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Scoring Apollo 11 with a Moog Modular

Mark Jenkins

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Armed with a Moog IIIc modular synthesizer and on the fast track to success, Matt Morton composed the soundtrack to the film Apollo 11.

When he landed the plum assignment to score the 2019 documentary film Apollo 11, composer and synthesist Matt Morton was determined to use only electronic instruments and effects that were current when the first astronauts landed on the moon. So he took a leap of faith and bought a Moog IIIc, a large modular system originally designed by Bob Moog in the late 1960s and reintroduced by Moog Music in 2017 for $35,000.

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Morton plays an assortment of instruments that include ukulele, drums, piano, and cello. He spent nine years as guitarist and lead singer for the rock outfit The Shantee, which opened for acts like Blues Traveler, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Widespread Panic before he embarked on a career scoring music to picture.

What was your musical education? You’ve developed as a multi-instrumentalist.

My musical education has been a mixture of private lessons and self-guided study and experimentation. I did take some college-level music, recording, and guitar classes, but I didn’t major in music. I started on the guitar when I was 9 and took my first lessons with my uncle, who is also a multi-instrumentalist. Around that same time, my younger brother took up the drums, my dad started learning bass, and my sister started playing keyboards and bass. All of them played for a little while and then eventually gave it up, so I got to snatch up all of their instruments and begin learning them, too.

My whole life, I’ve been gradually expanding the circle of instruments and recording technology that I own and feel comfortable using. I started with rock instruments, and then spread out from there. I think The Beatles were the first to show me the power and beauty of orchestral and keyboard instruments. Artists like Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Herbie Hancock, and Steely Dan were my first introductions to analog synths.

Some people can be completely fulfilled by just playing one instrument, and sometimes I think it would be a lot easier (and less expensive) to go that route. But I’ve always been interested in them all—I think because I’ve always realized how much each of them contribute to the finished product, including the recording technology and techniques involved in creating the recording. I’d say I’m probably just as interested in engineering and producing (figuring out how to make recordings sound magical) as I am in playing and writing music. In my late 20s—around the same time that computers began to be powerful enough to make serious home recording studios more affordable—I started to realize that composing for picture would allow me to take advantage of both my playing and recording skills.

Photo and opening photo by Henry Leiter

Before Apollo 11 you were using a Minimoog, among other instruments, along with DAW recording. What inspired you to make the jump to the Moog III?

I have been collecting synths here and there throughout the last 20 years. It started with ’80s and ’90s preset synths by Casio and Yamaha, then a Juno-106 (really an HS-60, which is a Juno-106 with built-in speakers), a rare Sequential Circuits Fugue (made by Siel in Italy, a combination of a mono and a poly synth), a Roland SH-32 polysynth that also has built-in 808 and 909 sounds, and of course, all of the usual soft synths from companies like Spectrasonics and Arturia.

But I really got bit by the synth bug when I bought my first Moog, a Sub 37 I purchased in 2016 with some of my commission from the CNN Films/Great Big Story short documentary The Last Steps (about our last trip to the moon on Apollo 17 in December 1972). That led to a Minimoog Voyager XL, various Moogerfooger pedals, and the Minimoog Model D reissue. I couldn’t believe how different all of them felt and sounded from each other, even though they were all Moogs. My favorite of all of them is definitely the Model D; I absolutely love the sound and user interface of that synth. But after I grasped the basics of synthesis, I started to crave the extra flexibility that modulars can give you.

The other thing that inspired my decision to buy the Moog IIIc was that I wanted to make the Apollo 11 score using only instruments and effects that were available at the time of the mission in 1969. When I scored The Last Steps (which, like Apollo 11, was also constructed completely out of archival footage), I used any sound I wanted to, including very modern ones. I still love that score, but sometimes the modern sounds in it took me out of the feeling of “being there” during the mission in December of 1972.

So when we got the chance to make an all-archival documentary for Apollo 11, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to only use sounds that could have been made at the time so that the visuals and the audio would feel unified. I decided to feature the synthesizer in the score because in 1969, it was at the cutting edge of music technology just like the Apollo program was at the cutting edge of science and aerospace technology. Both of them were the wave of the future back at the end of the ’60s.

Soundtrack composer Matt Morton
Photo by Kate Sweeney

When I started really researching ’60s avant-garde and electronic music in preparation for my Apollo 11 score, I started to hear the sounds of the old Moog and Buchla modular synths. I especially liked the Moog’s tones and the fact that it could be incorporated into traditional orchestration a little easier than the Buchla. Then I got lucky when, around the same time we started work on the film, Moog announced that they were going to reissue the 1968 version of the Synthesizer IIIc. In addition to the IIIc and the orchestra, I used a Mellotron, a Hammond A-100 with a Leslie 147, an Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-1, a Maestro Rhythm King MRK-1, a Binson Echorec 2 restored and modified by Soundgas Ltd., an Echoplex EP-2, and various other period-appropriate gear including old tube amps, spring and plate reverbs, etc.

Was it difficult to acquire the Moog if only 25 were made? Was it a huge financial commitment?

It wasn’t that difficult to get one of the 25 Moog IIIc reissues. I just called one of Moog’s dealers (Vintage King) and had them check on availability for me. I had to wait a couple of months for the next one that wasn’t already spoken for to be built, but it could have been much harder. The price was the hardest part of buying it, for sure, but after we knew we had a ton of amazing, newly-rediscovered 70mm footage and some great distributors joined our team, my wife and I made the decision together that the project was worth the extra expense of the Moog, rather than going a less expensive route with more modern 5U modules.

I don’t regret the decision at all. It’s proven itself worth every penny because of how inspiring it has been to work with, and its sound totally makes the score for me. Those 901 oscillators sound so alive (like a hive of bees). The CP3 mixers overdrive really well (especially when you feed its output back into an input). The 904A lowpass filter is rightfully a legend. The EQ and routing on the 984 matrix mixer is very useful, and the 905 spring reverb is incredible! I seriously couldn’t believe how amazing it was when it arrived; it’s a next-level instrument.

A lot of the Moog’s input seems to come about through improvisation. Was it interesting working that way alongside more conventional scoring for the orchestra?

I would say that my whole approach to making music is pretty improvisational, including the parts that eventually end up being played by the orchestra. A lot of my cues start as a sketch on the guitar, ukulele, synth, or piano, and then once the broad strokes are there, I start playing with instrument and production choices. A melody idea that started on the uke, or with me singing into the Voice Memos app on my phone, might end up as a string quartet or a completely electronic track.

Photo by Kate Sweeney

For this project, a lot of the cues began as improvisations on the IIIc and Binson, and of course, modular improvisations really start with how you patch it. The way you initially set up the modular is based on your intended sound, but then something you hear in the process of testing it, or maybe something you patch “incorrectly,” might inspire you to change the patch a little here and there. It’s like an oil painting where you throw some paint on the canvas, step back and look at it, and then let it inspire the next move, action leading to reflection and so on until you arrive somewhere that feels right.

Your end point is sometimes pretty far from where you started, but that’s why it’s so fun working with a modular synthesizer. It inspires experimentation, which very often leads to the discovery of new sounds. Then you can build orchestral parts around what you come up with on the synth, like I did with cues like “The Burdens and the Hopes” and “Translunar Injection”. There were definitely some cues that evolved the opposite way, though (started with keyboard or orchestra, and then I added the synth layers later) like “Powered Descent” and “Rendezvous” But no matter which instruments I lay down first, improvisation and experimentation are always at the heart of my writing process.

The Moog seems to have some friends now. What are the effects units to the left and smaller modular system to the right of the Moog, and other keyboards in the studio?

To the left are some Synthesizers.com 5U controllers (a pitch wheel, three mod wheels, a joystick, a touch pad, and an expression block) and the vintage Binson Echorec 2 that was restored and modified for varispeed and a wet-only output by Soundgas Ltd. The Soundgas Binson was half of the sound of the synth on most of the cues, because I usually hard-panned the IIIc to one side and the wet-only output of the Binson to the other side.

Above and to the upper-right of the Moog section of the modular are additional 5U (Moog format) modules by Synthesizers.com, Suit & Tie Guy, Moon Modular, and Corsynth. The IIIc has 10 oscillators, but it doesn’t come with a sequencer, so there’s a pair of Moog 960-style Dotcom sequencers up there, along with additional VCAs, EGs, mixers, multiples, and filters.

In the ’60s, you could have customized and expanded your Moog modular by buying individual modules directly from Moog, but they’re currently only selling full systems. Moog, if you’re reading this, I think you’d clean up if you ever started reissuing your individual modules! I know I’d be the first in line to pick up more filters, some 921 oscillators, and another reverb (for stereo).

Aside from the IIIc and the other synths I’ve already mentioned, I also have an ARP Odyssey module reissue, a Korg X-911 guitar synth, a Sonicsmith Squaver P1+, two Casio SK-1s (one stock and one circuit-bent by Spunkytoofers), two different Omnichords, a 1973 Fender Rhodes Mark 1, a Kawai MP11, an acoustic upright piano, tons of effects and mechanical echoes, and various other odds and ends.

Soundtrack composer Matt Morton Scoring Apollo 11
Photo by Henry Leiter

Is the Moog stable in terms of tuning and control? Did Moog seek to improve those aspects in the re-issued instruments?

No, the Moog IIIc is not stable in terms of tuning and control, but I was well aware of that going into it. They stated it right in the product description that they built the IIIc by hand, using the same materials and methods as they did back then. The original instruments were notoriously tough to keep in tune, susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, and the oscillators would only track linearly (1V/octave) for about two or three octaves. I also found that the spring reverb really likes to pick up noise from neighboring power supplies. All of the original design “deficiencies” are still there in the reissued IIIc, but I’m actually glad that they didn’t mess with the original designs, because that probably would have messed up what’s so magical about the IIIc’s tone.

A lot of people feel that, although the 921 oscillators (that came in the System 55 and 35 in the ’70s) were more stable, they didn’t sound quite as good as the original 901 oscillators, and I’d have to agree. Let me rephrase that; neither is really better or worse, they’re just different tools and I tend to like the sound of the 901s better. I suspect there’s something similar going on in all of the module designs, especially in the CP3 mixers, the 984 matrix mixer, and the spring reverb.

The IIIc is fully discrete (no integrated circuits). That’s gotta be part of what makes it sound so special, but it’s also probably why it takes so much more time and energy to work with. I think the IIIc would be a nightmare to gig with, but in the studio where you have more time and a more controlled environment, I personally don’t think there’s a better sounding synth out there. Besides, I’ve been a guitar player since 1986, so I’m pretty used to tuning all the time, anyway.

What instruments are you inspired to look at next?

I think the number-one synth on my list has got to be an EMS Synthi AKS, but I’m also very interested in the Moog One, the Matriarch, and the DFAM. And who doesn’t want an ARP 2600 and a Hohner Clavinet D6?There are plenty of non-keyboard instruments and effects I’d love to have, too. I don’t think I’ll ever stop collecting new toys, er, I mean tools.

What are your next projects?

I have a few exciting current and future projects on my radar, but none that I’m allowed to share publicly yet.However, I will say that it was an honor to have been recently asked by Waveshaper Media (who produced the modular synth documentary I Dream of Wires) to contribute some original music to the trailer for the upcoming Bob Moog documentary Electronic Voyager. They saw the “Crafting the Score of Apollo 11” video that Adam Schoales from the Toronto International Film Festival made (Waveshaper is also based in Toronto), and they thought I’d be a good choice to write the end cue for the trailer, which also included tracks by Gary Numan, Rick Wakeman, Mother Mallard, and David Borden. The title of the track is “The Godfather of It All (Bob Moog Tribute),” and you can find it digitally worldwide on all the normal platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) through Milan Records.

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