Moog Music Sub Phatty Review

September 9, 2013
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Pros: Fully analog signal path. Massive sound. Huge bass. Each parameter has its own knob, which sends controller data over MIDI and USB. External input for processing audio through Moog filters. Included software editor allows saving and transferring of presets via USB.

Cons: Two-octave keyboard may disappoint some soloists. Only 16 preset memories.

Bottom Line: Hands down, the best Moog Phatty yet—and an incredibly ballsy sounding and fun way to go analog.

$1,099 list | $999 street | moogmusic.com

 

Over its 40-year history, Moog Music’s product line has always included evolutionary products that crib ideas from their flagship synths—variations on a theme, if you will. In the ’70s, for example, the Minimoog begat the Micromoog and Multimoog. Similarly, the Liberation, Rogue, and Taurus II pedals all shared the same essential synth engine. In keeping with that approach, modern Moog synths are variations on three distinct designs: Voyager, Phatty, and Taurus. Each synth fills a niche with specific strengths, and this year’s evolution of the Phatty series, the Sub Phatty, is no exception.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Sub Phatty is that there’s no LCD or menu to page through. Huzzah! Like the Minitaur, the Sub Phatty features a knob for every function in the synth, which gives it a lot more immediacy in the programming department. Better yet, the Sub Phatty’s architecture features two massive improvements over the Little Phatty in the oscillator and filter sections, which give it a sound that’s even bigger than the previous units.


 

Oscillators

The oscillators are of the “new Moog” variety, with continuously variable waveforms for each. Frankly, I’ve always loved this approach, as it delivers a boatload of sonic flexibility, especially when you morph the sawtooth waves with either squares (a favorite trick of EDM producer Wolfgang Gartner) or triangles (like on the latest Dave Smith synths).

The two oscillators can be hard synced for growling, flanger-like tonal effects, much like the original Phatties. But the real boost in performance comes from the new Phatty’s inclusion of a sub-oscillator in the mixer section, which creates an additional square wave one octave lower than oscillator 1. Let me say this now: I prefer the Sub Phatty’s bass response to even that of the legendary Taurus synths. Of course, that’s a subjective thing, but to me it’s a huge deal when we’re talking about Moog.

In addition to the two oscillators and sub-oscillator, the Sub Phatty’s mixer section also includes a white noise generator that’s awesome for whooshes, drum sounds, and adding grunge to leads.


Filter and Modulation

From there, the vaunted Moog ladder filter takes over. At first, I was a tad confused because the other Phatties included the ability to change the filter slope from a deeper menu, so I assumed that the Sub Phatty was strictly four-pole. This wasn’t a huge issue for me since the resonance on a four-pole Moog filter is so much sweeter than almost every other synth out there. Whether you’re going for liquid basses, wild sweeps, or retro funky leads and comps, having that resonance at your fingertips is a joy indeed. What I later discovered was that these “second page” features were actually accessible via the Phatty’s software editor/librarian, along with a slew of other customization amenities.

That said, the filter section is another area where the Sub Phatty truly trumps its predecessors. While the earlier models included overdrive for adding grit and distortion to the filter, this Phatty includes a new implementation called multidrive, which sounds dramatically different from their original overdrive circuits. At low values, the multidrive does the same tricks as the previous version. At high levels, it’s an entirely different animal. It’s hard to simply call this a “distortion” because the results are extremely nuanced in relationship to the input, whether it’s an increase in resonance or a shift in the continuous waveshapes. What’s more, the multidrive also imparts a kind of compression/limiting to the sound, which makes it sit in a track quite nicely. That’s saying a lot for a single knob.

Modulation options include amplifier envelope, filter envelope and an LFO with all the usual waveforms along with an option to use the filter envelope as a waveform. While I originally thought this might allow for looping on the filter envelope—thus generating custom waveshapes—what it actually does is allow you to use the filter envelope as a modulation source for the pitch of both oscillators (or just oscillator 2 for hard sync sweeps), the waveform of both oscillators, or the filter. Modulation depth is hardwired to the wheel, so you’ll have to reset that manually, even when using presets. Once you know about this, you can easily work around it.


In Use

While the front panel is an absolute godsend, there are two areas where the Sub Phatty’s lower price involved Moog cutting a few corners: the keyboard and preset memory. In the big picture, these are minor sacrifices, but they still affect its overall usability.

Let’s start with the keyboard. Unlike the Little Phatty’s three-octave keyboard, which is absolutely perfect for soloing and octave-walking bass lines, the Sub Phatty’s two-octave keyboard feels a bit cramped. Granted, two-octave keyboards are quite common on modern gear like the Arturia MiniBrute and M-Audio Oxygen series. But at twice the price of the MiniBrute, it would have been nice for Moog to do a two-and-a-half octave affair like so many Moog monosynths from the ’70s and ’80s. Granted, you can easily use another MIDI controller or sequencer to get around this, but it’s still going to be a consideration for gigging live.

Next, there’s a slight issue with preset memory. That is, there are only 16 presets on the Sub Phatty, in contrast to the Little and Slim Phatties’ 100 presets. Now, it’s fairly obvious that it would be hard to access more presets without an LCD screen. I get that. And the Sub Phatty’s free software editor/librarian lets you store oodles more presets on your computer very easily. I guess with so many knobs, it might be better to think of the presets as 16 “starting points” that you can easily tweak live once you get the hang of navigating its sound.

Speaking of tweaking, the Sub Phatty sends and receives MIDI continuous controller info for all of its knobs. This makes for some incredible automation tricks, allowing you to morph and twist your riffs by simply recording your knob twiddling into your DAW. If your DAW supports embedded automation loops, such as Ableton Live with its clip envelopes, you can whip up some truly astonishing rhythmic effects on the fly.

While we’re on the topic of studio use, here’s another biggie: You can easily route audio into the Phatty’s filter and amplifiers. In conjunction with the multidrive and modulation options, this makes the synth an awesome asset for processing other synths or recorded audio tracks from your DAW. I do this sort of thing in my studio all the time and the way the Sub Phatty does it makes me grin from ear to ear.

Which brings us back to the sound. Oh, the sound! I’ve had a Slim Phatty for several years now and I can easily say that the Sub Phatty surpasses it from an audio standpoint. The sub-oscillator gives it a low-end depth that outranks every other Moog out there, with the possible exception of the Voyager. On top of that, cranking the multidrive is like making the Hulk angry. This Phatty can go from smooth and buttery to a full-on audio assault with a single knob twist. 

 

Software Editor
 

When Moog informed me that the Sub Phatty includes a free editor/librarian, I was surprised. After all, there’s a knob for every parameter, so why even bother with a software editor? I mean, unless the unit is across the room, you just reach over and start tweaking. Isn’t that the whole point of a panel full of knobs?

After firing up the editor, everything became much clearer. This Phatty’s editor gives users access to a wide array of functions that are accessed via the other models’ LCD screens. For example, you can select from between one to four poles of filter slope, each with its own character. You can also customize the behavior of the envelopes, with necessities like single or multiple triggering, as well as über-cool amenities like being able to adjust the Moog’s distinctive hold time between the attack and decay segments. In addition, you can select the speed range for the LFO, sync it to MIDI, and even adjust its keyboard tracking behavior.

For setting up for a live performance, the editor also provides access to the pitch-bend range, velocity adjustment for envelope time and amount, external audio input gain, and of course, MIDI channel assignment and various related MIDI functions.

Finally, there’s a librarian that allows you to shuffle and reorder the presets and their banks, which is a boon for organizing your sounds for gigging. It also helps offset the unit’s minuscule memory, especially if you’re using the Phatty primarily for studio work.

After using it for a few days, it quickly became clear that the Sub Phatty’s editor provides easy access to a lot of much needed functionality and customization. Kudos to Moog for including it as a free bonus.

 

Conclusions

It goes without saying that Moog had to cut a few corners to make the Sub Phatty three hundred dollars cheaper than the Little Phatty, so any gripes we might have with the presets and keyboard size are relatively small in context. Especially when you keep in mind that this synth has a knob for every parameter and is an absolute sonic monster.

The overall Sub Phatty experience is a perfect example of Moog’s obsessive devotion to quality and innovation. Bottom line: This synth is actually better than my beloved Slim Phatty. The price-to-performance ratio should make it absolutely irresistible, even for current Phatty owners. We’re blown away by it. You will be too. Key Buy.

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