The Legend of Mini Moog

Created by Moog Music and released in 1970, the Minimoog was one of the first portable synthesizers to hit the market, became an instant classic and has gone on to change music forever!

The Birth of A Star

Back in the 1960’s Moog were creating high-end, but inaccessible to most, modular synthesizers that involved manual patching of cables and were very large and prone to malfunction due to temperature and humidity and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Mostly owned by Universities or Major record labels, by 1970 only 28 were owned by musicians.

With the company's prospects dwindling, Moog engineer Bill Hemsath took it upon himself to initiate the development of a more portable, more reliable synthesizer, initially by sawing a keyboard in half and wiring several components into a small cabinet! Moog president Robert Moog couldn’t see a market for the product and parked the idea. However, whilst Robert Moog was away and fearing the lack of sales would lead to unemployment, the Moog engineers developed a fully-fledged prototype and showed it to Moog on his return. Initially angry, Moog saw the potential in the product and gave the greenlight for its production now named ‘Mini Moog Model D’, leading to the eventual production of over 12,000 units!

The Design

Designed as ‘a session musician's axe, something a guy could carry to the studio, do a gig and walk out’, the Mini Moog was an affordable alternative to its predecessors and offered all of those synths most powerful features but included within a small, portable and very sleekly-designed unit.

A monophonic subtractive synth comprising of three voltage-controlled oscillators producing just simple geometric waveforms and it’s famed 4-pole 24dB/oct low pass ladder filter, the Minimoog was a relatively simple unit. The engineers experienced trouble getting the power supply to stabilise properly, meaning the three oscillators never fully synchronized, which turned out to be a happy accident as this gave the synthesizer it’s warm and rich sound for which it is now so sought-after.

Just listen to the bassline on Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ here:

The Mini Moog oozed character and could produce everything from pulsing basslines through to searing leads, suddenly putting keyboard players in a position where they can blast out lead riffs and put them in direct competition with the lead guitarist!

Early Influences

The Mini Moog’s influence can be found far and wide in big genres at the time such as prog rock, disco, jazz fusion, ambient, electro-pop and more. Notable users of the time included of Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Bob Marley and Gary Numan; an extremely eclectic mix!

The British Prog-Rock scene’s use of the sounds of the Mini Moog, especially Keith Emerson with Lake and Palmer’s “Tarkus” (and later Rick Wakeman) would set off a chain reaction, by initially inspiring the mid-70's Funk scene, which later was heavily sampled by generations of Hip Hop and Rap artists and was also used as a template for the success of artists like Prince.

Bernie Worell, of the Funkadelics, ears instantly pricked up when he heard the sounds the British Prog Rockers were making and had George Clinton (with whom he was touring at the time) buy him one. This led to the development of the P-Funk sound and Berni became a master of the Mini Moog, creating funky synth sounds that have gone on to be sampled endlessly and it is through his wizardry that the sound is still so sought after and respected.

Mini Moog and Hip Hop

The G-Funk era was pioneered by Dr.Dre in the early 90’s with his release of ‘The Chronic’ in 1992 with its definitive sounds of 70’s Funk breaks, chopped-up jazz progressions and the squelching bassline sounds of the Moog synth, reminiscent of Worell’s work in the P-Funk era. This became a staple aesthetic for West Coast artists especially within Dr. Dre’s entourage and included artists such as Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, DJ Quik, Easy-E, Ice Cube amongst others.

Hip Hop continued to evolve throughout the 90’s and moved on through the G-Funk era and as Hip Hop developed a new name started to rise through the ranks of up-and-coming producers, going by the name of J Dilla. Eschewing any use of quantize on his MPC, Dillas’ distinct sound could immediately be heard in his off-kilter, swung drums, an innate ability to flip samples into alternate dimensions and his warm, gritty bass grooves, provided by none other than the Mini Moog.

Even after the initial success of the ‘Mini Moog Model D’, Robert Moog couldn’t keep the company afloat and was forced to sell up, however he bought back the company in 2002 and started production of the ‘Mini Moog Voyager’. In 2002 he gifted a custom Voyager to Dilla, which included his signature etched into the faceplate of the instrument and became one of Dilla’s most prized posessions. It is now housed in the Smithsonian Museum right next to his Akai MPC; his two essential studio tools he made countless classic beats on!

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