AJH Synth’s first dedicated system reimagines what the Minimoog might be.
The concept of a small, pre‑configured modular synthesizer goes all the way back to 1971, when Moog Music released the Model 10, the cabinet of which contained all of the modules needed for what we might now consider to be conventional analogue subtractive synthesis. Unfortunately, the Model 10 was still quite bulky, and its keyboard was supplied as a separate unit, which was fine in the studio but much less convenient for gigging musicians. A better solution had already appeared when Moog and their competitors ARP had chosen a selection of functions — this many oscillators, that many filters, and so on — and integrated them with keyboards and other performance controls within single cases. These instruments may have been less flexible, but they were much more usable so, by the mid‑1970s, modular synthesis had largely become the preserve of the wealthy and the fanatical.
But two decades later, affordable Eurorack modules started to appear and the world was soon awash with them. It didn’t take long for manufacturers to realise that several of these smaller and lighter devices could be mounted within a specially designed keyboard to create a self‑contained instrument that combined the flexibility of a modular synth with the convenience of an integrated one. I suspect that the AS Sorceror was the first of these, followed by similar offerings from other companies who, like Analogue Systems, supplied them as empty frames ready to receive the modules of your choice. I understand why; Eurorack enthusiasts love to tweak and experiment with the architectures of their systems, removing existing modules and replacing them with others to achieve a desired outcome. (Or, if we’re honest, just to have a bit of fun because something new appeals.) But I’ve often felt that a pre‑configured Eurorack keyboard/synth targeting a specific outcome — say, a recreation of a small modular Moog — would be a rather neat idea, especially if it added performance enhancements such as velocity sensitivity and aftertouch. And here it is.
The primary modules in the MiniMod Keyz allow you to recreate the architecture of a Minimoog. They comprise three VCOs (reviewed in Sound On Sound June 2016), a Transistor Ladder VCF (SOS July 2016), and a VCA. These are accompanied by a Dual Contour Generator and a Glide+Noise module. The system also includes three modules that offer facilities not found on the Minimoog. The first is called the Low Fat Filter, which, despite its ambiguous name, is a high‑pass filter offering 6dB/oct and 12dB/oct cutoff slopes. The next is the Ring SM ring modulator/sub‑bass generator/mixer, which was described as “a winner!” here in SOS December 2016. Finally, to overcome a significant limitation in the Minimoog architecture, there’s a dedicated LFO, which, with its 16 initial waveforms, waveshaping, CV control, tap tempo and more, goes way beyond using VCO3 as a modulator!
All of these are housed in a 49‑key, 112HP Cre8audio NiftyKEYZ controller/rack (SOS October 2022). The name is crap but, happily, almost everything else about it is not. Far from being a simple monophonic generator of pitch CVs and gates, it’s a polyphonic keyboard that generates up to four CV+gate pairs in two zones, with selectable single‑ and multi‑triggering modes. But it’s not just a passive host for the modules mounted within it. There’s a latchable four‑octave arpeggiator with a 32‑step sequencer mode, a further LFO, master and slave clock modes, and chord memory. Performance controls comprise pitch‑bend and modulation wheels, plus transpose and octave shift functions. But best of all, it’s both velocity and pressure sensitive. Unfortunately, there’s no space to revisit it in depth here; there’s lots to discuss but, if you want to know more, you’ll have to refer to the previous review.
Given that almost all of its components have been reviewed in isolation, the question we have to ask is how well the MiniMod Keyz works as a system. After all, you may like eggs, bacon, strawberry yoghurt, chillies and jellybabies, but would you like them served as an omelette?
To test this, I started by setting it up to perform as a Minimoog. I connected three cables from the oscillator outputs to the main filter inputs, one from the filter output to the amplifier input, and another from the amplifier to the inputs of the outputs (if you see what I mean). I then patched cables from the dual contour generators to appropriate CV inputs on each of the filter and VCA. Now, with the NiftyKEYZ in one‑voice mode, I connected its first three CV outputs to the 1V/oct CV inputs of the oscillators, and voice 1’s gate to the appropriate input on the contour generator module. (I could have connected a single cable from CV1 to the Glide+Noise module, which is itself connected to the 1V/oct CV inputs of all three oscillators via an internal bus but, to test the consistency of the CVs and enable me to jump through other hoops later in my tests, I patched the three oscillators separately.) Next, I connected the fourth keyboard CV to the filter’s 1V/oct CV input to create key tracking, and the triangle wave output from the third oscillator (via a multiple) to CV inputs on the first and second oscillators to generate modulation.
By this point, many of the cables that I had used were trailing across the keyboard so I set about repatching it to ensure that the cables and my fingers weren’t occupying the same space in ways that they shouldn’t oughta. This problem is far from unique to the MiniMod Keyz, but it’s less of an issue on my Sorceror (which, to be fair, is a much larger, heavier and, if we’re honest, more expensive piece of kit) because there’s a slab of wood between the keyboard and the modules. But it illustrates why other patching systems have enjoyed popularity at various times. ARP favoured switch matrices while EMS opted for a pin matrix — a system recently resurrected by Arturia and Erica Synths in electronic form. Not only do these approaches dispense with patch cables, they also allow you to connect a single source to multiple destinations and multiple sources to a single destination without additional mixers and multiples. But 3.5mm cables rule the Eurorack world, which is a shame because the MiniMod Keyz looks great without them, and you can get to the knobs and switches more easily!
No doubt you’re now wondering how it sounded. Given everything that we already know about AJH modules, it came as no surprise to discover that it sounded much like a Moog synthesizer. Was I going to compare it with a genuine Minimoog? Absolutely not because, having patched it in what I viewed was quite a basic fashion, my aim was to take it further into esoteric sonic territory. So I stopped trying to recreate the 1970s and started to approach the system as an instrument in its own right. To do so, I first connected the velocity CV to one of the VCA’s CV inputs and the aftertouch CV to the Level input of the LFO. I also allowed myself to take advantage of the system’s ring modulation, sub‑octave generators, audio/CV mixer and high‑pass filter, which hugely extended the sound creation potential. Unfortunately, like almost all modular synths, the MiniMod Keyz includes too few mixers, multiples and independent VCAs. Due to the paucity of the second of these, I was unable to make all three oscillators respond simultaneously to the LFO unless I resorted to an external multiple, but the system packs a lot of synthesis into a small space and, with a bit of delay and reverb, the results could be gorgeous. Whether you prefer to make synths go ‘bleep’ or are a fully paid‑up member of the widdly‑widdly brigade, there’s a lot of potential here.
Whether you prefer to make synths go ‘bleep’ or are a fully paid‑up member of the widdly‑widdly brigade, there’s a lot of potential here.
Because of the way that I had patched the pitch CVs, I was also able to experiment with the system as a three‑voice paraphonic synth. But I had limited success with this, so I didn’t pursue it for long; the strength of the MiniMod Keyz lies in sounding and responding like an enhanced but monophonic modular Moog.
Putting it through its paces wasn’t without its interesting moments. On one day, the NiftyKEYZ glitched (or maybe overheated — it was a ridiculously hot afternoon) and its pitch CVs became unreliable. On another occasion, pitch CVs could be ‘left behind’ when I played rapidly. I spoke to Allan Hall at AJH Synth about this and, while we never got to the bottom of it, he undertook to add quality control checks for this. That’s an excellent response from the manufacturer.
My other reservation arose when I used the NiftyKEYZ as a MIDI controller, mixing the AJH sounds with external ones. Its keyboard felt slow, spongy and offered an uneven response in a way that it didn’t when playing the installed modules alone. I know that the review unit is AJH Synth’s heavily used test‑bed, so I can offer it a little latitude, but not much. MIDI control isn’t its raison d’être but, whether this issue is a consequence of the keybed, the processing or both, I believe that the NiftyKEYZ should feel and respond better.
So the final question has to be, is the system worth the price? A quick calculation shows that the cost of the individual AJH modules is currently £2315. Add to this the £529 that the NiftyKEYZ will set you back, and the total comes to £2844. Consequently, the system price of £2795 represents a small saving, and you get the benefit of an assembled and tested system. So let’s ask a different question. In an instrument of this nature, should you constrain yourself to a set of modules from a single manufacturer? I think that the answer to this is simple. If you want to build your own synthesizer architecture, it’s not the correct approach. But if you’re after ‘the Moog sound’, the modules in the MiniMod Keyz are designed to work together to provide this to a high degree of authenticity. It’s not all‑encompassing — no Eurorack system of this width can be — but, if you like that sound (and, let’s be honest, almost all of us do) I don’t think that you’ll find the MiniMod Keyz to be unreasonably priced or lacking in creative possibilities. There are players who are going to love it.
The NiftyKEYZ’s rear panel is sparse but, given that most of its connectivity is provided on top where it’s of most use, that’s fine. To the left lie two unbalanced quarter‑inch audio outputs and an associated headphone output while, to the right, you’ll find two control pedal inputs for expression and sustain. Between these lie 5‑pin MIDI In and combined Out/Thru sockets, plus USB for MIDI in/out.
Unfortunately, power is provided by an external PSU via a barrel socket with no associated strain relief hook. What’s more, the PSU cable is remarkably short. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Given all of the thought lavished on the design in other areas, this is a disappointing lapse. The NiftyKEYZ — and, by extension, the MiniMod Keyz — deserves an internal PSU and an IEC socket.
- Who can complain about a small, affordable but flexible modular Moog? Well, not a Moog, but you know what I mean.
- 49 keys, velocity, aftertouch, four‑voice CV+gate architecture and more... there’s a lot here to like.
- Its sound is deep inside Moog territory.
- It looks great.
- It would benefit from more mixers and multiples.
- Unless carefully placed, the patch cables can interfere with playing.
- I wouldn’t recommend that you use the NiftyKEYZ as a MIDI controller keyboard.
- It has an external PSU with a short cable and no stress relief.
Since the 1970s, players have dreamed of a modular Minimoog with extended voicing and performance capabilities. Within the limits of emulative technology, that’s what we have here. It’s a powerful and flexible system that can sound excellent.