Review: Moog Model D - KeyboardMag

Review: Moog Model D

Part arranger and part pro synth workstation, the MZ-X500 punches well above its price class in terms of sounds and features.
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“Why doesn’t somebody just make a [insert beloved vintage synth name here] just like it was back in the day? That would rock!” We’ve read this and said it ourselves countless times. Well, somebody was listening. The new Minimoog Model D may not be the first synthesizer to qualify as a classic analog reissue, but it’s certainly the truest.

Overview

Introduced in 1970, the Minimoog set the template for how most musicians used subtractive analog synthesis. The signal chain was based on a patch scheme owners of large Moog modular systems almost always used: oscillators into mixer, mixer into filter, filter into VCA, volume and filter controlled by envelopes, and Bob’s your uncle. Only here was a self-contained synth that didn’t require patch cables, and so portable that carting it to any gig to perch atop your organ or electric piano was a no-brainer. “D” refers to the fourth major design pass, which was deemed ready for prime time.

Before you even power up, the new Model D gives a stunning visual and tactile impression. Every texture and surface feels like the original. The resistance of the knobs and the click of the rocker switches are just right. The Fatar TP-9 keyboard action is an unavoidable departure from the Pratt-Read organ keys on the originals, but that’s a good thing because it’s much more even and responsive. Still, the way it’s seated and how the keys hit bottom feels authentically like a Minimoog. Other synths I own use TP-9 keybeds and they don’t feel like this.

The keys sense velocity and Aftertouch, which are not hardwired to internal destinations. Instead, each has a 1/4" CV with its own attenuator pot (e.g., depth control), which you could patch back into the control inputs for filter cutoff, loudness, oscillator pitch, or a modulation source that supplants noise on the Modulation Mix knob. Velocity and Aftertouch are also transmitted to the outside world via MIDI.

Importantly, on many synths today—even some analog ones—the keys and sound engine might as well be two MIDI devices in different boxes. That’s not the case here. The Minimoog’s keyboard is hardwired to speak analog control voltage to its internals using the volt-per-octave standard. This makes a difference when it comes to responsiveness. Maybe it’s more felt than heard, but I certainly noticed it.

Internally, the audio and control signal paths are unchanged, the circuitry is discrete, and even the internal placement of parts mirrors the original. So does the through-hole construction, in which the contact “legs” on components like transistors pass through the circuit board instead of being surface-mounted. This process is old-school, more expensive, and sturdier.

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New Features

Where the Moog Voyager of 2003 onward was a modern rethink of what a Minimoog should be, the new Model D’s updates are more like professional mods made to a vintage unit: They’re there if you need them and invisible if you don’t. There is MIDI In/Out/Thru (but no USB) and the abovementioned Fatar keys. A dedicated LFO means you don’t need to tie up oscillator 3 just because, say, you want vibrato. Modulation sources in the Controllers section include this LFO and the filter envelope in addition to the original blend of oscillator 3 and the noise generator. Furthermore, an internal signal path now duplicates the old overdrive trick of feeding the Mini’s output back into its audio input. Standard voltage trigger I/O is on hand.

Numerous global settings are changed by holding keys or chords as you power on. The most immediately useful are note priority (high, low, last) and whether legato playing retriggers the envelopes. You can also double the CV range of velocity from five to ten volts (giving you twice the pitch or controller range) separately from three selectable curves for MIDI velocity output.

An external power supply connects via a locking 4-pin XLR-style barrel. It handles international voltages and eliminates the one vintage aspect nobody will miss—the non-detachable AC cord!

Sound

The signal path is, again, straight-up vintage Minimoog: three oscillators feeding Moog’s signature 24dB-per-octave ladder filter via a mixer section that can also bring in external audio and a noise source. You get separate three-stage Contours (envelopes) for loudness and the filter, with the Decay rocker switch adding a release stage that’s tied to the Decay Time knobs. Oscillator 3 can modulate oscillators 1 and 2 in the audio range for FM effects, and its pitch can be unlinked from keyboard control if desired.

Because miles of ink already exist about how a Minimoog works, let’s get to the real question. How close does the reissue sound to the vintage article? The short answer: absolutely, indistinguishably, identically so. Synth enthusiasts often point to the “big three” reasons the Minimoog sound is iconic: the fatness of the oscillators, the saturation characteristics of the ladder filter (originally due to an internal gain-staging error), and the “snap” and responsiveness of the envelopes. It’s all here, for days.

Non-linearities in the way components interact, especially when you’re actively tweaking the knobs, are also a huge factor in the warmth and soul Minimoog owners cite. Those are present as well, but unlike on many under-maintained vintage specimens, not enough to amount to a musical problem for you. That said, the oscillators can drift slightly, so follow the manual’s advice to let the Mini warm up for 10 to 20 minutes.

Not satisfied to play the new Minimoog in isolation, I set up some blind listening next to a well-maintained 1978 Mini and a Voyager Performer Edition. Of course, patches were made as identical as possible and any Voyager-only features, such as hard oscillator sync and stereo output, were not used. After awhile, I was consistently able to pick out the Voyager as sounding slightly more polished and polite. By contrast, the similarity between the Model Ds was tenacious.

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Conclusions

The Minimoog is back, and Moog Music has simply nailed it. The sound and user experience of the new Model D are total, like playing a “new old stock” Mini that just awoke from a 40-year Cryosleep in perfect shape. What more is there to say? Maybe a couple of things.

Sure, the new D will serve up canonical analog synth sounds—“Lucky Man” portamento leads, rubbery resonant basses, “Tom Sawyer” sweeps, all that—with power that will bathe you in the tears of your frenemies. But like its predecessor, its versatility is under-appreciated. Musicians in the 1970s scraped up the price of a car to afford one, and it would be their only synth for years to come. So milk it for every drop like they did. Reach for it for a sound that would normally be workstation territory, like an acoustic instrument. Build chord parts by recording one monophonic line at a time in your DAW, altering the patch slightly each time. You’ll be delighted at the beauty you’ll uncover.

Should you spend $3,499 on one? Well, do you want a Minimoog? The new Model D costs less than many “perfect” specimens on the secondary market and will give you all of the sound but none of the potential trouble. At this price point in the boutique-analog space, Tom Oberheim’s Two-Voice Pro is the ostensible competition. It’s more powerful by some measures, being two dual-oscillator SEMs with a sequencer and extensive patch panel. Like the Model D, it shows obsessive attention to quality and retro-revival detail. It has a different sound, of course, and for many synth players, the whole point is that there’s nothing quite like the Moog sound. In that case, the new Minimoog Model D is the Holy Grail.

Keyboard magazine thanks Brandon Daniel for loaning us his personal new Model D for this review.

Snap Judgment

PROS It’s a classic Minimoog in every way, only new. Original signal path and construction techniques are perfectly reproduced. New features are very useful but totally unobtrusive to the vintage experience. Sounds the balls.

CONS Expensive. We’d like to see an upgraded kickstand for the tilting panel and a way to lock the panel down for transportation.

Bottom Line Is the Model D a new Minimoog? Is it a vintage Minimoog? It’s both, and it’s perfect.

$3,499 street
moogmusic.com