Paul Vo Collector’s Edition Moog Guitar Prototype

November 1, 2008

Electric guitarists have attempted to get more sustain out of their instruments almost from the very beginning. First, they simply cranked up their amps and used tube distortion and feedback to produce notes that sang more like a violin than an acoustic guitar. Then came distortion and compression pedals, followed by an array of mechanical and magnetic devices. By 1975, there were the Gizmotron, which physically “bowed” the strings with motorized wheels, and the Ebow, which sustained notes on a single string electromagnetically. A few years later came the Roland GR-500—a pre- MIDI guitar synthesizer that also employed a magnetic device to increase sustain—followed in the mid ‘80s by the Maniac Music Sustainiac and the Fernandes Sustainer, both of which provided unlimited sustain on all strings.

Given all of these historical precedents, the concept of a guitar with infinite sustain is hardly new—but Moog’s Paul Vo has developed a radically different technology that elevates that concept to a previously unheard of level, and combines it with other significant features that put the Moog Guitar in a category all its own. Remove the rear panel, and you’ll find about 3,000 individual components on a state-of-theart, six-layer printed circuit board—all of it glorious analog technology. “While sustain is the most obvious thing that the Moog Guitar does, it is not an outgrowth of any previous ‘sustainer’ technology, but rather a vibration control system,” explains Vo. “If the Sustainer is a flashlight, the Moog Guitar is a laser.” Naturally, a project of this magnitude required lengthy R&D, and I was fortunate enough to have seen and played several prototypes as the process moved forward. Here, we look at one of eight pre-production prototypes, which, while a little rough around the edges, provides a candid glimpse into a product that is nearly ready for prime time. (Look for a follow-up review of a production model once one becomes available.)

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The Moog Guitar operates in three modes: Full Sustain mode energizes all the strings equally, Mute mode sucks the energy out of the strings (resulting in a banjo- or koto-like attack and quick decay), and Controlled Sustain mode energizes only the notes being played while muting everything else. You switch modes using a 3-position Mode Selector, and dial in the intensity of the sustaining and muting functions with the Vo Power control. There’s also a Harmonic Balance control, which shifts the Vo Power between neck and bridge pickups, for differing harmonic emphasis.

In addition to the two Moog pickups, there’s a piezo pickup mounted in the bridge that may be combined with them using the Piezo Blend control, or used independently. A 5-position pickup selector lets you choose neck pickup, bridge pickup, neck and bridge pickups out of phase, neck and bridge pickups in phase, or piezo pickup only. Audio from the Moog

HEAR THE WORDS “MOOG GUITAR” AND THE FIRST image to spring to mind will likely be a guitar capable of producing the same great synthesizer sounds as the company’s legendary keyboards. While that would be a beautiful thing, the Moog Guitar is not a guitar synthesizer, or even a synth controller, and it has nothing to do with MIDI, modeling, sampling, or other familiar technologies. Instead, it is an instrument that embodies a new approach to expanding the capabilities of the electric guitar itself—particularly its ability to sustain notes.

Electric guitarists have attempted to get more sustain out of their instruments almost from the very beginning. First, they simply cranked up their amps and used tube distortion and feedback to produce notes that sang more like a violin than an acoustic guitar. Then came distortion and compression pedals, followed by an array of mechanical and magnetic devices. By 1975, there were the Gizmotron, which physically “bowed” the strings with motorized wheels, and the Ebow, which sustained notes on a single string electromagnetically. A few years later came the Roland GR-500—a pre- MIDI guitar synthesizer that also employed a magnetic device to increase sustain—followed in the mid ‘80s by the Maniac Music Sustainiac and the Fernandes Sustainer, both of which provided unlimited sustain on all strings.

Given all of these historical precedents, the concept of a guitar with infinite sustain is hardly new—but Moog’s Paul Vo has developed a radically different technology that elevates that concept to a previously unheard of level, and combines it with other significant features that put the Moog Guitar in a category all its own. Remove the rear panel, and you’ll find about 3,000 individual components on a state-of-theart, six-layer printed circuit board—all of it glorious analog technology. “While sustain is the most obvious thing that the Moog Guitar does, it is not an outgrowth of any previous ‘sustainer’ technology, but rather a vibration control system,” explains Vo. “If the Sustainer is a flashlight, the Moog Guitar is a laser.” Naturally, a project of this magnitude required lengthy R&D, and I was fortunate enough to have seen and played several prototypes as the process moved forward. Here, we look at one of eight pre-production prototypes, which, while a little rough around the edges, provides a candid glimpse into a product that is nearly ready for prime time. (Look for a follow-up review of a production model once one becomes available.)

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The Moog Guitar operates in three modes: Full Sustain mode energizes all the strings equally, Mute mode sucks the energy out of the strings (resulting in a banjo- or koto-like attack and quick decay), and Controlled Sustain mode energizes only the notes being played while muting everything else. You switch modes using a 3-position Mode Selector, and dial in the intensity of the sustaining and muting functions with the Vo Power control. There’s also a Harmonic Balance control, which shifts the Vo Power between neck and bridge pickups, for differing harmonic emphasis.

In addition to the two Moog pickups, there’s a piezo pickup mounted in the bridge that may be combined with them using the Piezo Blend control, or used independently. A 5-position pickup selector lets you choose neck pickup, bridge pickup, neck and bridge pickups out of phase, neck and bridge pickups in phase, or piezo pickup only. Audio from the Moog Guitar is routed to the Moog Foot-Pedal Controller—which also serves as the power supply and audio interface—using a multipin connector. For convenience, however, there’s a standard 1/4" guitar output for the piezo, in case you want to, say, tune-up or play backstage independently of the power supply (plugging a guitar cable into the jack activates an onboard 9-volt battery).

The Moog Guitar also sports a classic Moog filter, which behaves differently depending on which of its three operating modes is selected and the setting of the Tone/Filter control. In Standard mode, the Tone/Filter control functions much like a regular guitar tone control. In Normal Moog Filter mode, the Foot-Pedal Controller sweeps the filter frequency like a sort of superwah, whereas in Articulated Moog Filter mode, playing dynamics trigger the filter auto-wah-style. In both cases the Tone/Filter control adjusts the filter resonance.

While technologies such as the Sustainiac and the Sustainer can affect all six strings simultaneously, in practice it is difficult to sound more than two or three at once, as the strings with the strongest fundamental tones will tend to dominate. With the Moog Guitar, you can have up to six strings sounding simultaneously at more or less equal volume, in much the same way you can with a polyphonic guitar synth. Another significant difference is being able to vary the amount of intensity with the Vo Power control. Rather than having the effect be either on or off at a fixed level of intensity, as with the other devices, you can dial in differing amounts of sustain (or muting) that range from very subtle to relatively intense. And finally, Controlled Sustain mode solves the problem of having to physically mute all of the strings you aren’t playing to keep them from sounding, which can be a significant limitation with other devices.

To further enhance the Vo Power effects, Moog has devised special strings. “People like the sound of nickel strings on their existing guitars, but on the Moog Guitar nickel doesn’t sound as good or work as well for vibration control,” says Vo. “That’s why we have our own string formulation, though only the wound strings are different. Any brand of unwound string should work just fine.”

GUITAR TOO?

One of the prime directives when developing the Moog Guitar was to make it capable of doing the Moog thing, while also sounding good in straight guitar mode, and that meant creating pickups that could do double duty—a Herculean task that had never even been attempted previously. Why should that be so challenging? Because as every electric guitarist knows, having your pickups set too close to the strings can cause unwanted distortion and tonal anomalies if the signal is too hot, and the increased magnetic pull can even affect tuning. It follows that when designing pickups that generate intense positive (sustain) and negative (mute) magnetic fields around the strings, it will be difficult to coax conventional guitar sounds out of them.

“Creating a pickup that both listens to the strings and controls their vibration was a huge challenge,” explains Vo. “You are going to end up with a unique sound that is similar to—but not exactly the same as—a conventional pickup sound, because the shape of the pickup is different and the underlying physics are different. It’s still electromagnetism, but our pickup receives the signal from the string in a slightly different way.”

The Moog Guitar’s pickups do have their own personalities, and while they sound quite good, the tones differ somewhat from those you’d get from, for example, a Les Paul or Stratocaster. The Moog pickups tend to sound a little more like single-coils than humbuckers, but with less mid-frequency focus and high-frequency transparency than provided by the best single-coils.

GUITAR PART

Zion Guitar Technology in Raleigh, North Carolina, is responsible for the guitar part of the Paul Vo Collector’s Edition Moog Guitar, and the prototype instrument was expertly crafted with meticulous attention to detail all around. The set neck was pleasingly chunky with a comfortable and smooth feel, and the frets were beautifully placed and dressed. Because the guitar had originally been set up with lighter strings, stringing it with the beefy .011-.052-gauged custom set resulted in some buzzing, but that won’t be an issue on the production model. I also had difficulty removing the custom strings due to the rubber bushings around their bases, but the rubber has since been replaced with silk windings—part of the trial-and-error R&D process.

The piezo pickup sounded quite good— with less harshness and brittleness than most—and when blended with the other pickups it added a more finely articulated attack and a high-end sheen to the tones. Because the piezo is mounted in a tremolo bridge, it amplifies the bridge’s mechanical noises when you’re really rocking the bar, but Moog took great pains to reduce the noise dramatically using electronic cancellation, and it obviously isn’t an issue when using just the magnetic pickups.

PLAY DATE

I spent three weeks working with the Moog Guitar prototype, including using it on several recordings. I played it through a Rivera Venus 6 amplifier, a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx modeling and effects processor, and directly into a MOTU 828mkII audio interface.

At first, I tended to play the Moog Guitar much the same way that I play my other guitars, only with the added ability to sustain notes and chords. Before long, however, I found myself significantly modifying my playing, and even devising new techniques, in response to the instrument’s capabilities. For example, the slightest changes to finger and pick attack and finger vibrato produced dramatic differences on some settings, transforming, say, a flute-like timbre to that of an English horn. Subtle alterations to hammerons, pull-offs, and tapping were equally effective, and the ability to sustain or mute notes within arpeggios lead to all sorts of unique sonic spaces. I was even able to evoke semimelodic feedback by bringing magnets into close proximity of the pickups.

I also found that even slight changes to the primary controls led to new and often unexpected possibilities. For example, varying the amount of Vo Power while in Full Sustain mode actually changed the feel of the instrument, not just the intensity of the sustain, which, in turn, inspired new approaches to playing. Likewise, Mute mode physically stops the strings from vibrating when the Vo Power is on maximum, but alters the notes’ attack and decay responses more subtly when used in moderation. And adjusting the filter settings, particularly while in Articulated Moog Filter mode, sweeps a seemingly unlimited variety of attack envelopes and timbres.

There were a few irregularities, however. The pitch of the low strings tended to fluctuate slightly even with the Vo Power entirely off, on two occasions the pickups became radiophonic when I stood in particular spots in the studio (picking up the broadcast of a local baseball game), the third string was appreciably louder on some settings, and the output of the pickups was a tad hot, overdriving my amp input. Moog is still ironing out the first two wrinkles, but they’ve already tamed the third string and devised an elegant solution to the output level issue.

“The production guitars will have a trimpot on the foot pedal,” says Vo. “We spent quite a while trying to figure out what the ‘right’ setting was, and originally adjusted it so that when you struck a string it would be pretty much the same as striking a string hard on a regular guitar. The problem is that on a regular guitar the string output fades away very rapidly, but the Moog Guitar’s sustain creates so much more RMS energy that this setting was too high. I kept turning it down and it was still too hot for some people, so we’re going to let the user choose.”

CODA

Even after my brief encounter with the Moog Guitar, I had already begun thinking of it as a new type of instrument rather than merely as an enhanced electric guitar, much as acoustic guitarists in the ’50s may have felt when first encountering the electric guitar, or late-18th Century harpsichordists when encountering the piano. And because its potential is inextricably linked to the player’s fingers and musical sensibilities—rather than the technology itself—it is limited only by one’s dexterity and imagination.

How many guitarists will embrace an instrument that sounds different than they are accustomed to, requires special strings with an unfamiliar feel, and attempts to seduce them into venturing outside their comfort zones in search of as-yet undiscovered new sounds—especially when that instrument costs $6,500? I’m guessing there are more than a few of them out there, but we’ll know the answer soon enough.

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