Sonic Six Synthesizer: Sonic Cacophonies

The Sonic Six is a synthesizer manufactured by Moog Music Inc in the early 1970s. It was first developed as the “Sonic V” by Mr. Gene Zumchak and Fred Reinagel for Bill Waytena. The latter subsequently purchased the rights to Robert Moog’s original company R.A. Moog Inc. and then founded what soon became Moog Music Inc. The Sonic V was then reworked a bit into the Mark I version of the Sonic Six as a suitcase synthesizer. My father and Robert Moog then reworked it a bit more into the Mark II Sonic Six. I first encountered the instrument at this time: My father brought one home for testing, and I got to explore it a bit. The sonic cacophonies it can create (see below) completely blew me away, then and now. I used that first one for a few years, learning to to play lead synthesizer parts on it with my band.

The Mark I version of the instrument had a bad reputation, mainly for its lack of physical durability, and has been called the “Sonic Sick” by some Moog Music people. The Mark II however was quite a bit better, both electronically (a more sensible internal signal path) and in terms of physical integrity. Nonetheless, people are often unaware of the difference, and carelessly malign the instrument overall. There is also a cultural bias against due to some personal divisions between Robert Moog and those who developed the instrument, and the instrument is also sometimes criticized in that vein as not being a true Moog synthesizer in certain ways.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of some pretty prominent keyboard players (I’m thinking of Roger Powell here), the Sonic Six is actually a fantastic instrument, and for a number of readily verifiable and reasons:

  • First and foremost to me, it has dual modulator banks which can be used in free running mode to create very complex and wild sounding sonic cacophonies, much like one might create with a large modular system with a lot more set-up work.
  • Second, unlike quite a few other small synthesizers of that era, the Sonic Six comes with a ring modulator, which contributes greatly to its ability to created those wild sonic cacaphonies.
  • And thirdly, the Sonic Six is duo-phonic. This actually made it a fantastic lead synthesizer, especially when run through some distortion effects.

Here is a short video that demonstrates the last point about distortion: This video was made during a research project I conducted with James (Jim) Scott, and former engineer and synth designer with both R.A. Moog Inc. and Moog Music Inc., where we figured out a way to slightly hot wire the Sonic to cause some overdrive distortion in the sound chain (distortion that could be produced similarly with an appropriate distortion pedal). Please note that this video was made late at night mainly just for documentation purposes after a very long day of research, but you can tell I was pretty excited about the sound:

About a year after the video above was shot, I fired up the same machine again, still with its hot wiring, and recorded an impromptu improvisation with it, this time trying to produce some of those wild cacophonies I recall it creating from my youth. Here is the result, along with a spectral visualization: