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 underwhelming experience!

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 factor.

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 for.

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 electronics.

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!