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Robert Moog

Electronic Music Pioneer Whose Moog Synthesizer Influenced the Sound of Pop

Published in The Independent (London), 24 August 2005


Robert A. Moog influenced the sound of popular and film music in the 1960s and 1970s
by inventing and marketing the eponymous Moog synthesizer, a modern, transistor-based
instrument that was suitable for performance. Wendy (once Walter) Carlos, Stevie
Wonder, Emerson, Lake and Palmer performed on and composed for Moogs, and Moog
instruments crossed musical genres to become an integral sound in jazz, progressive rock,
hard funk, as well as in university and commercial studios.
Moog began working with the most famous electronic performance instrument of
the first half of the twentieth century, the theremin. Moog marketed valve theremin kits
by mail order in Radio and Television News in 1954. He remained loyal to this
monophonic instrument, moving to transistorised theremins in 1961, and producing an
album of music (The Art of the Theremin, 2001) by and an interview with the theremin’s
greatest performer, Clara Rockmore, decades after her fame in the 1930s.
Moog was working on a doctorate in engineering physics at Cornell University
when he met the composer Herbert A. Deutsch (who was to write the first piece for a
Moog synthesizer) at a music education conference in Rochester, New York in 1963,
where they first discussed the design of a small, affordable synthesizer. In 1964 Moog
gave a paper called ‘Voltage-Controlled Electronic Music Modules’ in which he outlined
a system for electronic music for ‘live (“real time”) performance’, using the voltage-
controlled oscillator, which allowed far greater versatility in pitch control than previous
oscillators. Vladimir Ussachevsky, director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music
Center, advised Moog to avoid using a keyboard to change pitches on his new instrument,
as there is a temptation with keyboard control to play the synthesizer as a funny-sounding
piano. Deutsch said in 2003, ‘I told Bob, "I think a keyboard is a good idea. After all,
having a piano did not stop Schoenberg from developing twelve-tone music and putting a
keyboard on the synthesizer would certainly make it a more saleable product!"’
At the same time, in California, Donald Buchla was working with Morton Subotnik
and Ramon Sender at the San Francisco Tape Center to develop his own eponymous
synthesizer. Buchla and Moog synthesizers together epitomised the acme of electronic
musical instruments in the 1960s; either a Buchla or a Moog (or both) were de rigueur in
university studios. Early Buchla synthesizers had touch-sensitive keypads, but they were
arranged in a horizontal pattern not unlike a piano keyboard, and were custom-built for
electronic studios.
Moog originally built each synthesizer in association with and to the specifications
of each client. At first, these clients were usually art-music composers: as Moog finished
his doctorate in 1965, he was working on a system for John Cage. However, Moog’s
association with Wendy Carlos, a student of Ussachevsky’s at Columbia-Princeton and
then a recording studio engineer, brought both improvements for practical performance
and the idea for an album of Bach pieces arranged for synthesizer. Switched-On Bach
was launched by CBS in 1968 in a marijuana-charged press party; it became a million-
selling album and established the Moog as the must-have studio synthesizer for pop hits.
As Moog himself later remembered in Vintage Synthesizers, ‘A few of [these albums] still
stand up. 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’. Of the recordings
which have stood up, the Moog defined the electronic heart of much progressive and art
rock, in part helped by the development of the more portable Minimoog in 1970: music
by Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It also made its
way in film, partially supplanting the theremin’s role in eerie sound effects in films such
as A Clockwork Orange. Moogs also powered the interplanetary jazz of Sun Ra, the soul
of Stevie Wonder and the funk of Parliament/Funkadelic.
By 1971, R. A. Moog Inc.’s lack of a sound business infrastructure and competition
from other firms such as ARP forced Robert Moog to sell the company and its name to
the entrepreneur Bill Waytena in exchange for the relief of debts of over $250,000.
Waytena sold R. A. Moog (by this time Moog Music) to Norlin Music. Moog was not
happy and left in 1977 as soon as he could do so contractually. Moog Music continued
until 1986, but was dealt a deathblow with the introduction in the late 1970s and early
1980s of Japanese digital keyboard synthesizers that were completely polyphonic, more
versatile, and much less expensive.
Robert Moog moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 1977 and formed Big Briar, a
small company devoted to custom design of electronic instruments. He served as
consultant to other companies such as Synton and Kurzweil Music Systems, and taught
music technology at the University of North Carolina at Asheville from 1989 to 1992.
Moog focused once again on theremins in the 1990s, developing the Etherwave version
and, in 1998, a MIDI (digital) theremin.
In 2002, Moog regained the right to use the Moog Music and Minimoog trademarks
(although for a few more years he was unable to do so in Britain, as a Welsh entrepreneur
had copyrighted them first). In 2003, Moog Music released the Moog PianoBar, by
Moog’s counterpart Donald Buchla, who had been designing analogue and digital
synthesizers throughout the intervening years. The PianoBar fits onto an ordinary piano
keyboard and converts its actions into digital sounds. In a video on Moog Music’s web
site, the PianoBar is introduced with a synthesized performance of Bach, harking back to
the question of keyboards in synthesizers in the 1960s and directly to Switched-On Bach.
Virginia Anderson
Robert A. Moog, synthesizer inventor: born, New York City, May 23, 1934; died
Asheville, North Carolina, August 21, 2005