Moog, Robert Arthur

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Moog, Robert Arthur

(b. 23 May 1934 in New York City; d. 21 August 2005 in Asheville, North Carolina), celebrated inventor whose innovative music technology introduced the synthesizer to the popular consciousness.

Moog’s first contact with music and technology came through his parents. His mother, Shirley (Jacobs) Moog, was a piano teacher who gave lessons on the family grand piano in Queens. She required daily lessons of her son, but the many hours of practice persuaded Moog to seek alternatives with his father, George Moog, an electrical engineer for the utilities company Consolidated Edison. His father’s hobbies were woodworking and electronics, and he maintained a well-stocked cabinet shop and electronics workbench. The younger Moog perfected the skills of iron soldering, circuit design, and cabinetry and began to apply them to his musical inclinations.

While attending the Bronx High School of Science, Moog assembled organs, radios, and amplifiers, and he became fascinated by a kit version of a theremin, an early electronic instrument featuring hand-motion control of electronically generated sound. Moog endeavored to improve the theremin while pursuing a BS in physics at Queens College. By 1953 he had established his first music-technology company, RAMCO, renamed a year later as the R. A. Moog Co. He also published “The Theremin” in Radio and Television Review, his first professional publication. Moog graduated from Queens College in 1957 and was inducted into the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. Moog then enrolled in Columbia University, earning a second BS in 1957, in electrical engineering. There, he became acquainted with avant-garde electronic composers and designers like Vladimir Ussachevsky, Harald Bode, Raymond Scott, John Cage, and Bebe and Louis Barron. In 1958 Moog married Shirley May Leigh, a schoolteacher, who became Shirleigh Moog. The couple had four children.

By 1959 Moog’s design improvements to the theremin had proved so popular that he had sold more than one thousand kits at the relatively expensive price of $49.95. With his unexpected profits as a bankroll, Moog moved to Ithaca, New York, and enrolled at Cornell University as a PhD candidate in engineering physics, ultimately graduating in 1965. For the next eight years, Moog refined his ideas for electronic sound generation. In 1961 he published another article, “The Transistorized Theremin,” in Electronics World. The shift from tube circuitry to transistors enabled him to perfect modular design, as he established uniform control voltages among electronic clusters and replaced binary encoding and punch cards with circuit boards.

In 1963 Moog moved his design studio to Trumansburg, New York. He soon sought out the composer Herbert Deutsch, then at Cornell, for musical advice about his designs. When the two innovators traveled to Toronto University to introduce modular synthesis there, suspicious customs agents detained them at the border, imagining the strange electronic equipment in Moog’s van to be destined for militant Quebecois separatists. According to Deutsch, as cited in a 1981 article published by the New York State Museum, a French Canadian border guard recognized the equipment and redeemed the two suspects in remarking, “Oh, musique concrète; musique electronique... je comprende” (“Oh, concrete music, electronic music... I understand”).

In 1964 Moog encountered Walter Sear, another musical colleague, at a meeting of the New York State Music Teachers’ Association. Sear persuaded Moog to attend the next meeting of the Audio Engineering Society in New York City to exhibit his designs, and Moog’s synthesizers stirred considerable interest there, despite $10,000 price tags. For the next forty years, Moog would continue soliciting artistic consultation about his synthesizers, as he considered himself a maker of tools for musicians. That same year, Herbert Deutsch’s “Jazz in the Garden” series in New York City featured Hank Jones in the first public performances on a Moog modular synthesizer.

In 1965 Moog published a breakthrough article on synthesizer design in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, “Voltage-Controlled Electronic Music Modules.” Therein, he described his building of modular synthesizer components, including oscillators used to generate raw sounds, filters used to obtain the correct timbres, generators used to shape sounds, and amplifiers and filters used to emulate a conventional musician’s control using hands or breath. Of all these inventions, Moog would patent only the filters, leaving all his other designs in the public domain. This simple gesture perhaps ensured the vigorous commercial development of sound synthesis over the next few decades.

In 1965, on Sear’s recommendation, Moog invented a special controller strip for the theremin for the Beach Boys’ 1966 recording of “Good Vibrations.” That success helped launch the Moog “sound.” In 1967 Moog released models I, II, and III of his first series 900 modular synthesizers, and he met a young recording apprentice in New York City named Walter Carlos. In 1968 Moog’s sounds were indelibly imprinted on popular and classical ears by a Carlos album called Switched-On Bach, which was followed by The Well-Tempered Synthesizer. From these million-selling records, Moog’s reputation as a purveyor of high-quality electronic sound synthesis soared. The following year, George Harrison acquired a Moog synthesizer to play on the song “Because,” for the Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road, and hundreds of major popular artists followed suit.

In 1970 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) gave Moog the Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement in music technology. Moog soon began to produce the revolutionary Mini-moog, a portable and inexpensive synthesizer that provided easier operation while retaining modular flexibility. However, the Minimoog’s great success gradually sidelined Moog’s custom-made production philosophy. In an attempt to stabilize his company, Moog sold, bought, and resold it numerous times between 1971 and 1993.

Moog, in fact, left his own company in 1978, abandoning the right to attach his name to his designs. In 1981 his invention of modular synthesis was named one of the twelve most innovative inventions of the previous two hundred years by the Association of Science-Technology Centers, of Washington, D.C., joining the telephone, the heart valve, the ice cream cone, and the zipper, among others. By 1983 digital innovations by Japanese companies like Yamaha and Korg had overwhelmed Moog’s analog module design. Moog had also hesitated to adopt the standardized hexadecimal language that all synthesizers would soon use to communicate with each other and with computers.

Meanwhile, Moog had moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he started a new music technology company, Big Briar, in his basement. Big Briar prospered as a Moog synthesizer repair facility, allowing Moog to concentrate on analog sound controllers, dubbed Mooger Foogers, and software sound processing. He also introduced more innovations to his beloved theremins and accepted a research professorship in music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. During this time, he divorced his first wife and then married Ileana Grams, a professor of philosophy, in 1997.

By 2002 Moog had reacquired the right to use his name on his instruments. He accepted a second NARAS award, the Grammy Technology Award, and in 2004 gave a keynote address at the New Interfaces for Musical Expression conference in Hamamatsu, Japan. In April 2005 Moog was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and he died later that year. His remains are interred at the Lou Pollack Cemetary in Asheville. The Moog family established the Bob Moog Memorial Fund for the advancement of electronic music.

Moog’s innovative designs in synthesis enabled the complete incorporation of electronic sounds into music. He was a maverick inventor whose creations transformed all musical elements, from sound design to expressive nuance to production techniques. In Moog’s Los Angeles Times obituary, the engineering colleague Erik Gavriluk wrote, “The Moog synth transcended technology, ergonomics and pop culture.... It was a continuously new sound that shook the entire music industry several times, in every decade, in every genre.”

For both biographical and professional information, see the documentary film Moog (2004), directed by Hans Fjellestad; Ben Kettlewell, Electronic Music Pioneers (2001); and Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (2002). An obituary is in the Los Angeles Times (23 Aug. 2005).

James McElwaine