The Analogue Synthesizer God

It doesn't rhyme with "droog"

Moog (rhymes with "rogue") was born in 1934, in New York City. An introverted child, he spent much of his childhood toying with electronics with the help of his keen father. His mother had aspirations for him to become a concert pianist, and oversaw his daily practice. By the time he was fourteen, Moog had constructed his first working theremin from instructions in a hobby magazine. Five years later he had published an article on the subject in the hobbyist mag Electronics World, which also promoted Moog's flourishing DIY theremin kit business. As a result of the popularity of his theremins and his ever-consuming passion for electronic instruments, Moog took 8 years to complete his Ph.d in physics at Cornell University. He finally received his degree in 1965. A year earlier, he had built his first synthesizer after listening to the complaints of electronic music pioneers Herbert A. Deutsch, and Walter (later Wendy) Carlos.

At the time, electronic music wasn't a user-friendly field. RCA synthesizers sold for upwards of $100,000 and were generally only available to the larger record companies or for "research" purposes at universities. The standard interface was via punch cards. Moog's newly designed synth had a keyboard and was modular. To select the pitch and timbre of the sound, you simply changed the patch cords as you would on a telephone switchboard. Moog's machine also used attack-decay-sustain-release envelopes to control the various qualities of the sound. Like the keyboard interface, these envelopes have become the standard for most modern electronic instruments. Although the sound was monophonic, multitrack recording could be used to create whole orchestras of mad tweakin' tunes. To top things off, Moog sold his synthesizer for one tenth of the price of RCA.

Bach Gets Funky!

Robert Moog's schöne maschine began to generate interest with Walter Carlos' 1969 Grammy-winning masterpiece, Switched on Bach. Carlos' faithful Moog renditions of Bach's orchestral works won a whole generation of fanatics. The cover of the album even featured the machine, with a Bach impersonator looking somewhat confused by it all. Needless to say, the Beatles immediately bought a Moog, and used it on "Because" on their final album. The Rolling Stones, not to be outdone by their British counterparts also bought one, but never tweaked its knobs. Carlos followed up his Grammy win by scoring "A Clockwork Orange" for Stanley Kubrick, which remains the most disturbing pieces ever created with Moog's machine.

The first Moog was designed solely for studio production. The towering wall of switches was visually impressive, but almost impossible to schlep around. Moog, ever mindful of the input of musicians using his product, begat Minimoog. Same gleeful sound as the major Moog, yet entirely portable and much cheaper. The claim that electronic music is somehow more democratic and producer-oriented largely hinges around Moog's engineering feats in creating the Minimoog. He opened a new larger market for electronic instruments and a larger audience.

Better Living Through Circuitry

By 1977, Robert Moog and his portable analogue synth were hot. Donna Summer's landmark dance hit "I Feel Love" was created almost entirely on the Minimoog, and Kraftwerk, although not using the moog had started an electronic juggernaut with "Trans Europe Express". There was money to be made from electronic musicians, but not for Robert.

Robert Moog was an excellent and driven engineer, but a poor businessman. Moog's business was quickly bought out by musical instrument manufacturer Norlin. Norlin were fairly unconcerned with the synthesizers, and their first effort - the Polymoog - was panned by musicians. Robert left the company after a few years of designing guitar effects and amps. Unperturbed, Norlin continued to pump out versions of the synthesizer bearing Moog's moniker, but bereft of his electronic wizardry.

At around the same time, another musical revolution was underway. The first digital synthesizer had been released onto the market, and as the price of computers fell, digital sound synthesis became affordable. Although many musicians still prefer the warmth of analogue sound, digital synthesis opened new horizons. Moog eschewed this revolution with his new company Big Briar Productions, where he focussed on producing effects modules.

Moog still seems intimately interested in the way that musicians interact with their tools. He premiered a multiple-touch-sensitive keyboard in 1982, similar to a touchscreen for manipulating sounds, and later produced a touch-sensitive, keyless piano based around the concept. It was merely a novelty compared to his earlier work.

Moog spent the early 1990s as a research professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and then returned to the instrument business in 2002.

Moog died of cancer at his home in Asheville on August 21, 2005, aged 71.


Bibliography

  • http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/04/25/moog/
  • http://www.synthmuseum.com/moog/
  • http://www.symbiosis-music.com/moog.html

Bob Moog is often credited with inventing the synthesiser, but that's not entirely true. There were several other people who built their own synthesisers in the nineteen sixties, including Don Buchla and Paul Ketoff. There were others who had even beat them to it by several decades, such as Harald Bode (who went on to work for Moog), Hugh Le Caine (whose synthesiser was only ever an amateur prototype, but very expressive), and Raymond Scott (who built and then played his own synthesisers, creating music far ahead of its time, and who Bob Moog worked for in the nineteen fifties). What made Moog stand out wasn't his initial invention, but his willingness to listen to his friends, customers and employees in order to refine it.

Since listening to Baba Brinkman's album The Rap Guide to Evolution, my motto has been performance, feedback, revision. It's the only way to improve something: try it out, find out from other people how you should improve it, implement those improvements, then repeat. While other people made synthesisers, it was Moog who continually improved his synthesiser to better match the needs of the musicians who used it.

At Herbert Deutsch's suggestion, Moog added a piano-like keyboard to his synthesiser. He wasn't the first person to do so, but it was an important step for turning his invention into a user-friendly product.

Keyboards are so ingrained in modern synthesisers that people take them for granted, even calling synthesisers themselves "keyboards," but until that point, there was no consensus on how to tell the synthesiser which note to play. Everyone -- even Moog himself -- was trying all sorts of whacky and expressive controllers such as the ribbon controller, which is more like a violin or fretless guitar than a piano: it allows portamento and allows any pitch to be played, but is much harder to use. Moog was happy to simplify his synthesiser with a sensible, practical design in order to turn it from a hobbyist's expensive gimmick into a useful tool for a musician to use to do her job.

At Wendy Carlos's suggestion, Moog added velocity sensitivity to his keyboards. Again, he wasn't the first to do so, but it was refinements such as these which added up to a formidable product. It makes a big difference whether a synthesiser can tell how hard its keys are being played. Just listen to Vangelis playing his wonderfully expressive yet equally temperamental Yamaha CS-80 in the Blade Runner soundtrack for an example of some beautifully emotive synthesiser playing.

One of Moog's employees, Bill Hemsath, made an even simpler, cut-down version of Moog's modular synthesiser during his lunch breaks. His design got rid of the large and intimidating wall of discrete modules connected via loosely strung patch cables that made it resemble a phone switchboard, along with the equally intimidating price tag. Moog embraced this simplified version of his instrument, putting it into full production. The resulting product, the portable Minimoog, was the first all-in-one synthesiser that combined everything in a simple, neat little package.

These days, almost every synthesiser you can buy, space saving rackmounts aside, superficially resembles a Minimoog with its well thought out controls such as its mod wheel and pitch bend. It was an excellent design, and has been imitated countless times with good reason.

So please, don't remember Bob Moog as the inventor of the synthesiser. Remember him as someone smart enough to listen to his friends, customers and employees, and refine his products accordingly. Remember him as the inventor of the musician-friendly synthesiser.

References

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