Like many sliding uncontrollably down the barrel of 2020, I’ve found it genuinely hard to stay creative.
I make lists of things to practice on guitar, buy myself music books, listen to inspiring records, and then collapse into Netflix under the weight of it all. Before Moog’s latest modular synth showed up on my doorstep, I was beginning to think I didn’t like making my own music anymore.
With its 33 knobs, 21 buttons, and two metal switches, Moog Music’s Subharmonicon—a “semi-modular analog polyrhythmic synthesizer”—is a pandora’s box of sound that’s helped restore my musical energy. In the month or so I’ve had it around my studio, it’s the best way I’ve found to break out of sad folk songs.
It might look like (and cost as much as) a serious tool for nerdy enthusiasts, but like all of Moog’s best creations, the Subharmonicon could just as easily be labeled a toy. A single turn of a knob can lead to new sounds that excite the mind, even in the midst of pandemic-driven writers’ block. If you’re a musical person that’s flailing in the current darkness, it offers focus, unique rhythms, and the kind of stress release that only comes from playing a screeching analog synth.
The Subharmonicon is part of Moog Music’s Mother line of semi-modular synths. The family includes the Mother 32, the Drummer From Another Mother, the Grandmother, and the Matriarch. But this Mother entry didn’t get a Mom-themed name because it’s a mashup of two legendary synthesizers.
The Subharmonicon takes the rhythm-fueled awesomeness of the Rhythmicon, an machine from the 1930s famous for its use dicing up the piano on this Radiohead song, and combines it with the subharmonic richness of the Trautonium, the eerie synth responsible for the evil squawks in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. By mashing up these two approaches to sound manipulation, Moog has created a musical instrument that’s capable of recreating driving, mysterious synth sounds like you’d hear on the Stranger Things soundtrack, or gnarly looping sound effects like you’d hear from Nine Inch Nails—all depending on where the knobs and switches are pointed.
It can seem intimidating at first, as though using this particular synthesizer is technical science you haven’t been trained in, but there is no “correct” way to play the Subharmonicon. The sci-fi-like blend of knobs, switches, and flashing LEDs isn’t meant to be mastered, so much as constantly messed with until something catches your ear.
Simpler Than You Think
Given how complicated the front panel looks, and the seemingly infinite musical possibilities it offers when you play with it, setup is actually a breeze. The Subharmonicon comes with a quarter-inch instrument output, and a 12 volt power supply plugs into the back. There’s not even a power switch. On the front-facing patch bay, inputs abound. It’s even got a Midi input, among 31 other options for routing various filters and oscillators back and forth.
Apart from the patch bay on the far right, the front of the Subharmonicon is divided into three main sections. On the left is a sequencer section for rhythms, in the middle there’s a pair of oscillators that allow you to pick three frequencies each (one main and two subharmonic), and on the right features an assortment of legendary Moog filters to shape your overall sounds.
You can simply plug it in and start turning knobs and pressing buttons, but the best way to get to know it is through the use of a series of cardboard overlays the company ships with the synthesizer. They sit on top of the front panel and show you exact settings for everything on the front of the board, allowing you to get an idea of a few basic sounds and functionalities before you take shot at free-handing it.
I started with an overlay labeled “Jumping off point,” and was quickly messing about with a circular chorus of bleeps and bloops, trying to figure out what each knob did (to limited success at first). I’m sure with a few more months of practice, it would be easier for me to fit the insane sounds the Subharmonicon produces into a ready-made song, but for the time being the best sounds I’ve found have come from nothing, with the Subharmonicon acting as the original sound.
After a few hours of struggle, I really began to learn what each knob or switch did, and got even more creative with my ideas. I particularly liked finding a cool looped rhythm on the sequencer, then using the built-in filters to make it sound like it was fading in and out of the distance. I was even able to make a fairly decent re-creation of the THX theme (the big bassy one you know from theaters), using the Subharmonicon’s trigger button, which allows you to explore tones when a sequence isn’t running. That trigger button, I’ve realized, is the key to finding good sounds.
One thing I didn’t explore much in my time with the Subharmonicon is the patch bay. I tried all the basic patches recommended by the cardboard overlays Moog sent, but didn’t really mess with patching stuff together when making my own sounds. I’m sure if I owned one of these synths, I’d spend more time trying to learn that part of the instrument, which can be patched together with other modular synths. Moog even sent me a companion Mother 32 unit to patch into the Subharmonicon, but I spent most of my time playing them separately. (In addition to matching up with other Mother units, the Subharmonicon can be removed from its enclosure and mounted in a Eurorack system.)
It’s really the feeling of using a Moog that I’ve fallen in love with. You sit there with headphones on, and an entire musical universe opens up before you, so easy to access that you can literally stumble into some of the coolest sounds you’ve ever heard.
Then there’s the way it physically feels to touch. I’d go so far as to say that Moog has the best knobs I’ve ever felt on any machine. They’re smooth and robust, with a medium amount of tactile feedback that makes it easy to ride filters and oscillators up and down until you find the perfect sound. Most importantly, the knobs stayed exactly where I left them between sessions, even when I watch a subwoofer-happy Marvel movie 10 feet away.
These days, the folks at Moog could have easily added presets, digital outputs, and a myriad of other features that would make the Subharmonicon more usable to contemporary music makers. Instead, you’ve got to tune the thing by ear, sometimes using teeny tiny knobs.
It’s annoying, confusing, and finicky. You’re never sure you’ll find the same sound again, but that’s just part of the creative challenge of using it. I just love it so much. Sounds of madness and chaos can be slowly adjusted into harmony. A horribly gross thing transforms into music before your ears. That struggle involved in making it all come together is part of the point.