The Geto Boys may have sung, “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.” But if they'd substituted their rolled-up fatties for this Little Phatty, they'd probably sing, “Damn, it feels good to play a Moog.” See, Moog Music's limited-run Little Phatty Tribute Edition may or may not be the most innovative monophonic analog synth of late (Dave Smith's Evolver Keyboard would be in the running for that claim), but it does cash in on Moog's trademark beefy analog sound and smooth operation, as well as an efficient and intuitive new programming interface, all of which make the Little Phatty a joy to play. Although the last instrument that Dr. Bob Moog ever designed succeeds in being a Minimoog for the rest of us — a true analog Moog synth within the reach of the more modestly funded — if the price is still too lofty, it should be followed by a less visually striking Little Phatty edition for a lower price, once the 1,200-unit Tribute Edition sells out. Distinguishing features of the Tribute Edition include wood side panels, Bob Moog signatures and a Bob Moog CD-ROM and poster.
THE FIRST LAYER
Little Phatty's signal path is 100-percent analog, including two syncable VCOs, a genuine Moog 24 dB/octave lowpass filter and two 4-stage analog envelope generators. The synth also uses Moog's proprietary Real Analog Control (RAC) system, which means that the controls send analog signals, and there is no digital processing. This makes the sound of shifting parameters such as the filter cutoff or the oscillator waveform literally as smooth as possible. Same goes for gliding between consecutive notes, which is controlled with Glide On/Off and Glide Rate buttons. A modulation system offers six mod sources — Oscillator 2, the filter envelope or one of the waveforms (triangle, square, sawtooth, ramp) of the lone LFO — and four destinations — pitch, Oscillator 2, filter and the waveform.
The waveform can be modulated because one of the cool features of the Little Phatty is that the oscillator waveforms are continuously variable from — in order — triangle, to sawtooth, to square, to rectangular. So, while the Little Phatty does not have dedicated pulse width modulation (PWM) — a classic analog synth feature that is missed here — you can create some PWM by modulating the waveform and limiting the modulation between the square and rectangular waves.
The 100 Little Phatty presets come factory programmed with a wide range of recognizable Moog sounds: thick, powerful basses; stinging leads; thin, character-driven tones; gurgling, slow-evolving sounds; some percussive and special effect sounds; and more. You may edit each of the sounds and overwrite the preset, either with the same name or with a new name, or save a sound to any other preset slot. Some dedicated user slots would be nice to save sounds in, but you could always save sounds as a MIDI bulk dump and restore the factory presets. As a way to organize desired sounds, the Little Phatty has four Performance Sets, which are groups of eight presets each that you place in a particular order through the menu. While playing, you can cycle through the presets in order by pressing the Value button encoder.
Although Little Phatty has only four sound-shaping knobs, creating sounds quickly is easier than you may think, due to an ingenious editing system. One knob corresponds to each of the four synth sections: Modulation, Oscillators, Filter and Envelope Generators. The knobs control whatever parameter is currently selected in each section and are surrounded by a ring of 15 LEDs that light up to show the value of the current parameter. Rubber backlit buttons accompany each parameter, so you know which one is selected by the blue backlight. (Not to mention that when you cycle quickly through the presets by twisting the Value button encoder, you get a cool light show of cascading parameters.) In addition, some of the buttons glow pink to indicate a third state. For example, the Octave Down/Up buttons will not be lit when there is no transposition, and they'll be blue for one octave and pink for two octaves.
These controls feel nice and are incredibly responsive. In addition to the knobs and buttons, a few switches cycle between synth options. For example, in the LFO section, switches cycle through to select the source and destination options, and a blue LED indicates the chosen option.
The Oscillators section also has two of these switches to choose from among the 16', 8', 4' and 2' octave options for both oscillators. The oscillators also have Wave and Level parameter buttons. And Oscillator 2 has a frequency parameter for adjusting its pitch ±7 semitones (a fifth) in relation to Oscillator 1. This section also includes buttons for Glide Rate and 1-2 Sync, the latter of which is a simple on/off button for oscillator syncing.
Filter-section parameters include cutoff, resonance, keyboard amount, envelope amount and overload. Keyboard amount, if set to 100 percent, will lift the filter cutoff frequency proportionally to the note played, meaning that if you play one note and then another note one octave higher, the filter cutoff raises by an octave, too. By lowering the keyboard amount value, the cutoff frequency varies less and less. So, if it's set to 0, the cutoff stays constant, and playing higher notes eventually leads to no sound at all. Envelope amount determines how much the filter envelope will affect the filter cutoff. This bi-polar parameter can either lift (knob to the right) or lower (knob to the left) the cutoff frequency. Finally, filter overload controls the amount of signal clipping allowed and is dependent on the oscillator and filter cutoff/resonance settings. This is a great-sounding function but should not be confused with distortion. Depending on your finesse, it can be used to apply some subtle warmth, a nice edge or a hard, buzzing bite to sounds.
The Envelope Generators section is very straightforward. It includes four buttons for both the amp and filter envelopes, corresponding to the stages of the traditional attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelopes.
This editing system takes little time at all to fall into a rhythm. The LEDs are essential to creating a robust tactile sound-editing interface that could never have been so efficient with so few hardware controls back in the heyday of now-vintage analog synths. Of course, the obvious drawback is not being able to simultaneously adjust two parameters in a section, which can be quite useful when flipping both the filter cutoff and resonance or both the LFO rate and amount.
MORE ON THE MENU
Once you alter a sound from its original preset, the Preset button in the left-hand editing section changes color. You can toggle back and forth between the original and edited sound by pressing the Preset button, which is very handy. However, changing presets without saving will erase the edited sound. To save and overwrite the original preset, you just need to press the Store/Enter button twice. Moving the preset location and changing the name involves some fairly self-explanatory use of the Cursor button and Value encoder for running through the alphabet.
Like editing sounds, navigating the Little Phatty's menus is anything but a burden. It's not a very deep menu system but instead is separated into some very useful global functions; basic system utilities (including “all notes off,” aka the Panic button); and SysEx functions such as sending and receiving presets, all data and firmware.
Besides the aforementioned Performance Sets, the most useful menu items include setting the keyboard priority and trigger mode. When more than one note is pressed, keyboard priority determines whether to sound the low note, high note or last note, and the trigger mode determines whether the envelopes restart each time a note is triggered or envelopes restart only after a key is fully released. Also in the menus, you can set the filter to 1-4 poles (6, 12, 18 or 24 dB/octave), set velocity sensitivity for the filter cutoff, set the pitch bend amount from 0-12 semitones, set the MIDI channel and more.
On the left-side panel, Little Phatty's connection plate serves up some nice extras, as well as the MIDI I/O and unbalanced, line-level ¼-inch output. There are also four control input jacks. One is a keyboard gate that accepts a standard footswitch for gating. The control voltage Pitch, Filter and Volume inputs are expression pedal jacks.
Best of all is the ¼-inch mono external audio input. This routes an audio source through the Little Phatty filter and sends it to the output. The keyboard triggers the audio input and mixes it with the VCOs, so if you want to only output the filtered audio input, turn both oscillators' levels all the way down. This trick is commonly used to beef up and warm up tracks through the renowned Moog filter. The Little Phatty does not control the level of the audio input, and in fact is designed to distort the input as its level gets high, which can be a great thing if used wisely.
With its Performance Sets, pedal inputs, manageable size (22 pounds, 26.8-by-14.8-by-6.8 inches) and wonderful feel of its synth-action keyboard and pitch and mod wheels, the Little Phatty seems destined for many live performances. Its classic Moog sound of course will be the pride of many studios as well. Its limitations in sound-design capability were necessary to keep the cost where the late Dr. Moog wanted it — at less than half that of a Minimoog Voyager keyboard.
I can point to many things I like about the Little Phatty, as well as many more things I'd still like in the Little Phatty — a third VCO, more LFOs, more modulation destinations such as filter resonance, the ability to attach currently global settings such as note-trigger mode to individual presets, etc. However, it was always a given that Little Phatty would not and could not be the ultimate Moog. The question is, with all the muscle that was trimmed from the Minimoog, is the fat that's left still fat enough for you? With the prices that desirable vintage analog synths fetch these days on Ebay, the Little Phatty seems like a deal, especially because those old beasts aren't going to have modern, stable oscillators; a modern operating system with 100 presets; or a warranty (and maybe no one to service them at all).
LITTLE PHATTY > $1,475
Pros: 100 factory presets — all user editable and savable. Famous Moog 24 dB lowpass filter and trademark Moog sound. Audio input. MIDI I/O. Ultra-stable oscillators stay in tune. Great feel to the keyboard and controls.
Cons: Lack of certain features, such as dedicated pulse width modulation. Only one LFO. Limited modulation options.