Without Bob Moog, it's possible that neither Stevie Wonder nor the Beatles, nor Nine Inch Nails nor Radiohead — nor hundreds of other artists — could have generated the sounds that for many of them have defined their music.
"I had a passion to hold a soldering iron," said Moog in an arching New York accent that had stuck with him despite his move to Asheville, North Carolina, where he runs his company, Big Briar Music. Then 65, he had thick, wavy, silver hair, wore square, silver-framed glasses, and stepped gracefully and energetically from theremin to Minimoog to stereo. "And anything that made a sound I was immediately interested in." Except the piano. Ironically, Moog was a gifted player, but hated to perform. "My mother gave me piano lessons like you would give someone an enema."
He started tinkering with electronics in his father's basement at 15, and eventually graduated from Cornell University (saddled by back orders for the Moog, he barely finished his doctoral thesis on time), where many of his fellow inventors experimented with cumbersome, room-sized technology to create new dimensions in sound. "There were a lot of crazy creative ideas," he recalled. "There was an incredible range of things people created — ideas that came from who knows where."
This confluence of culture, technology, and what Moog called "shared intuition" is examined in a new book, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco.
Moog was not the only innovator to break the sound barrier — his West Coast counterpart, Don Buchla, was experimenting with his version of the synthesizer at the same time — but Moog was the most successful, in part because he allowed culture to shape his invention, and in turn, it molded the culture.
Before Moog, his crew of engineers, and assemblers began manufacturing his bulky synthesizers in a humble, Trumansburg, New York factory in 1964, experimental music was the province of academics and avant-garde composers such as Karl Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage. But when Moog hauled his invention to university music studios and engineering conventions, the orders started coming in: Choreographers, musicians, and other audiophiles wanted this cosmic machine that went "wooo-wooo-ah-woo-woo."
The electronic wizardry behind the Moog synthesizer's sound (to the delight of gearheads, Pinch and Trocco describe the synergy between voltage regulators and oscillators in detail; the less technologically inclined can skip that section) was not the only important key to the instrument's success.
Moog used a keyboard, which Buchla, who was experimenting in San Francisco, had forsaken. Electronic purists resented the synthesizer's attachment to the piano; the Buchla Box forsook keys for touch pads. Buchla failed to reach the mass market — and there are doubts whether that was his goal, partially because he had been so hostile to the keyboard.
But musicians wanted a familiar framework, as Moog learned when he invited them to his workshop, located in the factory, to learn how to use the synthesizer. Many times, Moog's ambassadors, who played key roles in the synthesizer's dissemination, also visited the musicians with the instruments in tow: During the '60s, Mick Jagger (who used it in the film, Performance), George Harrison ("Here Comes the Sun"), and Sun Ra (who came to Trumansburg in '40s Cadillac limousines and flowing robes), among others, learned their way around the Moog — not an easy task, considering that without preset buttons the sounds were hard to replicate, nor did a vocabulary exist to even name them. When Doors' keyboardist Ray Manzarek first heard the Moog, he reportedly said, "What an experience of electronic mayhem. Into the infinite!"
Yet, Walter — later Wendy — Carlos was responsible for introducing the Moog to the masses. He worked closely with Moog to perfect the instrument's sound and design. Then, in a stroke of genius, Carlos melded 250-year-old baroque music with a 5-year-old electronic instrument, and released Switched On Bach in 1968. In March 1969, the quirky record zoomed up the Billboard album charts, peaking at No. 10, and staying in the Top 40 for 17 weeks. This marriage of high and low culture upset some classical music purists, and other innovators who thought the synth's purpose was to create new sounds, not to play existing notes — but Moog had no issues with Carlos' album. "If you have anything new, people will get upset. Bach himself was always trying new instrumentation. He would have been tickled."
That year proved pivotal, not only for Carlos' gold-selling record, but also because drugs, it was discovered, went perfectly with spaced-out synth music. The Moog and the Buchla Box became an integral part of the acid trip. At Woodstock: "A lone synthesizer is on stage with two oscillators beating almost in unison. The sound sweeping over the half million gathered there. Those sustained, powerful sounds had never been heard before. It was overwhelming ...."
And at the Monterey Pop Festival, Moog envoys Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause sold a half-dozen synths in one afternoon — at $15,000 apiece.
The Moog had its detractors: Union musicians were worried about being replaced by machines (many of them were ) and the success of Switched On Bach spawned a school of kitschy spin-offs, most forgettably Switched On Santa, Nashville Country Moog, and Moog España. "People who were making these records didn't understand the medium," Moog said. "They were just dropping synth sounds into conventional music."
Despite its growing commercial success, the Moog had problems: It was hard to keep in tune, cumbersome, and couldn't be taken on the road. Musicians wanted something more portable and reliable: Thus, while Moog was traveling to trade shows, his engineers Bill Hemsath and Jim Scott designed the Minimoog in 1971.
Performers loved it, although the Minimoog didn't have the sonic range of its studio relative. And in music stores throughout the country, young kids bought the Minimoog because of a former evangelist David van Koevering, whom Moog had enlisted to sell the new product.
Like a traveling medicine show, Van Koevering moved thousands of Minimoogs by using innovative marketing techniques. In Florida, he hooked up with Taco Bell, handing out free coupons to the restaurant, and then showing up later in the evening to play to diners. He promoted the "Island of Electronicus," an artificial land mass connected by a causeway to the Florida coast, where a Moog concert was scheduled. The radio ads announced, "Where is the Moog synthesizer? It's here now ... to stimulate your feelings, thought, and your love for your fellow man."
Although the Minimoog became a huge success, it came too late for Moog. He had to sell the company in 1971 to Bill Waytena, who assumed Moog's $250,000 debt and moved the company near Buffalo. Moog later regained the rights to the name — which, like Xerox is to photocopiers is synonymous with synthesizers.
After Moog sold the company, competition from other synth manufacturers such as ARP cut into the Moog's market share; when the digital age of the 1980s arrived musicians became enamored with Yamaha and Roland, and for about 15 years forgot about the Moog.
The problem with digital sound — and many of those who remember vinyl albums can attest to this — is that despite its clarity, it lacks the warmth that resonates through analog instruments. Digital instrument sterility and rigid preset sounds have prompted an analog revival (or a digital backlash), and many new artists are falling in love with the Moog for the first time.
The French synth group Air, Orb, as well as dozens of electronic and dance artists are embracing the Moog for the same reason as their '70s counterparts Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream: its bubbly, broad, round sound.
Bob Moog, his crew of engineers, and the innovative musicians are responsible for shaping not just sawtooth waveforms, but for expanding the spectrum that the human ear can hear. "Every age uses the newest technology of its time to design musical instruments," Moog said, back in Lyons. " I participated in a revolution and for that I'm grateful. But I don't think I made the difference, because other people did it, too."