What else should a magazine that calls itself greatsynthesizers begin with, if not a Moog synthesizer review? This thought suggests itself somehow, but yet it is not the whole truth.
It is partly a coincidence, but partly also due to the inability of couriers and/or the unwillingness of others to provide appliances for review purposes. However, the Little Phatty (LP) is no more a stopgap than its 19″ counterpart, with its near oxymoronic name “Slim Phatty”(SP). A Moog synthesizer is not a bad choice after all for their fortieth anniversary and our start, and furthermore both of these instruments are a good example that “great synthesizers” needn’t be big old boxes.
Writing about the company Moog, and its founder, Robert Moog, who is unfortunately no longer with us, is like carrying coals to Newcastle. You can find very good articles on these topics online as well as in the specialist media. I even noticed a piece of music by Bob Moog on iTunes only yesterday, “Bob Moog’s Contribution to the Erdenklang Premiere”. The name Moog is almost omnipresent when it comes to electronic music (or musical instruments).
The Little Phatty has now been available for over five years in various versions. The latest version is the one made available to us, the Redback, a worldwide limited edition of 200 units, which takes the Moog Little Phatty Stage II including CV outputs as its basis. The Australian Redback Spider, which is by the way one of the most poisonous arachnids, served as the model for the red exterior (Latrodectus hasselti – presumably not the most appealing product name). What is new is the software version 3.1, which provides amongst other things four additional parameters (legato glide, LFO KB Trigger, Volume Velocity Sensitivity and Tuning Scale) that can be stored with each sound. In addition, there is a new arpeggiator setup menu, as well as the possibility of sending the sound (panel) currently selected, but not saved – in other words, stored in the buffer – as a MIDI Sys Ex file. Speaking of sending, with “SEND 14bit ” parameter changes transmitted via MIDI CC are sent in 14bit, instead of the previous 7bit format. As might be expected, this provides smoother transitions. However, the Phatty receives and processes 7bit or 14 bit data perpetually, regardless of whether “SEND 14bit” is enabled or not.
Let’s start with the appearance. As is well known, no less a figure than Axel Hartmann is responsible for the design of the Little Phatty. Taste may be subjective, but for my part I consider the design to be extremely successful. Granted, the Little Phatty was characterised by a simple structure that is conducive to development, however, similar conditions have often produced negative examples. The Phatty is definitely not one of them.
The control panel makes a very neat impression, for which the ‘one knob per block’ solution is particularly responsible. The push buttons located in the individual blocks can be distinguished in function by their colour. In the case of the Redback version there are – surprise! – red glowing ones whose value is defined by a dial, and orange glowing ones that have an on/off function.
The keyboard is pleasant to play and extends over three octaves, and the two bright red glowing wheels, or, you could almost say, burning wheels, complete the positive picture of the Little Phatty.
Keyboard and wheels are of course alien to the Slim Phatty (SP). The positive consequence of this is a smaller footprint, which makes the Slim Phatty 19″ rack-compatible. The rack mounts required for installation are available as optional accessories. An additional plus is the possibility of combining several Phattys together in a polyphonic system. Given the necessary financial resources and sufficient room, a maximum of 16 Phattys can be assembled into a sixteen-voice synthesiser. That immediately makes you glad that version 3.1 features a new mode of voice allocation.
On the subject of a polyphonic Moog synthesiser – the rumours of such an instrument appearing “soon” have been circulating for years and will not be silenced, au contraire. To this we cannot say much more than: wait and see.
Back to the Little Phatty. On the left side of the casing the on/off switch and the socket for the mains cable can be found alongside a mono output and an audio input as well as the control voltage inputs for pitch, filter and volume, and a gate input. They are all set up as plugs. The MIDI duo “in and out”, together with the USB port, complete the picture. The labels of the inputs and outputs make a negative impression as they are executed in black on a black background and therefore not exactly conducive to good readability.
The above-mentioned inputs and outputs plus an additional MIDI THRU jack, as well as the headphone jack are, in the case of the rack-mounted version, located on the rear panel. The jacks are aligned so that the audio cables are not kinked when the unit is rack-mounted. If you want to use the SP as a desktop unit, however, I would recommend an audio cable with an angled jack. The reverse is true in the case of the power cord. In the case of the intended rack mount, this should be angled to avoid any bending of the mains cable in the immediate region of the plug. That the SP’s on/off switch is on the back of the unit and therefore disappears in the rack is no real cause for celebration.
Back to the Little Phatty. On the right side of the unit it offers Gate Out, Pitch CV Out, Mod Buss Out, Vol Env Out and Filt Env Out and is therefore particularly connective. Therefore the LP could otherwise also be connected with the Slim Phatty, not to mention the possibility of connection with modular systems. Thanks to the white lettering these outputs are always legible. But it is a pity that the white labelling did not quite reach the other side of the casing. A certain inconsistency cannot be explained away here.
As you can see from the photographs, both versions have a small display. Photos circulating on the Internet show the Little Phatty Redback with a red display, whereas the instrument tested here has a white one. Why is that? You guessed it! We accordingly asked the manufacturer and received the reply that “There were two different runs of the Redback LP. The first had the red display and the second had the white.” Good, that’s covered.
The two Phattys differ in the shape and size of the buttons used. Those on the Little Phatty are larger and contribute to the beautiful design. In addition, the distances between the controls are more generous, which is not surprising as the Little Phatty measures 68cm in width, after all. So you have now reached sound production.
Two analog Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) serve as the sonic origin of the subtractive synthesis, which are, according to their manufacturers, distinguished by their tuning stability. For the sake of completeness, let us record that both instruments, i.e. both the Little as well as the Slim Phatty, need several minutes after switching on before they can hold the pitch in a stable manner.
The following oscillator parameters can be changed using the rotary knob, WAVE, OSC LEVEL and, in the case of the VCO2 the OSC2 frequency additionally .The latter serves to de-tune the pitch of the second VCO compared to its master (VCO1). Both oscillators have an octave range switch each; the 16′ one corresponds in this case to the highest “A” of the keyboard of the LP at a frequency of 440Hz, up to 2′ is sufficient. Together with the OCTAVE DOWN/UP buttons in the master block this results in a total range of a superb nine octaves. In frequency terms, this excludes only elephants and bats.
The oscillator sync can also be found in this module, which is activated by a push button. The intensity of the GLIDE RATE, for which there is also a push button in the oscillator module, is set via the dial in the same module. However, GLIDE ON/OFF is found in the master section. Please do not get confused, the operation is much easier than the description allows you to suppose. One thing I would like to state at this point is that for some reason the Glide function of the Phatty has particularly impressed me.
The waveform can be steplessly cross-faded in both oscillators between triangle, sawtooth, square and pulse. You can hear how the four waveforms and their intermediate levels sound with open filter in the audio files.
The volume for each of the two oscillators can be adjusted individually before they activate the filters.
The filter is, and how could it be otherwise, a 4-pole lowpass filter. It is immediately impressive that this offers the possibility to set and save the slope for each sound.
Incidentally, the Factory Sounds make the most of this ample opportunity. Especially in the context of other instruments, the 2-pole and 3-pole basses particularly please me.
The following parameters are available in the filter module: CUTOFF, RESONANCE, KB AMOUNT and EGR AMOUNT. The response can of course be driven up to self-oscillation. Particularly good, and a definite added bonus of the sound design, is the parameter OVERLOAD, which leads to an overdrive at the filter input and output. Thankfully, some of the Factory Sounds make extensive use of it.
The envelope generators can – appropriately enough – be dealt with quickly. The Phatty provides one for the definition of the timing of the amplitude and one for the filter. Both offer access to the classic quartet of parameters (ATTACK, DECAY, SUSTAIN, RELEASE). At this point we should note that both EGs can be deactivated via the master menu of the release parameters.
I am inclined to judge the EGs as amongst the quicker of their kind. From memory – and therefore to be taken with a pinch of salt – I suspect that those of the Voyager are a jot faster. Nevertheless, the Phatty’s EGs are quick, which can be heard in the one or other audio demo.
In terms of modulation the ratio according to the manual is source/destination = 6/4. Let us begin with the sources. The Phatty can call an LFO its own, not much but anyway. This can be synchronized to MIDI clock, and offers the waveforms Sawtooth, Square, Triangle and Ramp. By means of a dial the frequency and therefore the speed can be changed by using the LFO RATE button, as might be expected. If you press the button AMOUNT the intensity of the modulation is determined by the control dial. Nothing new. You are still missing two modulation sources? Correct, and these are the filter envelope and Oscillator 2. Well, it is a fact that several of the factory sounds clearly require Sample & Hold as a modulation source but it is nowhere to be found on the control panel. The solution is simple. In the master menu you can in the case of the modulation source #5 choose between the filter envelope and S/H. Ha! A little awkward, but at least it is there. In the case of the factory sound #7 ‘Breaking Toys’, when you turn the modulation wheel you can here a crossfade with noise. Again, no indication on the control panel. You guessed right, off to the master menu where you will find the option under the modulation source #6. Here you can choose between OSC2 and NOISE. Don’t worry, the second oscillator remains otherwise unaffected, only the modulation source is involved.
In addition to the “six” modulation sources, there are the four above-mentioned modulation destinations. These are filter cutoff, pitch (both oscillators), Wave (also both oscillators) and OSC 2, by which the pitch of the same is meant. Of course, the master menu is called up immediately to keep on the lookout for additional options. And lo and behold, immediately after the modulation source #6 option follows “Modulation Destination2″. This enables a second modulation destination to be chosen from the four previously mentioned. The intensity is, as previously mentioned, selected via AMOUNT and the modulation control dial; regulation takes place as usual via the Modulation Wheel.
The Phatty therefore offers somewhat more than you would give it credit for at first glance. Another example for this is the Arpeggiator. In PRESET mode it is activated by pressing the VALUE dial. You can change the speed in small increments with the VALUE dial, or alternatively in larger intervals by means of the modulation dial. Just like the LFO, the Arpeggiator can be synched to MIDI clock.
The output module does its name justice and houses an on-off switch alongside the now obligatory dials per module. This switch is used to interrupt the signal flow in the output direction, leaving the headphone output untouched. Live this would definitely be an advantage, but it is also a nice little feature in the studio situation.
Before I discuss the Phattys sound, for the sake of completeness I would like to mention that my Little Phatty experienced a veritable crash in the middle of a recording session using version 3.1. From one moment to the next nothing was working, except my heart, and that a little faster than usual. The previously set values were all frozen and the master menu presented its linguistic diversity on the underside of the ANALOGUE MODE by – presumably – trying to communicate with me in Klingon sign language. All other menu items remained hidden and so my face was illuminated by a glowing white display without any content at all. The resuscitation that was immediately begun bore fruit after what felt like 120 minutes but was probably closer to five or ten. I will spare you the exact details, but key is that in the end a fully-functioning Little Phatty Redback stood before me again.
Well, following to the description of the modules the most important question is raised – how does the Phatty sound? The answer is brief – very good. The sounds have the necessary punch and bite. The Phatty can sound aggressive and powerful, it delivers refined and punchy bass notes as well as screeching solo sounds and does not falter in the high frequencies. The following audio file demonstrates some of them. Of the three sounds used, two of them come from the factory set. One is self-programmed and is used in several variations.
Speaking of sounds, the Moog Little Phatty Editor can be highly recommended: On the one hand, the 100 rewritable memory locations fill up with your own sounds quicker than you would think, and on the other hand the Editor offers natty features that help overcome moments of aural dullness. For example, the cross-fading of two sounds in 100 different gradations is as possible as morph, mutate and random. Especially the latter has long impressed me.
The Phatty is simple and that is exactly one of its strengths. After all, isn’t it often so that restriction breeds creativity? The Phatty is very inviting to play as well as to use to edit the sound. Every alteration has an immediacy that I find lacking with PlugIns. Its acoustic heritage cannot be denied and it is fit to bear the four letters of its manufacturer, who made history in the development of synthesisers.
The list prices of the Moog Phatty Series in Central Europe are as follows:
- Moog Little Phatty Stage II, € 1,249.-
- Moog Little Phatty Stage II CV, € 1,549.-
- Moog Little Phatty Redback, € 1,449.-
- Moog Slim Phatty, € 849.-
Optional rack ears or wooden side panels are available for the Slim Phatty:
- Moog Slim Phatty Rack Kit, € 45.-
- Moog Slim Phatty Wooden Side Panels, € 98.-