For 14 months we've lived in boxes. Now, it's time to dust off our bucket lists and start thinking and living outside of one. If there is one lesson that 2020 taught me it is that tomorrow isn't guaranteed, and our hopes and daydreams aren't going to happen without a lot of ambition and dedication.
I’ve always loved music. The first chapter of my journalism adventure was SLUG Magazine, a monthly publication, that allowed me to interview some of my music heroes and explore new, obscure artists who were fighting to get their sound on the musical radar. Many phases of my life are defined by what I was listening to. It’s a kaleidoscope that includes everything from post-punk sheen of The Cure to the pop princess Kylie Minogue with John Coltrane’s more experimental work and the neo-classical sounds of In the Nursery in between.
This summer, I’m writing my own soundtrack and I’ll primarily be using the Moog Sound Studio: Mother-32 and DFAM. I’m traditionally a guitarist but the allure of the moodiness of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the sugary blips and bops of synthpop and the occasional Herbie Hancock journey into the electronic frontier have always intrigued me.
Still, a guitarist experimenting with a analog synthesizer?
In “The Sparks Brothers,” Edgar Wright’s fantastic documentary about the enigmatic pop band Sparks, producer/musician Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, St. Vincent) says “all pop music is rearranged Vince Clarke and rearranged Sparks.” The first half of the equation, Vince Clarke, is the important bit here. Clarke, a founding member of Depeche Mode who would later go on to form Yazoo and Erasure, writes primarily on guitar but you’d be hard pressed to find him on the cover of a guitar magazine. He’s known for his use of analog electronics.
So, there is precedent for a guitarist dabbling with electronics. I am, sadly, no Vince Clarke (or Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood for that matter) but it is with his inspiration that I started down this path.
I’m approaching the Moog Sound Studio as someone who is very much a beginner, rather than a skilled synthesist. If this was a videogame, I’d describe my approach as “button mashing." I've always wanted a Moog but I'll admit that I've also been a little worried that my inexperience with the equipment might make it a nut too difficult to crack. Pretty as it is, the last thing I need is another paperweight.
Turns out, and I didn’t know this going in, the Moog Sound Studio is designed for noodlers like me who have little to no understanding of how the electronics work inside the box.
There are two different Moog Sound Studio options. Both include the DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother), a stereo mixer, a variety of cables, a two-tiered rack and a variety of exercises and games (more on that later). Those looking for a traditional Moog experience will want to go with the Mother-32 set. Those looking for something more experimental will want to give the Subharmonicon a try. All three are available separately, if you want to add on or start with just one of the three.
It should be noted that the DFAM isn't like most drum machines. It's not trying to replicate the sound of a live drummer. Replace them? Maybe. But not replicate. You can get some fairly traditional drum sounds but these beats and rhythms are by their very nature electronic and otherworldly. They key difference between the DFAM and the Mother-32 or the Subharmonicon is that it isn't about notes or melody. It's all about rhythm. The beats that underscore the melody.
Whatever option you choose, the Moog Sound Studio comes unassembled. Having just installed an electronic deadbolt and owning my share of Ikea bookshelves, I can assure you that this assembly process is painless. A little enjoyable actually when you think about a 14-year-old Bob Moog slaving away in his father’s workroom building his first theremin and the journey that followed. I managed to follow the directions (not always a given) without muttering anything remotely offensive. It was a family-friendly assembly. The kind that an intelligent child could do.
Once assembled, the Mother-32 and DFAM are a bit daunting. So many knobs, buttons and patch cables. Where to start? It's not hard to generate a sound, the DFAM is particularly good at setting up a groove while the Mother-32 handles melodies and basslines. The instant results are encouraging. Don't let it go to your head, you aren't Giorgio Moroder yet. It's like when I was a teen at the local arcade playing Street Fighter against the kid who'd been at the front of the line for hours beating all those who challenged him. I'd occasionally beat them. It had nothing to do with skill. I was essentially a chess player without a strategy. Chaos in a world of precise order. The problem is that chaos is hard to recreate. It isn't long before the element of surprise is no longer surprising.
So, once you've finished patting yourself on the back, it's time to play some games. I wish everything in life worked this way.
The Moog Sound Studio comes with a variety of activities that will help you learn about many of the things that the Moog Sound Studio can do. I'm particularly fond of the included pair of dice (I played my share of Dungeons and Dragons). These dice will help guide you through using the patch cables. Think of them as a more coherent version of producer/musician Brian Eno's infamous "Oblique Strategies" cards with fortune cookie advice like "Look most closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them" or "Reverse all and follow closely." No, this is less a more guided tour where you simply roll the die, insert the cables into the corresponding holes on the right side of the Mother-32 and DFAM and magic will start to happen as the circuits interact. Mostly parlor tricks at this point. Magic nonetheless.
There's this idea that electronic musicians work best in isolation. However, I'd suggest that with something like the Moog Sound Studio, the process can be more collaborative. You could easily involve two or three people in the process and they wouldn't need to worry about any differences in their skill level. A novice might not understand exactly why the sounds change when they initially start pushing buttons and twisting knobs but they will be able to help create something listenable and absolutely unique to the moment it is created. It's not that writing electronic music doesn't require an incredible amount of talent. Anyone can shoot a film on an iPhone. That doesn't mean their film will be good. It could be terrible. It could phenomenal. Advancements in technology have simply improved accessibility. You never know who has a hidden talent for something. They might not even know until after they're given the opportunity to simply try.
A Moog Sound Studio is the place where science and art intersect. An adult or a child could spend hours learning how to craft the perfect sound or the most complex rhythm and then start over again. Even better, it's an activity that a parent could share with their child or a way for a group of friends to take their night to the next level.
We've spend enough time on our own. It's time to go out and live life a little more fuller than we did in the past. Create something that represents you. Give this summer a rhythm, give it a sound.