Custom Moog Modular, Aries 300 and two ARP 2600s and more find a place in the Bob Moog Foundation Archives
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) recently dusted off the modular synthesizers and other vintage instruments and equipment in the closet of their electronic music studio and sent it to the Bob Moog Foundation for restoration and exhibition. Some of you might have gotten a sneak peek at three of the instruments, which were featured in our “Take Me To Your Modular” exhibit at the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit. Thanks to the permanent loan from UNCG, which was coordinated by Dr. Mark Engebretson, Director, A. V. Williams Electronic Music Studio, the Foundation has added these instruments to their growing archive of vintage hardware.
The modular synthesizers included in the loan are of such historical, as well as technical, value that we asked music technology journalist, Geary Yelton, to do a bit of research on them. He uncovered a lot of interesting information, below.
Bob Moog built his first modular electronic instrument in 1964 at the request of Hofstra University professor Herb Deutsch. The following year, Moog and Deutsch staged their very first synthesizer workshop at the R.A. Moog factory in Trumansburg, New York.
One of twelve participants attending that workshop was Dr. Art Hunkins, an educator, cellist, and experimental composer who had previously worked with tape music. In 1966, he established an electronic music studio for the School of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which purchased the very early version of the Moog modular synthesizer now on permanent loan to the Bob Moog Foundation. UNCG’s electronic music studio was the first in the state of North Carolina. Dr. Hunkins couldn’t possibly have known then that synthesizers would someday play such an important role in so many styles of music, both mainstream and experimental.
When UNCG placed its order, the School of Music invited Bob Moog to give a lecture to the students and faculty, helping to ensure that he would personally deliver and install the modular system. At the beginning, the system comprised a keyboard and a single cabinet containing a handful of modules, including two multipurpose oscillators, a pair of VCAs, a lowpass filter, a fixed filter bank, and a rudimentary patch panel to connect the synthesizer to the outside world—all at a cost of around $3,000. Initially, the only documentation Moog supplied was handwritten on five pages from a legal pad (though the studio did receive a printed manual eventually). Over the next two years, the system expanded as more money became available.
As you’d expect, persuading the early Moog oscillators to stay in tune was practically impossible, and Hunkins had to open up the cabinet and learn to calibrate the modules himself by studying the schematics. When the system outgrew its original housing, he added a second cabinet to accommodate additional modules, thanks to a faculty research grant. Some of the modules came from manufacturers other than Moog. Of particular note are a low-frequency random signal generator from E-mu Systems and a quadraphonic panner controlled by a joystick. Although Panasonic designed the panner to be used in a quadraphonic home stereo, it was adapted and installed by a local technician at Hunkins’ request.
UNCG’s Moog modular synthesizer served students and composers alike. By the time five years had passed, however, the school had acquired an ARP 2600 and an EML Electrocomp 300. The newer instruments offered more immediate gratification than the Moog, which required patchcord connections to make any sound at all. Consequently, the Moog synth eventually became the studio’s backup system.
In 1971, inventor Alan R. Perlman and company recognized that the market for large-scale modular synthesizers like the behemoth ARP 2500 was limited, owing to their size, cost, and complexity, as well as the fact that they were custom-built to order. To stay in business, ARP designed the 2600—a more portable, integrated, ready-made system combining the versatility of a modular synth with the convenience of a more straightforward architecture. Internally hardwired signal paths offered default routings, allowing users to explore a broad palette of tonal colors simply by flipping switches and changing slider settings. The option of using patchcords to route any source to any destination made it possible to operate the 2600 as a modular synth as well, giving users the best of both worlds.
ARP originally targeted schools as the 2600’s most likely customers, but the instruments caught on with rock musicians and film composers, making a significant splash in pop culture. Notable examples include Edgar Winter’s hit instrumental “Frankenstein,” The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and even the “voice” of R2D2 in Star Wars.
Throughout the ’70s, the 2600 was in direct competition with some of Moog’s portable synthesizers, beginning with the Minimoog. In 1975, Moog discovered that ARP had copied their famous ladder filter without permission and literally covered up their deception by sealing the circuit in epoxy. Threatened with legal action, ARP changed the design the following year and eventually discontinued the 2600 just before the company folded in 1981 under the weight of a half-million dollars in debt.
During the 2600’s 10-year lifespan, no more than 3,000 of the instruments were manufactured. Today, ARP 2600s in working order are in high demand, often fetching many times their original price. UNCG purchased the ARP 2600 that’s now on loan to the Bob Moog Foundation from its original owner in the early 1980s.
Synth maker Aries Music produced its 300-series modules from 1975 until 1982. The Massachusetts-based company gave synthesists a choice of purchasing factory-built modules or kits for anyone who didn’t mind handling a soldering iron (at an average savings of 40%).
The Aries on permanent loan to the Bob Moog Foundation was hand-built by Dr. Art Hunkins of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who established the state’s first electronic music studio in 1966. This was his personal system, which he used to compose music for live performance, to accompany dancers, for studio recordings, and for teaching. In particular, Hunkins’ composition “Fantasy on One Note” was commissioned and written for the Aries, and he performed it for audiences on several occasions.
The modules in Hunkins’ Aries system include three oscillators, three ADSR generators, lowpass and multimode filters, an envelope follower, a dual LFO and lag inverter, and numerous others. As he finished assembling the modules, Hunkins discovered that half of them didn’t work, so he returned them to Aries Music for repair. He built them over the course of about a year, mostly during the summer months. At one point, Aries sent a potential customer who wanted to see an actual system in operation to Greensboro to determine how big a system he should purchase.
Most Aries Series 300 modules were manufactured by former ARP employee Paul Rivera and designed by Dennis Colin, who designed the ARP 2600 along with Alan R. Perlman. The Aries had minijacks for making connections rather than the larger and more durable phone jacks used in most modular synths at the time, making Aries systems relatively compact. Patch points were plentiful, giving the systems plenty of flexibility. A total of 28 different modules were available, ranging from a lowpass filter with a variable cutoff slope to a sophisticated analog sequencer.
As a company, Aries Music had a reputation for a rather snooty attitude, suggesting that if you didn’t play a modular synth, you weren’t a real synthesist—an attitude perpetuated by some modular synthesists today.
Among the modular synthesizers mentioned, the UNCG collection also includes an ARP Sequencer, an ElectroComp EML-300, an E-Mu Ensoniq E3000 Ultra, a Oberheim OB-Xa, an Ensoniq DMS-1, a Korg MS-20 (Vintage), and a Korg Poly-800.
The Bob Moog Foundation is honored to steward these, and many other instruments to help preserve them for their historical and technical value. Be on the lookout for these instruments to be displayed over the next few years. Many thanks to Mark Englebretson and UNCG for the permanent loan!