Building the World’s Premier Synthesizers

At the Moog Music factory, 20 employees make every iconic synthesizer by hand, the same way they’ve been making them for decades.

To understand synthesizers, one needs to understand Bob Moog and the 1950s. Growing up a nerdy teenager in upstate New York, when the hobbyist culture around build-it-yourself electronics was at its peak, he began selling theremin kits. At 19, he founded his own company, R.A. Moog Co., and continued toying around with oscillators and amplifiers. Meanwhile, experimental musicians were similarly experimenting with surplus oscillators, filters — rudimentary parts found on telephone landlines — and recorded what they could on tape machines. By reworking these tools, Moog and the musicians were creating eerie and unusual sounds from electric currents no one had heard before, the first rumbling of what synthesizers would become.

Then, in 1963, the musician and the engineer came together; composer Herbert A. Deutsch approached Moog. “He just flipped when he heard what my breadboards could do. By the end of that session and the one that followed, together we had come up with the basics of a modular analog synthesizer,” Moog wrote in the 1988 article, “The Rise and Fall of Moog Music“. “Mind you, neither of us had any idea where this was leading.”

These first synthesizers were modular: an oscillator made the sound; a filter shaped it; an amplifier controlled the volume; an envelope generator created dynamic contour, the rise and fall of a note’s volume. Each component was housed in a discreet module, and the modules — connected by patch cables, one to the next — passed the sound and altered it. They were both impractical and intimidating, oversized switchboards covered in knobs, dials and cables. It was part instrument, part controlled chaos.

“The analogue synthesizers are monophonic, you can only play one note at a time. Think of a trumpet, or your voice,” says Jim DeBardi, media and artist liaison at Moog Music. “For someone who is creative and experimental and into the idea of taking chances…you can get lost in it. Once you sit there for 10 minutes or 10 hours, you can create something that’s wholly yours.” The following year Moog debuted his creations at the Audio Engineering Society convention, while putting himself through Cornell with a PhD in Engineering Physics by continuing to sell his Theremins.

The first synthesizers were rudimentary, the noises they produced, alien — and this distinct sound helped them catch on in film productions and commercial or radio jingles. They sounded like the 1960s idea of a UFO landing and, later, they made the chilling or psychedelic soundtracks of Midnight Cowboy and then A Clockwork Orange. “You know, you really couldn’t get stoned back then without having some synthesizer music playing,” Moog said in 2003. “You had to do things right.” Then, in 1968, Wendy Carlos released Switched-On Bach, still one of the highest-selling classical records of all time and made entirely with a custom Moog synthesizer. The effect was immediate. “It was like painting with a new color. If you had control you had a good chance of creating something that people would notice,” says DeBardi.

“For someone who is creative and experimental and into the idea of taking chances…you can get lost in it. Once you sit there for 10 minutes or 10 hours, you can create something that’s wholly yours.”

However, many still felt that musicians couldn’t handle the knobs, that engineers and creatives could never combine in the mainstream. Then, in 1970, came the 40-pound Minimoog, Moog Music’s flagship synthesizer, played by way of an adapted electric keyboard. Musicians immediately caught onto what Moog had developed: a tool with essentially infinite possible sounds. “I feel [the Moog synthesizer] is an instrument and is a way to directly express what comes from your mind. It gives you so much of a sound in the broader sense,” said Stevie Wonder in a 1972 interview with Penny Valentine for Sounds magazine. “What you’re actually doing with an oscillator is taking a sound and shaping it into whatever form you want. Maybe a year and a half ago I couldn’t have done these kinds of tracks.”

The Minimoog synthesizers, now from the renamed Moog Music, traveled onstage with some of the world’s biggest bands. “Prog rock in the ’70s was the first iteration to hit mainstream: Rush; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Rick Wakeman,” says DeBardi. “In the late ’70s disco started happening: Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summers evolved their own electronic sound, along with Moroder’s soundtrack work on films like Midnight Express, Scarface and The NeverEnding Story.”

But then, in the 1980s, the electric keyboard became a mass-produced, cheaper alternative to the Minimoog, and Moog Music began to decline. The analogue synthesizers used by Bob Marley and Rush and Parliament-Funkadelic were tossed aside for digital. Moog had left his own company in 1977; in 1986 Moog Music was forced into bankruptcy. By 1993, the company liquidated its stock and officially ceased operation.

The Moog Playlist

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But at the same time, in the middle of the country, far from Moog’s New York factory, some starving artists from Detroit picked up the obsolete analogue synthesizers from consignment shops and yard sales. They began making music again — but this time it was called techno.

“The challenge has always been that analogue typically creates a more pleasurable experience: listening to a record, seeing something on film,” says DeBardi. “But the creation is much more challenging.” Once techno and electronic music brought analogue synthesizers back into mainstream consciousness, Moogs began to regain popularity for their sound. Moog, who had been in Asheville, North Carolina since leaving the company, regained the company name in 2002 and restarted operations. In 2011, six years after Moog passed away, the company opened a new factory in Asheville. Today the factory remains the sole provider of Moog synthesizers, some 40,000 a year, all made by hand by 20 workers. The metal comes from Missouri, the wood from Tennessee, the circuit boards from all over, including down the road. The spirit comes from Moog.

Now, DeBardi says powerful personal computers have become so accessible that some artists, especially newcomers, will opt for the convenience of bringing a laptop onstage rather than a Minimoog. However, listen to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic or a multitude of other rap albums, and the old synthesizers will show up as samples from the old greats. Newer artists like Lady Gaga and Lorde, who bring experienced bands on tour that can handle Moogs, will use the company’s newer models onstage: ones that have been upgraded slightly to include presets and digital memory, while still maintaining the value of an analogue performance.

As electronics get smaller and newer, the Moog music factory along Broadway Avenue in Asheville will be getting bigger and older. Last January at NAMM, the world’s largest trade show for the music industry, Moog announced that, to celebrate 50 years of making the industry’s premiere synthesizers, they were getting back to their roots. They would begin making the same modular synthesizers they made in the 1970s, with the exact same parts. “New old” oscillators, resistors and capacitors built in the ’50, ’60s, ’70s and forgotten until now. Circuit boards based on the exact same blueprints. Not just the vintage style, but the vintage entirely. Because the sound is completely unique, historic — and, most importantly, at a company that’s been hesitant to adapt for 50 years, why start now?

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