Music at Moogfest: Chroomatic Harmoogica

I couldn’t spend a whole weekend at Moogfest listening to music without making some, could I? Especially not since I’ve acquired two new Moog toys recently — the fantastic Animoog app for the iPad, and Moog’s Freq Box.

I used the iPad app to generate a synth loop with a pretty basic patch, just a little riff in D minor. Then I plugged a mic into the Freq Box and started improvising on chromatic harmonica. I’ll leave the technical details to the sections below, but I set up the Freq Box to basically give the harmonica the kind of edgy synth feel that you hear on songs like the Cars’ “Let’s Go.” I used a Moog pedal (the unfortunately discontinued MP201) to modulate the waveform of the oscillator to add some more variation to the sound.

I ran the result into one of my favorite combinations, a Kaoss Pad effects unit and the EHX 2880 looper, a wonderful four-track unit I use on almost everything I do. I mostly used the Kaoss Pad to filter and further modulate the sound, and I also grabbed some samples of the harp so I could process them further. All of this was layered in the 2880.

It’s just a quick improv but I think I love it, and I need to spend a lot more time with this setup. The harp sounds like a synth, but it still sounds like a harp. All the vocal articulation that the harmonica is capable of still comes through — I looped and processed a lot of long single notes with heavy vibrato and they sound amazing — but with the hard edge of a synth, and the variations introduced by external modulation (just the foot controller at this point but given that the Freq Box is patchable like all Moog equipment, the possibilities are endless).

So the result sounds extremely electronic, but you still hear air and breath and muscle. The tremolo doesn’t come from a pedal, it comes from my diaphragm. The vibrato comes from my hands or my throat or my tongue. The best music I’ve seen this weekend has been just like that — noisy and electronic and overpowering, but always human. Voices running through effects units, guitarists bending strings, Roedelius hitting a single note on the piano and taking us on an exploration of its decay. Analog synth players twisting their instruments in ways their manufacturers never intended.

For the music geeks, some more details on the new toys…


Moog calls it, unhumbly, the first professional synthesizer for the iPad, but they’re not far wrong. I have spent way too much money on iPad music apps, but I only use maybe a half dozen of them. There are a few that qualify as real instruments (Mugician and MorphWiz in particular), a few excellent synths (especially Curtis), a few good sampling programs (AudioPalette is my favorite), and a few effects programs including Moog’s own Filtatron, but the good ones are few and far between. Most music apps are overdesigned and underusable, or painful attempts to replicate real-world instruments (Korg’s iMS20, for instance, gives you a tiny picture of this analog beast, and allows you to drag virtual patch cords from one jack to another).

I got Animoog from the app store last week (it’s eventually going to be $30, but it’s on sale now for only 99 cents) and tried it out. At first, I had what I thought was a typical iPad music app experience — it didn’t work the way I expected and there was no help or documentation — but then I realized that I was actually having the old-school Moog experience. It doesn’t do much until you start patching it. I figured a bit of it out, then learned a lot more at a session here on Friday (which included Moby, who said he was initially skeptical about it but was won over by the sound). Oh, and not that you’d know it from the app, but there is a PDF manual.

Moby’s right. It does sound fantastic, and it makes particularly intelligent use of the iPad’s user interface. The keyboard layout is modifiable, not just in size, but in scale (remove all the bad notes!) and many other interesting ways, not least that each key is actually a patchable controller, so that moving your finger vertically on the key can modulate another parameter. This loop is painfully simple — My First Animoog Patch — but it doesn’t bore me, and the only reason I haven’t been playing with it all weekend was that I had so much other music to listen to.

Freq Box

The Freq Box is one of Moog’s unfortunately named “MoogerFooger” units (pronounced with long O’s, like Moog’s name, not with a long U). They’re basically synthesizer modules built into a high-end stompbox body (although I’d never put one on the floor, because it would be too hard to twiddle the knobs). This one is an oscillator. As with any synth oscillator, you select a waveform and a frequency, and voila, you have a continuous tone of a certain timbre. And as with any synth, that’s not the fun part. The fun part is how you modulate and filter that tone. The Freq Box accepts an audio input, and uses that to modulate the oscillator’s frequency, or its envelope, or both.

And you can hard-sync the oscillator to the audio input, which is what I did on this piece. Essentially this means the oscillator is forced to start its cycle over in time with the frequency of the audio signal. Doing this with two synth oscillators gives a very distinctive hard-edged sound, the most famous example of which is probably the riff from the Cars’ great 1980 single, “Let’s Go.”

The MoogerFoogers are all patchable, so the envelope or oscillator output can be used to modulate other things, and you can control every parameter with external control as well. So there are a lot of possibilities with this little guy and I’m seriously thinking about buying a few more MoogerFoogers at the factory price before I leave Asheville.

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