Part 2 of 4: The Power of (Moog) Inspiration by Chris Stack

From mastering trig to his designs being sent up in the space shuttle…

“I realized then that not only were my electronics studies helping me understand my musical endeavors, but also more importantly, my musical endeavors were helping me understand electronics.”

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It was with great joy that I was able to purchase my first synthesizer, a Korg Micro-Preset.  It was laughably limited by today’s standards.  Actually, it was laughably limited by late 70s standards, but it was mine and strange sounds began emanating from my house, a tradition that would continue for the rest of my life.  It wasn’t long though before Korg came out a slightly more advanced synth and it was time to sell my Micro-Preset and buy a Korg 770.

Any one who has used computers for any length of time should have no trouble guessing where this trend was heading.

By then I was jamming with like-minded friends and we formed a couple of unknown progressive rock bands.  South Carolina in the 70s was a stronghold of southern rock and we didn’t get many gigs, but we kept playing because we loved the music.  Seeing Yes in Columbia, SC on the Relayer tour was an almost religious experience for me.  Lead singer Jon Anderson playing a Minimoog with one hand while he played a harp with the other is a sight that sticks with me to this day.  Getting to hang out with the band after the show was pretty cool too.

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Around this time Moog came out with a new wonder, the Polymoog.  A rep from the factory did a demo tour and I got to attend and play one at a local recording studio owned by the band Marshal Tucker.  The Polymoog blew me away.  It had achieved what was then a holy grail of synthesis… polyphony. It is the first synth on which I ever played a chord and it had another (new to me) capability that I loved and still use quite a bit to this day; sample and hold modulating the filter cutoff frequency.

Before long it was time to expand my keyboard setup again. Time to step up my game a bit so I took out a sizable (for me) loan and bought a pair of new keyboards; a Moog Micromoog and a Crumar Performer string and brass “ensemble”.  These were followed by a Yamaha electric piano and a Roland SH-101.  I had my first real multi-keyboard rig, my own mini version of Rick Wakeman’s setup on his album, “Six Wives of Henry VIII” with the Micromoog being the crown jewel.

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Then things started to get really interesting… before I knew it I had a pair of polyphonic synths, a Korg Poly61 and a Roland JX-3P (my first MIDI synth).  A Commodore 64 with a Sequential Circuits sequencer cartridge took things to the next level.  Yamaha then came out with the DX-7 and I wound up buying almost every 4-operator FM synth that followed.

At this point I had been doing unskilled labor in a zinc die-casting factory for about five years.  That builds character (and muscles), but not much else.  I was 24 years old and realized that I needed to do more with my life.   Luckily, at this point I had developed a strong love for creating electronic music.  I was curious about how it all worked and when I discovered that a local technical college had an electronics program, my next step was clear.

I enrolled in an industrial electronics program and soon I was using a Voltmeter, learning Ohm’s Law, the resistor color code, wiring, soldering and a lot of other useful skills.  I started to understand what things like “frequency” meant and before long, I knew what the filters on my synthesizers were actually filtering.  I realized then that not only were my electronics studies helping me understand my musical endeavors, but also more importantly, my musical endeavors were helping me understand electronics.

This synergy was not just limited to electronics. In trigonometry class, when we studied adding sine functions we would graph them and see the results. Unlike most of my classmates I had the advantage of being able to go home and add sine waves on my synthesizers and hear the resulting sound.  I would also hook them to my oscilloscope (no home should be without one) for additional visual confirmation.  This audio-visual feedback was an incredible learning experience.  Being able to change the frequency and amplitude of the waveforms on the fly and immediately see and hear the result made me feel very at home with some rather abstract mathematical concepts.

At that point, there was no looking back.  At the end of the first quarter I became the first student ever to transfer from Industrial Electronics to Electrical Engineering Technology.  Usually transfers were failing engineering students going the other way.

The personal computer age was then beginning in earnest.  In addition to my Commodore 64 (and Yamaha CX5M) I acquired a new marvel, the first Macintosh.  It only had 128k of RAM and no hard drive, but it screamed loud and clear that a new age of computing was here and with the increasing number of musical application for computers, I had ample incentive to pay close attention in my programming classes.  By the time I received my degree, I had made the dean’s list five times and had been invited to join the engineering honors fraternity, Tau Alpha Pi.  I was ready to join the real world… and buy some more synthesizers.

South Carolina in 1986 was not a hotbed of the high tech industry, but I was very fortunate that my good grades and Macintosh experience enabled me to land a job at Computer Dynamics, Inc.  CDI was an industrial computer manufacturer and working there gave me indispensable hands-on experience in electronics design and manufacturing.  After a few months as a technician, I joined the engineering department as a printed circuit board (PCB) designer and spent the next ten years deep in the hearts of these machines.

CDI products found homes in some pretty interesting applications.  I was proud that my designs were part of the latest medical equipment, industrial processes and even one of the first flat panel display desktop computers, but I was on cloud nine when the sales manager told me that one of my babies was going up on a space shuttle.  Like all of my designs, I had embedded my initials in the circuitry and being a longtime Star Trek fan, I thought my handiwork going into space was probably the coolest thing that would ever happen to me.

I was wrong.

To see Part 1 of the series please click here.

To see Part 3 of the series please click here.

To see Part 4 of the series please click here.

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For more from Chris Stack visit his YouTube Channel or his website, ExperimentalSynth.com.

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