It was 1982. Dr. Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) was visiting the campus, giving master classes in the afternoon and presenting a lecture on music synthesis in the evening. I was a senior music major at Furman University, and a DJ with WPLS, our campus radio station. Somehow I landed (mostly by begging) the assignment of interviewing Dr. Moog for the radio.
Dr. Moog was gracious, and turned my bumbling, star-struck questions into a wonderful interview. He made me sound good. It’s now years later, and I wish I had a copy of that recording. Alas, with the ephemeral nature of magnetic tape, it’s probably long gone.
I’ve always held an appreciation for Dr. Moog, Ray Kurzweil, and other early pioneers of electronic music. Some years back I was amazed to learn that Dr. Moog had moved to Asheville, NC, and further still, had re-established his company, Moog Music, in the area. I knew that I would have to pay a visit. It was always on my list of “that’s something I’ve gotta do someday.” I finally made the pilgrimage yesterday with my friend, Ken Cothran.
We left Clemson early and took the back way across the mountains to Asheville. Our route took us by the access road to Sassafras Mountain, so we decided to check out progress on the observation platforms. It was still a bit foggy and cloudy, so vistas wouldn’t be the best. We arrived to find the one overlook I remembered from my last visit.
What amazed us more was that it looked like the top of the mountain had been completely denuded. All of the trees had been stripped off to create a 360º view for the yet-to-be-constructed view platform at the highest point in South Carolina. It was very disconcerting.
We drove back down to Rocky Bottom and continued northward on Highway 178. Along the way I spotted another set of Coffindaffer Crosses in the back of someone’s yard.
We reached the town of Rosman, and paused to check out the nascent French Broad River. From there we headed on Highway 64 to Brevard, then on to Asheville. As we entered Asheville I was struck once again by the amount of graffiti tagging. It seemed that every building was a target. I didn’t see a single building that didn’t have a tag of some kind.
I know Asheville prides itself on its quirky nature. However, I don’t know how much of this graffiti is true street art, and how much is more nefarious. If in the wrong place and without consent, even street art is wrong. While there are movements to try to eradicate the graffiti, there are even Tumblr blogs and Flickr groups dedicated to it.
We found a place to park downtown, and our first stop was Grove Arcade. I’m always amazed at the stunning art deco architecture of the building. The bottom floor of the arcade seems to have lots of shops, but the whole space seems underutilized for some reason. I have no idea what offices or residences are on the upper floors. I wonder how different this would be if the planned tower had ever been completed.
We wanted some lunch, and the Grove Arcade places seemed a bit pricey, so we headed out onto the street. Along the way we did a bit of window-shopping along the narrow Wall Street (which Ken compared to Diagon Alley). The aroma of various cuisines wafted over, changing with each corner we rounded. However, we weren’t finding the right menu choices. There were lots of purely vegetarian options, but not much to appeal to a couple of carnivores like us.
Finally we decided on Isa Bistro as having a nice menu with prices that wouldn’t set us back too far. There was a bit of a breeze, so we sat outside, watching traffic go by on the street.
We each got Po’ Boy sandwiches. These were much lighter than the ones I’d had before, and were perfect for the afternoon.
After lunch we still had some time to kill. Our tour wasn’t scheduled until 3:00, and the Moog Factory was just a few blocks away. We could easily walk it. We decided to wander around downtown a bit more.
Greenville is mostly linear, laid out with one long main street, with only a block or two off of that comprising the commercial district. Asheville, on the other hand, has more squares. While the regional population and overall commerce of Greenville is greater, the downtown area of Asheville is much, much larger.
As we walked along the streets we noticed a couple of things. First, there were lots of vagrants. These weren’t the typical homeless folks you see around our town, but seemed to be aimless young people. It was almost as if they were striving for an alternate lifestyle, and this was a choice they had made (and, yes, I know that’s a major assumption, and probably way off base.) We were accosted by one young man asking for $3 for a hot dog. We were at the corner where a prominent restaurant was located, and a woman came out of the restaurant scolding the dude for bothering us. In her hand she had a bag of day old bread and other left overs which she gave to him. He took the bag back to his compatriots sitting on a nearby bench, and they snickered at the bag, as if it were demeaning. Well…
The other thing we noticed was that everyone smokes, and everyone has tattoos. Must be a law. Outside of every restaurant and coffeehouse there were two or three tattooed denizens with a cigarette. I’m assuming smoking was not allowed in the establishments themselves, so the street had to do. Ken and I must have looked like a couple of straight lace, middle aged nerds (which, I guess, we are.)
Ken and I continued on our trek, taking photos of the amazing architecture in the city. It looked like it was going to dump on us, so we popped into Mast General Store and picked up a couple of cheap umbrellas.
Finally we decided it was time to head to Moog. It was still early, but a storm was looming and we were a bit tired of the alternative-types around town. We walked down a couple of blocks and under I-240 to reach the Moog building.
The showroom was small, but had every product made by Moog available for demonstration and to try out. I was like a kid in a candy store. Ken was very indulgent.
Bob Moog got his start building Theremins, and there were three different models on display. I played them all. It took awhile, but I was able to vaguely approximate a melody on one. Ken also tried his hand(s) at it.
I found it a bit frustrating, to be honest. I was more intrigued by the sythns, and spent lots of time playing those.
Moog Synthesizers get back to the basics of electronic music. A tone is produced by one or more oscillators, then altered by envelopes and filters. It’s about as basic as you can get. Most of the Moog instruments only produce monophonic tones, but they are known for rich, fat tonalities that you just can’t get with digital keyboards. True analog synthesizers such as Moog’s have been gaining in popularity because of this rich tonality. Those fat tones don’t come cheaply, though. The Sub 37 Moog is the least expensive, starting at about $1500, going to $3000-$5000 for the MiniMoog Voyagers.
When Moog started building synths in the 1970s, most synthesizers were made up of various modules. You had an oscillator that created the tone. That was patched into a completely separate module that controlled the envelope – attack, decay, sustain, and release. You would then use another patch cable to connect to various filters. Moog began taking all of these separate modules and putting them into a single case. A typical synth looked something like this:
Here’s a video demonstration of that unit:
Moog miniaturized many of these components into a smaller, more portable format, and the MiniMoog was born. The synthesizers currently produced by Moog Music still use that MiniMoog format. The instruments still use an analog signal path, but digital components have been added to allow for storage of patches (a holdover term from when patch cords were used to connect the various components), MIDI connections and other more modern data conveniences.
I enjoyed talking with the guys who were running the shop. When I mentioned that I had met and interviewed Dr. Moog, I got reactions of either, “Yeah, right”, or a reaction of amazement. Robert Moog died in 2005 of a brain tumor, and I don’t think either of these guys had ever met the company’s founder.
Folks that visit the shop want to take something home, and a $3K synth just isn’t in everyone’s budget. There’s the typical merch, such as T-shirts, hats, etc., but they also had a nice collection of small third-party electronics. These tended to be novelty noise makers with novelty keyboards, etc., but had some pretty decent sounds. Seeing my interest in Theremins, one of the guys showed me a small light-controlled Theremin they had for sale. It behaved and sounded EXACTLY like the Theremin I built last winter using a Raspberry Pi and Picoboard. I showed him the video of my creation.
Soon it was time for our tour. Our tour guide (Jeff?) started by demonstrating the equipment in the showroom, starting with the Theremin.
From there we proceeded to the factory floor. The “factory” had about as much square footage as our house – it was a very small place. All of the instruments are hand-built.
Jeff gave a history of the company. The company started as R. A. Moog Co. in 1953, selling Theremins. Our guide said that Bob Moog was a brilliant engineer, but not such a great businessman. In 1972 he had to sell the company, and left it completely in 1977. Moog Music produced several synths not designed by Dr. Moog during this time, and those didn’t sell very well. By 1986 the company declared bankruptcy, and dissolved completely by 1993. In 2002 Robert Moog was able to regain rights to manufacture and sell under the Moog Music name, and the modern company was born in Asheville. Sadly, Dr. Moog passed away not too long after re-founding the company. I was surprised that the present company wasn’t really that old.
As Jeff showed us the various products under construction and how they were put together, he did quite a bit of name-dropping of various artists that use Moog products. He mentioned Jay-Z and Justin Bieber, among others, at which point I turned to Ken and whispered, “I didn’t know they could even play a keyboard.” Yeah, I can be a music snob.
The instruments can be built in a variety of finishes, but one of which Jeff was particularly proud was a gold-plated MiniMoog. This one would sell for upwards of $20,000. They had built one other which was given away as part of some sweepstakes.
Jeff said that since Moog builds instruments based on older analog technology, in many cases they use new “old” components. These are components that were originally built during the 1970s but were never used. Moog has bought up the supply of those components, and uses them in their instruments. They will eventually run out of parts, and will have to stop making those particular instruments. I don’t know if this was a clever marketing ploy or not, but it made me want to rush right out and buy one before they are all gone.
The tour was great, and was perfect for an electronic music nerd like myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would highly recommend it if you’re in the Asheville area. Of course, I couldn’t leave empty-handed. I did manage to slip out with only one purchase – my own coffee Moog.