Although they're intended mainly for guitarists, modular knob twiddlers could also find plenty to like about Moog's new pedals.
It's sometimes easy to forget that Moog have never been solely synthesizer manufacturers. In their original incarnation the company manufactured Theremins, rackmount equalisers, a 12‑stage phaser, a 40‑band 'string' filter, and a vocoder, all of which now command prices that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. More recently, the re‑booted Moog Music have been supplying Theremins and, since 1998, its range of Moogerfooger pedals, many of which (it's claimed) use circuitry derived from the original company's modular synthesizers. The Moogerfoogers are lovely units, and I own an MF103 phaser that looks gorgeous, oozes character and sounds excellent. I would also love to own an MF101 low‑pass filter, an MF104M analogue delay and an MF108 chorus/flanger. Were I wealthy enough to purchase them without having to justify the cost, I would probably collect the complete set, including the MF102 ring modulator, the MF105M Multiple Resonance Filter, and the MF107 Freqbox.But Moogerfoogers are expensive, priced well beyond the reach of many players, and this probably also makes existing owners think twice about using them for gigging. Mine has never left the studio, and I suspect that it never will. So maybe it's time for a more affordable range of Moog effects; mini‑Moogerfoogers, if you will; stomp boxes with fewer features. Less attractive; more conservative; more robust. You know the sort of thing. All of which brings us to the five Minifoogers.
Understandably, Moog's marketing materials describe only how the Minifoogers can be used with guitar and basses so, while they go into great depth about responses to picking dynamics, note scales, British and American amplifiers and other guitar‑y stuff like that, they make no mention of using the pedals with keyboards. I was far more interested to see how they would fare when used with a synthesizer, and I suspected that many Sound On Sound readers would share my curiosity, so I set up an initial test rig of a Roland SH101 (which I selected because of the purity and simplicity of its single‑oscillator sound) played through each of the pedals into a pair of chunky 100W Yamaha KA20 keyboard speakers.
All five units are built into a light but reassuringly robust aluminium chassis that is slightly larger than a Boss stompbox. Although the Moogerfoogers' wooden end‑cheeks have been discarded, the knobs are standard Moog, and the stomp switches feel solid. My only concern would be the choice of the little switches on the MF Boost and MF Drive, which will not survive much abuse. In each case these nestle between two knobs, so they should be protected to some extent, but I would have much preferred to see something a bit more substantial used. Power is provided by the usual PP3 battery or by a 9V DC input.
All five pedals also share the same I/O configuration. There's a monophonic audio input and a monophonic audio output, each on standard quarter‑inch jacks, plus an 'EXP' input, for a passive TRS expression pedal. Moog make their own EP3 pedal, but I used the first expression pedal that I could find with a TRS plug (which turned out to be an old Emu Systems pedal that must have come with an Emulator) and this worked perfectly. Of course, I wasn't going to confine myself to controlling the pedals using the expression pedal; I knew that I was going to have much more fun treating the EXP inputs as CV inputs, and that certainly proved to be the case.
This offers three controls — the input gain, post‑gain tone (a 6dB/octave low‑pass filter), and output trim — all of which can act on your choice of two signal paths: a clean VCA path that offers a maximum boost of +6dB, and a hotter, more coloured OTA path that offers a maximum boost of +12dB and the ability to introduce mild clipping at high settings. You can increase the gain still further using the expression pedal or by applying a suitable CV, whereupon the gain setting on the MF Boost itself becomes the minimum gain, and the pedal/CV now allows you to boost the signal by up to +18dB.
Testing it with the SH101, I must admit that I was surprised at the subtlety of the results. I wasn't expecting something that was going to distress my speakers but, while it added loudness and a degree of weightiness to the sounds produced, I wasn't convinced that there was enough here to justify its use with synthesizers. Connecting the expression pedal improved matters, turning it into an excellent swell pedal with a pleasant degree of crunch at the louder end of its travel, and using a simple tip/sleeve 3.5mm to quarter‑inch patch cable (a TRS cable was not needed) the output from an Analogue Systems RS60 ADSR contour generator turned the MF Boost into a pleasantly warm, slightly overdriven VCA. But there are easier and more cost‑effective ways to obtain both of these results.
At this point, despite my initial intention to test the pedals purely as additions to a keyboard rig, I was concerned that I wasn't treating the MF Boost fairly, so I liberated my Parker P38 (that's a guitar) and trusty 40‑year‑old Roland Bolt 100, and stuck it between the two. Blimey! Now things sprang to life, with the pedal adding a noticeable increase in girth and warmth and, with the tone knob set above 11 o'clock or thereabouts, adding top‑end presence too. At high gains, it even generated a small but pleasing amount of compression. Clearly, the MF Boost gives its best as it was designed to do — as a guitarist's pedal.
This is an altogether more sophisticated unit that, in Moog's words, "employs a Moog Ladder Filter, boutique FET amplifiers, and classic OTAs in its drive section”. It offers four controls — input gain, the cut‑off frequency of its resonant 24dB/octave Moog low‑pass ladder filter, tone (which is a multi‑mode LP/BR/HP filter), and output level, with switches to select between two humungous drive ranges (+6.8dB to +48dB, or +16dB to +57dB) and to add 15dB of resonance (or not) at the filter cut‑off frequency. While guitarists may view this as a sophisticated overdrive pedal with lots of tone control, synthesists will view it more accurately as a sophisticated filter pedal with lots of overdrive.
To my surprise, it proved to be one of my two favourite Minifoogers. Again, I tested it using the SH101, and to say that it added weight and power to the sound is an understatement; it was like playing the synth through the overdriven channel of a Hiwatt head and a pair of 4x12s (which, if you've never had the opportunity, is enormous fun) but with a different character and a wider range of sounds, from slightly overdriven to the distortion of doom. Somewhere between lay all manner of sounds that I recognised from my youth, all played on 'classic' synths such as Minimoogs and Odysseys (because there was nothing else available at the time) yet now pouring forth from my humble little SH101. As for sticking the MF Drive onto the output of a Korg Z1 to see what it might do to an early and sometimes slightly clinical virtual analogue synth… oooh!
Adding the expression pedal, then, did much more than turn the MF Drive into an expensive wah pedal. With the filter knob set to minimum and the pedal closed a muted, but nonetheless slightly driven, sound emerged. As I opened the pedal, the filter opened and the drive level also increased, which provided lots of opportunity for expression while playing widdly lead solos. Of course, the nature of the sound also depended upon the input gain, the tone and the peak settings, so there was plenty here to be discovered, ranging from a gentlemanly boost at the bottom end to huge, aggressive filter sweeps. Substituting the pedal with the output from the RS60 contour generator gave an indication of what the MF Drive is capable of adding within a modular setup, and directing its output to the input of yet another filter allowed me to control a further overdrive stage, just as a guitarist would use gain to overdrive the input of the aforementioned Hiwatt stack. Sticking a MIDI/CV converter between the Z1 and the Minifooger even allowed me to use velocity and aftertouch to control the tone on a note‑by‑note basis, with some wonderfully expressive results. Sure, it would have been nice to have some additional control over the band‑reject frequency and the Q of the filter, but that probably lies beyond the remit of a low‑cost pedal. I offer just one note of caution; because of the enormous gains on offer, you're going to need to place a noise gate after the MF Drive.
Next in line comes the MF Delay. Based upon four BBD chips nestling inside a compander wrapper, this reminded me of my first echo pedal, but with much higher-quality results than something that cost me £95 (£580 at today's prices!) in 1976. Its controls are standard: delay time, feedback, drive and wet/dry mix. With a maximum delay of 700 milliseconds (Moog make the common mistake of writing this as 700 milliSiemens, which is a measure of electrical conductance!) it offers longer delays than many low‑cost analogue units. Despite being quoted as infinite (which is impossible) the maximum gain in the feedback loop is just on the cusp of unity so, while the MF Delay will self‑oscillate if you wait long enough, you can't use it to create many of the classic sci‑fi effects that are such a favourite staple of analogue and tape delays. I found this to be true even with the drive set to its maximum, which was a little surprising. Of course, the MF Delay also suffers (or, as some would say, benefits from) the usual attributes of BBD echoes, the most noticeable of which is that the bandwidth drops as the delay time increases.
In their blurb, Moog talk about creating "natural room‑verb sounds” but, of course, there's nothing natural about the quasi‑reverberant effects that you can squeeze out of a BBD delay line. The company also state that the "Mix control allows dry signal to be completely eliminated,” which turns out not to be true. I don't understand why they feel the need to exaggerate; the MF Delay sounds great and creates a very desirable class of delay and echo effects — slightly dark, and hugely musical. Used with the Z1 (especially with the MF Drive placed before the MF Delay) it was impossible to tell that the resulting sound wasn't being produced by a very large and very expensive analogue synth from the dawn of progressive rock.
What's more, the MF Delay has another valuable trick hidden up its analogue sleeves. The blurb tells you that the expression pedal input can be used to control either the amount of feedback or the delay time, even though there's no visible way to switch between these. (Unfortunately, you have to remove the bottom cover and select one or the other using a micro‑switch mounted on the main circuit board, so it's an either/or choice in normal use.) I selected the Time mode and, amongst many other possibilities, this allowed me to modulate the delay time using the output from an LFO. I used the combination of a Roland System 100M Model 150 LFO and Model 130 Dual VCA to generate a huge range of modulation CVs and applied these to the EXP input (again, a simple TS cable sufficed) to obtain many interesting variations on simple chorusing and tape‑echo effects. Why variations? It's because the tone of the input signal tends to be much brighter than that of the delayed signal, so it's impossible to mix them to obtain traditional chorus/ensemble results. As for the promised flanging effects, forget it. I was unable to generate these no matter what I tried. Nonetheless, many of the resulting sounds were superb.
I was surprised to see a ring modulator in the range, but that's what the MF Ring is. It's not a common effect for guitarists, and playing one in your local music emporium is as likely to get you banned as playing 'Smoke On The Water' or bringing your little sister along to play the recorder on 'Stairway To Heaven'. It's the simplest of the five pedals, with just three controls: tone (a simple 6dB/octave low‑pass filter applied to the modulated signal only), carrier frequency, and mix. Without applying a signal to the EXP input, the carrier frequency range is just 90Hz to 1.5kHz, but this is extended to around 12kHz with an appropriate CV.
Given that ring modulation already exists on many well‑endowed synths, why should we be interested? Again, it comes down to that EXP input, which allows you to use the unit in a quasi‑modular setup. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the MF Ring to track a 1V/octave CV correctly. It's not far off, but no two notes sounded the same when I fed the EXP socket with an unmolested keyboard CV. It may be possible to correct this using a dedicated CV amplifier, because Moog claim that the response is not linear above +4V, which implies that it should track correctly in the range 0V to 4V. I got quite fanatical about this, and tried to make the unit track using two manufacturers' external voltage processors, but failed. If you have no better luck than I did, this will preclude many of the bell‑like patches that you can obtain from the likes of the ARP2600, as well as the gnarly, aggressive lead sounds for which some players use ring modulation. The other shortcoming is its minimum carrier frequency of 90Hz. One interesting use of ring modulation is to sweep from tremolo at around 5Hz up into the audio frequencies to make the sound morph from a musical tone into something weird and dangerous. You can't achieve this with the MF Ring.
As with the MF Boost and, as I forgot to mention, the MF Ring, the MF Trem worked well in my guitar rig, but it proved less beneficial when used with the synthesizer. There are just four controls: shape (which skews the underlying waveform some distance toward ramp and sawtooth shapes), speed (which is also controlled by the EXP input), depth and tone (which is again a 6dB/octave low‑pass filter). There's also a built‑in gain, but no control over the amount of this.
I used an Analogue Systems RS600 performance wheel to control the tremolo speed, and this generated the expected results. However, from a synthesist's point of view, this is little different from directing an LFO to an audio VCA and controlling the modulation depth using the mod wheel (although Moog would rightly claim that the latter approach doesn't impart the tonal changes that the pedal does). However, I think that the designers missed a trick. It would have been more useful to control the depth of the effect with the CV than to control the speed. This is because the depth control isn't what it claims to be; it's a wet/dry mix control that allows you to output just the unaffected signal at one extreme, just the affected signal at the other, or anything between, with the tremolo rate increasing toward the upper end of its travel. Given the interactions between the raw and treated signals when you mix them, controlling the (misnamed) depth with a pedal, mod wheel, or contour generator would have been much more interesting than controlling the underlying tremolo frequency.
Moog Music promote the Minifoogers only to guitarists and bass players and, were I a more proficient plank spanker, I think that I might be interested in all of them. But while the MF Boost, MF Ring and MF Trem are of limited use to synthesists, the MF Drive and MF Delay would complement almost any synth rig. If you're of the knob‑twiddling persuasion, and not averse to transforming helpless little audio signals into sonic monsters, you should consider both of them.
Of course, even Moog's lower‑cost products are not cheap, and while they're not hideously expensive either, they're generally a little more expensive than much of the competition. Consider the Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy, which is similar to the MF Delay but adds tap tempo and four modes of expression control selectable from its top panel. It has a higher suggested retail price, but can actually be obtained cheaper (here in the UK, at least) than the Moog. Likewise, there is a wealth of tremolo pedals — many with additional waveform options and stereo (panning) effects — as well as boost and drive pedals galore. Let's face it, this is not a sparsely populated market niche. But, while the Minifoogers are not cheap, neither do they sound cheap.
Given that I'm now surrounded by a bunch of stomp boxes, expression pedals, power supplies, patch cables, a Roland SH101, two small Analogue Systems cabinets, a Roland System 100M, a Korg Z1, my Parker guitar and Roland Bolt 100, plus an ESP five‑string bass and a small Trace Elliot amp (didn't I mention that I tried the Minifoogers with a bass guitar too?) I think it's fair to say that I had a great deal of fun with them. Too much, in fact. Now I have to put everything away again.