Music

More Complex Than Fame and Fortune: Bob Moog and the Modular Synth Boom

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A recent vinyl-only release looks back on the early years of the revolutionary Moog synthesizer, ahead of a 2020 documentary about the man who created the machine. Jason Amm (Solvent) tells us about this history.

Electronic Voyages: Early Moog Recordings 1964-1969
Various Artists

Waveshaper Media

14 June 2019

Electronic Voyages: Early Moog Recordings 1964-1969, a limited-edition vinyl album, provides synthesizer obsessives a rare opportunity to hear some of the most coveted recordings of electronic music from the earliest days of Moog synthesizers.

It also provides us with a glimpse into the upcoming documentary about the man behind the brand, Bob Moog. The film, Electronic Voyager, which is being produced in conjunction with Toronto's Waveshaper Media (I Dream of Wires) and Moog's daughter, Michelle Moog-Koussa, is slated for a 2020 release.

Among the performers featured on the vinyl compilation are Moog himself (as he demonstrates the properties of his then-new invention) as well as composers such as Herbert Deutsch, Joel Chadabe and Ruth White. Each provides evidence of the instrument's evolution and promise, as historical artifacts as much as aural treats.

One of the more recognizable names on the compilation is Lothar and the Hand People, a group of prescient popsters who reckoned that the synthesizer might one day have an integral role in mainstream music and whose two LPs, including 1969's Space Hymns, have become highly sought-after examples of the Moog in its early glory. Meanwhile, Ruth White and Intersystems provide us with some absolutely eerie sonics.

Moog synthesizers would go on to become one of the most prevalent sounds of the 1970s and a staple in progressive rock of the time. Though Moog would become the most recognizable name in the synthesizers, the company's founder struggled on several fronts, not least of the which was the financial one, something that Waveshaper Media's Jason Amm says is at the core of the upcoming film. (Once more directed by Robert Fantinatto.)

The completed film will take viewers on a journey through the life of Moog and his invention and will feature appearances from Rick Wakeman, Gary Numan, Morton Subotnick, Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic), and Jean-Michel Jarre.

Amm, also known as producer/remixer Solvent, speaks with deep enthusiasm about the project as well as Moog's biography and the vision he had for the future of music. Speaking with PopMatters from his home in Toronto, he provides detailed answers about the origins of the pieces heard on Electronic Voyages, the reemergence of modular synthesizers and the progress being made on the upcoming film.

* * *

Where did this project start: With the music or the documentary?

With the documentary. We produced a documentary called I Dream of Wires, which was about the history and resurgence of modular synthesizers. That did quite well. Ended up on Netflix, got a huge amount of attention in the electronic music scene and even outside of it. That was our first film. After that was quite successful, we wanted to get a follow-up project going right away. We then had the idea to do a documentary about Bob Moog. That was about four years ago.

As far as the LP goes, this was just my idea. We had done a Kickstarter about two years ago, and we burned through all that money. This time we did an Indiegogo to finish the film. I figured that we needed to offer different rewards than last time. We're also working on a documentary about Morton Subotnick. We had done a 50th-anniversary reissue of Silver Apples of the Moon and used that as an Indiegogo reward. That did really well for us and continued to sell afterward, which meant more money for us to spend on the film.

I wondered if there were some kind of LP that we could do that would be of interest beyond what we'd done. I thought, "What kind of compilation about Moog would make sense?" I realized quite quickly that there wasn't any definitive Moog compilation. That surprised me. I assumed that somebody, at some point, must have done a historical Moog compilation.

To begin with, I was thinking: "Let's do an overview." But there was so much that went on, especially in the '60s. I didn't want to make this a quadruple vinyl boxed set. I figured that if I were to work with Moog recordings and limit it to the '60s, I could wind up with an LP's worth of material. I had to set boundaries. There were a lot of rock bands that incorporated Moog synthesizers onto records: The Doors, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I knew that that stuff would be out of our league in terms of licensing. Also, I didn't feel that that was what this compilation should be about.

I felt it should be more about music that was Moog-focused, about artists who were taking up this instrument as their primary instrument and showcasing the varied results. It was uncharted territory. The results on the LP are very varied.

The opening piece, "The Abominatron", is quite striking. How did you find it?

It wasn't meant as something people would listen to. It's just fascinating. It's the subject of the film and the subject of the compilation. It all comes down to Bob Moog. I find it interesting to listen to, so I felt it was worth including as the earliest example of a Moog synthesizer being recorded.

It is literally the first example of that. It was his recording of the first prototype Moog instrument.

Really?

He started his career by building Theremin kits. You'd find ads for these in the back of hobbyist magazines. It was an instrument that some people knew a little bit about. If you were inclined to experiment with music and you'd read about what this instrument was, it would be intriguing. He had a relatively successful business going.

There was this composer named Herbert Deutsch who sent away for and built a Moog Theremin. He ended up going to a music trade show and saw a booth for these Theremins. At that time the company was called RA Moog. Deutsch figured it would be interesting to talk to someone from the company and find out more about them and more about their work. He went over to the booth and quickly realized he wasn't just talking to a representative from the company. He was talking to Bob Moog himself.

Bob Moog / Photo courtesy of Terrorbird Media

That's pretty wild.

They wound up talking for hours. They started on Theremins, and from there it became a discussion of what Herb would like to see in an electronic music instrument. He was a composer and had been learning about early electronic music and musique concrete and some of the instrument and gadgets of the day. He had ideas about wall-sized instruments that would be available beyond electronic music studios at universities in Europe. He wanted something an actual composer would have access to.

Herbert got a grant a little bit later to visit Bob Moog, and they worked for several weeks on the ideas and design. What would the instrument could be/should be. They worked out the interface, the controls, then Herbert left, and Moog was left with all the ideas. He went about building this thing.

What that recording is, is an audio letter demonstrating the instrument they'd conceived of. This was the first example of certain sounds. It would have been remarkable to Herb at the time.

How was it first released?

Herb Deutsch does have a CD released with some of his early compositions. He included that on the collection. It had never been released on vinyl before. The audio is owned by the Bob Moog Foundation, and the documentary is being produced in association with them. I was surprised to see that it had not been uploaded onto YouTube.

Is it correct to say that the Herb Deutsch piece, "Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues", is a response to what Moog had set up for him? Moog says in his piece, "If you want to make a little bitty out of this, you can."

[Laughs.] I would say so. I don't know if that would have been the first thing that he created on a Moog. As far as I'm aware, it's the first recording available, the first thing that he put out into the world with Moog synthesizer included on it. I don't know if it's a direct response, but it's something of a response. I thought it was interesting to include the piece directly after the introduction.

Where did you find Joel Chadabe's "Blues Mix"?

He was one of Bob Moog's earliest clients. He taught at [State University of New York-Albany] and had an electronic music studio. Before he knew Moog, he had been involved with musique concrete. He probably would have been doing a lot of tape loops, recording sounds and slowing them down, chopping tape and editing pieces together. He probably used oscillators. He was involved in electronic music and then contacted Moog and discussed the kind of things he was seeking for his program. He was one of the company's first customers, commissioning a large Moog modular system. It was very customized. Not all the modules were available. You'd explain what you wanted the modules to do, and Bob would build it to the specs. That commission was 1965 or 1966. Joel continues to be active in electronic music.

Lothar and the Hand People may be one of the more visible acts on the compilation. In fact Mike Myers had a Saturday Night Live character named Lothar of the Hill People.

[Laughs.] Is that right?

I have to think it was a direct nod.

I'd never heard of that.

Yep. It was strange. They started doing some things different with the Moog.

As long as the music was Moog-led, then it was fair game. I was aware of Lothar and the Hand People. They aimed to be a pop group. They began to incorporate Theremins early on. Electronic instruments work very well in the context of psychedelic music. It's mind-expanding, probably sounded very good if you were on drugs.

They embraced Theremin, thinking that it would add something. Then they learned about the Moog synthesizer, and even though there wasn't an indication for pop music potential, the guys felt that it would. They figured that all pop music was going to use synthesizers at some point. They felt very determined to be the first band to make pop music with synthesizers.

The Moogs cost a fortune at that time. At the time, getting a good Moog would have probably been the equivalent of $500,000 in today's money. Maybe even more. That would have been out of the reach of fledgling bands like Lothar and the Hand People. So, they sought out a producer with a vision, someone who knew about the synthesizer.

Paul Conly of the band told me that they sought out Morton Subotnick first.

Oh wow.

They asked if he'd produce their record and he said no.

Now that I know Mort, it's very clear to me why he said no. Paul said that he just didn't have the time, but from what I know of Mort, he has no interest in pop music culture. Probably couldn't name two Beatles songs.

They found a producer named Walter Sear who was one of Moog's very first customers, feeling that it had great potential for sound effects and loops. He wrote music for commercials and had become a session musician. If there was a band in New York and wanted Moog, he was the guy to go to. He became Lothar and the Hand People's mentor.

Where does the resurgence of the modular synthesizer begin?

In the '90s, late '90s, there were a few companies that started to build new modular systems. It was a very niche movement. Analog synthesizers, in general, were out by the end of the 1980s. Nobody wanted them. They were being sold cheap. They were relics. By the early '90s techno, acid house and other genres had picked up on the analog synthesizers. It wasn't that they had just picked them up for cheap; they were crucial to the sound of this music. You couldn't do it with any of the stuff that was currently made. It was about having knobs and sounding raw. The instruments released at the time were not suitable for creating the music of the time.

The prices started going up, and you started to see the vintage synth market where the once-obsolete stuff was desirable again. By the late '90s that carried over to modular synthesizers. Universities that had them were practically giving them away or throwing them in the garbage. They were unreliable, but they are the pinnacle of vintage.

Some guys started to produce new, analog modular systems. That was growing at a small pace, but Doepfer's Eurorack was much smaller and much cheaper than these gigantic systems. More companies emerged and started making filters for the Doepfer, mixing, and matching. That's when we began making I Dream of Wires. It hasn't stop growing.

What do you think has allowed Moog synthesizers to endure?

Bob's famous for a reason. If you look at all the synthesizers that are out there right now, they're all based around a few key ideas that were mostly first introduced by the Moog synthesizer. It was the first commercially-available synthesizer. So much of what we associate with that instrument came from Moog, and so it became like the Kleenex of electronic instruments. If you were at someone's house, and you were about to sneeze, you'd say, "Do you have any Kleenex?" You still hear people saying, "I'm looking for Moog-y sound." Even though there are hundreds of brands, people still reach for that name.

The company had great branding. Catchy name. Great logo. And Bob became the brand. Everybody knew that it was he who invented it. He was a manufacturer who became something of a celebrity.

In doing research for the film, what were the things that really bowled you over?

I've been pretty well-versed in the story for a while. There's a book called Analog Days [by Trevor Pinch] which does a quite good job of recounting the early days of synthesizer development. I would say 60 percent of the book is Bob's story. Some say that there are inaccuracies in it. That may be the case, but if you don't know anything about the early days of the instrument, I think that book gives a good outline.

One of the things about this film that I think will make it a universal story is that it's easy to think of Bob Moog as someone who lived a life of triumph and fame. He does have a famous reputation. He created something that many people know. He's created an enduring brand that still exists. But his story is not one of triumph. A lot of it is the opposite. It's the story of someone who had an idea for an instrument and an industry. He had to introduce that to the world. There was a lot of sacrifice in doing that, including financial difficulties. It's not the story of the guy who hung out with Keith Emerson and partied with rock stars.

This is really Bob's daughter's journey to learn the whole story of who he was and what really went on in the company. The film is much more complex than fame and fortune.

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