Moog synthesizes new synthesizer

Pioneer in electronic music tries to reclaim market through innovation

— His name is synonymous with electronic music, but for years someone else owned the right to use it. Bob Moog now has regained his identity, and he's again stepping onto the stage as a technical innovator.

Moog is targeting adventurous musicians with a new, high-end synthesizer he'll demonstrate in January at an instrument trade show in Anaheim, Calif.

After toying with it for nearly 30 years, Moog hopes the $2,000 instrument � as yet unnamed � will help his company, Big Briar Inc., claim a niche in a market he pioneered, but that is now dominated by Japanese companies like Korg, Casio and Yamaha.

The synthesizer features a multiple-touch-sensitive keypad that lets a musician alter sounds by finger placement and movement. Rolling the finger forward can create one sound, rolling to the side can make another one, and pressing down yet another.

"They're going to be fairly expensive," he said. "We could do very nicely making a few hundred a year."

Moog, 66, has been selling synthesizers and other devices to the musical avant-garde since the early '60s. The roster of current customers includes Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Beck, Phish, Sonic Youth and Widespread Panic � "anyone who's cool," as Big Briar employee Mike Knepshield puts it.

From its headquarters in a vinyl-sided building in Asheville shared with a flooring company, Big Briar rings up about $1 million in annual sales for devices like the Moogerfooger, which allows electric-guitar and electric-violin players to bend and twist their notes.

Half of the company's 10 employees are musicmakers, but not Moog, whose business card describes him as Big Briar's "grand poobah."

"I'm an engineer. I see myself as a toolmaker and the musicians are my customers," he said. "They use the tools."

It was nearly four decades ago that Moog, an engineer with a doctorate from Cornell, opened his toolbox to the popular music world. Other synthesizers were already on the market in 1964, but Moog's stood out for being small and light, creating new sounds and simulating other instruments � even entire orchestras.

The product's arrival was also well-timed � just as the Beatles and other baby-boomer musicians started seeking ways to fuse psychedelic-drug experiences with their art.

"Suddenly, there was a whole group of people in the world looking for a new sound in music, and it picked up very quickly," said Herbert Deutsch, the Hofstra University music chairman who helped develop the Moog prototype.

Moog, who had set up shop in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., sold Moog Music Inc. in 1973. He stayed to manage the business for another five years before moving to a remote plot outside Asheville, a scenic Appalachian Mountain town and center for new-age pursuits that Rolling Stone magazine in April dubbed "America's new freak capital."

A deliberate man with brushed-back white hair and a breast pocket packed with pens, Moog (pronounced "mohg") delights in driving an aging Toyota painted with a snail, vines and a fish blowing bubbles.

"When I drive that thing around, people smile at me. I really feel I'm enhancing the environment," he said. "To the extent there is a real amount of magic around here, I'm very happy to participate in that."

He spent a few years in the early 1990s as a research professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He turned Big Briar, formed as a part-time instrument business in 1978, into his full-time pursuit in 1994.



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