Make Music I by I 18.02.17

Moog are the music makers: Inside the small town factory that builds the world’s best-loved synths

Since Bob Moog started selling Theremins in 1954, the company he founded has created some of the world’s best loved synthesizers. FACT goes behind the scenes of Moog Music’s Asheville factory to find out the painstaking process that goes into building its hand-made instruments.

“Made in the USA” isn’t something you see on a lot of products in 2017. The decline of American manufacturing is part of the reason why Donald Trump was elected president last November, and it’s yet to be seen whether the USA can once again be a world leader in manufacturing. In a North Carolina synthesizer factory in downtown Asheville, however, manufacturing is a way of life.

Since 2011, a red brick building in the town’s north end has been the home of Moog Music Inc, where its 81 employees assemble every one of its instruments. The company’s synths aren’t marked “Made in the USA,” but each one is made by hand in its factory using metal sourced from Missouri and wood from Tennessee. In fact, with the exception of a few circuit boards and hard-to-find components, every piece of every Moog synth is sourced from the USA. In a market currently dominated by inexpensive, plastic synths from companies such as Roland and Korg, Moog’s instruments are the Stradivarius violins of tomorrow.

However, Moog’s business hasn’t always been so successful. The company situated in its Asheville HQ is actually Moog’s second incarnation. In 1954, a New Yorker called Bob Moog started selling theremins with his father, a business that grew to incorporate room-sized modular synthesizers and the iconic Minimoog, a portable, user-friendly instrument used by everyone from Kraftwerk to Sun Ra. Moog left the company in 1977, and by 1986 it was bankrupt, sunk by competition from Japanese giants Roland and Korg. In 2002, Moog regained the right to the company name and relaunched it in Asheville, where he had moved in 1978. Moog died in 2005, but it is now the USA’s most successful synth manufacturer, currently employing 81 people.

Located at the end of Asheville’s Broadway, the Moog factory is unmissable thanks to a striking yellow and black synth mural that peeks through the windows. It’s a small factory, but houses a production area, service center and shipping department on the ground level, and offices on the floor above for the company’s hardware and firmware engineers, and the in-house sales and marketing teams. Next door to the main factory is a smaller workshop where all of Moog’s modular synth components are hand-soldered and assembled. Finally, there’s the Moog Sound Lab, an in-house recording studio where performances and product demos are filmed.

The synthesizer business has a reputation for being very male-dominated, but Moog has a diverse workplace. “The majority of people that work here are interested in music, but that’s certainly not a pre-requisite,” says Jim DeBardi, Moog’s communications manager. “One thing that’s unique about our company is that nobody else is doing what we’re doing the way that we’re doing it, so when we bring people in to become part of the company there’s no defined set of pre-requisites that we can expect people to have. It might be that somebody has worked in a manufacturing facility before, or maybe they came from a textile manufacturer and we can teach them the things that are specific to our business.”

In 2015, Moog’s current president, Mike Adams, unveiled an employee ownership plan to give its staff the option to buy out their own stake in the company, but according to DeBardi, there’s always been a strong sense of community among Moog’s employees. “It’s because we have a very low turnover, and the people working in the type of job that involves designing and making tools that inspire people to create. There’s a very personal relationship when you’re a part of that cycle to the work you do, so for us, moving to an employee owned model just reinforced the sense of community that was already there and the sense of ownership and pride in the work that we do.”

This view is shared by many of Moog’s employees. “There’s all those same pressures of the same production job, you’ve gotta make numbers, but working here is actually kind of awesome,” says production engineer. Arthur Herzog. “Everyone is nice, which I’ve never experienced anywhere.” For Linda Hoover, who has been a production engineer at Moog for just over a year, its the “mellow atmosphere” that makes Moog such a pleasure to work at. “It’s a much more relaxed working environment. There’s a lot of happy people you can turn to when you’re in a rut.”

“Historically Asheville has been an artist community, and that’s what drew Bob Moog to this area in 1978,” says DeBardi. “We moved into this building in 2011. We had just outgrown our previous rented facility that was part of what you might call a warehouse complex, a big brick building where everyone has a little room. We had a lot of options of where we could go. Around Asheville there’s all sorts of rural areas where we could have probably gotten a facility cheaper than we did downtown, but it was very important to us that we be an active part of the community in Asheville, because all of our employees live here and because this was an area that Bob Moog had found affinity with.”

Moog creates 40 different products at its factory, but its size presents some unique challenges. Due to the finite amount of physical space in the factory, sometimes an older product, such as the Slim Phatty, will need to be discontinued to make way for a new one. Everyone in production has a workstation that they are responsible for cleaning up at the end of the night and are cross-trained, meaning that the factory and its workers can adapt when necessary. “If we’re waiting on a specific part to come in or there are more orders somewhere else, we can shift that labor around to ensure that we’re building the instruments that people are ordering at that moment in time, DeBardi explains. “We don’t really build anything to put it on a shelf and wait for orders. We build the majority of our products to order.”

One of the Moog’s newest products is actually one of its oldest instruments. In 2016, it reissued the classic Minimoog Model D, which aside from a few changes (most notably the introduction of MIDI connections), uses the same design and components as the Minimoogs of the 1970s. Aside from being one of the most iconic synthesizers ever made, Moog reissued it because it believes it’s an instrument that still has relevance today, despite the proliferation of digital synths and software. “There’s a uniqueness to the way that you approach and play [the Minimoog],” DeBardi says. “We wanted to be able to offer this tool and this way of authoring sound to the next generation of musicians.”

Building a Minimoog isn’t an easy task, nor is it a quick one. Running at full capacity, the Asheville factory can create just 15 Minimoogs in a day, or 30 if it runs a night shift. It takes six people to build and test each product, a process that takes almost three days to complete. “Four people are involved in the physical mechanical construction, taking all the components and the parts and ensuring that each part individually passes our quality standards, that each part goes together correctly that everything is mechanically and physically perfect on the instrument” DeBardi says. “That process for those four people takes about five hours.”

Once the Minimoog is assembled, it’s moved to a rack where it’s plugged in and turned on for 48 hours. This allows each of the circuit board’s capacitors, resistors and LED lights to have electricity passed through them for long enough to identify any faulty components. “There are thousands of these little parts in every instrument, and if any of them are going to fail that’ll happen typically in the first 24 hours of use,” says DeBardi. “So if an LED light’s gonna burn out, it’ll happen on our rack, and we can fix it at the next step of the process as opposed to it happening two months into being in somebody’s home studio.”

After the 48-hour burn-in, the Minimoog is put through an “intense calibration process,” where the synth is taken to an isolated room and a calibration technician makes it ready to play. “A synthesizer needs to be tuned like a guitar, DeBardi says. “With a guitar, you loosen and tighten the tension on the strings to get the instrument in tune with itself. With a synthesizer you are actually loosening and tightening voltage as it passes through specific points in the instrument’s circuit. Our technicians use multimeters, oscilloscopes, strobe tuners and computer programs to visualize what’s going on in there as they do those calibrations. Once the calibrations have been done it goes through what we call a ‘final check’ of the instrument, because even if everything is correct on paper, we recognise that we’re not making a television or a toaster or something that you passively interact with.”

“This is a musical instrument that people are going to use to try and create the ideas that are in the back of their heads, so there’s a very personal relationship that the player has to the instrument, and that’s why we do our final check. We’re ensuring that the way that the instrument is interacted with is a perfect experience; our technicians are trained to know how every knob should feel, how every key should react, what every waveform should look like and sound like, so that when you are interacting with the instrument that experience is perfect every time. So those calibration technicians will actually go through and turn every knob, press every key, perform every major function that the instrument is designed to perform to ensure that they are perfect before it goes out the door.”

Moog’s brand director Emmy Parker, who has worked at Moog for eight years, makes Moog’s Asheville facility sound more like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory than a place that builds synthesizers. “There’s a magical connection between thet people that work inside the Moog factory, and the people that use our instruments,” she says. “We’re designing and building the tools that artists use to make their wildest dreams come true.”

Find out more about Moog’s synthesizers at the Moog Music Inc website

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