Photos courtesy of Roger Luther/MoogArchives.com
Synthesizers, and especially the original Moog modular, were amongst the most important new musical instruments of the 20th century. Not only were the sounds these machines made completely original, but the technology behind them led to a flood of entirely new music styles. It's no exaggeration to say that virtually every synth ever mentioned in this magazine is a direct descendant of those original Moog designs. And Dr Robert Moog wasn't just the innovating force behind the instrument — he also created many of its properties, and defined the terms for almost everything that happened next.
So it's a bit of a surprise to find that in some ways, the original Moog modular isn't actually all that good. To understand why, it's necessary to backtrack a little and look at what was happening in electronic music in the early '60s. By then, electronic music technology had already had a long and varied history. But its most distinguishing characteristics were that it was supremely inconvenient to work with, and the results were unlikely to appeal to a typical music lover. Academic composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis were notorious for spending years working in studios stuffed to the ceiling with old-fashioned lab test equipment, obsessively layering overtones onto hand-edited tapes, to produce music that typically sounded like a saucer full of angry aliens with 400 fingernails each, colliding with a room full of extra-squeaky blackboards.
Not wanting to be outdone by these esoteric European efforts, the US was busy playing catch-up. One of the most successful projects was the RCA MkII synthesizer at Columbia-Princeton University, which was a kind of very crude modular, and a major influence on what was to come later. Outside of academia, Bebe and Louis Barron's eerie soundtrack to the film Forbidden Planet was far ahead of its time, and is still bafflingly impressive today. And maverick genius Raymond Scott had made a fine career producing bleeps and burbles for advertising and cartoons, using a monstrous room full of home-made valve-based music hardware.
All these sources were a direct influence on the young Robert Moog. With an engineer father, and a mother who made him spend hours practising scales on the family grand, Moog was already fascinated by sound and by electronics. He had grown up with the '50s sounds of the Barrons and Raymond Scott, and being both more than averagely bright and also famously inventive, at the age of 19 he published a design for a theremin in an electronics magazine. Over the next couple of years, he made a small fortune by selling more than a thousand Theremin kits for $50 each. By 1963, Moog Music was up and running. Theremins and trashy guitar amps made up the entire product range, but memories of a visit with his father to Raymond Scott's workshop and sporadic news of developments at Columbia-Princeton kept Moog experimenting with more novel circuits. By the summer of 1964, he had working designs for a voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier. Visits by experimental composer Herb Deutsch led to idea swaps, an exposure to more difficult academic music, and the beginnings of an early modular prototype — a keyboardless monophonic design, triggered by a not-so-very hi-tech doorbell push.
At this stage, the hardware still did very little. Even so, Moog and Deutsch made a trip across the border to the music department at the University of Toronto, and immediately wowed the composers and academics there. This meeting was responsible for a suggestion that changed the future of synthesis. Until now, the Moog system was filterless. In Toronto, someone — history has failed to record exactly who — commented that the system would be even more useful with a voltage-controlled filter. Slightly later, Columbia-Princeton composer Vladimir Ussachevsky made another essential contribution by proposing the original concept of the ADSR envelope generator.
It's one of the quirks of the Moog design that it followed this general collaborative pattern. Bob Moog himself is always careful to credit the many people who made suggestions and contributed design ideas. Far from being a solo Moog effort, the final shape of the modular was a combined project featuring the input of many people. Moog's genius was to create circuitry that put their ideas into practice. Only the details of the filter design were ever patented. The other concepts — modularity, envelope generation, voltage control, and the rest — were left commercially unprotected. If Moog had tried to create a monopoly on these fundamentals, it's likely the synth industry as we know it today would never have happened.
With the addition of a few ancillary circuits such as a noise generator and some very simple mixers, the modular was ready for business. After an appearance at the 1965 AES conference, success grew slowly over the next couple of years, with sales spread mostly by word of mouth and some rather minimal Moog advertising. At this point the Moog remained a very esoteric piece of musical hardware. The first few modulars were only available to special order, based on module listings in the typewritten Moog catalogue. It was hard to buy an instrument when you had no idea of what most of the parts did, or how to put them together, so the first few customers were experimental composers (such as electronic TV theme and advertising jingle composer Eric Siday, who purchased the second ever Moog synth, and universities that had the technical background needed to make sense of the new machine. And the price remained prohibitive. A full set of modules might cost a few thousand dollars — easily equivalent to $40,000 and upwards at today's prices.
Compared to the instant gratification of today's hardware, beginners found the Moog a nightmare to work with. In fact anyone playing the keys on a newly delivered modular would be greeted by silence. Sound wouldn't appear until a useful combination of modules had been patched to the output lines. Because the system was completely open, there was nothing to stop users attempting pointless patch experiments such as connecting an ADSR directly to the output. There were no Moog synth programming books available, no Internet, and no patch-sharing — in fact, no patches at all, because patch memories wouldn't be invented until the '70s. Users either learned by working the system out for themselves, by word of mouth from other users, or by attending the various Moog demonstration seminars that Herb Deutsch and Bob Moog organised to help sell the hardware. Moog did eventually contribute as Technical Editor to a magazine called Electronic Music Review, starting in 1967. But this was still a long way from being the kind of Moog user's support group web site we might expect if a similar product appeared today.
All of these kept the Moog out of the trenches, and in the ivory towers. It wasn't until Wendy Carlos released Switched On Bach, a collection of Baroque classics synthesized entirely on a heavily customised modular, that the Moog modular finally broke through into the big time. After that everyone who could afford one wanted one — whether they knew what to do with it or not.
Landmark Moog Recordings
Isao Tomita's 1975 album Snowflakes Are Dancing is a more flamboyant Moog performance of music by Debussy. Using a Moog 3P (how he kept the oscillators in tune remains a mystery!), a Mellotron, a couple of multitrack tape machines and not much else, Tomita paints very evocative sound pictures that still sound fresh and surprising today. A genius at sound design and synthesizer programming, he has a good claim to being the synthesist who took the Moog further than anyone else, and created some astonishingly adventurous and unique sounds that are still current and influential. Some of his later albums — The Firebird, Pictures At An Exhibition, and especially The Planets — also feature much Moog work.
German innovators Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze created their own slant on the Moog sound by using step sequencers to produce hypnotic evolving sound patterns, anticipating today's trance and ambient music by a good 20 years. Tangerine Dream's Ricochet from 1974 showcases some intricate live sequencer work, while 1975's live Encore continues in a similar vein with some fascinating manually controlled patch-morphing. Klaus Schulze's X double album is similar but darker in tone, and features highlights such as a classical digressions from a string quartet punctuated by imaginatively programmed Moog side effects, and ending with the fattest and most immensely seismic Moog bass drone ever heard.
Finally there's Gershon Kingsley's classic tune 'Popcorn'. Available over the Internet in various versions (Jean-Michel Jarre contributed one of his own), 'Popcorn' is the definitive Moog bubblegum pop track.
So what were these enthusiastic buyers getting for their money? If you open up the boxes that make up a Moog modular, you'll find they're mostly empty space. This was partly deliberate. Ease of access to patch jacks and panel controls dictated the physical dimensions of the modules. As a result, it remains true that once you've worked out how to drive it, a large modular is far more controllable and accessible than almost any other synthesizer.
But it wasn't all good news. The earliest modules were built to a very tight budget. The use of the then-recently invented transistor contributed significantly to the price, and Moog attempted to make up for this by relying on the cheapest and least accurate resistors then available. At today's prices, you can buy all of the components needed to clone the electronics inside one of the early modulars for perhaps 250 pounds. The panels, cases, circuit boards and metalwork cost far more than the electronics.
Apart from making the sound and performance more variable than it could have been, this resistor problem also contributed to the tuning disaster that was the first series of oscillators. The technologically understated Mark I 901 VCO modules were almost entirely unmusical. Not only was keyboard tracking limited to a small range — the specs claimed five octaves, but two-and-a-half was more realistic — but a design flaw meant that even the tiniest temperature variations would send the oscillators drifting away from each other at random. Larger temperature shifts caused more drastic drifts. The stability of the system's power supply was also something that didn't quite match professional expectations. If the mains voltage drifted, so would the oscillators. This made it nigh-on impossible to use a Moog in the run-up to meal times. The cooking habits of your nearest and dearest could send the supply voltage dipping by a few percent and the oscillators drifting by a few semitones.
It's part of the charm of acoustic instruments that they drift slightly, but by acoustic standards this was ridiculous. Dedicated exponents such as Wendy Carlos had to resort to tuning before a take, hitting record, playing, checking the tuning after a take, and re-recording any line that had drifted. This was made worse by what would otherwise have been a good idea. The VCOs were designed to work in banks, with a single oscillator driver module, called the 901A, feeding up to four 901B VCOs which produced the waveforms. In theory, you could patch keyboard and other control signals into the driver, and then all the VCOs would track together. Except they didn't — at least not reliably. Because tuning linearity was less than solid, tuning the oscillators to intervals was also asking for trouble. Even the octave range switches didn't work without retuning.
On the plus side, these first-generation oscillators were deliberately designed to work as both VCOs and VCLFOs. If you wanted the latter you could switch the octave setting to 'Lo' mode, patch the output to modulate something else, and listen to the slow variations this produced. Although the output levels were too low for more extreme filter sweep effects, this made experimentation easy. Many users discovered that unique new timbres could be produced by modulating one oscillator with the output of another. This was the beginnings of Yamaha-style Frequency Modulation (FM) years before a keyboard called the DX7 made it famous.
But most people created raw sounds with simple analogue waveform mixing. The 901 saw the first use of the now-standard selection of ramp, triangle, sine and pulse waveforms. There was also a single rather minimal pulse-width control on the driver, which worked on all the oscillators in a bank. In spite of the limitations and problems, Moog fans still swear by the sheer hugeness of the raw tones sounds produced by the 901s — although anyone who tries to make music with them is more likely to swear at them.
Elsewhere, the circuitry was more consistent. The sound of the famous Moog filter module, labelled the 904, was an instant hit with almost everyone who heard it. Moog's inclusion of resonant feedback was perhaps the first example of the definitive squelchy filtered synthesizer sound. The 904 came in two variants. The 904A model was the famous low-pass filter, with its famous fat sound. The 904B version was a high-pass filter, designed to remove low-end grunge and bloat, but unfortunately, it lacked resonance — Moog's ingenious transistor ladder design wasn't well suited to adding resonance when used in a high-pass configuration. There was also a 904C filter coupler which allowed the filters to be combined in series to create a band-pass response, and in parallel for a rather fine and whooshy notch effect.
The 911 Ussachevsky-inspired ADSRs had a snappy 1ms attack time, which contributed further to the Moog's punchy, ballsy sound. But they lacked voltage control of timing — an omission that was never made good on any Moog modular. The 902 VCA allowed voltage control of volume in both linear and exponential modes, and also had a manual offset knob, so you could get a fixed-level sound from the VCA without patching any control signals to it. The VCA tended to distort in interesting ways, and was another major contributor to the fat sound. All of today's digital synths sound shimmery and lightweight in comparison to the gut-kick sonics a modular running at full tilt can produce. Users were often confused by the VCA's differential inputs, where one input was added to the output, and the other subtracted from it; this was only occasionally useful for audio, but made far more sense when adding control signals together.
Surrounding these core modules were various helper circuits and add-ons. One of the most important and least appreciated were the CP3 four-input mixers, which typically were fitted under the oscillator banks. This was where much of the timbre-shaping happened, because you could use these to control the proportions of each oscillator and waveform before filtering. There was no voltage control here, so timbres were static. If you wanted to change them, you could only do it by twiddling the mix knobs by hand. It didn't take long before enthusiastic synthesists realised you could also control timbre dynamically by patching oscillators through VCAs and ADSRs before mixing. The results weren't always spectacular, but even today, this degree of control is only available on a very limited number of synthesizers. The later CP3A could also be used to combine modulation sources, and adventurous programmers discovered it could be used to add deliberate electronic feedback to sounds. This didn't create the kind of shrill grungey scream you'd expect from guitar feedback. Instead it added even more body and weight, and gave the patches that sound now widely recognised as distinctively 'Moogy'.
Elsewhere, the modular included the usual features we'd expect from a synthesizer today. The 903 noise source provided white noise (useful for breathy chiffs, wind, surf and other special effects), as well as offering a separate and distinct more rumbly pink-noise source. In later modulars, this module was expanded to include simple static low- and high-pass filters. The 905 offered spring reverb, making the Moog the first synth design to include built-in effects, with the difference that you could control the send and return levels with any of the other modules. The Moog technical manual suggested that to avoid hum and other interference-related problems, the reverb springs were to be mounted well away from 'power supplies, motors and other devices'. It was also a bad idea to place speakers too close to the cabinet, as acoustic feedback with the springs could have cone-ripping consequences. And as with all spring reverbs, a sharp thwack with the hand would produce an apocalyptic-sounding 'sproing'.
Also in the original line-up was the 907 fixed filter bank. Based on suggestions by Wendy Carlos, this was a primitive graphic equaliser equipped with knobs instead of sliders. Carlos used the circuit to simulate the resonant formants in acoustic instruments. Almost everyone else either ignored it, or used it as a crude tone control. It was later replaced by the 914, which was designed to do a similar job, but was rather more polished internally.
Moog Modulars On The Web — Selected Sites
Details of the big Moog owned by Klaus Schulze, formerly of Tangerine Dream.
A 24/7 live Real Video broadcast from a System 55 in Kobe, Japan.
Product and price listings from the company formerly known as Moog CE.
The Hyperreal guide to all things Moog-shaped.
Build your own modular with the schematics from the original service manuals.
Details of the various Moog modulars (and many other synths) can also be found at this excellent American web site.
THE MOOG MODULAR DEMYSTIFIED
A guide to getting started with your own modest modular system.
RAYMOND SCOTT WEB SITE
A fantastic, stylish site dedicated to the work of this fascinating American composer, whose work stretched from jazz recordings with a quintet in the late '30s, through groundbreaking work with electronic music in the '50s, '60s and '70s for film, TV, and advertising themes, right through to the era of computer-based sequencing.
That completed the line-up of the first set of modules, all of which were available by 1967. The range was extended during 1968, and Moog also took to offering pre-packaged modular systems for those who wanted to buy an off-the-shelf product without weeks of research. As far as most musicians and studios were concerned, these were the beginnings of the true modular story. Although smaller collections such as the Moog 10, Moog 12 and Systems 1 and 2 were available, the most versatile all-in-one system was the imaginatively named System 3. This included all the basic modules plus some enhanced extras, including the 911A dual trigger/delay, the 912 envelope follower and the 984 four-channel mixer. The former made more sophisticated envelopes possible by triggering a second envelope after a fixed delay. The original and the delayed ADSR shapes could then be mixed to create very complex modulation curves. The 912 created a varying modulation level by tracking the loudness of an audio input, and also provided an envelope trigger. The mixer was an unusual 4:4 matrix mixer design with bass and treble and insert points for each channel. If you had four speakers, you could now use your Moog for discrete quadraphonic music.
The most important addition to the Moog range was the 960 step sequencer. Arranged as three banks of eight voltage settings which would be output in turn when the sequencer was stepped with a clock pulse from a keyboard, or the internal clock oscillator, the 960 could be used to create a repeating sequence of modulation voltages. The bottom bank could also be used to control the duration of each step. And there were various options that controlled the length of a sequence and the creation of gate signals for the envelopes. The 960 was often supplied with a couple of moderately baffling extras. The 961 interface converted voltage triggers to and from Moog's quirky S-Trigger system, and also included some audio-triggering features. And the 962 sequential switch module could switch between two of the banks in turn to create a single 16-step sequence.
Not only did the combination of these modules work well, but the rows of flashing lights made the Moog look cooler than any other instrument of the day. After the filter, the 960 created one of the most recognisable aspects of the Moog sound. The most creative use for the sequencer was to provide a modulation source that varied each time a note was pressed. Isao Tomita used this to simulate vocal sounds to great effect on many of his recordings. A more obvious use was as a riff machine — Berlin-school electronic rock pioneers like Tangerine Dream relied almost entirely on banks of 960 sequencers for their rhythmic drive, both live and in the studio. Former drummer Chris Franke was able to jam with the 960 live, changing the sequence length and other settings on the fly to create surprisingly fluid and musical rhythms.
By 1968, there was enough of a buzz around Moog systems to begin making Moog a household word. First Abbey Road and the Rolling Stones bought systems, and then, in short order, UK studios, universities and solo artists took their turns too. Jon Weiss of Moog Music travelled to London to deliver the Rolling Stones' 3P modular in person, and was held up at Heathrow for more than three hours while HM Customs and Excise officers pulled the machine apart so they could search it for drugs. It survived unscathed — you can watch Mick Jagger noodling on it in Nic Roeg's classic film Performance.
Mindful of the miserable quality of the 901 VCOs, Moog made an effort towards the end of 1969 to improve on them, with a new design called the 921. Available as a self-contained VCO (the 921) or using the same bank and driver system as before (as the 921A and B), the 921s were the first oscillators to play in tune and stay in tune. They also included oscillator-sync features, which the Moog catalogue suggested were best used to latch oscillators at fixed intervals. The useful working range was also greatly extended — in fact, it reaches up to beyond 100kHz — no mean feat using the technology of the day. Another addition was the 928, the first Moog sample-and-hold module.
By the end of the 1960s, the entire Moog range was in place; almost all of the earlier modules remained unchanged right up to the point when Moog Music stopped trading in the 1980s. To take advantage of the 921s, Moog produced a new series of modular systems called the 15, 35 and 55. The 55 is perhaps the most desirable modular of all. It has the classic partly-sloped two-box Moog casework, and includes all the modules you need to create both basic basses and leads and more adventurous and experimental Moog sounds. This was the system that went on to be used by almost everyone who ever used a modular. The most dedicated Moog users often combined it with an older 3C system to create a 15-oscillator monster. Less profligate users would sometimes merely add an extra tier of modules on top of the two tiers of the 55.
With the System 55, interest in modulars peaked and then faded. The market was limited, the initial post-Switched On Bach fashion faded almost as soon as it arrived, and by the mid-1970s, the modulars had become something of a Moog sideline. Moog responded first with the very successful Minimoog, and then by effectively going bankrupt. Bob Moog first lost the commercial rights to his own name (although he eventually regained these in 2002), then the company, and then his job. Following his exit from Moog, he took on various design consultancy roles for manufacturers like Kurzweil instead. Finally, the patent and other rights to the modular circuitry expired in the '90s. You can now build your own Moog using the authentic circuits without paying a licence fee, or being sued.
Moog Module Cookbook
A stand-alone 921 VCO.
921A VCO drivers (x2).
921B banked VCOs (x6).
A 903A noise source.
A 904A low-pass VCF.
A 904B high-pass VCF.
902 VCAs (x5).
911 ADSRs (x5).
A 911A dual trigger delay.
A 960 sequencer.
A 961 interface.
A 962 sequential switch.
A 951 keyboard controller.
During the course of its existence, Moog Music also produced a small number of more specialised modules. Most of these are extremely rare now. Here's a brief list:
MODULES 991 TO 995
Assorted multi-panels, switches, attenuators and other unspectacular but essential extras.
Bode frequency-shifter. This created clangorous discordant sounds by adding fixed frequency shifts for effects similar to, but not the same as, those produced by a ring modulator.
By modifying a couple of 914 filter banks and combining them with sets of 912 envelope followers and 902 VCAs, it was possible to create a rather unwieldy modular vocoder. Eventually, this design mutated into a modified rackmount model.
The ribbon controller derived a voltage based on where your finger touched the ribbon — a very musical way to create modulation. Moog also created the X-Y joystick controller. And of course standard monophonic keyboards were also available. More advanced modules were duophonic, and could produce two simultaneous lines.
Of course, most people would rather buy their Moog than build it. So what are the prospects if you want a Moog modular today? The first thing to realise is that a vintage machine can be a high-maintenance item, and it's very much a mistake to assume you'll be buying something that will work as soon as you turn it on. A lot can go wrong, and certain parts from the original are literally irreplaceable — although they can be reworked with some electronic surgery.
Buying a modular sight-unseen is madness. You, or someone qualified, needs to check every module for basic functionality, as well as standard hardware nasties like scratchy pots, crackly jack sockets, power supply stability, and also more subtle problems like corroded edge connectors inside the main frame and panel screw fixings. From a musical point of view it's a good idea to get the circuitry refurbished, replacing old pots, and updating the original 741-series op-amps to something more accurate, modern and generally better-sounding. This may offend purists, but the results are always worth it. The old 901 oscillators are beyond hope from the point of view of tuning stability, although some people cheat by using the similar-sounding oscillators from the Minimoog and putting them into a 901 unit. 921s are less likely to cause grief, but even they can be given a new lease of life by updating the op-amps inside them.
The other thing to realise is that this is potentially a very large box. An expanded three-tier System 55 will dominate any room it goes into, and isn't a practical possibility unless you have plenty of free space. Don't forget you'll need a small mountain of patch cords as well; 20 is a suggested minimum, but the more the better. These should come with your purchase, because new ones are expensive (it's much cheaper to make your own if you can solder, but then the cost is in time, not money). And don't forget that there are some essentials you don't get with a modular. There's no MIDI — you'll need a modern MIDI-to-CV converter if you want that — and the keyboard, if it's included at all, will be duophonic at best. If you want to 'save' patches, you'll need to use a pen and paper to write down your connections and settings. Off-the-wall as it may sound, a camera may also be of use for 'archiving' your sonic creations. It's also a good idea to have some hefty speakers; sonically, a Moog modular pulls no punches, and it's not hard to produce shrill tweeter-rupturing squeals.
If none of that puts you off, and you're dead set on acquiring that sound, you have three choices. Modulars are very much in demand, both among musicians and collectors. Film composer Hans Zimmer owns what is probably the largest working combined Moog in the world, with parts from around four System 55s in a single wall-mounted unit. Scarcity means that buying a genuine original can be a labour of much patience and research. Sources such as eBay, and, in the UK, second-hand specialists like Music Control (www.musiccontrol.co.uk) and analogue auction house Sphere (formerly VEMIA — see www.spheremusic.com), are the most likely places to pick up an unwanted original. Prices vary depending on the size and condition of the original and the greed of the seller, but as a rough UK price guide, a simple eight-module system will cost around £2000, and for a full System 55 £10,000 to £20,000 or more wouldn't be unrealistic.
Another option is to buy a brand-new clone. Modusonics in the US sell reproductions of the original circuitry built to order. The prices are painful — a 960 sequencer costs $2790 — but if you've just been given a record deal advance or won the lottery, you can start by blowing some of your riches on an instrument that produces the original Moog sound, but uses better and more modern components.
And finally, there's the software route. If you don't have a spare room and a tidy pile of spare cash, you can get some of the Moog experience from Arturia's new Moog Modular V software instrument. This is more or less a software clone of the System 55 with a few additions, such as a delay line and a pair of dedicated VCLFOs. It's not quite the same as the real thing — if nothing else it speaks fluent MIDI and can be played polyphonically — but at £329, it's much less of a strain on your finances, and it certainly has some of the same character (see Nick Magnus's review in SOS July 2003 or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul03/articles/arturiamoog.asp for more details).
In a world of copycat MIDI workstation variations on the same old sounds, Moog's modular systems remain truly original. This is what synthesis was originally about — no memories, no software interfaces, and no safety net, but enough potential for you to spread your creative wings and program some sounds that are unique to you. It might need a bit more effort than a Yamaland QZ2003 Generic Sound Thingasizer. But if you want the real deal, there's no comparison — the Moog modular is the Stradivarius of the synthesizer world, warts and all.
Audio files to accompany the article.
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