Moog Music is known for making some freaky instruments. The company started out producing a theremin, an instrument you play by moving your hands through thin air, and later became famous for hulking modular synthesizers that were controlled by messy and confounding patch bays.
However, Bob Moog’s legacy as an electronic music innovator was cemented by a few key products: 1970’s Minimoog, a small, stage-ready version of those huge early synths; the Taurus, a floor-bound bass synthesizer you play with your feet; and the Voyager, an updated take on the Minimoog released in 2002.
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It’s simple and easy to play, so it’s great for newcomers or the synth-curious. Compared to the massive Voyager and Taurus synths, it’s easy to schlep, making it an attractive synth for gigging musicians. And while it isn’t cheap (street price is around $1,300), it’s certainly easier on the wallet than other Moogs, which cost twice as much.
It’s a standard monophonic synth, and fairly stripped-down (hence “Little”). On the base are 37 keys, a mod wheel, a spring-loaded pitch wheel and switches for changing octaves. Up top are knobs for controlling the dual analog oscillators, modulation, filters and envelope generators. There are 100 preset voices, and the keyboard is loaded with fun sounds for all tastes — classic funky leads, super-fat bass tones, wooshy-washy psychedelia and plinky percussion.
The Little Phatty has been around for a spell — the original version was released in 2006. On this model, the Little Phatty Stage II, some key features have been updated (so excuse me while I geek out for a moment).
There’s a new arpeggiator that can be applied to any preset, with a selectable latch mode. The tempo of the arpeggiator can be set using tap-tempo, or by using the new MIDI clock sync feature that matches the rate of the arpeggiator or LFO with your other MIDI sequencers. If your world is strictly post-five-pin, there’s a MIDI-over-USB function. The addition of the USB port means the LP Stage II can also be used as a USB controller for whatever software you’re using. In my tests, I never had to install a driver.
Oh, and one other new feature here: all-black side plates have replaced the wood-clad design of yore. So it looks a little more “nouveau goth” than “British prog.”
Most of those updated features will probably only appeal to synth-heads or serious electronic musicians. To everyone else, all that really matters is what it sounds like when you turn it on and start playing it. And that’s where the Little Phatty really shines.
This is one of the easiest synths to grok, and, consequently, one of the most fun to play. You just switch it on, touch a key, and it starts making cool sounds.
I’m no Geddy or Herbie, but I’ve fiddled with a lot of synths. This is one of the easiest synths to grok, and, consequently, one of the most fun to play. You just switch it on, touch a key, and it starts making cool sounds. You don’t really need to know much about how the knobs work — in fact, there are so few knobs, the intimidation factor is very low and it’s easy enough to reach up and start experimenting. When demonstrating the test unit it for friends, a ten or fifteen-second orientation was all that was required.
The simplicity of the thing can feel limiting in the age of the does-it-all digital synth. Newbies ask why you can’t play a chord (it’s monophonic, and only sounds one note at a time), and there aren’t any digital representations of pianos or organs.
But while those digital synths do more for around the same price, they don’t have this much charisma or personality. And the Little Phatty has that special sauce, that “natural” quality that Moog does so well. As you flip through the Little Phatty’s 100 presets and surf the dual oscillators, you’ll find dozens of those classic sounds that are all Moog, just dripping with pure analog authenticity.
Moog Music chief engineer Cyril Lance says this is because Bob Moog’s DNA is inside the Little Phatty.
Development on the keyboard began in earnest when Lance first joined the company in 2005, he tells me in a phone interview. Unfortunately, company founder Bob Moog died soon after the team got started. Because everyone knew this would be the last Moog instrument actually designed by Bob, the team took great care in making sure everything about the Little Phatty was spot on — not only the aesthetic and the sound, but also the deeper, intangible aspects of what makes an instrument special.
Bob’s passing gave the project an unprecedented weight. “It was the product that was going to show to the world what Moog would be like without Bob Moog. Everyone involved poured their hearts and souls into the project as a tribute to Bob,” says Lance.
Once a working prototype had been created, Lance took it home and plopped it onto a table in his house. It was nothing more than a bunch of circuits and wires connected to a keyboard and an array of knobs.
“My neighbor’s four-year-old son came over. His eyes got wide and he immediately started playing with it. He was totally consumed for the next hour and made incredible sounds,” he says. “That was my confirmation that we got it right.”
WIRED An honest-to-Bob analog synth in a stripped-down package. Portable and compact, great for performers. USB features make it feel more at home in modern, software-based situations.
TIRED Simplicity of the design is somewhat limiting. Quality is expensive. Menus on the tiny LCD are tough to decipher, you gotta RTFM. I kind of miss the wood side-pieces.
Photo by Jim Merithew/Wired