Synthesizer fans converge on Asheville, N.C. to celebrate a machine that changed music.
FORTUNE — An eclectic assortment of musicians, techies, and retro-geeks has been converging on Asheville, N.C. this week to talk about art, commerce, and the future. The object at the heart of the discussion: the Moog synthesizer, proudly analog in a digital world and a clear example that the best technology is often simply the technology that works best.
Moog rhymes with vogue, and Moog Music has its factory and headquarters in a funky section of downtown here. Its Moogfest — five days of music, lectures, and product demonstrations ending Sunday — should draw more than 5,000 paying attendees, here to rub shoulders and tickle keyboards with presenters from Google and even the occasional celebrity, such as DJ Lance Rock from Nickelodeon’s Yo Gabba Gabba (ask your kids), who conducted a VIP class on how to solder together your own synthesizer.
Bob Moog created his first synthesizer in 1963, and the instrument came to symbolize the rise of technology. Moog’s products never quite went away, but the keyboard attached to all those knobs lost favor as the music industry went digital. Then, like Pabst Blue Ribbon — one of Moogfest’s sponsors — Moog came back. One reason is the brand’s heritage. What had started as synthetic music and therefore heretical in some circles became over time vintage and authentic. Another is the widespread acceptance of electronic music. But most of all, say Moog enthusiasts, is just the sheer beauty of the analog circuitry and the lushness of the tones it can create.
“There’s no sound like the Moog sound,” says Corry Banks, a blogger with bboytechreport.com, who flew in from Los Angeles to attend some workshops and listen to acts. “It’s a living thing.”
Moog’s small factory here looks like a Radio Shack warehouse from the 1970s, with workers hunched over circuit boards filled with resistors and transistors. There’s nary a silicon chip in sight. “The quality that people like about the Moog is the same thing they like about vinyl,” said Jim DeBardi, Moog’s social media manager. “Nothing’s getting converted to code. It’s like water going through a pipe.”
The Moog Music that exists today is not a direct descendant of the original Moog Music, which was started in upstate New York, near Ithaca. In the early 1970s, Bob Moog sold his company to Norlin Music and then left management and moved to western North Carolina, where he taught at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. But he kept tinkering with synthesizers, and in 1994 started a small company called Big Briar that made effects pedals and theremins (which create sounds from placing one’s hands close to an antenna).
The big break came in 2002, when he regained the legal right to use his own name to sell musical equipment. He and Mike Adams, now the company’s president, were trying to launch the Minimoog Voyager, an updated version of the original Minimoog. But they didn’t have the funds to go into production, and without production, they couldn’t get the revenues. Things were dire. Adams said that students at the university had done a case study on the company and reported back that the company had six months left.
But Adams and Moog got their loan, and the Voyager took off. Sales have increased about 20% each year and now are around $12 million. Bob Moog died in 2005, but his influence remains strong, and employees often speak of him as if he just went out to get a cup of coffee.
Moog’s upper-end synthesizers can cost more than $3,000, but Adams said it’s making an effort to bring out more affordable gear to appeal to musicians on a budget and keep attracting new converts. Its effects pedal, dubbed a Minifooger, sells for around $120, and a starter keyboard runs about $900. Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer still performs with his Moog, and the list of users includes Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, and Janelle Monae.
Although the company and its employees are almost defiantly analog, the digital world is slowly seeping into Moog. Its synthesizers now include digital components that allow musicians to capture a setting. (Taking a picture of the knobs is how it’s described.) And in 2010, Moog released the Animoog app for Apple products, now at 800,000 downloads and counting.
And while there’s no Android app, there is a version for, yup, BlackBerry.