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Why does everyone love the Minimoog?

Minimoog
(Image credit: Future)

The Minimoog might not require introduction, but it is certainly worth considering why it garners the reputation that it does, while continuing to be a highly-inspirational object of desire for studio musicians, performers and enthusiasts alike. Enter the legend...

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. 

Absolutely everyone had to have one…

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 photo shoot 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!

The included filter has become the stuff of legends

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…

Minimoog Model D

(Image credit: Future)

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 Minimoog is arguably the most inspirational synth of all time

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. 

There was also a lack of dedicated Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) on the original Mini, requiring the user to use one of the main three VCOs to Lo mode, for creating LFO modulation. However, there were two 3-stage envelopes, for independent control of amplitude and filter cutoff modulation. 

The early Minimoogs are still legendary. However they do have a reputation for wandering in and out of tune. The early discrete circuitry was open to fluctuation, with extended warm up times for tuning stability, and had a notable reaction to changes in room temperature. 

Regardless, they continue to be highly desired, so much so, that Moog Music released a new, but limited edition reissue of the Minimoog in 2016. Offering a carbon-copy facsimile of the original, this beautiful reincarnation also introduced a dedicated LFO, alongside MIDI connectivity, to accompany traditional connectivity via CV & Gate.

Moog hardware vs. Moog software

It is a 2016 reissue that we are using as the benchmark for our comparisons, but can software really come up to the same sound and detail of a new piece of analogue hardware?

If anyone can tell us this, it’s Moog themselves. If you’re working to a budget, but find yourself with an iPhone or iPad, you can have a faithful reincarnation of the Model D, Minimoog Model D App, right at your fingertips, and made by Moog. Obviously, this will not be an analogue hardware heavyweight, but can it stand tall against the sound of the original? 

Apart from the rather obvious physical manifestation, albeit on a touchscreen, the Model D app looks and feels very similar to the classic hardware. Moreover, as 50 or so years have now elapsed, Moog have helpfully implemented a number of useful additions and upgrades, which might vindicate the experience, that is if the several thousand pound price differential alone is not enough! 

The first of these upgrades includes the presence of a dedicated LFO, which although not on the 1970 original, was included in the 2016 reissue. The iOS app also downloads with 160 superb production ready presets, with capacity for your own sonic creations to be saved within the device’s own storage. 

The original Minimoog offers no possibility for patch saving, although it is worth mentioning that the Moog Voyager, which adopts a similar sound and architecture to the original, has plenty of patch saving capacity, along with other useful enhancements, although many users report that it lacks the depth and gutsy sound of the original.

Like four Moogs

Next, in this new addition’s line-up, is 4-note polyphony. The original is, and always has been, a monosynth, so the concept of being able to play polyphonically has always been a pipe dream. This, of course, is one of the biggest advantages of software; you can often add voices easily, along with other revisions available through software updates. 

It’s also great to see the addition of an effects section, which includes elements such as a Delay and Looper, or our own personal favourite, the Arpeggiator. These offer instant gratification, so much so, it’s our view that all synths should have an arpeggiator, enshrined in law! 

Minimoog Model D app

(Image credit: Moog Music)

The final huge plus-point which we’ve already touched upon is the price. At just £14.99, the app is a complete steal (and it was even free for a limited time recently!). You might download the Minimoog Model D App on a whim, but it’s usage extends way beyond simple sofa-bound noodling. 

By equipping your iOS device with appropriate additional hardware, you will have a great sounding, tactile and very versatile classic synth at your disposal, made by the company behind the original masterpiece.

And... on your desktop

Meanwhile, many other companies have flirted with the Model D, in both hardware and software form – see previous page. Arturia produced one of the earliest software versions of the Model D, which is now in its v3 phase. 

Known as the Mini V, Arturia’s software is available in all the usual popular plugin formats, for both Mac OS and Windows PC. Arturia describe the Mini V as a faithful reproduction of the original, which certainly appears to be the case from the interface, which is inviting and enticing, for user tweak-ability. 

Being software, there are many enhancements, many of which resonate with the Moog iOS app. The plugin relies on Arturia’s TAE technology, which boasts accurate mimicking of analogue oscillators, filters and even clipping. Alongside the same signal-flow content of three VCOs and 4-pole filter, there is also a dedicated LFO for modulation, which can be used alongside a relatively comprehensive modulation matrix. 

This allows up to eight connections from 15 sources, applied to 35 destinations. That’s modular-scale modulation, which was also a pipe-dream for the original. There is also plenty of preset and memory capacity, back-end effects and a wonderful arpeggiator, and the polyphonic voice count has been increased to a whopping 32 notes. 

One other notable feature is the presence of a vocal filter, for creating really interesting vocal-formant style effects, with its own dedicated LFO. Costing a mere €149, this is a great Mini-clone, which has enduring longevity, thanks to its latest v3 construct. 

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.

Meanwhile, Studio Electronics have taken the Mini and put it on steroids. The MidiMini v30 is a 4u rack mounted box, that provides a Minimoog with a host of added features and colour, which also includes Eurorack connectivity, although it also functions straight out of the box, without additional Eurorack hardware. It sounds epic, weighty and is sublimely powerful. A Mini for the current age!

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