Bob Moog - On Synthesizers

Nine Times the Color Red Explodes
Author:
Publish date:
042_elm0818_Lesson_BobMoog-DavidBurge-1

Have you ever wondered what the first synthesizer record was? When it was made? What it was like? Well, this is the story of the first time a Moog synthesizer was used in an otherwise conventional West Coast record date. It was my first contact with the throbbing heart of the commercial music business. I was an innocent engineer sucked into a den of debauchery, decadence, and dissolution. It was not the first synthesizer record ever, but it marked the first time a Moog instrument was used on a widely distributed album, and the story reveals something of my frame of mind during those early, pre-Switched-on-Bach days.

Many experimental records using electronic sound generation and processing had been released before the 1968 synthesizer eruption. Some, like the RCA Synthesizer and Bell Labs Computer Music recordings, used large electronic systems; others were made in classical tape studios and basement labs. As a group, these early works were highly experimental. The musicians who produced them were the electronic music avant-garde. They constituted the only identifiable “market” for synthesizers during the mid-’60s. Through them I got a feeling for what serious musicians were like. The term “music business” was not yet a part of my vocabulary.

From its beginnings as a full-time operation in 1964, Moog Music exhibited at the New York convention of the Audio Engineering Society (AES). In those days New York was the heart of the pro audio industry. Electronic musicians, producers, engineers, and others in the professional sound business convened in New York once a year for the AES meetings.

As a small East Coast-based company our name was all but unknown in L.A. As 1967 approached, we decided to exhibit our modular wares at the L.A. AES meeting. For our fledgling operation, the trip to L.A. was One Big Deal. We made contact with Paul Beaver, a well-known West Coast studio keyboard musician and operator of an electronic music rental service. Paul agreed to act as our representative and to help us man our AES exhibit.

The spring 1967 AES convention was small compared to New York shows, but our exhibit was really jumping. Paul produced a steady parade of producers and musicians, who came to see the first “Moog” on the Coast. We were busy demonstrating and answering questions, while members of the passing parade often wondered aloud which of their sports cars they would sell in order to buy one of the collections of patch cords and knobs from us.

At the end of one of the exhibit days, Paul asked me if he could take our demonstration instrument to a recording session he was doing that evening. It was for a record called The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds. We packed the synthesizer up and trucked it out to one of the big L.A. studios.

There we saw several of the musicians who had been at our booth. There was Mort Garson, a short, balding man with lamb-chop sideburns and an amulet that looked like it could choke a boa constrictor. Mort was a film composer, and was the conductor of the session. Emil Richards was a top-drawer session percussionist. Alex Hassilev and Jae Holzman occupied the producers’ chairs in the control room.

The music, conceived by Holzman and composed by Garson, followed the Zodiac theme. Each cut depicted one of the zodiac signs. Narration evoking images appropriate to each of the signs was laid over a background of texturally-oriented mood music. The narrator, Cyrus Faryar, had a memorable voice—dark, heavy, smooth, and sweet, like a tank car full of molasses. Richards was presiding over an amazing variety of instruments: delicate wind chimes, oriental wood blocks, and massive gongs whose pitches could be changed while they were sounding.

Other instrumentation included electric guitar, bass, and the mandatory (for this type of album at that time) sitar. Several of Paul Beaver’s electronic instruments were also on hand.

There was a Hammond Novachord that was customized so you could play rapid, elaborate arpeggios simply by running your hand up the white keys, a customized Hammond Solovox, and some electronic keyboards that I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. (Ever see an Ace Canary? It was a raunchy-sounding monophonic keyboard with a pitch-bending lever.)

After a couple of tracks were taped, we went into the control room to listen. I sat right between the studio monitors and listened to the fat, loud sound. It was gorgeous! I had never heard anything like it. Then musicians and producers began congratulating each other: “Yeah, man, this is real Head Music.” “Every Head in the world will have to have one of these albums.” I then let my innocence out of the bag by asking one of the crew why it was Head Music. He told me that, in order to recognize Head Music, you had to be a Head yourself.

The next session followed immediately. Paul Beaver was the only performer. With the modular system set up, he produced a series of textures and effects that were overdubbed at several places in the music. Mind you, this happened less than a week after Paul first laid eyes on that synthesizer! One of the effects, a series of multinote chords that glide upward, provided a striking opening for the first cut on the album.

Paul and I picked up the equipment the following morning and reinstalled it at our booth. The AES show concluded successfully. Richards, Garson, and Hassilev became good customers of Moog Music. Elektra Records, the label on which Zodiac appeared, maintained a preeminent position in electronic rock throughout the late ’60s and the ’70s. Paul Beaver represented Moog Music in L.A. for many years, during which time he handled the sale of more than a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of synthesizers. And The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds made a small niche for itself in the archives of late ‘60s Head Music (whatever that is).

Our own copy of Zodiac arrived a few months later. On our living room stereo, it sounded nice, but nowhere near as exciting as it did in the studio control room. For many years the record stayed in our collection, then was packed away when we moved to North Carolina. Recently we unpacked it and played it again.

There were Paul’s sliding chords, now sounding a bit dated. Then the guitars and percussion joined in, with an overall sound that was definitely flat. (Was that because the record was a mono pressing?) Then Cyrus’ voice intoned forth: “Nine times the color red explodes like heated blood. The battle’s on.”

We couldn’t help laughing. It appears that Head Music, like miniskirts and campus riots, is no longer in vogue. Or are we just getting old?