Sub Phatty by Moog
In this hardware synthesizer review, our reviewer checks out the Moog Sub Phatty. We take it for test drive with its many under-the-hood features, knob-laden interface, and a huge sound.
by Rob Mitchell, March 2016
If you have never heard of Moog Music and their many legendary products, you can’t really call yourself a synthesizer aficionado. The name “Moog” itself is a legend in its own right, and carries with it a legion of devout followers that can’t get enough of its unique sound.
The company started out with the first subtractive synthesizer that had its own keyboard included. That was way back in 1964, and the man behind that synth design was Robert Moog. He developed many of his own ideas into reality and patented them along the way, eventually producing the Modular Moogs. These could be quite complex, as you were able to put different “modules” together, using cables to connect them in various ways as a type of building block for synthesis.
Eventually he designed what was called the Minimoog. It was much easier to take out on the road for the traveling musician, as it was a lot smaller and lighter than his modular synth design. It became very popular in 1970s, and even today it is a vintage piece of equipment that people still crave. These days, there are probably more software emulations of the Minimoog than any other type of synthesizer on the market. And for good reason, as people just love its sound. For over a decade, softsynth programmers have been trying to nail “the sound” in software form in one way or another.
To die-hard analog fans, there is nothing like the real thing. On the other hand, software emulations are convenient: They won’t go out of tune (unless you want them to of course), plus they don’t need to be in for service every so often. It has been a dream of mine to be able to acquire an actual Moog synthesizer. I have owned a couple hardware synths in the past, but all of the used Minimoogs I ran into were just too expensive for me. For this review, I will be covering a Moog product called the Sub Phatty. In some ways, it is similar to the Minimoog, but with many new additions, and it has an edgier kind of sound. It is a monophonic subtractive synthesizer with standard pitch-bend and modulation wheels, has 25 semi-weighted keys, and it’s 100% analog. There is a lot to cover here, so let’s get started.
Oscillator and Mixer sections
After unboxing the synth, I tried the various knobs and buttons before I even plugged it in, just to see how it is built. I have to say, it feels like a very solid piece of engineering. After that was out of the way, I plugged it in, switched it on, and my focus turned to the oscillator section. The Sub Phatty has two main oscillators with different waveforms you can choose from. These waveforms include sawtooth, square, pulse, and triangle. Like the Moog Voyager, you can not only select the individual waveforms, but you can dial in a blend between those waveforms as well. Just a quick FYI: On the Minimoog, you could switch between the separate waveforms, but it couldn’t blend anywhere between them.
The tuning for each of the two oscillators is accomplished with the Octave control, and they can be switched between 16′, 8′, 4, and 2′ tunings. In addition, the second oscillator has a fine tuning knob, letting you adjust its tuning by +/- 7 semitones. They’ve also included a sub-oscillator for the first oscillator. It uses a square wave (this can’t be changed to a different waveform), and it is one octave below the first oscillator’s pitch.
Hard Sync is available in the Sub Phatty, and can be switched on with the “Hard Sync Osc 2” button. If this is enabled, and the first oscillator starts a new cycle, it will make it so the second oscillator will start up its own cycle at the same time. Changing the pitch of the second oscillator while this is enabled can have some interesting effects on the resulting audio, and gives you another avenue for sonic exploration.
The Mixer section is where you can adjust the levels of the individual oscillators. There is one other source of audio, and that is the Noise generator. It uses pink noise, which has a darker type of sound that I actually prefer over white noise. One thing you might have noticed from the screenshots in the review is the amount for some of the controls go up to 12. For each of the controls that you can adjust from the Mixer section (Oscillators, Sub-Oscillator, and Noise), any level above 6 will start to add some filter distortion. If you set any of them to 6 or below, it will send a clean signal over to the filter section.
The Sub Phatty can self-oscillate, so if you crank up the resonance and turn off both oscillators, you can play it that way as well. Combining that configuration with a bit of Multidrive can yield additional sounds. The sounds can vary in tone, changing from a regular self-oscillating sine/triangle type of sound, and morphing into what sounds more like a square wave, especially when the Multidrive is maxed out.
Filter and Envelopes
The Moog legacy continues on within the Sub Phatty, and the legendary low-pass ladder filter is a large contributor to its fame. The standard cutoff and resonance controls are here, but in this generation of the Moog synth line, there is a pole/slope setting you can use to change the way the filter works. Normally it is set to a four pole 24dB per-octave slope, but there is a hidden function that lets you enable a one pole (6 dB per-octave), two pole (12 dB per-octave), or three pole setting (18 dB per-octave). Since this isn’t the only trick it has up its sleeve, I will mention how to access this and some of the other hidden functions later in the review.
The Multidrive is a newer feature that can add some post-filter distortion to the audio signal. This can really give it that hard-driven edgy sound I had mentioned earlier. You can smoothly dial-in as much as you want, which works great if you just want to give it a subtle amount of drive. Using this with varied amounts of resonance and filter settings can give you many different types of results.
Below the Multidrive control are the controls for the EG and KB amounts. EG (envelope generator) is a bipolar control which sets the amount of influence that the filter envelope has over the filter cutoff. The KB control adjusts the keyboard tracking for the filter cutoff.
There are two envelope generators in the Sub Phatty. One is for the filter, and the other is for the amplifier. Both of these use standard ADSR (attack/decay/sustain/release) settings, and there are separate controls for each stage of the envelope. The attack can be adjusted from a snappy one millisecond to a full 10 seconds. Actually the decay and release stages have the same timing settings available, while the sustain control is adjusted using a percentage amount (0-100%). To the right of the envelope section are the Master and Headphone output controls.
The Modulation section is where you’ll find the LFO (low frequency oscillator), which can be used to modulate different parts of the synthesizer. The LFO’s rate can be adjusted from 0.1 Hz to 100 Hz, and the waveforms you’re able to choose from are triangle, square, saw, ramp (reverse saw), and it also includes sample and hold. The last selection on this control is Filter EG, and this doesn’t use the LFO at all. It bypasses it, and uses the filter envelope as a source for modulating the various targets.
You can adjust the amount of the pitch modulation using the “Pitch Amt” control. Turning up this control will increase the range of the oscillators pitch when modulated. To the right of this control is the “Pitch Amt Osc 2 Only” button, which is a very cool feature. Normally, the pitch modulation will affect both oscillators (and the sub-osc), but when this button is switched on, the pitch modulation will only affect oscillator two. For instance, the first oscillator can be playing a regular/straight pitch when you hold down a key, and the second oscillator could have the LFO set to modulate its pitch. Using this along with hard sync, it can deliver some interesting results and is quite fun to experiment with.
The other controls located here are for the Filter Amount and Wave Amount. These adjust how much variation will be used with the filter cutoff and the waveforms of both oscillators when using the modulation wheel. The sub-oscillator is not included in the waveform changes, as it always set to a square wave. You can get some nice, smooth transitions between the different oscillator waveforms by using the LFO set to slow rate. Of course, you’re free to play around and get many types of combinations going with all of these controls on board. On the left side of the modulation section are controls to adjust the fine tuning, glide rate, and adjust the octave settings.
It’s easy to get “lost” in a synth like this, and I mean that in a good way. I wasn’t even bothering to save many patches as I worked with it. The reason for this was that I found it was very easy to get the types of sounds I wanted. With all its knobs and buttons to change nearly anything I needed in a speedy manner, saving a patch was almost an after-thought. Speaking of patches, you can save them of course, and they have included 16 factory patches for you to check out. The buttons to navigate through the patches are along the left side of the synth. They are organized into four banks, with four patches for each of those banks. To save one of your own, you hold down one of the buttons in the “Bank” column, and while holding that button down, you just press the patch button that you want to store it to. After you hold down those two buttons for a couple seconds, both buttons will flash when it is stored. This overwrites whatever factory patch was there, but those patches can be reset to the defaults if needed.
Below the bank and patch buttons is the “Activate Panel” button. This will switch the Sub Phatty to what is called “Panel Mode”, and you use that if you want to make your own patches. Pressing the button again will put it back to the preset/patch mode.
Even though the Sub Phatty has many buttons and knobs covering its front panel, they is a large amount of features that are hidden away below the surface. One of these is its ability to change the slope/pole setting, like I had mentioned earlier in the review. To change to the other slope settings, you have to use what is called “Shift Mode”. To use it, you press/hold the fourth bank button and the Activate Panel button at the same time. When that Active Panel button starts blinking, you’re ready to make use of those additional features.
Once that button is blinking, holding down the bank-two and patch-one buttons enables the extra filter slope modes. To switch between them, you just play one of the four lowest keys on the keyboard. For instance, the lowest C key will change it to a one pole filter slope setting, C# is for the two pole, D is for the three pole, and D# changes it back to the four pole setting.
Some other tricks include adding a delay stage to the filter envelope and amplifier envelope. This delay will occur before the initial attack stage, which changes it into DADSR. They’ve even given it an additional “Hold” stage you can switch on, and that one occurs before the Decay stage, effectively giving you a DAHDSR envelope. This additional Hold stage will only work if you are in the “Filter Envelope Repeat” mode. It’s an awesome function allowing you to use a looping envelope. If the “Hold” stage has been enabled, and you press and hold down a key, the filter envelope will keep repeating instead of cycling through only once. This can be used on the filter cutoff, waveform, or the pitch. One way you can use it is to imitate a simple arpeggiator, so the note sounds like it is repeating over and over, instead of it just playing one note when you play the key.
Another feature I really like is the ability to adjust the beat frequency. You might ask: What is the beat frequency? What normally happens is that when you are using a slight detune amount between the two oscillators, this detuning can sound like a beating/pulsing effect as you play the keys. Lower pitched notes will “beat” at a lower speed, and higher pitches would have a quicker beating sound. This added hidden feature allows you to change that behavior, so that the tuning of the second oscillator follows along with oscillator one, and it will keep the beat’s speed consistent along the full range of the keyboard. The offset for this is adjustable by an amount of +/- 3.5 Hz.
Remember how I mentioned you can use the “Pitch Amt Osc 2 Only” button? One of the other hidden goodies is the ability to setup waveform modulation to oscillator one, two, or both. You just have to go into the Shift mode, and then press the Bank 2 and Patch2 buttons to enable this. They are many other hidden features tucked away, and the manual describes in detail how to get to those. Actually, the manual has at least 10 pages that are dedicated to all those other functions.
When saving preset on the Sub Phatty, you may end up running out of space before long. 16 slots for saving your creations is great, but it would be nice to have more. Even though it is easy to program your patches as you go, it is still advantageous to be able to save what you’ve been working on now and then. For instance, you might have been working on a certain a patch for 20-30 minutes, and then to only discover you don’t have any more spaces left to save it.
That’s one reason I am so glad that Moog decided to include a free editor/librarian for the synth. After registering the Sub Phatty on their website, you can then download and install it. The software works with PCs running Windows 7 or higher, and on Macs running OS X 10.6.8 or higher. There is a standalone version, and another version that works from within a DAW. It is compatible with VST, AU, RTAS, and AAX platforms. Besides letting you store your creations, they also have it loaded up with over 360 ready-to-use patches.
The hidden functions of the Sub Phatty are easily accessible from the editor. Even though those features aren’t too difficult to access using the methods I mentioned earlier in the review, I still prefer the editor. It is much easier, as you can easily use a virtual button or knob to get to the same results in a flash. Also, seeing nearly all of those hidden features on one screen makes patch creation much easier. Not having to memorize what does what to access a certain function is a big help. They are all spelled out in the manual, but my memory isn’t what it used to be. Flipping through the manual’s pages to remind myself how to get a function to work is just not as efficient as using the editor.
The librarian has an easy to use drag-and-drop display for the patches, letting you quickly organize them the way you want. Search functions are built-in, and you’re able to create your own categories for whichever type of preset/patch you may create. A sharing function is also within the editor/librarian, letting you upload to moogconnect.net so you can share your Sub Phatty creations with others. Another way to get at the patches is to right-click on a patch, click “Reveal”, and it will show you the directory it is located in. From there, you could email them as an attachment, or backup the patches to an external drive.
One important section of the Sub Phatty I wanted to mention before I wrap this up are the inputs/outputs along the left side of the synthesizer. There are four types of CV inputs located here, and they are for the pitch, filter, volume, and gate. They can take either a control voltage signal from some other analog device, or you could use an expression pedal to adjust pitch, filter cutoff, or control the volume level. The KB Gate input jack will trigger the envelopes if it receives a +5 volt signal.
The 5-pin MIDI jacks are here as well, and there’s a USB jack to connect it to your PC or Mac. Within this same section you’ll find the main audio output jack, and an audio input, which allows you to process external audio through the Sub Phatty.
This is one awesome synth with a good deal of features under the hood, and a great editor/librarian to top it off. The included manual is really top notch, and it teaches some basics of synthesis as well. It is a synth with a very solid build quality, and it really feels like it is made to last. It takes a slight turn from the classic Moog sound, even though it can get very close to those legendary sounds of yesterday. It would be nice if the keyboard had a few more keys, but I have no problem with that. I use a 49-key MIDI keyboard with my synth plugin collection that’s on my PC, and I can easily use it to trigger the Sub Phatty as well. If I could get anything added to the Sub Phatty, I’d wish for one more LFO, and the ability to use aftertouch would be nice.
After this model was released, they eventually released the Sub 37 which has additional functions, more keys, and less “hidden” features were tucked away when compared to the Sub Phatty. All those extras will cost you however, as it is also more expensive. The Sub Phatty retails on the Moog site for $979 USD, but if you shop around, it can be found for around $899 USD. At the time I was writing this review, it was on sale for $719 USD. In comparison, a Sub 37 retails for $1,579 USD.
If you are looking to buy into the legendary Moog sound, this is definitely worth your while. It’s really fun to play and design patches with this beast. I really can’t get enough of this one, and highly recommend it. There are sound examples and more information located on the Moog website here: http://www.moogmusic.com/products/phattys/sub-phatty