Studio Electronics MIDImoog
If you're looking for the sound of the Minimoog without the limitations of pre-MIDI gear, the MIDImoog could be for you. Tim Goodyer puts the 1989 version of Moog's classic synth through its paces.
The MIDImoog takes original Minimoog electronics, a healthy MIDI spec and few new features besides, and packs them into a 4U rack space. Meet the Minimoog for the '90s.
IT SHOULD HAVE happened sooner. Almost as soon as the Minimoog was withdrawn from production (back in 1981) musicians and producers christened it the classic synthesiser. As such it's continued to play an active part in the making of music as diverse as the pomp rock of Marillion and the DJ's revenge of Bomb the Bass. And there's no sign of it letting up yet. No sign, that is, as long as you consider Studio Electronics' MIDImoog to be a Minimoog.
Looking more closely at the contents of this 4U-high rack-mounting box, you'll find the guts of a genuine Minimoog along with the electronics necessary to bring it comfortably into the wonderful world of MIDI. The sounds of a classic pre-MIDI synth with the convenience of MIDI control - why didn't it happen sooner?
THE FIRST THING to realise about the MIDImoog is that the 19 inches of space that exist between the vertical supports of a studio rack are fewer than were available to Bob Moog when he laid out the panel for his Minimoog around 20 years ago - eight fewer, to be precise. Take into account that there are actually more controls to be found on the panel of the MIDImoog than there are on the Minimoog, and we're talking about a fairly crowded - though perfectly useable - front panel layout. That said, space is sufficiently tight for some of the markings to have been adapted from Moog's originals and one of the new knobs carries no explanation at all.
The situation is made worse by the fact that there is no manual supplied with the unit. Not an oversight (we checked), but a vote of confidence in the simplicity of the Minimoog and the clarity of its panel layout. Now, based on the number of calls and letters MT regularly receives requesting assistance with old synths that have become separated from their manuals, I'm not convinced this is such a good move. And then there are those additional controls to deal with...
Basically, the MIDImoog layout follows that of the Minimoog. The knobs are smaller and the distinctive blue and orange rocker switches have been replaced by miniature toggle switches. But there's no mistaking the panel.
Without re-reviewing the Minimoog itself, let's say that it's a monophonic analogue synth with three oscillators, one of which can be used either in the audio range or as an LFO with an unusually wide range of modulation waveshapes. It also has a switchable white/pink noise source which, again, can be used as an audio or modulation source, and will accept an audio input for processing by the instrument's filter. Oh, it also has a phenomenal reputation as the classic monosynth.
All these facilities remain, with the exception of noise modulation, more of which later. In addition the MIDImoog possesses a green MIDI activity indicator, seven toggle switches governing single/multiple triggering, dynamic control of the VCA and VCF, modulation of the VCF, aftertouch control of the VCF, oscillator octave
selection and oscillator syncing. There are also five new knobs assigned to limiting the effects of pitchbend and dynamic control over the filter cutoff, MIDI channel selection, control of oscillator two by the filter transient generator and frequency control for a (new) dedicated LFO.
The rear panel sports the Minimoog's "hi" and 'lo" audio outputs, audio input and calibration pots, but instead of sockets for pre-MIDI control of the oscillators and filter are the MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets.
BEFORE GETTING INTO what the MIDImoog design adds to that of the Minimoog, let's take a quick look at what about the Minimoog has changed. First of all the decay defeat switch that sat alongside the Minimoog's keyboard now lives beneath the oscillator controls. The Glide (or portamento) defeat switch that used to live next to it has gone, leaving control of Glide down to the rotary pot. Then there's that modulation alteration referred to earlier. Where, on the Minimoog, the Mod Mix knob controlled the modulation balance between oscillator three and the noise source, the same control on the MIDImoog governs the balance between oscillator three and the new LFO. The result is that the MIDImoog not only allows you to use all three oscillators as audio sources and have an LFO available, but mix the dedicated LFO's sine wave (or more likely, triangle wave) with one of oscillator three's six waveforms to create more complex modulation waveshapes. At the cost of noise modulation.
The five switches that line the bottom left-hand corner of the panel are pretty self-explanatory: Dyn VCA switches in MIDI velocity control of the MIDImoog's amplifier, Dyn VCF does the same for control of the filter cutoff frequency (subject to the setting of the DVCF knob), Mod VCF allows modulation to be introduced with aftertouch, Aft VCF puts the filter cutoff frequency under aftertouch control, and Osc 2 Sync syncs oscillator two to oscillator one. They're pretty self explanatory in what they do, sure enough, but without a manual to tell you, you have to work out that up is on and down is off for yourself.
Getting the remaining new switches out of the way, Mult Trig endows the MIDImoog with the multiple triggering available on the Minimoog only to special order, while Oct HLM allows you to switch the range of all oscillators up two octaves and down one from the original Minimoog register.
"I put the MIDImoog up against the genuine article and was suitably impressed - identical panel settings gave virtually identical sounds."
MIDI channel selection is the most self-explanatory aspect of the instrument's face-lift - all channels (1-16) are available via a rotary switch. TrÃ¨s facile.
What's not quite so simple is the implementation of the MIDImoog's oscillator syncing. With syncing switched in, the pitch of oscillator two falls under the control of the filter transient generator. The extent to which the pitch is affected is determined by the unmarked knob on the lefthand side of the panel. When oscillator syncing is switched out, the pitch of oscillator two is still dependent on the filter envelope, giving rise to another family of sounds.
STUDIO ELECTRONICS' MIDIMOOG doesn't sound like a Minimoog - unless a Minimoog sounds exactly like a MIDImoog. That is to say, I put the MIDImoog up against the genuine article and was suitably (and seriously) impressed. Identical panel settings on both instruments gave virtually identical sounds. Given the blindfold test, nine out of ten housewives couldn't tell the difference.
In use the only problem arising was one of compatibility. Though happy to work under the control of instruments as (MIDI) primitive as the OSCar and as comprehensive as Akai's MX76 controller (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), it was not eager to talk to a Roland D20. It wasn't so much a language barrier as a complete communications breakdown.
Studio Electronics acknowledge the problem with the Roland MIDI spec, and have released V3.2 software to rectify it. Unfortunately, this was not available at the time of review. What Studio Electronics have given the Minimoog begins with the dedicated LFO. The power available from a Minimoog's three oscillators - for bass or lead work - has always left its players uncertain whether to sacrifice expression for balls or vice versa. Now you can have both.
The performance facilities of the MIDImoog make a synthesiser that already has a daunting reputation for its expression doubly playable. There is really no comparison between what can be achieved using a MIDI/CV converter and what can be achieved by digging deeper into instrument's circuitry and making MIDI a more integral part of its operation. To play it is to appreciate it.
WHAT IT IS, my man, is a classic instrument tucked neatly away in a rack with (as near as dammit) all the facilities of the original and a generous helping of well-considered and thoroughly useable improvements. The sound of the MIDImoog is every bit as impressive to hear and to use as you might have feared.
What it ain't is cheap, well documented or programmable. I appreciate that many potential MIDImoog owners will already be familiar with the workings of the Minimoog. I also appreciate that Studio Electronics haven't done anything to the original design that qualifies as "unfathomable". But the fact remains that it'll take even seasoned Minimoog players a short while to sort things out- a manual would have made it all clear in a very small number of minutes.
Technically, the only fault I can find with the Minimoog for the '90s is its lack of programmability. I'm sure it can be done (Sequential's Dave Smith performed just such a mod to Minimoogs before designing the Prophet 5), but the MIDImoog remains adamantly non-programmable. Shame.
The MIDImoog is certain to appeal to anybody who's ever been attracted by the sound of the Minimoog. As the MIDImoog costs some six hundred quid more than the Minimoog when it was released, you'd be forgiven for wondering how many potential takers are going to be able to afford to buy one. But the word is that it's selling well to top producers and studios - probably for its exclusivity as well as its sound. I can also see it going to gigging musicians, for whom it will be well worth the cash and rack space. I'm still wondering why somebody didn't come up with the idea before now.
Thanks to The Synthesizer Company for loan of review model.
Price £1595 plus VAT