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Synth and Software Review: Moog One

Mark Jenkins

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It’s been 37 years since Moog Music introduced a truly polyphonic synthesizer. Was it worth the wait?

The One represents Moog’s return to polyphonic synth design after decades developing their monophonic, modular, theremin, and effects lines. It is the culmination of years of effort by the same engineering team at Moog Music that developed all their other synthesizers in recent years. In the distant past, Moog had varying degrees of success with polyphonic instruments.

Polyphonic Predecessors

In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Polymoog (derived from a multi-section instrument project called the Constellation) was adopted by enthusiastic users from Abba to Geoff Downes and from Gary Numan to Klaus Schulze. For full polyphony, it used a sound chip under every key, but it turned out to be a heavy and not completely reliable instrument offering surprisingly thin sounds. At the time of its release, Rick Wakeman recorded his Minimoog making up a chord, just to show what a real Moog polyphonic instrument should sound like. In 1982, he got his wish in the form of the 6-voice Memorymoog. 

Unfortunately, the Memorymoog came a little late to market and had its own reliability and servicing problems. An attempt to spin off a stripped-down polyphonic named SL8 never made it to market. When Moog Music unveiled the Minimoog Voyager in 2002, it marked the start of another 15 years and more largely devoted to monophonic instruments.

A change began with the relatively recent Sub37 and Subsequent37, two duophonic machines, and now we see a new polyphonic design in the Moog One, available with 8 or 16 voices. Unsurprisingly, the appearance is much like that of a Voyager, but with the shape and style of a Memorymoog. Yes, the Moog One is large and fairly heavy—unsurprising considering the quantity of wood and metal in its beautifully presented chassis. What is surprising is that the power supply isn’t included in this mass, but comes in the form of an external power brick. Even without an internal power supply, the Moog One benefits from an internal cooling fan that kicks in when necessary. Perhaps keeping the power unit external was a wise choice.

The 8- and 16-voice versions of the synth look identical, but potential purchasers should consider this: the Moog One can layer or split up to three sounds at once, so while you could (for example) play five-note chords on the 16-voice and have a voice to spare, on the 8-voice you can’t even achieve three-note chords with all three layers playing. And it’s the One’s ability to layer sounds—together with the inclusion of on-board effects by Eventide—that takes it into new sonic territory previously more associated with workstation-style instruments from Korg and Roland.

Being able to play a huge pad with strings layered under brass and a high-pitched, tinkling arpeggio playing over the top is much more typical of a Roland Fantom or Korg Kronos, so you needn’t think of the Moog One as a one-dimensional analog-sounding instrument. When you consider cost as a factor, though, several similarly powerful synths offer a huge range of digital and analog-type sounds for considerably less money. (The Waldorf Quantum and Yamaha Montage come to mind.) However, those instruments generate their sounds algorithmically and not with real analog circuits.

Hands on the Panel

Checking out the control panel from left to right reveals a pleasingly conventional layout. First come four LFOs that have programmable shapes, speed, and destinations. Then, you see three oscillators with the usual analog waveforms, plus the ability to mix between square type and triangle type waveshapes to form new tones. Tiny LCD displays show the current waveform for each oscillator, with modulation sources and levels immediately below. A White Noise section offers variable colors of noise and its own AR envelope generator for percussive sounds. 

The panel’s center is dominated by a large LCD display (more about that later). There’s also a mixer with a ring modulator output, as well as a pair of filters—one lowpass with switchable response and one multimode with a mix control between the two. These dual filters make the Moog One sonically very versatile. You’re not limited to the familiar deep bass Moog sounds; you can create very ephemeral and delicate textures, too.

Three DAHDSR envelopes (with variable onset delay) have programmable loop stages for creating repetitive effects, with the third envelope designed to control modulation levels. Along the control panel’s lower levelel, again from left to right, are the master clock controls for an arpeggiator and sequencer, a learnable chord function selector, and level controls for a Synth Effect tied to your particular patch, plus two master effects. These built-in Eventide multi-effects (four altogether) are very impressive and include long reverbs and delays as well as distortion, chorus, and so on.

Everything’s Under Control

The Moog One isn’t short of controllers. Next to pitch and mod wheels and a glide control is a programmable pressure-sensitive X-Y pad. The keyboard is velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive, so the player has many options for introducing modulation and expression.

The central panel LCD offers differing displays depending on what section you’re adjusting. It also displays numbers and names of patches either alphabetically or by category—Bass, Arpeggio, Soundtrack, Brass, and so on—and allows you to access deeper programming functions, which Moog frequently adds to with firmware updates. As I’m writing this, an update for microtuning and creating your own scales is expected.

Maybe dynamic voice allocation will become possible, too; for the moment, though, the current sound and effects cut off abruptly when you select a new patch. This is disappointing on an instrument of this cost and complexity. Maybe you’ll find ways around it by shifting from one layer to another while playing, but that shouldn’t really be necessary if a synth has plenty of voices available and the microprocessor power to handle the way they’re allocated.

Beneath the display are buttons to enable Synth 1, Synth 2, and Synth 3, referencing the three available layers of sound. Expression Assign buttons route the X-Y pad, velocity, aftertouch, and other controllers to your chosen destination.

The Moog One certainly offers sufficient modules and routing options to consider it an integrated modular synth system. Instead of routing patch cables, though, you simply touch one parameter controller and then another to link them together. The inclusion of an arpeggiator and a 64-step sequencer for each layer takes this idea even further. The One has a master clock control for both, each has its own rate control, making it possible to create very complex synchronized patterns with highly variable timing.

The rear panel is busy, too, with MIDI In and Out jacks for synchronization to other instruments, as well as USB and LAN (for remote diagnosis of any problems by Moog Music), jacks for pedal and footswitch controllers, control-voltage inputs and outputs for interfacing to modular gear, and an audio input so you can use the built-in vocoder effects.

In Performance

Now that we’ve looked at how the instrument is laid out, how does it play? The five-octave keyboard by Fatar is pleasant, with a medium action, neither too soft nor too hard. The velocity and aftertouch have just the right response. The aftertouch in particular is useful for opening filters, adding vibrato modulation, and much more. Given the huge versatility of the Moog One sound, , some players are going to be angling for a piano-style weighted keyboard version, which would be pretty massive. It will be interesting to see if that turns up in the future. A module version with no keyboard at all seems more likely, though. The rack version of the Voyager was popular and, of course, a module version would offer some cost savings.

In the past, it has been easy enough to pin down the typical sound of a Moog instrument, but the Moog One has so many possibilities that it really transcends any previous limitations. Yes, the obvious imitative sounds are there—Gary Numan’s Polymoog chords, Rick Wakeman’s cutting lead solo sounds, deep funky basses, and more. But in the more abstract sound effects categories, you’ll find unexpected textures featuring little bells tinkling in the distance, voice-like sounds, metallic heavily ring-modulated effects, and much more. The Moog One is equally adept at lead lines, basses, pads, brass, arpeggiated patterns, and sound effects.

These extended sonic possibilities may help explain why the Moog One, despite its cost, is already selling in healthy numbers to studios and movie composers, as well as to stage performers. Regarding price, clearly this is an upmarket instrument with a price tag to match, around $6,000 for the 8-voice version and $8,000 for the 16-voice. As I’ve noted, going for the 8-voice may be something of a false economy, since it restricts some of the instrument’s most impressive abilities.

Certainly the Moog One is a landmark instrument, soon to be heard on hit singles and movie soundtracks around the world. Yes, it’s a costly investment, but no doubt some slightly more affordable spinoffs, most likely starting with a module version, are soon to come from the Moog factory.

Thanks to KMR Audio in London for the test facilities.

For more on our reviewer, Mark Jenkins.

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