Never one to bear a grudge, he reviews Moog's most unruly synth with the benefit of hindsight. In the rogue's gallery of analogue 'classics' fetching ever higher prices on the second-hand market these days, an especially prized item is Moog's Memorymoog, a hefty polyphonic synth with a reputation for producing the strongest, most powerful analogue sounds since Moog's early modular synths.
When speaking to keyboard players about the Memorymoog, the response you'll often get is one of unabashed gear lust -- lots of players badly want one of these, and the few examples which appear for sale disappear very quickly. This has led to a strange state of affairs where many of the people who most want a Memorymoog have never actually played one!
If you speak to someone who has owned a Memorymoog for any length of time, though, you may hear a different story. Yes, they sound fantastic, but the distressing and occasionally downright bizarre tales of unreliability may come as a shock to those of us reared on modern synthesizers -- you know, ones that actually work.
The Memorymoog was the last instrument marketed by Moog Music -- a later polysynth, the SL8, was exhibited at at least one trade show, but never put on sale, owing to the company's bankruptcy. At the time of the Memorymoog's release -- 1982 in Britain, a little earlier in America -- it was greatly sought after. A polyphonic version of the much-loved Minimoog was bound to be a winner -- one merely wonders why the company didn't try to produce it earlier.
It was, it must be said, very expensive, well out of reach of anyone who wasn't a professional musician, though a glimpse at adverts of the time shows that it was slightly cheaper than some of its contemporaries; instruments such as the Roland Jupiter 8 or the Oberheim OBXa.
At the time I, along with many other young synthesizer fans, would spend many happy hours in the local music store, annoying the sales assistants there with our inept attempts at playing. The Memorymoog was the most popular instrument with us -- there was no doubt that it sounded far better than any of its competitors, so there was always a queue to play it. None of us could actually afford one, of course, but we could dream...
In the North East, where I grew up, most of the people who actually could afford Memorymoogs and the like played in covers bands on the working men's club circuit [and me Uncle Albert used to breed whippets -- Ed]. The majority of these players sold their big analogue polysynths when the Yamaha DX7 appeared on the market. To the modern synthesist, obsessed with knobs and switches, the idea of selling a Memorymoog to buy a DX7 may seem like like the act of a madman, but to a working musician at the time, it made a lot of sense. The DX7 was smaller, lighter, more reliable, and most importantly, made better piano and organ sounds.
For a short while, and as a direct result of the success of the DX7, many of today's big collector's instruments were available second-hand, to those of us on a budget. Memorymoogs sold fastest, so much so that I bought a Rhodes Chroma because I never managed to put a deposit down on a Memorymoog in time!
Those with rich parents or good jobs got a nice-looking 6-note polyphonic keyboard for their £3100, with each voice being an improved version of the Minimoog. You got three oscillators with triangle, sawtooth and variable pulse waveforms, selectable individually or in any combination -- sawtooth and triangle mix particularly well! You could synchronise VCO2 to VCO1, which offered an advantage over the Minimoog, as well as other analogue polysynths. With the Memorymoog's extra oscillator, you could even get oscillator sync and swirly detune effects at the same time. The three VCOs can be mixed together with pink noise if you so desire, and then routed through the filter.
There is much hype surrounding the Moog low-pass VCF and its rich, powerful sound. I'm afraid it's all true. If you get a chance to have a go on a Memorymoog, try tuning all three oscillators to Unison, and select sawtooth waves for all of them. Then, play a low note on the keyboard while sweeping the filter, which ideally should have a little resonance (or Emphasis, as Moog dubbed it). A truly inspiring sound! If you turn the levels of the VCOs up full, the filter circuit distorts slightly, making it sound even better. As well as controls for Cutoff Frequency and Emphasis, the filter has a pair of switches for keyboard tracking, which can select 0, 1/3, 2/3 or full keyboard control of VCF frequency.
Each voice has two envelope generators, one each for the VCF and VCA. The envelopes (or 'Contours', in Moog-speak) are standard ADSR types with a shared set of four buttons to add extra effects. One merely turns off the release time, which doesn't seem too useful to me, but the other three controls are unusual, and can produce some interesting effects:
'Unconditional Contour' causes the envelope to run through the full attack/release times, regardless of how long you hold the keys.
'Return to Zero' cuts off the release of any existing notes when you play new ones; useful if you are using long release times, and don't want the sound to get muddy.
'Keyboard Follow' shortens the envelope times as you play higher up the keyboard -- a nice effect, but it would perhaps have been more useful as a variable control, rather than a switched, on/off effect. An unusual feature of the envelopes is that the Attack, Decay and Release knobs have time graduations marked on the panel. A nice idea, this -- marred only by the inaccuracy of the marked times!
The modulation options on the Memorymoog are limited when compared with many modern instruments. There is only one LFO, which can be sent to any or all of the following destinations: VCO 1, 2 or 3 pitch; VCO1, 2 or 3 pulse width and VCF cutoff. The LFO has a rate control and a choice of waveforms: triangle; forward and reverse sawtooth; square; and random sample and hold. No sine wave, I'm afraid.
Below the LFO section is the 'voice modulation' section, which is similar to the 'poly mod' section on the Prophet 5. You can route VCO3 or the VCF envelope generator to any of the following destinations: VCO1 or 2 frequency; VCO1 or 2 pulse width and VCF cutoff. There is a button to invert the VCF envelope's output, as well as a rather effective button which controls the amount of VCO3 modulation from the VCF envelope. VCO3 also has a pair of buttons to switch it to low frequency, or to remove it from keyboard control.
Judicious twiddling of these controls will yield many excellent effects. My favourites are modulating VCO1 with the LFO, and VCO2 with VCO3 for a rich, swirly ensemble sound, and adding a little frequency modulation from VCO3 to the beginning of notes, using the VCF envelope.
Although the modulation controls are effective, there are limitations. You can't send different amounts of modulation to different destinations, for example. This is one area where modern instruments, such as the Emu Vintage Keys or the Korg Wavestation, leave the Memorymoog (and most other old analogue polysynths, for that matter) behind. The Memorymoog voice could certainly use another envelope generator, so that different VCF and voice modulation effects could be programmed. Most frustrating.
Enough of the technical stuff for now -- you'll be wondering what it actually sounds like! Fantastic is, I'm afraid, the only answer. The modern, MIDI-equipped synthesist will be used to layering different sounds together for extra warmth and richness. This is something you'll rarely, if ever, have to do with a Memorymoog, as it's quite capable of filling a track out on its own. Sometimes the power of the Memorymoog's sound can be too much for certain tracks. Indeed, so rich and full is it that it can easily swamp other sounds!
Although you'd never expect this instrument to produce accurate recreations of 'real world' instruments, you may be suprised at the wide range of sounds it actually can produce -- far more than your standard analogue polysynth repertoire. The Memorymoog is also capable of great delicacy, as well as great power. The Best Memorymoog sounds are, in my opinion, its 'wash' or 'pad' sounds. Lovely brass and string ensemble sounds just seem to pour out of it during any programming session, and loads of good abstract synthetic chord sounds can quickly be created, to add character to any style of music.
It is possible to play the instrument monophonically, and though it doesn't sound exactly like a Minimoog, I think the extra controls more than make up for any discrepancy in the sound. As well as being able to play one of its six voices monophonically, you can also play all six, in unison, from a single key. I can almost hear the analogue freaks drooling over the prospect of '18 Moog oscillators' and 'six Moog filters' blasting away at once -- yet to my ears it sounds crap, buzzy and harsh. More is less in this case, I'm afraid.
The Memorymoog had quite a decent set of presets when it came out. One that I remember especially well was a choir sound. It was pretty special, the best synth choir I ever heard, in fact. I went through the programs on the model I had looking for it, but of course it wasn't there. If you're trying a Memorymoog out, look out for it.
Some Memorymoogs are more equal than others. The Memorymoog Plus came late in the production cycle, with the questionable addition of a very basic sequencer, and almost ludicrously basic MIDI implementation. If, despite my warnings, you persist in wanting a Memorymoog, I wouldn't worry too much about this -- save up your money and fit the LAMM upgrade (see box above).
I've got no axe to grind; I'm a musician, not a collector, and nor am I trying to sell you a Memorymoog. Maybe that's why I'd advise against buying one at any price.
Let's get the price bit out of the way first. One reason why Memorymoogs very seldom come up for sale is that, compared to more modern instruments like the Korg M1 or the Yamaha SY85, there weren't that many sold. Another reason is the current vogue for analogue synths of all kinds, particularly among the Japanese, whose buying power has pushed the price of Memorymoogs up to what I consider to be a quite unacceptable level -- you'd be doing well to get one for much less than a thousand pounds. To some readers this may not seem too bad, but it's actually terrible value when you consider the instrument's legendary unreliability. I once saw a band whose keyboard player had no fewer than three Memorymoogs on stage at once. At the time I thought this rather excessive, but now I know why -- he needed the backup, because the Memorymoog is, I'm afraid, one instrument which is almost sure to let you down.
They seem, on the whole, to have been quite badly put together, and broke down a lot, even when new. Ten years later, they won't have got any better. The main problem is the tuning, which will go off at the slightest provocation. A friend of mine bought one several years ago, and found the usual tuning problems manifesting themselves when he tried to play it. He took it to the repair shop, only to find (typically) that the instrument worked perfectly there. After an hour or so back at home, it went horribly flat again. This performance was repeated several times, until the engineer actually visited the poor chap's home. After some investigations, the engineer noticed that the Memorymoog was situated near a radiator, and every time the central heating switched itself on, bang went the tuning. How's that for 'analogue warmth'?
It's only fair to point out that Memorymoogs can be made to work reliably, by having a series of modifications made by a German company. Linntronics are based in Nuremberg, and will take your sick synth and put everything that was wrong with it right! They will also substantially upgrade the instrument's operating system, giving such benefits as velocity sensitivity (over MIDI), better parameter resolution, system exclusive capability and so on. This is the good news. The bad news is that the instrument has to go to Germany to have all this done, and the cost is high -- apparently, you'll not see much change from £2000, once you've taken the transport costs and sad state of Sterling against the Mark into consideration. If you really want to stick with your Moog, though, then the LAMM is worth saving up for. I wish they did one for the Chroma!
Unfortunately, the expense of this is such that, bearing in mind that it's really an essential addition, buying a Memorymoog is strictly for the committed and deranged only! There are alternatives, though, if you're really keen on that 'big' analogue sound. The first of these is the Oberheim OBMx, which has Moog-style filters, (see SOS September 1994). The second, and most intriguing, is the Studio Electronics SE6, which was announced at the 1995 Frankfurt show. At the time of writing, I have no information on this, but it would appear to be a polyphonic version of their SE1 monosynth. If this is the case, the SE6 will be a real winner -- a Memorymoog for the '90s. Why, then, should you waste your time and money on an instrument which is apt to let you down when you need it most? Leave this one to the collectors.
A Linntronics/Musikhalle, 20 Bullmann Strasse, Nuremberg 8500, Germany.