Born on this day, May 23rd in 1934, Robert Arthur Moog would change the landscape of music forever. It is not ridiculous to posit that he affected modern music so significantly his impact is greater than any others. So far-reaching and transformative was his work that music today would literally not exist without him.
Through genius, hard work and a sprinkling of goodwill, he created the ubiquitous brand of Moog synthesisers. His Moog synthesiser, now known as the analogue synthesiser, was the first commercial type of the instrument. Before he blessed the world with his products, synthesisers such as the RCA Mark II were the size of rooms and were inaccessible to the public.
Robert Moog was a keen physicist and earned a PhD in engineering physics from the Ivy League Cornell University in 1965. He had always had a lifelong passion for science. As a child, he preferred to spend time in his father’s workshop rather than practising the harp as his parent’s forced him to. Science and engineering ran in his blood – his father was a Consolidated Edison engineer after all. Due to his early exposure to all sorts of electronics, somewhere along the way he became particularly fascinated by the strange, science-fiction-esque instrument of the day, the theremin.
Even by today’s standards, the theremin is a somewhat bizarre and intriguing instrument. Controlled by moving your hands over the antennae, creating eerie sounds, the theremin has reared its head in some of contemporary music’s most experimental efforts. Have you ever thought about what audio tool marked suspenseful dramas out, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural, the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, or even the Midsummer Murders theme tune? Well, ponder no further.
Showing the extent of Moog’s genius, in 1949, aged just 14, he built his own theremin using plans printed in Electronics World. By 18, he had produced his own theremin design and written an editorial on describing it in Radio and Television News. That same year, 1953, proved to be a pivotal point for both Moog and music. He founded RA Moog, selling theremins and theremin build kits via mail order out of his parents’ house. What’s remarkable about this endeavour is that Moog undertook it whilst completing his education. Furthermore, he would have one very illustrious customer; Raymond Scott. Scott, whose music was adapted for Looney Tunes and The Ren and Stimpy Show, bought one of the kits. From this kit, Scott would develop another early synthesiser, the Clavivox.
In 1963, Moog would make yet another significant step in his career. He met composer Herb Deutsch at a trade fair for the New York State School Music Association. Deutsch was an adherent of electronic music, and at the time, was composing his futuristic sound using a theremin, tape recorder and a single-pitch oscillator. To say this was a time-consuming process would be an understatement. After recording his electronic sounds on a reel-to-reel, Deutsch would splice the tape and rearrange the noises, creating something entirely new. Subsequently, both Moog and Deutsch were acutely aware of the need for more practical and advanced equipment, and so the pair drew up plans for a “portable electronic music studio.”
Before too long, and with the wheels already in motion, Moog received a grant of $16,000 from the New York State Small Business Association. He moved the company upstate to Trumansburg, New York. At the time, the company resembled a cottage industry. It had a tiny factory and employed around 30 dedicated workers who were continuously “stuffing circuit boards”. At the time of the company’s move to Trumansburg, they were building amps and theremins. In conceiving the idea for the new portable synthesiser, Moog placed emphasis on affordability and practicality – a direct contrast to his amplifier.
In 1964, Moog began building the first Moog synthesiser. A modular synth, it was much smaller than the RCA Mark II. Rather than creating sound from hundreds of vacuum tubes like its complicated and hefty predecessor, Moog‘s model featured separate modules that created and shaped the sounds, connected by patch leads.
One of Moog’s prototype’s had two voltage-controlled oscillators (VCO) and one voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA). The relationship between both created effects such as modulation, vibrato and tremolo. Another critical feature Moog added was the envelope, it became a key feature of Moog synthesisers. The envelope controlled the sonic elements of attack, decay, release and sustain.
According to Moog, when Deutsch first laid eyes on the prototype, he “went through the roof”. Deutsch was so enthused he immediately commandeered the instrument and started making music. These new, mysterious sounds would draw the attention of passerby’s: “They would stand there, they’d listen and they’d shake their heads,” he said, adding: “What is this weird shit coming out of the basement?”
Reflecting the incredible pace that Moog worked at, the prototype was complete by the fall of 1964. The pair first demonstrated the synthesiser at the electronic music studio at the University of Toronto. The attendees were so impressed that they subsequently invited Moog to present at the Audio Engineering Society’s annual convention in October.
Moog hadn’t planned to sell his new product at the convention. However, by the end of the day, customers had placed orders. Contemporary choreographer Alwin Nikolais is credited as being the first person to purchase a commercial Moog synthesiser. Consequently, the Moog synthesiser became a made-on-order product. The first person to request a synthesiser with a keyboard and cabinet came from the pioneering composer Eric Siday.
The interesting thing about the first Moog synthesiser was, at this point in time, they remained a cult item. There were no Moog books or manuals, and there was no way to save or share settings. In the early days, there were two ways of learning how to use Moog’s modular synth. Either by word of mouth or from seminars and demonstrations held by Moog and Deutsch.
Although it seems rather obtuse today, looking like a prop from the TV show The Avengers, this first Moog was groundbreaking. It was the smallest synthesiser on the market and cost $10,000 compared to the six-figure sums required for other synthesisers. Moreover, after Siday’s request, Moog’s product came with the keyboard. This was a significant inclusion. Other synthesisers were programmed via punchcards, whereas the keyboard made Moog’s model a highly attractive and accessible proposition to musicians.
Consequently, Moog refined the synthesiser in response to requests from musicians and composers. Like a musical Hephaestus, Moog described himself as a toolmaker who designed things for his customers and always open to suggestions. In this sense, he defined the essence of an innovator. The most prominent of these sonic guinea pigs were Deutsch, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Wendy Carlos. The synths were so cutting-edge that even universities established electronic music labs using them.
It would be Wendy Carlos who truly opened the floodgates for the synthesiser. She gave the world the electronic embodiment of “let them eat cake!” Her debut album, 1968’s Switched-On Bach, went platinum and won three Grammy’s. As the title suggests, the album tracks were Bach compositions arranged on the Moog synthesiser by Carlos.
In fact, Carlos would have a vital effect on the development of the Moog. She suggested the first touch-sensitive keyboard, portamento control and filter bank. These all became standard features, again confirming the Moog’s status as the premier synthesiser.
The irony of the instrument is that initially, Moog avoided labelling it a “Synthesiser” as this was closely associated with the RCA model. He attempted to run by describing his system as a “system of electronic music modules”. However, before too long, this revealed as contradictory to his ethos of accessibility. Given the definition of synthesising, and after many lengthy debates, by 1966, Moog resigned himself to using the word. Moog told friend and composer Reynold Weidenaar: “It’s a synthesiser and that’s what it does and we’re just going to have to go with it.”
Thanks to its genius, accessibility and Carlos’ album, by the late 1960s many of the biggest musical acts had adopted the instrument. These included the Doors, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
By 1970, Moog would release his most influential model to date, the ‘Minimoog’. This self-contained, portable version of its modular predecessor is the one that truly changed the face of music. It picked from where the first iteration left and made the analogue synth truly accessible. Consequently, the synthesiser would take off properly in the 1970s. The advent of prog-rock shot Moog and the synthesiser into space. Acts such as Yes, Tangerine Dream, Rush and Emerson, Lake & Palmer popularised the synthesiser.
It wasn’t just prog acts who utilised the synthesiser’s endless possibilities though. Jazz musician Chick Corea was a huge proponent as were Bob Marley and Giorgio Moroder. The most impactful use of the Moog came in 1974 with Kraftwerk‘s game-changing album, Autobahn. The German’s album had a transformative effect on music.
Another critical element of the Moog was the pitch wheel, giving the instrument a fluidity in performers’ eyes. It has since become a fundamental synthesiser concept. However, Moog would make a decision that brought the synthesiser to global dominance. Harking back to his comments about his being a designer, creating tools for use, he refused to patent any of his ideas apart from the filter design. In tune with his organic essence, his concepts were the intellectual property of everybody. This availability in the public domain helped the synthesiser and electronic instrument industry flourish. In retrospect, commentators have noted how wealthy Moog would have become had he patented his ideas. However, this was not what Robert Moog was about.
In 1971, Moog sold RA Moog to Norlin Musical Instruments, where he stayed on as a designer until 1977, showing that he was a committed innovator at heart. In 1978, he founded Big Briar and renamed it Moog music after buying back the rights to his name. Following his extended stay in the world of business in his later years, he taught at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, where he worked on more futuristic instrument designs.
Another interesting point about the Moog synthesiser was that it came at precisely the right time. It came in the midst of the ’60s when the old order was being destroyed, and new ideas and the counterculture were shifting the tectonic plates of society, creating a new world full of possibility.
In total hilarity, at one point, the Moog was banned from use in commercial work. Thanks to its ability to imitate orchestral instruments such as strings and horns, the Moog and other synthesisers were deemed to be an existential threat to session musicians. The ban stemmed from the uproar caused by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
Showing the extent of his foresight, Moog felt that the AFM saw the synthesiser in the wrong light. He knew that his product was an instrument to be honed and used like any other. He thought that “all the sounds that musicians could make somehow existed in the Moog — all you had to do was push a button that said ‘Jascha Heifetz’ and out would come the most fantastic violin player.”
Unfortunately, Robert Moog passed away in 2005. However, his impact on music cannot be understated. Through his intellect, innovation and goodwill, he changed the face of music forever. Since its release, the synthesiser has become a ubiquitous instrument, and Moog’s sounds are plastered everywhere, stretching from Daft Punk and Flying Lotus to Deftones and J Dilla.
The thing about the Moog is, your favourite artist has almost certainly used one at some point. Without Moog’s work music would not have opened up into the fluid format we have today. Most significantly, DAW’s such as Logic and Ableton, which allow anyone to create music from home, would not exist without his work. Moog embodied the essence of music as an accessible craft, and for that we thank him.
Watch Robert Moog demonstrate the Minimoog, below.