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An Electronic Music Legend Talks Moog’s Modular App

For the last five decades, Suzanne Ciani's been a total synthesis boss. She tells us about programming Moog’s Modular 15 app.

When Moog Music dropped the Animoog app back in 2011, it was a stroke of digital genius. Here was a boutique analog synthesizer company confidently and unapologetically wading into virtual synthesis—and for the mobile age, no less. Earlier this week, Moog announced the release of the Moog Model 15 app, an iOS recreation of the company’s iconic 1970’s modular synthesizer. This makes it Moog’s first modular synthesizer—and synthesis educational tool—for iOS mobile devices.

With Moog Model 15, Moog created a virtual replica of its vintage hardware namesake, which was housed in a handsome carrying case equipped with a keyboard. After three years of research and development, Moog managed to craft a faithful virtual recreation of the original hardware’s 921-series oscillators, 904A Low Pass Filter, and 907 Fixed Filter Bank. They also got legendary electronic musician and five-time Grammy nominee Suzanne Ciani, famed for her work with modular synthesis, to create some synth patches for the app’s free expansion pack (more on her below).

“Patching a Moog modular is a joyful experience that not everyone gets the opportunity to have,” Moog Music’s Senior Software Engineer Geert Bevin tells The Creators Project. “Our goal with this app was to give the magic of that discovery and the power of modular sound design to more people. Getting it right required both extreme attention to the visuals and the interaction, as well as to the sonic signature of the synth.”

“Thanks to Apple's Metal graphics engine, we were able to put the GPU in charge of all the heavy lifting, and provide retina renderings that can smoothly and instantly zoom all the way in and out on the modular,” he adds. “While offering incredible graphical detail, this also offered us with a lot more CPU power for audio processing.”

With most of the CPU available to do audio processing, Moog was able to carefully analyze the analog behavior of the original Model 15 for each module, then create real-time simulations that behave very similarly. Constant and fast recalculations provide FM synthesis capabilities through the entire app, while the 64-bit processing of newer iOS devices allowed Moog to design algorithms that work equally well in monophonic and 4-voice polyphonic mode. And since it’s modular, Bevin says Moog wanted it to interact with everything in the iOS world, so there are Audio Bridge and MIDI Bridge modules, and it integrates with Ableton Link, AudioCopy and AudioShare to get sounds out of the mobile device and onto a computer.

While Ciani didn’t help design the Moog Modular 15 app, her sonic imprint is on it in the form of the free patches. (Watch her play a mesmerizing melodic progression on one of her pitches in a Moog video below.) Ciani had some early experience with the Moog modulars in 1969 and 1970, and tells The Creators Project that the San Francisco Tape Music Center loaned her a large three-panel modular for a month one summer. She also took a course with electronic pioneers Paul Beaver and Bernie Kraus at the U.C. Berkeley’s graduate music department so that she could play their new Moog, but the duo ultimately decided not to let her.

Ciani says that modular synthesizers have always been attractive to her for the degree of control they afford the player.  

“I prefer to control the sound with a variety of control voltages and not a ‘black & white’ keyboard,” she says. “I am more interested in the way the sound can move than in the particular timbre of the sound. Modular gives an open architecture that lets you configure a patch in a creative way.”

When Moog was developing the Modular 15, they wanted to reach back historically to someone who had played the original modular back in the day. That’s where Ciani came in. She describes her work on the patches as something of a homecoming for her.

“The app is so beautifully designed—I was designing patches within minutes of getting my hands on it,” says Ciani.“I made sounds that interested me: waves, birds, big sustained bass sounds, solo melodic voices, chimes, percussion. And [I] was attracted to the arpeggiator possibilities that allowed me to create looping/rhythmic patterns.”

“I am really in awe of the sound of this app—it seems like the real thing,” she adds. “And playing it, creating patches, is fast, intuitive and straightforward—even easier than using the 1/4" patch cords of yore. And it looks great, so spending time with it is a pure delight. I was able to put together most of my sounds while sitting on an airplane with a good pair of headphones.”

To believe that a new generation of electronic musicians could learn modular synthesis digitally and on the road would have been fairly unthinkable a decade ago. It’s not that it was an impossible effort, but it definitely wasn’t a concern. Thankfully, digital technology is making a lot of things possible when it comes to synthesis.

Bevin says there is a strong desire within the musician community to use modular synthesizers, but the platform has a very steep learning curve. On top of that, few have access to these rare beasts. Moog simply can’t get a ton of hardware modulars into people’s hands, but what they can do is create viable virtual alternatives.

Moog’s hope, according to Bevin, is that “the built-in tutorial preset system and the tutorials we created, the app became an ideal platform to teach all experience levels about modular synthesis on what we think is a very close approximation of the experience one would have with hardware.”

Click here to listen to Suzanne Ciani’s full composition on the Moog Modular 15 app.

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