Moogfest takes place in North Carolina this Wednesday and boasts a lineup including M.I.A., Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, Dan Deacon and many more. So we talked to the man who dreams up synths.
The headquarters of the world’s largest privately owned synth manufacturer are nestled high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far away from the meddling coasts. In the late 1980s, Dr Robert Moog, having sold the company that bore his name, settled his new venture Big Briar in the charmingly placid Asheville, North Carolina.
Inspired by the pioneer of synthesis, Leon Theremin, his new company was set up to do one thing: sell theremin kits to young DIYers. As luck would have it, Amos Gaynes was not only an Asheville local, but his parents knew Moog. (Spoiler alert: at the end of the story the company’s been renamed Moog Music and Amos works for them).
We caught up with Amos on the cusp of 2014’s edition of Moogfest. This year’s line-up is the broadest yet, taking in exploratory alt-synth noises from Factory Floor to Dan Deacon, the bizarro-by-virtue-of-sheer-mundanity robots of Kraftwerk, right the way through to stadium popsters Pet Shop Boys. (Not to mention M.I.A., Giorgio Moroder, Dillon Francis, Daedelus, Bradford Cox, and many more.) There are also daily events featuring the likes of Futurama’s David X Cohen, Giorgio Moroder, and the crack tag team of Roger Linn and Dave Smith. If you have some spare time this week, come join us—it kicks off this Wednesday.
Hey North Carolina!
Noisey: I’m coming to Moogfest tomorrow—I’ve never been to your homestate of North Carolina before.
Amos: Oh, great. It’s a beautiful part of the world and it is coming out in its Spring colors, I think it really will be quite nice.
When were you first aware that Moog was based in your hometown?
Well, Bob Moog was actually a friend of the family growing up. My parents and he and his wife Illeana Grams—who was a philosophy professor at the local university—would have reading and study and chat sessions and so I was sort of like this young person in the background just soaking it in. So that was my first introduction to Bob Moog—not in his capacity as an inventor, but just in this human capacity, this charming, wonderfully witty, wise old fellow. And as I got a little bit older, I became aware of his true role. My older brother was a real influence in electronics and electronic music, so I had exposure to synthesisers before I knew who Bob Moog was, and met Bob Moog before I knew he had to do with synthesisers.
Good fortune! And so did he offer advice at an early age?
To an extent he did. One of my regrets is that I was a little bit too in awe of him, actually, to really chat as much as I’m sure he would have welcomed in hindsight. But he did very much offer advice to me as a young would-be engineer. I got my start with electronics with one of his Etherwave kits back in the early 90s. So long before I applied to work at Moog I had built one of their theremins and studied the schematics and learned a lot from that.
And did you study electronics at college?
I did, our local university has an excellent electronic music production program. My background, I came to the technology very much as a musician. I got my start with music doing musique concrète, you know, tape loops and analog effects. Very early computers, a 486 and a Mac+ computer running programs. And so I went to university for electronic music production for a couple of years.
And as I found I needed to work to put myself through university, I was casting about for employment and applied at Moog. Which at the time was maybe a dozen people at most, you know, ten or twelve people in a little storefront. And there were no positions, they weren’t hiring. So I checked back every two or three months, I suppose, for the better part of a year, saying I’d make coffee, sweep the floors, I’d do anything, it didn’t matter what they put me on doing, as long as there was a place for me.
I got nowhere for the longest time, and then finally as I had given up entirely and put in an application at the local movie theater, I got a phone call at home and it was Bob Moog. He said, “Hello Amos, can you solder?” Pretty much apropos of nothing, and I thought about having built the Etherwave kit and I said, “Yes, I can.” And he said, “Great, well our service technician has just put in his notice, he’s going off to grad school and we’re going to need someone to do repairs, can you come in and you can do an interview and see if it works out?”
So that was my break, and I had about a week, all told, with the previous service technician just walking me through the schematics—at the time they were just making Moogerfooger pedals and theremins, and they’d just started building the Voyager—but Bob was still there every day and so any Voyager issues he was dealing with. I had a week of training with my predecessor and then was thrown to the wolves repairing Moog pedals and learning to make my way.
Dr. Robert Moog!
And at the same time, please tell me you were out late in bars making Moog-heavy Genesis-esque jams.
I was, actually, although my first synthesiser was a Korg MS-10 which I still have. It was rather a while before I got any Moog gear, although I did quickly parlay my work into a Voyager as soon as I could, and a Voyager and a Jupiter 6 was my live rig primarily. Yeah, my background was mostly in industrial music at that point. I had gotten started making music on my own with no influences, or public radio I suppose—music concrète, tape loops. A friend of mine heard what I was doing and said “hey, have you ever heard of Skinny Puppy?” And I hadn’t, but at that point I found a really nice musical direction from some of those early influences. Skinny Puppy and The Legendary Pink Dots, for example.
Leaving aside his crushing poverty and distinct lack of chocolate, have you ever considered your story as a parallel to Charlie & The Chocolate Factory?
I have actually thought of Moog as a sort of magical Wonka factory for electronic musicians, especially on the days when some new invention is emitting its first weird noises, or a DJ is throwing down a live set on the factory floor… but the modern Moog Music is far from a Wonka-style solo operation; any success we’ve achieved is due to a whole team of talented individuals, working together. I rely absolutely on the expertise of my fellow engineers, and just try to do my own little bit to the best of my ability. So, my hope is that we’ll continue into the future much as we are today, with many brilliant minds at work all on the same analog wavelength.
I’ve emailed you several times over the years with inane questions about Moog products. It seems like an amazing new era—you have a great relationship with the Moog community. Do you find it a valuable resource?
Oh, absolutely I do. I feel so in touch with the whole user base, you know. The way in which people can, as questions arise in their studio or they’re figuring out new ways of doing things they can give real-time feedback, either they’re emailing me directly or posting on the same forums I’m reading, so there really is a very direct loop between the cutting edge of what people are out there doing and what as a technologist I’m able to implement and sort of grow the instruments as people are growing new techniques around the instruments, and it’s this wonderful cycle where R&D has been crowdsourced, in a sense. And we’re able to respond so quickly with firmware updates and new features ideas can be tried out the same day that someone emails me to suggest them. To be able to be so connected to the most enthusiastic people that are out there using the tools that you’re making, it’s incredible.
What’s left to accomplish in the synth world?
Well, I feel like there’s still room in the world of—I don’t wanna use the word controllers, because that’s associated with a very particular sort of thing now, you know, these MIDI boxes with knobs and sliders—but you might call it human-instrument interfaces. The way that a person interacts with a physical device to create music. Like the keyboard itself. The keyboard is a very antiquated machine, which does certain things very well and has some very hard limitations at the same time. So I feel like there is still a lot of room to innovate in terms of playing inputs and the way a musician can impart their own performance onto the sound. There are some real technological limitations there that I feel that there’s still room for deep discovery. And that was something that Bob Moog made a point to impart to me before he passed, that that was his feeling as well and he really hoped that we continued to explore in that direction. So that’s something that I would look forward to doing, it’s a wide-open field essential.
I suppose the theremin was an early example of that performer-instrument synthesis.
That’s right. And yet, at the same time, it demands so much of the performer to really realize a nuanced piece of music that the bar for entry is very high for virtuosic theremin playing. So there has to be something between a push-button keyswitch machine like a piano keyboard and total connectedness without a net, like you have on a theremin. So inbetween that vast continuum between 100% connected to your body and closing a switch, y’know, where’s the happiest medium for a performer and what’s new that we can explore there? That’s something that definitely interests me.
The Moog guitar added new expression to an existing instrument.
Absolutely, that’s definitely an example of an exploration that’s in the spirit that I’m talking about.
And it's your day job to think up these innovations?
That’s true, I’m in a unique position where I’m not at liberty to say what, because it is very much my job to dream up the next coolest thing. It is something of a dream job, I can’t imagine being more fortunate than to support myself by dreaming up new impassioned musical devices, it’s what I would be doing in my free time so it’s hardly like work at all.
The Hammond Novachord!
Are there any inventions from the past hundred years of gear that you’d like to see reissued?
Hmm, that’s a good one. Let me think… I know a gentleman named Phil Cirocco has restored one of these things, the Hammond Novachord. It would be almost impossible to recreate nowadays, but it would be truly amazing if there was a practical way to do it. Beyond that, oh my goodness. It’s hard to look back when there are so many new possibilities in front of us.
I think the best thing to do is not even to think of an entire reissue but a way of taking some of the unique principles of these older instruments and marrying them to possibilities that were unimaginable at that time. Put yourself in the mindset of the people who did give us these interesting instruments and imagine what if they had the tools that we have today. How can you take the inspiration from what they offered and bring it into the present. There’s just so much potential there.
So for example, you could look at all of the vintage tone-generating possibilities from these electrical or electro-mechanical instruments from the last hundred years, take those tone-generators and use our modern control technology which is so much faster and easier and surely they would have used it verses hundreds of relays and reed switches and those sorts of these. Sequences are a perfect example, sequencing required hundreds of dollars of electro-mechanical components up until recently and now you can do it on a $2 micro-controller. And that’s totally independent of what’s generating your tones, your sequencer can be firing a vacuum tube synthesiser or a plugin. But in either case you’ve taken something that was really hard back in the day—sequencing—and made it lightning fast and easy. A friend of mine has an all-hardware studio but he runs the sequencing entirely off an iPad.
It seems like there’s a disconnect between the exciting world of opportunity available through technology and people demanding old, “classic” reissues. That’s right, and I feel like there’s been—it’s interesting, there have been in all of these cases, especially with the Roland boxes, there have been a number of DIY and small shops stepping in to fill the void, creating near-enough clones and inspired-by, the same circuits in different boxes. And yet clearly those are not satisfying the people who want a brand-new original 808 or 909 or 2600. And so we’ll see. Roland has definitely shown that you can’t create a modern reimagining and bill it as a reissue or a replacement, because that simply won’t fly.
Maybe some people are never satisfied.
That’s also true. And, you know, if someone does come along with a true exact reissue, a time capsule reissue, we’ll see what those as-yet unsatisfied people have to say about it, and perhaps that’ll sort out the perpetually unsatisfied from the nearly… for example, there is probably still room in the world for a one to one reissue of a Minimoog. We’ll see, you know. That is not a sneak peek at the future, but it is a fact that there are people who have refrained from our newest and most modern amazing thing, because that’s what they want.
Korg nailed the MS-20 reissue.
That’s right. I was pretty tempted myself on that one, I think they did a tremendous job. As I said, I’ve long had an MS10 and absolutely just loved the character of the filter and the way it overloads, the oscillator. It’s tweazy and grungy in a really soulfully beautiful way. It’s a kind of interesting combination of harsh and musical.
Harsh and musical is a pretty great summation of everything good.
It is, a lot of the time. It’s definitely good to be able to… sweetness has its place, you never wanna lose touch with that but at the same time there’s so many interesting edges and dark corners of sound that are really fun to explore.
Speaking of dark corners, I recently heard the Moog parts on Abbey Road. I had no idea Moog and The Beatles were contemporaneous.
And you’re saying on Youtube they have the stems, the original parts? Oh wow, I’ll search that up. Yeah, in "Here Comes The Sun" you can hear it pretty well in the mix but I’d love to hear it in the spotlight, that’s nice.
Are there any new products you’re excited about right now?
Well, let me think. Yes, I do have to say, our neighbors at the NAMM show were Elektron, and they were showing their new Rytm. And I really really enjoyed that. It was still at an early stage but you could immediately dial up some fat sounds and tweak all of their analog parameters per step in this very engaging, intuitive way. Especially as they’ve now branched out into the world of analog, there’s such cool things happening when the quirky Elektron mindset is being unleashed on analog circuits, I have to say I’m a real fan of what they’re doing.
I see you’re playing Moogfest. Can you describe your sound?
That’s right, I’m playing a DJ set. When I’m not designing analog synthesisers, I’m a psytrance DJ. And I’ve seen Noisey’s bit on psytrance and thought it was hilarious, very well done. Noisey goes to a psytrance party in the woods somewhere in England. They wonder at all of the white people with dreadlocks and what they’re all doing. Psytrance is very underground in the US, it doesn’t have the levels of support that it does in the UK and mainland Europe. But as a consequence the people that are into it, it’s very non-commercial, very much in the early loving spirit of communal electronic music festivals, festival culture. And so I’ve been a part of that for a decade, 15 years or so here in the southeast, mostly outdoor, 24 hour parties in the woods, sound systems and generators and hippies and torches. It’s good times. So I’m representing psy-trance culture at Moogfest with another of my co-conspirators. We’re part of an established party collective here in North Carolina, called Touch Samadhi.
Who are you excited about seeing at the festival?
Kraftwerk, definitely, I never imagined they’d be playing my hometown and I’ll be catching all of their shows. There are so many invited artists and performers and thinkers. I think they may represent a large portion of the crowd as well, so it’s going to be an eclectic, brilliant bunch of people who are well up for a good time. There are artists that I never imagined that I would see, from the headlining tier and also folks like Wolf Eyes. I can see them in a 200 capacity club, it’ll be amazing (laughs). I’m curious to hear what Sasha’s spinning these days, another person who would never under any other circumstances be playing a Thursday night in the local!
Thanks Amos! See you there.
Great pleasure. Thanks. Alright. Look forward to it, thanks for chatting. Bye now.
Davo is on his way to North Carolina to cover Moogfest. He's going to be in synth heaven. He may never return but he's on Twitter - @battery_licker.