Part 3 of 4: The Power of (Moog) Inspiration by Chris Stack

From Bach to Yes, early exposure to new sonic possibilities changed Chris Stack’s life.

“Bob very graciously explained that analog and digital were both great tools for creating sound and that analog was just what he knew better.”

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One day, I saw an article in the local newspaper that said that Bob Moog was teaching at a college in Asheville, NC (a city about an hour away) and was giving a public lecture in a few days.  Holy SynthCakes!!!!!! Bob Moog… THE Bob Moog… the guy whose name was on my Micromoog, the guy who made the synths on Switched-On Bach, the guy who Rick Wakeman had on speed-dial (I think they had speed-dial then)… THE Bob Moog lives about an hour away!   Yeah, I was pretty sure I was going to be able to attend that lecture.

And attend I did…  I don’t clearly remember everything he talked about, but I think it was a general overview of electronic music from his unique vantage point.  I remember him playing the Theremin and also demonstrating a musical concept on a non-Moog keyboard.  I believe it may have been a Casio CZ-1.  There was a question and answer session at the end and I remember someone rather rudely asking him if he was behind the times because he hadn’t jumped on the digital bandwagon.  Bob very graciously answered him and explained that analog and digital were both great tools for creating sound and that analog was just what he knew better.

After the lecture, Bob was hanging around talking to people and helping to clear the stage.  I worked up my nerve and went up and introduced myself.  After thanking him for creating all that was good and holy in my universe, I gave him my card and mentioned that I was a printed circuit designer and that if he ever needed one to give me a call.

He called me the next morning.

I leave it to your imagination to picture my reaction when I picked up the phone and heard “Hello Chris, this is Bob Moog.”  He mentioned that he had a custom project he was working on and asked if I would be interested in helping out.  I believe my answer was a very respectful paraphrase of “Oh, hell yeah!”

A day or two later, I visited Bob at the Big Briar facility in Asheville.  He gave me the rundown on a custom project he had in the works, the Multi Touch Sensitive (MTS) keyboard [For more information on the MTS read Larry Fine’s blog in Piano Buyer here].  I was fascinated, and since much of my work then at CDI involved combining PC hardware with flat panel displays and touch surfaces, it was somewhat familiar ground for me.  I left with a schematic, some notes and part samples.

The MTS is a basically a controller keyboard that gives the player the power to modify numerous aspects of sound by translating the position of the player’s fingers on the keys into control information.  The possibilities of this left me dumbfounded.  This was long before the age of the iPad and it was more than a decade before the touch surface on the Moog Voyager.  This was to my knowledge one of the first musical applications of this technology and to say I was excited to be a part of it is a vast understatement.

The first step for me was a process called “schematic capture”.  In it, I took Bob’s hand-drawn schematic and recreated it with Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.  The schematic capture process created a database of all the parts and connections in the design and I then imported that into a related PCB design program and “drew” the circuit board.   There were three PCBs in the MTS and we did them one after the other.  This was in the dark, ancient days before either of us had Internet access or email addresses (or even cell phones), so the majority of our subsequent communications were through landline telephone calls and Fedex packages.

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Electronic design is a very detailed process and there are a thousand things that need to go right.  I’m sure I enjoyed more than one opportunity to tell friends “Excuse me for a moment… I’ve got to call Bob Moog.”  He was always very patient with my questions and before long all three boards were done.  As in most electronic designs, creating the PCBs was only a fraction of the work required to finish the project.  My part was done and Bob was on to the next phase.

Since the MTS was a custom creation, it was not like I could go down to Guitar Center and check one out after it was finished.  I never saw one until many years later when I was the Marketing Manager of Moog Music and the Bob Moog Foundation had one on display in 2010 at the NAMM Show.

That’s quite a jump, and I probably should explain how I got from point A to point B.

During my ten years at CDI while the vast majority of my time was spent in electronics design and manufacturing at one point the marketing department came to me and basically said “if you can figure out this CAD software, maybe you can help us with PhotoShop” (actually, initially Aldus PhotoStyler).  More and more marketing tasks began to slip into my workload.

After ten years at CDI, I went to work for dB-tronics, a cable television electronics company founded by my college lab partner.  Where CDI’s products were made primarily of dense, tightly packed digital circuitry, dB-tronics’ offered a different challenge; high frequency analog circuitry.  My synthesizer experience again thankfully gave me a boost there. In addition to high-frequency amplifiers and fiber optics, the majority of dB-tronics products were analog filters. I spent the next ten years in various positions including project manager, manufacturing manager and engineering manager, but the majority of my time there was spent as marketing manager.

During this time Bob contacted me about working on a new project; the Ethervox MIDI Theremin.  Unfortunately, much more of my time was taken by my “day job” at that point and all I could fit in was the schematic capture part.  I introduced Bob to Barry Darnell, another PCB designer I had taught the craft to at CDI.  He completed the Ethervox PCBs and wound up doing a number of other projects for Bob and Big Briar.

At that point, even though I was still living in South Carolina, I was making the hour drive to Asheville quite often.  The culture there was vastly different and before long most Ashevillians saw me so much they thought I lived there.  I would run into Bob from time to time and we would always exchange a few words and random synth-talk.

Music performance was starting to become a bigger part of my life.  People in Asheville were much more open to a wider variety of musical experience and I started to play quite a bit of music there.  I developed a love of electronic Middle Eastern music through listening to albums like Peter Gabriel’s Passion and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and somehow from there I wound up with a regular gig playing traditional acoustic instruments like the oud (an Arabic fretless lute) for belly dance shows.

To see Part 1 of the series please click here.

To see Part 2 of the series please click here.

To see Part 4 of the series please click here.

For more from Chris Stack visit his YouTube Channel or his website, ExperimentalSynth.comcs_beard1

One Response to “Part 3 of 4: The Power of (Moog) Inspiration by Chris Stack”

  1. Peter Churchyard

    Great series of memories. Having recently dusted off an old copy of easypc (Dos CGA graphics) PCB design software and made a few digital boards for Arduino style Midi controllers, I realized that once you get past bread boarding and strip board, PCB design and manufacture is going to be part of your electronics experience. Looking at modern electronics I can see that todays youth would never think they could make something like that yet looking at 70’s gear with no surface mount and .1″ pin spacing you can show that it is quite easy with todays laser printers and photo sensitive pcb boards and the same tech can be used to make T shirt silk screens…

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