Music for Tablets – Moog Model 15
Revisit the wild and wonderful days of early analog synthesis on your tablet or smartphone, with more power than the originals.
by Warren Burt, July 2016
It’s a commonplace in electronic music education that the technology on which you first learn, in most cases, forms the template by which you approach most subsequent technology. So if you learned on a linear track-based DAW, you tend to approach the music technology world in that manner. If you learned on modular analog gear (or a modular-based program such as CSound or Music IV) you tend to see the world of electronic music as a series of black boxes which you plug together to make interesting signal paths. I learned my electronic music on a Moog system, the CEMS system assembled by Joel Chadabe at the State University of New York at Albany, a very large system which had eight sequencers, six oscillators, a custom-made digital clock device, and no keyboard. Here’s a photo of the system in 1970, with a very young Joel Chadabe seated in front of it.
As a result, even today, I prefer patching plug-in environments such as AudioMulch or Plogue Bidule as my environment of choice for setting up things and trying things out, rather than a DAW environment such as Sonar or Reaper. My first electronic music system was a Moog, and over the years, although I’ve used just about every kind and brand of electronic and computer music equipment since, I’ve maintained an affection for the equipment made by the R A Moog Company. When Arturia announced its Modular V emulation, in the early 2000s, I was of course an early adopter of that. It’s still a big part of my electronic music “cabinet” of synthesis systems.
The iOS apps that Moog brought out in the past few years also became a part of my battery. The Filtatron and the Animoog were both unique apps which offered interesting sonic resources. It was only a matter of time before Moog would be making a modular emulation for the iPad or iPhone, I thought. And here it is, the Moog Model15, an on-screen emulation of one of the early commercial modular Moog synthesizers. Updated to the current level of technology, of course, with interesting interconnections and contemporary capabilities added.
In adapting the synthesizer to the iPad, several problems had to be solved. One of these is the problem of navigating a screen-full of modules, and patching between them. Moog solved that by using the new iPad “Metal” technology, available only on the new 64-bit iOS devices. For me, and for a lot of iOS users, this could create a problem – only the newest iOS devices can handle this technology and apps made using it. So my old reliable iPad4 won’t cut it, and I resigned myself to waiting until I could afford upgrading to an iPad Pro (maybe by the end of this year?) until I could play with this. Also, this app, in iPad terms, is expensive. $30.00 US, or $47 AUD may not seem like a lot in the computer software world, but in terms of average app prices, it’s enough to give one pause. However, I have a new iPhone 6, and that does have the right operating system to run the software. I paused and waited around, debating whether I really wanted to navigate a bunch of module emulations on an iPhone screen (even a bigger one such as the iPhone 6), but eventually took the plunge and bought the app, even though I risked turning into yet one more of the iPhone zombies that dominate my commuter trains. (I’m already one of the laptop zombies, but making the final transition to cellphone zombie just seemed like a techno-indignity too far.)
The full faceplate of the Model 15 does fit on an iPhone screen, but is not legible, at least to a 66 year old with reading glasses. However, the navigation around the screen, with both panning and zooming controlled by two finger swipes and gestures is just about as smooth as can be imagined. When one has zoomed into a particular module, things look quite good, and are, in fact, pretty easy to manipulate, even with clumsy “not made for computer game” fingers.
It took me only a very little while to become used to this kind of navigating around the screen, and my old instincts of how to handle an analog synthesizer kicked in. What were the capabilities of each module? What were the implications of those possibilities? Could modules be connected together in “unorthodox” ways? (And what was “orthodoxy” in relation to an open system such as this?) To be sure, the collection of modules in the Model 15 is fixed (the world of user-specifiable module selection, such as with Martin Fay’s classic Vaz Modular or the new Softube Modular is far away from here), but one can connect the given set of modules in any way one wishes.
Most of the presets on the instrument cover the classic Moog sounds, and although I’m not a preset aficionado, they sound great. Connect a compatible MIDI keyboard up to the iPhone and take the output to loudspeakers, and suddenly you are, sonically, back in the days of early commercial Moog synthesizer timbres. It’s quite a nice nostalgia trip, and one that for many users of the app, will probably be enough.
But the reason for developing these machines, all those years ago, was not to make a set of commercially usable timbres. That was just a fortunate “spinoff”. The initial impulse that led to the development of electronic music technology was to explore the implications of the technology, finding a whole new musical world of sounds, structures, and timbres. Can the Moog Model 15 app – surely a “nostalgia machine” if ever there was one – do this still? Happily, the answer is yes. There are lots of possibilities for finding new sounds in this technology yet. And to help this exploration, the good people at Moog have included four different types of controllers in the app: a traditional keyboard; a ribbon controller; an “Animoog” style keyboard, with multidimensional controller keys; and a “sequencer/arpeggiator.” Here are pictures of all four.
The Arpeggiator has a quite nice feature about it. If you set the second row of knobs to “pitch” instead of “velocity”, then each step of the arpeggiator can give you out a different transposition level for pitch. If you turn on the arpeggiator, set its pattern length to 8, then hold down just one note on your keyboard, you’ll hear a pattern of eight different pitches, in order. If you then hold down two notes on your keyboard, with the direction of the arpeggiator set to “up,” you’ll hear a pattern of sixteen notes – the two note pattern of the arpeggiator being transposed, on alternate notes, by the pattern of eight transpositions. Hold down a five note chord, and you’ll get a 40 note pattern (5 x 8 = 40). If you change the direction of the arpeggiator (including to the “random” setting), change the number of octaves the sequence is transposed over, change the pattern length, and turn on and off individual steps in the arpeggiator, then you actually have quite a powerful little sequencing tool, at least in terms of the idea of overlapping patterns that we used quite extensively in the early days of modular synthesis.
Here’s a listing of the modules included in the Moog Model 15. There are a good assortment of “normal” synth modules – oscillators, filters, envelope generators, and amplifiers – but there are a good number of unusual and very useful “function” modules as well, such as the attenuators, the fixed filters, the delay effect, and the Audio and MIDI bridges, which open up the app to external sounds and MIDI signals.
907A Fixed Filter Bank
995 Triple Attenuator
904A Voltage Controlled Low Pass Filter
902 Voltage Controlled Amplifier X2
921A Oscillator Driver
921B Oscillator X2
923 Fixed Filters and Noise Source
921 Voltage Controlled Oscillator
911 Envelope Generator X2
Reversible Attenuator and Multiples
Controller Outputs – (Pitch CV, Pitch Triggers, Modulation, Velocity, Aftertouch, Polyphonic Off/On, Ribbon Main, Ribbon Alt)
Utility Module with Controls To (switches for normalizing CV and Trigger signals from the keyboard to the relevant modules); Trunk Lines, Power
Dual Reversible Attenuators with VC Control (Ring Modulators)
Dual Amplifiers (not voltage controlled)
Of note in this list is the presence of the Fixed Filter Bank, which is a very useful device for processing external sounds – it has a set of very smooth sounding filters; the Attenuators, which among other uses, allow microtonal scales to happen – just put your CV for controlling pitch in here, and attenuate until you get the desired compression of the octave you’re looking for; and the Delay effect, which has voltage control of time, feedback and mix. The recorder is a little utility module which allows recording and overdubbing of a loop up to one minute long. It has a “share” button on it in which you can send your recording to selected other apps, such as AudioShare and ThumbJam.
In the MIDI controls page, there is also a MapCCs function, which allows you to map any external MIDI continuous controller to almost any knob or control on the screen. I used the AudioBridge module, with StudioMux to send a sound from my computer, through the Fixed Filter Bank and back to the computer, with a MIDI generating program (MusicWonk) making randomly varying CC signals on CCs 16, 17 and 18. I mapped these three control signals to three of the band-control knobs on the Fixed Filter Bank and voila – instant changing filtering of a sound on the computer. The functioning of the Model 15 app with StudioMux, routing both audio and MIDI to and from my computer was just about as seamless as can be. There’s also a MIDI out function, so you can use the Model 15’s controllers to control other functions, and with the MIDI Bridge, you could, for example, mix three square wave oscillators, all at different low frequency rates, and with different amplitude scalings, to get a semi-unpredictable series of voltage levels. Place this mixed voltage signal into, say, one of the outputs on the MIDI bridge, and you’ve got a control signal for a melody or any other parameter on a software synthesizer in your computer. And it should be mentioned that a comprehensive manual is included in the app itself, easily accessible from the front panel. Given the complexity of this app, good clear documentation is essential, and the Moog people haven’t let us down here.
Here’s an odd one: Using StudioMux, I routed the audio from the Model 15 into my computer. I then performed on the App while recording the audio with my computer, instead of an internal iPhone recorder such as AudioShare or FL Studio. On comparing the audio quality between a recording made with an iPhone internal recorder, and the recording made with the computer with the audio routed to the computer with Studiomux, my impression is that the quality of the recording on the computer was a lot higher than the quality of the internal iPhone recordings. I don’t know why this should be, and I would like to investigate this further, but it might be something to consider. And in terms of interfacing, Ableton Link, Inter-App Audio, and Audiobus are all supported, and, as mentioned above, so are AudioCopy, AudioPaste and AudioShare.
In short, this is a very versatile app, with great sound quality and lots of possibilities for patching and control. I’ve barely scratched the surface of its capabilities and already I’m delighted. Is there anything that I think the designers have left out? Well there IS that blank panel in the lower right. I would really like to see that panel filled with a module that combined another LFO with a sample and hold module. There’s already a very nice noise source in the app – the addition of a sample and hold could turn that into another very useful kind of control voltage generation, especially in conjunction with an additional LFO. Considering that the original Model 15 was just about the minimum configuration of Moog modules that was commercially available, the improvements and additions to this app have made this new incarnation a lot more powerful than the original. Even on a screen as small as an iPhone 6, it was a delight with which to play and make music.
Music on Tablets – Moog Model 15 – Moog modular synthesis for your iPad or iPhone! App Store: $29.99 USD; $46.99 AUD.