Seva Explores the Abominatron Tape, part 2

Seva David Ball is the the preservationist for the restoration of 40 reel-to-reel tapes in Bob’s archives, a project which is generously funded by two grants from the GRAMMY Foundation. Seva is an audio engineer whose accomplishments include serving as associate founder of Waves, mastering Dolly Parton’s only live DVD, and being the preservationist on David Lewiston’s archives of over 650 tapes for the Library of Congress. He is the owner of Soundcurrent Mastering in Knoxville,TN. As he restores the tapes, Seva will be blogging a bit about each one, and including sound samples.

While the GRAMMY Foundation provides generous funding, they do not cover all of the costs associated with the extensive project. If you are inspired by historical material that we are preserving, please consider making a donation to the Foundation to help us continue our efforts.

In this blog post, Seva explores a tape that was donated to us by pioneering synthesist Herb Deutsch, who collaborated with Bob on the first prototype modular. In this 84 minute tape, Bob methodically explains the functions of the modular. We are excited to include five snippets of that tape here. Many thanks to Herb Deutsch for this historical treasure.

Abominatron Tape Transfer, Part 2

Seva David Ball

As alluded to in my first entry, when Dr. Moog was working on the prototype modular synthesizer in the early sixties, he had set in motion a very large number of design parameters, terminologies, and infrastructures. Things such as using ‘feet’ as designation for which pitch range within the oscillator would work, just as in pipe organs, i.e. 32′, 16′, 8′, 4′, 2′, 1′, all measured in feet to indicate the base length of the pipe in that rank. A pipe half the length of another gives a tone one octave higher (and twice the frequency, being inversely proportioned). Another example now in widespread use is “Voltage Control”, which was probably the most impressive part of the vocabulary to me (when I learned of it, I was 12) because it literally took the place of my hand turning a knob. Even with my limited understanding, this principle of voltage control was a cloudless sky for me; it unlocked the entire potential. The synthesizer had three main components: Sources, Controllers, and Modifiers, and voltage control made it all work.

On this tape, Bob explains that the voltages add together to control the oscillator, plus an internal voltage (selected by the Pitch Range switch=32, 16, 8, 4, etc) adds or subtracts eight-tenths of a volt, shifting the pitch up or down one octave. (Eventually there was a standard of 1volt/1octave but I will not pretend to know the precise evolution of this standard). He gives several examples of using low frequency oscillators (LFO) to provide (musical) vibrato and other forms of exotic vibrato (Frequency Modulation can yield classic space sounds or really new klang with mirrored sum-and-difference tones).

Voltage Control had already been part of Bob’s breadboard projects and his 1964 prototype. It was only a matter of months before others requested new ways for Voltage Control to be utilized. Vladimir Ussachevsky asked for a device to create an attack-decay-sustain-release voltage (ADSR) which was used to control an amplifier (VCA) so that pressing a note would create a tone with dynamic shaping. Gustav Ciamaga ordered a voltage controlled filter (VCF) in 1965, and this created the tone shaping everyone refers to as that Moog Sound (especially with Bob’s 4-pole filter design).

Bob took piano for many years as a young person, and could readily play, although he was very modest about his ability. He made a nearly innocent statement that others with more musicianship could get “some good things” out of the instrument, and I included a clip of this sincerely prophetic statement.

Better Musicianship:

[audio:|titles=Better Musicianship]

In this proto-incarnation of the modular synthesizer — the Abominatron, as Bob called it — there were two VC devices: oscillators and amplifiers. (There’s a clip where he Gives It The Name, at least on tape). The astonishing part of all this to me remains the fact that this first modular synthesizer, this Abominatron, was POLYPHONIC. I’ve attached some audio clips from this tape, including the Intro Fanfare, where Bob plays a polyphonic greeting before he speaks, followed by a clip where Bob names the prototype.

Polyphonic Fanfare:

[audio:|titles=Intro Franfare]



Another polyphonic section is when he first demonstrated voltage control for simple vibrato, but he plays a polyphonic example, “As I Walked Out in the Streets of Laredo”, in a two-part invention style, quite removed from Marty Robbin’s 1959 dreamy single. To my knowledge this song (and the Intro Fanfare) is the first recording of a polyphonic modular synthesizer. It is so beautiful that the inventor of the instrument is also a musician, and one who could play at the drop of a hat, and that we have this document, this recording, of Dr. Moog doing exactly that.

Modulate and Polyphonic:

[audio:|titles=Modulate and Polyphonic]

A great thing about “audio letters” is you can stop recording any time and continue when convenient. Most of the time a click or pop signifies such a break, and in one such place Bob says “it’s 2 days later now” since his previous recording, and he reveals the spectacular news that Jacqueline Harvey of the AES (Audio Engineering Society) had called to invite him to have a booth at the October 1964 AES meeting in the Commercial Exhibits area (which at that time was hardly the large trade show floor familiar today; the main purpose of the meeting was for presentation of papers and so forth). There’s an audio clip where he reveals this news to Herb Deutsch, and went on to say that it was a “tremendous opportunity for me to get this going, sooner than I thought”, but he also recognized being at the AES show had the potential for him to make that it was also a “an a– of myself”. That didn’t happen. The opportunity for success immediately began to realize itself. Clearly, we all know he succeeded beyond his expectations and would initiate a paradigm shift in the use of electronics in music as instruments.

AES Invite:

[audio:|titles=AES Invite,1964]

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