You are here

The Rebirth Of Keith Emerson's Moog Modular

Second Coming
By Gordon Reid

The stuff of synthesizer legend, Keith Emerson's megalithic modular system hasn't just been restored — it's also been completely recreated.

When, on 1st April 2014, the news broke about Moog's recreation of Keith Emerson's iconic modular synthesizer, it's fair to say that most people dismissed it as an elaborate April Fools joke. But here I am in a small studio inside Moog's factory in North Carolina, sitting in front of Emerson's original synth, as well as the most painstaking recreation imaginable. For some players, it's possibly the most exciting analogue synthesizer project ever undertaken. Others will view it as possibly the most pointless analogue synthesizer project ever undertaken. But however you feel about it, you have to be curious about why Moog Music did it. And how they did it. And how well they did it. And, if you don't mind your studio being dominated by 400lbs of what is, in essence, a monosynth, what it will cost you to buy it.

The Rise...

To understand the background to the creation of this clone, now called the Emerson Moog Modular (or, for reasons that we need not worry about here, Roger The Synth), you need to understand that there was a time when all synthesizers were called Moogs, and Keith's instrument wasn't just a synthesizer: it was, for many people, the synthesizer.

I asked Keith how this came about and he told me, "In 1968 my band, the Nice, put out a single based upon Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3. This met with a degree of success and, one day, the shopkeeper in a Soho record shop recognised who I was. He asked me, 'Have you heard this?', and put on a record. I remember asking, 'What the hell is that?', so he showed me the sleeve, which pictured a huge electronic contraption covered with knobs and cables and stuff. The record was of course Walter Carlos's 'Switched On Bach' and the thing on the cover was a Moog synthesizer, and I decided that I really had to get one. So I contacted Manfred Mann's keyboard player, a chap named Mike Vickers, who was one of the first musicians in the UK to own a Moog, and he loaned me his for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. We were playing excerpts from Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001 — Thus Spake Zarathustra and all that — and the synth worked really well, although I suspect that everyone in the audience thought that its sounds were coming off tapes. But I was so impressed with it that, when I formed ELP in 1970, I wrote to Moog, hoping that I could get one for nothing. 'I'll endorse it and everything,' I promised.”

There's an oft‑repeated myth that Bob Moog responded to Keith by saying that his synthesizers were complicated pieces of studio equipment not suited to live performance, but it's wrong. By 1970, Herb Deutsch had been performing with a Moog for some time, and there's even a legend that, at one such concert, the synth's power supply started acting up, so Bob Moog dashed out, found two car batteries, and hooked them up directly to the DC rails of the synth so that Deutsch could complete the concert. What's more, the company had also built four performance instruments for a concert called Jazz In The Garden that took place at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York in August 1969. One was designed for percussion, one used some filters and other modules to process the signal from a polyphonic keyboard to make a primitive chordal synth, while the other two — one for bass and the other for lead lines — were expanded 1C cabinets with presets (called 1CA models) that allowed the players to recall some of the values of a sound by pressing a single button.

Keith picks up the story again, "I got a very nice letter back from a guy named Walter Sear, who was at that time Moog's East Coast salesman. He told me that, since the Beatles had bought their Moog and the Rolling Stones had bought theirs, he could see no reason why I shouldn't buy mine. So I did. I'm not sure that Greg or Carl were too happy about it, but there it is. After a while, a crate of equipment containing a disassembled synth arrived, so I set everything up on the table, and looked at it for a while. Then I looked at it some more. It took me ages just to find out how to plug the damn thing in, so I called Mike in a panic and said, 'You've got to help me with this.'”

The Emerson modular in its heyday. The Emerson modular in its heyday. Moog had shipped Emerson the 1CA lead synth from Jazz In The Garden without any documentation whatsoever. (Whether he knew that his new synth was, um, pre‑tested is something that I didn't dare ask.) Furthermore, the company rarely sold outside the USA, so there was no‑one on hand to support British customers. So Emerson took the synth to Vickers' house and left it with him for a week, during which time Vickers set up the patches that would become the bedrock of ELP's early output. Of course, the presets couldn't work without the correct cabling, so he also drew diagrams that showed Emerson how to connect this to that, and that to something else, so that the correct sounds would emerge.

Whether you view the rock of the early 1970s as some of the greatest music ever written, or as the worst musical excesses ever forced upon impressionable teenagers, it would be daft not to recognise that Emerson's use of the Moog was pioneering. But while the new genre of 'progressive' music to which ELP belonged was generally received ecstatically, this wasn't always the case. Keith reminisced, "In 1971, we were playing an open‑air gig in Gaelic Park in the Bronx. It was crazy. All around the field were trains shunting backwards and forwards, there were horrific, stinking portable toilets slamming open and closed, the Moog was screaming, and I was doing my thing sticking knives into my Hammond. Bob Moog was sitting just behind the amplifiers on stage, and when I looked around I could see that he was laughing his head off. But I later found out that another great musician, Gershon Kingsley (who had already recorded his own Moog records) was running around at the back of the field crying out 'Oh my God, it's the end of the world!' But we pushed on from there, and thank goodness we did.”

By this time, ELP had released Tarkus and Pictures At An Exhibition, so "pushing on” entailed recording Trilogy (1972), and what is perhaps the band's defining work, Brain Salad Surgery (1973). And, at every stage, the Moog grew to meet the increasing demands of its owner. Indeed, Emerson was not afraid to make it a tier taller just to make it look more commanding. If you now peer into its guts, you can still see that some of the modules are dated 1960‑something, while others are dated 1972 or later. With a bit of detective work, it's not hard to discover which were added for Trilogy, which were added for Brain Salad Surgery, and even to identify those that were replaced later in the 1970s when something failed. So, what had started as a single cabinet that you could carry under one arm eventually grew into a 400lb behemoth, with dual sequencers, additional oscillators, filters, amplifiers, contour generators and LFOs, and even some dummy panels to fill up the cabinets and make the resulting instrument look as imposing as possible.

By this point, Emerson's synth was no longer a single synthesizer, because he had patched it so that various modules could be used for specific tasks. This was a necessity; he couldn't re‑patch it during the show to create new sounds, because his audience expected him to play tracks such as 'Tarkus' and 'Lucky Man' at some point in the proceedings, and the patches he used for these were both distinctive and complex to create. So, while there were myriad more things he could have done with the existing modules, he had to modify and add to the system when new sounds were needed. For example, switches were added to inject audio and control signals from new modules into the 1CA panel that still provided much of the primary signal path, while a dedicated sequencer, oscillator, filter and various contour generators and VCAs were added to generate the sequence that ends 'Karn Evil 9'.

& Fall...

Unfortunately, following ELP's heyday from 1970 to 1977, the big Moog fell into disuse, and many stories (some true, many somewhat less so) abound about its mistreatment throughout the 1980s. But in 1991, ELP reformed to tour and record a new album, Black Moon. Gene Stopp was Emerson's synth tech at that time, and he continues the story: "The Moog was in very poor condition when I first got hold of it, and although a partial repair got us through the Japanese tour, a much more thorough restoration was necessary to make Black Moon and In The Hot Seat possible. I then withdrew to bring up my family, and it was to be almost 20 years before I was reunited with the synth. Meanwhile, it had been in the hands of people who knew nothing about synthesizers but had been trying to work on it. Moog even received a call from somebody who asked 'Which modules are the oscillators?' I hope that whoever took that call suggested that the ones with the word 'oscillator' on the front panel might be a good place to start. In truth, it's not that complicated a system, but you need some experience to understand it and track down faults.

Robert Moog and Keith Emerson with the modular system at the Rich Stadium, Buffalo, 1974."You have to realise that customisation lies at the heart of Keith's synth. If you were able to track down all of the modules that appear to exist within it and then set up the patches that he appears to use, you'll find that very different sounds emerge. Take the vibrato switch. This doesn't sound like an important modification, but it was never an original Moog feature and Keith needed it, so it was added by Moog's engineers, who used it to switch in an extra oscillator, amplifier and contour generator to produce delayed vibrato. When customising existing modules didn't do the job, new ones were built: things such as the tuner that allowed his roadies to retune the 1CA's oscillators even while he was playing the synth and, in particular, the unique 'Keith Emerson Sample‑Hold Module' that sits to the right of the middle cabinet and is necessary to produce the iconic 'Welcome Back My Friends' sound on Brain Salad Surgery.

"As a result of all of this, large parts of the synth were non‑functional when I took delivery of it again three years ago, but Keith was happy for me to work on it at home, which meant that I could devote much more time to it than I had in '91/'92. While I was doing so, Brian Kehew (who has served as the Archives Historian for the Bob Moog Foundation) and I started to question why some of the panels needed to remain empty or non‑functional, so we added some extra LFOs and other options that we thought Keith would appreciate. But we remained very much aware that he still needed to be able to switch immediately to, say, the 'Aquatarkus' patch. This originally disconnected two of the 1CA oscillators from the keyboard to create a drone, restricting him to soloing using just a single oscillator. We thought, how cool would it be to add a switch that turned on two dedicated oscillators, a filter, an LFO and some other modules to create the drone without sacrificing the main oscillators? So we did, and you can now get sounds and effects from the synth that nobody's ever heard before. But while working on this, we began to realise that Keith's synth is like a Stradivarius of the modern era; it needs to be preserved for posterity. You've got to understand that it's not like replacing a broken Minimoog. If you want one of those, you just go out and buy one. If you want to replace Keith's synth, you can't. You can't even replace bits of it. I tried to buy some spare modules, but they simply didn't come up for sale, which meant that there were going to be huge problems in the future if any of the original units were to become irreparable.”

Kehew (who is also well known as a musician and engineer for the likes of the Who, Black Sabbath, the Eagles and Yes) had reached the same conclusion, but from a slightly different direction. "The idea of restarting production of genuine Moog modules had existed for years,” he told me, "but there were already companies building versions of them, so it wasn't obvious that they would generate much interest. Then we realised that we were working on the best‑known synthesizer in the world. We thought about the Moogs used by other artists — Giorgio Moroder and Wendy Carlos, for example — but none of their synths evoke the same awe as Keith's, because no other instrument has been so visible for so long. While other players were replacing their vintage synths with modern equipment or even laptops, Keith continued to use his and, while it isn't the be‑all and end‑all of synthesis, it remains the most revered synthesizer that there ever was. So Gene and I realised that, if we could reproduce the modules from Moog's catalogues in the '60s and '70s as well as the unique modules that had been built for Keith's system, we might be onto something really exciting. Could we go further and clone Keith's synth? With the 50th anniversary of the creation of the first Moog synthesizer approaching, it seemed like the perfect time to see if we could make it happen.”

& Rise...

Their first job was to track down Moog's old manufacturing documents, such as layout films and service manuals. However, this proved merely to be a step along the way, because the original systems had been built by people who knew what tweaks were necessary to make things work, and much of the additional 'know‑how' wasn't documented. But Kehew proved to be the Indiana Jones of the synthesizer world, and he tracked down all manner of bits and pieces making up Moog's legacy: a film for a circuit board or front panel here, a naked circuit board there, pages of scribbled notes about modifications that never made it into the company's library somewhere else. He and Stopp collected everything that they could, and eventually reached the point where they felt ready to approach Moog Music's management to propose building a 'proof of concept' instrument.

Published July 2014