There has been some confusion in the last year with regards to the difference between modular and semi-modular. Some people for example have been calling the Kilpatrick Phenol Semi-Modular. This however is not accurate, the Phenol is in fact a standalone modular synthesizer.
The difference between semi-modular and modular is that semi-modular has a hard-wired signal path that can be altered through patching, and fully modular instruments on the other hand requires patching. Modulars do not need separate units can be replaced. This is why the EMS Synthi and the Fenix are considered fully modular instruments. Semi-modular instruments of course are the Arp 2600, Korg MS-20, and more recently the Moog Mother-32.
The extent one can patch with a semi-modular synthesizers can vary greatly. The MS-20 for example lacks pre-filter/pre-mixer outputs for its oscillators. While the Arp 2600 allows for a great degree of patching between the various functions without such barriers. The Moog Mother-32 adds a feature in that it can be hooked directly into a modular system. The Buchla 208 was really what pushed out this concept. These instruments can even be experimental, many of the Ciat-Lonbarde instruments are also semi-modular, such as the Sidrax. These limitations though often allow for some benefits, specifically the ability to approach the instrument without patching. This can be helpful for those just learning synthesis to ease into modular functionality.
Modular synthesizers on the other hand come in two variety. One is modular systems, where you have cases or cabinets with modules you place modules or panels in. When you think of Moog, Buchla, and Eurorack, you are looking at a modular system. This is a common standard where functional modules can be taken out and added. There is another category of modular though, which is the stand alone. EMS pushed forward with this concept with it’s Synthi pin matrix synths. The Fenix, and later the Phenol bring this concept to the realm of patch cable synthesizers. These stand alone instruments do bring certain advantages, such as having all the necessary components for a voice, but still having all the advantages of signal path routing as a modular system. They also can bring increased portability, which can be an issue as modular systems grow in size.
Whether one is going with a fully modular synthesizer or a semi-modular, is often more about personal preference and budget.
The Mother-32 is not only the first Eurorack modular instrument for Moog, it is also something much greater, the first instrument that Moog released to a wider market as an employee owned company. I actually spent the day not only reviewing the Moog Mother-32, but also speaking with the people who had a hand in creating and marketing the instrument.
Moog is a unique company because it remains how Bob Moog originally envisioned, the entire company, from design, production, repair, distribution, and marketing, remains on site in Asheville. When he established Big Briar, which later reclaimed the Moog moniker, he did something that was counter-intuitive in the age of outsourcing. He kept production in the US when he rebuilt the company, and that is where it has remained since his death.
Between Moog’s death, until recently, Moog was almost entirely in the hands of one his partners when he re-established the company. At some point, I think it was realized the best way to really keep Moog’s legacy, was not as part of some large conglomerate which could put the company at risk once again, but in the hands of the employees.
In some ways this is conscious of the history of Moog Music itself. Moog was a company that Robert Moog lost at one point, only for the moniker to won back later in his life. The fact that the company is still growing even after his death is a testament to the path he left the company on. The the company he re-established really is on a solid foundation.
I normally do not get to talk about economics and business with regards to synthesizers. Moog is a growing company precisely because while it is steeped in its past and Moog’s circuits and his legacy, it also has its foot forward into the present. In this respect, the Mother-32 really is the perfect representation of this. The technology and manufacturing techniques used, basically a digitally controlled sequencer and a surface mount technology PCB board, are very much a part of modern manufacturing and instrument technology. The voice though, is taken directly from Moog’s legacy in all analog signal paths, and his filter design, the modular nature of the instrument itself uses the very same principles of the larger Moog modular instruments. While the current larger Moog Modular systems are historically accurate instruments down to the hand drawn PCB boards, the Mother-32 is much more reflective of the direction Moog was taking the company before his death. The recognition that while one looks to the past, creating analog instruments can also be about the present manufacturing techniques as well. The minimoog voyager for example was at its core an acknowledgement of the importance of change and evolution.
I had about a nice discussion/interview with two of the three engineers who designed the Mother-32, Steve Dunnington and Amos Gaynes. The information they provided did help me write the review. The other thing I found is both were enthusiastic about designing synthesizers, and were looking beyond Moog for inspiration in terms of the design from the interface to the functionality of the sequencer. This was while keeping an eye on the aesthetics, feel, and sound of Moog instruments.
But the truth is I found out how the people in the company whether it was Emmy, Jim, and others who worked for Moog, also had a hand in these decisions. The beauty of it is how the people at Moog have input into the instruments which were being created, but also in production. This is a company that was put into a single place to run as a collaborative effort, and it works. I appreciated the invitation into the chocolate factory to do the review. The real legacy of Moog came out not just in its instruments, but in the people who work there, but also how things are done.This was all very hard to appreciate until I encountered it first hand, there is something special there. Essentially, it did create a model that other American synthesizer manufacturers have since followed. People often forget that many of the Eurorack modular manufacturers from Make Noise to Pittsburgh Modular, use a very similar model in terms of doing business. In the case of Make Noise Music this is for very good reason, it was founded by a former Moog employee. I have a very hard time seeing the success of modern modular systems without the involvement of Make Noise Music. While Make Noise makes very different synthesizers than Moog, drawing more inspiration from Buchla and Serge, it is obvious that something did carry over into their efforts, and they have grown as well.
There is much to be said about the problems in the American music and manufacturing industry that are negative, but the revival of the analog and modular synthesizer in many ways has been a bright spot. This is in some ways because of the way things are in fact different at Moog and how this has served as a model. The fact the company is transitioning to one that is employee run can improve on this even further. The symbolic nature of the Mother-32 is pretty important in this respect, since it was an instrument that evolved out of the collaborative nature of the people at Moog. As much as the company is named after a sole inventor, a significant amount of music technology comes from collaborative efforts, and the Mother-32 was no exception.
Another bright spot is Moog Music does make an effort to highlight both the women who are theremin virtuoso and the importance of Wendy Carlos contribution with regards to the popularity of the synthesizer during the tour. It was something that made me elated to hear.
I am likely to return to Asheville area in the near future, I really need to get around to visiting Make Noise Music as well, though I look forward to revisiting Moog Music.
I was lucky enough to go to Asheville, NC to Moog Music to review their new semi-modular synthesizer the Mother-32. Taking the significant back-orders for the instrument, this really was the best way for me to get my hands on one. Since there is quite a bit to cover concerning the trip, so I will just start with the review itself.
Moog was kind enough to let me sit in the sound lab for several hours to go through a complete work through of the synthesizer. For the sake of clarity I tested it with a Serge TKB (The Human Comparator/Zthee version) and a Shbobo SHNTH. I recreated the conditions I would test any other instrument.
Build Quality and Ergonomics
The build and feel of an instrument in the eurorack world is often overlooked. With regards to the Moog Mother-32 there were a number of decisions that were made to keep the solid feel of the instrument as well as maintain access to knobs even with it’s modular nature. As such it maintains the feel of a classic Moog instrument, even while in the smaller eurorack footprint.
The one thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that this does have the same large knobs as it’s classic siblings in both the keyboard space and 5U space. These pots are in no way wobbly either, they are solid. For people who complain about the small fiddly knobs of eurorack you would be pleased with the overall ergonomics of the Mother-32.
As one patches one notices the patchbay is kept out of the way from the knobs, this was a conscious decision by the engineers, and inspired by instruments such as the Fenix and the original Wiard modular synthesizers. This does add a great deal to the tweakability of the knobs as one is playing. It is a welcome change, which is difficult to appreciate unless one has fiddled with tiny eurorack knobs with large walls of wires in their way. The only loss is it can be hard to keep track of functions and their relationship to the instrument as one is patching. It is a fairly dense patchbay with the 32 patch points. But I believe it is a sacrifice that works out rather well, and resolves one of the major gripes with eurorack, which is access to knobs.
The casing of the instrument is solid, all metal with wood ends. Like Moog’s many other instruments, the casing is angled to face the user. While this does create a slightly larger instrument while it is standing alone, it does make it more comfortable to look down at and interact with. With that being said, the overall footprint of the instrument is fairly small. It kept with the eurorack 3u standard, and is around 60HP. This is not a large instrument by any means.
In terms of the electronics, over time Moog has moved to surface mount technology for their lower priced instruments, as this allows for more automated processes for PCB boards. The Mother 32 is no exception. For those worried that this will effect the sound, let me be clear about this, it doesn’t. This is a beautiful sounding analog instrument that sounds as thick and rich as any other Moog. SMT makes instruments like the Mother 32 affordable as well as it allows more features to be packed into a smaller footprint. It should also be noted that Moog’s quality control is excellent and I do not believe SMT changes anything in that regard. I also do not think the strongest feature, the sequencer, would have been possible without this modern manufacturing technique.
Simple Voice, Massive Sound
The voice for the Moog Mother-32 is pretty simple, 1 VCO, 1 Filter, 1 LFO, 1 ENV, a VCA, Noise, and a couple of mixers. If this sounds familiar, yes, it’s lineage is to the Moog Werkstatt synthesizers, but that is more of a starting point, rather than an end point. The Moog Mother-32 significantly expands on the patching capabilities with the voice, there is a total of 32 patch points with the synthesizer between the voice and the sequencer. While the Werkstatt had patching, it lacked the amount of depth found in the mother 32, almost every aspect of the synth allows for voltage control. Bob Moog would have been pretty proud of the design in this respect.
While the Mother-32 has a simple voice it sounds massive, this is in large part to a high quality oscillator, even if in comparison to other oscillators in the eurorack space it seems simple. While only having two waveforms, the oscillator is actually rich in it’s tonality. With both pulse width and frequency modulation, it allows for a great deal of flexibility as well. The frequency modulation though is what helps define it’s depth. I do not know why in this day and age frequency modulation is left out of analog oscillators on so many instruments, thankfully in this case Moog included it. Which is substantial, because a great deal of the magic of the Mother-32 comes from the high quality analog frequency modulation. The result is the Mother-32 allows for rather complex synthesis sounds to emerge through patching using the FM capabilities. The voice in it can go from Moog Bass deep, all the way to FM bell tones as a result. The result is even though the synth voice seems limited, it is in fact rather expansive.
One of the things that I would be remiss not to mention is the filter. Moog synthesizers are of course famous for the ladder filter. This filter has more or less found itself on every synthesizer Moog music has ever created. Make no mistake, it is here as well, with both a high pass and low pass modes, and it does in fact sound phenomenal with both filters. The reason why east coast synthesis can work great comes from the strength of the filters. If the filter is terrible, it falls apart rather quickly. The ladder filter found on Moog synths though are the best there is for this task, and the Mother 32 is no exception. This is a high fidelity filter with a wide range of sounds from the musical to the gritty. Because of this there is a great deal of flexibility in how it sounds, it is not necessarily limited to one narrow range of sounds (I am looking at you TB-303 filter). The Mother 32 does have a switch between the high pass and low pass filter, so it is not just limited to the low pass one finds on some other Moog instruments. The difference between the Mother-32 and Moog’s keyboard synths of course, is like their traditional modulars, it is all patchable, allowing for both modulation and audio experimentation.
The modulation on the Mother-32 is not it’s strong suit, but it does do the job. The LFO is voltage controlled and goes into audio rate, and the Attack (Sustain) Decay envelope can get rather snappy. But this is not the complex envelope one finds in the Kilpatrick Phenol, a Serge, or in much of eurorack (such as Make Noise’s legendary Maths). With that being said the voltage control mixer, and the fact there is independent outs for both LFO waveforms does help. I should note, while this is not the strong suit, it’s not a weakness. You can pull off interesting modulation possibilities with the right patching. The reality is the sequencer, which I will get to later, really does open up the modulation possibilities to the unit.
For those interested, which I am, this instrument does have a way to drone the synth through turning on the VCA, and away from “eg” mode near the volume control. This means the synthesizer is an excellent synth for noise or drone if one chooses to use it for this purpose. It is a credit to Moog that they realized that this is a potential usage of the synthesizer.
Which gets me to the last part, this is a modular instrument, even though it is hard wired for a rather vanilla direct signal path. The modular patching is really where the mother 32 does in fact open up. Nearly everything is exposed to control voltage or frequency modulation. Which more than anything is a testament to Bob Moog’s greatest invention, which is control voltage. In an age when modular synthesizers using Bob Moog’s invention are becoming more popular because of the eurorack format, the fact that Moog has entered the fray seems only right.
The Sequencer – 303 Killer?
Talking to some of the people at Moog Music, the best part of the Mother-32 may have never made it into the synthesizer, which is the sequencer. There are sometimes elements of synthesizers that take a good instrument, and elevate them into a classic one. While the voice of the mother-32 is fantastic, the instrument is a classic because of the sequencer. It significantly improves it’s use as a stand alone instrument.
The sequencer at first looks difficult to use, but it really just takes three steps to get it going with a new patch, and this is well laid out in both the quick start guide and the manual. However, if I have any gripe regarding the instrument, it is the need for button combinations to control the sequencer. The sequencer does require time to learn to understand all of the functionalities. Unlike the voice structure, it lacks a certain degree of immediacy. It does become more intuitive the more you use it though.
The sequencer has both a “step” mode and a “keyboard” mode. The reality is both are a form of step sequencing, just one is a little different than the other in terms of approach.
The engineers at Moog were inspired by the Roland TB-303 and subsequent Adafruit XoXBox. Amos and Steve, the engineers who worked on this, were very clear that they loved these instruments, and drew inspiration from them from the sequencer. As much as this is being publicized as “Moog does eurorack”, this synthesizer goes well beyond that. The reality is this little Moog is not only a wonderful entry into the modular world, it is also a great little stand alone sequenced synthesizer. The depth of the sequencer is pretty substantial, is easily one of the most flexible I have encountered inside an instrument. It is able to pull off some very musical tasks, but also some very experimental ones. In this respect it goes well beyond the capabilities of the TB-303.
I will be honest, given my limited time, I could not explore every feature within the sequencer, largely because I did not have the time, and there is just too much there to cover. This is because the sequencer also has an assign mode which can unlock some “missing” features such as additional waveforms for modulation, clocks, and a random “sample and hold” waveform. This assign function is where modulation possibilities really do open up. This is where running into the “no way to get to all of it” starts to take hold. At the same time…this is why this instrument really does shine.
If somebody were to ask me what is missing from this I would have a hard time coming up with a straight answer. The Mother-32 is designed to be a simple voice, but it’s extensive modular patching allows for a great deal of complexity. While it could use an additional modulation source, that role is easily filled in by the extensive sequencer.
The only current problem comes from the fact the sequencer is coupled with the voice. Well rest assured, this feature, to decouple the synth from the sequencer is something Moog is working on for a future firmware release. This would increase the utility of this within the eurorack world as a module even further. They are listening to people who are using the instrument.
Some can argue another envelope or oscillator. I think the elegance of this synth really is it’s minimalism. Many people who work with modular synthesizers often think in creative ways to get multiple uses out of each component, an LFO becomes an oscillator, an Envelope becomes an LFO, a Filter becomes an Oscillator. This instrument is no different. Even the waveshaping which some people will see as “missing” can be done with the right patching using the two wave forms and the mixer. I think that’s the point, this is an instrument that allows one to approach these things creatively. There is learning keyboards, and then learning synthesis. This really is about the latter, not the former. There is quite a world to explore, and this is a complete synthesizer, even with its seeming simplicity.
Reviewing the instrument, I thought just one thing was missing, and it only becomes relevant when one is working directly outside of the Mother-32 itself, which is a sync for the oscillator. This is a function though which is really only useful though if you expand beyond one Mother-32. This is a small gripe, because the synth is fantastic otherwise and very flexible for a single voice synth. Additionally, oscillator sync is by no means a deal killer for me that the lack of FM is on a synthesizer.
It should be noted I reviewed the instrument for what it was, not what it is not. I was not expecting a Buchla or Serge while playing a Moog. So while from a different perspective something may be “missing”, the reality is it is at it’s heart a Moog. The core voice is reflective of that, and the fact Moog packed in several additional features with the sequencer, does make it impressive. It is hard to find anything as “missing” with the instrument as a result. This is a fantastic instrument for what it is, capable of a wide palette of sounds. If one wants to add to that they can always take the next step into eurorack.
Unlike many other synthesizers, including analogs, it does in fact sound fantastic even when dry. Ultimately, this is really what ultimately matters with an instrument such as this. How does it sound? In the case of the Mother-32, the sound is sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange, and sometimes angry. It depends on what you push the instrument towards, what ones goals are in sound synthesis. The Mother-32 is not a be all end all, no synthesizer is, but it is a great instrument that can achieve quite a bit.
What if I Have Eurorack Already? Other Modulars?
For those that already have eurorack they may be wondering if this instrument is a good fit, especially with the footprint this instrument does take up. I am not sure there is a clear answer to that, because much like everything in eurorack, it depends on what you are seeking out. However, for a Moog voice, it does represent a pretty substantial value. While others have attempted to push such a voice in the eurorack space, it is often at a significant cost. With both the oscillator and filter sounding fantastic, and with a few additional utility functions, it is a solid addition, especially if one is particularly weak with east coast style modules. Which I found all to common with my own modular systems.
It should be noted, I did use a the Serge TKB to test this as well, and the Mother-32 responded wonderfully to it. I would imagine that anything that works with the 1/v octave standard would work well with the Mother-32. The key is having the right format jumblers around if one is switching between wire formats. Being aware of the differences in voltages that may exist. It would be at home with most modular systems out there, save for maybe Korg MS-20 mini (Hz) and Buchla (1.2/v), which both use different standards and require converters.
A Moog For Everyone
When Moog originally created the Minimoog he originally intended for it to be a way for ordinary musicians to obtain a synthesizer. Over the years it seems Moog Music, while still offering higher end instruments, has tried to reach the people as well, and quite effectively between the phatty series. The problem is while the phatty series and minimoogs are wonderful instruments, it does not appeal to everybody making music with synthesizer these days . In the age of drone boxes, eurorack performance modulars, and sequenced synthesizers, the world of electronic music is more expansive than keyboard instruments. I think in many ways the Mother-32 is trying to stay in that spirit of making Moog synthesis affordable, but also staying current, and the result is a sequencer and modular synthesizer that is accessible, and beautiful.
Moog is still living up to Bob’s vision even while maintaining modernity with the Mother-32. Not everybody likes keyboards or interacts with synthesizers that way in this day and age. For me, sequencers and complex synthesis tend to be at the core of my workflow. The concept of a large and expensive Moog modular system is not something I find particularly practical for live performance when I am frequently taking public transit to shows. I love modular synthesizers, but the space issue for 5U (Moog Unit) is a major issue when one is living in a city such as DC as well. Moog’s leap into both the small format desktop semi-modular and eurorack space is something that is welcome for those who love to use such instruments in both space limited cities, but also those dependent on public transit. This is the Moog modular for the city dweller.
Moog has created a smaller instrument that is flexible enough to appeal to both the experimental synthesist, and the modern EDM musician. This really is a synthesizer that fills a gap that has long existed at Moog, what if the keyboard instruments are not something that work for me? This is a Moog for the drone artists and house producers. Those who want something that is beat oriented, and those that want something that is out there. From a musical perspective, this is a Moog for those who are seeking something a little different. Where a keyboard is not desired, or needed.
Above all, I see this synthesizer really an ideal entry point. While some synthesizers offer a very simple architecture, they really do not open the door to deeper functionality which is found on modular synthesizers. This Mother-32 is different, it is a great entry point for beginners, but it is also a way to take them down their journey as a synthesist. It is both a very good example of the basics of east coast synthesis, but also a gateway of the depth that can be achieved by deviating from it using modular patching. While experienced EDM and experimental electronic musicians will get a great deal out of this, the real winners are those who are just starting their journey. This really is a great Moog to learn on. The inclusion of a sequencer and midi really does make this possible to the fullest extent. One can either take this as a leaping off point and move to something more akin to a sub-37, or use it as a gateway to a modular system. But it also can be an end point, because it is a very effective instrument for making music, and adding additional Mother-32 synthesizers, does in fact expand it’s utility since all of the elements for complex synthesis are there. Moog Music created a great synthesizer with the Mother-32, something that is simple, yet opens the door to depth and complexity if one seeks it out.
My hope is of course, Moog releases more modules in this same space for both eurorack, and as expansions to the mother 32. That this is not the end for Moog in this space. Because they are off to a great start with the Mother-32. Moog achieved an ideal I do seek out in synthesizers, between functionality, sound, and features. As of this point, I would recommend the Moog Mother-32 to pretty much anybody who has an interest in either learning synthesis, or is actively involved in making electronic music. The Mother-32 is close to ideal, no matter the skill level.