The Minimoog took the essential parts of a synthesizer and squeezed them together into a compact and durable package, programmable without patch cords. The design was stripped down but could still produce a massive sound due to the inventive three-oscillator architecture. Almost immediately after its introduction, the Minimoog was everywhere—being used by Sun Ra, Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer—and providing the trademark sound of tracks like "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk.
In 2002, Bob Moog reintroduced an updated version of the Minimoog, adding digital patch storage and controls to an all-analog signal path adapted from the original. This new version was called the Voyager and has been espoused by many musicians, even against the competition of low-cost virtual analog options—the Moog sound and no-compromise build quality has proven to be enough to justify the price of entry. There have been a few iterations of the Voyager since, and late in 2010 (for the 40th anniversary of the original Minimoog) Moog announced their most adventurous version of the Voyager to date—a 61 key behemoth called the Voyager XL.
The thing that immediately jumps out at you when you see the Voyager XL in person is the size. At 42 inches wide and 19 inches deep it's no exaggeration to say that special planning is required when considering where the XL will fit in a given studio. The spot chosen needs to be sturdy too, because the Voyager XL weighs well north of 50 pounds—easily the heaviest piece of gear I've ever unboxed. Once set up, the XL commands the attention of anyone in the room before even being powered on, with a combination of striking looks and brute physical intimidation.
Moving past the aesthetics, what does the Voyager XL bring to the table that's truly new? That's really the question at hand when considering this beast, because anyone who is familiar with Moog's current line of gear will notice more than a few similarities shared between the XL's extras and some of the expansion options already available for the Voyager series. If you do a side-by-side comparison of the XL and the original you will see that the XL has all of the standard Voyager's controls—in the same layout, even—with all of the XL's extra controls being pushed off to the left side of the main panel. This extra panel width gives the XL room to add 15 keys to the original Voyager's 44-key keyboard. Are five octaves overkill for a synth only capable of playing back one note at a time? For most people, the answer would probably be yes. However, there are keyboard players out there who would argue the opposite. Since the Voyager XL has full MIDI-out capabilities (including after-pressure) it could certainly function as a master keyboard—a scenario in which the extra keys would be welcome.
Jumping back to those extra panel controls, basically what the Moog engineers did with the XL is move the original Voyager's CV (control voltage) jacks from the top of the panel to the front, and added the additional modular capabilities of the Moog CP-251 control processor and the VX-351 expander units. For those that are unaware, all parts of an analog synthesizer are controlled by voltage—and these units allow the Voyager or other compatible synths to go beyond just knobs with an added layer of control available by plugging in audio cables from outputs to inputs. So, in addition to what you could already achieve with the original Voyager plus the expanders listed above, the XL gives you a few bonus features in the CV panel.
The first of these is the standout—a second LFO that can oscillate as slow as 1 cycle every 50 seconds, which can give your sounds a nice long, evolving character. This LFO can also be switched to sync to MIDI clock, which is a huge bonus. Also, the two attenuators on the XL (which exist to let you reduce the range of control from an output) are "normalled"—which means that by default they are already routed without the need for patch cables—to the CV outputs of the second LFO and the ribbon control. This is a nice touch that can save you some patching down the road, and if you ever want to route other signals through the attenuators you simply plug another source to it and the default routing is broken.
The final distinguishing factor built into the Voyager XL is the ribbon control. This is a 500mm touch-sensitive strip that's neatly tucked between the keyboard and the control panel that can be used to control anything that has an input on the CV panel, and more. It has two outputs—Gate and CV, which send voltage signals telling controls when and where your finger is on the strip, respectively. This is a really useful addition that when combined with the keyboard, the touch panel, the LFOs, the envelopes and all of the other controls can give you a mind-blowing amount of options for shaping sound. We even had a good time ignoring the keyboard all together and using the touch panel to trigger notes while adjusting the pitch of the notes with the ribbon control.
So, having answered the question of what sets the Voyager XL apart from its more affordable Voyager siblings—is it worth it? The XL is one of those rare pieces of audio gear where the street price matches the MSRP at $4995. If you're just after a flexible monosynth, you could certainly take that money and piece together a modular system with more features than the XL provides. If you're a fan of the Moog sound and quality, an original Voyager with the two expander units mentioned above can be had for around $4000 altogether. While an extra grand seems to be a bit much for the addition of the MIDI-synced LFO, the ribbon control, and the extra keys, there are certainly people who will decide that it's worth it. Having all that functionality in a really stunning self-contained unit and the fact that Moog is producing a limited number of these for the 40th anniversary of the original will certainly sway collectors and those with deep pockets. The rest of us will just have to look on with envy.
Ease of use: 4/5