Moog Mother-32 part 2: Selection criteria

So why the Mother-32?

There are lots of synthesizers on the market, and while there have been some great things happening in FM synthesis, digital synthesis, and other variants of synthesizer technology, my first love and best is what Moog and ARP and so on were doing in my youth: analog subtractive synthesizers.

Analog synthesizers come in three varieties: Modular, semi-modular, and preset. In a modular the various components — such as a voltage controlled oscillator (VCO), voltage controlled filter (VCF), voltage controlled amplifier (VCA), envelope generator (EG), low frequency oscillator (LFO), and so on — are literally that, individual modules that are mounted into a rack and connected to one another via patch cords plugged into patch points on the modules’ front panels. The original Moog synthesizers made famous by Wendy Carlos and Keith Emerson were modulars.

Somewhat less flexible (in that you can’t pick and choose what modules to include in a system) are the semi-modulars; in these the VCOs, VCFs, and so on are all connected to a single front panel (and are probably on the same circuit board), with normal connections between them behind the panel, but there are patch points provided on the panel that allow you to use patch cords to override the default connections.

Preset synths have no patch points. The connections between components are fixed; you can switch connections on and off, and there are still knobs you can turn, but the basic configuration is immutable.

Modulars are powerful, flexible beasts but tend to be large, expensive, and harder to use. Presets are easier to use but far more limited in what you can do with them. Semi-modulars are a compromise, more capable than presets but easier and cheaper than modulars. The ARP 2600 I started on was a (big) semi-modular, and while I wouldn’t have turned down a modular if someone had given it to me, when it came to spending my own money I was definitely in the (smaller) semi-modular market.

I did my homework. I googled and found four recent lists (1, 2, 3, 4) of “best semi-modular synths” and compiled them into a master list of 18 synthesizers with current prices ranging from $300 to $2100; the median price was $615. Mind you, I did all that after ordering the Mother-32. Okay, so I did things backwards. At least the Mother-32 was on two of those lists, and referred to favorably on a third, while the fourth list is “5 of the Best New Semi-Modular Synths” and the Mother-32 was probably too old to qualify. (It was released in 2015.)

[Here is the combined list, if you’re curious: Analogue Solutions Fusebox, Arturia MiniBrute 2/2S, Behringer Neutron, Dreadbox NYX, Korg MS-20 mini, Make Noise 0-Coast, Make Noise System Cartesian, MFB Dominion 1, Moog DFAM, Moog Grandmother, Moog Mother-32, Pittsburgh Modular LifeForms SV-1 Blackbox, Pittsburgh Modular Microvolt 3900, Plankton Ants!, Radikal Technologies Delta CEP A, Roland System-1m, Sonicsmith Squaver P1, and Studio Electronics Tonestar 2600.]

Looking at those lists I’m pretty sure I would’ve ended up with the Mother-32 even if I’d considered all the ones they mentioned. On paper, it doesn’t have the bang for the buck some of the others do. There’s only one VCO, one (dual  mode) VCF, one VCA, one AR EG (with switchable sustain). But I liked it best.

I did look at the Korg MS-20 Mini which has two each VCOs, EGs, VCFs (one low pass, one high)… but I’ve seen some complaints about build quality and  noise. No such complaints about the Mother-32.

Reviews seem pretty positive, too, for the Behringer Model D, which is a downsized, keyboardless clone of the legendary Minimoog at about a tenth the cost of Moog’s recent reissue. Gotta admit it looks pretty sweet for the price, even though it didn’t make any of the above lists. Though it’s pretty small. Watching a video of someone using one, I’m struck by how it looks like they’re trying to manipulate something that’s really just too cramped to be used the way you’d want to. The Mother-32 is even smaller, but has fewer knobs — which isn’t really a positive thing, except it means those knobs can be and are larger than most of the Model D’s. The Behringer also doesn’t have a lot of patch points (neither did the Minimoog).

The Behringer Neutron did make two of the lists, and is arguably more like the Mother-32 than any of the others — I’m sure the resemblance is deliberate — but with more patch points, two VCOs, two (single mode) VCFs, two ADSR EGs, a delay… and half the price! That’s a lot going for it. Though I’m not nuts about the panel design, which doesn’t seem to indicate what the normal connections are. What do those ADSRs control, for instance? I can’t see anything that shows it.

Two things the Mother-32 has that the Neutron doesn’t. One is a really nice built in sequencer. It stores up to 32 steps per sequence and up to 64 sequences. You can vary gate width, accent, and portamento on each step; you can make a step a rest too. It’s pretty sweet.

The other thing the Neutron lacks is the Moog logo. So yeah, you’re paying for the name. But I figure you’re also paying for the reputation behind that name. Sometimes a reputed brand name gets bought up and slapped onto inferior products, but that’s not the case here. Moog’s always been known for great designs and high quality. Behringer doesn’t have that going for it. Maybe their synths are high quality and beautifully designed, but I’m a lot more confident Moog’s are.

And, look, call me stupid if you like, but even aside from that confidence, the Moog name is something I’m willing to pay something for. To buy not just a synthesizer, but a Moog synthesizer. I’ve worshiped Moog from afar for decades; can you really blame me for wanting a piece of that name?

Another Moog is the more recent Grandmother, which didn’t do much for me at first glance, but on closer inspection seems pretty darn interesting. Despite the related (ha ha ha) names the Mother-32 and Grandmother really are very different products, each with its own strengths. One of the Mother-32’s is a significantly lower price point, which was persuasive to me.

If I’d looked at the aforementioned lists earlier, I might’ve given more thought to the Arturia MiniBrute 2 or 2s — the latter a variant of the former, without a keyboard and with a sequencer. The Minibrutes appeared on all four lists! But I think the Moog would have won that staring contest too.

One other nice thing about the Mother-32 is Eurorack compatibility. (Apparently also true of the Neutron.) You can take it out of the case, put it into a Eurorack enclosure, and use it with other Eurorack modules. Or you can buy a Moog 2- or 3-tier stand and enclosure and some Eurorack modules and make it the core of a modular system that way. Then again you can fill up a 3-tier rack with Mother-32s, patch them together, and go to town. Am I likely to do any of these? Of course not. The fact that I now have an account at modulargrid.net where I have a design called “I will never make this Eurorack” proves it,  right? But I like having those possibilities.

And one final consideration: The Mother-32 was on sale at $100 off Thanksgiving weekend. (Hey, that’s $100 I can use toward a EurorNO.)

I can imagine instead buying a Neutron in a parallel universe, or a MiniBrute, or perhaps some other semi-modular, and being happy with it. They look pretty nice. I don’t expect I’ll regret the Mother-32 in this universe, though.

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