Moog, Robert A.
Robert A. Moog
In the mid-1960s Robert A. Moog effectively launched a music revolution with the pioneering synthesizer that bears his name. The complex, organ-like analog instrument could produce an array of electronic tones, and quickly became a favorite of rock virtuosos; for a number of years in the 1970s the Moog sound was ubiquitous across a spectrum of pop-music styles. Moog's creation was eventually supplanted by cheaper imitators, but has retained its cult status among musicians. "The first synthesizers created new sounds from whole cloth," explained Bergen County Record writer Jim Beckerman, "by manipulating the raw ingredients of music, sound waves, into new patterns by changing their frequency and duration."
Born on May 23, 1934, Moog grew up in Flushing, a section in the New York City borough of Queens. Though his piano-teacher mother imposed musical training on him, Moog instead took after his father, an engineer, and loved to tinker in the family workshop. In his youth he built radios from mail order kits, and then became fascinated by the theremin, an obscure musical instrument designed by a Russian, Leon Theremin, which was used in avant-garde classical performances in the 1920s. Considered the world's first electronic instrument, the theremin was played by waving a hand in front of an electromagnetic field, which produced an eerie, ethereal sound. Moog built his first theremin at the age of 14 from a how-to magazine article, but like many others, he found it nearly impossible to play with any proficiency.
Moog studied physics at Queens College, and went on to earn a second degree from Columbia University in electrical engineering. He planned to take a corporate research job upon leaving school, but still tinkered with electronic instruments and was intrigued by the new, massive synthesizers that were coming on the market from well-funded corporations like RCA. After deploying his educational know-how to design part of a circuit board for the Clavivox, a smaller version created by another independent inventor, Raymond Scott, he wondered if he might parlay his recreational interests into a profit-making venture. "I got this bug in my head that I could write an article about Theremins, and transform my interest into something between a hobby and a part-time business," he recalled in an interview with London Guardian writer Wendy Grossman. The article he wrote became the cover story for the January 1961 issue of Electronics World, and it aroused interest in his fledgling workshop. "The upshot was we sold about 1,000 Theremin kits from 1961 to 1963 out of a three-room apartment," he told Grossman.
New Circuitry Launched Revolution
By then Moog was living in Ithaca, New York, and working on a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University. The theremin kits, which he sold for $49.95, financed his research and turned his investment into the creation of new electronic instruments. His first real product was a portable guitar amplifier kit. When he attended a music teachers' convention in the winter of 1963, however, he met music teacher and composer Herbert Deutsch, who suggested to Moog that he try designing some new circuits. He linked the resulting switches to an ordinary piano keyboard, and in mid-1964 he showed his new device at the Audio Engineering Society Convention. "There I was, a 30-year-old nerd," he told the Guardian, "with no particular background in electronic music, with my couple of little, hand-made circuits with paper labels on them on a card table, surrounded by Ampex and Sculley, and all these big manufacturers of audio equipment, and the weirdest thing happened: people came by and started ordering things from us."
The success launched the R.A. Moog Company in earnest, which began production of the Moog synthesizer in time to meet the new market demand. "The Moog was modular," explained Salon's Frank Houston. "You used patch cords to select your waveform (the sound's timbre) and frequency (pitch), and plugged in the interface—a keyboard, instead of the binary code on paper that had defined the first RCAs. Moog's engineering wizardry did the rest." The Moog, wrote Financial Times writer Alan Cane, caused "a sensation. It was the first to use attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelopes that control the way the notes swell and fade." It was also far more affordable—the RCA versions retailed for $100,000, but Moog's was sold for just $11,000.
For the Record . . .
Born on May 23, 1934, in New York, NY; son of an engineer and a piano teacher; married. Education: Queens College, bachelor's degree in physics; Columbia University, master's degree in electrical engineering; Cornell University, Ph.D., 1965.
Founded R.A. Moog Company, 1964; engineer with Norlin Industries, 1973-77; founder of Big Briar Electronic Musical Instruments, 1978; Kurzweil Music Systems, consultant and vice president of new product research, 1984-88.
Awards: Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Polar Music Prize for Lifetime Achievement, 2001; National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award for Technical Achievement, 2002.
Addresses: Office— Big Briar, 554 Riverside Dr., #C, Asheville, NC 28801.
Deployed in Switched-On Bach
Moog was always interested in hearing what musicians thought of his creation, and he took the suggestion of electronic keyboardist Walter Carlos to install a filter. Carlos then went on to record Switched-On Bach, released in 1968, which was the first LP to use the Moog as its sole instrument. The innovative album was a massive success with the counterculture crowd, and was the first classical record to be certified platinum. Carlos then used the Moog to create the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's controversial film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange in 1971. The Beatles used it for a track on Abbey Road, and The Byrds also recorded with it during this era. Prog-rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer offered the first Moog synthesizer solo in their 1970 debut LP, and the seminal German/Swiss electronica outfit Kraftwerk also deployed the Moog most famously in their groundbreaking releases of that decade. The warm tones of the Moog had even moved over to popular music by 1977 in disco diva Donna Summer's hypnotic top ten hit, "I Feel Love."
Moog's second-generation synthesizer, the MiniMoog, debuted in 1971, and also sold well. It was far more portable and easy to tune before a live gig. In all, Moog's company sold some 12,000 of them, but then his company ran into financial trouble. "I suddenly found myself in a growing business and I didn't know how to run it," Moog wrote of his early days, according to the Salon article. "I didn't know anything at all about business back then. I didn't know what a balance sheet was. I didn't know what cash flow was. So the business survived as long as it grew, but as soon as a contraction occurred, I ran out of money." Deeply in debt by 1973, he was forced to sell his trademark to Norlin Industries, which also owned Gibson guitars and Lowrey Organs. He moved to Buffalo to take a job as an engineer with Norlin, and spent the next four years there on its engineering staff, not even given responsibility for the invention that bore his name.
Returned to Tinkering
Moog left Norlin in 1977 and founded another company, Big Briar, after moving to North Carolina. For a time in the 1980s he served as a consultant and vice president of new product research for Kurzweil Music Systems, a Boston-area maker of synthesizers, and devoted the rest of his time to creating new electronic instruments in his Asheville workshop. He developed the Moogerfooger, an effects module, as well as the Ethervox, his version of the theremin. The original Moog synthesizers fell out of favor for a time, but then emerged as collectors' items in the 1990s. A new generation of musicians began re-discovering the sound, and both Stereolab and Radiohead used the Moog in their music. Further interest in Moog's career was revived in 1994 when he appeared in a documentary film about Leon Theremin.
Moog's talents also attracted the attention of an Iowa firm, and he helped design and promote the Van Koevering Interactive Piano. Meanwhile the Norlin company had folded, and Moog won a court challenge that gave him back his trademark in 2000.
Plexifilm released a documentary about Moog, simply titled Moog, in 2004. The film explored Moog's invention and featured many musicians who have used his instrument over the years. The website ZU33 praised the film as a "stylized, wonderfully strange story of a true American maverick."
Moog was honored with Sweden's prestigious Polar Music Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2001, and in 2002 he received a Grammy Award for Technical Achievement. "The flowering of rock music may have come via Leo Fender, Les Paul and the Gibson Guitar Co.," remarked Houston in the Salon article, "but the innovative music of the early 21st century owes far more to Moog and his imitators and successors."
Moog himself remains adamantly unmusical, and a theorist at heart. "Before the radio and the phonograph, people made their own music," David Keenan, a journalist for the Sunday Herald of Glasgow, Scotland, quoted Moog as saying. "People got together to sing and make music together. Nowadays, most music is recorded and listened to by people on their own, isolated from their surroundings by headphones. Soon people will grow tired of this and realise that they would be a lot happier if there were more social music making in their lives."
Billboard, February 15, 1992, p. 10.
Compute, February-March 1992, p. 136.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 26, 1999, p. L10.
Daily Variety, February 1, 2002, p. 24.
Financial Times, June 12, 2001, p. 16.
Guardian (London, England), April 25, 1996, p. 7.
Music Trades, December 1999, p. 53.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 13, 1999, p. Y1.
Remix, April 1, 2002; August 1, 2002.
Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), February 24, 2002, p. 6.
"Robert Moog," Salon.com, http://dir.salon.com/people/bc/2000/04/25/moog/index.html (November 6, 2003).
"ZU33-Moog, " ZU33, http://www.ZU33.com/moog (March 29, 2004)
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