Original Creators: Robert Moog
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Robert Moog.
Today we take for granted the myriad electronic sounds we hear in music. Synthetic drums have always been a staple in one form or another, and synthetic instruments have gone from mimicry of the real to embracing the limitless possibilites in the synthetic sonic range. Truly, any sound is possible, and electronic instruments have allowed them to be created. The range of sounds that musicians utilize as tools today were once the pipe dreams of a kid who became obsessed with a synthetic instrument called the Theremin.
A Moog Theremin
In 1953, Robert Moog, a New York City native who had recently graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, began dabbling with an instrument that had gone out of style a decade earlier. The Theremin was a very basic instrument that allowed control of a sine wave based on two parameters, volume and pitch, using proximity of the user’s hands to two metal extremities. Moog became interested in the construction of the Theremin, wrote articles about the instrument, and soon established a company that sold them in kits to be built by the user. These early experiences in sound synthesis sparked Moog’s interest in the subject, and the understanding he gained of sound creation was the first step in the breakthroughs yet to come.
With this interest in mind, Moog continued his education. After getting a bachelor’s degree from Queens College, he got another in electrical engineering from Columbia University and went on to get his PhD in engineering physics from Cornell University. Up until the time he got his doctorate, the only available synthesizers had been RCA’s massive contraptions that filled rooms and required an understanding of binary in order to be operated. Moog closed the gap with the first range of his namesake portable synthesizers, which he developed with composer Herbert Deutsch.
Moog Modular 55
The revolutionary aspects of this new type of synth were in its controls, allowing the user to manipulate parameters of sound with relative ease. They also allowed control of new types of envelopes also developed by Moog such as Attack, Sustain, Decay, and Release (ADSR). The Moog 900 series also featured devices outfitted with keyboard controllers, allowing ubiquity of their control. These modifications augmenting the ease of using the Moog as a studio instrument began to draw the first signs of attention of the music industry. These were the first inklings of interest that would culminate at one of the era’s monumental events.
At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Jimi Hendrix broke into the US market, Otis Redding was introduced to a white audience for the first time, and Janis Joplin performed her first large-scale show. At the same festival, musicians Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause set up a booth to demonstrate a Moog synthesizer. This demonstration garnered the interest of bands like The Doors, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, and Simon & Garfunkel, catapulting the electronic synth into serious use by musicians.
Beaver and Krause
Until this point, the Moog had primarily been used by artists like Jean-Jacques Perrey, considered an experimental musician dabbling in new technology. After the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, mainstream artists began seeing the value in Moog synths. Stevie Wonder famously used a Moog to play the synth bass line in “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” Such recordings, which combined traditional instrumentation and songwriting with sound synthesis, familiarized audiences with the sound of electronic music, arguably paving the route for wide use of electronic sound in all genres of music in the decades that followed.
In the early 70s, Moog’s company (now known as Moog Music) began selling the Minimoog. This edition of the Moog synthesizer was built with pop and rock composition in mind, trading out modules connected via patch cords for a more basic layout with simpler controls, and donning a big fat sound achieved through three oscillators, a trait which keeps the machine in demand today.
Robert Moog continued his pioneering work for decades, developing instruments and effects with Kurzweil, Big Briar, and Bomb Factory, while simultaneously pushing new developments at Moog Music. He remained active until he succumbed to a brain tumor in 2005. Moog’s legacy remains a powerful force in electronic music to this day, and the still-burgeoning movement of electronic music that relies on hardware built under his paradigm of accessibility and usability reveres his inventions as the foundation for the craft.
Without Robert Moog, we may still have had synthesizers, but they would have taken far longer to reach the hands of the average consumer, and they wouldn’t have sounded nearly as good.