By Sam Parvin
The popularity of the Moog synthesizer has grown exponentially since its inception in 1964. Now popular music is heavily pepper with the instrument’s sounds, making it one of the most influential inventions in modern music. This Halloween weekend, music lovers and synthesizer enthusiasts will gather at MoogFest in Asheville, N.C. to pay tribute to Robert Moog, the man behind the machine. I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seva David Ball, a recording engineer who is working with the Bob Moog Foundation and with help from a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation to clean, preserve, and digitize the audible history of the synthesizer.
For the laymen, please describe briefly what a synthesizer is and how it works.
It’s an electronic musical instrument and, like most musical instruments, it has something that produces a tone or a note and it also has components that can change the sound and filter it and change it’s dynamic response. It’s very similar to our vocal chords that produce a raw sound, and then our mouths act as a filter. We can make sounds louder or brighter or darker with our mouths, and a synthesizer can do the same sort of thing. I think it’s interesting, kids do synthesizer sounds with their mouths, like a “wow wow wee wow.” Every kid has done that, way before synthesizers were invented. So I think in a lot of ways, musical instruments imitate what we can do with our voices. Some synthesizers had keyboards and some of them did not, but when they put a keyboard on it, they became available for use in popular music, and that’s what allowed them to expand so rapidly.
With regards to this project, what brought you here? What attracted you to this work, how did you get involved with the Grammy Foundation, and what is your outlook on the work you’re doing?
I’ve been a member of The Recording Academy, which runs the GRAMMYs, for a very long time. I’ve been a recording engineer since 1972. I’m a musician and have a great interest in recording technology but also just in performance itself. When I was 12 years old, I played a Moog synthesizer, and by the time I was 14, I bought a synthesizer. As a classical piano player, I played in some rock bands, and the synthesizer came in pretty handy. As my career went on, I went through recording tape and then to digital stuff, to DAT tapes and cassettes, CDs, and now to internet distribution. I kind of evolved into being a mastering engineer, and I did a very large project on a collection from David Lewiston. I archived all 28 of his analog tapes for the Library of Congress with a grant from the GRAMMYs. So when Michelle Moog was looking for an archivist, a friend of hers contacted me and said, “You know, you should really contact her and let her know what you do.” I had just archived and restored some old, electronic music pieces for a couple of gentlemen in New York state who, I didn’t know at the time, happen to be old friends of Bob Moog and had visited his house when Michelle was a little girl. So she was asking them, “Well, I have a lot of people who are interested in doing the work, but there’s this one guy just over in Knoxville named Seva. Have you heard of him?” And they were like, “Oh, Seva. Yeah, he did our stuff. He’s the guy!” My first synthesizer was in 1970. So for me, to wind up being able to play and archive Bob’s tapes is pretty mind-blowing from my standpoint.
It’s a pretty incredible project for you to be a part of.
There are so many archivists who I’m sure are qualified to do the work, but I really believe that there is hardly anybody else besides me that is as interested in the material. I’m sure someone will say that they are more interested, but…
… they don’t hold a candle to you.
I don’t think so. I really think that there was no coincidence here.
Tell us a little about your process. What do you physically do in your studio every day?
Part of the process is taking care of the tape machines. I get to play with analog tape everyday. I have very nice machines that were built in the ‘80s in Switzerland. So I take care of the machines, I’ll select the tape that I’m going to work with for that day. There’s a process for each of those tapes. They may have had humidity issues or mold damage. So once I’ve evaluated what needs to be done with the tape and it’s ready to play, I have to determine what speed it’s going to be at and what kind of track format it’s on, and if there are any further problems. I have to replace the splices because they tend to fall apart after 30 or 40 years. I calibrate the tape machine and once I’m ready to go, I transfer it to digital format at a very high resolution. Then I assign it a number, write my comments on what I heard on the tape and the condition of the tape. And usually while it’s playing I’ll go and research whomever’s tape it is, see if they’re still alive and if I might be able to get in touch with them. Bob only recorded a few of the tapes; they came from all over the place. So they’re all vastly different with regards to the way they were recorded, their condition and their problems. In that regard, this is a much more difficult project to work on than if all the tapes were done by one person, as is often the case in these kinds of projects.
What recording are you most excited about that you’ve already transferred? Which one are you most curious about that you have yet to hear?
Ha ha. The ones I’m probably most curious about are the compositions that occurred very early in the history of the Moog synthesizer in the mid-’60s, and there are many of those that I can’t play yet. We are having to do some extensive processes to restore the tapes so that they are playable because they are covered in mold.
They were in a shed or something when they were discovered, right?
Right. Bob had a nice big metal warehouse outside that had no humidity control or anything, which was not the ideal circumstance for the tapes. Also a lot of the tapes that were made at that time had chemical issues that nobody foresaw. Not just these tapes but all tapes made around that time. I’ve found albums that have never been released, and I know that I’m the only person who has heard it since Bob got the tapes. These are compositions by Chris Swanson, by Wendy Carlos that were probably never played more than one time. My favorite is probably the very first tape that Bob made. When he built a prototype for the synthesizer, he was going to send it to a composer, a very important man named Herb Deutsch. He made an 80-minute long audio letter, giving a tour of the synthesizer, saying, “If you want to adjust the scale you do this, if you want to adjust the pitch you do this, and so forth,” and he plays the synthesizer. He’ll play something and then go on. And his dry humor is very funny. He literally goes through and names the parts, and these are the same names that are still used today. It’s just amazing to listen to that because I don’t know another point in history when we’ve been able to look at a musical instrument’s inventor and see his drawings, and listen to tapes of him talking about it, and hear him inventing the parts.
Is there anything you could say that would begin to explain the scope of influence that Bob Moog’s synthesizer has had on music?
I think there are two people who have influences popular music in the twentieth century more than anyone else. One is Les Paul, who invented the solid bodied electric guitar, and the other is Bob Moog, who invented the Moog synthesizer. Because every pop record has somebody playing a solid bodied guitar on it, and a lot of them have Moog synthesizers all over the place.
What can we expect of MoogFest in Asheville next weekend?
Well I think it’s going to be option anxiety for a lot of people. I think there’s going to be so much going on at the same time, they’re going to have trouble picking out what to go see. Sleep is not a possibility. I think people should take time to come to some of the workshops and panels as well as go to the music concerts, because it’s really about Bob Moog’s work and how influential it has become. I also think it’s a good opportunity for people to become familiar with the Bob Moog Foundation, which needs financial support. Instead of trying to get big money from a few people, we would rather have thousands of people each give $10 or $20 so this work can go on. The GRAMMY Foundation will pay for some of it but not all of it. Brian Kehew and I looked at everything and arrived at a prioritization, but I’ve actually been able to transfer about 30 percent more than the GRAMMY Foundation funded us to do at this point. I’ve been able to stretch that money a long way.
I think MoogFest is also about people going to Asheville and just falling in love with Asheville.
Seva David Ball will speak on a panel at MoogFest titled “Synth History Panel – Exploration of the Bob Moog Archives.” It will take place on Saturday, October 30 at 4:15 pm at the Moogaplex at the Haywood Park complex.