Moog Mavis

Moog Mavis review and comparison

Reviews

Today we’re looking at the Moog Mavis. You may have noticed when they released there was a tsunami of gooey and lovely videos from gooey and lovely YouTubers all about the gooey and loveliness of the Moog Mavis. It’s quite an extraordinary little synth, almost half the price of the Mother-32 and yet contains all of that Mooginess that we know and love so dearly. While I’ve no doubt that it sounds awesome and lovely within its context I wondered how it compared to some other similar desktop synths.

Please note: This review is an edited transcript of the video version from YouTube.

This is an area in which Moog doesn’t normally play. I mean sure they did the Werkstatt which was great and very much a prelude to the Mother-32 and the Mavis follows a similar vibe, but as I say it’s not a place where they normally play and I wondered whether it’s a place they should be playing? How well does this compare to other similar synths that are knocking about things like the Cre8audio East Beast or the Dreadbox Dysmetria? Those are the sort of synthesizers that could really challenge the dominance that Moog is used to within synthesizer arenas. And so the purpose of this video is to put together the Mavis, have a look and see what it does and then compare it to some of its compatriots to see is it any good, is it worth the money, does it sound nice in comparison to other creative and innovative synthesizers that are out there?

Do please note that because I’m going to be looking to criticize the Mavis I should already point out that it is a great synthesizer and there are dozens and dozens of youtube videos out there telling you exactly how awesome this sounds and how fantastic it is. I’m looking at it from a different perspective. I want to find reasons why perhaps it’s not all that. I should also say that Moog has sent this to me in the hope that I’d review it, but I don’t think they were hoping I was going to make this sort of review but hey.

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Assembly

Moog call this a kit because you have to build it yourself, I mean they’ve saved themselves half an hour of labour I suppose in order to get you to screw the thing together yourself. But it ain’t a kit, let’s not con ourselves into believing it’s anything like the Dysmetria which is a complete kit where you have to solder stuff together. Spend an afternoon doing soldering and it’s fantastic; that’s a kit, this isn’t a kit this is a thing you snap together. It’s like if you’re ever into Airfix when you’re a kid where you have to glue your spitfire together and there were these other manufacturers that did similar things but you just had to sort of snap them together, and it was never the same experience, you never felt like you’d built anything, and that is what we have here.

Moog Mavis instructions
Moog Mavis instructions

So by the numbers we should attach the rubber feet, secure the PCB to the front panel with some screws and then mount the assembly into the chassis. It has this rather nice lid which I definitely approve of. It comes with a hex nut driver-tool which is totally brilliant it’s for putting nuts onto the patchbay bits.

It does make me think geez I’ve just spent like 350 quid on a synthesizer and I’ve got to sit here and put the whole thing together myself! I guess if it saves a bit of money, if it means you can get something cheaper, then a little bit of self-assembly is fine I think, in fact in some ways it’s a good idea it does draw you slightly closer into the idea of understanding the technology without actually teaching you anything at all. So it’s quite clever because the perception is that I’ve built a synthesizer.

There’s a clear plastic light pipe that carries light from the LFO rate LED that must be inserted with the tapered end into the hole. Then we can turn it upside down and apply the label.

Moog Mavis build
Moog Mavis build

So there we go, that is one built Moog Mavis. It wasn’t too strenuous, wasn’t too difficult and now just having a quick look you’ve got these weeny little knobs, a nice patch bay, a little button squidgy keyboard a bit like the Mother-32. Let’s see if we can get some sound out.

The Synth

Let’s just go through some of the basics just to give you an idea of what it is that this does. If you want a really in-depth video of exactly what this is all about with some of the most amazing patches you have ever heard from a single tiny little synthesizer then go and check out MylarMelodies video on it.

This appears to be designed as a fun simple but complex behind-the-scenes entry into subtractive analogue monophonic synthesis. There’s a single oscillator, it has that famous lovely and Moogy 24db ladder filter, it’s got some modulation, a single envelope which uses itself on both the filter and the VCA and it has the ability to drone. It has this rather interesting Wave Folder in it too which you don’t tend to find on subtractive synthesizers or on anything that Moog does.

It’s immediately obvious that it doesn’t have the finesse or panache of the Mother-32 but then it’s not supposed to, this is a different beast and it has its own reasons to be coo,l to be juicy, to be interesting.

With the VCO you’ve got pitch control and then you’ve got a variable wave shape from sawtooth all the way through to square so that’s already interesting. The fact that it’s not just got separate waveform outputs, it’s got a variable morphing between those two waves is giving you a whole range of tones.

Once you have a bit of square wave going then you’ve got the pulse width modulation which is that delicious movement that goes all the way down to something quite fine, but it doesn’t actually disappear. It can work with your wave shape to give you a lot more variations.

Next along the top is the filter which just rounds those edges off beautifully so you get a nice little sine wave. But of course, we like to add a little bit of resonance to our filter to give us more interesting sounds and it starts to fall apart around the edges, which is really nice. You do also get quite a drop as you turn up the resonance, but that is just lovely. And as you wind it up you hit that point at which it starts to self-oscillate – nice.

Moog Mavis and scope
Moog Mavis and scope

Next in line you get modulation. Now it’s quite interesting the way that they’ve decided to do this. You’ve got kind of a blend between envelope and LFO, and then you’ve got an amount. You’ve got the same on the filter. So the one on the VCO is controlling the modulation of the pitch, and the one on the filter controls the cutoff. You get this interesting combination of LFO and envelope operating together. On the filter the depth knob swings from negative to positive which is what you want for envelope modulation. Meanwhile the LFO is also variable in shape from triangle to square.

On the VCO it’s essentially an FM connection and I can take that up to audio rate for a nice bit of FM-type clanginess.

The envelope is an ADSR. You’ve got everything from very very clicky to a mediumly long attack to a similar length of decay then a sustain level and release. There’s also some glide here that applies to the keyboard.

The main synth is great, it sounds lovely, it sounds very Moog-like it, sounds like those sorts of synthesizer sounds that you imagine in your head. It has all of those facilities that you believe you would need in a synth.

The one thing that throws itself up as you play with it, and enjoy playing with it, is that this keyboard is not awesome in any shape. And there’s no sequencer. In almost every little synthesizer from a 303 through to anything else you can think of it tends to have just something like an arpeggiator or sequencer, something that will allow it to make sound. It has a keyboard which is fine but one of the awesome things about exploring a synthesizer is having it play itself so that you can then explore the sounds that are happening. I think it’s the biggest thing that’s missing from this and it’s a shame.

However if you look at the patch sheets you’ll find one called “Who needs a sequencer” so it’s kind of something that Moog are very much aware of and that it’s going to be a criticism. So they’ve provided a patch that kind of do it. It essentially uses a sample and hold (S&H) circuit which samples of value and outputs it as voltage. It’s a way of generating a kind of randomness. It samples the VCO waveform rather than noise (as it doesn’t have any) so it’s less random perhaps than a standard sample and hold would be. Patch the output of the S&H into the 1 volt/octave input and we should get essentially a sequence. You know it’s just random voltages being thrown into the pitch but it gives us something to play with.

These patch sheets are fantastic! You’ve got a Buzzsaw, Detuned Dual Square, a Foldable Kick Drum, Folding Bass etc. The idea of course is that these are like presets which are a perfect thing for someone who’s just getting into this for the first time or wants an idea of what something might sound.

So then, the Wave Folder, what’s all that about? Well, the wave folder is a separate module within the synth. It’s not normalized to anything else, so you can use the entire synthesizer without it. To use the wave folder you have to stick that into the audio chain so you take the output of the VCO and plug that into the fold input.

Folding square waves isn’t anywhere near as much fun as sawtooth because there’s nothing really to fold. As you fold a square wave it just ends up being more of a square wave. You could use the filter to turn the square into more of a triangle or sine wave but the output of the wave folder is set before the filter, so that wouldn’t work. Itt would have been nice to have some modulation over the folding but it doesn’t appear to have any.

Comparisons

So Mavis is an adorable little synthesizer, it sounds lovely, it has all that Moog tone, has an interesting patch bay with different things going on, the wave folding in a lovely little package with a useful little lid and some patch cables and these patch sheets. With the whole lot together you enter into the entire environment of owning a Moog and that is worth a lot all by itself. However if you compare it to some other similar synthesizers which perhaps are even cheaper, then we find perhaps that its feature set is on the light side.

Video – I run a few synths alongside the Mavis to hopefully offer a bit of a comparison.

West Pest
West Pest

The Moog Mavis is a bit of a conundrum. Comparisons are difficult, sitting two synthesizers side by side and trying to go – oh this one sounds better than this one or doesn’t sound better than that one – is really difficult and I don’t know really how helpful that is except to try to demonstrate perhaps the range of what’s on offer. Because the Moog, beautiful though it is, it is isn’t exactly exuding features. But then maybe that’s not what you want. Maybe you just want something that is simply Moog. Then that raises the question about the Werkstatt which is very similar. You can see how the two are related and that this one really took us to the Mother-32 which has then taken us back to the Mavis and it just makes you scratch your head a bit. Why? Well, because the Werkstatt is half the price of the Mavis and it is price really that is driving this review as much as anything else. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Moog Mavis is a sweet, neat, gorgeous little synthesizer it’s just far more expensive than other things which do a heck of a lot more. Is that important? I don’t know, that’s really down to you.

But let me put the dagger in the heart and tell you what it is that it doesn’t have. Well first I’m going to replace these crappy little knobs because they’re a pain; it’s like I’m playing with a Korg Volca of which I could get two or three for the price of this. When you come back to the sheer beauty and elegance of the Mother-32 it doesn’t really add up.

So, it has a wave folder, but something like the West Pest has a dirty great big wave folder. It’s not even integrated, it’s not part of the semi-modular setup, you have to patch it in directly as a separate circuit, and it gives you the impression it has a few controls but it doesn’t, it has the one knob and it’s not even cv-able or modulatable. It sounds nice, no one’s saying it’s not sounding nice it’s just that the features are a little on the slim side.

It has no sequencer. That’s not a huge one but if this is your first synthesizer you’d like to have something that would play it, something that would get notes going, you know, an arpeggiator at the very least. It’s got a keyboard, thank the lord for that, so at least I have something to play with, but the vast majority of other synthesizers around this price and below have some form of sequencer or arpeggiator.

It only has one filter mode, well most synths only have one filter mode to be fair, and this is a particularly beautiful ladder one, the classic Moog one, although there is quite a bit of drop-off when you pump up the resonance, but it is nice without a doubt.

There’s no MIDI. MIDI is not necessarily important of course in a Eurorack module or in a little synthesizer but it does make things easier. Again most other synthesizers do have a MIDI input or USB port just to be able to connect it to your computer or connect it to a keyboard, otherwise, you’re going to need a keyboard or sequencer with CV outputs. So the lack of sequencer is kind of compounded by the lack of MIDI.

It does have a groovy little modulation matrix, the smallest one you could possibly imagine, but it does only have the one LFO and the one envelope, and although it does have some nice mixing between the modulations to both the oscillator and the filter, there’s not a lot of it.

It does have a decent patch bay but it’s weirdly on a different side to all of their other ones. So when you put it in their 60 HP three-tier or four-tier tower all the patch points are on the wrong side, so you have to stretch cables across itself. Or if you put it into the 104 HP mode case then it will sit beautifully next to a Mother-32 or one of their other ones, but then there’s no actual room for a power supply so that doesn’t work either. So I guess it’s just supposed to sit alongside which can work but it feels like it was a strange decision to put the patch bay where it is.

It’s great to have these additional utilities with a bit of attenuating and mixing, that’s a very useful thing when you’re using it in a larger context. But there are things like the glide knob that doesn’t work if you’re using CV, it only works with the onboard keyboard, not with CV and Gate coming.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

Conclusions

Now I know what you’re thinking you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you’ve got to write it, you can’t believe the outrage that’s going on here! How can this idiot pour such shade and scorn upon such a beautiful Moog synthesizer? Well, as I said at the beginning there’s nothing wrong with this synth. If you want a Moog synthesizer and you’ve got 350 quid to spend then this will do the job nicely. My only real point is just to say that there are other synths around this price point that have a heck of a lot more going for them in terms of features. For a few extra quid you could get a Dreadbox Nymphus which is a polyphonic analog synthesizer. You could get something like the PWM Malevolent, you could get a Bass Station 2, let alone a little synth like the East Beast, West Pest, Dysmetria, Sound Object #5 or a pair of Werkstatts. So while the Moog distortion field is is great and thick and fat and weighty they ain’t necessarily the be all and end all of everything.

The pinnacle of what they do in terms of value, in terms of authentic analogue sound that’s beautifully constructed and presented is, for me, the Mother-32. It’s been around for ages, they completely and utterly aced this thing, and it’s a gorgeous synthesizer. And the way that it builds up with the Sub-harmonicon and the DFAM is just a beautiful and brilliant thing. And this, I believe, is where Moog needs to play. We don’t need a cut-cut price Moog synthesizer. They have to make too many compromises, too many things drop off the side; the sequencer, MIDI, the knobs you know, the case, the layout things like this have to fall away in order for them to hit their price point because they’re a bit more of a boutique manufacturer. I would much rather they do some more interesting things in the Mother-32 arena and let the cut-price manufacturers do the cut-price synthesizers. You don’t need to play down there, you can stay high and we will pay for it because we love it and we love what you do and there’s always going to be a massive and solid market for all of those so you don’t need to do this.

However, if Moog is what you want and you want to get into that at three to four hundred pounds then the Moog Mavis is beautiful and it sounds best, I think, in amongst a load of other stuff. I hope that’s been helpful and in the meantime go make some tunes.

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