Horror Synths: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 Synthesizer
I think we can all agree that synthesizers are an integral, defining element of late seventies and early eighties horror (so much so that vintage synths are being used in current films to reference that period). This alternative (or augment) to a traditional symphonic score offered a new palette of textures and at a cost that even modest sized productions could afford. As with all horror film music, these instruments were used to establish mood, heighten tension, and enhance the visceral impact of onscreen gore.
In 1977 Sequential Circuits (based in San Jose, CA) released the Prophet 5 synthesizer, designed in less than 8 months by engineers Dave Smith and John Bowen. Its main competition at the time was the Oberheim OBX and the massive Yamaha CS80. It was followed by a dual-keyboard version called the Prophet 10 in 1980, and stayed in production until 1984; approximately 8000 were sold during that time frame.
The earliest usage of the Prophet in a horror film that I was able to find is Denny Zeitlin's gurgling, spacey score for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), where it was used mainly for sound effects. But the real magic started when John Carpenter and Alan Howarth featured the Prophet 5 and Prophet 10 in their collaborative scores, first for Escape From New York (1981), then Halloween II (1981), and most prominently in Halloween III. Howarth, who had previously used the Prophet as the sound of the warp drive for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, says of Halloween II: "The timpani effect produced by the Prophet 10 Synthesizer was just the right sound to set the mood for the film’s second half and I used it as a connective thread in the Shape’s pursuit of Laurie Strode."
Around the same time, the Prophet started showing up as a primary element of other horror scores. Howard Shore used a Prophet 5 and an ARP 2600 for the more synthy moments in Scanners (an orchestra was also used):
In 1984, Charles Bernstein used a Prophet 5 (as well as other synths) in his score for Nightmare on Elm Street. [correction: according to Charles this was actually a Pro-One, the smaller monophonic descendant of the Prophet 5]. I hadn't really listened to this separate from the film until now, but I think there's some fantastic stuff in there:
Another really great use of the Prophet is in Mark Isham's score for The Hitcher (1986). I'll admit that for some reason I've never seen this film, but after listening to the score, I know that this will be in my DVD player very soon:
And of course there are many other examples, including the scores for Maniac, The Boogeyman, Contamination, Inseminoid and Hell Night. On the non-horror side of things, a Prophet was used to create the metallic heartbeat sound effect in The Terminator (1984). The sound designers for Tron used one to create the sounds of the Recognizers and tanks, and combined it with recordings of a motorcycle to create the Light Cycle sound effects.
Aside from film scores, here are some other places to hear the Prophet in use:
- Philip Glass Ensemble - Einstein on the Beach
- Whodini - Escape (album)
- Peter Gabriel III (album)
- Larry Fast / Synergy - Games (album)
- Daryl Hall & John Oates - I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) -- you can see it in the video!
- Radiohead - Everything in its Right Place
- Ray Parker confirms that he used the Prophet 5 on music for Fraggle Rock, including Uncle Traveling Matt
Read on, if you're interested in some technical details...
The Prophet 5 has become especially loved for its great bass sounds and swirling filter effects (called "poly-mod"). At the time of its release, the Prophet was one of the first analog synths capable of 5-note polyphony (meaning that you could play multiple notes at the same time to form chords). Even though the sound circuitry is entirely analog, it was fully computer-controlled - this allowed sounds to be easily stored and recalled, rather than requiring sounds to be created from scratch each time (by using patch cords and/or setting knobs). The koa wood end pieces on the instrument were a nice detail, too. For detailed technical specs, see the Prophet 5 page on vintagesynth.com.
There are a few different versions of the Prophet 5, which are referred to by their revision number: Rev. 1, Rev. 2, and Rev. 3. The Revision 1 and 2 units used SSM chips and had trouble staying in tune, but many think they have a thicker sound. The Revision 3 units used Curtis CEM chips instead (manufactured by EMU), which provided much more stable tuning, but apparently their sound is slightly thinner. Most of the Prophet 5 units do not have a MIDI interface, although some of the later Rev. 3 units do; retrofit kits that added this feature became available sometime later. Prophets frequently show up on eBay and can range in price from $4000 to $6000, depending on the revision and condition of the unit.
Dave Smith helped create the MIDI standard in 1982, while still designing new synthesizers for Sequential Circuits. He now has his own line of equipment, and released the updated Prophet '08 in 2007, to celebrate its 30-year anniversary.