Insights on the Moog Source, Prodigy and Rogue from an early Moog Music Engineer

I like to think that energy was infused into every instrument that went out the door, and still lives within them today.” – August Worley

August Worley is an Electrical Engineer and professional musician who began his professional career at Moog Music, Inc.in Buffalo, New York. Throughout his varied career, August has combined his insightful talents as a design engineer and working musician for internationally-known companies such as B&K Components, Polyfusion, Inc., Moog Music Custom Engineering, as well as for a number of prominent musicians including Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), Erik Norlander, and Gotye

In 2002 August moved to Asheville, North Carolina to work with legendary synthesizer pioneer Dr. Robert Moog, in developing his last keyboard, the MiniMoog Voyager synthesizer. He is currently the Technical Advisor and a teaching consultant for the Bob Moog Foundation as well developing a line of products in the field of sound therapy and physioacoustics for his own company, AugusTara

Formerly Chicago Musical Instruments Co. (or CMI), Norlin Corporation was the owner of several high-profile musical instrument companies including Gibson and Epiphone (guitars), Lowrey (organs), Pearl (drums), Cordovox (accordions), Selmer (brass), and several others, including Moog Music, which it owned from 1973-1983. The fact that “NORLIN” was an amalgam of the names of the two principals, Nort Stevens and Arnold Berlin, who had met at the Harvard Business School should tell you that the focus of their musical endeavors was squarely focused on the bottom line. (It is common knowledge that the Gibson guitars produced during the Norlin era are some of  the worst ever produced in that company’s 118-year history).

Despite being tasked with Norlin’s “a car in every garage” effort to make synthesizers as popular as the guitar, Bob Moog’s original high standards of robust build and sonic quality remained after he left the company in 1977, and as a result Moog Music of the ‘80s produced some of the most iconic synthesizers in the history of the instrument.

The Moog Prodigy 

The Norlin era of Moog Music was in full swing by the time the Moog Prodigy was released to production in June  of 1979. The Prodigy was designed by engineer Rich Walborn and the late, great Tony Marchese as a low-cost synthesizer similar in design to the Minimoog. (Now Moog’s chief engineer, Tony had been instrumental in designing many of Moog’s most iconic products including the Polymoog, Taurus, and Micro/Multimoog instruments, as well as the other two instruments featured in our raffle, The Source and The Rogue.) 

The Moog Prodigy featured two VCOs (Voltage-Controlled Oscillator), a dedicated Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) with expanded routing capabilities, a Low-Pass Filter, two Envelope Generators, and a Noise source. These functional sonic elements combined with a linear left-to-right control panel layout codified the essential “must-have” elements of a usable low-cost synthesizer, and became somewhat of a synthesizer industry standard. In terms of production techniques, the Prodigy was innovative in that it was the first Moog synthesizer to implement the use of a microcomputer as part of the test process.

Driven by the success of building several dedicated test fixtures designed to streamline production of the Norlin/Gibson Lab Series guitar amplifier line, the Test Engineering department created several sophisticated test fixtures for the Prodigy Main circuit board. Each testing station had a Tandy TRS-80 (with a Zilog Z80 microprocessor) that sequenced the order of the test procedure to facilitate the technician’s testing. 

For example, before I would execute tuning each of the Prodigy’s two temperature-compensated oscillators, the test fixture would tell me what the ambient temperature around my work bench was (in Celsius OR Fahrenheit!) and I would calibrate them accordingly. This was pretty sophisticated stuff back then, and it appeared that the digital age of the synthesizer was upon us! Today, the Prodigy is still a great-sounding synthesizer by any standard, and the instrument offered in our raffle has been enhanced by some digital-age bells & whistles including a Synthrotek USB/Midi modification.

The Moog Source

In terms of digital control, the Moog Source was an exciting innovation in synthesizers at the time it was released, and also responsible for my landing a job at Moog in the first place. Fresh out of college in May 1980, I started with the company testing Prodigy boards, but my course work included a semester of system architecture design and programming for the same microprocessor embedded in The Source – once again, the Zilog Z80. But because the microprocessor was such an innovative technology at the time, my one semester was more than almost all of the technical staff of Moog combined! 

At that time, overlaying a microprocessor with an analogue synthesizer was relatively unheard of, and was such a radically new concept that I recall the owner’s manual contained some wording alluding to not being “afraid” that it used a microprocessor, and that “you’ll be working WITH a computer to make music, not being controlled BY a computer,” to assuage fears that the instrument would make your music sound robotic or something!

Add to that a single BIG controller knob for every incremental function except output volume, no tactile switches, and a yellow, orange, and blue membrane panel (!), and it was a very innovative design, indeed. However, as radical as the instrument looked and functionally presented, it too featured the exact same core of sonic elements as the Prodigy, along with additional advanced features such as sequencers (two of them), an arpeggiator, a sample-and-hold function, an auto-trigger function, and the “Holy Grail” feature of analogue synthesizers: being able to save your sound settings to multiple (16) preset locations. 

Even with a certain level of microprocessor chops, those early days of synths with embedded microprocessors were not without some strange “growing pains” for me; I recall testing a particular Source unit that had the two lowest two keys (” and C#) in the reverse order – a very weird problem that none of us had ever seen on ANY Moog synthesizer before.

After much exploration and head-scratching, (it was such an out of left-field problem that it actually took a little while to identify exactly why it sounded “odd”), the problem was revealed to be a rare imperfection in one of the digital memory chips that decoded the keyboard and “told” the processor which key was being depressed. It’s also important to note that as the two notes are quite close together in pitch, it is very likely that only a musician would’ve caught that problem in the first place, and a reason that Moog Music always gave preference to hiring technical people that also had a significant amount of musical training in their background. 

The Moog Rogue       

The Rogue took the now-familiar functional elements of the Prodigy and Source to a different economical standard, and while still providing a great-sounding synthesizer engine using a reduced control set, it also provided a verdrive feature, which enabled the oscillators to develop some of the harmonic characteristics of a distorted guitar. From the production standpoint, in an effort to keep material costs down and lower the unit’s price point, it became the first Norlin-era Moog instrument to not have any wood incorporated as part of the enclosure design. Like the Prodigy, it also featured the same robust steel panel design and silk screened labeling. (This design was also later reinterpreted to become the sound engine of the Taurus II, basically eliminating the keyboard and modifying the enclosure to become the headpiece for a pedal synthesizer instrument.) 

The Rogue was also the result of further perfecting the production flow model to emphasize a greater quantity of units that went out the door, without sacrificing our ever-important standards of quality. This was important for the company at that time, as the production protocols used to build The Rogue were also used to manufacture the similar-in-design Moog Concertmate MG-1 for Realistic (Radio Shack) that was released around the same time for the home market. (Honestly, I worked on a LOT of both products and as they both went into production at right around the same time, I’m a bit fuzzy on which one we actually started to ship first!) 

But in both cases we sure made a bunch of ‘em! The Rogue was the first Moog synthesizer to be assembled before there was any preliminary functional testing, so the pressure was on the production crew to build them as consistently flawlessly as possible. A unit would arrive already mostly finished for the 3 or 4 frame test technicians to do a complete functional test and calibration procedure, and upon completion they would close it up with the chassis screws and pass it on as a completed instrument, to be played and fully certified by a Final Test keyboard wizard before being packed for shipping.

I recall that I could usually fully test 15 to 25 Rogues on a good day, which meant that they had arrived at my bench in good working order and just needed tuning and calibration. However, if one failed we were also responsible for repairing the unit, all the way down to the component level. I liked to set any failed units aside for a dedicated troubleshoot-&-repair day once a week or so, and would work my way through the “dog pile.” Because of the time involved with troubleshooting, desoldering, and resoldering replacement components, I could usually only send about half of my usual number through to Final Test. I would also help out the other guys by repairing their failed units for them so they could keep our production flow going.

Working at Moog Music, Inc. 

The thing I remember most about the Buffalo edition of Moog Music was the camaraderie, and an environment that made it a sort of a family. And right in our parking lot we had a world-class “research facility”: a bar called Knickerbocker’s – oh, and also a decommissioned Polaris missile! (Hey, it came with the building.) This was where most of us could be found on Friday afternoons after work, and as I think about it now I recognize it as an unintentional team building element of tremendous value, as it allowed all of the Moog employees from all the various departments who normally wouldn’t interact with one another to do so.

At one point, we had a company of over 120 people, all of whom knew each other very well –  that’s because we had a place where we could share information and various concerns on a much more informal, off-the-record basis, and when facilitated by the appropriate amount of “think juice”, there really wasn’t any problem that we couldn’t solve. And if you stuck around long enough there was also a live band on most nights, and few of our crew would sometimes sit in with them.

At the end of the day (or week), every one of us was there to create products that would bring happiness into other people’s lives through music – the exact same reason why Bob started the company in the first place. And I like to think that energy was infused into every instrument that went out the door, and still lives within them today.

Bob Moog with August Worley, Big Briar circa 2002

      

Moog Trifecta Raffle 2020

Our Moog Trifecta Raffle offers three separate prizes to three separate winners: first prize, Moog Source, serial number 2628 (valued at $2,800); second prize, an updated Moog Prodigy, serial number 3078 (valued at $2,500); and the Moog Rogue, serial number 3674 (valued at $1,500) as third prize. The Moog Source and Moog Rogue were expertly restored by Tone Tweakers. The Prodigy was expertly restored by lauded technician Wes Taggart. and has been updated with Synthrotek MST MIDI-to-CV Converter.

All proceeds benefit the Foundation’s projects: Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, the Bob Moog Foundation Archives, and the Moogseum. Only 4,500 tickets will be sold.

For more information about each synthesizer and to purchase tickets, visit https://bit.ly/2020TrifectaRaffle