By Ken Hughes
If throwing down five large to grace your studio—or live rig, you nutter—with the most bitchin’ lead synth on the planet isn’t something that requires careful budgeting and diplomatic family discussion, why are you sitting there reading this review? Put down the pre-embargo Cuban cigar and Courvoisier XO and get your Moog dealer on the phone. If you, like me, might consider telling Junior or Princess that filling out scholarship applications builds character so that you can spend their college fund on the ultimate monophonic synth, read on.
The Minimoog Voyager XL’s build quality is top class, and its keys have a ridiculously solid feel. The pitch and mod wheels are solid pieces of acrylic and exhibit satisfyingly little wobble. Pots and jacks are all secured to the panel with washers and nuts so as not to transfer stress to the circuit boards inside. Add 61 velocity- and-aftertouch-sensitive keys, a ribbon controller, an X-Y touchpad that responds to the area your finger occupies as well as its position, a panel studded with patch points, and luxuriously finished wood, and “XL” is apropos. “Mini,” not so much. Indeed, the hand-assembled XL makes most modern synths and workstations seem as coldly mass-produced as frozen fish dinners. [Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear is on line 1 and he wants that metaphor back. –Ed.]
The audio signal flow starts with what you’d expect from a Voyager. Three oscillators, a noise source, and an external audio input feed a mixer. A post-summing insert point also serves as a mix out or an input to the filter. (Imagine sending the mixer’s output into a string of Moogerfoogers or analog synth modules using an insert cable—more on that later.) After the insert point is the dual filter, which can operate ganged in lowpass mode or as independent highpass and lowpass filters. Try the latter mode in stereo, while modulating panning with the second LFO—it’s the audio equivalent of visiting the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot. Finally, the signal passes through the VCA on its way out to the dual outputs and 1/4" stereo headphone jack, which has its own volume control—a feature I wish every synth had.
The XL hasn’t added all its new, neat stuff at the expense of anything we’ve come to expect of a Moog—the huge-osity of the oscillators, the filter that would be a prime candidate for a weight-loss reality show if we didn’t so love its obesity—but it has added a little more. Rather than discrete waveforms for the oscillators, you get pots to dial in any shade of wave from triangle to sawtooth to square to pulse. The longer keyboard is a shock when playing corpulent bass sounds with oscillators set to the 8' range, because you realize there are an octave and a half of keys to the left that you haven’t touched yet and you can set the oscillators two octaves lower still. Mythbusters may have debunked the legend of the “brown note,” but then, they didn’t have a Voyager XL.
The Voyager XL has two modulation busses: one controlled by the mod wheel, the other by the Mod1 CV (control voltage) input on the patch panel. With nothing plugged into the Mod1 CV jack, it’s controlled by the Pedal/On section of the front panel. Each modulation bus offers a nice selection of sources and destinations. Four additional sources—filter envelope, velocity, pressure, and “on/pgm” (the footswitch)—can shape the amount of modulation contributed by the first source. We’re still only talking about the hardwired or “normalled” signal path. We haven’t even looked at the patch panel.
Even though you don’t need the patch panel to get sound out of the Voyager XL, and even if you think modular synth patching is over your head, you owe it to yourself to find an XL on display and have a go with the patch cords. This is synthesis at its most visceral: the flow of actual electrons, not ones and zeros, creating the sound. In fact, it’s the reason we still refer to sound programs in synths as “patches.” Like any patchable analog synth, the XL can’t memorize what you do with the patch cables, because these are physical connections rather than virtual ones. My advice is to record audio as you experiment so as to capture any happy accidents, and keep a camera handy to document specific patches.
In addition to its default routings, the touchpad’s three outputs (X, Y, and area) can be sent to any destination on the panel. The keyboard’s four outputs (pitch, velocity, pressure, and gate) are all available as sources. Outputs from the pitch and mod wheels, and both control voltage and gate from the ribbon, are also available on the panel. Interestingly, the ribbon controller—one of the XL’s most lust-worthy features—is assignable only via the patch panel; it has no “normalled” routing.
Patch points ringed in white can accept CV or an expression pedal. Patch points with left and right arrows can accept CV or a footswitch. Imagine the possibilities when you have velocity, aftertouch, ribbon, touchpad, mod wheel, up to four footswitches, and up to 17 sweep pedals available at once, each assigned to its own destination.
Expanding possibilities even further, the Mults section can send each of three sources to up to three destinations simultaneously, and each Mult input can accept CV or an expression pedal. On the flipside, the CV Mixer lets you send (and attenuate) multiple sources to a single destination. The mixer produces both positive and negative outputs, letting you modulate two destinations differently from a single CV Mixer output. Because you can further affect either destination using the lag processor or either of the two attenuators, you can get something other than mirror-image modulation from those two outputs. LFO2 offers positive and negative outputs as well. A sample-and-hold circuit offers outputs for both stepped and smooth versions of its output. The rates of LFO1 and LFO2 can be controlled by expression pedals as well.
Due to its extensive MIDI implementation, the XL is anything but a pure throwback. Just like every modern synth worth its salt, every front-panel control sends MIDI continuous control (CC) messages, so you can capture and edit controller data in your DAW. The upshot is that the XL has far more front-panel controls than most. In addition to the usual automating of filter sweeps and LFOs, there are some specific and very cool tricks to be unlocked. Even the destination of a connected pedal can be assigned to one of six options by selecting a single value in one of six sub-ranges within the 0-127 range of its CC. Imagine automating the pedal destination (or the mixer, or the waveforms, or practically anything) with your onstage sequencer while performing live. You could be the Criss Angel of synth soloists, making listeners gasp, “How did he [or she] do that?”
Velocity response is musical and predictable, and aftertouch avoids hair-trigger response but doesn’t require finger-breaking pressure. The pitch wheel is stiffer than I’m used to, but then, I spend most of my time these days with my DAWs and a plastic MIDI controller that has loosey-goosey wheels. Although it gets the job done, I’ve apparently forgotten what quality feels like.
Because the dual-purpose inputs are all over the patch panel, you need to think about cable clutter and strain relief. This is no big deal in the studio, but if you plan to take this beast onstage, you may find yourself customizing footswitch and expression pedal cables. Note that on a standard Voyager, the Mod 1 and 2 footswitch jacks are on the rear. On the XL, they’re on the front-facing patch panel, so using footswitches is less convenient. Using other sources is obviously more convenient, however.
The value of the post-summing insert I mentioned earlier can’t be overestimated. With a grainy old Boss RV-2 digital reverb stompbox patched in upstream of the filters and VCA, ghostly, pseudo-polyphonic textures emerged when I used long reverb times and tipped the effect balance heavily wet. The XL’s volume envelope reined in the decay when I let go of the keys. I also connected my guitar pedalboard, which houses an overdrive, an analog delay, and a vintage Boss flanger. The party got delightfully weird. Bouncing delay trails were subjugated to the volume envelope, and re-emerged when new keys were struck and the envelope re-opened. Again, this yielded a pseudo-polyphonic effect. My flanger sounded distinctly weirder upstream of the filter than it did when connected to the XL’s main output. All this makes me wish every synth had a similar insert point.
Other explorations arise from the XL’s keyboard transmitting polyphonically over MIDI. You could control an external synth, route that synth’s audio into the XL’s mixer, and then on to the insert point, filters, and envelopes. So how about a sound that encompasses XL oscillators and external sounds from a polyphonic synth, all processed through external effects and/or other modular synth gear via the insert point? Would that help you create completely unique sounds?
On a synth like this, it seems almost silly to discuss the presets, but they’re excellent and noteworthy. Among those who contributed patches are Will Alexander, Printz Board, Herbie Hancock, Chad Hugo, Brian Kehew, Jamie Muhoberac, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, and Fred Wreck. Also, Keyboard contributor Zon Vern Pyles has a whole bank to his credit.
Is anything left to be desired? Keyboard editor Stephen Fortner had one item. “Since the XL has three oscillators and so much patching,” he explained, “it’d be great if there were some kind of mode that let you play it as a single-oscillator synth with three-voice polyphony—kind of like what Korg did with the Mono/Poly.”
If you have the cash, what are you waiting for? The Voyager XL is everything you hope it is and more. It can stand alone, or with all its connectivity, be the nerve center of an advanced synth studio. Yes, you can get a knob-laden, polyphonic, analog or virtual analog synth with MIDI for a lot less. None of those, however, give you anywhere near the XL’s level of patching flexibility. In fact, to get that and a sound this huge, you’d have to step up to something like MacBeth modules, most likely exceeding the Voyager XL’s price tag to put together a three-oscillator synth with similar filters and envelopes, not to mention a keyboard of comparable quality. So while the Moog is spendy, it’s a good value by modular standards—and it is a semi-modular machine. With apologies to Samuel L. Jackson, if you absolutely need the most badass mother of a lead, bass, and effects synth there is, accept no substitutes.
Earth-shakingly huge sound. Extreme patching flexibility. Raises real-time performance control to new heights. Impressive potential for cross-patching with other synths and effects. Craftsman-grade build quality and aesthetics.
Price can feel like a lot to pay for one note at a time.
Monophonic analog synth with integrated audio/control voltage patch panel.
$4,995 (no list/street difference)