The Magic of the Minimoog

The Minimoog, or to be more precise: the Minimoog Model D is essentially the archetype of the synthesizer. So if you think of a synth, you’re likely to be thinking of the Model D. First released in 1970; given a short re-release by Moog back in 2016; and recently honoured by the Behringer Model D copy, the unmistakable sound of the Minimoog has helped create countless records and slapped grins on countless faces. But what exactly is the magic that lies behind what’s considered the ever enchanting analogue-hearted mother of all synthesizers?

A Portable Synthesizer

“I already had a couple of Moogs,” keyboard player and studio engineer, Martin Helsloot tells us. “I managed to find a Moog Prodigy online and when I went to pick it up, I noticed they also had a Minimoog. Of course, I fell in love on-sight and couldn’t leave without it. It was pricey, but I have absolutely no regrets. What a sound! I’ve used it in the studio so much and played so many gigs with it, it’s basically paid for itself already. It’s like my Stradivarius.”

The spiritual father of the Minimoog Model D is Robert Moog, who established Moog Music in the early fifties. Until the dawn of the Model D in 1970, synthesizers were immense walls of separate modules linked by nests of cables to produce a full plethora of synthetic sounds. Since carting an entire stack of modules from gig to gig wasn’t exactly practical, Robert Moog decided to take all of the most-popular waveforms and filters and stick them in a heavy yet far-more compact and portable box, before loading it with a three-and-a-half octave keyboard. That keyboard wasn’t just an add-on, but an ultra-smart invention: an analogue synthesizer that you could easily take on tour. Models A, B and C were the prototypes, but as soon as Model D came along, it went into production. The Minimoog Model D was the first ever portable analogue synthesizer, and has since become an icon among synths that these days, you can pick up in both analogue and digital flavour.

Holy Grail

“The Minimoog is the Holy Grail,” says Martin. “It feels at home in absolutely every genre. The design is still brilliant – in both the oscillators and the filters, so it just always has this welcoming sound to it. No matter how you program it, this smooth edge always remains which is just something you don’t get with other analogue synthesizers. It’s also a really reliable bit of kit. I mean, my model is over thirty years old and I still take it all over and play shows with it – indoor and outdoors. It always performs. Even if it’s been sitting on stage for three hours between sound check and show time, it’s ready. And the sound is just banging.”

Like Hammond organs and Leslie rotary amps, people are fascinated by the Minimoog. “Yeah, my Minimoog gets a lot of attention,” notes Martin. “People are really impressed and intrigued by the sound, then when they see the control panel, they love the way the top panel flips up and there’s all of these knobs and switches.”

Three Oscillators

Digging into the tech: the analogue Minimoog follows the subtractive synthesis principle. As Martin explains: “You have your basic sound, then you can remove an array of things to create a different sound.” Hence subtractive. “I guess it’s a bit like carving a sculpture out of a block of marble. You chip away and remove bits of marble to carve out a shape. The subtractive synthesis approach is still really common.”

The Minimoog is a monophonic synthesizer. Meaning that it can only play one note at a time, so no chords (polyphonic synthesizers, on the other hand, are able to play full multi-note chords). The Minimoog generates analogue sound with the help of electrical currents, which happens via voltage-controlled oscillators – three of them. Each oscillator is able to generate a sawtooth, square, or triangle waveform. The third oscillator is also able to generate an inverted sawtooth waveform. You can warp and re-shaped these waveforms by messing around with the control knobs to directly carve out a sound. Even better – you can mix these waveforms together by stacking them, and via the control knobs, you can adjust the mix ratio. With one of the filters, you can also create an approximate sine wave note.

“It’s that mixing – so the stacking of waveforms – that you hear in a lot of Minimoog demo videos on YouTube,” comments Martin. “The sound is really fat, but I think it sells the Minimoog a bit short. I personally love the sound of a single oscillator – so not stacked, because one waveform still has a lot of power to it. You can play a bass line with just one oscillator and easily blow everyone away.” Martin gives us a demonstration, and we have to admit: it’s impressive.

The Filter

The oscillator generated waveforms can then be passed through a filter to shave off a minimal to extreme amount of the overtones to create a different sound. The various filters parameters are adjusted via the control knobs, so you can tweak the cut-off frequency, which is the frequency of the overtones you’re filtering out, or play with the Emphasize control knob to adjust the shape of the curve at which the frequency is filtered out. As we mentioned a little earlier, you can also use the filter to add a sine wave note. Then there’s the envelope: this controls the time-lapse of the filter – so how fast the sound is filtered ‘up and down’, which you can use to inject some movement into the sound.

“You can even make little percussive sounds,” says Martin before showing us how it’s done. “The Minimoog is your foundation synthesizer. The ways to make sounds are limitless and the control panel gives you a pot for every parameter. The knobs are nice and chunky and really satisfying to work with. Rather than trawling through a mass of different menus, you just twist a few knobs and you’ve made a sound. You can even programme the sound on the fly while you’re playing. To my mind, the control knobs are a part of the instrument. You play them just as much as you play the keyboard.” Even though the Minimoog landscape is well trodden ground for Martin, he says the instrument still manages to surprise him. “There are still hidden corners of this instrument that I haven’t discovered yet. Every single time I play it, I manage to find a new sound.”

No Memory

Of course, as magical as the Minimoog is, it doesn’t have a memory for storing any of your carefully sculpted sounds – what’s referred to as your patches. “Of course, any digital synthesizer can do that for you,” admits Martin, who has digital as well as analogue synths included in his collection. “This can sway a lot of key-players when picking out a synth. Digital can simply be more convenient, especially if you need to quickly switch sounds between songs during a show.”

While the Minimoog is missing this practical detail, for many musicians, including Martin, the charm of that singular analogue sound more than makes up for the loss. “I have digital instruments that sound really good. But after a while, I start to see it as some sort of trick – like it’s more synthetic than I want a synthesizer to be, so I end up going back to analogue. I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it’s because the sound of an analogue synth is fully voltage controlled, so you’re literally controlling the flow of electrical currents. They’re never precisely the same from moment to moment, so the sound is always imperfect – so full of life, I guess. I feel exactly the same about my analogue drum machine. It’s never failed me. I love electronic instruments, but they need to have a kind of living and breathing feel to them. Actually, I can’t imagine life without any of these instruments. I know there are keyboard players who love the precision of digital sound, but something about analogue sound just speaks to me.”

Moog Minimoog

Three Dimensional

When it comes to sound, Martin is maybe a bit of a purist, but as an engineer and producer, he feels just as at home in the digital realm – including the world of software-based plug-ins. “I’m endlessly curious about what’s out there. There are great plug-ins that come really close to mimicking synths like the Minimoog exactly. I do use them for recording. Usually during the production phase. While you can fall for the quick and easy convenience of a plug-in, as soon as you swap it for the real thing, you immediately notice the difference. The sound suddenly takes on this authentic, three dimensional quality.”

The Minimoog Back Catalogue

As soon as the world was introduced to the Minimoog back in 1970, it quickly found its way into progressive rock thanks to names like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But it was Rick Wakeman of Yes who would really slap the Minimoog on the proverbial map. He figured out how to make a real show of it by suspending mirrors above the stage so that the audience could see his Minimoogs in action. And he had three of them set up. Remember: the Minimoog has no memory, so while Rick played one Minimoog, the next was being pre programmed for him so he could quickly switch.

However, it was the album Thriller by Michael Jackson that really sparked Martin’s love for the Minimoog. The bass line of the title track is laid down by two Minimoogs playing at the same time: each programmed slightly differently to result in that iconic, ultra-fat sound. On stage, this possible issue is solved by linking two Minimoogs to a MIDI keyboard.

Other names that will be bonded to the Minimoog for all eternity include Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, George Duke (who worked with Frank Zappa, to name but one) and Jan Hammer – all massive names and all spanning wildly different genres. Martin strongly suspects that Daft Punk used a lot of Minimoog in their work, but since the outfit is notoriously secretive when it comes to their instruments, we may never know. Another prominent French electro-pop duo, Air definitely harnessed the might of the Minimoog, as well as electronic music royalty like Jean-Michel Jarre and the jazz-based trip-hop pioneers Portishead. The list goes on.

See also…

» Moog Synthesizers
» The Behringer Model D
» All Analogue Synthesizers

» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a synthesizer?

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