On the Beat

An ode to Moog

Some years back, Chapel Hill musician Alex Maiolo was having an issue with an instrument he’d bought from Moog, the Asheville-based synthesizer manufacturer. He’d been unable to reach anyone by phone or email. So the next time he was in Asheville, Maiolo just walked into the factory.

“I told them my problem and they nodded, walked into the back, got a new part to fix it and just gave it to me, free of charge,” Maiolo said. “It was such a glorious Asheville hippie moment. You may not get them to return a phone call, but once you walk in and talk to a human, it all works out. It’s a fun little factory full of Oompa Loompas making cool things.”

Moog (which rhymes with “vogue,” when properly pronounced) has always been a grassroots operation. It has around 80 total employees, most in the factory on Broadway Street in downtown Asheville, where they turn out 40,000 units per year. And the door is proudly open for public tours through Moog’s factory floor, where workers put together mysterious-sounding instruments in about the most unmysterious way possible.

“We do every piece and component by hand,” said Jim DeBardi, Moog’s social-media director. “It’s old-school American manufacturing, no automation – a lot of drilling, soldering, hitting things with a hammer or mallet. There aren’t too many downtowns in the U.S. where you can just walk into an electronic manufacturing plant.”

Moogfest, the annual festival, has its first edition in Durham this week, with more than a dozen venues across town hosting panels and performances by ODESZA, Explosions in the Sky, Grimes, Martine Rothblatt and numerous other key figures from the worlds of music and technology. While Moog Music no longer owns the festival (which is operated by Triangle Projects), its brand and philosophy remain integral parts of Moogfest.

The Moog way of doing things will be most prominently on display with the “Moog Pop-Up Factory,” in which the Moog factory crew will temporarily move production over from Asheville to make and sell 30 instruments from a new product line at the festival. For those Moogfest attendees who want to get hands-on about it, Moog engineers will be there to help people build their own synthesizers in workshops.

“Showing how we do things is our way of saying, ‘Hey, this can be done in a flexible, efficient, cost-effective way,’ ” said Moog brand director Emmy Parker. “We want people to see that these type of companies exist. Everybody can and should do this. Anyone who tells you it can’t be done – that’s not true.”

Door-to-door sales

Moog’s roots go back to the childhood of the company’s founder and namesake, Robert Moog, who was born in New York City in 1934 with a predilection for electronics. By his teenage years, Moog had designed his own version of the theremin – the electronic instrument that later gained prominence as the source of the ghostly sci-fi wail on the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Good Vibrations.”

Selling his homemade theremin kits door to door paid Moog’s way through college and launched his career as an electrical engineer. The 1950s and ’60s were a momentous time for electronic music, with engineers and avant-garde musicians creating new sounds and tools using surplus telecommunication and encryption equipment left over from World War II.

“What was missing from the process was articulation,” said DeBardi. “The next step was turning this stuff into musical tools, and electrical engineers were the gatekeepers. Bob was one of a number of engineers tapped by avant-garde composers to build devices. His just turned out to be the most impactful.”

The fateful meeting happened at a music-education conference in 1963, when composer Herbert Deutsch approached Moog about working together on a new instrument. A year later, they had built the first Moog prototype.

Moog’s early models were cumbersome and expensive – $11,900 for a Moog Modular System 55 in 1973, equivalent to nearly $64,000 today. But they’ve come down significantly in both size and price since then. Moog sounds were percolating into the mainstream by the end of the 1960s and really took off in the early 1970s with the MiniMoog (which can be had nowadays for under $3,000).

1970s breakthrough

One early landmark was “Switched-On Bach,” on which Wendy Carlos performed some of the German Baroque composer’s best-known compositions on a Moog. “Switched-On Bach” cracked the top 10 of the pop charts in 1969 and eventually sold more than 1 million copies, rare feats for classical music. Moog sounds also figured prominently in Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1971 classic-rock hit “Lucky Man” and Hot Butter’s 1972 top 10 instrumental, “Popcorn.”

“That 1964 Moog prototype was a milestone, even though it was not necessarily perceived as such at the time,” said DeBardi. “Keith Emerson was doing the instrumental equivalent of back flips, trying to outdo the guitar gods of that time. Rick Wakeman of Yes said that using Moogs was the first time a keyboardist could compete with guitarists. It really became a thing in the ’70s. Stevie Wonder took a big jump when he incorporated electronic synthesizers into his work.”

By the time new wave music was taking hold in the 1980s with hits like “Cars” by Gary Numan (a performer on this year’s Moogfest lineup), Moog was well established as one of the most recognizable trademarks in electronic music.

“People like me who grew up on MTV, the keyboards you’d see in videos always said either Moog or Roland,” said Maiolo. “Seeing Gary Numan playing a keyboard with MOOG on it in giant letters, we all started to equate Moog with synthesizers the same way you’d refer to a bass as a Fender regardless of what brand somebody was playing.”

Moog on the move

Robert Moog turned out to be more skilled as an inventor than a businessman, losing control of the company bearing his name in 1977. He moved to Asheville in 1978 and set up shop under the name Big Briar, finally regaining the right to do business as Moog Music again in 2001 after the original Moog went out of business.

The first Moogfest was in 2004, a year before Moog died from a brain tumor. Early on, the festival was a small affair in New York before moving to Asheville in 2010 and growing into a multi-day festival encompassing technology and art as well as music.

Perhaps fittingly, it’s always been more of an artistic than financial success. The final Asheville edition in 2014 drew substantial crowds and acclaim for a lineup featuring Laurie Anderson (who also returns this week for the festival’s Durham debut), Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk and Chic. But it finished with a deficit of $1.5 million.

That inspired a move to the greener pastures of Durham, where the local tech-company infrastructure affords better sponsorship possibilities.

“A festival like ours isn’t really straightforward,” said Moogfest executive director Marisa Brickman. “We’re not huge, not looking to max out, and a lot of sponsors out there aren’t interested in anything beyond selling 500 cases of beer a day. But some marketing people we’ve talked to are attracted by the chance to do something in front of the interesting people we draw.”

The city and county of Durham have also kicked in $125,000 in public support toward Moogfest’s free programming, such as a Saturday show at American Tobacco Amphitheater featuring Bootsy Collins and Mark Mothersbaugh. Projections call for an estimated economic impact of more than $5 million from the four-day festival.

“There are financial challenges everywhere because festivals are a very challenging business,” Parker said. “What has eased that struggle in Durham is there are so many businesses in the Triangle doing work that relates to the programmatic themes Moofest is tackling, that intersection between creativity and technology.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


What: Moogfest with Laurie Anderson, Gary Numan, Grimes, others

Where: Various venues, Durham

When: Thursday through May 22

Cost: $249-$499 for festival pass; $69-$129 for single-day pass

Free events on Saturday: DJ Lance, Yo Gabba, Mark Mothersbaugh, Bootsy Collins perform, starting at noon at the American Tobacco Amphitheater. Reggae Soundsystem with Mad Professor, Angus Taylor & David Katz, Tippy, Lister, Ras Kush perform starting at 1 p.m. at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, 427 W. Main St., Durham.

Info: moogfest.sched.org