Moogfest’s Dial-Tones
The Shed, Durham
Saturday, Nov. 5, 2015

About 20 people crammed into the Durham jazz space The Shed Saturday night for the workshop portion of Moogfest’s inaugural “Dial-Tones.” We sat at tables strewn with circuit boards, amps and various tools, ready to build our own Moog Werkstatt-01 Synthesizers.

As I looked around, less than three days from the announcement of Moogfest’s 2016 lineup, I watched Moog staff members rearrange amps and pass out promotional material. It seemed to be the first physical representation of what had previously been an abstraction: Moogfest is really coming to Durham, huh?

This event was the first of several international Dial-Tones workshops Moogfest is presenting in Portland, Los Angeles, New York, London and, well, Durham. They scan as a calculated effort on the festival’s part to build buzz for their upcoming 2016 festival and, locally, to insert themselves in the Triangle’s scene before taking over a big part of it for one long weekend in May.

As you might imagine for a promotional event, the process of building a synth was a bit simplified. To produce our Werkstatts, we only needed to attach several pre-supplied parts. This entailed placing caps on the synth keys, securing the circuit board safely in its metallic casing and tightening a few screws. As we worked, a representative from Moog outlined the history of subtractive synthesis and the Moog brand. He explained that Mick Jagger attempted to work with a Moog once and refused to ever again. I chuckled.

When everyone had their Werkstatt assembled, we received primers on the synth’s capabilities. We learned about the differences between pulse and saw waves and what pulse-width modulation does to a signal. After staff encouraged us to experiment and jam on our synths, the noise started. Take a second to imagine a Guitar Center that only sold synths, and you might be able to approximate the sound of 20 people twisting away at their LFO rates and VCO frequencies. I recorded a bit of it, in case I ever need to frighten a dog.

And then, a professional took over. Nick Sanborn, one-half of prominent Durham pop duo Sylvan Esso, offered an improvisational Moog performance. Lately, he’s been pursuing throbbing analog sounds under the alias Made Of Oak, so he was an ideal candidate for a set like this.

He utilized nine Werkstatt synths, daisy-chained, with an additional Moog synth. Bent over them, he hid against an impressive visualizer that morphed as he built dizzying loops. They started thin and abrasive but grew into cacophonies that were more rhythmic than their individual parts. Sanborn would occasionally bring their scaffolding down to expose only a few spare elements—a reminder that even complex sounds start with simple tones.