When composer Matt Morton was awarded a Critics’ Choice Documentary Award for Best Score for his work on documentary Apollo 11 , ‘ecstatic’ is hardly the word to cover his multi-emotional response. The award was merely the cherry on top; he considers the real prize to be using the rare Moog Synthesiser IIIc.
Apollo 11 is a CNN Films production comprising never-before-seen archival footage woven together to commemorate the 50 years since the Moon Landing. It features eye-opening glimpses into one of humankind’s greatest scientific achievements… unless you consider the whole thing to be a hoax. Directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, the 93-minute film is layered with hordes of scored music by Matt.
- According to Matt, the pioneering synthesiser engineers — who worked at the same time as Moog himself — was in San Francisco working on his Bukula synthesiser. “Both these engineers (one of whom was Alan Pearlman, the future founder of ARP Synthesisers) were former NASA engineers so there is a literal connection between the space programme and synthesisers!”
He and Todd had been long-time friends in and out of filmmaking so working together for this mammoth project was a no-brainer. Other notable projects included Dinosaur 13 , an Emmy-winning Sundance documentary by Lionsgate and CNN Films, as well as an Apollo 17 short documentary The Last Steps . When the duo got a nod to do something for the Apollo 11 50th anniversary, already had it in their mind to take a similar approach to The Last Steps : all archival footage, no narration, music-driven all while scaling it up in terms of length.
“I scored The Last Steps using any tools that came to mind,” Matt recalls over a Skype call from his home in Ohio, “as it was more about the compositions for me and just telling the story anyway I could. The fact that there’s no narration makes it more of an experience, and you’re transported back. Even though I like the score, I felt that it could have been cool to use sounds that could have been made at the mission to marry up what you’re hearing with what you’re seeing. So when the Apollo 11 story came about, I did that, only using instruments and effects from that era.”
Matt wanted to use instruments made during the 1960s for Apollo 11 . Enter the Moog Synthesiser IIIc which was a reissue of the 1968 version — one of only 25 made in the world and Matt got the 19th model. It features 36 hand-stuffed, hand-soldered modules, including ten 901-Series audio oscillators, the 984 Matrix Mixer, and the 905 Spring Reverb.
Its creator Robert Moog had collaborated with over 100 composers through the 1960s of electroacoustic music to create the synthesiser concept, culminating from thousands of hours of brainstorming and continual redesigning. “The idea there was this instrument, which really exploded at the end of the 60s, was the cutting edge of science-technology; it’s been credited with fast-forwarding the normal technological progress by 10 to 20 years. It ushered in the future of music and putting new capabilities in the hands of musicians.”
Getting his hands on this rare reissue was no joke. “Back in the 60s, a system about the size of mine would have cost the same as a house and car together,” he chuckles, “and only the very successful composers and rockstars were able to own one... so in 2017, Moog decided to reissue the IIIc, building the same components in the same way by hand. That said, the only obstacle to owning one is money. Once I saw some of the amazing 65 and 75 millimetre footage we had just gotten from the National Archives, and after getting to know more and more about the evolutionary significance of this project, I knew it was worth the extra expense to make the purchase.”
Take one look at the IIIc and one would feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. The instrument is essentially a huge console of knobs, switches and criss-crossing wires. Matt did not stop at the Moog Synthesiser IIIc; he also used a Binson Echorec 2 (tube echo), a Mellotron (early keyboard sampler used by bands including The Beatles and Led Zeppelin), a Hammond organ as well as various period drum machines.
The audio anatomy of the Moog Synthesiser IIIc is so elaborate that Matt could not help emotionally connect with the instrument. Given most instruments these days have a plug-and-play component, he says they do not hold a candle to these original sound-makers. “The beauty is in the imperfections. As a musician I, too, feel defined by what I can’t do just as what I’m strong at. Listening to this instrument and playing it, it does feel alive.”
Getting to know the IIIc was an intimate process for Matt; there are no sound presets or menu options, creating sounds meant a lot of trial and error and moving about — totally unlike a software emulator. Ask Matt for details about interacting with the IIIc and he goes into his own world, describing the process. “It doesn’t stay static and give you the same sound, it just constantly changes especially when you put one sound against another and detune them, which is an old synthesiser trick to get the sounds ‘beating against each other.’ Funnily, ‘mistakes’ you unlock a great sound you never would have considered. It took a lot of botched takes to realise how quickly I should sweep a filter, switch from one sequence to the next; it was so much fun. I was standing with one arm stretched out to the Binson Echorec 2 (favoured by Pink Floyd) which is an old mechanical valve-driven echo unit and uses a revolving metal disc… it’s really cool. I’m never selling this thing!” Given Apollo 11 released in IMAX in the United States in March, Matt found, despite this being old technology, there was no need to optimise the score for it; the sound profile was already remarkably strong.