Friday, October 30, 2015

My Journey with the Moog Voyager



In the world of synthesizers, there are toys, there are tools, and then there is a third category, which I would call instruments. These don’t come around often. They aren’t just a box full of sounds and presets to be used. These are the kind of instruments that invite the player to a dialogue, that inspire and inform the music as a participant, not as an empty device to be used. Such a synthesizer is more like a piano or a fine violin than the kind of keyboards that have become all-too-common (and all-too-cheap) on the shelves of corporate music chains. I have only really known one such instrument, personally, and that is the Moog Voyager.

So I was saddened to hear this recently that Moog Music has discontinued the Voyager line, putting an end to the last instrument that Bob Moog designed from start to finish. Granted, the Voyager lived a long life for a production unit, surpassing the lifespan of its predecessor, the Minimoog by a couple of years. Still, it feels like the end of an era, and a significant moment in my own life and relationship with analog synthesizers.

Unlike many Moog users, I am not old enough to feel childhoold nostalgia for analog synthesizers. The synths of my childhood were shiny, plastic, digital machines that played back complex sampled sounds stored to ROM. This was the kind of keyboard I first heard in the mid 80s, when an elementary school music teacher brought a digital keyboard to class, and my mind was blown by the sudden possibility of instruments that could make any sound imaginable.

After some early Casio synths, that would more properly be called toys, my first “real” synthesizer was a Korg X5D.
Though you could layer the various sampled sounds loaded into its memory in different ways, and you could alter the effects, the soundset of the X5D was limited. Still, it provided a useful toolset for a budding musician. I loved it. I attached a MiniDisc recorder to it with velcro and had my first primitive electronic music production rig. I took this setup with me to Australia in 1999, when I spent a year at a school of meditation.

This proved to be a pivotal experience for me in several ways. As soon as I arrived, the school’s founder and teacher, Samuel Sagan, presented me with a unique opportunity in the form of an internship recording and editing audio for the school’s correspondence courses. But he also gave me a very important set of tools: a personal computer, an 88-key digital piano, and a much nicer Korg module. He must have known what he was doing, because he laughed as he was bringing the gear up to my room and said, “I’ve learned that the way to convince someone they need a tool is to give it to them for a while and then take it away.”

Indeed, after a year of using a computer and synth module to make music, I was convinced that this was what I needed. I recorded my first album there, and while it was a primitive affair, it sparked an interest in recording and digital audio production.

My next synth would be an Access Virus C, which I still use to this day. This became my main staple, along with Reason, which was the first software I had encountered that provided a level of sound quality on a par with hardware instruments. The Virus is a beast of a machine. It was the first real tool I had used that provided flexibility and hands-on control in a way that really allowed for improvisational control of timbre. This virtual analog machine uses modeling technology to mimic analog circuitry. It is entirely digital, but at that point I didn’t know the difference. That is, to say, until I got to compare it side by side with a Minimoog.

Though I had dropped out years before, I returned to college after my time in Australia, to pursue a music degree, armed with a newfound passion for electronic music. My school only offered degrees in music performance or audio engineering, so I decided to hobble together the studies I needed by basically completing both programs, as well as every synthesis class they offered. My last semester, I took a class in analog synthesis.

Bob Moog had actually taught at my school, and though he had recently passed away, he had bequeathed to the university a room full of analog gear, including several Moogerfooger pedals, a theremin, and one of his newest inventions, the Minimoog Voyager.
Before I played one, I didn’t get it. To me, digital sounded pure and rich, and infinitely more versatile than older technologies. And anyway, most music would inevitably get mixed down to CD’s or MP3’s, so what was the value in using analog gear, I reasoned.
In class, I even made the boastful claim that my Virus, with its digital effects, polyphony, and elaborate modulation options was superior to an analog synthesizer. My teacher, Wayne Kirby, decided to put that notion to the test.

One day, he had me bring in the Virus, and he brought in his own Minimoog. We stripped both down to their most basic sound: a square wave with no filtering, no modulation, and no effects. The sound difference was incredible. It wasn’t even close. Without all the bells and whistles that came with the Virus, its basic sound was hollow and flat compared to the richness of the Minimoog. I was convinced, and I began experimenting at length in the Moog Lab.

Immediately, I found the Voyager to be responsive and inspiring in a whole different way. It was hard to describe the way it changed the experience of music making. Everything that came out of it was rich and complex and felt like experiencing synthesis for the first time. And there was a sense of immediacy about it that was different from a digital emulation. When I turned a knob, I wasn’t telling a computer to play a different sound: I was literally changing the sound. The experience was different in a way that was intangible, yet undeniable.

Later, I would go on to work at Moog Music for several years, calibrating Voyagers. I got to know them intimately, to see the incredible attention to detail that went into them, and to respect the build quality, which surpassed anything I had encountered before. Eventually, I saved enough to buy my own, a beautiful walnut unit with purple backlighting, blacklight LED’s, and mod wheel lights that sync to the LFO. It has become my primary musical instrument.

So I was thinking about all of this personal history when I learned the other day that the Voyager was coming to an end. I had been working on a new piece of music for a while, the last song on my forthcoming album. I had hit a wall with it, and was unsure how to move forward.
When I read the press release from Moog, I knew what I wanted to do: play the Voyager. It usually lives in my live performance rig, which I call the PsybOrg (I actually built an elaborate electronic “pipe organ” around the Voyager). But I took it down, set it up next to my mixing desk and began to play.

I sent an arpeggiator to it from the computer, added a touch of delay, and began tweaking. I synced Oscilator 2 and played with its pitch knob. I tweaked the cutoff and the pitch of Oscilator 3. I varied the resonance. And the Voyager gave birth to a rich, droning, otherworldly tone. And suddenly, the whole piece opened up. It went from being a frustrating exercise in stumped creativity to one of my favorite musical moments in the whole album. That is what the Voyager does. It brings musicality and breaths new life into the music.

I will always be grateful for the genius of Bob Moog and the other engineers, programmers, and designers who contributed to this fabulous instrument. I have the honor to know some of them personally and I know they put a great deal of love and vision into their work. Were it not for their efforts, I might never have come to know the depths of what synthesis could mean to me. I look forward to seeing where they take this voyage next.





Sunday, June 1, 2014

Help me write my next album


I'd like to invite you to take part in an experiment I'm conducting. I'm working on my sixth studio album, Möbius, and I want your help.
I've collected the seeds of 20 new compositions that I want to develop. Ten are psytrance tracks and ten are different forms of EDM. You can listen to them all on the Soundcloud players below.
Every month, starting in June 2014, I'll work on two of these and document my process with videos, screen captures and samples of the work in progress.
And your part is to give me feedback. Make suggestions of what you like and don't like. What would you like to hear happen next? Tweak the synth line? Change up the drum part? More cowbell?
You'll get to hear the album before anyone else, and you'll get rare glimpses into how this kind of music is made. Sound interesting?

To be part of the project, visit logosmusic.net/mobius. Or join the Facebook group here. I look forward to working with you.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Moogfest 2014


I had the honor of playing at Moogfest last week. It felt like a culmination of many years of effort and cultivation. I moved to Asheville, N.C. right after high school, and quickly learned of the impact that Dr. Robert Moog had on this town. I had loved synthesizers since I was eight years old and a music teacher at my elementary school brought one in to demonstrate it. So when I came here to go to college, I was delighted to learn that my new town was also home to "the man who invented the synthesizer." 


As I would eventually learn, this wasn't entirely accurate; Moog invented a great number of brilliant instruments during his life, the most famous of which was the Minimoog. And while it was not the first synthesizer ever invented, it was the first commercially available modern synthesizer, the instrument that brought the concept of electronic music to the masses.

I only had one encounter with the man in person. He was giving a presentation at UNC Asheville, where I was a freshman music student. I didn’t know much about analog synthesizers at the time, and having been introduced to them in the days of digital sample-based instruments, I couldn’t understand their limitations. During the Q&A part of his talk, I asked why his instruments could only play one note at a time. It was a question I would later realize was both ignorant and somewhat rude. Luckily, he took it well and explained that to achieve polyphony with all analog equipment would be incredibly costly, not to mention heavy.




I still didn’t understand until my final semester of school, when I got to play in the Music Department’s analog synth lab. The room was basically a closet in those days, but it had a Voyager, a rack of Moogerfooger pedals, and a Theremin. As soon as I started playing them, I could hear and feel a visceral difference from the digital keyboards I was accustomed to. It felt like playing a “real” instrument. It started me on the path I am on today.


After leaving school, I worked at Moog Music, calibrating Voyagers for a few years. I’ve also done volunteer work with the Bob Moog Foundation, bringing hand-on synth exhibits to schools and festivals. I’ve built the PsybOrg, incorporating nearly every piece of gear Moog Music made at the time I left them. And last week, after several years of attending Moogfest as a spectator, I got to play on an official stage at the event, alongside some of Asheville’s finest talent. Our event, Colliderfest, was one of the free events offered by Moogfest and was sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe Sustainable Community Initiatives and the Asheville Area Arts Council.  
















Monday, April 28, 2014

Logos at UNCA Arts Festival

I had the pleasure of spending a few hours recently at the UNCA Arts Festival, demonstrating the PsybOrg. It was such a cool experience! I graduated from the Music Department in 2007 with a degree in piano performance. It was there, under the guidance of Dr. Wayne Kirby, that I first got to experiment with analog synthesizers. It was also there that I had my only encounter with Bob Moog, when I, as a clueless college freshman, asked him why his synthesizers could only play one note at a time (he took it fairly well, but in hindsight, it wasn't the most polite, nor the most educated question to ask).
It felt like a proud homecoming to be back at my Alma Mater, teaching people about analog synthesizers and the brilliance of Dr. Moog's creations.
Credit to Jenny Bowen for the great photographs!







Thursday, March 13, 2014

Biophelia (2003) Digitally Remastered

Biophelia (2013) Listen here.


In December 2003, I released my first dance album as Logos. I had recorded an ambient album the year before, but "Biophelia" took my production work to the next level, drawing influences from psytrance, house, and other forms of EDM that I was listening to at the time.
It was a real turning point for me musically. The album sort of defined what would become "my sound." It was also the first thing I had released that actually started to find an audience. And most importantly, it inspired me to push forward, developing my skills as a composer and producer.
Having recently passed the ten-year anniversary of the album, I found myself wanting to revisit it. My mixing skills have come along way since then, and while the material was still exciting to me, some of the mixes clearly needed a fine-tuning.
I'm happy to say that that process has drawn to a close and I'm able to re-release Biophelia in a re-mixed and digitally remastered version.
For a limited time it will be a free download on Bandcamp. Please give it a listen and if you can, make a donation for it.
I also want to thank Kri Samadhi, who remastered it and all of the musicians who recorded on it, including Elizabeth Terry, Egg Syntax, Ambra Lionstone, and Abigail Griffin. The cover includes artwork by Rees Perry.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Prayer for Remembering: The Gift of Trust

The following is part of a series of short essays about particular Logos tracks. I think it helps to relate to the music better to understand their stories. All of these tracks can be listened to or downloaded at logosmusic.bandcamp.com.


3. Prayer for Remembering (listen here)



The word “music” today means something very different than it did when the ancient Greeks first used it. Then, “μουσική” referred to the various arts of the Muses, the nine deities who inspired the creative works of humans. All music and art, in the ancient understanding of the world, was a form of channeling, a divine inspiration that did not originate from, but rather moved through the artist. 

I think most artists can relate to this on some level. When we are most creatively inspired, there is a definite feeling that ideas are flowing from somewhere beyond our conscious control. Even the word “inspired” alludes to the fact that something beyond ourselves is “breathing into” us. Of course, usually this inspiration comes in small bursts. The vast majority of the time I’m working is not spent in the throes of ecstatic revelation, but in focused effort, sculpting and shaping the creative seeds I have received. There have been, however, a couple of examples in my life of compositions that came to me in nearly finished form. “Prayer for Remembering” is one of those. 

Without getting into too much personal detail, let me say that it was written during a period of my life when I was feeling deeply challenged by the path I had chosen in my life, and soul-crushing doubts and fears weighed on me constantly. It was on a particularly difficult night that “Prayer for Remembering” came to me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances any more. What I do remember is the feeling of hopelessness and immobility that had settled upon me. It felt like there was no way I could go any further; I doubted the path I was on in life, and worse, I doubted my ability to take a single step forward. In an act of desperation, I forced myself to walk over to the piano and began punching the keys. Like a primal scream, I pounded notes on the piano, until my rage began to clear. Slowly, my right hand started to play two notes over and over again: B and E. Back and forth my fingers moved, holding on to some small thread that had appeared in the chaos of the discordant noises erupting from me. My left hand started playing a bass line. And words began coming to me, in the form of a prayer: 

“Lord may I remember what it is I sought,
when I chose the journey I am on. 
And in my hour of darkness, 
when I fear the way is wrong, 
may I not forget the music 
or the meaning of this song…”

After furiously scribbling the words onto paper as fast I could transcribe them, I no longer felt hopeless or despairing; I felt inspired. 
I decided to make the piece a sort of mantra. Whenever I again found myself in a fit of anxiety or depression, I would work on the composition. At first this meant practicing it on the piano, but soon I began working on a recorded version of it. It became something of a grand opus: a musical testament to the struggle of my heart to stay focused in the midst of intense, conflicting emotions. As the months and eventually years passed on, more and more elements got layered onto it. I added another verse, and a large build at the end. I used sampled string instruments to create dramatic tension. I improvised a Celtic-sounding “violin” solo at the end. It became epic and unwieldy. Eventually my personal crisis resolved itself, but the song was still unfinished. And that’s how it remained for a long time.

As the pains of my previous trials became more of a distant memory, it got harder to go back to the song and keep the emotion raw and alive. I also began to feel awkward about the song’s overt religious symbolism (my complicated relationship with Christianity is a subject much too involved to get into here). More than anything, there was a certain element of narcissism about it that began to make me uncomfortable.

There was also the issue of my voice. Though I’d written and sung songs since I was 13 years old, I’d always been resistant to singing lyrics on any of my albums. For a project whose name means “word,” Logos has always been ironically instrumental.

I almost finished the track for The Multicolored Playground. But at the last minute, I decided to hold off; I knew something wasn’t quite ready yet.
It wasn’t until Allison and I were expecting our daughter that I was able to reconnect with it. I began toying with the idea of changing the lyrics in a way that addressed all of my concerns. I no longer felt like I needed the song in the same way I once had. But I began to think about Coralyn, still in her mother’s womb, entering her own journey of life. Perhaps she needed the prayer more than I did.

I tried switching the pronouns from “I” to “you.” I changed the word “Lord” (which had always felt a little uncomfortable to sing) to “Love.” The whole song suddenly took on a new meaning. It fully clicked for me when I switched around the pronouns of one of the newer lines I’d written: 
“May you not stray from the path that leads you home to you.”

For the first time, I felt like one of my lyrical songs was appropriate for a Logos album. It no longer was about my personal struggles. It was a song, sung by a father, to help guide his daughter on her journey into life. There was still a lot of work to do on it. I had some incredible musicians contribute to the final version. John Mulholland played drums and percussion. Taylor “Taz” Johnson played tablas. Marc Hennessey and Franklin Keel replaced my sampled violins and cellos and added their own layers of improvisation over it. Marc, particularly, gets credit for the epic violin arpeggios that blow the roof off the piece at the end.

I should also mention that I had added the sample from Osho early on in the process of developing this track. At the time, I didn’t know much about the man, but after I learned more about Osho’s troubling history, I almost removed the sample. In the end, though, I decided that the words stand on their own, that the teaching can be separated from the teacher.

Ultimately, the Prayer is for anyone struggling to remember why they have chosen the way and the life they are living. It was first written for me, then for Cora. And now, I offer it to you. Stay true to your path, wherever it takes you.

Love may you remember 
what it is you sought, 
when you chose the journey you are on. 
And in your hour of darkness, 
when you fear the way is wrong, 
may you not forget the music or the meaning of this song. 

May the light that guides your way 
shine from deep within. 
And when the darkness threatens, 
may you find it once again. 
Let your heart stay open 
and your prayer be true. 
May you not stray from the path 
that leads you home to you. 

May you never turn in fear 
of roads less traveled on 
for comfortable silence 
or the lies it rests upon. 
And may you never compromise 
with what fear would have you be. 
Your love and your compassion 
are as boundless as the sea.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

PsybOrg on Synthtopia

I'm very excited today that the PsybOrg was featured on the front page of Synthtopia, one of the leading tech blogs for synthesizers and electronic music.

Read the article here.