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Photo by Shawn Poynter.

The race to preserve the earliest recordings of Robert Moog and his revolutionary “synthesizer”

Originally published May 2010

Tucked back from a sunny, blossom-draped lane in South Knoxville, Tenn. sits the ultimate garage-turned-mancave: Soundcurrent Mastering.

The garage door has been replaced with a filled concrete wall, cedar shingles line the outside, and a Japanese HVAC system quietly draws in air. Inside, the studio’s naturally lit confines are crowded with trophies earned over the course of a long career in audio: a full-track Ampex 600, two wire recorders, vintage 78-rpm turntables, Dolby and DBX boxes, analog-digital converters, half a dozen tape recorders of various formats, and computer monitors glowing with sound-mastering software.

The machines are arrayed in no particular order, weighing down shelves and tables, but the clash of hardware is dominated by the stately lines of the Studer A80, a two-track tape machine crafted in Switzerland for the old A&M Records label in Hollywood, probably last used there in the ’90s to cut disc masters for Seattle grungesters. These days, it’s been serving an entirely different purpose.

Out of a computer speaker comes a warbly fanfare of electronic tones, and then a man’s voice speaks from across the expanse of nearly five decades, in an audio letter to a friend and collaborator:

“Mr. Deutsch, sir! Greetings to all of you from me and the rest of us. Before I begin to show you the modular components that I’m going to send you, Herb, I thought I’d play a little bit on the Abominatron here. Doesn’t sound like much when I play it. Maybe someone with more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it…”

The matter-of-fact voice belongs to one Robert Moog, from a reel-to-reel tape he had recorded in 1964 for experimental composer Herb Deutsch, explaining how to operate a curious new device he had just invented: the modular synthesizer. But his estimation of the “Abominatron’s” potential was typically all too humble—in the years to come, this new instrument would leap from avant-garde circles to mainstream pop, changing music itself and becoming both loved and reviled in the process.

Seva David Louis Ball, life-long Moog aficionado and recording engineer, leans forward in his chair at the PC’s keyboard, caught up in the excitement of hearing history being made.

“This is probably the first recording of the first synthesizer ever, and in it he reveals not only that he could play, but also that the machine could play chords. I had no idea!” he says, delighted. “People interested in synthesizers know that most of the time, you could play only one note. And the first prototype he built was polyphonic. It’s kind of like finding out the original car could travel in multiple dimensions, but when they actually put it out, they made it only work in three. And you’re like, ‘What? You mean we had wormhole travel at the beginning?!’”

For legions of faithful Moog followers around the country, such newly uncovered details are the stuff of obsession. For Ball, it’s a moment of personal fulfillment unlike any other in his 30-odd-year career: to rescue the earliest recordings of one his personal heroes before they disintegrated from an onslaught of mold and decay. Under a grant from the Grammy Foundation, he’s been working with the Bob Moog Foundation in Asheville, N.C., to meticulously clean, preserve, and digitize the audible history of the synthesizer in his garage-turned-studio. Or at least as much of it as he can—the grant only covers a sixth of the tapes requiring restoration, and the clock is ticking.

Robert Moog – photo courtesy Bob Moog Foundation
The Moog Movement

These days, it may seem odd to think of the sound of a synthesizer as revolutionary. The instrument is anything but out of the ordinary in pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, even jazz and classical music. But in the mid-1960s, it created sounds that had never been heard before—ones that even its inventor expected would be limited to experimental composition and academia.

Yet here, on the sunny fifth floor of the Woodruff Building in downtown Knoxville, genuine Moog synthesizers have temporarily become playthings for anyone to tinker with. In town for the avant-garde musicians of the Big Ears festival in March, curious visitors have stopped by the Bob Moog Foundation’s installation in this turn-of-the-century furniture store to find theremins and synthesizers arrayed in stark technological contrast to the rough-hewn wood floors. Jaded hipsters of several different generations let down their fashionable guards for a few minutes of bleeping and blooping just for the pure fun of it.

Unlike modern pre-programmed digital keyboards, these Moog synthesizers are analog devices that demand creativity—you make your own sounds by patching together different controller modules and noodling on the keys. But this “MoogLab” at the Woodruff wasn’t a mere product demonstration; it’s actually part of an ongoing outreach effort by the foundation, which was formed soon after Moog died of brain cancer in 2005. It wants to encourage new generations of electronic musicians, just as the original Moog synthesizer did so in the ’60s and ’70s.

Michelle Moog-Koussa, founder of the Bob Moog Foundation, is furthering her father’s work by using Moog synthesizers as teaching tools to inspire students. Photo by Shawn Poynter.

“Our mission is to educate and inspire people through electronic music and the intersection of music, science, and innovation,” says Michelle Moog-Koussa, the organization’s founder and Bob Moog’s daughter, in a soft yet emphatic voice. “The primary way we’re doing that is by bringing electronic musical instruments into the schools to teach kids the science behind the songs of electronic music. So we’re essentially engaging them in physics through music.”

Attired in blue jeans and a long-sleeved Moog Foundation T-shirt, Moog-Koussa would not appear to be your typical physics teacher or foundation director. In fact, it’s a role that she unexpectedly inherited. At the time of her father’s death, she had her own business and was raising two small children. But she found herself inspired to take on this new responsibility after reading some of the 4,000 tributes to her father that fans left on a website the family had originally started to keep friends in touch.

“They would say things like, ‘Bob Moog gave me the voice for my creativity.’ I think if you can say that about one person in the whole world that you’ve touched in that way, then you’ve succeeded in your life,” she says. “But for Bob Moog, it’s 10,000 times that. And that’s the point where I really committed myself to carrying this forward—not for me, or my family, or even my dad.

“People say to me a lot, ‘This is so great, what you’re doing for your dad.’ I’m not doing this for my dad. I’m doing this for future generations who I think deserve to be touched the way that generation was touched. I know that we have the ability to continue to impact and transform people’s lives through this incredible legacy. That’s what I’m committed to doing.”

This legacy was not one that Moog-Koussa had been completely aware of growing up. Bob Moog kept his business and family lives as separate as possible, preferring to do his tinkering apart from his home even as his fame grew.

Outside of the Moog household, however, his invention truly took the music world by storm. After presenting his prototype synthesizer (developed with Deutsch) at the Audio Engineering Society’s trade show in New York in 1964, Moog received exactly one order—from Alwin Nikolais, an experimental choreographer. But two critical events launched his device into the pop universe: a demo for musicians at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, and the release of Switched-On Bach by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos. Soon, the Moog synthesizer was appearing on records by the Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and even Buck Owens.

“The Moog synthesizer’s impact is pretty massive. You could say the only rivals are the electric guitars of Les Paul and Leo Fender,” says Brian Kehew, Moog collector, co-leader of synth group The Moog Cookbook, and keyboard tech for The Who. “Forever we will hear music with electric guitars and synthesizers of all kinds—because they are no longer ‘new’ sounds but valid and flexible music makers. It’s easy to say that electronic styles like new wave and house music, or techno and trance, could not exist at all without this certain instrument. It’s a good measure of an instrument when it spawns entire categories of new music!”

Moog’s synthesizer garnered even greater acceptance and commercial success through the ’70s as prog-rockers like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer made it a centerpiece of their sound, sometimes to excess. This led to a colder pop sound in the 1980s as New Wave groups adopted sparser, more simplistic playing styles—which in turn led to a grunge and pop-punk backlash.

“I think the reaction against synthesizers in the 1990s was a reaction to the ‘no guitar,’ sterile, lifeless styles that synth music promoted in the 1980s,” says Kehew, who’s also remixed many of Rhino Records’ all-star reissues from the period, from the Ramones to Talking Heads.

While synthesizers temporarily fell out of favor in rock, they nevertheless retained their credibility in other genres, particularly dance and (yes) experimental music, continuing to inspire musicians. Dennis Palmer, co-leader of Chattanooga’s free-improv duo Shaking Ray Levis, first discovered the Moog watching Mickey Dolenz play “Daily Nightly” on The Monkees in the late ’60s. In the 1980s, right about when he was forming Shaking Ray Levis, he discovered the (public radio) WUOT show Un-Radio, which featured experimental and avant-garde rock and jazz. Both the Moog and free-improv music set his course in life.

“Church music was all around growing up in Chattanooga,” he says. “My father’s side of my family was and is still deeply devoted to performing gospel music. Their belief was, if you chose to play music, it better be music that uplifts souls for the Lord. I could not relate to the relatives. The idea of choosing to play a Moog appealed to my non-conformist attitude, and I felt there was a different way to go about uplifting another’s soul without imposing my will upon another.”

Recovering the Future of Music’s Past

In 1978, Bob Moog moved his family and his company down from New York to Asheville. He brought with him a vast collection of material relating to his invention: articles, schematics, correspondence, photos, reel-to-reel tapes, breadboard prototypes, and other equipment. And then he stored it all in his workshop—an unheated, un-air-conditioned metal building out in the country.

“I knew that it was out there, but I didn’t know the extent of it,” Moog-Koussa says. “And we opened up what was a garage door and there were rows and rows and stack and stacks of hundreds of boxes. We were all pretty floored, and it was in a building that was not climate controlled, so it was moldy and it had animals sharing quarters with it.”

While much of the paperwork was in remarkably good shape given the circumstances, it was the reel-to-reel tapes that most worried Moog-Koussa. “They only have a shelf life of about 40 years, and it’s been about 40 years. A lot of them had fairly extensive mold damage and other kinds of problems, like sticky shed syndrome and curling—they all needed to be rehoused and rewound.”

So she needed an archivist specializing in audio recovery—and the money to pay him or her. First, Moog-Koussa decided to apply to the Recording Academy’s Grammy Foundation for a grant to see whether the tapes were restorable, and posted a job listing on an archivists website. In less than a day, she had 32 responses by audio engineers from as far away as Alaska wanting the job. Ball was not one of them. But a friend of his in North Carolina saw the listing and emailed it to him. He immediately knew he was meant to do this work. He had grown up in Jefferson City, where his parents taught at Carson-Newman College, and even there he had managed to discover Moog synthesizers as a child.

“When I was 10, I saw a Switched-On Bach record in my parents’ Christmas gifts from some of their students. I didn’t know what it was, but I fell in love with that machine,” he says. “When I was 12, I played a Moog synthesizer. When I was 14, I bought my first synthesizer. I now have 14 synthesizers. There are two in the bedroom, a few downstairs, some here and there in the studio, a couple in storage. So I had this terrific interest in all of this, and I was still mourning the fact that Bob Moog had lived in Asheville all those years and I had never gone and visited him.”

Moog-Koussa was most impressed with a very similar job Ball had recently completed for the Library of Congress: the preservation and digital transfer of some 600 tapes by global traditional-music recorder David Lewiston. Lewiston had traveled the world beginning in the late ’60s with portable tape recorders to collect original cultural music, releasing them on Nonesuch Records. He, too, had stored all of his tapes in a shed—albeit in the less humid environs of Hawaii—but Ball had to do very similar restoration work on them. So, after 15 other interviews, Moog-Koussa gave him the job.

Digitally transferring old recordings is just one aspect of what Ball does in his Soundcurrent garage/studio. He’s an audio jack-of-all trades: radio commercials, voiceovers, music mastering (for musicians ranging from Dolly Parton to Corrosion of Conformity), forensic audio, consulting, and also teaching at both the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State. While he avails himself of digital software and hardware, he’s decidedly analog when it comes to recording, preferring the old-school ways he learned as an audio-engineering apprentice in Nashville in the 1970s when he attended Belmont College.

“We would go down to the Exit/In and ask bands like the Dixie Dregs to come into the studio and ‘record a song or two,’” he says. “We were just lowly, dirty, smelly college students who needed someone who could really play, and occasionally we’d convince someone to come in. And we would do anything at any time at any cost, every last dime we could find under the seat of the Vega, to record a band and to try and get it right. We used to joke that we would move so slowly with all the equipment that we didn’t want to knock any molecules off, we were so gentle with everything, because the machines were expensive, the tape was expensive, and it was hard to get time in the studio, so we made the most of it.”

He came to Knoxville in 1983 to take a job at WIMZ Rock 104 as a disc jockey— “Commander Dave”—and stayed there for nine years. Meanwhile, he also enrolled at UT to complete a degree in composition for electronic music. (“By the way, I have to advise people: Do not get a full-time job and go to school full-time even if you think you can do it. You will not come out better for it. It’s probably better to just jump into a box of glass.”) But he also had another interest that was vying for his time and attention: computer programming. And in 1989, his career took another turn.

“One day at the station, I was reading Mix magazine, and it was talking about a new piece of technology: the digital audio console,” he recalls. “And the address was in the 100 block of Magnolia Avenue, Knoxville, Tenn. It was like the cartoon anvil dropped when my chin hit the desk: No way! So I actually put on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Carouselambra,’ which is a nice long song, so I could go downstairs into my VW Bug and drive around the block. And sure enough, there was this logo for a company there called ‘AudioAnimation.’ Couldn’t believe it. Next day, I called to apply for a job there.”

He was soon hired as the company’s applications engineer. AudioAnimation was an industry trailblazer, introducing digital mastering consoles near the dawn of the CD era. Packed away in Ball’s garage is one such console built by the small team and used to master several Willie Nelson records as well as Mark Knopfler’s Sailing to Philadelphia. The company later dissolved, but in 1992 Ball helped two other former AudioAnimation employees to start Waves, now an international leader in audio plug-ins for recording software. Thus began Ball’s career of audio odds ’n’ ends.

Seva David Louis Ball. Photo by David Luttrell.
Finding the Right Balance

So how does a nice Christian boy from Jefferson City acquire a name like “Seva”—a Sanskrit word that means “selfless service”? Has he gone Hollywood? Does he imagine himself to be an audio guru?

At a well-rounded 51, with Kris Kringle cheeks and a frizzy cloud of hair, Ball has indeed become a local mentor for audio students, but he retains the self-deprecating humor of a seeker who still has things to learn. While claiming that he added “Seva” to his name for practical reasons—to differentiate himself from all the other Dave Balls in the music business, like the synth player in Soft Cell—he also admits he received the name while on a spiritual journey almost 20 years ago.

“It was more of a quest to find out more about myself,” he says. “I was not rejecting what I had been raised with, I was trying to find out what else I was going to be or going to do, something that would answer some questions for me. I wanted to draw a bigger circle. I wanted to be more tolerant, more accepting, more compassionate—to really give of myself and help other people, as well as pay the bills. For me, it was an evolutionary thing. My mom still thinks I rejected the name she gave me, and that’s not true at all. Some people got the name ‘Doctor’ or ‘Judge’ or ‘Esquire’—I got ‘Seva.’ I think of it more as a prefix.”

In his South Knoxville home (attached to the aforementioned garage/ studio), he lives with his wife Subagh, a painter and yoga teacher, their 3-year-old son Rama Elijah, and his son from a previous marriage, 13-year-old Gurudev Jeremiah, who’s quite comfortable working on his computer amid his father’s clutter of audio gear and odd jobs. For the Moog collection, Ball has been concentrating his efforts on 40 of the most historically important tapes—out of more than 300—since the preservation grant award by the Grammy Foundation only covers that many. “I’m going to stretch it and do a few more than that, mostly as a gift to the foundation, but I can’t eat and do all 300 tapes,” he says.

First, Ball must assess the condition of each tape; if it’s moldy or has “sticky shed syndrome” (where the tape sticks to itself ), he actually bakes the tapes at a low temperature to remove the moisture. Second, after cleaning, he puts the tape on the appropriate player and sets playback levels and analog-to-digital converters to get the best possible sound before putting them on hard drives. Third, he does clerical work, embedding metadata into each file and documenting everything he’s done for each recording.

So what’s on the tapes? For electronic-music historians, it’s a treasure trove:

• “The Sound of the Moog,” which is the original demo record that Bob Moog sent out when he started manufacturing synthesizers in the late ’60s.

• A 1970 concert by galactic jazz artist Sun Ra, possibly one of the very first to use a MiniMoog live.

• Wendy Carlos performing on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, as well as a quad recording of her 1972 album Sonic Seasonings, which prefigured ambient music.

• A tape from Herb Deutsch labeled “First Compositions With Moog,” which may be just that. (“So tune in next week, and we’ll see what’s on there—because I don’t know,” Ball says.)

But so far, Ball is still most visibly excited by the 84-minute how-to tape made by Bob Moog for his collaborator, Deutsch. The experimental composer—who had built a theremin in 1962 based on Moog’s design—had originally asked his friend the electrical engineer to make a “portable electronic music studio” for musicians (while they were dining at a Greenwich Village restaurant). Later that year, Moog sent him the first modular synthesizer—along with taped instructions on how to use it. Over 40 years later, Deutsch donated that original tape to the Bob Moog Foundation, and Ball’s mind is still being blown.

“He started naming things, like ‘This is a range switch,’ and to change the octave, it’s ‘8-foot, 4-foot, 1-foot,’ which are like pipe organs. And to this day, that’s the way synthesizers are. So in this moment, he was giving names to controls that became the standard.

“You know, we weren’t there when someone invented the piano or Stradivarius figured out what he was doing, but we have a recording of this inventor talking about these names. I find that to be very profound,” he says.

Photo by Shawn Poynter.

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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