ASHEVILLE--From the young Thomas Wolfe through Bauhaus refugees at Black Mountain College to composers like John Cage and Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, Asheville has a history of providing a haven for creative types. It seems only fitting, then, that the man who pioneered analog synthesizers, as well as building theremins--that otherworldly, sci-fi sounding instrument--should have made the mountain town his home.
Robert Moog (it rhymes with "vogue"), who received his doctorate from Cornell in engineering physics, began selling theremins back in the '50s, Moog synthesizers in the '60s and '70s and formed Big Briar Inc. in '78 after being bought out by the Norlin Company. Moog and Big Briar settled in Asheville that same year, where he returned to making theremins, as well as a line of analog effects pedals--moogerfoogers--and teaching at UNC-Asheville. With one assistant, Moog plugged away throughout his namesake instrument's nadir (back when Moog synths were about as cool as bringing a copy of ELP's Tarkus to a friend's "new wave" party).
Now, in 2002, as owner and chief technical officer of his seven-person company, he not only has reacquired the Moog trademark but has launched a retooled version of his classic Voyager model synth.
Other than a simple blue trademark on the factory's glass door, Moog Music Inc., tucked into one of Asheville's industrial boulevards, gives no hint of the great expanses of electronic sound being explored within its nondescript façade. And it's not easy to find--"just past a Burley Brothers tobacco warehouse," says their receptionist after our first try winds us through a warren of turn-of-the-century red-bricked warehouses, some turned into studios for woodworkers and craftsman, some lying empty.
Once inside, it's impossible not to recognize Moog, a tall, 68-year-old man whose exuberant shock of white hair seems as electrified as his otherworldly sounds. Although he's lived in North Carolina more than two decades, his accent is still unmistakably that of a native New Yorker.
The Moog synthesizer was first popularized in eerie, '50s sci-fi soundtracks. For most people, it evokes memories of be-caped Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman's over-the-top concept albums (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or the robotic, cold precision of Walter/Wendy Carlos' Switched on Bach (the best-selling classical album of all time), re-released as a boxed set earlier this year. Then there's the obscure: Denver's Lothar and the Hand People (Lothar was the name of their theremin), and, of course, the most well-known use of the theremin (aside from '50s sci-fi soundtracks), the riff to The Beach Boys' hit, "Good Vibrations." These days, retro electronica bands like Stereolab have added to the Moog cachet, while eBay insures that synth buffs have access to (and sometimes pay dearly for) analog synthesizers.
"There's just something magical about it," says Steve Dunnington, Moog's product marketing manager, of analog sound. "The theory would say that yes, digital stuff will sound great, but it does sound different to the ears."
Dunnington, a UNC-A grad in recording and engineering, first met Moog as a student during his three years teaching there and has worked for the company since '95. Up until that time, Moog, along with one assistant, had been making theremins, both a concert quality model, the Ethervox, and an affordable theremin kit, the Etherwave. But all that changed with the surprising success of Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, the 1995 film that popularized the instrument and introduced the general public to the seldom-explored possibilities of the instrument through theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.
"It made the difference between Bob and a part-time person and having to hire three other folks," Dunnington says of the film. Plans for the theremin kits were modest; Moog hoped to sell 500 or so of them. "We sold five times that," Dunnington recalls. The instrument, an antenna-like rod played by moving one's hands around it, was picked up by bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, sci-fi punk/surf rockers Man or Astroman? and "The Lothars" (three theremin players and a guitarist). With the success of the kits, Moog launched a series of attainably priced effects pedals called Moogerfoogers, including a phaser, ring modulator and more. When asked to list some of the artists who use Moogerfoogers, Dunnington quickly runs off a list of critically acclaimed groups including Wilco and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
We're told by Dunnington that we've come at an exciting time for the company; the next day, Aug. 14, the new Moog Voyager synths go into production in a five-step assembly process. We're shown the new Voyager assembly room, a state-of-the-art, five-station process where the synths move along on rolling carts. The company plans to make 10 synths a day when production cranks up. From the cases to the circuit boards made "just up the street" in Asheville, all of the Voyager's components, except for the Italian keyboard, are made in North Carolina.
All 600 of the signature edition models, signed by Moog and featuring premium hardwood cases and a "few bells and whistles," are reserved, says Dunnington. The performer edition won't have the extras but will still be a "Moog on steroids," featuring modulation busses and a touchpad, as well as clear plastic pitch and modulation wheels that glow with an alluring blue light. The three oscillators are analog audio with real-time controls--you turn the knob, the sound changes.
Bob Moog and August Worley, an assistant who worked at the original Moog factory in upstate New York in 1986, are hunched over an open Voyager prototype, a version of the classic monophonic synth first issued in the 1960s. Although it's the third Voyager prototype they've done, it's the first assembled by the production team rather than the company's engineers. Back in the music room, as the afternoon wanes, Moog asks Dunnington to fire up the Voyager. "You always have to keep your humility when you're an engineer designing something complicated," says Moog cautiously. He then launches into an anecdote about an ill-fated launch of another sort--the Vasa, a Swedish battleship that Moog describes as an "incredible engineering tour de force of its time." It sank 30 minutes after being launched.
With Moog grinning like a kid with a cache of comic books, they run the synth through its paces. By the end of the day, the Voyager will be packed up and sent off to Brian Keehew, half of the duo responsible for the album The Moog Cookbook, a collection of rock songs ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," for example) done on vintage synths.
"He's going to shake a few good sounds out of this," says Moog, obviously tickled pink at the idea.
Return of the Synth
The analog synthesizer, which creates sound on an infinitely sliding scale as voltage is run through an oscillator, went out of style with the advent of cheaper, digital models that use pre-programmed sound bits. But by the early 1990s, bands like Stereolab (and later French popsters Air and Mellow) were using analog keyboard sounds, and suddenly the instantly identifiable gurgles and blips of vintage synths became once again fashionable.
"The stages [electronic music] went through," says Moog, "was first the academic position, the academic composers who were experimenting with them; the second stage was when it became big stuff in advertising commercials [through electronic music pioneers like Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley]; the third stage were all these Moog records of the late '60s," which led to the keyboards being adopted by rock musicians.
Moog's favorite live rock moment involved electronic music pioneer Kingsley and a particularly outré early show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
"The first time I saw them, it was their first tour of the United States and there was a concert at a place that was way at the northern end of New York City called Gallic Park ... the end of the subway line. And the concert was on the soccer field--there were no seats. There was the stage at one end and everybody stood up or sat on the ground, about 10,000 guys, some of them were the kind that were throwing their shirts in the air, their hands in the air, screaming, getting stoned ...
"At the back of the soccer field, at the very end, there were all these portajohns--of course a lot of people, a lot of portajohns. I went back there, so I could get a little perspective, and there was Gershon Kingsley, he'd heard that this was something he should hear to get to know the direction of music. And the guy is standing there next to these portajohns, and the air is getting rich with aroma, y'know? [pauses and laughs], and Keith Emerson is up there, pieces of keys are flying into the air [he makes stabbing motions--Emerson's stage show included attacking his Hammond B-3 with daggers], and he's going like this with the lights ... and Gershon Kingsley, his eyes are half out of his head, and he says, 'This is the end of the world!' [laughs]. I thought is was great."
It's that youthful exuberance that shines through, that has insured that Moog's instruments didn't become quaint timepieces associated with a bygone era but are still somehow modern, still intertwined with the future of music.