5 July 2023
In 2005 customers petitioned for me to recreate the Moog 960 sequencer and here is the story of how that played out.
To explain this story I'll have to provide some early history of Synthesizers.com. In the late '90s, after deciding to build a modular synthesizer, the first decision was whether to clone an existing system or make my own. This question dangled in my mind for a grand total of 60 seconds before deciding to do my own thing.
I loved the Moog modular form factor, the large panels, the double-dotted knobs, and the cabinetry, but there were so many things I wanted to do differently including getting rid of half-height modules, making a symmetrical and modular power system, denser PCBs mounted parallel to the panel, and use of modern parts. Not to mention, making a clone of something requires having access to one, I had never even seen a Moog modular in person at that time. Also, I find it much more difficult to clone something than to start from scratch - a blank slate is a wonderful design freedom.
So that's what I did, I made my own, in the spirit of the Moog modular - each module design was straight from my brain, each power supply component, each cabinet, every wire, for good or for bad, I built what I wanted without any preconceived ideas. This model worked out great.
After about 5 years of production I was asked on the Synthesizers.com Yahoo forum to make a sequencer with the Moog 960 skip feature. The Yahoo forum was the way we communicated before Facebook and other modern social media. The request for a 960 sequencer came from musicians who used them and enjoyed its features. The discussion went on for a while and I became convinced that the skip feature would be very musically useful. My existing sequencer, the Q119, did not have a skip feature, and some other features too.
So, the question about whether to design one of my own or recreate the Moog version came up again, and this time it seemed like a better idea to recreate the 960 in function and form, even though the circuitry had to be redesigned. Along with the 960 there also had to be a 962 switch and a 961 interface module - they all work together.
But I needed to make sure that people talking on a forum would actually result in real orders for an expensive module, so for the first time I created a pre-order program. Customers had to put down 25% to show they were serious. The deadline was Feb 28, 2005. Here is the introductory pre-order web page as it was in Feb 2005. The initial price of the Q960 sequencer and the Q962 switch module was $960 :)
On March 1, 2005 I posted this notice on the forum that I had enough pre-orders to justify designing and building the Q960 and accessory modules.
I decided to keep the Moog numbering scheme but added a 'Q' in front which I do to all product numbers. And here is the Q960 web page describing the product.
There's a personal back-story that goes along with all this -
My sleep apnea was getting much worse and I was close to becoming a non-functioning person. Long story short, in an act of desperation I contacted a researcher at Stanford and through some amazing luck he agreed to do a major surgery on me in California in late July. There was a good chance this surgery wasn't going to work but I was running out of options. I didn't make this public to my customers but I blogged about it during and after the surgery under a different name on the sleep apnea forum.
The surgery date set a deadline for me to finish all the Q960 circuit design, lay out the circuit boards, write all the data sheets, make test procedures, build web pages, order forms, inventory items, etc. It was a huge undertaking but I just went into zombie grunt mode and focused like a laser beam to finish in time to pull it all off. It was a difficult time.
Q960 sequencer production began while I was in California, I watched the webcam that pointed down at the production line. Yes, there were problems, there always are, and we resolved them over email.
In the end, my surgery worked, the Q960 Sequencer was a hit, and 2005 was one of our biggest years ever. It was an amazing journey I never want to do again :)
Here is a picture of me in my home workshop with the prototype of the Q960. Notice the panel doesn't have any printing on it, and the PCB doesn't have a solder mask. It required a few minor mods before production, that's the reason for making a prototype.
My Q960 is functionally just like the Moog 960 with a few secret enhancements. It might look like a clone from the front but the circuitry is all new. Some of the old components used on the Moog aren't even available anymore.
Just looking at the back you can see how different it is. My circuitry is denser and the single PCB is parallel to the front panel which allows it to fit into thin cabinets like the Box11. Here's a giant view if you want to look closer.
An important design goal was to match the Moog front panel exactly. I used 3/4" skirt-less single-dot knobs for the voltages just like the Moog even though this wasn't a normal size for us to stock. Many years later I used this knob again on some of the ++ series of denser modules where I needed extra panel space.
I used pointer knobs for the mode switches like Moog but here's a little trivia - In 1974 the pointer knobs were unavailable for a time and Moog used a different kind of knob for the mode switch. Bob confirmed this to me. Here is a picture of that substitute knob.
I found and used incandescent lamps just like the Moog. This was semi-difficult. One time our suppliers ran out of the sockets and we had to buy a different kind and modify them in production. There are some vendors who make LED versions of this lamp but I think the incandescents give it an old-school vibe.
One secret feature I added without changing the front panel is that the mode switches have a 4th unmarked position to the far right. When the switch is in that position the sequence resets back to step 1. This is a very musically-useful feature when playing the sequencer in real-time.
Here's a general overview of the circuit - There is an internal VCO that responds to 1V per octave just like the Q106 oscillator. Unlike the Moog, I made thise VCO temperature compensated so it's very stable. The output of this VCO steps the sequencer. The sequencer itself is a giant 9 stage shift register using digital logic flip-flops. The 9th stage can be skipped for continuous operation, or can be used to stop the sequencing. On the outputs there is a range switch to select the output scaling. There's a more complete description of the various nuances on the Q960 web page from 2005 or at Synthesizers.com.
The Moog 960 sequencer had an accessory module called the 962 Switch. This module allowed the sequencer to operate as a 24-step sequencer instead of just 8-steps by switching between the 3 rows one after another. Here's a picture of the Q962 and others on my red synthesizer.
As part of the 960 recreation, I also did the Q962 Switch module. Like the Q960 I kept the front panel exactly the same and redesigned the circuitry. On the circuit board I put this message to Bob.
The Moog sequencery system also had a 961 interface module to provide some control over gate outputs (Moog called them Triggers) and do conversions to Switch Trigger which is Moog's version of Gate. In my system I unified switch triggers into a general purpose gate signal using a 1/4 jack like all other signals to improve usability. So the Q961 is not a panel duplicate of the Moog but contains the features needed. Here's a picture of the Moog 961.
The Q963 is a module that Moog didn't offer and it seemed like a natural addition to the sequencer product line. On the Q960 sequencer circuit board I put a connector to patch the gates over to this module - no patch cables were needed. Here's a picture.
The Q964 is like the Q963 but has jack inputs instead of being wired behind the panel to the sequencer. This module did not go into production but I made one for the prototype synth.
Bob signed this panel for me that I keep next to the 960 sequencer, it's a treasure.