Review: Moogfest 2018 Engineer Synth Building Workshop - Magnetic Magazine
Ever wondered what it's like to build your own Moog synth?

Moogfest is an event filled with workshops for anyone and everyone, with a wide range of topics catered to all skill levels. However, there is one that exclusively stands out above the rest - the synth building workshop. Over the course of 8 hours split into two 4-hour sessions, Moog's engineers take you step by step through the building process, from a box of parts to a fully operating Moog synthesizer that you get to keep. In pt. 2 of my Moogfest review, I'll be giving you the rundown on the class, and what you can expect should you attend next year, which I highly recommend. 

What is it?

The synth building workshop is a class for only the select few who were willing to spend the $1500 for the Engineer pass, which is essentially an AAA pass that allows you entry to any of the events. In the class, you learn what parts do what, how they are all put together, and then eventually taught how to use your new synth. Moog's top engineers are present to help you each step of the way in building your new machine, teaching you the basics of soldering and more. This year's project was a synth like no other called the Subharmonicon, a two-oscillator synth that uses four separate sub oscillators to generate polyrhythms. What does any of that mean? That's a conversation the for the actual synth review. 

IMG_6235

How does it work?

Upon receiving your box of parts, you then separate every component into its respected category. Switches in one pile, knobs in another etc. After separation, you are then taught what each component does, and how it interacts with the rest of the machine. From there, you begin snapping on each piece of the puzzle, until you have a basic skeleton of the synth. Once everything is snapped together, then comes soldering. This can be extremely nerve-racking for a first-timer like myself. The first few were terrifying, as at the time I was unaware mistakes could be fixed. Once you get the hang of it, soldering is actually extremely therapeutic and relaxing. when all is said and done, parts attached and soldered, wires snapped into place, then you take your nearly finished product to be tested. If something isn't right, the experts at Moog are able to quickly point out what needs to be fixed, and how to fix it, then send you on your way. If you do pass, or once you eventually pass inspection, then comes the tuning. 

Instruction manual

Instruction manual

Fresh out the box

Fresh out the box

Faceplate

Faceplate

Personally, I've always wondered how exactly this is done, as I've never seen or been apart of building a synth. The instructor hooks your synth up to a tuner and uses what looks like a tiny flathead screwdriver to carefully tune your oscillators to the correct key and line everything else up. Now that things are in tuned and in working order, then comes attaching the face plate to the brains by way of nuts, washers, and knobs. After that, it's time for the second most exciting part - putting your synth into its case. I found a shortcut by flipping the case on its side and sliding the synth in that way. As clever as that is, I didn't see any other way to do it efficiently. And now, for the grand finale, turning it on for the first time. When everyone in the class is finally done getting everything together, which is about an hour before the second session is over, then the instructor gives some patching tutorials, starting with a basic drone. This was a really fun experiment, where the whole class created one giant drone. It was surprisingly pleasing to the ear. Of course, me being the scoundrel I am, started low key changing the settings they instructed us to create. 

What do I think?

Honestly, the class was nothing and everything like I was expecting. I was expecting hands on, perhaps a bit more than what actually transpired, but in the end was a perfect way to understand what goes into building a synth. I say this, because truthfully, any more involvement may have been too much. It felt like legos for synth nerds, but I was extremely proud of my work. I actually received some surprised looks from the instructors about the results of my first time soldering. The guy sitting next to me had soldered many times before, so I was just hoping to be half as good as he was, which apparently I was. I must say, after admitting to one of the instructors that I a) had no idea what I was doing and b) was worried I would create an unfixable mess, said instructor drew potentially the best examples of what your soldering job should and shouldn't look like. So much so, that when another instructor saw his drawing, she took a picture to include in next years curriculum. And while I mostly, again to my surprise, passed with flying colors, it wasn't totally smooth sailing. After the first class, I was able to get the brains of the Subharmonicon working and just needed to put it in the case. So, when I went back to my hotel room, I sat at my table and did just that. I nearly screwed everything in with my fingers, save the side bolts I couldn't get in all the way. In the next session, after finishing tightening everything with the actual screwdrivers, I was one of, if not the first person finished with my build. 

Everything separated and ready to be assembled. From left to right: Motherboard, Potentiometers (knobs), sequencer and fine tune knobs, 2 & 3-way switches, CV ports, power cables, and sequencer buttons. 

Everything separated and ready to be assembled. From left to right: Motherboard, Potentiometers (knobs), sequencer and fine tune knobs, 2 & 3-way switches, CV ports, power cables, and sequencer buttons. 

One of the more important pieces of advice they gave out was to ensure you don't over tighten any of the nuts on the faceplate, as it could damage the board or break off. Well, me being the "one more turn" type of person I am, of course, I broke a switch. While this might not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that I was completely finished with my build. I briefly panicked, but admittedly felt better when I looked around and saw some other people in class being seriously rescued. I flagged down one of the instructors, who unbeknownst to me just so happened to be THE lead engineer for Moog. I showed him what happened, and he said it was probably a good thing that it happened, as he believed it to be a faulty switch. So, we got to work right away dismembering my new synth back to the raw brains. He showed me how to unsolder the switch, using essentially a hi-tech turkey baster to suck the solder out. Fast forward another 20 or so minutes and we were back and ready to go. It was honestly so cool to sit and learn from one of the best minds in the industry in such a small and intimate environment, that I will never forget it. 

Should you do it?

If you want to learn from some of the best minds in synth building, and want to create a synthesizer that only a handful of people on the planet own, then yes. Absolutely yes.

Finished product

Finished product

Final thoughts?

While the engineer ticket price is certainly not to be taken lightly, I have to say that it is undoubtedly worth it. I will, without a doubt, 100% be partaking in this workshop for the foreseeable future. It's not only extremely fulfilling but being able to speak with head engineers of one of the, if not THE greatest synth company ever is worth the price alone. Plus you get to take your little monster home and cause unchecked amounts of destruction. 

Related Content