As the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, Robert Moog (1934–2005) brought electronic sound synthesis out of university electronics laboratories and into the wider world of music. The all-pervasive presence of keyboard electronics in contemporary popular music is ultimately the result, in large part, of his pioneering efforts.
Attempts to use electronic devices to create new sounds go back to the early years of the twentieth century. Yet a synthesizer that was financially and operationally within reach of ordinary musicians was unthinkable, until the Moog synthesizer—the first commercially available, voltage-controlled, modular synthesizer—came on the market in 1964. Innovative musicians began to experiment with it almost immediately, and its commercial potential was dramatically demonstrated with the release of the million-selling Switched-On Bach album in 1968. The Moog and its descendant, the MiniMoog, were staples of the progressive rock movement of the 1970s. Although these Moog synthesizers were supplanted by later synthesizers that developed further along the lines Moog had originally laid down, electronic musicians of every stripe hailed Moog as a pioneer, and the sound of the original Moog became one of the first flavors of nostalgia to arise in the field of electronic music.
Inspired by Theremin
Moog (the name rhymes with "rogue") was born on May 23, 1934, a native of the Flushing neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Something of a class geek, he was often tormented by schoolmates, but things improved for him as his radio-operator father cultivated his love for electronics and his mother enhanced his knowledge of music with piano lessons. Moog built radios from kits he ordered by mail, but what attracted him to the then-minuscule field of electronic music was his discovery of the theremin, an electronic instrument developed in the 1920s by Russian experimenter Leon Theremin (and later used in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"). The player of a theremin moves his or her hands near a loop that generates an electromagnetic field; the body of the instrument is never touched. Moog read about the theremin in Electronics World magazine when he was 14, and he was fascinated enough by the magazine's simple instructions for building the instrument that he quickly came up with an improved design of his own and described it in an article that was published in Radio and Television News. Working with his father, he formed the R.A. Moog Company and began to sell theremin kits by mail himself.
"I didn't know what … I was doing," he said in an interview quoted by David Bernstein in the New York Times. "I was doing this thing to have a good time, then all of a sudden someone's saying to me, 'I'll take one of those and two of that.' That's how I got into business." Winning admission to the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York's premier citywide magnet high schools, Moog went on to Queens College, where he majored in physics, and then to the electrical engineering program at Columbia University. His educational career began to slow down as his business picked up; in 1961 he developed a transistorized version of the theremin, wrote another article that was used as the cover story in Electronics World, and sold another 1,000 theremin kits (for $49.95 each) out of his three-bedroom apartment. Another step in Moog's electronic music apprenticeship came when he designed a circuit board used in the Clavivox, an early synthesizer designed by inventor Raymond Scott.
By the time Moog enrolled in the Ph.D. program in engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he came into contact with the Ivy League university labs that at the time were on the cutting edge of experimentation with electronic music, especially those at Columbia and Princeton universities. These labs had built synthesizers that would do much of what the Moog synthesizer would later be capable of, and the RCA Corporation had even marketed a commercial version of the instrument, but there were important differences. They were unwieldy stacks of electronic components and wires, controlled mostly by dials or computer punch cards that initiated sequences of binary code. And RCA's synthesizer cost upwards of $100,000. Attending the New York State School Music Convention in 1963, Moog met composer Herbert Deutsch, who suggested the possibilities of a simplified synthesizer design. By the middle of the following year Moog was ready with a prototype that he displayed at the Audio Engineering Society's annual convention, and the new Moog synthesizer went into production by the end of 1964.
The Moog, as it came to be known, cost around $10,000. Despite the reservations of Princeton lab director Vladimir Ussachevsky, who told Moog that his decision would result in the synthesizer being used simply as an unusual-sounding piano-as it was controlled by a piano-style keyboard-it still consisted of a large group of electronic components. Those components were now distinct, modular units that could be connected with patch cords to create a desired sound. Several of those components were new inventions. An ADSR (attack-decay-sustain-release) envelope generator allowed the player to control the sound of a note as it began and developed. The ADSR became a standard feature of synthesizer design. The final device used to control the color and texture of a tone was a filter; Moog's improved version became known as a Moog filter.
Affected Both Pop and Classical Musicians
Musicians on both sides of the classical/pop divide began to work with Moog's new invention. The Monkees may have been the first rock group to use the Moog (on their Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd. album of 1967, with Paul Beaver playing the Moog). Moog worked with experimentalist John Cage, and university electronics labs became customers of Moog's growing company, to which he devoted his full attention after receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1965. Another classical musician interested in the Moog was Wendy Carlos (at that time named Walter Carlos), who conceived the idea of recording an all-Moog album of famous pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was an ambitious undertaking, for the Moog, unlike later synthesizers, was monophonic—it could produce only one line of music at a time. Carlos laboriously recorded and mixed Bach's complex polyphonic music line by line and released Switched-On Bach in 1968.
That was the first solo Moog LP, and it marked a moment of triumph for the instrument's creator. It sold more than one million copies, a record for a classical album at the time, and it led to a short-lived Moog synthesizer craze. Some of the music that followed in its wake was serious in its intent; Carlos was signed to create a Moog score for Stanley Kubrick's dark, futuristic film A Clockwork Orange, and the Beatles (working partly from an instrument George Harrison had installed in his home) used the Moog on several tracks on their Abbey Road album. In 1969 novelty ragtime pianist Dick Hyman released Moog: The Eclectic Electrics of Dick Hyman, and jazz musicians soon followed suit; a Sun Ra concert recorded in Paris in 1970 (and released on the album Nuits de la Fondation Naeght) included a 20-minute Moog solo. Technology-savvy keyboardist Herbie Hancock was another early Moog adopter. Moog complained about the disposable quality of many of the early Moog records, however. "A few still stand up," he said in a Vintage Synthesizers interview quoted in the London Independent. "But mostly they were cynical, inept, opportunistic things: throw together a group, lay down some strings and horns and vocals, leave some space for a novelty melody line from the synth. That was the scene in '69. 'Moog records.'"
The Moog moved from novelty to a permanent part of the rock musical vocabulary with Moog's next invention, the MiniMoog, which first went on sale in 1970. Much more portable than the original Moog, it could easily be used in concert, and it became a favorite of electronics-oriented progressive rock bands of the 1970s such as Pink Floyd, Yes, Tangerine Dream, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (whose Tarkus LP pushed the instrument's capabilities to their limits). Yet the MiniMoog's popularity was not restricted to rock musicians. The instrument showed up on one of the most ambitious R&B hits of the era, Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" (1973), and on other songs on the Innervisions album of which it was a part. And the German collective Kraftwerk, whose work helped give birth to the new techno genre, used a Moog on its early releases. Later, a MicroMoog would become the last extension of the original Moog line.
Innervisions also contained an Arp synthesizer, one of the instruments that sounded the death knell for Moog's original company. The Arp had a 40 percent share of the synthesizer market by 1975, and a host of synthesizers issued by Japanese manufacturers were developed along the lines laid down by Moog. The Moog was eclipsed partly because its creator did not have the financial expertise to steer his company through periods of slow sales. He sold off his creation in stages, first to a suburban Buffalo, New York company called muSonics and then to the Norlin Corporation in 1973. The company, known now as Moog Music, continued to operate, and the Moog experienced a temporary resurgence in popularity when it was featured on Donna Summer's 1977 disco single "I Feel Love." Moog himself worked for the company through the 1970s but departed in 1977, as soon as his contractual obligations allowed.
Worked with MacArthur Foundation Grant Recipient
Moog had a lifelong affection for the Blue Ridge mountain range, and he moved to a home near Asheville, North Carolina, after leaving Moog Music. He founded a new company, Big Briar, taught electronic music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and worked on projects that interested him. These included a new refinement of the theremin he called an Ethervox and an effects module, the Moogerfooger. He worked with composer and MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient John Eaton on a touch-sensitive electronic keyboard that could be played expressively, like a mechanical musical instrument. Moog served as vice president for new product research for the Kurzweil Corporation, an American synthesizer manufacturer, between 1984 and 1988. He married twice; his marriage to his first wife, Shirleigh, produced five children but ended in divorce, and he met his second wife, Ileana, while both were professors at UNC Asheville.
Various factors led to a new appreciation of Moog's legacy over the last decade of his life. In 1994 he appeared in a successful documentary about his idol, Leon Theremin. Original Moog synthesizers became collector's items and commanded premium prices from musicians anxious to exploit a sound they perceived as warm compared with later digital synthesizers. "I understand exactly why that is so," Moog commented in an interview reproduced by Jeff Miers of the Buffalo News. "It is so because dirty, imprecise sound is more complex, and therefore more interesting to listen to." Between 2000 and 2002 Moog prevailed in a court battle to regain rights to the Moog name, which he had lost in the 1970s; by that time a new generation of musicians and bands, including Beck, Sonic Youth, and Widespread Panic, were Moog customers. A "Moogfest" staged in New York City paid tribute to his influence, but the following year he was diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumor. He died in Asheville on August 21, 2005.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 46, Gale, 2004.
Billboard, February 15, 1992.
Buffalo News, August 23, 2005; August 26, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 23, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), August 25, 2005.
Independent (London, England), August 24, 2005.
New York Times, September 29, 2004; August 23, 2005.
Remix, August 1, 2002.
U.S. News & World Report, March 3, 1997.
Variety, August 29, 2005.
Official Moog Music website, http://www.moogmusic.com (December 28, 2005).