Offsite Interview Series: Moog Music Inc, featuring Amos Gaynes
As part of an ongoing series to gain insight into new perspectives, we interviewed a few bright minds of other makers, creatives, and innovators behind pioneering new businesses and ideas throughout the country. This is the transcript from the first stop on our fall road trip, where we met with the legendary brand responsible for one of the biggest innovations in modern music.
October 28, 2015 — Asheville, NC
Today we had the pleasure of exploring the Moog Music factory in Asheville, NC and meeting with their team. Even if you’re not familiar with Moog, you’ve certainly benefited from their influence. Robert Moog, the company’s founder, created the first fully integrated synthesizer in 1969. In the early 70s, he took it a step further revolutionizing the music industry with the introduction of the Minimoog, a portable synthesizer making electronic music more accessible to musicians.
Decades later, a small team continues to produce the handcrafted musical instruments right here in the U.S.A. Bob passed away in 2005, but his legend lives on as a true pioneer in electronic music.
We’re lucky to be joined today by Amos Gaynes, a product development specialist and leading engineer at Moog Music. We’ll learn about the company’s history and how that strong foundation continues fueling their creative process as the Moog legacy carries on.
Thanks for chatting with us, Amos.
Amos: Thanks for having me.
Derek: So when did you first get into music?
I grew up in a musical household. Music was all around when I was a kid. My dad would play guitar and friends would come over and sing. I had a very early, hands-on experience. Music was something that ordinary people made all around me. So that was the perspective I had growing up.
As far as electronic music and synthesizers, which became my focus later, I have an older brother who’s about 10 years older than me — I was born in 1979. He was into Devo and The Residents and a lot of post punk, new wave, interesting music that was being made with synthesizers in the early ’80s, and he had a collection of synthesizers himself. So the young me had this interesting, cool, artistic, freaky sibling that was living in the basement surrounded by synthesizers and electronics gear making the coolest sounds that I had ever heard in my young life.
My first exposure to synthesizers was, “What is that amazing sound that I’m hearing emanating up the basement stairs from my brother’s lair?”
I was just so turned on by that, it was so interesting and novel that it just gave me a really early exposure, not just to synthesizers as a thing that exists but as something that was really cool and exciting. I started out already pointing in that direction from an early age.
What was your path to Moog?
As I grew up, I got more interested in making music myself. My early experiments were along the lines of what’s called musique concrete which is like sounds recorded to tape and then layered and dubbed and mixed on top of each other. I had a simple setup with two cassette decks and a microphone and recorded some sounds on one tape and then dubbed it to the other while I added some more layers. It turns out, as I discovered later, there was a whole academic tradition of this dating from the mid-1950s when reel-to-reel tape recorders became commonly accessible. This was like a thing that highfalutin art people were doing, and I had discovered it independently.
In my teenage years, I got into industrial music — Skinny Puppy would be a good example or the Legendary Pink Dots. These might be obscure names now. But these were the people who in the early or mid-90s were doing the most fascinating, out there, cool, exciting music with synthesizers. I wanted to do that. I got a few secondhand, older, vintage synths. They didn’t cost a lot of money at that point. With a simple recording setup I started recording and making my own tunes, got some friends together and formed a little electronic band.
I was making my own way on a local level as an electronic musician and how Moog ties into the picture is that, actually, Bob Moog was a friend of my family growing up when we first moved to Asheville. I was maybe 8 or 10 years old. Bob Moog and his wife Ileana (who still lives here in town) were, along with my parents, part of a philosophy group or reading circle. They get together and hang out and read, talk philosophy, have food. Bob Moog was this charming, kindly, older gentleman that would come to the house and he baked amazing bread and he shared cool stories.
Before I knew him as an inventor, before I knew the mark that he had made in the world, I just knew him as a human being. He was inspirational on that level. He was just this really warm and fascinating person. Gradually, it became clear to me that my own interests personally were perfectly in line with what Bob was doing professionally and that he was working here in town. It was around the time I was getting out of high school and going to college, I was living on my own and I needed a job and I discovered that Moog was here in town and then I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to come and work for him.
It didn’t click right away. I had to apply. I applied. They did more hiring. It was about 10 people at that time. It was an extremely small company, working out of a small storefront at the river. I was very persistent over the course of 6 or 8 months. Every month or two, I’d check back in. It was just a persistent but not annoying, I hope, process. I just made it known that it was my fondest ambition to work there. I’d be happy to make coffee, sweep the floors, do any odd jobs that they needed done.
Finally, after like I said 6 to 8 months of that, I got a call at home and it was Bob Moog on the phone. He said, “Hello, Amos.” We exchanged a few pleasantries and then he asked me, “Can you solder?” I said yes. At that time, I was not an electronics whiz but I had built a theremin from a kit that Moog Music sold (or at the time it was Big Briar). I said, “Sure, I can solder.”
Their repair tech was leaving to go to grad school and he asked if I could step in and repair their stuff. I had just enough of an electronics knowledge to be self-starting. I was by no means an expert but I was put on part-time on a trial basis. I had a couple of days to work with my predecessor who walked me through the schematics of each of the effects pedals and pieces of gear that they made there and then I was pretty much on my own.
At the time, I was going to school for electronic music production (there’s a good program here in Asheville) pursuing my ambitions as a musician. When I got hired at Moog, I switched my major from electronic music production to electronics engineering so that I can get a more solid background in the hands-on application of the electronics that I was using as a repair guy at Moog. That set my path. I wanted to do my best to justify the chance that they were taking on me as an unproven, young student. I was just really motivated to stay on top of it, learn everything I could, and do the best that I could.
From knowing Bob, and having had the chance to work with him before he passed, how would you describe him as a founder, as an inventor, and his lasting legacy within the company?
You probably saw in the tour that pictures and memorabilia of Bob are all over the place here and that’s completely genuine. Everyone here who knew him or even has learned of him secondhand hold him in really high esteem in a very genuine sense.
What I learned about Bob as a person was that he was so engaged in the world and so genuine and full of kindness and curiosity that you couldn’t help but get a really positive impression from being around him. He was sincerely engaged with the people around him and interested in what they were doing. His whole approach as an inventor of tools for musicians, as an inventor of technology, it all sprung from that genuine enthusiasm and curiosity.
He wanted to know what people were interested in, what they were doing artistically, philosophically, and how those pursuits connected with the real world around them and with the tools that they were using.
His impetus in inventing new tools and technologies was in helping people’s artistic side and self-expression to flourish. That was his primary motivation — “How can I take this human expression and give people the tools to take it further and follow their inspiration to a higher level?”
The genuineness of that inspiration and how devoted he was to that was an inspiration to all of us who are carrying on that legacy. The best that we can do is to carry on that same philosophy and that same outlook. That motivates all of us who knew him and has really been a contagious outlook of the world because it’s really gratifying and inspiring.
For those that may be unfamiliar with these tools, why is the synthesizer such an important instrument ?
The fundamental quality that a synthesizer has that distinguishes it from most other types of musical instruments is it doesn’t just have a single sound. Basically, any good synthesizer is a toolkit for exploring a universe of sound. The key feature that it gives you as a composer or musician is the ability to make the sound your own to express some sonic idea that is unique to you as a person.
You have this musical idea in your head and there’s this way that this sounds to you. The synthesizer gives you the tools to dial that in, to figure out what the sound is that’s unique to your self-expression and put it out there and dial it in and let other people hear it.
It’s more than a musical instrument, it’s like a toolkit for creating a musical instrument that’s unique to the player. A good synthesizer lets a player walk up to it, start somewhere in the world of sound and then go in whatever direction their imagination takes them. That’s the power and the beauty of it. That’s what makes it so important as a musical instrument. It’s something that lets an artist fully express themselves sonically in a way that’s only limited by the toolkit that the synthesizer offers them and their own imagination.
What do you attribute to the company’s rise and reputation as a leader in the music industry? Was there a clear defining moment?
There have been a number of them over the years. Moog is an interesting case because of the long legacy that we have. A great extent to which the company is so well-known now is because of some defining moments that happened in the 1960s and ’70s. Wendy Carlos’ album Switched-On Bach is a very clear, defining moment. This was an album that came out in ’68 and was a smash hit. It was, I think at the time, the highest selling classical music album of all time and may still be. Certainly on a short list of high selling classical music albums.
What was unique about it was that there were no orchestral instruments. All the orchestral parts of Bach’s music were arranged for the synthesizer, which at the time there was only one kind of synthesizer in the world and that was the Moog Modular. That was the first one and it wasn’t taken seriously by the musical establishment. It was like a crazy box of technological tricks — not something that serious people who makes serious music go on.
Then one particularly visionary, Carlos, came along and figured it out and cracked the code and made this truly lasting artistic statement using this brand new instrument. And when people heard it, they didn’t have to be told, “Oh, this is a synthesizer. It does X, Y, and Z.” They just listened to the music and it was compelling and it hit. It blew up and changed people’s understanding of what electronic music could be, and even introduced electronic music as a new concept that they never heard of before. At the same time they legitimized it because it was real music and was really artistically compelling.
That was a huge moment and that spawned because the music industry loves to jump on something successful and repeat it as often as it can in the hopes of attaining further success. That still happens. It happened then and with the same predictable result that there were a whole lot of really forgettable novelty records that came out in the ’70s. Fortunately, the concept of the synthesizer survived those early attempts of exploitation and there was a second wave of progressive rock bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer who took the synthesizer on the road and made it a part of really popular rock music.
Another key aspect of what’s really cool about synthesizers, especially analog synthesizers, and especially Moog’s synthesizers, is the way they sound live through a big PA system. When you connect the moving voltages that are coming out of these oscillators and going through these filters and you hook that straight up to a big, high quality sound system, the way that it moves the air and the way that it sounds and the way that it makes you feel, there’s something tangible about it.
Progressive rock bands that were touring around exposed a whole lot of people to that sensation of hearing really good analog synthesizer sounds at high volume and a big crowd. They were winning converts all across the world who said, “I’ve never heard anything like that in person. I’ve never been to a show and had a bass note make me feel like that makes me feel.” That phenomenon was happening over and over as these bands tour the world and when people ask, “What was that?” The answer was, “Oh, that’s a Moog.” “What’s a Moog?” “Oh, it’s a …” It created this impression and so that’s what laid the groundwork for the company, Moog Music, today.
As a little bit of their historical interlude, that was Moog’s early success through the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Later, the company was bought by a larger music company. Bob Moog was reassigned to another department and made guitar amplifiers and wasn’t building synthesizer anymore. Eventually he left the company while they were still in business. Tired of the mergers and acquisitions and the corporate management styles that were going on, things changed to a point where it was no longer the environment he wanted to be in.
At that point in the early ’80s, Bob Moog left his namesake company and retired more or less to western North Carolina where we are now. Moog, at the time, was based in New York. He came down here, bought a farm, and named it Big Briar and just hung out for a while. He taught some at the local university and gradually over time went back into business in a small way with a new company named after his farm, Big Briar. This was in the early ’90s or so. Meanwhile, Moog Music had gone out of business in the ’80s after he left the company.
Bob got started getting back to his roots making theremins, the first instrument he made as a teenager, and gradually started building guitar effects and pedals, and word started to get out. He wasn’t allowed to do business under the name Moog because it was still tied up in intellectual property but he was able to say, “These are Big Briar instruments by Bob Moog.”
The name that was established by Moog in the ’60s and ’70s was still out there in pop culture. People still knew what it was and so that was a stepping stone that Bob was able to use when going back into business. Although there were still some throughout the late ’80s, early ’90s, analog synthesizers were not hip or cool anymore. You could get them really cheap on the used market which is no longer the case. He founded a new business from a place of relative obscurity where his name was still known around the world, it just wasn’t really a phenomenon any longer.
Around the year 2000, he came out with a new synthesizer — the first keyboard synthesizer designed by Bob Moog since the end of the old Moog Music. That was like the second, big turning point, followed by the next big moment when the Minimoog Voyager was announced. That was the instrument that said, “We’re back in a major way and this concept, this technology, this analog, placing one note at a time synthesizer is still a completely legit musical instrument that is compelling as a place in the Moog world.”
The Voyager was picked up again by nationally touring artists and you see on the Tonight Show every night. That’s what got Moog back out in the public eye again. It was really clear that coincided with a resurgence in the coolness of analog synthesizers generally, not just Moog but other companies. There was a beginning of a Renaissance in analog synthesizers.
I think you can make a case that the Minimoog Voyager helped kick off that Renaissance. It was really just motoring along in a slow speed prior at that point. Then when this instrument came along and demonstrated compellingly by how it looks, how it sounded, and who was using it, it showed the world that this was a really happening thing. Then that became part of a larger movement that gained its own momentum. Other companies came along issuing new analog synthesizers as people were excited. Again, you were hearing it in the music and seeing it on the stages.
Now, I wasn’t around in the ’60s to really know how it was then but this feels like it’s as exciting and dynamic a time for Moog as anytime in the whole history.
In your role as a product development specialist and engineer, you play a big part in spearheading the company’s efforts to continually innovate, right? What’s the key to that creative process for you guys?
Everything that I do is a part of a team here within Moog as a whole and then within the engineering department at Moog. We have an open floor plan. There aren’t dividing walls between us. We have a really comfortable and dynamic group process where everybody brings in their own personal inspiration and innovation, and we share that collectively and feed ideas off of each other.
Our creative process would typically go like this… we may each have some inspired detail of the bigger picture and bring that to the group. Other people will say, “Oh, that gives me an idea.” They’ll be in the next little piece of the puzzle. All of us are working together to build something larger than any of our individual contributions and the fact that we’re not adversarial, that we’re collaborative, that we enjoy each other’s ideas, we enjoy the creative process of sharing and remixing and building on each person’s individual contributions, there’s a real dynamic synergy there.
Really, at the heart of the Moog creative process is that we’re all really excited about what we do and we’re really open to one another’s ideas and excited by the insights of our collaborative partners in the process.
I would say there hasn’t been a product here that hasn’t benefited from that kind of open collaboration and discussion where we inspire one another to greater heights in the pursuit of our common goal.
I understand Moogfest has become an important part of the culture of the company and the community. Can you tell us about that?
Sure. Moogfest got started as a one to two-day event in New York where it was just focused on listening to bands that were inspired by Moog instruments. That was very cool and it was a lot of fun and definitely it spoke to a lot of the first wave of Moog enthusiasts that remembered the first heyday of Moog. As that event proceeded to evolve, we want to do a number of things. One thing was open it up to a wider audience, a younger audience and get a fresh wave of people inspired by what we were doing. We also wanted to move it closer to home to Asheville, North Carolina.
When it came to Asheville, one of the first exciting things that really connected Moogfest to Moog the company was that with it right here in the same town as the factory, there was an opportunity for all the artists that were coming and playing at the fest to come visit the factory themselves. It was cool for the artists because they like what we do. They appreciate our instruments and it was cool for them to get a peek inside the company where all these instruments came from.
For us, it was a tremendous opportunity to get a better understanding of the artist’s perspective, to understand what they were responding to, what it was that they appreciated about what we were doing, what it was that they wanted to be doing, what they wanted next. There was a great opportunity for a creative exchange between the people that were using our instruments the most and the people here that were designing and building them.
On that level, Moogfest recharged us because all these rock stars were coming in super excited about what we were doing and we were excited to learn more from them about how they were using our tools and how we could take it further and make even better tools for their creative expression.
Further ahead of time, we added a technology component. We made it less so just a music festival and more of a music, art, technology innovation festival. That involved bringing futurists and creative speakers from other disciplines not just music into the mix, and so Moogfest became something that we could also attend and get new ideas, new inspiration, and new information from all of these amazing thinkers and doers of cool things that were coming to join us.
Really, it has become something that draws people into the Moog world and inspires them and draws the Moog community out and into the wide world of ideas and inspires us as well.
What keeps you motivated?
Honestly, it’s the feeling I have that the work I’m doing is positively impacting other people’s lives, that I’m helping to facilitate creative people to find their own inspiration and that in turn has another ripple effect where people are inspired by the artistic output of the people who are using the tools that I create. I create a tool that inspires the musician to grab hold of something real and share it with the rest of the world, and that inspires countless more people out there. I just feel like it’s a virtuous cycle.
Every once in a while, people get in touch with me and they tell me like, “I sat down with one of your instruments and a whole day passed by and I didn’t even notice. I was so wrapped up and inspired and you got my creative juices flowing.” I hear that time and again and it just tells me that the work that I’m doing in the world is good and meaningful and has a positive impact. There’s nothing better than that.
What does your morning routine look like?
My mornings are pretty basic. I get up, have espresso, check news on my computer a little bit, and head right in. I don’t do a whole lot before work. I basically start my day with just basic routine maintenance and then I’m ready to dive into my day of work.
What do you do to find clarity, or when you feel like you’re losing focus?
Absolutely. I struggle with ADD as a lot of creative people do and so I definitely have those moments where my mind is just not ready to be corralled in one place and stay on task. I find physical activity helps with that. Get up, take a brisk walk, do something to make you break a sweat even a little bit and that by just living in my body for a minute it gives my mind a little bit an outlet and I’m able to go back and refocus.
As far as where do I get my inspiration, how do I put this? I love to dance.
In addition to my musical production and engineering work, I’m also a DJ and the genre that I’m particularly focused on is Psytrance music. There is a whole culture around psychedelic trance music which has been around for about 20 years where the key feature is that it might be outdoors overnight, it might be like in a nice, indoor setting that goes on for a lengthy period of time and it’s really a form of active meditation. You get up there on the dance floor, you’re moving your body like 140 beats a minute and there’s a steady, constant pulse, just a groove that keeps going.
The whole point of that groove for myself and a lot of people is that it really is like an active moving trance state. You’re able to just get your body on a constant rhythm and let your mind go free. I find that when I’m trance dancing, that’s my meditation and that’s when I get some of my best ideas and I’m able to just deeply think about the creative process and think about sound and about the world of sonic exploration all the while I’m dancing.
That’s when I do a lot of my most creative thinking. I’ll go out to an all-night dance event and drink a lot of water, sweat a lot, move a lot, and the whole time, I’m just free associating and building up ideas then I go back into work on Monday, super recharged. I had these great ideas that I can explore in my work and in my regular creative process. That’s a real well-spring of inspiration for me.
I’m off and on with just like quiet mindfulness meditation. I found that to be very beneficial in my life. Again, positively related to the ADD, it’s easier for me to meditate when I’m moving than sitting absolutely still. I aspire to a greater practice of traditional sitting meditation but it that doesn’t always work for me right now. I get a lot out of it when it does work.
What is one thing that you strongly believe in that most people may not be aware of?
I guess one thing that would fall into that category is that I truly believe that everyone and possibly everything is truly interconnected on a very real and fundamental level. I’ve heard some people who are skeptical of the concept that altruism is even a real thing that exists. I believe that it does. You might even look at altruism as being self-interest on a global or on a universal level that if we really are all interconnected, there is no way to do good in the world that is not self-interested or that is not beneficial to yourself as part of the whole.
I really believe that and I believe that a lot of the ills that are suffered in this world is from people not believing that, not taking that to heart, feeling as though they are separate and apart and that they have to succeed and that others have to fail and that that’s good. I’m a little bit more of a hippie in that regard, that is a true belief that I wouldn’t mind if other people share it.
What do you think about the classification of the hot dog? Do you consider that a sandwich?
I’m going to say no. Hot dog is not a sandwich. A hot dog is a sausage on a roll and that’s fine. There’s a place in the world for sausages on a roll. It has in common with the sandwich the fact that there’s bread keeping your hands clean from the contents inside.
But a sandwich, I’m pretty sure that it’s either two pieces of bread with some stuff between them, or even if it’s an open-faced sandwich which we may consider the corner case or the minimum case of a sandwich, even still there is sliced bread and probably some sliced stuff involved. With a hot dog, you got no slicing and only one piece of bread. I’m going to say no.
Where can people find you and learn more about Moog? Is there anything you want to say in closing?
I guess, to leave folks with anything it’s that our mission is to help empower self-expression. Look within yourself to see who you are and what you want to share with the world and do that.
Thanks for reading. And most of all, thank you to Moog Music for their hospitality, to Jim DiBardi for touring us around the facility, and to Amos Gaynes for sharing his story.
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