The resurrection of Moog's stellar bass synth has caused a considerable stir. Can the Taurus 3 live up to the venerable reputation of its ancestor?
Taurus bass pedals are perhaps the finest demonstration in the synthesizer world of the fact that it is better to do one thing extremely well than it is to do lots of things quite well. With just a single octave of pedals, three hard‑wired bass sounds and a single 'Variable' patch that you can adjust using their mere 13 voicing controls, they were used by almost everyone to produce just one sound, still known universally as 'the Taurus'.
Today, the Taurus 3 is the grandchild of the Taurus, and its designers have been wise not to tinker too much with the iconic look or feel of the original. Sure, there are two extra footswitches, the pedals are slightly longer than before, the chunky volume and filter sliders have been replaced by wheels, and the control panel is more complex, but there's much here to suggest that the new product has been designed to slot in precisely where the old one did.
Although Moog Music claim that the voicing circuitry in the Taurus 3 is copied slavishly from the original, I'm not sure how true this can be. Some of the original components are no longer available, and certain circuit designs were adopted in 1976 because there were no modulation sources in the original. This, as you will see, is no longer the case. Similarly, the inclusion of a pitch-calibration procedure but no filter-calibration procedure hints at things decidedly non‑'70s in the Taurus 3's architecture.
Happily, the new model has retained many of the limitations that helped to define the character of the original. So, for example, there are no audio waveform controls, no cross‑modulation, no sync... Each of the two oscillators generates nothing more than a distorted sawtooth wave. As on the original, you can adjust the oscillator mix and alter the tuning of Osc B with respect to Osc A, to obtain the wonderful fat sounds that are the bedrock of the Taurus's appeal, but that's it. Likewise, the original configuration of the Taurus's VCA and its sluggish AR contour generator have been retained, with the (still misnamed) Decay button determining whether the release stage is active or not.
The Taurus 3's 24dB/oct resonant filter and its associated AD contour generator are also based upon the original's, which was itself derived from the 904A low‑pass filter in Moog's modular synths. The controls are the same as on the Taurus — cutoff frequency, resonance, attack, decay and contour amount, but nothing more. There must have been a great temptation to incorporate a more conventional ADSR contour generator here, so it's to Moog's credit that they resisted. They also retained the relationship between the attack time and the contour amount (on the original, increasing the former decreased the latter) and declined to speed up the envelope generated by the AD circuit, which is another good thing; the relative tardiness of this was an important aspect of the character of the original. However, they seem to have got one subtle aspect of the voicing wrong. On my Taurus, the maximum filter cutoff frequency attained by the contour decreases when I play notes rapidly; on the Taurus 3 it increases, as it does on the Minimoog.
Additions to the original voicing come in the form of an LFO and an arpeggiator. The LFO offers four waveforms, can modulate the oscillator pitch and filter cut‑off frequency, and can create effects ranging from gentle filter sweeps to full‑fledged 'the aliens are coming...' idiocy. MIDI sync is also provided, with 20 options ranging from two clocks per note to 384 clocks per note.
The addition of an arpeggiator isn't as strange as you might think; it's great to be able to trigger and transpose latched, arpeggiated bass lines using your feet. What's more, the arpeggiator in the Taurus 3 will play back notes in the order in which you enter them, so it isn't just an arpeggiator, it's a sequencer. You can store an individual note sequence in every patch, which suggests all manner of possibilities. Unfortunately, there's a bug. I created four patches that contained the same voicing but different patterns and attempted to trigger a complete bass track with my feet. Unfortunately, each time that I selected a new patch (ie. a new pattern), the Taurus 3 injected a couple of spurious notes. Hopefully, Moog will correct this, because the principle is an attractive one.
At around 20kg, the Taurus 3 is far from light; indeed, it's chunky, it's difficult to lift, and it's almost impossible to get a grip on when it's sitting on the floor. I can envisage some owners cutting holes in the wooden side panels to help move it around, so somebody at Moog really should have noticed this and done something about it in the design stages. But, this aside, it looks and feels the business and, once you've managed to move it to the desired position, connecting it up couldn't be easier. Plug in mains power (the PSU is universal, so you don't need to worry about line voltages or frequencies), plug a cable into the audio output, switch it on, and you're ready to go. If you have an urge to do so, you can also connect MIDI via the five‑pin DIN In/Out sockets and USB socket, as well as an analogue Gate plus three CVs to control the pitch, filter cutoff frequency and volume.
In its normal mode of operation (which Moog call Preset mode), you can play the pedals as you would expect and edit patches using the facilities provided on the control panel. It's fortunate that the synth engine is so basic, because editing is a bit '1980s', with a 16 x 2-character screen and a single LED bar-graph next to the right‑hand foot-wheel to indicate parameter values.
Talking of the foot‑wheels, there are two of these, and both are illuminated for use on gloomy stages. The one on the left is a dedicated volume control but, whereas the equivalent on the Taurus could never reduce the volume to zero, the Taurus 3 wheel can silence it completely, which is not good given that you're going to be controlling it (or mis‑controlling it) with your size 12s. In contrast, the wheel on the right can be assigned all manner of functions and parameters. Using it to control things such as the modulation depth is useful if you've run out of hands, and both the wheel and the Value encoder (the edit knob in the Master section) send MIDI CC messages corresponding to the parameter in focus, which means that you can use them to control other instruments, and even sequence the results.
While we're discussing MIDI, it's worth noting that, although the Taurus 3 has a fairly complete MIDI implementation, it has no MIDI Thru socket, although you can echo any MIDI received via the USB socket through the five‑pin DIN 'Out' socket. The incoming MIDI can be merged with any data being generated by the Taurus 3 itself, which, in truth, is more useful than a simple Thru. In addition, you can stack multiple Taurus 3s to create the world's most expensive polyphonic bass synth. I'm not sure why you might want to do this, but the option is there nonetheless. You can even use the Taurus 3 as a velocity‑sensitive polyphonic (yes, polyphonic!) controller, with a maximum number of 32 velocity levels. Unfortunately, it does not send pitch‑bend messages, although it will respond to them. Oh yes, and the firmware can also be updated via MIDI.
Selecting patches on the Taurus 3 is a little arcane, but proved to be no problem, provided that I didn't topple over while doing so. In short, a Bank footswitch allows you to select one of 13 banks by pressing the appropriate footpedal (bottom C selects bank A, C# selects bank B, and so on) and you can then choose any of the four patches within the bank by pressing the appropriate footswitch. This means that there are 52 memories in Taurus 3, all of which are filled with factory sounds. Four of these are genuinely preset, but the other 48 can be overwritten with your own creations, if you wish.
The final four footswitches on the Taurus 3 provide controls for transpose, glide on/off, decay on/off and octave up/normal, the last three of which echo the controls on the original. However, they also have secondary functions that allow you to tap the LFO tempo, tap the arpeggiator tempo and latch notes on/off.
Away from Preset mode, the Master mode gives you access to a wide range of advanced parameters such as note priority, the trigger mode, pitch‑bend amounts, and how the synth engine responds to 'live' edits made from the control foot-wheel. There are complete menus for MIDI Setup, SysEx, and all manner of system utilities, including the ability to restore the factory settings and the calibration routine for the foot-wheels and the oscillators.
There have been innumerable debates regarding the source of the original Taurus's sonic depth and quality, but this is now well understood. Part of the answer was revealed many years ago when someone explained that the outputs from the oscillators in the presets were not mixed equally, thus allowing the creation of huge, detuned sounds without the depth of phase cancellation (beating) that would have occurred had they been present in equal volumes. Another part of the answer lay in the level of the signal presented to the filter's input. This overdrove the filter, compressing the signal and creating a mild distortion that warms the timbre, much like those glowing bottle thingies that guitarists love so much. Another important characteristic was the low‑frequency boost generated by the coupling between the filter circuit and the audio amplifier. Put all of these characteristics together, play the results through a handful of 18‑inch speakers... and the earth moves.
So does the Taurus 3 come up to the mark? To test this, I plugged my original Taurus pedals and the Taurus 3 directly into two Yamaha KA20 100W active speakers sitting alongside one another and started by comparing the three preset sounds that are common to both instruments.
'Bass' uses both oscillators, and is quite percussive. The sounds generated by the two instruments proved to be similar, although the Taurus 3 is brighter, whereas the original pedals are undeniably a little fatter. The Taurus 3's 'Tuba' is also a tad brighter than the Taurus's although, by closing the filter a touch, I could make the two sound all but indistinguishable from one another. But what of the fabulous 'Taurus' preset itself? On the Taurus 3, this 'speaks' a little more quickly than on my Taurus pedals, and mine is somewhat nastier (in a good way). There's a snarl in the old girl that is nearly, but not quite, emulated by the young pretender. Would I be able to tell the difference if I was playing either model in isolation? Probably not, and I'm sure that the audience would not.
'Taurus III' is a new preset with no equivalent on the original pedals. This is a big, warm, rolling sound that comes with glide switched on by default. Altering the filter cutoff frequency using the foot-wheel allows you to alter this from a short and civilised sound into something sustained, brash and dominating. I'm sure that many players will love it.
As for the other 48 sounds, there's no room here to discuss each of them, and some seem to have little purpose other than to demonstrate the Taurus 3's enhanced capabilities. So, for example, the sounds in banks D and E demonstrate the effect of directing the LFO to the filter, Bank G contains arpeggiated patches, bank J demonstrates some lead‑synth sounds at the top of the instrument's range, and bank L concentrates on patches with high levels of filter resonance. But my favourites are more quotidian. 'Growl Bass' is like a more subdued version of the original Taurus preset, while 'Fretlessish' is muted and uses the LFO and glide to create a sound that could never have been obtained from the original. Finally, there's a classic patch that I have been creating for sound libraries and using for three decades. Much like the Taurus preset itself, but with a large amount of filter resonance, it's a marvellous deep, sweeping bass sound. And its name? Well... it's 'Gordon'. No, it couldn't be, could it?
Vintage Taurus pedals are now exceedingly rare. What is even rarer is a set that works properly. The most common fault is that of dirty, damaged or corroded pedal contacts, resulting in mis‑triggering, lost notes, or even silence from every note above the damaged one. They could also be prone to power-supply faults, resulting in all manner of calibration issues, and failing trimmers caused tuning problems. Physically, they were prone to losing their control-panel covers and bezels (thus admitting all manner of crap into the body of the synth itself), and broken keys were almost guaranteed on any set taken out of the studio. So until recently, the question was, "should I wait in the hope that a decent set of Taurus pedals appear, or should I use a set of MIDI pedals and hook them up to a sound source of some kind?” (I recently programmed a patch on Propellerhead's Thor synth that is remarkably close to the real thing; played from my Korg MPK130 MIDI bass pedals it even feels good, and I have no doubt that the audience are unaware of the deceit being perpetrated upon them.)
But today, the question has changed. Ignoring the cost, it's simply, "does the new Taurus model nail the sound of the original?”. With the two sitting next to one another, their sounds can be almost identical, and I would have no hesitation in using the Taurus 3 live or in the studio. But if you're a dyed‑in‑the‑wool Taurus fanatic, there's still a small but indefinable difference, especially in the lowest register. This may be a consequence of the age and decrepitude of my Taurus (let's face it... we all tend to get fatter and more authoritative as we get older), but I think that it's more than that. As a knowledgeable friend said when he visited me during the course of this review, the sound of the Taurus 3 proclaims "hey, listen to me… I'm big and fat and authoritative and gorgeous” whereas the original Taurus pedals simply are big and fat and authoritative and gorgeous and didn't give a flying f*** whether you appreciated the difference or not.
Some people say that the Mariana Trench is the deepest thing on Earth. Others believe that the teachings of René Descartes ("I drink, therefore I am”) are pretty deep too. But musicians of a certain age will tell you that there's nothing deeper than a set of Taurus pedals. It's not a matter of pitch; there are all manner of synthesizers with oscillators that reach down to subsonic frequencies. It's a matter of authority. A few instruments have it; most do not. Despite the small differences between the new model and the original, the Taurus 3 has it. Sure, it sounds cleaner and more civilised than my 30‑something Taurus pedals, but it nevertheless recreates the restrained snarl and depth of the originals. A worthy successor.
In 1973, Moog Music announced the Constellation, three synthesizers that could be purchased as a "completely co‑ordinated performance ensemble” or as individual instruments. The upper manual was to have been the Lyra monosynth. This never reached production, but was later cut down to become the basis of the Multimoog. The lower manual, called the Apollo, was to have combined preset synthesizer voices with programmable features. The prototype was used by Keith Emerson for ELP's Brain Salad Surgery tour, but also failed to enter production in its original form, reappearing a couple of years later as the Polymoog. The third was a single‑octave bass-pedal unit called the Taurus. Again, this never reached manufacture in its original form, but the name, as well as the concept, survived, and the redesigned Taurus pedals sold in small numbers for five years from 1976 onward.
In 1981, Norlin Music replaced the Taurus with the Taurus II, comprising a wider pedalboard and a separate sound generator that could be mounted on a pole at waist height. Described by many as a Moog Rogue on a stick, the Taurus II offered more audio waveforms, oscillator sync and overdrive, as well as pitch modulation, filter modulation and envelope triggering from its multi‑waveform LFO. But to this day, the Taurus II has the unhappy distinction of being the most reviled of all analogue synthesizers. The Rogue has a small band of devoted followers, but players loved to hate the same synth engine in the Taurus II, simply because it didn't generate 'that' sound.
By the start of 1983, digital synthesis had arrived, MIDI was just round the corner, and MIDI bass pedals were to appear not long after. The original Moog company ceased trading in 1984, but in 1998, a short‑lived Welsh company (Moog Music Limited) announced the re‑release of the Taurus to accompany its Model 204E recreation of the Minimoog. The pedals never appeared, but shortly thereafter Bob Moog regained the rights to his name in the USA, Moog Music was reborn, the Voyager was announced, and the clamour for Taurus pedals began anew. In the autumn of 2008, Moog Music asked aficionados to put their money where their mouths were and to pay $500 each to fund the development of a limited edition of 1000 units. Many players were willing to do so, and the Taurus 3 was born.
The most famous users of Taurus pedals are rooted in the prog‑rock of the late 1970s: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and, most significantly, Mike Rutherford of Genesis, as well as Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush. Later users included Saga, Marillion, Asia, and the Police. But my favourite Taurus player was Steve Hackett's brother John, who played a set with his fists, most notably on 'Clocks' (1979), in which he used one hand to press the pedals, while the other 'played' the octave switch to give the pedals an apparent two‑octave range.
It's easy to understand why the original Taurus pedals remain so desirable. There's the sound, of course. But just as important, there's the essential 'rightness' of the design, which inserts no impediments between the player and the performance. Big, chunky sliders designed for your oversize wellies, footswitches placed far enough apart so that you don't hit the wrong one on a gloomy stage, and pedals that are easy to play when you're balancing on one leg... all are important factors that helped to make the Taurus pedals what they were.
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