Modular synthesis is back. A new generation of artists, producers, and film composers are discovering modular synthesis as a way not only to evoke the past, but also to create entirely new sounds. Michelle Moog-Koussa, Executive Director of the Bob Moog Foundation and daughter of famed synth pioneer Bob Moog, is helping to provide access to these sounds to an even broader audience through her role in making MODULAR ICONS.
Founded in 2006, the Bob Moog Foundation is a nonprofit that strives to ignite creativity through the intersection of science, music, and innovation. To achieve that goal, the foundation runs an educational program for children, called Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, manages the Bob Moog Foundation Archives, and will soon open an interactive facility called the Moogseum to foster exploration in sound and maintain Bob Moog’s rich legacy.
Recently, Executive Director Michelle Moog-Koussa envisioned another avenue for inspiring emerging artists and sharing some of the sounds her dad Bob Moog introduced to the world. The end result was MODULAR ICONS – a new Play Series instrument for KONTAKT that gives users an easy way to enjoy the fun, creative energy of modular synths.
We talked with Michelle about the origins of this collaborative project with Native Instruments, her role in securing contributions from legendary players and their rare instruments, and her vision for how MODULAR ICONS will support the work of the Bob Moog Foundation.
What do you make of the resurgence in interest in modular synthesis?
It is very gratifying. Bob believed so much in facilitating exploration in sound. The more people you could involve, the better. It’s wonderful to see so many people interested and on such a wide scale, in the United States, Europe, and beyond.
And it’s not just nostalgia. Some people are discovering modular synthesis for the first time, right?
Absolutely, and that’s fantastic. I think everyone in the industry hopes this medium of synthesis continues to inspire future generations. It definitely seems like that is what’s happening with this resurgence.
How did MODULAR ICONS come about?
We approached Native Instruments through a friend. Our goal was to offer a product that would put modular synthesis in the hands of people who might not ordinarily have access to it. Native Instruments was very open to the idea. Once the project started, my primary role was to bring artists onboard who would contribute their sounds and to facilitate the trip up to TONTO [The Original New Timbral Orchestra], which is one of the shining stars in the collection of instruments sampled for MODULAR ICONS.
Most of the samples used to build MODULAR ICONS were contributed directly from legendary artists. Did you already know some of the artists?
Yes, many of them. Several have supported the foundation before, and others became involved for the first time through this project. Everyone was really enthusiastic about this project. They embraced the whole idea of sharing their passion for modular synthesis and sharing the synthesizers they love with lots of other people.
It’s such a diverse group of artists – including Jean-Michel Jarre, Steve Porcaro, Mark Isham, Michael Boddicker, Walter Holland, Jeff Rona, Benge, and others. Some were at the forefront of modular synthesis in the ’70s and ’80s, others began using modulars more recently. There are also recording artists and synth developers along with producers and film composers.
Yes, that’s really what we were looking for. We wanted a breadth of approaches. We also wanted a breadth of synth samples. It was nice to see it come together with such an interesting group of musicians and collection of modulars. There are 150 amazing-sounding presets in this instrument.
MODULAR ICONS draws from not only Moog modulars but also modular synths from ARP, Roland, Buchla, Emu, EMS, Serge Modular, EML, and Polyfusion. What led you to include such a variety?
I know that Bob celebrated the involvement of other companies in the modular space. He helped start this movement, but he was happy to see other people exploring that same territory and helping the whole field evolve through their own special contributions. Bob felt they were all working toward common goals.
And in that same way, I was very purposeful in wanting this product to share a variety of modulars. We have some really incredible systems, including Keith Emerson’s ARP 2500, Roland System 700, and Moog modulars, for example. I really wanted as many modular synthesizer brands included as possible, because the goal was not just to share Moog systems with people but to share modular synthesis with people. I loved the inclusivity of this project, and I loved hearing the sounds that have come to us. And I think it’s important to offer that kind of variety to people.
Let’s talk about a few specific instruments. For example, you mentioned TONTO, which is a massive instrument that many people have heard on Stevie Wonder recordings.
It is an incredible modular system. Actually, it’s several modular systems connected together with a lot of customization by Malcolm Cecil [one of TONTO’s co-creators]. TONTO is a beautiful representation of what MODULAR ICONS is trying to do in general, and that is to bring various modular synthesizers together for the greatest sonic impact. So it was really fun to watch Francis Preve, who is an incredible sound designer, explore and discover TONTO and all of its various components for this MODULAR ICONS project.
He must have felt like a kid in a candy store with so many sonic possibilities.
Absolutely. That’s one of the things Bob loved about modular synthesis and why he had a hard time embracing the MiniMoog originally, because he lamented not being able to offer those tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of options. He really loved providing the capability for sonic exploration. But with something like TONTO, the possibilities are endless. Because of that, you are left up to your own creativity, which is where the magic happens with modular synthesis.
TONTO is now housed in Canada, correct?
Yes, at the National Music Centre, which is this really incredible facility in Calgary. It’s a large music museum where they have not only TONTO but also about 100 other vintage synthesizers that they have restored and that they share with musicians who want to come and play them. We got very lucky that they agreed to participate in this project by giving us access to TONTO. It was really quite a special opportunity and a real honor. We are indebted to that facility.
MODULAR ICONS also includes a Polyfusion modular synth. Does that one belong to Steve Porcaro, from Toto?
Yes. I reached out to Steve because he’s been a lovely supporter of the foundation, and he was a friend of Bob. I thought he might be enthusiastic in participating in this project, and he was. And it just so happens, we got kind of lucky: His Polyfusion system hadn’t been completely functional of late, but it is now in the hands of a wonderful synthesizer tech, Jim Soloman, who is in the process of restoring it. And fortunately, Jim lives about two hours from where I live, so I was able to visit the system. Jim worked very closely with Steve to sample the system for MODULAR ICONS.
A Buchla modular was also sampled for MODULAR ICONS. Don Buchla was a contemporary of Bob Moog whose early modulars attracted experimental electronic artists in part because they used pressure-sensitive touch pads instead of keyboards to play sounds. Who contributed the Buchla modular?
That was Benge. I knew him but had never reached out to him before on behalf of the foundation. When this project came up, he was one of the first people I thought of. And I was really glad to see that he was going to sample a Buchla, because we really wanted the Buchla sound included in the product.
How does MODULAR ICONS support the goals of your foundation?
MODULAR ICONS gives people easy access to a huge variety of very rich sounds. Hopefully it will serve as a kind of gateway for exploring modular synthesis even further.
It fits really well with the Moog legacy. Bob’s whole goal was to take modular synthesis out of the lab and to make it accessible to musicians. At that time, bringing large and complicated systems to musicians was groundbreaking work. Modular synthesis existed but a system would fill up a whole room, and it would require an academic to operate. So MODULAR ICONS adopts that same spirit of making modular synthesis more accessible.
Now that MODULAR ICONS is available, what’s next for the foundation?
We are very interested in growing Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool, where we teach children about the science of sound. Right now, we’re serving about 3,000 kids per year in North Carolina. But we’re planning to expand that program nationwide in the next 12–24 months. We’re also creating our own educational tool that will assist us in scaling that program.
The other focus is the Moogseum. We have been working on this project for a really long time. The Moogseum will have a dual emphasis of sharing the Bob Moog Foundation archives and also educating people about the science of sound and the science behind Bob’s work. The archives include a vast collection of about 10,000 pieces of material, ranging from vintage synths and schematics to photos and correspondence. In the Moogseum, we’re keeping Bob’s legacy alive for people to interact with and immerse themselves in.
So, in the near term, we’re opening a modest 1,400 square foot facility for the Moogseum, but we have some space within our site to grow. We’ll be working on offering events, lectures, and workshops, and we’ll be providing some access online through moogseum.org. In the next two to three years, we’re also hoping to create a traveling exhibit from the Moogseum. All of that will keep us extremely busy.
Native Instruments is donating over 50% of all MODULAR ICONS sales to the Bob Moog Foundation.