More than anyone or any company, the
name Moog is probably the one most closely associated with synthesisers.
Robert Moog is considered to have almost 'invented' the synthesiser
as we know it today and his company dominated the fledgling synth
market firstly with their huge modular synths in the late '60s and
then, of course, with the now legendary MiniMoog in the early '70s.
Moog's products were (and still are!) revered for their 'sound'...
some magic quality that had/has weight and depth and which can sound
surpringly organic.... almost acoustic at times. However, these
early Moog products also had one other thing in common.... they
were monophonic - they could only play one note at a time and if
you wanted chords, you multi-tracked in the studio.
It was with some excitement then that we received news of a totally
polyphonic synthesiser coming from the company. Excitement grew
when we also heard that it would have a 71-note, velocity sensitive
keyboard. Then we saw photographs and it looked absolutely fabulous
- modern and futuristic and with loads of sliders and switches to
play with. And that lovely flat top to accommodate your MiniMoog
and/or ARP Odyssey - it was more than most synth players could bear!
And then we heard rumours that it had been developed in association
with synth luminaries (legends!) of the time such as Wendy Carlos,
Keith Emerson and Larry Fast. This thing was going to be fantastic!!!
We were, however, shocked at the price though - $5000! In 1975,
that was a lot of money!!
The biggest shock, however, came when you actually sat down and
played the PolyMoog.... it has to be said that it was a thoroughly
It had eight presets (which Moog preferred to call 'Modes' for
some reason) that comprised strings, piano (yeah... right!), clav,
harpsichord, brass (ahem!), funk (??), organ and vibes. There was
another ninth 'mode' labelled VAR that put the sound under the panel's
variable controls. Of all the presets, only the string sound was
convincing and probably remains to be the PolyMoog's only redeeming
It transpires that the underlying technology behind the PolyMoog
was, in fact, the 'divide-down' oscillators employed on organs and
string synths of the era. Moog did go some way to overcome this
by at least offering two of these per voice with a velocity sensitive
VCA and envelope for each of the 71 notes and so, in theory, it
was 'totally' polyphonic. Up to a point....
The oscillators could be detuned and there was a choice of sawtooth
and pulse/square waves in various (limited) octaves. It also offered
pulse width modulation. Sounds promising so far. These could then
be fed into a filter... yes... a filter... a single filter... just
one to service all 71 notes! In this respect, it wasn't
'totally' polyphonic. If you were sustaining a chord and played
another note, depending on the triggering option selected, the new
note would either trigger all the other notes being held or would
have no filter articulation. This was a far cry from what everyone
was expecting (which was basically, a polyphonic MiniMoog!)! In
hindsight, it would have been prohibitively expensive to include
a Moog filter (and another envelope) for each and every one of the
71 notes and so, obviously, a compromise had to be made. However,
this compromise severely limited the possibilities of the instrument.
This filter had variable cutoff and resonance plus a dedicated ADSR
envelope and LFO and sample+hold modulation.
The oscillators could also be passed through what Moog called RESONATORS
- a fancy term for a three-band graphic equaliser! In fairness,
each band had variable frequency, resonance and gain making it considerably
more flexible tor tonal modification that you would first imagine
and indeed, some convincing vocal sounds and other interesting noises
could be coaxed out of the instrument using these.
Each of the sections (the raw preset sound, the output of the filter
and the output of the resonators plus the lower and upper halves
of the keyboard) could be independently mixed using a simple 5-channel
mixer (the red sliders to the left of the panel) allowing you to
layer these different elements. The various sections were also available
on separate output jacks for external processing on a mixer. On
paper, it looked impressive.
But none of these features could make up for the fact that the
PolyMoog fundamentally sounded weak, especially compared with the
company's other instruments (and its competitors!). The thing didn't
even have a chorus unit to beef the sound up!
The PolyMoog's biggest problem, however, was reliability. Basically,
it didn't have any!! It is reputed to be perhaps music history's
most unreliable synthesiser and most of them spent more time in
service centres than studios!! It's not surprising considering that
inside were (literally) thousands of components and miles
of wire and cable - don't forget that these were the days before
very large scale integrated chips and DSP and all the components
would have been discrete transistors and so on. In short, the design
was too ambitious and the technology of the day was not up to it.
The PolyMoog enjoyed initial success as the big name artists bought
them when it was first released and Moog's customer list was an
impressive 'who's who' of the music scene at the time - Chick Corea,
Keith Emerson, ELO, Patrick Moraz, Rush, Larry Fast, Wendy Carlos,
Tony Banks, Kraftwerk, Geoff Downes and Rick Wakeman. Later, the
PolyMoog would be used by Gary Numan, Devo, Blondie and others.
Moog later also released the PolyMoog Keyboard, a preset-only instrument
with limited editing. It had more presets than the original PolyMoog
Synthesiser and many were very nice, in particular, the strings
and 'vox humana'. But $3,000 was a lot of money to spend for a handful
of preset sounds with limited editability. Suffice to say, the PolyMoog
keyboard was not the commercial success Moog were (presumably) hoping
But the PolyMoog had another problem - the Yamaha CS80!
This was released shortly after the PolyMoog hit the streets. Whereas
the Polymoog sounded thin and weak, was compromised with respect
to the filter and was thoroughly unreliable, the CS80, on the other
hand, sounded truly magnificent, had two complete synths for each
of its voices without compromised filter articulation and was considerably
more reliable.... temperamental perhaps but at least when you switched
it on, there was a good chance it would work! It also had that marvellous,
wooden, piano-weighted keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch with
which the synth-action, plastic PolyMoog keyboard could not compete.
Of course, the final nail in the PolyMoog's coffin came with the
release of the Prophet 5 a year or so later. At this point, the
PolyMoog was relegated to the 'bargain basement' in stores and classified
ads and the original owners were left with an unreliable heap of
If this tale has anything to tell us, it's that just because a
synth is old and has a 'name', it doesn't mean that, by definition,
it must be good or worth having!