Bass - No Bull
Moog Taurus Pedals
Ultimate bass? Legendary synth pioneers Moog once made the best bass synth on the planet: Paul Ward reassesses the power of Taurus in the light of '90s bass mania.
When Simon Harris asked 'Bass how low can you go' he probably got the most convincing reply from Moog's Taurus bass pedals - look no lower for the prince of bass.
AS WE EXPLORE the wealth of famous - and not-so famous - synths of old, it becomes increasingly amazing just how many damn fine synths were either instantly passed over or have been forgotten over recent years. A case in point are the Taurus bass pedals once made by Moog. Not that these were neglected when they first appeared, having graced the stage with artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Jarre, Motley Crue, Genesis and the Police. Still, they never acquired the status of synthesisers like the Minimoog, the Prophet 5 or the DX7. Instead, they spent at least part of their lives being mistaken for wedge monitors.
Today Taurus bass pedals have a relatively familiar place in the secondhand synth market: they're sought after by a small minority of musicians, yet are coveted by that minority in such a way as to make their sale a rarity. I searched for some six years, scouring the small ads, before managing to pick up these elusive beasts.
Part of the reason for their rarity, and hence their subsequent high value on the secondhand market, is the fact that few units were ever sold. The market for a set of dedicated bass pedals was relatively small - they were never as exciting or versatile as a "real" keyboard synthesiser, and were expensive by comparison. Yet for the keyboard player with both hands full (or more usually bass guitarists seeking to broaden their horizons) there was no alternative. And when it came to sound, there was no substitute for Moog circuitry.
There is a problem when talking about the Taurus, in that what would be considered to be the Taurus pedals are the Mk I version. Moog did introduce the Taurus II, but this instrument was little more than a Moog Rogue (one of Moog's budget monosynths) on a vertical pole with pedals underneath. It is generally held to be inferior to the Mk I in terms of its sound, and having met Taurus II personally, I have to confirm its sonic shortcomings. In this article, therefore, we will be concentrating on the "classic" Taurus - the Mk I.
Let's look at the working of the machine and see what the rumble is about.
At first glance Taurus pedals look solid, although they are not unduly heavy. They were first made around 1976 (production ceased in 1982) when most synths looked fair game for The Antiques Roadshow. Comparatively, Taurus pedals looked quite futuristic, and were stylised in a way that set them apart from the traditional concept of a home organ "add-on".
The end cheeks sport a wood grain effect - unlike the earlier Minimoog which had solid wooden cheeks. These are edged with a metal band and two metal supports extend from the cheeks forward (beyond the length of pedals themselves). These give the whole structure a reassuring rigidity. When seated on a flat, firm surface the 13 pedals (C to C) are given clearance to move about half an inch. Don't expect to sit the Taurus on your drummer's carpet to play them, however, because the supports sink into the pile and the clearance is lost. (My own solution is to stand them on an old cupboard door scrounged from a furniture store.) Another down side is that there is no protection underneath the pedals and the contacts, consequently, take the brunt of the dust and dirt the world has to throw at them. Regular cleaning is the only answer.
The controls are mounted on the metal facia and they are big and chunky - obviously intended for use with the feet. To the far left of the front panel is a foot operated volume slider labelled Loudness. Since the output cannot be completely faded down from this control, its prime use is to trim the volume during performance. On the opposite side of the panel is an identical slider whose function is to control filter cutoff. Both these foot sliders are a little clumsy, and in practice it is usually prudent to make any changes by hand if possible. In an emergency they just about suffice, but you'll need a steady foot.
Just above the pedals themselves are seven large, round footswitches. The four to the left are sound presets and are labelled Taurus, Tuba, Bass and Variable. Taurus is what might be considered the 'classic' Taurus bass pedal sound (Genesis, Marillion, Rush...) Tuba and Bass are only vague descriptions of these sounds and should not be taken literally. The Variable switch we'll come back to shortly. The remaining three footswitches are labelled Glide, Decay and Octave. Glide switches on what Moog call glide, and the rest of the synth world calls portamento; Decay is actually a release on/off switch similar to the one found on the Minimoog (it allows the sound to die away after a pedal has been released, at a rate governed by the decay setting of the chosen sound); Octave switches the pitch of the sound up an octave (and back with a subsequent press). Each of these switches has a friendly red light above it to let you know when it is selected. It's only a short time until you get used to the order of the buttons, and on a darkened stage the pattern of lights keeps you informed as to how the pedals are going to react to the next touch of your size tens.
The Variable switch brings into play a cute little feature hidden behind a similarly labelled smoked-glass (plastic?) door in the centre of the front panel. This hinged door (which, annoyingly, needs to be held up with one hand while editing with the other) conceals synthesiser controls very similar in design to those found on the early ARP synths (small slider controls). This preset feature is as close to a user memory as Taurus pedals get - it should be remembered that user presets were new ground at the time Taurus pedals were designed. Such delights await us under this section as oscillator detune (or Beat as Moog have labelled it), pitch, filter controls (the wonderful Moog filter - with resonance for juicy filter sweeps) and envelopes to control both amplitude and filter. Here also lies the glide rate control. What we're actually dealing with is a fully-fledged two-oscillator Moog synth - no surprise, then, that Moog christened the Taurus a "bass pedal synthesiser".
The rear panel is spartan even by 1970's standards, and sports nothing more than the captive mains cable, power switch, master volume control and a single audio output socket. No external triggering via a MIDI/CV converter is possible here.
WHAT SETS TAURUS pedals up as the bass to beat the rest, can only be appreciated when you hear them. The thunderous Taurus setting (showcased on Steve Hackett's 'Clocks'), will soon show you if you've got any loose plaster. Alternatively, the smooth Tuba setting can be used to underpin any arrangement without overstating its presence. Bass, meanwhile, is a chunky synth bass sound that cries out to be played more quickly than is actually possible by foot (playing by fist usually becomes the order of the day). The sounds awaiting the unwary traveller in the Variable section are remarkably diverse, ranging from sweet, high-pitched sounds suitable for playing melodies to strange drone effects for more avant-garde uses.
The bass sounds from this machine are unashamedly analogue. They purr and roar with traditional analogue warmth, and seem to exhibit a very "controlled" bass end. It's almost as if the sound is being compressed slightly, although I am told this is not the case. Taurus sounds sit in a mix very comfortably without undue equalisation or level-riding, and can make even quite a sparse mix sound very full. I have tried to emulate the sound of the Taurus on many synths, including my trusty Minimoog, but have never managed to capture the tight, controlled bass that Taurus effortlessly produces.
If you've never heard (knowingly) the sound of Moog Taurus pedals, there are plenty of recorded examples for you to check out - but given the time of their release, you're going to find yourself deep in rock territory. One place to start is with the aforementioned 'Clocks', but the opening of Genesis' 'Dance on a Volcano' and 'Los Endos' from A Trick of the Tail would offer a similar insight. Don't get the idea that the Taurus is for 1970s pomp rock covers only, though. Given the current popular preoccupation with bass (a phenomenon that also marked the mid-'70s), and MIDI control of pre-MIDI gear only a retrofit away, those fat bass sounds can be sequenced to perfection. It's just that nobody's done it yet - have they?
I will soon be getting my own Taurus pedals MIDI'd, and expect a new era of music to open up for me. I can finally get that Bass preset earning its keep without my fists feeling as if they've been loaned out to Mike Tyson.
It's a funny thing, but whenever I play live, the questions I get asked always seem to revolve around the sounds that I get using my Moogs. Nobody ever asks me which D50 sounds I use or what my favourite samples are. Is it just that younger ears have never heard these sounds, or is it that they really are as good as us analogue junkies imagine? Whatever the truth, these things always seem to go in cycles: I was asking the very same questions back in 1977.
Gear in this article:
Retrospective (Gear) by Paul Ward