Seva Reports on Transferring the “Abominatron” Tape

Introduction: 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.

The tapes in the Bob’s archive span the years of 1964-1983, with work by pioneering synthesists such as Herb Deutsch, JonWeiss, Chris Swanson, Emmanuel Ghent, Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita, Roger Powell, Joel Chadabe, John Eaton, William Hoskins, LaMonte Young and many more. Perhaps no tape in the collection is more seminal than the tape that Herb Deutsch donated to the Bob Moog Foundation in August. This 84 minute recording, which we here at the Bob Moog Foundation affectionately refer to as the “Abominatron” (as that is how Bob refers to the prototype modular), was recorded in 1964 in preparation for sending the prototype to experimental jazz musician Herb Deutsch. Herb, a professor of music (then and now!) at Hofstra University, collaborated with Bob for a year prior, giving him ideas, direction and input on a new instrument that they would call the “Electronic Music Composition System” — later to become known as the Moog synthesizer.

In the summer of 1964, Herb spent three weeks working side by side with Bob in his basement workshop in Trumansburg, New York, where Bob lived and was ran R.A. Moog, Co. Herb was to be Bob’s first musician-muse, and that first instrument was built largely to Herb’s specifications. Bob spent a couple of months perfecting the prototype and in the fall of 1964, prepared it to send to Herb. Along with the instrument, Bob sent a tape thoroughly explaining the various controls, parameters and capabilities of the instrument.

It is with deepest gratitude that we thank Herb for sharing the tape with us, and for allowing us to share it with you. By the end of 2010, we hope to produce a CD of the tape to share with all of you. We will be working on that project in the coming months.

From Seva:

IMG_1851This tape is logged as number 000, as it is really the very first chronological tape in the collection, and computer people (myself) start counting with zero! There’s another practical reason here: I’d already begun assigning tape numbers when Herb Deutsch graciously made this tape available to the Bob Moog Foundation, and since it is directly related to the pre-history of the commercial modular synth, I assigned it catalog number 000.

To set a frame of reference: I played my first Moog synthesizer at the age of 12 in 1970. It was a huge IIIp with dual sequencer complement at Florida State University (John Boda was the primary guy there) and I learned that the Moog was essentially a monophonic instrument (one note at a time). Last month I listened to the tape that Bob Moog made in 1964 as an audio letter to accompany his prototype synthesizer, which was being sent to Herb Deutsch. I was slack-jawed when I listened to the tape as Bob explained about the controls on the prototype device, and then played polyphonic sounds on this modular Moog synthesizer! This was 1964! I really couldn’t believe it, that this early prototype for the modular synthesizer was actually polyphonic. To my knowledge, this has not been revealed in any historical book on electronic music, the development of the modular synthesizer, or even as an anecdotal story told by those who were there. Absolutely amazing!

Listening to Bob talk about the controls on the prototype modular gave me a very clear insight on exactly how precedent is set. Bob would talk about the Range control, the Voltage control patch, the octaves as 8′, 4′, 2′, etc.: terms which are used on synthesizers to this very day, on Moog synthesizers made in this very year of 2009, and they have not changed. Therefore the precedent was set, the die was cast, the inventor was giving names to the controls that would echo through almost every single synthesizer made from that point forward. It simply blew my mind. Plus the recording had real-life stuff showing up in the middle of it, such as telling Herb to “call after 9 PM because the rates were low”. Ah yes, the days when the Bell System was still intact!

There’s much more to this tape, including what is probably the first two part invention ever recorded on a Moog synthesizer. And that, without overdubs. In the middle of the tape, a click indicated Bob had turned off the recorder; when it bumped back on, he said “something remarkable had just happened”, that he was “going to have a booth at the AES” (in 1964), and that he only had 4 weeks to get ready!

This is just part one of blogging about this tape; don’t fret, I’ll post at least one entry about this very remarkable audio document. Since I played my first Moog at 12, I hope you get that I’m seriously thrilled about this adventure into Bob’s tapes and ask everyone to chip in to help fund the Foundation’s important work, i.e., make a contribution. More soon!