Saturday, April 26, 2014

The “New” Emerson Moog Modular System

Moogfest 2014 Keith Emerson

In some astounding news, well, at least for synth geeks, Moog has announced they’re making a new modular synthesizer. In a sense it’s not new as they’re apparently built-by-hand recreations of Keith Emerson’s giant custom modular system, for which he is justifiably famous. There are so many things which are just so unbelievably cool about Moog’s announcement though that when I first heard I was reduced to fits of giggles at their sheer audacity. The best part of all of this, aside from the fact that they’re doing it in the first place, is that they first announced they were making modulars again on April Fool’s Day. Now that was sheer marketing genius, and they “got” us all. Everyone’s been asking for years when Moog would make a modular, since after all that was how the company originally became known. So for them to announce on their web site on April Fool’s Day that they were making a modular, which was so obviously untrue since it was April Fool’s, was both hilarious and bittersweet. But to have it actually be true, well, they just totally punked us all! An actually true announcement that nobody on the planet would believe; I can’t imagine a better April Fool’s prank than that.

Seriously, I’ll try to stop gushing. I promise.

Perhaps a little (vastly abbreviated) history is in order. Moog (the person, not the company) originally made theremin kits. Without actually looking things up to get the dates right, and also greatly over-simplifying it all, when Bob Moog was in high school he had a home business making the early electronic instruments, I think since the 1950s. In the ’60s, as an engineer, he had the idea of controlling sound circuits using external voltages rather than by turning knobs, and from that one simple idea modern electronic music was born. So instead of altering the pitch, volume, or tone of a sound by hand, you could use voltages from somewhere else to control those parameters. Working with several musicians, Moog developed the various electronic synthesizer modules we take for granted today. Over a number of years the modules were “perfected,” and you could buy them in any combination you cared to. You’d give them your list of modules and they’d build them into some wooden cases for you. Except when I say “you could buy them” that’s totally not true because it was rather frightfully expensive. So Moog took his module ideas and built them into a smaller, hard-wired instrument. It wasn’t the big Moog patchable modular, but rather a small Moog non-modular. A Minimoog, if you will. And the rest is history, and electronic music took over the world. (Again, please excuse the somewhat large rather monstrous oversimplifications.)

So in the beginning, there was the giant Moog modular, and that’s how I and the rest of the world first heard of synthesizers. Not only did they sound weird (and cool) but they looked weird (and cool) as well. In a time when the electric guitar was still a new-ish thing, who would have thought a bookcase full of weird scientist electronics could be a musical instrument? But oh, it was. On record it was Wendy Carlos and Switched On Bach that showed us how, but in concert it was Keith Emerson using his giant modular synth for live rock ’n’ roll night after night that turned the world onto synthesizers. Rick Wakeman toured with perhaps half a dozen Minimoogs, which in itself was an amazing thing at the time, but it was Emerson’s giant modular that was perhaps what people thought of when they imagined a synthesizer. The Beatles had one, and the Monkees had one, but neither used them in public. Tangerine Dream famously toured with many modulars for many years but their music wasn’t something you heard on the radio so it was far less well known to the public (although it’s in perhaps dozens of movies, many of which you’ve seen). In popular culture, though, it was Emerson’s Moog modular you always thought of. 

And now Moog has announced they’re going to be making them again. Not many, and not cheap, and by hand rather than on an assembly line. They’re going to be more or less an exact recreation of Emerson’s. Exact same parts, exact same assembly, exact same designs. Not a modern version of what he had, but pretty much exactly what he has. The only bad thing is they specifically state that Emerson’s rocket launchers will not be included. Total bummer. But then again, to be fair, no pyrotechnics modules were included from the factory in the original Moogs either. Definitely an aftermarket add-on.

Photo of Keith Emerson at Moogfest 2014 by John Grabowski, from his Flickr stream

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