Paul Ward gets bullish about one of Robert Moog's lesser‑known creations — the Taurus bass foot pedals, famed for their thunderous sound and association with some of the 1970s prog rock scene's greatest stars.
Back in the late 1970s, alongside a keyboard player surrounded by Hammond organs, Clavinets, Mellotrons and MiniMoogs, you could often find a bassist stomping on a set of Moog Taurus bass pedals. Not only did these give him a chance to reach down to those low C and D notes that the keyboardist seemed to delight in requiring of him, but they also allowed him to turn his hands to other instrumentation, such as rhythm guitar or extra keyboards. Happily, the Taurus, launched in late 1976, also sounded phenomenally good in its own right. So good, in fact, that progressive bands of the time, such as Genesis and Rush, went on to make them very much a part of their 'sound'.
The first thing to know about the Moog Taurus is that there aren't many of them. I was scouring the classifieds for over eight years before I acquired my own. The market for a dedicated bass synthesizer was a small one in the MIDI‑less '70s, and, unsurprisingly, the market for a foot‑controlled dedicated bass synth was even smaller! As a consequence, the number of new units sold was considerably lower than for a conventional keyboard synth. A MiniMoog, for example, was more versatile, and could arguably produce similar results when required.
But perhaps the main reason for the lack of second‑hand units is that current owners just don't want to sell them. Even allowing for their legendary sound and inherent collectability, if you do require bass notes by foot there are few credible alternatives. Free‑standing MIDI pedal boards have appeared over the years, but they require a sound module in tow. The Taurus pedals, by contrast, are self‑contained, and exhibit many features in keeping with contemporary '70s synth technology — they're analogue, monophonic and very heavy! The physical design is also typical of its era, with shiny aluminium end supports, and bold, angular styling. The build quality is generally good, although the decision to leave the pedal contacts exposed on the underside of the instrument is nothing short of ludicrous! The contacts are very much the Achilles heel of the Taurus, and pick up muck and grime with irritating regularity. Cleaning does help, although the contacts on my own pedals are now in need of total replacement.
The overriding factor in the design of the Taurus was obviously to make it easy to use when playing live. The big and chunky controls are designed to be operated at speed by foot, and the status lights are very welcome on a darkened stage. To the left of the front panel is the volume slider. The output cannot be fully faded down from this control — it is merely used for trimming the level during performance. To the right is a similar slider assigned to the filter cutoff. These two controls are a little difficult to use at first, and require a subtlety of touch that only comes with practice. To a well‑versed bassist or guitarist with his hands full of wooden plank, however, they represent a quick and easy way to tweak volume and tone on the fly. One user‑definable sound and three presets (of which more in a moment) are available for instant selection by means of switches positioned directly above the pedalboard — more on these presets in a minute. On the right, just above the pedalboard, are three latching controls marked 'Glide', 'Decay' and 'Octave', each again generously adorned with a small red light. 'Glide' simply switches the glide/portamento effect in and out'. 'Decay' actually toggles envelope release, allowing for a smoother transition between notes as your foot stretches for the next pedal. 'Octave' simply raises the notes played by one octave when the switch is depressed.
Under a transparent hinged door in the centre of the front panel lie the controls that form the 'User' preset. Here you find fairly standard analogue synth controls — after all, the Taurus is nothing less than a fully‑fledged two‑oscillator synth. Though the degree of control is not as sophisticated as even the humblest of keyboard monosynths, the range of sounds on offer is surprisingly wide. Controls are provided for oscillator balance and beat (detuning), along with simple Attack and Release envelopes for both amplitude and filter cutoff.
The Taurus filter is rich and fruity, much as you would expect from a Moog synth. With the filter biting on the edge of self‑oscillation, the Taurus pedals can be a great source of ambient effects and burbling resonant filter sweeps. But there's no doubt that bass is what the Taurus does best. Admittedly, of the presets, the names 'Tuba', and 'Bass' are merely vague indications of the type of sound on offer, rather than implying the kind of fidelity that we expect of modern synth presets. However, the mighty 'Taurus' preset has been the favourite of progressive rock bands since these pedals first appeared. This consists of a throaty roar, gradually decaying to a rounded purr as the pedal is held down. After all these years it still makes my mouth water, and is enough to fill out even the most sparse of arrangements. I am perfectly serious when I say that I have seen Taurus notes move chairs around in a concert hall. That's what I call bass! The 'Bass' patch is a chunky plucked sound with a fast decay that really cries out to be played faster than my feet can manage — I resort to playing by fist when necessary. 'Tuba' is perhaps the least exciting of the presets, but finds its niche in filling out the lower frequencies without adding its own character to the mix. Think of it as the ultimate sub‑oscillator and you won't be far from the truth.
Surely, you cry, these sounds are available on any half‑decent analogue monosynth? Well, to a certain extent, I'd agree, but the Taurus just seems to have that indefinable 'something' that sets it apart. The closest sound I can get is, perhaps predictably, from a MiniMoog, but there is still a significant difference. Anyone who regularly uses an analogue synth for bass duties will be well aware of the problems that can be caused by the phasing between two closely‑tuned oscillators. When the two waveforms are in phase, the resulting sound is strengthened and becomes louder. Conversely, when the oscillators are out of phase, the sound weakens and the volume drops. This can make the bass content of a track fade in and out with the beating of the oscillators. This effect can of course be ironed out by using a compressor, but with the Taurus, the problem never arises in the first place. The oscillators beat against one another, and give the rich swirl that is so appealing to the ears, but the bass content remains solid and consistent. I once asked an ex‑Moog employee about this, suggesting that perhaps some form of compression — intentional or otherwise — was taking place inside the circuitry, but he categorically denied that this was the case.
I really believe that you've not heard 'deep' bass until you've heard the Taurus in full flight. I have no measurements to illustrate the frequencies that the Taurus reaches, but these kind of sub‑sonics are beyond the scope of any digital synth that I've come across, and even put a lot of good analogue ones to shame. Maybe sustained pedal bass notes aren't fashionable at the moment, but the Taurus is capable of a wonderful range of chunky 'sequencer' sounds which my fists just can't play fast enough. Indeed, the option of MIDI is a temptation that is hard for Taurus owners to resist — a retrofit is certainly high on my list of things to do when the funds are available. But whether retrofitted or not, for the moment I'll continue to perform the 'Taurus two‑step' and rattle a few teeth on the back rows...
If you ever have the opportunity to check out a set of Moog Taurus pedals, I'd recommend that you jump at the chance, and decide for yourself whether or not they warrant the description of 'classic' synth. Beware of the Taurus MkII, however. These were a set of floor‑standing pedals with a screw‑in stand designed to present the synth controls at waist height for more convenient adjustment. Unfortunately, the gutsy sound of the original Taurus was somewhat compromised in the end result. Those in the know refer often to the MkII as the 'Moog Rogue‑on‑a‑stick', and I suspect there is a lot more truth in this description than Moog would have admitted at the time. In my own experience, having heard the pair of them side‑by‑side, I have to say that the MkII Taurus is a very pale imitation of its older brother.
You're in a seller's market here. Given the relative rarity of these beasts, the chances are you won't be able to use the 'I've got a few more to see, so I'll get back to you' routine!
Check any potential purchase very thoroughly. Don't be fooled into believing that little can be wrong if the Taurus you're considering makes noise of any description — the Taurus may be a fairly simple machine, but there's still things that can go wrong. Test the preset buttons, and listen for crackly faders on both the front panel and under the glass door. Leave the pedals switched on for a while to test the tuning stability — after five minutes they should usually remain fairly steady (though don't expect digital accuracy!). The pedal contacts are the bête noire of the Taurus — check for dodgy triggering or notes that hold on longer than they should. I've been unable to track down any source of genuine replacement contacts, but fortunately a friend of mine has concocted an ingenious method of producing his own!
To hear prime examples of the bovine bass machine, you really need to wander into '70s progressive rock territory. Unmistakable examples include 'Clocks' from Spectral Mornings by Steve Hackett, 'Dance on a Volcano' from A Trick of the Tail by Genesis, and 'Sub‑Divisions' from Signals by Rush.