Review: Moog Mavis
The famous Moog sound just got more affordable. But Mavis isn’t a basic, one-trick pushover.
Review: Corey Hague
Moog has just unleashed the diminutive Mavis, a low cost DIY synth that promises to deliver the famous Moog sound while also showing the old dog isn’t afraid of some new tricks.
That’s good news on multiple levels, and the best news of all is that despite the Mavis being billed as DIY, you won’t need to break out the soldering iron or multimeter. It’s just a simple matter of lining up a neat PCB, tightening a few screws and connecting some plugs. In fact, the most time consuming aspect of turning the Mavis into a usable synth is making sure that the 24 patchpoint sleeves are properly secured. And even that’s not too taxing, considering that these patch points are really what brings the Mavis to life.
GRINDY, SQUELCHY, TINY
Opening the Mavis package, you realise Moog has set out to make an affordable synth, not a cheap synth. The difference is evident by the level of thought gone into the package: power adapter with region adapters, colourful and clear build instructions, some handy patch overlay cards, some patch cables and a Decksaver-esque cover to keep things dust free. And most importantly, there are plenty of Moog stickers also included in the box (something that always manages to impress the inner-child in me, however irrational that may be)!
Stylistically, Mavis presents as a hybrid between the Mother 32 and the now discontinued Werkstatt-01; it’s not as fully featured as the more expensive Mother 32 but it’s more refined than the similarly priced Werkstatt-01, with a far more sophisticated patching system and better build quality overall.
While the Mavis doesn’t feature a sequencer like it’s big sister, the Mother 32, it’s not a huge loss as the Mother 32 never quite managed to impress with its sequencer capabilities. It does however have very similar mini-keys to the Mother 32, which are surprisingly useful when auditioning sounds or tapping out notes.
Luckily, for those of us blessed with sausage fingers, it will happily accept CV input for gate and pitch, and plugging it into a MIDI controller like an Arturia Keystep 37 (which has CV outputs), turned it into a ‘traditional’ monophonic synth that put out some great, classic Moog sound: grindy bass tones and squelchy resonant highs are all easy to coax from the tiny little Mavis, with the familiar ladder filter doing what it’s famous for, even if the cutoff knob is tiny.
If you’re not inclined to play notes from the keyboard or don’t have a controller handy, flicking the VCA Mode knob turns the Mavis into continuous ‘drone mode’ which allows for some fun gating options and can be handy for designing sounds.
NEED TO KNOW
Monophonic Analogue Synthesizer
PATCH AT ‘EM
The 24 patch points aren’t just for show, they’re absolutely what makes the Mavis an interesting instrument. Aside from allowing you to add more modulation and movement to your sounds, they also represent something of a departure from the Moog design philosophy — wavefolding.
Found on a Moog synth for the first time, the wavefolding circuit adds a little ‘Westcoast flavour to an Eastcoast synth’. Huh? So what does that actually mean?
Without delving into the history of synthesiser architecture, it means that some sonic options are opened up to create new sounds from this little Moog — something they should be applauded for, because the company is far more famous for not changing their recipe than for adding features.
In practice, it means that rather than simply adding an external sound source and distorting it, the new sound source can ‘fold in’ on itself, to give more complex timbres and depth, sounding a little like extreme phasing or mild FM. That’s the 101 of it — I’ve had multiple Westcoast synth aficionados try their best to explain it to me at length, and it still bamboozles me from a technical standpoint [pop your best explanation in the comments below! — Ed.]. Luckily, the impact on the sound is instantly noticeable, and it’s easy to just explore the characteristics of wavefolding, even if the intricacies are lost on you. And thankfully Moog have taken the time to put together concise videos outlining the new (for Moog) feature.
THE MAVIS SHOW
In a way, this exploration into wavefolding illustrates the appeal of Mavis, and seems to be at the heart of what makes it compelling. There’s the potential to be overwhelmed by the patch points or not understanding what every single one will do, but rather than be punished for your bewilderment you’ll be rewarded for your bravery. As you’re rewarded, your desire to push on increases, leaving you with a positive feedback loop.
More importantly, you’re rarely stopped dead in your tracks by a bad patch — the sound either changes or it doesn’t, which is a refreshing change in the digital era. So while you may upset your pets or neighbours with the occasional wild oscillation or filter sweep, you won’t actually hit brick walls and feel frustrated by not advancing or sucessfully back tracking. And, unlike plenty of technology these days, unplugging it means just pulling the patch cables out, not forcing a reboot.
grindy bass tones and squelchy resonant highs are all easy to coax from the tiny little Mavis
In the spirit of adventure, I took the Mavis out of its powered case and installed it into a small Eurorack setup — a simple affair thanks to the built-in power header on the Mavis, complete with the all important ‘red line’ information on the PCB. This is another improvement over the Mother 32, which requires its own special adapter to be Eurorack mounted.
The fun of self-patching the Mavis is really turbocharged once other modules get involved, and I quickly found myself reaching to record the sounds coming from the little gadget. First some deep sub bass sounds, then some simple midrange arps. Finally, the wavefolder got patched in for some tearing electrical sounding accent and transition sounds. The depth and clarity of the recorded sounds were impressive, and while the Mavis may not be quite as buttery or as booming as the Mother 32 or Matriarch, they’re unmistakably Moog, and sit very well in a mix. Even more impressively, despite three sounds coming from the same synth, they don’t overlap or swamp each other, something that isn’t always true when using the same synth for a variety of sounds in one tune.
TALKING THE MOOG BROGUE
It soon becomes apparent that the Mavis is most certainly a gateway synth, and that anyone who spends some quality time with it will begin to imagine how it might sound given some extra tools and utilities to patch with. In my instance, I kept it simple — even just using some clocked LFOs and whitenoise widened the sonic and timbral horizons, and you could easily build a complex system around the Mavis as the main oscillator voice.
That’s not to say the Mavis absolutely needs a complex and expensive range of modules to work alongside, it doesn’t. However, a small and affordable range of stackable patch cables and some passive modules should be budgeted for, as they will help expand the options available without having to invest too deeply.
HAPPY BEING SINGLE
So is it the perfect analogue monosynth? Not quite, as compromises will always have to be made to hit budgets and size restraints. Mavis’ mini pots are serviceable and, thankfully, have enough space to access properly, but they’re far from luxurious and some of the patch-point-text quickly becomes unreadable once you get busy. The dust cover is a great addition but sadly it’s impossible to use it while cables are connected. Some new users may also baulk at the lack of MIDI inputs, but it’s not a deal breaker when in use.
And perhaps the most forgivable criticism of all is that once you begin to unlock the potential of the Mavis you can’t help but wish for some added flexibility in potential routings, particularly around the impressive new wavefolder.
But small concerns aside, Moog has delivered something small and mighty with the Mavis, and it marks them out as a company that is looking forward without sacrificing their well-earned heritage. It’s sure to introduce loads more people into the fascinating options that come with patch cables, and they’ve done so at a great price. Mavis is a marvel.