Interview: Moog Chief Engineer – Cyril Lance

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Cyril LanceMoog Music Inc are in possession one of the most powerful and recognizable brands in pro audio and synthesis. They're also one of the most respected, for their decades of work in creating instruments and sounds that have saturated popular and underground music since the 60s. Thanks to my 8-month efforts to getting an interview with the company, I was able to do a Q&A with Cyril Lance, who was very generous in his sharing of information on what his job is at Moog, and what the company is up to.

Hi Cyril. Can you tell me a bit about your musical and technical background, and how it played a part giving you the skills to be a Chief Engineer at Moog?

I have been a professional musician from the mid-80’s and have played music since I was a little kid.  I have been fortunate to be able to play in a large variety of situations and styles of music as well as touring, working in recording studios both as a musician and engineer/producer.  All this experience, I think, has given me a broad view of the world in which musicians operate and the many different ways that musicians have to approach their craft, the technologies they incorporate into their craft, and the crazy business within which we all operate which is a unique world unto itself.

My technical “training” is a bit non-traditional.  I received an Engineering and Applied Physics degree from Cornell University and subsequently worked in the field of Atmospheric Physics for 20 years helping design predominantly low-light level optical imagers to study the aurora.

I won’t claim that I was a “perfect fit” when Bob Moog asked me to help after finding out he was ill, but I found that the fundamental skills I’ve learned along the way have helped more than I expected.  Most importantly though I focus on working hard, listening hard, studying Bob’s work and continually learning from the incredible community of artists and engineers that have made our craft so inspiring.

What's the story behind you coming to work as Moog's Chief Engiiner in 2005? Is it true that Bob Moog played a role in that?

Well I won’t bore you with the whole story but in 2005 a friend of my family’s told me that he had moved to Asheville and drank beers on Monday nights with someone “who made synthesizers down by the river (French Broad)”.  “Who?” I asked and he replied “His name is Bob Moog”.  I couldn’t believe it!  So I went to the web and sure enough there was Bob Moog in a little steel building at 554-C Riverside Drive and his email was right there.  On a whim, I emailed him and told him I was a musician/engineering physicist living in North Carolina and if he ever needed any help to give me a call.  Sure enough, he emailed me right back and we decided that I should come up and have a casual visit.

During that visit, he mentioned that he was the only engineer at Moog and that he was looking for someone to mentor and possibly take over so that he could think about retiring and relaxing more.  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but left with a promise to stay in touch.

Unfortunately, not long after, Bob was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive brain-tumor and he asked Mike Adams (Moog's President) to call me and see if I would come up and help him out while he was in treatment.  We agreed to meet regularly so that he could help get me on my feet and I started the next day!  Unfortunately, Bob got sick very quickly and we had precious little time to get to know each other and as importantly to learn from him directly.

As with any story involving Bob, there’s some funny things that happened along the way that still make me chuckle and I am thankful for the little time that I had to interface with him.  However, there really isn’t a day that goes by that my team and I don’t wish he was here to both help us along the way but to also enjoy the incredible growth and renewed excitement not only of Moog’s instruments but with analog synthesis as a whole field.

Can you tell me about what your job entails? To an outsider, a title of "Chief Engineer" might be a bit vague. What exactly is the scope of your job?

I’ll start out by just saying that I hate titles! When I came on-board, we were very small and considering what we are producing today, we still are very small.  This means that the scope of my involvement at Moog was initially all-encompassing from specifying and designing new instruments, to coming up with marketing and sales ideas, to working on production issues, materials management, personnel, growth, business strategies, and even taking out the garbage.

The job has evolved as the company has grown.  Nowadays, the scope of my job has become much more “engineering-focused,” but still the small and dynamic nature of the business demands a full-spectrum approach to running the department.  I spend more time managing my team, contractors, vendors and interfacing with marketing for the higher level strategizing.  There is also a big component of my job that is related to production because we still do the building, testing and calibrating of the instruments right here at our factory in Asheville.

I focus a healthy amount of time on new technologies, new ideas for products, and actual product design and that’s what I enjoy the most.  But now I have the joy of working with an incredibly dedicated, hard working and inspiring young group of engineers - which has been an unexpected source of gratification for me.

What have been some of the most noticeable changes that you've seen at Moog since coming on board in the mid-2000s, from things like company philosophy and branding to product construction?

Perhaps the most obvious change has been the incredible growth of the company and the huge range and diversity of products that we have developed.  Since starting at 554-C Riverside, we have moved twice and now have our own factory in downtown Asheville.  In most ways, though, we’re still the same little crazy group that is working as hard as we can to keep moving the legacy and vision that Bob passed onto us forward.  So we strive to keep our core philosophies intact in the way we not only approach our instrument design but in being committed manufacturing the instruments as much as possible here in Asheville.

Of course, we’ve greatly grown our engineering expertise and our designs are constantly evolving as technology continues to provide more and more opportunities to innovate and be creative.

My understanding is that the Moog Little Phatty was Bob Moog's last design work. What was it like taking over that from him, and working on your first synth for Moog?

In a word, “overwhelming.”  The Little Phatty had not moved out of concept stage when I came onboard and I was handed a very short, one-page specification.  It was a project that Bob and Steve Dunnington had discussed extensively though.  We started the actual engineering specification and design process right around the time of Bob’s passing – it was a very emotional time especially for folks like Steve who had worked by Bob’s side for so many years.

It was immediately apparent that the Little Phatty was the single most important project for the future of the company: people were wondering if there could be a Moog Music without Bob and needless to say, we felt a huge amount of pressure.

The other thing that was immediately apparent was that there was this incredible community that was so inspired by Bob and that everyone wanted this instrument to succeed.  We talked with many friends of the company, artists, engineers, dealers, producers all of whom were supremely generous with their ideas and concepts. The ideas that became the Little Phatty emerged out of this huge well of dedication to Bob.

Technically, it was an extremely challenging project.  We had very little time to get the synthesizer to market and very few resources.  Every aspect of the instrument had to be critically examined down to every screw, resistor, transistor, piece of metal.

Throughout those exhausting days of hard work there was always that nagging fear - would the Little Phatty be an instrument worthy of Bob’s name and would it have the depth and character to uniquely inspire musicians to make art with it?  And would the world accept the first synthesizer from Moog after Bob’s passing?

So “overwhelming” is the only answer. But I never forget that Moog owes the soul of the Little Phatty to Bob and the thousands of people around the world that put their hearts and support behind our little company during that very difficult time.

During the 70s and 80s, the Moog brand extended into the realm of polysynths, thanks to products like the Memorymoog and Polymoog. But following the sale of the company in the mid-80s, the polysynth line has been discontinued. You guys have focused on the monophonic Minimoog Voyager, Taurus and Phatty lines since the early 2000s. Do you know what the thought behind this has been? Does Moog have any interest getting back into polyphonic synth making?

Firstly, we love monophonic, analog synthesizers. The monophonic synthesizer is so expressive and powerful, so harmonically rich and infinite in it’s vocabulary.  Incredibly, there seems like there is still so much to continue to explore in this one format.  There is a beauty in having a very strong focus in an instrument’s design – think of the classic instruments throughout time.

From a practical standpoint, we were getting a great deal of requests to bring the Voyager into a realm that more musicians could afford and also to recreate the sound of the Taurus.  So there was a lot of work for us to do to meet those needs.

Of course we’re interested in polyphonic synthesizers. And of course, I cannot comment on any specifics.

Can you talk about the kind of process that Moog's new synth ideas have to be put through before they become a reality? Are the criteria for making new synths mostly technical issues relating to the physics involved and the building the instrument, or is more about business and branding?

Every instrument has a journey of it’s own.  Some start as someone’s personal vision, some start by the synchronicity of a conversation with an artist,  and some ideas come purely out of a technological or more fundamental concept.

There are also business dimensions that we consider: what is happening in the market? What changes are happening to the way people are making, selling, distributing their music? What is happening to the way folks are producing and live performances?  The last 5-10 years has seen a tectonic revolution in every aspect of our industry.

Moog is blessed with an incredibly diverse crew of people and so there is no shortage of ideas.  The process from the idea to product involves this input, but it also requires us to keep our minds open as the product evolves so that we can let it evolve into the instrument/tool that it needs to be, and to fuse that with the best engineering we can muster to make it successful.

For the people out there who are new to analog synths, can you explain how your lines of monophonic synths differ? I'd interviewed Dave Smith at this year's NAMM, and he said Moog "seems happy to make variations of the same monophonic synth over and over". Whilst the die-hard Moog fan might be able to differentiate between the different Phattys, what would you say causes them to sonically stand out from each other?

Let me start by first saying that all of us here at Moog are big Dave Smith fans.  He’s an incredible engineer, makes wonderful instruments and a delightful person to talk with. But since you’ve thrown that quote out, I have to answer to it directly.

We all have the freedom to make the instruments we are inspired to make.  Dave makes his synthesizers and we make ours.  No one seems to be criticizing Martin Guitars for making 6-string acoustics for 150+ years.  No one seems to be criticizing Dave for making his line of synthesizers which are based upon a certain architecture. However, if you take the time to look at our product line, you will see that monophonic analog synthesizers are just a part of what we do.  As a company, we have taken a lot of risks and have tried to be as innovative and creative as possible, including releasing the award-winning polyphonic digital Animoog synthesizer, pioneering coherent electro-mechanical control of guitar strings and most recently re-envisioning the Theremin to be more accessible to a larger group of musicians and hopefully inspiring younger kids to learn about the science of sound and music. We do love making our line of synthesizers but that’s just one aspect of our work.

To describe the differences between our monophonic analog synth line explicitly is probably beyond the scope of this interview, but we can summarize it to say that we have worked hard to create a line of truly analog synths that spans from the entry-level, DIY  inspired Werkstatt (single oscillator, $329), to bass synthesizers evolving the classic Taurus design into a modern workstation: Minitaur (two-oscillators, $599), to our versatile and highly featured Phatty line of mid-priced synths (Sub Phatty: $999 and Sub37: $1499) to Bob’s pinnacle synth, the Voyager and Voyager XL which melts into the modular roots of the company ($3000 to $5000 range).

Every instrument has it’s voice and it’s application as they unfold to the artist who is attracted to them.  All of these instruments have a core vocabulary and philosophy, but hopefully they offer a wide range of tools that will meet the diverse world of artists out there creating music is very different ways.

Moog's performance series, Moog Sound Lab, has a number of fascinating videos of artists using Moog gear. Is that project something you play a role in as Chief Engineer? Do you know what the criteria is for selecting artists to appear in the Sound Lab? I notice that some big Moog and electronic names users like Deadmau5 aren't there. Is there a screening process for that?

I have no role in the Moog Sound Lab except to thoroughly enjoy the incredible creativity that goes into the productions both from the artists and from our incredible marketing staff that generate this content all in-house.  These videos are particularly inspiring to me because musicians create something brand-new and unique in the sessions out of songs that they have been often playing for years in a very different way.  Re-envisioning them in a totally Moog context creates these very exciting opportunities for new musical moments to spark to life.

Our marketing department and in-house multimedia team has done an incredible job creating this series, and I really encourage people to check them out whether they are interested in Moog gear or not.

What was the thought behind making the Minifooger guitar pedals, and what role did you play in that? Some people felt that the Minifooger was made redundant by existence of the Moogerfooger module. What kind of steps did you guys take to differentiate them, aside from size and logistics?

The idea of a smaller Moogerfooger has been discussed from my first days at Moog (and I’m sure long before).

Minifoogers were created to meet the needs and requests from a great deal of artists that wanted something with the quality and expansiveness of the Moogerfoogers, but in a much smaller form-factor that would meet both the cost and travel restrictions placed on most touring artists today.  We also designed the Minifoogers to be less overwhelming and more guitar-friendly but still retaining the expressiveness of having control voltage inputs.

I don’t really see them as redundant because they satisfy such different requirements and create such different opportunities.

Speaking of guitars, Moog has it's own range of guitars. However, they're situated at the bottom of the Moog product page, below even clothing and accessories, and the last dedicated video Moog's Youtube channel put out about them was half a decade ago. Is there any reason Moog guitars have taken what appear to be a backseat to other products?

We were very excited to explore the possibilities created by the new technologies developed for the Moog Guitar and continue to research new ways to apply this technology.  However, we are not actively making a line of guitars and we sold all of the ones we made, so there isn’t a big push to have a presence on the website.  Over the last few years, we have focused on making just a small number of highly personalized, custom guitars for customers that contact us directly.

In the bigger picture, we did build and sell a large number of instruments which have proven to be extremely exciting and have provided artists with a whole new way of approaching the instrument exemplified recently by the incredible work of Pat Metheny on John Zorn’s “Book of Angels, Vol.20”, which won the prestigious 2014 Jazz ECHO award.

While we still get many requests and inquiries about the instrument, we ran through our material from the first few production runs.  It is very expensive to tool up again and so the guitar production will stay in the background while we focus on other areas of research and development.

Given Moog's venturing into different Apps, some have asked whether or not you guys will ever enter the plugin realm. Is that a possibility? We've already seen multiple emulations of Moog gear from Arturia, G-Force and others. Is there anything stopping you guys from making your own?

Of course this is always a possibility for us, but there are an awful lot of great tools out there for musicians in the plug-in world.  It’s remarkable what is being accomplished.  Making plug-in’s is a huge endeavor and Moog will only do something like this when we feel we have something significant to offer artists.

Since the original Moog Modular Synthesizer, we haven't seen much modular content from Moog. Though the original modulars were quite sizeable, today's technology allows for the making of cheap modules that sell for a few hundreds of dollars. Are there any chances that Moog will return to releasing modular products?

On the deepest level everything we do is modular.  It is the core of our design philosophy but it manifests itself in different formats.  There’s has also been a very exciting resurgence in modular recently.

At Moogfest in April 2014, we released an exact replica of Keith Emerson’s system that was based on the original System 55 but then quickly grew and evolved. With that project and the research that went into it we re-entered the modular world in a very real way.

What happened to the multiple models of modular synths Moog made in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Does Moog have any involvement with them any more, or are they all under private ownership at this point?

There are so many people making so many great modules from the legacy 5U format to the exploding Eurorack market. Much of the old circuits are publicly available for anyone to study.  Like everything in the music industry: tastes change, economics change.  The late 70’s heralded the end of a large interest in modulars and the economic model required to sustain them.  Now we see a large resurgence of interest in modulars for so many reasons - the growth in electronic music, the explosion in production in modern pop-music and as importantly the economic drivers that video game soundtracks have introduced back into the music industry.  So everything ebbs and flows, but it’s very exciting to us to see so many young people thoroughly excited by modular synthesis - it is still the very basic root of everything we do.

In a world were the cost of making analog gear has been reduced to the point were numerous companies and competitors have entered the field, has Moog had to make any adjustments from a product or business standpoint? Is it harder for you guys to do today what you were doing 10 years ago?

Strangely enough, I would say “no”.  I have a personal belief that we are all part of a bigger movement and that one person’s success enables another person’s.  We are all involved in this resurgence of electronic music as a larger community.

We had certain challenges 10 years ago and we have certain challenges today. But they are really just new opportunities and we have to remain open, we have to continue to listen, we have to stay true to who we are as a company, and most importantly enjoy the ride and enjoy each other.

What would say has been Moog's most successful products to date?

Unquestionably, the Phatty line has been extraordinarily successful and rewarding, but the Voyager line continues to be extremely vibrant and that’s a true testament to Bob.

I am extremely proud of our introduction of the Animoog into the iOS world and its success and continued relevance as a real instrument.  That was a big step for us and opened us up the possibility of a great deal of criticism (a digital synth from Moog?), but the reaction was quite the opposite and that to me defines success.

But I would also view the Moog Guitar and the Multipedal (MP201) as “successes”, though you might not come to the same conclusion from a business point of view. As a designer of instruments, success is defined by taking risks, creating something compelling that we are proud of and that facilitates the creation of new forms of expression.

Is there anything you can tell me about what's on Moog's radar in terms of products, events or partnerships for the future?

I don’t think any of us can predict or envisage what the next ten years will bring us. So I would answer… everything is on the radar.

Let me just say that we are truly humbled to be part of this industry and to work side by side with such incredible talent and genius.  It never ceases to amaze me that it seems that we are just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possibilities for new forms of musical expression.

SamInterview: Moog Chief Engineer – Cyril Lance

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