Can $600 really buy you a synth that sounds at least as good and can do more than the original Prophet 600?! Mark Jenkins says…
Behringer’s Pro800 desktop synth module meets calls from users for an analog polysynth to follow their Deepmind keyboard and module.
It’s a desktop clone of the Sequential Prophet 600 launched in 1982 as the first instrument equipped with MIDI, which was largely created by Sequential’s founder, the late Dave Smith.
I was very pleased to be sent the first Prophet 600 in the UK and reviewed it alongside the Yamaha DX7, which marked the start of the rise in digital synthesizers.
The lush analog sounds of the Prophet 600 layered with the bright digital textures of the Yamaha DX7 made a great combination. But the Prophet 600 itself was also moving away from all-analog design. The oscillators and filters were based on analog chips, but the envelopes and LFO’s were created digitally.
As a comparison with how Behringer’s new instrument sounds, what was the Prophet 600 good for? It was promoted as a budget, stripped-down version of the Prophet 5, but in many ways was more powerful.
Apart from MIDI it offered six voices, an arpeggiator, dual polyphonic real time sequencer, and more. A mono Unison mode made it a powerful lead synth able to sound like a MiniMoog.
Chord Memory saved intervals to be played from a single key. Poly modulation made strong, clanging ring modulator-like sounds far removed from basic analog textures.
Amongst all the instruments I reviewed and sent back at the time, I bought the Prophet 600 and used it on stage and in the studio for around a decade. Some of the new sounds I created for it included whistles and pipes like the Irish Uilleann pipes – not something expected from an analog synth – and many percussion sounds, not something you’d expect from a synth with no white noise generator.
Pro on the go. Behringer’s Pro800 is a compact desktop version of the Prophet 600, offering 8-voice polyphony. It can be removed from its chassis and placed in and powered by a Eurorack mounting. So it can work alongside the Behringer Cat, Pro-One, Neutron, and other designs, though it doesn’t offer a lot of analog interfacing – just CV control over filter cutoff.
The module then is usually played from a MIDI keyboard or a computer, and the MIDI spec is one area in which the Pro800 has been vastly improved over the original. This reflects the P600FW firmware update offered by GliGli, and means the Pro800 handles modulation, aftertouch, and many other parameters in a much more sophisticated manner.
In fact the Pro800 offers MIDI control over most sound parameters, which means you can make filter changes – for example while playing, record these, and play them back as part of a performance.
Sound memories are expanded too into four banks of 100 sounds each. In the early firmware version I reviewed (1.0.9), the first bank can be named, and it’s hoped to expand this to all four banks. Frankly the Pro800 is sonically so versatile that the original 100 memories just weren’t enough.
Memory module. Dumping memory banks by MIDI is of course another great facility. And there are many other improvements including external synchronization of both the arpeggiator and sequencer.
The Pro800 doesn’t have a large LED display, just a three-digit LED, so access to all these new parameters comes via a series of keypress combinations. Most of these are not at all obvious, so you’ll need the function listing sheet next to you. However, functions such as Sync Source now have a dedicated button.
On the subject of buttons, the original Prophet 600 was mildly criticized for its membrane panel, which after a very long time could tend to wear. On the Pro800 the appearance of the button controls is similar, but they have a slightly more positive click than the originals and should last well.
Sexy spec. The actual spec of the Pro800 follows that of the original, with some excellent additions. Because the original Prophet 5 was conceived as a polyphonic MiniMoog, the control layout is easy to follow.
On the left, 0-9 buttons select sounds and other parameters. Then a slightly expanded panel of buttons to go into preset mode or fully manual editing mode, program, and start/stop the dual real-time polyphonic sequencer memories and arpeggiator, and select the sync source for these.
The panel includes a Tune button for the real analog oscillators – a long comprehensive tune-up or a fast tune for on-stage purposes are both available. There’s now a continuous rotary controller for all parameter changes.
The two oscillator banks A and B now have a choice of frequency ranges from narrow to very wide. Sawtooth, Triangle, and variable width Square waves can be switched in and out independently. A oscillators can Sync to B – the secret behind the creation of screaming harmonic bend noises a la Jan Hammer – and there’s a Fine Detune setting for the B oscillators as well as level control for each.
And what’s this? A white noise source! Apparently only a final few Prophet 600s sold in Japan had this, but it’s a massive addition to the Pro800’s abilities giving vast new possibilities for percussive and effects sounds.
The Poly-Mod and LFO-Mod sections on the panel hold the secrets behind the Pro800’s more advanced modulated sounds. Sure you can create vibrato or filter modulation with Triangle, Sine or Sawtooth shapes. But miraculously the Pro800 had added stepped and smooth Random modulation, giving the instrument a whole new range of possibilities for bubbling, weird, and special effects sounds more commonly associated with the contemporary Oberheim synths or the old Polymoog.
It’s the Poly-Mod that gives the Pro800, as on the original, the ability to go far beyond analog basics. If you route the B oscillators to the filter and/or to the pitch of the A oscillators, you’ll enter a world of clangorous bell-like sounds, ring modulator effects, screeching modulation, and more.
These are areas usually only inhabited by digital synths like the PPG Wave 2, while a powerful Glide parameter can make you sound more like Vangelis playing his Yamaha CS80.
The amplifier and filter envelopes offer ADSR parameters, and the filter can track the keyboard so sounds on higher notes are brighter.
And finally that filter. It’s a powerful 24dB/octave lowpass as on the original (no highpass or other options), but there’s a slight change. The filter on the Prophet 600 was very steppy – you could hear it closing down in stages, which is odd, since it was supposedly fully analog, while only the envelopes and LFOs were digital.
Anyway, this steppiness has gone in favor of a completely smooth close-down. Okay, so this isn’t strictly faithful to the original – but it’s better. In the same way, Behringer changed one characteristic of their EDP Wasp clone slightly to make the very lethargic envelopes much snappier. Who’s complaining?
Panel perfection. Finally on the top panel there’s a Master Tune control (which I would have preferred with a slightly wider span), a Master Volume control, Power On LED, the 5-pin MIDI In socket, and minijack sockets for Sync In to the sequencer and arpeggiator, which can handle various types of click.
There’s a Filter CV input that can work from a pedal for wah-wah effects or from a modular system, a headphone minijack socket, and an Audio Out minijack socket.
On the rear panel there’s a quarter inch audio output, MIDI Out/Thru, Footswitch socket, USB for Sys Ex dumps, Power In for the supplied very compact wall wart, and DIP switches to set MIDI channel. All these are lost if you remove the module from its chassis into Eurorack mounting.
Those sounds. So what sonic role would the Pro800 play in your studio? Despite appearing straightforwardly analog it actually covers a lot of bases. Rich string sounds are one staple, and with wide options for de-tuning and setting intervals between oscillators, and having snappy or smooth envelopes, these can be highly varied. Brass sounds come from adding a little resonance to the filter. For lead lines, just click the Unison switch and you have instant MiniMoog.
Unison Mode can also be useful for bass sounds, which can be very deep and boomy or twangy and resonant. Simple organs and piano, Clavinet, or harpsichord-like sounds are easy to find amongst the factory presets. More synth-like, twangy resonant chordal sounds are among the Pro800’s greatest abilities.
You can hear bands like Tangerine Dream creating these with a Prophet 5 from around 1980. On the subject of which, if you want to sound like “Stranger Things” this could be the instrument for you…
The addition of white noise and random modulation gives the Pro800 a whole new area of special effects sounds not covered by the original. But Poly-Mod and variable square wave shapes always made bell-like, rising or descending sounds possible; Lyle Mays was a frequent user of such sounds from the Prophet 5 with Pat Metheny’s band, as was Richard Barbieri with Japan.
Some conclusions. The Pro800 is well constructed – all the knobs and switches are firm in operation and the membrane buttons have a positive click – while transfer into Eurorack format is no problem. So while a few people have asked for a keyboard version, the Pro800 module basically meets everyone’s desire for a new polyphonic analog synth.
But what’s this I hear? Movement from Sequential, Oberheim, and other companies offering new instrument designs while Behringer has been held up by the worldwide chip shortage?
Well, yes, some devastating sounding new instruments have appeared in the last year or so (many of them in the Synth & Software review of the Synthplex exhibition https://synthandsoftware.com/2022/11/synthplex-2022-the-more-detailed-report/), some with stereo outputs, built-in effects, and split or multi-timbral modes, which the Pro800 doesn’t offer.
But let’s look at the prices. All of these instruments are around $1000/1000GBP and upwards. Some are $2000 or even $3000/GBP.
The Pro800 has come in at $599 USD. That’s a stunning price for an instrument that has more voices and more filters than many competitors, will take up less desk space, and that can be slipped away into a Eurorack if required. And frankly, that offers a sound easily equivalent to and vastly expanding upon that of the original.
A wish list? Built-in effects, a wider ranging Master Tune control, stereo audio outputs, split and layer or multi-timbral facilities, a highpass filter setting, and more minijack interfacing maybe. But all those could be readily implemented on a keyboard version, which could maybe offer three or four octaves rather than the original five.
For the moment, though, the Pro800 in module form is massively appealing. It’s certain to appear on many desktops and in many Eurorack mounts around the world in the very near future.