Intended to be their finest moment, Moog's "ultimate" polysynth proved problematic and unreliable - yet it won many devotees. Steve Howell recalls the sound of analogue.
After the runaway success of the Minimoog and prompted by the arrival of practical polyphony, Moog attempted the obvious - a polyphonic Minimoog. But what happened to the Memorymoog?
What makes a synth, or any other piece of hi-tech musical equipment a "classic"? Perhaps it's simply a matter of getting there first or in sufficient quantities (weren't all synthesisers referred to as "Moogs" at one time?). Or perhaps it's bringing together a number of factors that "gel" in some musically useful fashion. Maybe it's meeting some specific musical demand - or anticipating one. Whatever the criteria, the late arrival alone of the Memorymoog could almost preclude it from classic status.
Indeed, the Memorymoog became available as late as 1980, some four or more years after the Prophet 5, Yamaha CS80, Oberheim OBX et al, and only a few years before more affordable instruments changed the polysynth market completely.
Moog's first foray into polyphony came around 1975 in the form of the ill-fated PolyMoog. This curious beast was a mixture of synth and organ technology that fell short of many of the requirements of synth players. In its favour was the fact that it was totally polyphonic, using a separate chip for each key - none of this six- or eight-voice nonsense. Against it was its single filter for the whole keyboard making it little more versatile than the ARP Omni (which was essentially a string synth with a filter). But it was also touch-sensitive and it was possible to split the sound as many as five different ways for the creation of complex sounds. However it was not what most people wanted, and Sequential Circuits', Oberheim's, Yamaha's and Roland's polysynths took almost all the glory.
For some strange reason it took Moog five years to produce their reply, the Memorymoog but was it worth the wait? The answer to that has to be yes - and no.
Before highlighting the Memorymoog's weak points, let's first look at its strengths. Its voice architecture is classic in every sense of the word. Each voice (there were six) has no less than three voltage controlled oscillators, a voltage controlled low-pass filter, two ADSR envelope generators and a voltage con-trolled amplifier. There is also a low frequency oscillator and a noise generator. Modest in comparison with machines like the Ensoniq SQ80/ESQ1, but in the early '80s this was a mighty spec. The synth also has powerful modulation facilities. Basically, the LFO with its five waveforms - triangle, square, rising and falling sawtooth and random - can be routed to control the pitch of each (or all) of the oscillators any (or all) of the oscillator pulse widths, and also filter cutoff frequency and modulation can be set via a programmable control, or can be introduced using the mod wheel. Interestingly, the noise generator, which is available as a modulation source on the Minimoog, is not able to perform such a task on its polyphonic big brother but most Memorymoog fans seem to agree that it's no great loss.
Like the Prophet, the Memorymoog boasts "poly mod" facilities, although Moog elected to call this Voice Modulation - that is, VCO 3 can be switched to act as a spare LFO for the creation of further modulation effects. Because there are six VCO 3s (one per voice), the vibrato and other modulation effects that can be created are rich and varied. It is also possible to use the filter's envelope generator for pitch sweeps and envelope control of pulse width. These control signals can also be inverted for further variety. Using VCO 3 as the vibrato source enables particularly lush string and other ensemble sounds to be created as each of the six voices has its own vibrato that is out of phase with the others. This is different from the standard LFO arrangement which effects all voices simultaneously and coherently.
Of course, it's not compulsory to use VCO 3 in only low frequency mode, and its possible to modulate the other two oscillators and the filter with VCO 3 in the audio frequency range, creating a wide range of FM effects. If this isn't enough to expect from the Memorymoog's modulation facilities, it is possible to use the VCF's EG to contour the modulation from VCO 3, thereby enabling interesting modulation patterns to be introduced. In this way it's possible to set up "tongueing" effects on brass sounds, "scrapes" on strings and many more FM-type effects. All of these techniques pre-empted Yamaha's FM synths by a good few years
Generally, the Memorymoog offered a far more versatile method of modulation than any other synth of its kind at the time. Today the only synths that can compete are the aforementioned Ensoniq synths and the powerful Oberheim Xpander and Matrix synths.
Unlike most of today's synths (but common to synths of that era) is the simultaneous availability of all three waveforms (triangle, square/pulse and sawtooth) from the VCOs. This means they can be combined to give more complex sounds than one-waveform per voice synths. Furthermore, the mixer can be overdriven to produce a more distorted sound. The noise generator can also be mixed in with all three oscillators. Pulse width on all VCOs is freely variable from ratios of 99:1 through 1:99 and, of course, pulse width can in turn be modulated from the variety of sources listed above. It also goes without saying that you can sync the oscillators and, in true Moog tradition, this produces an array of screaming lead-line sounds. Using sync without modulation, it is possible to create digital-like sound textures that will give many a new wavetable synth a run for its money.
Once again, in true Moog tradition, the filter is beefy. It has the classic Moog sound - rich, distinctive and coloured similarly to the Minimoog. All the sounds are here for the taking: bass sounds par excellence, and lead-line sounds powerful, yet versatile enough for the creation of realistic string and brass sounds. The filter has variable cutoff frequency, resonance that oscillates at high settings and the whole lot can be modulated using not only the keyboard but all of the possibilities outlined above. Simple but effective.
The two envelope generators are of the ADSR variety - unlike the Minimoog that had ADS envelope generators with the release time switched in to the decay time. Attack times are variable between 1mS and 10 seconds and decay and release are variable between 1mS and 20 seconds. The front panel is labelled in real envelope times instead of the usual arbitrary scales, so you know precisely what's going on at any time. As on the Minimoog there is a Release switch that switches in the release control, but the release time is now separately controllable. Whilst being simple, the envelope generators perform well and in an uncomplicated way. The envelopes created are curiously "natural", fast attack times are punchy and percussive, whilst long envelopes are smooth legato.
Other goodies include two footpedal inputs which can be routed to control pitch, tone, amplitude and LFO modulation; and a variety of switch pedal inputs for sustain, hold, program advance and so on.
One highly desirable aspect of this and other synths of its era is the large number of controls and switches on the front panel. Editing sounds is a breeze on this type of synth, with changes being made instantly and intuitively and not via tedious parameter accessing.
One major facet of the Memorymoog that must not be overlooked is the Programmer section. In its most basic guise, this is used to store programs - up to 100 of 'em. At a more advanced level, you can use the Programmer to dictate the various types of voice assignment and polyphony and, in Mono mode, you can use it to determine how many voices sound of one key. For many lead line and bass sounds, it can be desirable to have only one voice sounding so that it behaves like a Minimoog, but if overkill is your forte, all six voices sounding simultaneously on one note (18 slightly detuned oscillators at once) is obviously going to appeal to you. The Programmer allows you to control all this as well as program it as part of a patch. You can also set the note priority (low, high or last) when in Mono mode.
At a yet more advanced level, the Programmer allows you to ran diagnostic checks of faults or to assist in the calibration of the tuning with out the need for extensive test equipment. You can also program your own security code that prevents sound hackers from gaining access to your sounds, Interestingly, the Memorymoog was the first synth to not only display the current value of a control setting whilst editing a sound, but also display the original value. In this way it's also possible to compare edited sounds with the original version, a feature that was not to become available on any other synth for at least two years following its launch, and even now is absent on many.
There's also an arpeggiator. In these days of mega-track MIDI sequencers, the humble arpeggiator is often forgotten but they have their uses and the Memorymoog's arpeggiator was better than most with a variety of modes to choose from.
On the negative side, the old Memorymoog is not without faults, Firstly, tuning. With 18 oscillators to take care of, it in not uncommon for the instrument to go out of tune regularly. But having said that, its also fair to say that these tuning anomalies were no worse than most guitars. The Programmer makes it possible (even easy) to disable any rogue voice that would not tune up for some reason - a facility that led some to speculate on Moog's own confidence in their instrument.
But I suppose one of the major shortcomings of the Memorymoog was that, by 1980, keyboard players had come to expect layering and split facilities that were standard on synths like the Jupiter 8 and Oberheim OB series. The Moog had none of these. Arriving two years before the apocalyptic MIDI standard, there was no means of external sequencing and (rather foolishly) Moog didn't even include a CV/gate input for monophonic control from a sequencer - instead they provided a CV/gate output to control other monophonic synths. Had they chosen to include inputs as well, a simple MIDI/CV converter would help bring it in line with today's sequencing marvels albeit monophonically. However, Moog did see fit to update the Memorymoog to the Memorymoog+ which, as well as having a simple MIDI implementation (just note on/off) also had a small (and relatively useless) sequencer. Updates are available for an original Memorymoog to convert it into the enhanced version, although you may find it preferable to convert it using an upgrade developed by third parties that may include MIDI reception of pitch-bend, mod wheel, aftertouch, velocity and patch changes as well. Such an upgrade would cost in the region of £200 or so and turn the Memorymoog into a MIDI monster, acting as perhaps the ultimate programmable analogue synth module.
In conclusion I'd say the Memorymoog was "too little, too late" from one of the all-time great synth manufacturers. Had it come out around the same time as the Prophet 5 or Oberbeim synths, I believe it would have wiped she floor with them, but in 1980 it was just too late for a six voice synth with no split or layer facilities and a price tag that was more than double the DX7's around the corner. That's not to say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the Memorymoog - quite the contrary. I'd call it filth and purity in one instrument. Comparing the Moog with an Ensoniq synth (which has a very similar voice architecture), the Moog almost always produces a richer, more vibrant and "warm" sound. Similarly, many people describe the D50 as the ultimate synth for pad sounds - they obviously have not heard the silky-smooth textures of a Memorymoog in action.
Current secondhand costs are around £400 for the basic Memorymoog and £700 or so for the Memorymoog+ with its bare MIDI spec (not bad considering it weighed in at over £2,000 in 1980). Anyone in the market for a Minimoog could do well to check out a Memorymoog as it was Moog's original intention that the Memory should be a poly Mini. They even went as far as to analyse the sound of a number of Mini's in their attempts to find out the secret of its sound. That the designers who conceived and built the original Minimoog didn't entirely succeed only adds to the Mini myth. But the Mini is more limited in modulation facilities than the Memory, which is polyphonic and will remember all the sounds that send Minimoog owners searching for old patch charts. In these days of thin digital sounds, the tone of the Memorymoog comes as a welcome relief to this author's ears and comes as a highly recommended secondhand buy, especially at current prices.
MIDI updates for the Memorymoog are available from (Contact Details)
Gear in this article:
Retrospective (Gear) by Steve Howell