Moog Mavis review: A surprisingly deep entry-level synth

·Managing Editor
·7-min read
Moog Mavis
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The price of entry for a real-deal analog Moog synth isn’t particularly low. Other than the limited-run Werkstatt-01, the most affordable is the Minitaur, which will set you back $600. Now, that’s not unreasonably expensive but for those looking to dip their toes into the synth waters, it might be a big ask. Especially when a Volca Keys can give you three-note paraphonic analog sounds for just $170. That’s where Mavis comes in, it’s a pseudo-DIY monophonic semi-modular synth that delivers classic Moog sounds for just $350.

I say “pseudo-DIY” because all of the core components are already put together for you. There’s no soldering involved here. You’re simply putting the circuit board in a case and attaching it with some screws and nuts. It’s not particularly difficult, but the tiny nuts can be frustrating to get on the patch bay, and there are 24 of them to fight with. Not great if you’re as shaky as I am.

Hardware

Once assembled, though, you have a legit Moog with all the basic features you’d expect, plus a few extras. There’s a single oscillator that can morph between saw and square wave, an LFO, an envelope generator and, of course, Moog’s iconic 4-pole low pass filter. There’s also a sample and hold circuit, a utilities section with mults, a mixer and an attenuator. Lastly, in a first for a Moog synth, there’s a wave folder, something you’d be more likely to find on West Coast-style synths, like those from Buchla. All of these parts can be mixed and matched, or combined with external gear, using the 24-point patch bay.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

Mavis even has a built-in one-octave keyboard so you can start tapping out basslines immediately. But I highly recommend you get an external keyboard or sequencer with CV controls, like one of Arturia’s KeyStep or BeatStep series. The keys on Mavis are tiny and rubbery and require a good amount of force to play. And the lack of a sequencer or arpeggiator means you’d have to play it live. It gets the job done for noodling around and auditioning patches, but I wouldn’t want to use it for an actual performance.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

It’s also slightly odd that Moog went with an ⅛-inch audio out jack, instead of a ¼-inch one. Yes, it’s designed in part with Eurorack in mind, and it’s not a big deal to slap an adapter on the cable, but it still seems somewhat out of place considering that every other member of the Moog semi-modular family has ¼-inch outs.

One last thing worth mentioning is that, while you can stick Mavis in a Eurorack case, it has a case of its own and even a plastic dust cover to make sure your precious Moog stays pristine. Honestly, it’s the sort of accessory that should come with most synths and not a $50 (or more) add on.

Sound

Engadget · Moog Mavis demos

The core oscillator sounds great. Its Moog DNA is glaringly obvious in the buzzing saw wave and booming square. This is a synth built with bass in its bones. Even if you never touched the patchbay. If you just stuck with sounds the Mavis made out of the box, you’d probably be happy. It’s not the most versatile or unique synth, but it does what it does very well and it’s just oozing character.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

Mavis is a little rough around the edges in a good way. You can get everything from 8-bit video game beeps, to towering bass stabs and even koto-esque plucks. The only thing it can’t really handle is drums. You can get a decent kick out of it, and maybe some pitched tom sounds. But that’s about it. Without a noise source snares, hats and claps are out of the question. It’s also tough to get convincing pad sounds with just a single oscillator, but with some effects it’ll do in a pinch.

That single oscillator is solid, though. And there are a host of tools at your disposal on the front panel to fatten up the sound further. For one, the LFO can reach audio rates, so you can patch it up and treat it as a second playable oscillator. You can even control both independently (to a degree) to get counter melodies and dueling arpeggios. Plus you can feed one or both of those sources into the wave folder to add even more harmonic content.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

What makes this special is that normally, East Coast or subtractive synthesis (as exemplified by Moog) are about starting with a harmonically rich sound source and then shaving away the bits you don’t want. Here you’re able to add more harmonic content and get tones that you simply can’t on almost any other Moog device. It’s inching into West Coast territory.

If I have one complaint about the oscillator, and by extension the LFO as a sound source, it’s that they can be difficult to tune. The natural analog drift here definitely lends to the charm, but I did find myself having to retune both every so often. And the tiny knobs don’t make finding the sweet spots easy. In fact, simply letting go of the LFO rate knob was often enough to knock it out of tune and I’d have to back and dial it in again. And I found tuning didn’t stay consistent across multiple octaves.

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

Mavis comes with a tool for fine tuning (the small hole next to the pitch knob). Do not lose it. You will definitely need it. You’ll also need it for tweaking the keyboard scale to try and make sure one octave does indeed equal one octave. Out of the box it wasn’t far off, but if you’re an impatient person, dialing this in may make you want to pull out your hair. Especially since the two things interact with each other and by changing the keyboard scale you can knock the synth out of tune.

The filter is basically what you expect from a Moog. It’s warm, resonant and delivers everything from subdued bass to squelchy leads. The Moog filter has a tendency to cut out a lot of the lower frequencies as you turn up the resonance. And, It might be all in my head, but it seems especially dramatic on Mavis. Just a touch of resonance is enough to completely cut out the bottom end.

Patchbay

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

It’s getting easier to find affordable semi-modular and modular synths. But they’re still not particularly common. What’s surprising here, though, is just how much versatility is packed into this 24-point bay. There’s a host of utility functions here that really explode the Mavis’ power. The attenuator, mixer and mult in particular offer more flexibility than you’d find on even some of Moog’s more expensive semi-modular synths. These allow you to blend signals, split them to control multiple parameters and dial in just how much of an impact you want that control voltage to have. These are the sorts of tasks left to dedicated “utility” modules in a Eurorack set up.

Because of the extensive patchbay options, the Mavis actually feels like it can play with the big boys in Moog’s lineup. It’s a natural and affordable way to expand on the capabilities of something like the Mother 32, Subharmonicon or DFAM. It’s also an excellent entry point for anyone who wants to learn about synthesis, and in particular modular synthesis. Other affordable modular options aren’t nearly as musical as Mavis.

Wrap-up

Moog Mavis
Moog Mavis

It seems as if Moog took what it learned from the Werkstatt-01 and applied it to a more polished and serious feeling instrument. The basic format and concept are the same. But Mavis feels less like an educational toy, and more like something that could actually find a permanent home in someone’s studio setup. It has a rough and warm charm about it, plus it’s packed with surprisingly useful features you might not expect in an entry level synth.

At $350 the Mavis isn’t just a good option for your first Moog – it’s a great choice for your first synth, period. But experienced synth users shouldn’t overlook it either.

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