The Desktop Muse
Robert Moog: A Tribute
No single individual can be credited for the invention of the synthesizer. It is difficult to even determine when the first synthesizer was invented. The term has been used since the 1920s, and at first there was little agreement as to what a synthesizer actually was. However, a single individual can be credited for popularizing the synthesizer: Robert Moog.
Before Moog, the synthesizer was a very different instrument. Based on what most would consider an “instrument,” it was hardly that at all. The 50s-era RCA Synthesizers, for example, were massive machines fed with punch cards that bore a greater resemblance to computers of the same era than to any instrument ever played by human hands. The voltage-controlled synthesizers of the early 1960s, in contrast, were more “hands-on,” with patch cords, knobs, and buttons, encouraging a more intuitive and experimental approach. But beyond producing sounds (some pitched, others not so much), they still had little in common with any traditional instrument.
Moog’s first synthesizer, the Moog 900 series, was in most ways similar to other voltage controlled systems. It was constructed modularly out of a large collection of individual components—oscillators, filters, amplifiers, envelope generators, sequencers, etc.—that were interconnected via patch cables (hence the term “patch” for a particular synth sound). One component, however, set it apart: a keyboard. With this one addition, Moog built the bridge between electronic and popular music. Later instruments, like the all-in-one Minimoog; the smaller, yet still highly patchable Moog System 35; and the Taurus bass pedal synthesizer, made Moog Music the first mass-market synth manufacturer.
The 1970s was the decade of analog synthesizers. By 1975, a whole market had developed with numerous competitors including ARP, Korg, Oberheim, Roland, and Sequential Circuits. While offering various designs, all were strongly influenced by Moog’s instruments. As the synth industry became more business than art, however, Moog left his own company and got out of synthesizers all together. He returned to his first love, the theremin (an electronic musical instrument), founding a new company called Big Briar in 1978.
Perhaps he got out at just the right time. The 1980s was the decade of the digital synthesizer, and analog synths declined in popularity. Digital synthesis had the advantage of precision and predictability. Program a DX-7, for example, and the sound will be exactly the same every time you recall it. Electricity just isn’t that stable. But a number of musicians found something lacking in digital sound, and stuck it out with their old analog synths.
Nostalgia in America seems to run on a twenty-year cycle. So perhaps it was inevitable that analog synthesis would experience a resurgence in the 1990s. Old instruments were now prized for their vintage sound, and manufacturers of soft synth (software based digital synthesizers) strove to recapture at least some aspects of the now classic analog sound. In the wake of analog’s resurgence, Moog returned to the mass market with a set of analog effects pedals (under the moogerfooger brand name) and partnered with Bomb Factory studios to develop a set of digital (yes, digital) plug-ins for Pro Tools. Moog even succeeded in buying back the Moog Music name (the original company went bankrupt in 1986 and liquidated in 1993) and in 2003 produced a new Minimoog called the Minimoog Voyager. That same year, Moog Music partnered with Arturia to produce software versions of the original Moog Modular system (Moog Modular V) and the Minimoog (Minimoog V).
Moog’s legacy is extensive. Go into a music store and play a synthesizer, any synthesizer. That keyboard is there thanks to Bob Moog. Open up GarageBand and select a synthesizer loop. Both the style and the sound of that loop comes courtesy of Bob Moog. Shop online for a software synth. Many are modeled on analog synths inspired by Bob Moog and even one (Native Instruments’ Reaktor) is fully modular, just like the Moog 900. Finally, consider some of the popular recording artists who have used Moog’s instruments:
- The Beatles (one of the first albums to feature a Moog was 1969’s Abbey Road)
- Black Eyed Peas
- Chick Corea
- The Cure
- John Delay (Dido)
- Depeche Mode
- Thomas Dolby
- Dream Theater
- Duran Duran
- Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
- Larry Fast (Peter Gabriel, Synergy)
- John Fogerty
- Herbie Hancock
- Nine Inch Nails
- No Doubt
- Pink Floyd
- Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Paul Shaffer (of Late Night with David Letterman)
- Skinny Puppy
- Tangerine Dream
- They Might Be Giants
- Stevie Wonder
Without a doubt. Moog’s influence on the synthesizer industry, and by extension the whole music industry, was enormous. And as a final and very fitting tribute, a proposal has been made to call the standard unit of expressing volts per octave the moog (abbreviated Mg). That way, Moog can join James Watt, Georg Ohm, Alessandro Volta, Andre-Marie Ampere, and Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in the electronics pantheon.
Note: In addition to his incredible gift for electronics and incredible influence on music, Moog also possessed one the most incredibly mispronounced names in popular culture. I give him the last word:
It rhymes with vogue. That is the usual German pronunciation. My father’s grandfather came from Marburg, Germany. I like the way that pronunciation sounds better than the way the cow’s ‘moo-g’ sounds.
—The Origins of the Synthesizer: An Interview with Dr. Robert Moog by Brian L. Knight, available at Vermont Review.
Also in This Series
- Robert Moog: A Tribute · September 2005
- Convergence · February 2005
- Getting More Out of Your GarageBand Loops · December 2004
- This Song Belongs to You and Me · September 2004
- Sitting in on the Jam · April 2004
- The World’s Biggest Jam Session · March 2004
- The New iMac: Where Does it Fit in? · December 2003
- A New Computer, a New Column, a New Life · November 2003
- Complete Archive