Six Top Sound Designers on Finding the Soul
of Sequential’s Flagship Synth
Hello, everyone! Earlier this year, synthesizer guru Jerry Kovarsky recorded a roundtable with six other expert sound designers. The discussion began with their work on the Sequential Prophet X, and then progressed into strategies for crafting signature sounds on any synth. Thanks to my work on the interview book The Art of Digital Music, KVR asked me to help edit the conversation. There’s so much good material that we’ll be spreading it out over several posts. Several of the sound designers will be following along here as well, so please jump in with comments and questions.
Think about that magic moment
when you first touch a new hardware or software synth and hear what it can do. Sound design is the most important feature of any programmable synthesizer: If the factory patches don’t sound fresh and amazing, that synth ain’t gonna sell.
One of the most revered synth developers is Sequential
, whose founder Dave Smith has been designing electronic instruments since the 1970s — including the world’s first fully programmable polyphonic analog synth, the Prophet-5
. In 2018, Sequential released its most ambitious Prophet yet, the Prophet X
. This $4,000 flagship synth combines two shape-shifting digital oscillators, two sample-playback oscillators with 150GB of samples to manipulate, four LFOs, 92 modulation destinations, and stereo analog filters.
In short, the Prophet X is a sound designer’s dream, and we gathered six members of the voicing team to find out how they approached it: Richard Devine, Rory Dow, Drew Neumann, Francis Preve, James Terris, and Mitch Thomas.
To kick it off, we’ll let the panel introduce themselves and talk about their first impressions of the Prophet X. In the next installments, they’ll go deeper into the instrument and share more techniques on finding a synth’s personality.
Tell us a bit about your background. What prepared you for this opportunity?
I’m a sound designer and electronic composer based in Atlanta, specializing in sounds for hardware synthesizers and software synthesizers. I’ve also worked on sounds for electric cars, virtual reality gaming environments, film, TV, web media, user interaction sounds . . . it goes all over the place.
I’m a sound designer based in Manchester, UK. I’m also reviewing for Sound on Sound
magazine these days, which I’m quite enjoying. A majority of my sound design work at the moment is with Roli, and I do a lot of MPE sound design. So, I’m fast becoming an expert in that area, which is quite exciting because it feels like a new frontier of controllerism, and I think there’s a lot yet to be done. I also write music and I’m a synth enthusiast, I guess.
Aren’t we all? [Laughter]
I’ve been in the music business/retail thing for a long time. I’ve been working with several companies, including Soundtoys, who I’ve been with for 16 years. I’ve had a love for synthesizers since childhood, and that’s been a blast, designing sounds for them.
I might be known from my work in animated shows like Æon Flux, Bravest Warriors, Aaahh!! Real Monsters, The Wild Thornberrys . . . .
I did scoring for many years. From there I moved into consulting for synth companies like DSI/Sequential, Moog, Arturia, and even Ensoniq back in the day.
: My first synth was a Sequential 6-Trak
, which I ran alongside a Commodore 64
computer. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. Through that I started learning about making sounds: I was more into that than playing, which is funny, as most of the money I’ve made has come from performing. I used to love reading album credits where they listed the gear; I would save up my money and add another piece. By the time I was 16 I’d added a Kawai drum machine, an Ensoniq ESQ-1
, and a Roland Juno-106
. My collection has grown to over 100 pieces. Starting in 1994, I programmed synth sounds for some national and international acts, and I began a relationship with Sequential in late 2007, just after the release of the Prophet ’08.
I got my first synth when I was 14 — a Realistic-Moog MG-1
. From there, I got a Korg Polysix
, started a new wave band, and followed the evolution of synthesizers with each incremental new feature, like MIDI, sampling, FM, and so on. The band broke up in the early ’90s and I moved into dance music production and remixes at London/Polygram for techno artists like Orbital
and Utah Saints.
In the mid-’90s, I moved to Austin, where I slipped on a metaphorical banana peel and became a college professor thanks to my experience in multiple music production domains. Later, at the South by Southwest
conference, I met Greg Rule, the editor of Keyboard
magazine, and he asked if I’d like to take over their dance/remix column. I said sure, because I’d grown up reading Keyboard
and it was a massive influence on my knowledge of synthesis and sound design. Through that gig I started to meet folks from synth and software companies. In fact, my first real sound design gig was for Korg (thanks to Jerry) for their Legacy Collection
software. Then I met the folks from Ableton and starting doing stuff for them. I’m still doing work for both companies, as well as many others.
What was your first reaction to seeing and hearing the prototype of the Prophet X?
The first time I saw it was at the NAMM show in a sneak-peek hotel room session. Dave was showing it to me, along with [product specialist] Gerry Basserman
, and I kept peppering them with questions: “Can it do this, can it do that?” When Dave started showing me how you could do audio rate modulation from one oscillator to another, I asked, “Have you ever taken a sample
and thrown it on a sine wave using amplitude modulation?” Because when you do that you kind of emboss the sound of the sample onto the sine wave.
As soon as I said that, Dave said, “How soon can you start?” The fact that you could use sample data for AM and FM (amplitude and frequency modulation), for panning, and for filter modulation really connected with me, from all the work I do with Ableton Operator using those techniques.
My first time seeing it was in the hotel room as well. NAMM can be such a shell-shock experience, and after having a shot of tequila
with Dave and his wife, and having Richard Devine and BT
come in with me, I just sat back on a couch while Dave did his demo, and I didn’t get that close to it. Then a few months later my prototype arrived, and I was both surprised and excited to see it was a sample-based instrument. I didn’t expect that. The synth engine side of things is good, but the chance to mangle samples is the big story here.
Well, I’ve been dealing with samplers for a really long time. I worked for Fairlight
in ’80–’81 while I was going to Cal Arts
, which was amazing, as I never could have afforded one. Later on, I got some Akais, and then a Prophet 2000, which I got way deep into. By the time I was scoring Æon Flux
I was using four [Ensoniq] ASR-10s
, and throughout this time I was lamenting that what we really needed was a great interface for working with a sampler. And now finally the Prophet X delivers on that. I always wanted to just grab some knobs and sculpt the sound, rather than have to go menu-diving. It was all, “button, slider, slider, slider, button, button. . . .” And 150 gigabytes of content! I know eventually I’ll be able to bring in my own stuff, but for now there’s plenty to explore. Between the sample manipulation, the synthesis, and some crazy effects I can do a lot. It’s a fantastic atmosphere maker. It’s almost a waste to go load up a great piano sound and go out and gig with it. It’s capable of so much more, and it’s very expressive and real-time.
For me, the most exciting thing about the Prophet X is that finally hardware synth manufacturers are waking back up to the possibilities of sampling. I think computers killed off sampling in its hardware form a long time ago and everybody’s kind of danced around it, but nobody’s really put any big effort into it. Back in the ’90s, Akai samplers were the thing to have, and for every electronic producer, that was the cornerstone of your studio. And the hardware hasn’t kept up over the last two decades at all. Everyone has been obsessed with analog, and using samples as a sound source and doing sound design with them hasn’t really been a focus.
Now we’ve got all the convenience of being able to hook up your computer, and lots of RAM, and SSDs, and deep sampling with velocity splits and all that stuff, but having it in a hardware environment where you can really manipulate it is just brilliant. The Prophet X stands out for me as the synth of last year purely because of that sample engine.
To be clear, you’re not talking about — for example — wanting to get more of the nuanced gestures of a nylon guitar. You want samples so that you can mangle them. You want fodder for synthesis.
Yes, absolutely, as a sound source for synthesis. And that hasn’t been done for quite some time. The last synth that I can remember that sort of had a stab at it was the Roland V-Synth
. They gave you tools to bend and manipulate and stretch the audio and do all sorts of things. I long lamented the gap. I thought it was really sad that no one tried much. I think in modular-land there’s loads of stuff — Richard would know more about that. But yeah, I hope the Prophet X is the first of many. It really broadens what you can do with the synth, especially when you’ve got a kind of analog synthesizer in there as well. Let’s not forget, it’s got two very good “analog-ish” oscillators and the analog filter and all that stuff to back it up. But the samples are what put it apart for me.
I was actually confused at first. I was a bit worried for Dave when he showed it to me at NAMM; I was like, “Whoa, they’re making a sample
-based machine?” And believe me, I’m all for samples. I use many samplers. I still have my Akai S3200
in my closet. So, like Rory, I came up field recording, and I capture and record sounds all the time, using all of these new formats for capturing sounds and making sample libraries. So, I was really excited, but kind of confused. Is this like a workstation keyboard? Do they want to cater to the keyboard players with clavinets?
And Dave’s been adamant that he has no interest in making a ROMpler. Never has…
Exactly. That was my first worry. I suspected this might be their attempt at making some sort of workstation, but then after I started playing with it, I realized it wasn’t that at all. It was much more of a playground for sounds, and interactions between samples and synthesis. The way the architecture is set up, it invites you to play and discover how the interactions between those two worlds can be really interesting. And then it really opened up itself to me and I started to realize that if you just go into it with a different mindset, you get exactly what you put in.
Check out Part 2 of this series, where the designers get deeper into the Prophet X's unique approach to sample-based oscillators.
Meet the Panel
Soundcloud Examples (various instruments)
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