Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X (Part 2 posted)

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Batmosphere
KVR Expert
2 posts since 9 Jul, 2019 from Northern California
KVR Expert

Post Thu Jul 11, 2019 1:36 am

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.
—David Battino


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Introduction
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?

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Richard: 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.

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Rory: 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]

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Mitch: 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.

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Drew: 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.

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James: 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.

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Francis: 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.

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What was your first reaction to seeing and hearing the prototype of the Prophet X?

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Francis: 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.

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James: 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.

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Drew: 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.

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Rory: 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.

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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.

Rory-Dowd-100.jpg
Rory: 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.

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Richard: 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…

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Richard: 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

Richard Devine
Facebook
YouTube
Soundcloud Examples (various instruments)


Rory Dow
www.boxedear.com


Drew Newman
www.drewneumann.com


Francis Preve
www.francispreve.com


James Terris
www.jamesterris.com


Mitch Thomas
YouTube Playlist
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User avatar
Tj Shredder
KVRAF
2775 posts since 6 Jan, 2017 from Outer Space

Re: Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X

Post Sun Jul 14, 2019 4:53 am

Could we get all six to give us one personal Prophet killer sound with an explanation why they think its so cool and a short musical example?
What is inspiring compared to an in the box synth like VCV or the Grid? (which in theory should be able to do the same and more...)
I stopped using hardware synths decades ago, and except for my (too short) meeting with an Arp 2600 I don’t miss much...
Finally the LinnStrument brought me back into synthesis.
Is there a plan to make a sound module without keyboard, but MPE support? (Not that I could afford it though...- ; ( 90% of my hardware is controllers, and the rest is computers...

User avatar
Batmosphere
KVR Expert
2 posts since 9 Jul, 2019 from Northern California
KVR Expert

Voicing the Prophet X, part 2

Post Wed Jul 17, 2019 8:38 am

“There are just crazy opportunities to build stuff that’s never existed before.”

Welcome to Part 2 of our roundtable with six members of the Sequential Prophet X voicing team. (Read Part 1 here.) In this part, moderator Jerry Kovarsky and the panel go deeper into the instrument’s unique sample-based oscillators. Several of the sound designers will be following along here as well, so please add your comments and questions. For more on the panelists, see the links at the end of the article.
—David Battino, editor


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Jerry Kovarsky: I think the Prophet X’s sample manipulation is an important area for people looking at the instrument to understand. I watched a lot of demo videos and read the comments, and because of the depth of the 8Dio samples and the fact that the material is there to make a deep acoustic sound, some people were going, “What were they thinking? All that great sound and only eight-note poly?”

It’s almost working against itself for those samples to be so complete because people are expecting it to be just, “Here’s the piano patch, here’s the guitar, here’s the string ensemble.” But actually, you’re going in and picking one component out of that piano element and going, “Finally, I can deconstruct the piano and just use this piece.”

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Mitch Thomas: Yeah, there’s no doubt that the architecture on paper initially felt like a hybrid ROMpler. And I hate saying that word, not with Dave and not with his product now that I know what it is. But I felt that way when it landed in my lap. They had actually asked me to do sample-based sounds, and I was like, “That’s not what I do. I do crazy, scary, weird stuff, so I don’t know if I can make you a string patch.” And they were like, “No, no, no, that’s not what we meant. We just wanted you to use the samples however you want.”

In your crazy, destructive way.

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Mitch: And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s better.” Then I got into it, and like Richard [see Part 1], I found that when you said, “Can I do this?” the answer was yes. And that was scary. But then the next question was, “Should I do this? And will anyone else care if I do?” So, that’s the way I see it. It’s a crazy powerful machine.

What were some techniques you really liked, things the engine allowed you to do to the samples?

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Rory Dow: A lot is made of the deep sampling stuff, but one of the things I enjoyed the most was that you could pick one sample in a multisample and stretch that out across the keyboard, which gives this instant vintage effect. There are a bunch of old samplers that did that really well and it sounds fantastic. When you pitch one sample down 24 semitones, you’re in a different alien world. You’re changing whatever it is: It could have been a standard piano or a guitar.

There are some really great multisamples in the Prophet X that are designed specifically for that. They’ve got a different atmosphere or a different voice sample on every key. So, if you do that, and then combine it with modulating start points, end points, and loop points, you get into that territory I was talking about, which is just mangling samples as a sound source rather than trying to have them sound like whatever they originally were. And I love that.

And, I’ll put the words in your mouth: The quality of the samples and hardware allows this stuff to stretch without falling apart. It’s not so obviously aliasy. Well, it’s a different type of sound. Nothing is bad, but it’s different.

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Rory: Nothing wrong with 8-bit samples!

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Drew Newman: I also love the Sample Stretch parameter. There are a bunch of multisamples that have a different sound or synth wave on each key. Like, all the Prophet VS waveforms are in there. So, if you find one you want to use you press that button and voilà, it’s stretched across the whole keyboard and sounds great. You can also go into some of the atmospheric stuff that 8Dio put in, and just take this one weird, airy element and layer it in against the other stuff you have going on. It’s so quick to do these things given the great interface.

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Francis Preve: As I was saying earlier, I first gravitated to the audio rate modulation tools. I also deeply appreciated having an excellent sine wave. You can build so many interesting things with one, not just from audio rate modulation of it. One of the tricks I did was adding a really high-pitched sine wave and making it extremely velocity sensitive, so when you smack something it would add a glistening element, maybe four octaves higher.

Another thing was that Tracey from Sequential said to make sure your Layer B was in there, so I designed around hybrid sounds, where either A or B would work on their own, but together they would create something that was complex and cool. People who are more live performers might use Layer B to create a split setup, but as more of a producer, I liked making two separate sounds that could come together in a nice layer. The other thing I liked was using the sliders as macros, to bring in effects, or changes to the effects, or the AM modulation stuff.

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James Terris: I’m really with Francis about the sine wave thing. I used to ignore them; I was all about filters back in the ’90s and early 2000s. Everyone wanted that [Korg] MS-20 sound, with really aggressive filters. It’s only about a year ago that I started to explore using sine waves, and really no filter. There’s a beautiful purity to it; maybe it’s from all the Eurorack gear I’ve started buying, along with the Buchla Music Easel. I’ve found that there’s so much power in wave-folding and things you can do with manipulating sine waves, maybe just bringing something to the attack of a sound. I never had gotten into the DX7 and FM synthesis, as it was a little too unpredictable for me. But now that we’re not trying to create imitative sounds with it, I’ve found it to be a beautiful form of synthesis that I’m really enjoying exploring.

Also, as Francis mentioned, I enjoyed using the sliders and specifically the mod matrix to craft sounds that were multiple different timbres based on the position of a controller. Many of my sounds can be four or more sounds in one depending on where your controllers are. And that’s a concern for all of us: Will people move all the controllers around to find all these things we designed in? I wish there were notes for each sound so we could point out all the cool things we did.

I thought, “Wait, can I use the sample to modulate another sample?”
—Richard Devine



At Ensoniq we made performance notes for all of our sounds to describe all that. And we had the programmers fill them in when submitting their sounds.

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Drew: And filling those damn things out often took longer than creating the sound! But coming back to this macro concept, the effects are well integrated into the signal path and the mod matrix; they’re not just sweetening at the end of the signal chain. So, you can use LFOs, keyboard position, and such to change something that starts out very basic and dry, and then modulate delay feedback or delay time to change the whole ambience. I liked modulating the pre-delay in the plate reverb with an LFO to add a slight chorusing.

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James: I liked doing that with the tape delay, assigning rate and feedback to aftertouch. You can lean into the sound and step into a different dimension. It harkens back to the old [Prophet] T8 vibe.

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Mitch: What rang my bells was that the Prophet X is an insanely powerful sound design engine. There are just crazy opportunities to build stuff that’s never existed before because of the sheer number of samples they put into it. You take that and combine the analog elements and Dave’s innate ability to design an intense modulation matrix that is still easy to use. . . . Some of the things he’s put in there, kind of stealing from the computer world, are perfect: Being able to touch something, then touch something else and you’re done. Or pressing the Show button to see a parameter: That’s a design feature. It’s not for most people playing on the stage. It’s for people who are in there, digging and tweaking.

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Richard Devine: When I first got the Prophet X, I really liked the two high-resolution digital oscillators. And then you have their waveshaping modulation capability, and the stereo filters are analog. And then you have four envelope generators and four LFOs, and the modulation matrix is awesome. When I started playing around, I thought, “Wait, can I use the sample to modulate into another sample?” An LFO could modulate one sample and then that sample modulates into the other sample, so once you get into the modulation matrix, it was like Mitch said: “Can I do this? Wait, I can do this!”

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Drew: The first instrument I can think of that used samples to modulate other waveforms was the Yamaha SY77. It was a nice feature and allowed you to do some interesting atmospheric things. It moved them away from that clean six-operator FM sound.

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Francis: It has an embossing effect on the sound of the sine wave/whatever, and for panning it does that in a moving stereo field. To my ears it’s not as controllable as it is for AM, but maybe there’s more I need to explore. For FM, on the other hand, that’s a dicey proposition; you can use a touch of it to add grit and flavor to a sound, but add more and it quickly gets chaotic. FM likes pretty simple waveforms in general.

Richard, you were talking about using the sample’s amplitude as another envelope shape, but still getting the timbral quality. My experience with both waveshaping and having complex samples modulating something is you can only add a little bit before it starts breaking up into sidebands. How did you find it to work with?

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Richard: That was an interesting idea, because I’ve been doing a bit of it with the modular stuff, and I hadn’t seen it in a keyboard. I’m using some of these new-generation Eurorack sampler modules that do really sophisticated things with samples, like the [Orthogonal Devices] ER301 or David Rossum’s ASSIMIL8OR. So, you start thinking about samples differently. You don’t just think about playing and layering them up musically. You start looking at them as actual wave shapes, or modulation shapes, or modulation sources. That can open a wide variety of different sounds, depending if they’re tonal, not tonal, or rhythmic in some way. You start thinking about things differently as opposed to just the tonal content of the sample. You start looking at what the tail end of that sample is doing.

So, you limit the sample playback to that area and say, “Okay, I’ve got a shape. . . .”

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Richard: Yeah, you start hunting around. I was hunting around the whole library looking for sounds that are articulate decays and glitchy. I started thinking, “Oh, this could be my modulation source for something else.” I came up with all these weird, heavily modulated and cross-modulated textures that were moving and doing all kinds of weird things, and I actually came up with some sounds I’d never heard before.

And that’s the goal, right?

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Richard: Exactly. Just by saying, “Hey, can I do this? I can do that. That’s cool.” I thought that was really great.


Check back next Tuesday for Part 3, where the sound design panel shares tips for uncovering the unique personality of any synthesizer.


Meet the Panel

Richard Devine
Facebook
YouTube
Soundcloud Examples (various instruments)


Rory Dow
www.boxedear.com


Drew Newman
www.drewneumann.com


Francis Preve
www.francispreve.com


James Terris
www.jamesterris.com


Mitch Thomas
YouTube Playlist
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User avatar
vurt
addled muppet weed
46974 posts since 26 Jan, 2003 from through the looking glass

Re: Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X (Part 2 posted)

Post Wed Jul 17, 2019 9:07 am

say hi to rory for me :D

rob_lee
KVRAF
7627 posts since 16 Oct, 2006 from North East UK

Re: Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X (Part 2 posted)

Post Wed Jul 17, 2019 9:11 am

RORY is da f**king man.. never heard of the other ones.. Go Rory :lol: :lol: :lol:

Peter [KVR]
KVRer
7 posts since 13 Sep, 2017
KVR Expert

Re: Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X (Part 2 posted)

Post Wed Jul 17, 2019 11:05 am

Check out some of Richard Devine's work. He's been doing creative things for many years...

User avatar
vurt
addled muppet weed
46974 posts since 26 Jan, 2003 from through the looking glass

Re: Insider Tour: Voicing the Prophet X (Part 2 posted)

Post Wed Jul 17, 2019 11:24 am

Peter [KVR] wrote:
Wed Jul 17, 2019 11:05 am
Check out some of Richard Devine's work. He's been doing creative things for many years...
indeed, some very cool stuff :tu:


ive met rory a few times though, which is why i was saying hi ;)

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