys to making the Prophet-5 stand apart from its competitors at the time (Yamaha CS-80, Roland Jupiter-8, Moog Memorymoog, Rhodes Chroma, amongst others), was its combination of analogue and digital; pure analogue sounds with digital keyboard scanning and, most importantly, patch memory, allowing users to store sounds rather than having to reprogram them manually every session.

Key Features

5-voices of polyphony (initially there were ten, but this proved to be too unstable, so they settled on five). Each voice is assigned two VCOs, with both oscillators able to generate sawtooth and square waves (with variable pulse width), whilst the second oscillator is also able to generate a triangle.

The oscillators can be played in sync with oscillator B and the filter ADSR envelope modulating the frequency, pulse width and filter of oscillator A. A dedicated low-frequency oscillator (saw, square, or triangle) can also modulate the pulse width and pitch of oscillators A and B and filter cutoff frequency. There is also a Microcomputer that controlled keyboard scanning, sound storage (initially 40 sounds) and oscillator calibration.

The Look

The specs alone pushed it to the forefront of tech at the time making it an industry standard, but alongside that, great care was taken into making it look good!

“The Prophet-5 was the world’s first sexy synthesizer. It looked sexy, it sounded sexy. Before the Prophet-5, synths had always looked complicated. Design, if companies ever took up the issue, was based upon practicality or an appeal to the gadget freak. Then along comes this instrument out of nowhere, from a company most people have never heard of, looking for all the world like it stepped out of a Bang & Olufsen catalogue. Nice wood, ultra-smooth panel hardware. Whoa, and it sounds killer too? With memories? Who cares what it costs, gimme one.” - Julian Colbeck
Another factor that could have played into the success of the Prophet-5, is the direction they took in their adverts. Instead of feature-heavy lists and expelling the innovative virtues of their new creation, Sequential Circuits enlisted John Mattos, a legend in the advertising industry, who created a fictional world for the Prophet-5 to live in (a Sphynx playing the keyboard, a pilot flying a plane with the keyboard where the wings should be, a human Prophet, amongst others.

The Sound

The spooky analogue textures that the Prophet-5 created with ease were perfect for the kind of unsettling chords used on early 80’s horror and sci-fi soundtracks and thus was very quickly picked up by composers who were able to create the bulk of their work from the one piece of kit. Notable use includes John Carpenter’s acclaimed soundtrack to ‘The Creepshow’ after falling in love with the synth working on ‘Escape from New York’ with Alan Howarth. Brad Fiedel also used the Prophet-5's bigger brother, the Prophet-10, to record the soundtrack for The Terminator (1984).

It wasn’t just the soundtrack composers that loved it, it infiltrated the Pop sphere too, featuring heavily on Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ as well as Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, and the list goes on, being used by bands such as Pink Floyd, the Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, The Prodigy and more. It even made its way into Hip-Hop with Dr.Dre using it on his earlier records, as well as Too $hort combining it with a Roland TR-808 drum machine to create his debut album ‘Born To Mack’.

Enduring Appeal

Between 1978 and 1984 somewhere between 6000 and 8000 units were sold, leaving its competitors in the dust and making the Prophet-5 one of the most successful analog polyphonic synths ever. Even to this day it is a highly sought-after piece of kit to have in the studio, revered for their analog warmth and still commanding upwards of £6000 for a good condition model. Whilst Yamaha purchased Sequential Circuits in 1987, decades later, the brand was returned to Dave Smith and, soon after, the Prophet 6 was announced, a true successor to the original. The company continues to go from strength to strength, with the recent release of the Prophet-X and Pro 3.

Try For Yourself

Can’t get your hands on the real thing? No worries, Arturia Have got your back with a high-quality VST replica, giving you all the classic sounds right there on your laptop and a free demo version to try:

Prophet V

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