Moog Memories

Thanks for publishing Coury Turczyn's article, "The Sound of Science," in this week's Metro Pulse [May 6, 2010]. I'm one of those other David Ball musicians that Seva David Ball mentioned, and can relate to his need to differentiate himself from all of those others. But more importantly, I'm very happy to see that he is working on the restoration of Bob Moog's tapes.

I grew up around Bob's work. My dad was head of the music department at Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt) back in the '60s. There was a faculty member, Gil Trythall, who headed up an electronic music program at the college at that time. Along with Trythall, my dad worked with Bob Moog to get the college one of the very earliest Moog modular synths—a Moog 3 as I recall. It was a roomful! The oscillator circuitry was not very stable yet, so the thing had to be retuned after only a few minutes of play, and unlike the recordings in the article, it was monophonic. Since most of what people were doing with these early Moogs was via multi-track recording, one note at a time, it wasn't that big a deal. You'd play a few notes, record them, retune, repeat. Later, Moog did a retrofit to stabilize the tuning on the synth. But the range of sounds that were possible were completely incredible for the time. Trythall also had a Moog 3, but it was the "portable" version of the unit, at Athena records in Nashville. There, he recorded his classic country synth albums, Country Moog and Nashville Gold. Pretty bizarre records, but they were a nice contrast to Switched on Bach. "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on a Moog synth? Yep and much more, including a synthesized Johnny Cash vocal emulation on "Folsom Prison Blues."

They put on annual electronic music festivals at Peabody ("Electronic Music Plus") for several years in the mid-1960s that were pretty avant-garde for an institution as conservative as Peabody was at the time (they were eventually discontinued). They even had a modem link from one of Vanderbilt's mainframe computers controlling a Moog modular across town for the festival—that's nothing now, but completely unheard of in the mid-1960s. One of dad's graduate students at the time who worked on the festival, Tom Rhea, went on to become VP of Moog Music and worked with Bob for many years. I remember seeing Tom at Moog's booth at a music convention one year, and he showed us what I believe was probably the first synthesized drum interface—it was built into a set of bongos, but controlled a Moog synth. It blew me away.

Many years later, I came to know Bob Moog through a mutual interest in the theremin—the instrument that got Bob involved with electronic music. I was designing and building vacuum tube theremins at the time while Bob was moving more and more into midi-enabled theremins. He gave me a hard time about being behind the times! The theremin's user interface (gesture controlled with no physical contact) intrigued Bob, and I think that his genius was more reflected in the sophisticated user interfaces of his instruments more than any thing else. As much as he did in tailoring synthesized waveforms, he was also a real pioneer in the area of ergonomics for electronic music. Bob was brilliant, but very humble. He was a really great guy.

At any rate, I am glad that Bob Moog's legacy is being preserved. Thanks to David for rescuing these recordings and thanks to the Pulse for telling us about it.

David Ball