Unquestionably the best-known name in synth design, Bob Moog is still creating innovative electronic instruments. With the new Voyager synth about to hit the shops and the rights to use his own name restored, his star seems to be on the rise once again.
Unless you had explicit directions, or happened to be looking for some sort of speciality hammer at the hardware shop next door, there'd be virtually no way for you to happen upon the offices of Moog Music. The only clue that you've arrived is a nearly microscopic version of Dr. Robert Moog's familiar logo stuck to the front door and the sight of what looks to be a real Grammy on the other side of the tinted glass.
"We've been here since July 1994," says Moog. "This space is actually made up of two separate bays. We occupied just one bay for the first three or four years."
His 'space' is a none-too-fussy workshop in a decidedly industrial swathe of Asheville, North Carolina, where there are few signs of life of among the abandoned railway lines and scrap metal yards. Moog's offices look nothing like what you might expect. There are no huge bits of old modular gear lying around ("I'm not a collector," he insists), no employees in spotless white lab coats, and Keith Emerson isn't to be found loitering in reception. It's all very utilitarian and decidedly un-Stanley Kubrick.
The 68 year-old Moog himself, however, is something completely different. He arrives to meet me in an old family wagon on which he's painted a large peacock with an elaborate folk-art flourish. The familiar wiry white hair is still in evidence, but he looks rather solemn and preoccupied, as if his mind were preoccupied with dozens of minute details. Which is understandable, considering that it's been a terribly busy time for Moog and his associates. The initial shipment of his new Minimoog Voyager has kept him quite busy, and in the early part of last year, he'd been out to Los Angeles to pick up the second of his Grammy awards for technical contributions to the field of recording. But his recent reacquisition of the Moog trademark, however, has to be the most significant development of 2002.
"Well, it's been going on for three or four years. It's a long legal process," he says cautiously. "The time when it took the most energy and the most money was about two years ago. What's happened this year and the past year has just been the fallout. You see, there was never a lawsuit. I have to watch the language that I use here. Don Martin, who was my main adversary in the process, and I settled. As part of that process, a lot of lawyers got quite a few cases of beer out of it! Or champagne..."
The transition that involved re-branding his product line from Big Briar back to Moog Music was thankfully not as arduous. "We sort of slid into that. I'd been using the Bob Moog signature as a trademark even before the settlement, and we'd named one of our product lines Moogerfooger, and by and large most people know about my association with the company and building up Big Briar. I decided to change the corporate name to Moog Music and to use the Moog trademark as the final step."
And so with his professional identity crisis sorted, Moog and his 14 or so employees have been busily checking components on the Voyager and making sure things are up to spec. A semi-gutted example of the Signature model sits nearby as we chat, its cherry-wood veneer in stark contract to the electronics partially spilling out of the back. Despite the unit's lofty price tag (the soon to be available Performer versions of the synth will go for about £4800), all 600 produced are already completely sold out.
"Our stuff isn't cheap," Moog says unabashedly, "but it's not cheap because that's what it costs to build analogue stuff of the quality that we make. A software company, from a business point of view, can afford to put a greater percentage of its income into marketing than a hardware company. Once you design a piece of software, the actual manufacturing of the book and the CD is peanuts. So the more you sell, the more profit you make and the curve is very steep. With us the curve is not that steep. We put a lot of engineering in, but now we're putting a lot of manufacturing expertise into it too, and a lot of high-quality materials. We don't have a lot left over to do media blitzes."
There's little denying that the Moog name itself has generated a fair amount of the media interest needed to sell a pricey new product. Artists of all ages profess a devout affection for Moog's work, to the degree where ELP keyboard wizard Keith Emerson once declared he lost interest in Moog-branded products once the man himself had left the company in the late '70s ("Did he say that? Amazing!"). But where once Moog was personally very attendant to the needs and requests of serious users like Emerson and Wendy Carlos, those duties are now passed off to his staff. "For the past year or two I haven't been involved with that much at all. We have a person in the company for that, and from time to time we have visits from artists, but it's not a major part of our activity here."
Indeed artists will on occasion still seek Moog out. Stereolab have been known to turn up at the office, and Moog maintains that he still he keeps his ears open to the needs of his admiring customer base. But Moog is clear that his company simply doesn't plan on pasting their marketing strategy on the back of any famous musicians in order to shift more units. "Obviously we accept calls from them," he laughs, "and try to accommodate whatever their needs are. It's not like we start off like other companies do, where we begin with a marketing plan where we're going to have an artist, and oh... by the way, we're going to sell x or y. We have the opposite approach. We're a synthesizer manufacturer specialising, at this point, in high-quality analogue sound and we design products using that technology. We try to accommodate both mainstream, high-profile musicians and musicians who may not be so visible but who are doing interesting work and may lead to an expansion of the medium."
And those "high-profile" purchases don't generally tend to stick in his mind. He doesn't remember anything about selling a Modular III system to the Beatles or Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and although Moog is occasionally in touch, it's been quite some time since he's produced anything specifically to order for Wendy Carlos. But perhaps it was The Stones' recent stadium jaunt across America to refill their coffers that jarred his memory of one unit posted to Mr. Jagger in the Autumn of 1968. "Not only did he buy a large modular system, but he wanted to study it and he wanted us to supply somebody to teach him. The composer in residence who was with us at the time, Jonathan Weiss, went over there and lived with Jagger for five weeks and taught him how to use the system. That was impressive."
But not, however, as impressive as the sounds from the new Voyager. When Moog plugs the partially assembled unit into a small amplifier nearby, the first patch he fires up has that wonderful low-end analogue rumble of the original Model D Minimoog. As Moog begins to trace an index finger around the three dimensional touch surface, the sound gets a massive virtual filter drawn around it, and you can see a hint of satisfaction on Moog's face. In discussion about the instrument's conceptual origins, he's confident that the Voyager is the best-of-breed model he was hoping to construct.
"The main impetus behind it was to build a monophonic, performance-oriented synthesizer as good as we could, taking all the technology that had been found useful by musicians up until the present. It doesn't do everything that modular synthesizers can do and it doesn't do everything that digital synthesizers can do. Rather it is a fairly complete class of things that, taken together, allow a musician to play really interesting sounds with a lot of real-time control, which makes it a good live performance instrument."
And in an era when software synths are winning the attention of many players new and old, the initial commercial interest in the Signature model seems to indicate promising sales for the Performer. "We're hoping it is. Nobody can predict sales. You can come up with expectations and projections, but we expect the life of this product to be on the order of the Minimoog. The Minimoog had a 11 or 12 year life. Two or three years is remarkable, because it's like the fashion industry, where the latest and greatest new thing suddenly eclipses what took somebody five years to develop before that. If I can say so, the products that I've personally had a hand in designing have had a longer than average lifespan. Now the modular stuff — well, if we were still making it today, we'd still be selling it. This Theremin that we in introduced in 1996 is selling as well now as it did then. That's amazing. I'm sure that the biggest of the manufacturers would be very happy to have a product with the lifespan of our Etherwave Theremins or our Moogerfoogers."
Moog Music's Product Marketing Manager Steve Dunnington has worked with Dr. Moog for eight years and played a key part in the Voyager's design. "I helped channel feedback from musicians to Bob so he could decide on the final features," he explains. "I contributed and approved a few design ideas, but mostly I was amazed time and time again as Bob performed his magic with those circuits! The Voyager has a soulful sound that I haven't heard in any of the virtual analogue synths out there. It proves there is no such thing as a generic Moog sound. You have to have a synth designed by Bob to get that sound."
Steve also outlines how Moog's renowned filter was employed in the Voyager design: "We started off with the classic Moog filter, in particular the one in the Moogerfooger MF101. This filter can switch between the classic Moog sound (four-pole, or 24dB/octave cutoff slope) and a brighter, more aggressive sound (two-pole, or 12dB/octave). Bob had the idea to use two of these low-pass filters in parallel, one per output channel. This gives you some wild stereo effects when the filters are set to different cutoff frequencies with the Spacing control, and then the Cutoff control is swept. We liked that, but a lot of customers wanted a multi-mode filter too. We decided that the two-pole/four-pole switch was replaceable if we changed it to a switch that allowed you to switch between the dual low-pass filters in parallel and a high-pass and low-pass filter in series. The ability to select cutoff slope may be offered in a future software release. With these two filter modes — dual low-pass and high-pass/low-pass — the Voyager offers an astoundingly large palette of filtering effects."
The Voyager also boasts improved oscillator stability, new modulation busses designed to enhance modulation routings and a MIDI-upgradeable operating system, while the Touchpad is one of its most visually distinctive features. Moog was particularly careful in his selection of which controller would be best suited for the new unit, as Steve explains: "We looked at a number of options for the touch controller, and Bob settled on one that borrowed from a design he did years back for Big Briar that was never released. It measures the X and Y position of the player's finger on the surface, and the area that the finger or fingers cover. This is a different approach but allows some interesting things to happen. First of all, it's like turning three different knobs simultaneously with the tip of your finger. Secondly, you can make sudden, instantaneous changes in timbre — something you can't do by turning a knob."
As for the future, Moog mentions that he's continually approached by software companies to brand a product with his newly re-won name. "We have a look at the software technology that they propose to use, and usually there's enough of a difference between the way that stuff sounds and works and the things that I've made in the past that we decide not to get involved. The one exception has been Bomb Factory. Dave Amels [Bomb Factory founder] and I understand the same things. It's one of those things that's a friendship and both a high professional regard."
So what next for Moog Music itself? There's been talk of a rackmounted version of the Voyager, or a modular version, but the size of his current operation is one of the predominantly overarching restrictions on development. "We're a very small company as you can see, and we can't do everything right away. We can only do one thing at a time well. We're still taking care of the detail of the Voyager. It will be next year before we begin in earnest working on the next instrument."
And truthfully, while his name often carries a certain reverence when it's spoken in musical circles, in this small, out of the way shop in the shadow of the Smokey Mountains, Moog views himself and his work as the humble labour of a venerable local citizen. "The Asheville Citizen Times carried an article on the Grammy award," he says, smiling. "And from that article, most people in town know me as the person who got the Grammy. But I think most musicians knew me before that."