The Polymoog

While early synthesizers enabled musicians to manipulate the elements of sound in radically new ways, they could generally only produce one sound at a time. In the early 1970s, Moog Music made a concerted effort to overcome this monophonic limitation. The first was the Constellation, an elaborate combination of three synthesizers (the Lyra and Apollo keyboards and the Taurus pedalboard) arrayed in an organ-like disposition. While each of these synthesizers made it to at least the prototype stage (the Taurus became popular with guitarists, while the Lyra and Apollo fell into the eager hands of Keith Emerson), the project was abandoned owing to its complexity and cost. But the goal of producing a commercially viable polyphonic synthesizer was eventually met by the Polymoog 203a, a successor to the Apollo that went on sale in 1975 after Moog Music had expended no less than $500,000 on its development.

Much of this outlay went on the Polycom, a custom-designed integrated circuit chip. Each Polymoog contained 71 Polycom chips, one for each of its touch-sensitive keys, which enabled musicians to synthesize complex chords with ease. The instrument’s capacities for live performance were further enhanced by the presence of a ribbon controller and a sophisticated pedal attachment.

The compromises entailed by polyphony led to drawbacks: the sounds produced by individual notes lacked the idiosyncratic qualities of previous Moog-designed synthesizers. In some ways, however, these shortcomings increased the Polymoog’s appeal to musicians in search of a playable and accessible instrument. This was particularly evident in the case of the less flexible but more affordable Polymoog 280a, a cut-down 203a that restricted the user to fourteen presets, which included the “vox humana” prominently featured on Gary Numan’s hit single “Cars” (1979). The “vox humana” preset reflects the interests of the Polymoog’s primary designer David Luce, who brought his experience as a researcher into acoustics and formant filtering to bear on the instrument.

Unfortunately, the complexity of the Polymoog’s design led to myriad issues during its production and problems with reliability once it entered the marketplace. That notwithstanding, the Polymoog’s iconic sounds were deployed by a broad range of musicians including Chick Corea, Blondie, Prince, Kraftwerk, and Herbie Hancock, testifying to its versatility as well as its popularity.

Moog Music, Inc. Polymoog Model 203A. Design schematics and build instructions.  Norlin, 1975-76. (6 images)

Moog Music, Inc. Advertising Sheet for Moog Accessories. Norlin, 1978. (2 images)
This promotional piece outlines multiple accessories offered for sale, such as the Moog Percussion Controller and Ribbon Controller.

Moog Music. Polymoog Synthesizer Spec Sheet and Price List. Norlin, 1978. (1 image)

Moog Music, Inc. Advertising Sheet for Polymoog Synthesizer. Norlin, 1978. (1 image)

Photograph. Gary Numan, as featured in the video for his hit song “Cars,” 1979. (1 image)

Moog Music Rises Again

After leaving R.A. Moog in 1977 and setting up Big Briar, Bob returned to his initial idea of modular synthesis, but in a new form. Thanks to technological advancements, the functions of each module could now be housed within small boxes suitable for use by guitarists and other instrumentalists. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Big Briar produced four analogue effects processors as well as a control unit that effectively constituted a miniaturized Modular Synthesizer.

During the same period, Bob also worked on an updated version of the Minimoog that featured a touch pad controller, MIDI connectivity, and patch storage. This instrument was released as the Minimoog Voyager in 2002, soon after Big Briar became Moog Music.

Big Briar, Inc. Moogerfooger Low-Pass Filter. Prototype, ca. 1998. (2 images)
Designed by Bob, the MF-101 Low-Pass Filter comprised two modular functions: a Moog “Ladder” filter section for sculpting unique tones and an envelope follower that allowed the filter to be dynamically “played” via the dynamics of each sound. This model was among the series of Moog analog effects units that were finally retired from production in 2018.

Moog Music, Inc. Prototype casing, ca. 2001. (1 image)
This prototype was for a machine that never went into production, likely fabricated around the time that Bob had begun work on the 2002 redesign of the Minimoog Voyager, a successor to the classic portable Minimoog he had created in 1970.

Polymoog 203a. (2 images)
On loan from the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards.

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