My Unforgettable Experience as Bob’s Synth Tech in the Early Big Briar Years
By Dale Ong
[Editor’s Note: Big Briar, Inc. was the company that Bob founded in 1978 after he left Moog Music (Buffalo) and moved to western North Carolina. His new company focused on creating custom instruments for its customers, as well as on the creation of alternative musical interfaces. The company was run from a dedicated building on Bob’s property, located in an area geographically designated as Big Briar Cove (hence the name of the company). Dale Ong was the company’s first employee, other than Bob himself.]
It was February 1982. My career as a synthesizer technician at Big Briar was still in its first month. I had not yet learned what a normal day in the shop would be like, but I knew that today would be anything but normal
Excitement was in the air because we were expecting a very important visitor to arrive that day. I was nervous with anticipation. Bob was looking forward to seeing an old friend. Who was our special guest? The original prototype modular synthesizer that Bob built for Herb Deutsch! It was coming for restoration before heading to its new home at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Any synthesizer technician would have been thrilled to work on this synthesizer, so I was pleased to learn that Bob planned to hand the restoration work over to me. I was proud that Bob trusted me enough to let me handle the project, but at the same time, I was apprehensive about servicing such an important synthesizer. My heart sank when I learned that as part of the process, Bob wanted me to reverse engineer a set of schematics for the system. I had never done any reverse engineering before and was not sure that I was up to the challenge. I wondered why Bob didn’t already have a set of schematics Then it hit me – they must have gone with everything else when he sold Moog Music.
The instrument itself was comprised of three units. A small vertical cabinet housed two voltage controlled oscillators, two voltage controlled amplifiers, and a power supply. These were the oldest of the modules and had a distinctly handmade look to them. Controls were identified with labels printed on heavy card stock which were glued to the metal panels. Next was a small horizontal cabinet which held a low-pass filter, a band-pass filter, a noise generator, a trigger extractor, an ADSR envelope generator, and a second power supply. These were newer and sported the form which would later become so familiar to users of the 900 series modules. The third unit was a dual keyboard with built in envelope generators. All in all, it was not particularly impressive looking – If you were not aware of its history, you would never know how important this synthesizer was.
Overall, the prototype Moog was in pretty good shape. Upon testing the system, I was happy to find that everything worked except for one of the envelope generators. A new transistor later it was as good as new. Much of the remaining restoration work involved minor cosmetic issues. A few knobs had to be replaced. There were a couple of labels on the oldest panels that needed to be reproduced and replaced. In my excitement I made a new label that said Ampifier. When Bob caught my mistake he wasnt upset – he seemed more amused that this particular synthesizer had me a little bit frazzled.
When I finished the schematics, I made a set of blueprints for Bob. It felt like being back in school as I stood in his office and watched him make corrections to the blueprints with his red pen. I was impressed that Bob didn’t even need to look at the modules which were on my work bench – he made his revisions from memory! It was as if he had never forgotten a single detail of his original designs.
After revising the schematics and finishing the restoration work came the best part – a little time spent just playing this revolutionary synthesizer. As a synth geek, I was in heaven!
There is one question about the project which I have had for many years: If Bob could quickly recreate the schematics from memory, why did he have me go through the process of reverse engineering? It could be that he wanted me to show him that I could do it . Or maybe he wanted to show me.
I felt honored to have had the opportunity to work on an instrument of such historical significance.
Dale Ong has donated the pictured schematics and the rest in the series, to the Bob Moog Foundation Archives. We are thrilled to add this piece of history to our vast collection. If you have an item that you would like to donate to the Bob Moog Foundation Archives, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.