We have to start at the very beginning, with the godfather of subtractive synthesis, Robert Moog. The son of an electrical engineer, Bob Moog’s interest in electronic musical instruments started very young. Aged just ten years old, he started building simple radio circuits and other electrical projects, one of which was a three-note electronic organ.
A move to the Bronx High School of Science allowed the teenage Bob to take his interest more seriously, and it was at the tender age of 15 that he built his first Theremin as part of a science fair. Further projects followed, which included more electronic organs and even a Geiger counter, but Bob was utterly captivated by the Theremin, continuing to revise his self-builds as part of a business that he started with his father. This fledgling business called Ramco, was renamed in 1954 to R. A. Moog Co. Yet more Theremins followed but one model, called the 351, offered tone shaping capabilities, setting the direction for much greater things to come.
Moog’s debut modules
It was some ten years later that Moog began collaborations with other like-minded individuals, creating early synthesiser modules that would respond to voltage control. These new technologies gained interest from notable composers and experimental musicians, such as John Cage, and formed the blueprint for what would become the first synthesisers which were released in 1967, branded Models I, II & III. Not only were these the first machines of their kind, but they were also instrumental in the introduction of the word ‘synthesiser’ into the musical landscape (although probably ‘synthesizer’ given the US origin).
The popularity and acceptance of these early modular machines was fairly swift, with early demonstrations of the system from electronic pioneer Wendy Carlos, alongside usage on rock and pop albums by The Doors and The Monkeys. It was the release of the legendary album Switched on Bach in 1968, winning two Grammy Awards the following year, that really cemented the arrival of synthesiser technology, although Bob Moog was unhappy with the original album cover. Portraying J.S. Bach himself, in a slightly giggling-pose in front of a Moog Modular System, the first incarnation of the cover seemed to trivialise the sound that the instrument made, as Bach mugged at the camera, as though he were hearing a strange sound. To make matters worse, the headphones were plugged into the input of a filter, which would have resulted in no sound. The same actor portraying Bach was booked for another photoshoot for a replacement cover. It was reshot in an altogether more serious and stately pose, this time with a correctly connected pair of headphones!
More Moog access The two big problems with the original Moog Modular systems were the price and the physical size, both of which were gigantic. Having overcome the extreme cost of the system, you were then merely faced with the practicalities of transporting it from A to B. There was clearly a need for something smaller and more compact, but also something with similar functionality.
In 1970, the Minimoog was born. Also known as the Model D, it offered all the big selling points of the Modular in a form which you could just about carry under your arm… at least you could if you were quite strong; it was an early analogue beast and pretty heavy!
Regardless of its physicality, it was convenient; the Mini offered a panel which could be raised to an angle, with a 44-note keyboard in front of it, so creating sounds was an immediate prospect, requiring no patching with cables. It was a performance synth which quickly became the must-have for a veritable who’s who of pop, rock, jazz and commercial music. Absolutely everyone had to have one…
Setting a blueprint
Moreover, this condensed format became the benchmark for synthesiser design in future years. At the beginning of the signal chain were three Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs), each offering six different waveforms which included triangle, saw and the legendary shark tooth waveform. Pulse Width Modulation was not possible, so three incarnations of square/pulse wave were included. The three VCOs could be altered in pitch, through the use of either coarse-tuning octave pots, or variable fine-tuning pots, which could extend to large intervals of a fifth, either side of the desired fundamental pitch. The VCOs were then fed into a mixer, where they could be adjusted in volume, alongside two other elements: white/ pink noise and an external input. This latter input became very important in the use of the instrument, as many musicians experimented with the Mini, discovering that the headphone output could be fed into the External input, creating a loop which would overdrive the circuit, creating distortion.
The included filter (VCF) has become the stuff of legends. Fabled for its incredible depth and warmth, mostly due to its analogue design and makeup, the 24dB/4-pole design was fixed in a low-pass mode. It sounds rich and full, while playing in the lower frequencies, making it a firm favourite for bass sounds. The associated filter resonance whistles into action if applied liberally, but does manifest a sound which lacks low-end content in this setting. This was also one of the reasons for employing the headphone-loop-around trick, as the distortion would replace some of the low-frequency content, reduced by the resonance.
Other ways to get the Moog sound
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that, as the Minimoog is arguably the most inspirational synth of all time, there are many other versions available to suit your way of working.
Other notable software contenders include the Native Instruments Monark, G-Force Software Minimonsta and the UVI UltraMini, which all offer their own take on the original. We could easily have included more of these in our tests but time and space are always constraints and the Arturia was included very much as it was an early emulation and does not go too much ‘off road’; it is almost a classic in itself!
There have also been a substantial number of hardware clones over the years; it’s fair to say that with hardware, you will most certainly get what you pay for, and two of our favourites come from highly respected companies, with a price tag that assures quality.
The AJH Synth MiniMod Eurorack system offers an alarmingly close emulation of the Mini, but in Eurorack form. This has advantages, as it allows for connectivity with other more contemporary modules, giving the Mini concept a new lease of life. Being Eurorack, it will require a degree of modular infrastructure before installing.
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