Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Frank Perri reviews the Moog Minitaur

By Frank PerriDecember 14, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW

Frank Perri
Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.

Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?

The analog revival is in full swing.  The market is flooded with all manner of boutique modular oscillators, there are synths and standalone modules aplenty and even a major manufacturer like Korg managed to inject a little bit of analog into its mostly digital lineup.  Analog synthesis is not only experiencing a resurgence, but also a renaissance.  In the middle of all this, what does Moog, a trusted name in analog for decades decide to do?  They release a synth that just deals with the bottom line, and that’s it.  But as you’ll find, the bottom is what it does best, but not the only trick it knows.

I recently spent some time with the Minitaur, putting it through its paces and shaking the walls of my studio.  Who knew there was so much fun to be had down there, swimming around at the bottom of the frequency range?  But make no mistake, bass is an important element.  If you decide to play a “C” chord but your bass player decides to play an “A” you can kiss your major tonality goodbye and say hello to minor 7th land.  What else to wheel and deal in such harmonic power but a synth made specifically for the task?  And as you’ll find out, it deals with it like it was, um, is built for the job.

Lets Start at the Bottom

Figure 1

A quick glance at the Minitaur shows it to be a fantastic size.  It’s not bulky yet the knobs are a great size for grabbing and twisting.  Actually, if you own any of the  MoogerFooger pedals, you’ll find that the Minitaur is almost exactly the same size.  To give you an idea, look at Figure 1 to see the Minitaur and a Moogerfooger next to each other.  Figure 2 shows that you can pretty much stack them on top of each other and see how much they match size wise.  The only real difference being that the Minitaur is wedge shaped and so at its highest, it’s about a half inch higher than a Moogerfooger, as shown in Figure 3.  What this means is that if you’re someone who likes to bring toys to gigs, anywhere you can stuff a Moogerfooger, you can pretty much stuff the Minitaur.

Figure 2
Figure 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4

The unit itself is very sturdily built out of metal with solid, well damped knobs that turn smoothly.  The graphics are silkscreened and the unit features a tough, durable baked on black finish.  A close up of the finish and markings can be seen in Figure 4.

Looking at the front panel in Figure 5 it’s easy to see that Moog gave you a plethora of controls to handle the Minitaur and to anyone versed in subtractive synthesis, it should very familiar.

 

Figure 5

          There’s two voltage controlled oscillators and both have a choice each between saw and square.  There’s no pulse width modulation though so it’s strictly a square wave, and a fat one at that.  There’s tuning for the second oscillator as well as a mixer for them.  There’s two envelope generators, one for the amp one for the filter as well as cutoff, resonance, and envelope amount to the filter.  It features one triangle LFO which can be routed in varying amounts to both the pitch and filter cutoff resulting in various kinds of mayhem.  Rounding this off is a button and knob for glide (portamento) and a button to switch in the release phase of the envelope generator for the amp so you can quickly switch between having the bass fade off or just stopping immediately release the key and finally, a volume knob.

Figure 6

Turning it around to the back as seen in figure 6, we find CV inputs for gate and pitch so this can be controlled externally as well as a USB port and a MIDI in.  There’s an external input for the filter as well as both a regular output and a 1/8th headphone output.

It looks very functional but what you see is not what you get.  There’s additional controls that can only be reached by virtue of a software app which allows further control over the type of portamento, the type of key triggering as well as facilities for syncing the LFO, deciding if the LFO will be re-triggered on keypresses, the volume of the external input, the tracking amount and even more welcome, how strongly the volume responds to velocity which is even rare in analog.  There’s also a great feature that syncs the oscillators each time you press the key so that they both start together eliminating notes that don’t punch.

Using the USB port, the Minitaur can communicate both ways, receiving patches from the App as well as having the App record the knob position when you twist the knobs on the Minitaur.  The Minitaur can also receive patch data over MIDI, but as there’s no physical MIDI out the Minitaur can’t send knob position over MIDI, only USB.

Many of these additional control bring a lot to the table and one easily wishes that they were available on the Minitaur itself, or at least maybe on an expansion module that could be attached to the Minitaur.  One particular one, note priority I wish was either available first hand or that you could “write” your settings to memory.  As it is every time you boot up the Minitaur it defaults to “legato on, Low Note Priority” which can be frustrating if you don’t play exaggeratingly clean.  Legato off, Last Note Priority would be much better for live playing I think.  If you’re the type like me who doesn’t bring a laptop to gigs, there’s no simple way to get to these features short of sending MIDI CC values from a master keyboard or MIDI controller.  Frustrating in that the small size of the Minitaur makes you want to throw it in your bag and bring it to gigs, yet some of the more functional controls are tucked away out of reach unless you have a laptop with you.

It’s my duty to move the booty

Ok, enough talk.  You’re asking, can it move the air and make people groove?  In short, heck yeah!  After all, upon opening the Minitaur you find it’s conveniently packaged with a pair of earplugs!  If that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is.

When you first start playing, you do bump into what can appear a limitation and that is that the Minitaur does not go above C5 (the C above middle C) or Note #72 for us MIDI old timers.  There has been grumbling by some about this limitation and it’s understandable.  The Minitaur sounds good.  So good that you can’t help but wonder how it sounds way up high.  Who knows the reason for this limitation – maybe Moog wants to release a MiniLead if this does well.  Maybe the fact that Moog limits the voltage to just the lower half of the frequency range is what makes it sound so juicy.  Maybe they just ran out of capacitors.   Ok, I’m joking about that last one but to be honest Moog makes no bones about what this is.  It’s a bass synth.  It is clearly advertised as such and complaining about the note limitation is like buying a salad and complaining there’s no meat.  You knew what you were bringing home before you ate it.  Either way, I like how Moog deals with the limitation.  On many synths when you go past the note range you are met with silence.  With the Minitaur, every note above C5 simply plays a C5.  In my opinion that’s at least better than silence and as I found out, if you’re creative enough can be used as a texture in your synthy lines and arpeggios.

Dialing up fat bass sounds on this is a breeze, after all this is meant for bass.  Almost every knob twist results in some kind of a powerful bass sound.  It’s almost too easy to dial up all manner of bass sounds with very little effort and the sound is versatile and easily proves that it carries Moog’s heritage in it.

Let’s go back to the 70s with an audio sample.  Set the Amp Envelope to a fast attack and release, Square wave on Osc 1, Saw wave on Osc 2 and tuned up an octave and the cutoff set around 1.2kHz and suddenly you’re asking someone if they have a flashlight!  Listen to SND 1 for an example of some 70s style funky synth bass.

SND 1  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND1_Parlament_Demo.mp3

          Now, you’re saying, “Frank, that’s great for my Bernie Worrell fantasies, but what about the filter?”  I hear you – The filter sounds great!  It’s Fat, chunky, and full of Moog character.  The resonance sounds awesome and has a fantastic whistle to it when cranked high.  SND 2, SND 3, and SND 4 feature a slow sweep from fully closed to fully open featuring no resonance, medium resonance and high resonance respectively.  Watch out when it’s closed – it will move serious air.

               SND 2  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND2_Sweep_No_Res.mp3

               SND 3  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND3_Sweep_Med_Res.mp3

               SND 4  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND4_Sweep_Hi_Res.mp3

Are you tingly yet?  Not bad for a module the size of a MoogerFooger, right?  I know what you’re thinking now – The 70s are great for when you’re feeling the funk but what about all those great synthpop and early disco and dance hits of the 80s where Moog continued to make a name for itself as the bass to beat?  No problem; The Minitaur laughs at your simple request!  Square wave on Osc 1, Saw on Osc 2 in unison with no resonance and some decay on the filter envelope and you’ll end up with those great rubbery bass sounds that Moog is known for.  Check out SND 5 for a bass so rubbery it just might push you over the borderline.

               SND 5  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND5_RubberBandBorderline.mp3

Continuing on with my obsession with a certain pop starlet’s early 80s dance hits, if only because they had such great synth basslines, here’s one more example.  This one is similar to the previous sound but with a faster decay on both the Amp and Filter envelope which gives it a great chunky and percussive sound.  The original was played masterfully by Fred Zarr and he was credited no less in the liner notes as ‘Moog Bass’ – is that a pedigree or what?  You don’t see a specific synth credited as an instrument anymore!  Anyway, take a listen to example SND 6 and try to tell me that the Minitaur doesn’t get you into the groove.

               SND 6  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND6_GetIntoTheMoog.mp3

Let’s step away from this for a second, if only for comparisons sake and listen to a different analog.  I have one of the new Tom Oberheim SEM reissues here and I decided to see how close I could match the Minitaur with it.  After all, they’re both VCO, both have tons of character and both are newly manufactured analogs; the main difference being the SEM’s 12dB filter versus the Minitaur’s 24dB.

I was able to dial up a sound very similar to the Moog.  Not being known for bass, the SEM is slightly thinner sounding, probably owing to the 12dB filter but sounds impressive none the less.  But the fact is that it took me a good 7 minutes noodling on the SEM to be able to match a sound that I originally got on the Minitaur in literally under 30 seconds.  A few knob twists on the Minitaur and I had that delicious, chunky sound.  I wasn’t joking when I said the Minitaur was made for bass and you can dial up great bass sounds in a jiffy.  Check out SND 7 for an example of the SEM playing the same bassline from SND 6.  Yes, I know the SEM is not tuned perfectly!  I forgot to tune it before I recorded.  Oh, the joys of working with analog.

               SND 7  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND7_GetIntoTheSEM.mp3

The Minitaur’s such an unruly beast that I hear you asking me if it plays well with others.  Yes, it can.  I had a Synthesis Technology E340 Cloud Generator oscillator sitting on my desk staring at me so I pulled it into service.  SND 8 is a bassline played on the E340 alone.

               SND 8  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND8_E340.mp3

SND 9 is an example of the high resonance “OW” type sound that Moog is known for.  Unfortunately the nature of the filter is such that when using high resonances you lose some power in the bass.  Listen to SND 9 for the same bassline from SND 8 but having the Minitaur play with high resonance and a fast decay.  SND 10 is the solution – Put them together!  The E340 provides the oomph and the Moog provides the “OW”.  This trick was used to great effect by Michael Boddicker who would use two Minis on sessions; one for low bass and one for the bass deficient “OW” sound.

               SND 9  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND9_Moog_Ow.mp3

               SND 10  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND10_E340_and_Moog.mp3

Employing the LFO, it’s easy to route it to the filter cutoff and have the filter open and close slowly on a bassline and get some of that delicious movement reminiscent of the types of sounds that might have been featured in an mid 80s film about a robot assassin from the future.  Listen to SND 11 or you will be terminated!

               SND 11  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND11_Terminated.mp3

          Leaving the bass, let’s explore the lower midrange where the Minitaur can still be played.  Even here it displays its heritage, easily able to dial up Moogy sounding synth parts in a jiffy.  Both oscillators set to sawtooth tuned a 4th apart with a fast decay on the filter, mix it loud to get a little bit of grit from the oscillators and you’ll have the Minitaur asking you to take it on a holiday.  Hear a slight variation on that riff in SND 12.

               SND 12  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND12_ThisSoundsFamiliar.mp3

Go any higher than that and you’ll start to bang heads with the upper note limitation.  Remember earlier when I said that you can use that to your creative advantage?  Well, if you tune the oscillators an octave apart, the oscillator that’s tuned higher will hit the note limitation an octave before the lower one does.  What that means is that for an entire octave you’ll have notes coming out of the lower oscillator while the upper oscillator spits out C5s.  It creates a great sounding harmonic funkiness that can be used to accent parts of a line.  SND 13 is a nice squirmy line where you’ll notice the effect when I made certain notes poke out above the C5 limit.  You’ll first hear it about 5 seconds into the example and a few more times after that.

               SND 13  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND13_NoteLimit.mp3

Last but not least is the mysterious new feature called oscillator sync.  What it does it start the both oscillators at exactly the same point with every note trigger, eliminating that phenomenon where, when two oscillators are used of the oscillators going in and out of phase with each other with respect to their waveform causing the bassline to have both punchy notes and strangely hollow and wimpy notes.  In the past there was no solution to this and so many synth lines feature only one oscillator in the sound.  Moog didn’t just bring you back the past, they wanted to improve on it!

Using this feature, it was very clear what it did.  When used, every bass note was fat and punchy and it made it easy to use both oscillators for fat basslines.  I tried it on a combination of Saw and Square waves and both oscillators set to saw or square waves and to be honest, the only time I noticed an actual improvement was when it was used with both oscillators set to square waves.  When using both saw or saw and square at times this feature reduced the bass power, so use caution and always check it with your bass sound.  In other words this feature is not just a fat button.  It can either improve your bass or not.  That being said, it consistently worked with both oscillators set to square waves.  SND 14 is two square wave oscillators with SYNC OFF.  You can hear notes alternately hitting hard and losing power as the waveforms go in and out of sync with each other.  SND 15 is the same sound with SYNC ON.  You can instantly hear the attack of every note is fat, punchy and round.  This definitely can be a lifesaver.

               SND 14  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND14_PulseNoOscSync.mp3

               SND 15  https://www.audio-times.com/audio/SND15_PulseOscSync.mp3

Hopefully by now you have an idea, in the more traditional sense of what the Minitaur is capable of.  That being said, as amazing as it is some things did stand out for possible improvement.

First are the hidden controls only accessible by the Minitaur app on a computer.  Actually, not really all that but more or less I would really love to be able to access the legato and note priority functions.  I’d even be happy if I could write that to the memory.  Most of the time I want legato off and last note priority.  As I said earlier, It’s a bit frustrating to have such a powerful module in such a small package which beckons you to bring it places yet in its default settings it can be awkward to play.

There is a release button for the Amp envelope which effectively disengages the release phase of the envelope.  It’s great for simple on/off envelopes for choppy bass sounds but in all honesty you can also get the same effect by turning the release completely clockwise so it would have been cooler to see that button or its real estate utilized better.  For example, it would be great to have that button be assigned a single patch.  Maybe your “one bass fits all” patch that you use on most of your songs.  That means live, if you took a bass solo and started stretching out and really mangling the sound and doing weird things, in the time it takes to hit a single button you could reset the Minitaur to your default patch.  You can take a crazy solo and then at the end of your solo the drummer hits the snare once and then the whole band comes back in at the top.  When the drummer hits the snare, that would all be you need to set the Minitaur back to your sound so you could come back in with the band.

When using the LFO section, no matter how much VCO or VCF amount to route the LFO to the pitch or filter nothing would happen.  I then discovered that in order to activate this section, I needed to push the mod wheel up.  When I pulled the mod wheel down, the effect stopped.  This made it awkward to use the Minitaur with keyboards that had a joystick for modulation like Korg or Roland boards since they spring back when you let go.  With a wheel I could push it up and leave it there, activating the LFO routing.  I would to see this addressed where regardless of the mod wheel you could route the LFO simply by turning the VCO and VCF knobs in the LFO section.

Lastly, my Minitaur displayed a strange propensity for freezing up at random times.  I mean completely freezing where none of the knobs or buttons would work, yet it would continue to play incoming note data.  I just couldn’t change or adjust anything.  The only solution to this was to unplug and plug the Minotaur back in, effectively cycling the power and resetting the Minotaur.  This would always fix it.

There was no rhyme or reason.  Some days it would do it almost constantly which would make me so frustrated that I would stop using it for the day.  Other times it would be an hour or more between freezes.  I tried everything but I could not constantly make it freeze up.  I tried sending it tons of MIDI data, overflowing its buffer but no, that wasn’t it.  I don’t know if this is an inherent problem with the unit or if it’s just because I had a review unit.  Review units get notoriously bumped around being shipped constantly and understandably are subject to a lot more stress.  Then again a module this small wants to be taken around to gigs so if it can’t handle being moved and carried around often, that’s something else to keep an eye on.

This is a fairly new model unit and hasn’t proved itself yet so whether the freezing problem is a fluke in my unit, related to the firmware or is a QC issue remains to be seen and will or won’t be proven over time.

With this freezing problem in mind, I would not argue against picking up a unit, although unless I know if there are other units with this problem or if it’s just isolated to my unit, I’d suggest buying from a dealer with a great return policy or an extended warranty in case it needs repair beyond Moog’s warranty should something go awry.

It is a fantastic unit with a monster sound and although a tad pricey for a limited playable range, it is still capable of a lot more than simply bass if one thinks outside the box a bit, as I hope my examples have shown.  If you can afford the luxury of a bass specific synth I can’t think of better.  I was spoiled by how insanely fast I could dial up any manner of fantastic sounding bass in seconds.  The Minitaur took no prisoners and it was really nice to be able to free up any one of my other synths from bass duties to be used for something more creative.

At this price there are really not too many other modules that are fully featured with envelopes, an LFO and a filter and anything that does come to mind for under $600 doesn’t hit the floor as hard as the Moog does.  If you want the Moog sound, this will give it without a second thought.  If you want a bass on your tracks that you’ll never have to question or wonder about this unit is a no brainer.  Go buy one and for God sakes, watch your sub!

Addendum:  At the time I had my unit for review, V2 of the firmware had not been released.  This is a fairly recent development which adds features as writing patches to the unit and letting you scroll through them and adding a decay phase to the envelopes as well as reassigning the CV inputs to different functions.  I have not had a chance to try this new firmware and I’m not aware if it addresses any of my issues mentioned, for example writing the legato and note priority to the unit’s memory.  I’m not sure if this can be saved with a patch or not and recalled.  If so, it effectively negates my complaint about not being able to write the note priority settings.  Keep this in mind when testing the unit for purchase.

Frankie likes:

The Sound!

The knobs feel great and love to be turned.

The size!  You won’t just want to use it in the studio, you’ll want to bring it to the gigs.

Takes seconds to craft fantastic bass patches.

Frankie dislikes:

The hidden controls, especially the more useful ones.

The freezing problem, which may be specific to my unit or not.

The Release button which I think could be reassigned for better use.

The LFO section which seems to need a mod wheel versus a mod joystick to get the most out of it.

Frankie Says:

In the war on the dancefloor, this is the guy you want watching your bottom.  Wait, that didn’t come out right…

Frank Perri
December 2012

 

All sound samples copyright Frank Perri

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