Robert Moog

Electronic music pioneer whose Moog synthesizer influenced the sound of pop

Robert Moog influenced the sound of popular and film music in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, by inventing and marketing the Moog synthesizer, a modern, transistor-based instrument that was suitable for performance. Wendy (once Walter) Carlos, Stevie Wonder and 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 and hard funk, as well as in university and commercial studios.

Moog began his work in his teens with the most famous electronic performance instrument of the first half of the 20th century, the theremin, and by 1954, when he was 20, was marketing valve theremin kits by mail order in Radio and Television News. He remained loyal to this monophonic instrument, moving to transistorised theremins in 1961, and much later producing The Art of the Theremin (2001), an album of music by 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. The following year, 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, had 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 12-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 Walter 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 remembered later 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: for instance, in 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 (1971). 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, devoted to the 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. He focused once again on theremins in the 1990s, developing the Etherwave version and, in 1998, a MIDI (digital) theremin.

In 2002, he 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). The following year, 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 website, the PianoBar is introduced with a synthesized performance of Bach, harking back to the 1960s and to Switched-On Bach.

Virginia Anderson

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