Sunday, 17 February 2019

Behringer Model D: It's Pronounced "Moog"

Let's have a look at the Behringer Model D, a three-oscillator monosynth released way back in 2018 by Behringer. It's called the Model D and it was released in 2018. By Behringer. In 2018. Model D.

It's a budget-priced clone of the Moog MiniMoog, housed in a miniature rackmountable desktop case. On a sonic level it's apparently the spitting image of the original, but it sells for less than three hundred English pounds, which is excellent value given that vintage MiniMoogs sell for £2,000+, or £3,000+ for one of the limited-run reissues that Moog put out a few years ago.

The Model D's build quality is nowhere near the standard of the original MiniMoog - in forty years I doubt that my Model D will look as good as a forty-year-old MiniMoog - but if you have an otherwise virtual-only music setup it makes for a cheap way of adding analogue sounds to your music.

The MiniMoog had three tuneful oscillators plus a meaty filter. The Model D adds a high-pass filter and a dedicated LFO that can modulate the filter, oscillators, or both. It retains the MiniMoog's odd ADS envelopes, with the decay stage also used as the release.

Have you ever read about mother sauces? In French cuisine there are five basic sauces from which all other sauces are derived. Mother sauces are a bit like the basic moves that Mr Miyagi teaches Daniel-Son in The Karate Kid when he's washing his car. The MiniMoog's twangy bass, wobbly lead, and soaring portamento-ed solo sounds are among the mother sauces of synthesiser music. There's nothing complicated about the MiniMoog's synthesiser engine, but it can produce a range of timeless sounds.

Here's a tune that uses both synths, with the Model D making a bouncy rhythm sound, the Odyssey making a grinding pad, and there's a bassy pad from Logic in the background as well.

In the last post I had a look at the Korg ARP Odyssey, a reissue / homage / clone of the 1970s ARP Odyssey synthesiser. The Korg ARP and the Behringer Model D are conceptually very similar. They're reasonably-priced modern analogue synths with analogue components and CV/Gate interfaces, updated with USB and MIDI as well. They don't have patch memories, which means that if you want to recreate a sound you have to memorise the front panel.

The Odyssey has the more complex synth engine. It has oscillator sync, pulse width modulation, sample and hold, ring modulation and duophony, but the Model D has an extra oscillator - three instead of two, with a separate LFO - and a smoother filter. The envelopes are noticeably faster as well. With all the envelope controls zeroed the Odyssey still makes a WUB sound whereas the Model D makes a sharp CLICK. The difference is only a few microseconds but it's noticeable.

Of all the omissions the lack of pulse width modulation is the one I miss most. The Model D has three selectable pulse waves at different duty cycles, but it's not the same. In particular you can't make the classic SH-101 pulse-width bass noise with a Model D.

But again in its favour the Model D's filter is nice. Even a single-oscillator patch run through the filter sounds warm, whereas the Odyssey is relatively harsh and thin in comparison. The Model D also takes up less space than  the Odyssey. The outputs are unbalanced, but it uses standard quarter-inch and 3.5mm jacks instead of the Odyssey's XLR connector. It also has a bunch of 3.5mm jacks that let you connect external modulation sources, and I admit I haven't tried this yet.

The Model D has a DCO that generates an A440 sine wave. I find that I have to tune it, play for about five minutes, then tune it again. In this video I play the sine wave for just over three minutes, at which point I started to lose my mind.

On a historical level the MiniMoog and Odyssey were arch rivals back in the 1970s, at least on a commercial level. Some bands used both. The MiniMoog was launched first, in 1971, with the Odyssey coming out a year later. Until that point most portable synthesisers had been aimed at the avant-garde; the likes of the EMS VCS3 and Buchla 100/200 were keyboardless boxes intended for musicians who wanted to make whoosh-zap-thrummb-schwozzzssshh noises. The MiniMoog and Odyssey were capable of a wide range of unusual sounds as well but they were, at heart, built for rock keyboardists who wanted to make killer bass sounds and screaming lead noises in a live setting.

The Model D has 3.5mm headphone and audio jacks on the front panel. Around the back it has a pair of 1/4" unbalanced mono jacks plus some DIP switches that set the MIDI channel, just like the Korg ARP Odyssey. Also like the Odyssey it uses an external PSU.

If Google Books is playing nicely there should now be an article from the January 1974 issue of Popular Mechanics that talks about low-cost synthesisers. EDIT: No, it doesn't work. I learn from the article that in 1974 a MiniMoog cost $1495 versus $1295 for an ARP Odyssey. That was a lot of money at the time, which is why so many classic synthesiser records from the 1970s didn't have much synthesiser on them; Tubular Bells was all acoustic, Tangerine Dream's early records were dominated by organs and echo boxes, and even electronic giants such as Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre relied on ARP string ensembles, Mellotrons, and Mellotron-esque optical playback devices to flesh out their sound.

This is a cover I made of "Mdrmx", from Brothomstates' 2001 album Claro. The drums are samples but everything else is made with a Model D, plus effects. There are only four patches; the bass, a high strings patch, a lead, and another lead.

I learn from Popular Mechanics that "Stevie Wonder's latest two albums are exemplary for their subtle and brilliant use of synthesisers". The writer would have been talking about Innervisions and Talking Book, which were indeed exemplary for their etc. Wonder used a synthesiser called TONTO, a custom-made monster originally based on a Moog Modular, later expanded with parts from Oberheim and ARP.

Although the Odyssey and MiniMoog were both very popular in the 1970s there's a surprising dearth of good albums from the period that feature them prominently. The top early synth acts had access to modular and semi-modular synthesisers. Oxygene, Phaedra, Music for Airports, Snowflakes are Dancing, Switched-On Bach, Opéra Sauvage etc were all recorded with modular equipment, or very posh semi-modular keyboards.

The biggest exception was Kraftwerk, who used the MiniMoog and Odyssey on most of their classic 1970s records, notably all the way throughout "Autobahn". At the end of the decade the two synths became available on the used market, at which point they had a second wind in the hands of Ultravox and the Ultravox extended family, which included John Foxx solo and Visage, plus Gary Numan, who gravitated to the MiniMoog because it sounded awesome when put through a guitar effects pedal.

This is "Tar" by Visage, which starts with a distinctive ARP Odyssey sound and has Odyssey all throughout it.

For the most part however the synth pop new wave opted for more modern equipment such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX, and for much of the 1980s and early 1990s the MiniMoog and Odyssey fell out of fashion. They've never been cheap but during the heyday of the DX7 and latterly samplers very few people wanted them; when rave and ambient took off in the late 1980s, early 1990s the demand was mostly for old Roland gear, which might explain why it took so long for clones of the MiniMoog and Odyssey to come out.

If you want a MiniMoog nowadays Moog Music sells an official MiniMoog recreation for iOS, for only twenty pounds. Is it any good? I have no idea. It's probably not much fun unless you have a control surface with lots of knobs. A few years ago Moog reissued the Model D, but it was very expensive and only remained in production for a year. There are no modern hardware equivalents at the low price of the Model D.

Moog Music Inc sells a tablet version of the Model D specifically for iOS for around £9.99. It's not available as a VST. Sonically it sounds just like the Behringer Model D albeit with more stable tuning. It adds four-voice polyphony and an arpeggiator plus a couple of effects It's not a great performance instrument on a tiny screen though.

There's a lot to be said for cheap gear. Entire musical genres have been built on the availability of cheap musical instruments. It remains to be seen whether the Model D will spark off a resurgence in keyboard-heavy progressive rock, but time will tell.

The CONTROLLERS section of the panel is the biggest departure from the MiniMoog. The Mod Depth knob essentially duplicates the MiniMoog's mod wheel. The rest of the options are new to the Model D.

Anything else? It has MIDI IN and OUT, but as with the Odyssey it only responds to note on, note off, and pitch bend (plus modulation; that's one thing it has over the Odyssey). It's also a class-compliant USB device although when I connect it with USB I get a lot of USB noise; this is a general problem with USB that can apparently be ameliorated with a powered USB hub. It can be set to high, low, or last-note priority by toggling the A440 switch after switching it on. The motherboard has tuning calibration pots in case it drifts completely out of tune.

The unit can be rackmounted, but this requires disassembly; the box includes the appropriate cables, but not the rackmount ears. There is a small pop-up market of wooden cases that will house a Model D plus a small MIDI keyboard, creating a kind of ersatz MiniMoog.

I've often wondered about Miley Cyrus. A few years back she went mad and totally overhauled her image. She did an album with The Flaming Lips. Did anything come of it? Did she break through and create something incredible, or was it all for nothing? Was it a sincere attempt at artistic rebirth or just a phase? The musical development of Miley Cyrus haunts me albeit not enough to listen to any of her music.

This photo has nothing to do with the Model D, but I thought I'd share it. It's one of the mountains that surrounds Lake Como.

The knobs and switches, I'm talking about the Model D again, are mounted on the motherboard and merely poke through holes in the front panel, which probably isn't great for longevity. In particular I find that the MIDI connector wobbles, which is why in all the photographs above I've left the MIDI cable in place.

As mentioned above tuning is sometimes awkward. The master tune operates on all three oscillators at once, and oscillators two and three have their own tuning controls; you essentially have to tune oscillator one, and then the other two, but the knobs are close together, they have a lot of travel, and it's easy to accidentally nudge them when switching octaves or waveforms. It helps if you have dainty fingers. Sadly I do not, and with that thought I will leave you.