It's been 50 years since the world's first modular synthesizer hit the market. Moog Music in Asheville, N.C., celebrates the evolution of the sound-bending instrument with a regular event called Moogfest. Here are some highlights from this year's recent festival of music, ideas, and art.
A Moog synthesizer sits on a simple wooden rack, where it's
being "burned in." All Moog instruments are completely hand-assembled at the one-and-only factory in Asheville, using as many local
materials as possible. They're left running for a period of 48 hours to make sure "nothing bursts into smoke," according to a Moog representative.
After the burning-in process, the Moog synthesizers are
moved to a sound booth where they're individually hand-tuned by an employee.
Because Moog instruments are analog and not digital, there can be slight
distortions from one instrument to the next. The goal at this stage of the
process is to keep those to a minimum.
This is the Moog Guitar, an instrument that can produce
infinite sustain from one pluck of a string because it uses an electromagnetic
field to manipulate the string's vibration. Our tour guide through the Moog
factory says the company often hears from musicians that the Moog Guitar is their
"secret weapon," helping them regularly secure gigs.
If you're thinking of getting one, though, you'll have to search
eBay, as the factory is no longer making them. According to the Moog
rep, when you have a staff of under 50 people, "you have to make hard
choices" about what you can produce.
In the lobby of one of the theaters that served as a venue
for Moogfest 2014 were a series of theremins that could be played by the public, including this fur-capped version.
The first theremin was invented in 1919 by a Russian
physicist named Leon Theremin. The instrument produces that classic warped
violin "spaceship sound" popularized in sci-fi and horror films of the
1950s and '60s. It's unique in that it's played without being touched. You
simply move one hand toward and away from the vertical antenna to control pitch
and the other hand toward and away from the horizontal antenna to control volume.
Each afternoon at Moogfest, theremin wiz Dorit Chrysler gave a brief concert demonstrating the hauntingly beautiful compositions that can be
made with the quirky instrument.
One of the standout projects of the Moogfest art
installation series, this Sand Noise Device (SND) was invented by a team of
students from the California State University system. It consists of a box filled with
sand and several movable self-contained cylinders that glow with different
colored lights. A white light pulse, triggered by sound, ripples out from the
center of the sandbox at regular intervals. When the white ripple hits the
cylinders, it causes them to release a series of icons that look like mini
spaceships. The movement of the spaceship icons is dependent on the grade of
Both the sand and the cylinders can be completely repositioned, so you
could make mini sand mounts that would trap the flying triangles of light until
they lost steam and exploded (bwahahaha).
A Micosoft Kinect is suspended above the box and senses the
position of the sand and the glowing cylinders, while an overhead projector
handles the beaming of the ripple and icons.
In addition to plenty of hands-on devices that
let festivalgoers make their own music, there were also a lot of performers
filling halls big and small with their sounds. When the Pet Shop Boys took the
stage, their team of musical technicians in Day-Glo orange lab
coats kept things running smoothly from their soundboards and computer stations
in the audience. Other main acts included Kraftwerk, which used the giant 3D
projection screen behind them to beam images out to the polarized-glass-wearing
crowd, and Chic, fronted by Nile Rodgers, who recently won a Grammy for his work
on Daft Punk's latest album, "Random Access Memories."
This device, another one of the art installations, beamed
lasers at mirrors mounted on top of a speaker. A deeply resonant sound was fed
through the speaker from an attached keyboard that could be operated by
festival attendees. The sound made the speaker bounce, causing the laser light
that was reflected onto the ceiling to jiggle around and make interesting
patterns -- in effect, letting you "see" the music.
"The project is a good illustration of the scientific principals of
cymatics, where sound vibrations are translated through a specifically visual
medium," said a statement about the installation created by Nick Zammuto.
On the Friday of the festival last week, Moog Music unveiled a
monstrous musical machine. It was a reproduction of Keith Emmerson's Moog
Modular that he used to help create Emerson, Lake & Palmer's signature
It took the team at Moog three years to create the machine using "the
original documentation as well as circuit board and art files for nearly every
original Moog module" according to a statement.
"The modules in the new Emerson Moog Modular System are
built just as the originals were, by hand-stuffing and hand-soldering
components to circuit boards, and using traditional wiring methods," the
statement continues. "Even the front panels are photo-etched aluminum (a
rare process now), which is the classic and durable look of vintage Moog
The device was released on the 50th anniversary of the
introduction of the original Moog Modular -- widely regarded as the first-ever