Synthesis begins with two oscillators. Each has a four-octave range and wave shapes that are continuously variable from triangle to saw to square and pulse, which means you can dial in shapes between triangle and saw or saw and square. Jumping ahead to the modulation section, there's a knob dedicated to modulating the wave shape via LFO or envelope. There's a square wave sub oscillator, with its own level control operating one octave below oscillator 1. There is also a pink noise generator for further grit. Simply put, the oscillators sound great. The triangle wave is bold and smooth, and all of the wave shapes provide a big, fat sound in all frequency ranges. A simple mixer section provides four knobs for the sound sources listed above, with each having a range of zero to 12. Turning a knob above six overdrives the filter, which is one way the Sub Phatty offers some pleasant distortion.
The whole front panel of the synth is very easy to navigate. Its one large knob on the synth controls a classic Moog low-pass filter, and you'll find yourself using it often. It's the sound that's often imitated and approximated, yet nothing is quite like having the real thing at your fingertips. Turning the resonance above seven causes the filter to self-oscillate, and this can be very interesting on its own when making percussive sounds or when using the external input for processing. For the first time in their history, Moog has incorporated a nice multidrive distortion, which happens between the filter and amp sections. It has a decent range and can really transform sounds, especially with the right filter and resonance settings. They probably could have made it even more destructive, but this new feature still makes plenty of new tones possible. The bottom of the filter section has knobs for filter envelope depth and keyboard filter tracking. To the right of the filter section are two cleanly laid-out ADSR envelopes for the filter and amplifier.
The modulation section allows for either the LFO, with its five shapes, or the filter envelope to modulate pitch, filter and wave shape amounts. These three destinations each have their own amount knobs, but the keyboard's mod wheel ultimately controls the depth of modulation. There's a button that sets the pitch amount to only modulate oscillator 2, which is useful if you want oscillator 1 to hold down the fundamental.
The global pitch section has a fine tune control, a glide (portamento) rate and a pair of buttons to select the octave range of the keyboard. On the far right of the panel are eight buttons that give access to the Sub Phatty's 16 presets. The "activate panel" button at the bottom overrides whatever preset is being used and makes the Phatty sound exactly like its current front panel knob settings. From here, you can save patches when you come up with something you like. Like most users, I would have liked to have seen more patch storage. (I assume that Moog was trying to give the synth an old school aesthetic.) Fortunately, the free editor librarian software allows for unlimited presets to be stored and recalled. This extensive program also allows for visual control of the hidden parameters. By connecting a USB cable, my Mac immediately recognized the Sub Phatty as a MIDI device, and I was able to send signals in both directions without a problem. There is a standalone version as well as RTAS, VST & AU ports of this plug-in. It is worth noting that by using certain button combinations and the manual, you can access all of these under-the-hood features (besides the patch storage) without the software.
There are a great deal of hidden parameters—so many that it would be great to at least see text of them on the front panel. That probably would have cluttered things up, though, and learning your instrument certainly has its value. For starters, both envelopes can add delay and hold stages plus velocity modulation. The noise knob becomes an external input level control. External input is such a key feature on this synth: now you can process soft synths with the Moog filter and even use its keyboard to play them. This versatility is further enhanced by the multidrive circuit. LFO and oscillator gate resets make the LFO and oscillators begin their cycles at the same time.
Getting into even deeper territory, the manual has features that require both button and keyboard combinations to define certain ranges, such as pitch bend and LFO, and also the way glide and further envelope parameters behave. Another important hidden parameter is that the classic four-pole filter can be turned into a one-, two- or three-pole design. Beyond all of these sound parameters, MIDI and global functions are also selected through button- and key- press combinations. Yes, you will definitely need to keep the manual handy for some of this stuff. On the side panel there are mono in and out jacks, MIDI in and out ports, and four CV/gate jacks (filter, pitch, volume and gate) that can be connected to vintage pieces, modular setups or expression pedals.
The Sub Phatty combines an old-school aesthetic and sound with modern design. Users with CV setups, traditional MIDI rigs and/or computer-based systems will all find ways to include the Sub Phatty in their workflow. It's a beautiful instrument, as we've come to expect from Moog, and it will probably last most users a lifetime if treated right. While still not as bold as the three-oscillator Minimoog, it's certainly a beast in its own right and definitely delivers a big sound. It offers deep possibilities to please the veteran synthesist, but beginners can definitely start here, too.
Ease of use: 4/5