Source Of Inspiration
At the time Moog discontinued the Minimoog, they launched the first programmable monosynth to use digital parameter editing. Nick Magnus reflects on a synth that was ahead of its time but overlooked by most players.
With all the attention recently lavished on the classic Minimoog, the Moog Source has been forgotten by many of us - but not all.
AS THE BIRO is to the ball-point pen and Hoover are to the vacuum cleaner, so Moog are to the synthesiser. Or were, as the company sadly folded some years back. The infamous Minimoog was an instrument that could increase the heartbeat of many a knobbist to such an extent that we're feeling the backlash of safe synthesis even now. Three oscillators, a sexy, slinky sound, searing aggressiveness, power... Please excuse me.
Many a musician has wondered if Moog would still be around now if only the Minimoog had been polyphonic and programmable. In fact, the Memorymoog was designed with this in mind but, despite the efforts of Moog's designers to recreate the distinctive tone of the Minimoog it failed to deliver the goods. (For a detailed look at the Minimoog and Memorymoog see MT, August '85 and January '89 respectively.)
However, the Memorymoog was still two years away from completion when the Source appeared to the world in 1981 - at the time Minimoog production ceased. Around that time, a glance at the current Moog catalogue would have revealed the Source, the Rogue, the Prodigy, the Polymoog (and Polymoog keyboard), and the revamped (and slightly disappointing compared with the earlier models) Taurus Bass pedals. It was apparently intended that the Polymoog, Source and Taurus pedals should form a triumvirate - accompaniment, solo and bass instruments - and to this end a multipin connector allowed the Polymoog access to the Taurus pedals. There is scant evidence that this setup ever caught on.
Turning our attention to the Source, we find a monophonic, 16-memory, programmable analogue synth. Its most notable competition was Oberheim's 0B1, based on their massive OB4 polyphonic modular synth. So what won the Source its many admirers? Well, for me, it was because it was the only other machine to share some of the sonic qualities of the Minimoog. Now this, of course, is a subjective opinion, but the Source seemed to be to all intents a pared-down Minimoog - although Moog themselves insisted that it was not a replacement for the Minimoog.
The Source represented Moog's first encounter with programmable memories, of which there were 16. Aside from the Source's approach to editing (which we'll look at in due course), the instrument's features were pretty standard fare for the time: analogue oscillators offered a choice of waveforms, which were harmonically reduced by a voltage controlled filter, then shaped by a voltage controlled amplifier, then sent to the audio output. You've got it, good old subtractive synthesis.
COMPARISONS WITH THE Minimoog are inevitable, for it provided the standard by which synths past and present are frequently judged. Possibly the most significant omission from the Source was a third VCO. On the Minimoog, this could be used either as a third audio source for fat unisons or three-way intervals, or for modulation effects such as vibrato and tremolo. But, being an audio oscillator, the frequency of the Minimoog's third VCO allowed ring modulation effects to be created. Each Source oscillator had sawtooth, triangle, and variable pulse waveforms, compared to the Mini's six fixed waves. Pitches of 32', 16' and 8' were available. The Minimoog, however, also gave us 4' and 2' as well as LO (LFO frequencies). The Source's white noise generator was a bit of a sad affair - it sounded like a poor quality sample with an irritating loop every half-second. This noise was not available for use as a modulation source - viz, no thunder effects. Interestingly, the Source did provide us with oscillator sync - not to be found on the Minimoog unless modified. The Sweep was accessed only via the pitch wheel (sweeping VCO 2's pitch against VCO 1), alas disabling simultaneous pitchbend - shame.
The VCF and VCA envelopes were an improvement on those found on the Minimoog, giving ADSR envelopes as opposed to ADS with a switchable release. There were three options for the filter's key follow: off, half and full tracking. A further improvement over the Minimoog existed in the shape of single or multiple triggering options on the ADSRs; the Minimoog was single only. Both keyboards employ low-note priority key assignment.
The Source's modulation (LFO) section was, at first sight, a paltry affair, having only triangle and square waveforms; but the rate could be pushed up into the low end of the audio spectrum, thus providing ring modulation of sorts. This was routable to pitch or filter, but not both.
WE SHOULD GO no further without mentioning one aspect of this synth which surely was a Big First. The Source was the first synth to have parameter access editing. Unlike the Minimoog's traditional knobs 'n' switches panel, the Source had a printed panel with membrane switches labelled with the appropriate function. There was a large, continuous rotation knob on the left which changed the values (with varying resolution depending on the parameter). The value of the parameter being edited was shown on the panel display. This pre-dated Roland's now sadly-discarded Alpha dial by almost five years. It operated via an optical sensor beneath the panel. Although many players and programmers will disagree, I always found this quick and easy to use - that is if we must have parameter access at all.
OK, SO THAT'S the Source as compared to the Minimoog, but there's more. The 16 memory pads also had a second layer (or page) of functions. Some of them might not cut much ice these days, but at the time they were a quaint, if not useful, addition. You could store two 88-event sequences (44 notes, actually - one event for note on, one for note off), which were recorded and played back in real time at the original input speed. The LFO rate also varied playback speed. There was a 24-note fixed gate time arpeggiator which played back notes in the order in which they were played. Oddly, no clock input was provided for external speed control so use was limited to spontaneous (sic) applications rather than today's premeditated sequencer events. You were also able to include patch changes as part of the two sequences. Filter Sample and Hold and Auto Trig (repetition of one held key at current LFO rate) were also included.
Cassette Save, Load and Verify complete the Level 2 lineup. Sequences could also be saved for future retrieval but, as usual with cassette saving, success rate was only about 30% - now diminished to 0% on my own Source.
As with the Minimoog, S-trigger and CV In/Outs were provided, although a friend of mine also added a VCF CV input on his machine for tonal control as well as pitch and gate control. Thus a MIDI/CV converter would enable the Source to take its place in today's MIDI studio environment.
THERE WILL ALWAYS be a place for the Moog Source in my life. For my occasional forays onto the stage, there is a place reserved at my left hand especially for it. Even MIDI-less, and if only as the Source (pun shamelessly inserted) of 16 extremely "Moogy" (well, what else can you call them?) bass sounds.
Going back to the comparison with the Minimoog, the Source is good, it's just not that good. It's an oscillator short and its filters don't overload with quite the same sexiness, but for my money no other machine ever got quite as close to the Minimoog - not even the Memorymoog.
Gear in this article:
Retrospective (Gear) by Nick Magnus