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How synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog brought electronic music to the masses

Opening on what would be his 85th birthday, the Moogseum commemorates the inventor who’s been a staple of pop music from the 1960s to today.

Visiting Asheville, North Carolina, in December, I walked past a sandwich board that read, “Synth you’re here, come on in.” It was a pop-up store selling T-shirts, mugs, and other memorabilia commemorating one of the town’s most famous citizens, electronic music pioneer Bob Moog.

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This month, celebrating what would be the inventor’s 85th birthday, that storefront reopens as the Moogseum. It celebrates not only Moog’s innovations, but also those of his contemporaries who created the synthesizers and other devices that transformed music beginning in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the latest project of the Bob Moog Foundation–the nonprofit archive and educational institution established in 2006 by his youngest daughter, Michelle Moog-Koussa. (It’s unaffiliated with Moog Music, the company her father founded.)

Bob Moog at work in the early 1990s. [Photo: courtesy Moog Music]

Moog, who died in 2005, did not invent the synthesizer. Instead, “he’s the one who made it mainstream,” says Mark Ballora, professor of music technology at Penn State University. He became a celebrity, and people used “Moog” (which rhymes with “vogue”) as a synonym for electronic music.

A classically trained pianist, Moog worked closely with a wide range of musicians to understand what they wanted out of a device for generating electronic music. His synthesizers found incredibly diverse applications–from Herb Deutsch’s avant-garde compositions to Bernie Worrell’s funkadelic jams to Wendy Carlos’s classical music blockbuster Switched on Bach. Moog also collaborated with other inventors–including digital music pioneer Max Mathews and even rival synth maker Alan Pearlman (who died in January).

With today’s software-defined digital media, it’s harder to appreciate the naked physics of early electronic music and the radical transformation that manipulating these forces enabled. “Nothing fazes the students now,” says Richard Boulanger, professor of electronic production and design at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a protégée of both Moog and Pearlman. “We’re transforming their voices and turning trash cans into drum kits, and we’re sounding like aliens just when we cough.”

But “when we first heard the sound of a Moog synthesizer in the late ’60s and early ’70s . . . it just blew your mind,” says Boulanger. “It was like the sound of the future.” Indeed it was: Today, Moog synthesizers are standard kit for many leading musicians, from Kanye to Lady Gaga.

The Minimoog Model D consolidated modular synthesizers into a compact instrument that remains popular today. [Photo: courtesy Bob Moog Foundation]

Moog for the masses

The Moogseum packs a lot into its 1,400 square feet, including iconic instruments like the Minimoog Model D and Minimoog Voyager synthesizers, an interactive timeline of synth technology from 1898 to today, and a replica of Moog’s workbench.

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Beyond celebrating the past, the Moogseum aims to teach future generations, including non-musicians. The central vehicle for this is the exhibit Tracing Electricity as It Becomes Sound–an interactive wraparound video projected inside an 8-foot-tall, 11-foot-wide half dome, created by Milwaukee-based media company Elumenati.

“What we’re trying to impart is that you are in the middle of the circuit board, observing what’s going on,” says Moog-Koussa. “There will be a custom knob controller, so that people can actually interact with representations of transistors, capacitors, and resistors,” she adds. “So that they can actually become part of the circuit.” (The foundation aspires to create online versions of exhibits in the coming year.)

This honors Moog’s visceral, even New-Agey, relationship with physics. “I can feel what’s going inside of a piece of electronic equipment,” the inventor said in the 2004 documentary Moog.

One of the vintage Moog theremins on display at the Moogseum. [Photo: courtesy Bob Moog Foundation]

He developed that feel when he started building and selling theremins, beginning at age 14 or 15 (Moog said both in different interviews). Invented by Léon Theremin in the 1920s and a staple of sci-fi classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, the instrument allows players to create eerie tones by moving their hands through electrical fields. Three Moog theremins are on display in the museum.

Moog-Koussa isn’t just trying to cater to people who are already familiar with her father’s work. “Our work in education and archives preservation, and now with the Moogseum, will extend way beyond people who play synthesizers,” she says. The foundation she leads has an ambitious plan to bring hands-on education to schools across the country. It’s finalizing the design for the ThereScope, a battery-powered device that combines a theremin, amplifier, and oscilloscope to visualize the electrical waveforms behind sounds.

A prototype of the ThereScope, an educational device for grade school students. [Photo: courtesy Bob Moog Foundation]
This would extend the foundation’s regional education program, Doctor Bob’s Sound School, which began in 2011. The 10-week curriculum now reaches about 3,000 second-graders a year in western North Carolina. “We have 13,000 young children who can read waveforms and explain to you the variances in pitch and volume,” says Moog-Koussa. “And that’s just one of our lessons, out of 10.”

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The Moogseum’s Learning Synthesis interactive exhibit. [Photo: courtesy Bob Moog Foundation]

The Stradivarius of electronics

Unlike the college-dropout entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Moog stayed in school–earning a PhD in physics from Cornell in 1965, while continuing his theremin business. In 1964, he built his first “portable electronic music composition system,” later dubbed a synthesizer. The device was capable of producing over 250,000 sounds.

It was not the first synthesizer–a point that Moog-Koussa herself emphasizes. But the high quality captivated musicians. That was despite its temperamental nature. Moog’s early voltage-controlled oscillators, which produce the raw electrical waveforms, were susceptible to current fluctuations from the electric grid and to temperature changes. As they warmed up, the synthesizers drifted out of tune.

A Moog modular synthesizer from the 1960s. [Photo: courtesy Bob Moog Foundation]

To solve the problem, Moog partnered with Pearlman, founder of rival company ARP Instruments. In exchange for Pearlman’s stable oscillator circuit, Moog offered his elegant ladder filter technology, which refines the oscillator output.

“If you start with a raw analog waveform . . . it’s a buzz, like your alarm system,” says Boulanger. “Are you ready to make love songs to the sound of your smoke detector?” He calls Moog’s oscillators and filters “the Stradivarius of electronic instruments.”

Moog’s first synthesizers were huge boxes of electronics stacked and wired together in a spaghetti tangle of patch cables. In 1970, he combined the functions of his modulars into a compact device called the Minimoog Model D, which featured a piano-style keyboard as the main interface. (Pearlman did the same with his iconic ARP 2500.)

The Minimoog eliminated patch cables but included a wide assortment of knobs and switches, plus Moog’s signature mod and pitch-bend wheels. It gave musicians huge latitude in crafting the sounds underlying those piano keys. It also featured a pitch controller, an electronically conductive metal strip that sensed static discharge from the players’ fingers, allowing pitch inflections like those of a stringed instrument. Invented in the 1930s, the technology is proof that touch interfaces long predate the smartphone era.

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The Model D controls “liberated” keyboard players, says Boulanger. “It allowed a keyboard player . . . to take a lead role and be so expressive with unique new sounds that reached through and spoke to an audience, like a singer could, like a guitarist could, like a cellist could.”

The Moog Music factory in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. [Photo: courtesy Moog Music]

Sustained sound

Moog synths are so central to the music of past-century icons like George Harrison, Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk, and Parliament-Funkadelic that it’s easy to dismiss them as the sound of the past. Documentaries and articles about the inventor tend to focus on those formative years in the ’60s and ’70s. Moog’s New-Agey sensibilities and lingo further reinforce the old hippy vibe.

But Moog continued innovating into the 21st century. His swan song, the Minimoog Voyager, was released in 2002, just three years before his death from brain cancer at age 71. It was an analog synthesizer, but equipped to interface with digital music equipment.

The synth sounds of Moog and his contemporaries have persisted though a variety of genres and artists. When I asked Moog Music–the company that Bob Moog founded, lost, and then reacquired in his final years–for examples of artists currently using its instruments, I got a list of over 30 acts. The diverse assortment includes Alicia Keys, Deadmau5, Flying Lotus, James Blake, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, LCD Soundsystem, Queens of the Stone Age, Sigur Ros, St. Vincent, and Trent Reznor.

Moog Music’s brand director Logan Kelly also called out up-and-comers, including trippy synth instrumentalist Lisa Bella Donna and the Prince-mentored, all-woman soul trio We Are King. (See the embedded playlist below for samples–or full versions if you’re a Spotify subscriber–from these and other artists.)

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And despite the digital tools at their disposal, Boulanger says that his students are also pulling analog devices into their compositions–even modular synthesizers, which are experiencing a revival in a somewhat-miniaturized style called Eurorack.

Moog Music continues to turn out new, hand-built synthesizers. “A lot of the circuitry that Bob designed, we still look to that for inspiration and use it in almost all of our instruments,” says Kelly. Its newest, a semi modular synthesizer called Matriarch, has just gone on sale. The company also puts out limited reissues of classic full-size modulars and synths like the Minimoog Model D.

A contemporary Moog Matriarch synthesizer, which revives patch cables. [Photo: courtesy Moog Music]
There are also mobile-app recreations of instruments including the Minimoog Model D (which sells for $15) and the modular Model 15 ($30). “It was a UI/UX challenge to capture the feeling and the fun of actually patching [cables for] this instrument on a mobile device,” says Kelly. Companies such as Arturia also make software emulations of Moog’s analog circuits, used as plug-ins for digital music composition. A 2012 Google Doodle even honored the 78th anniversary of Moog’s birth with a tiny online playable synthesizer.

And with many of Moog’s, Pearlman’s, and other inventors’ patents having expired, companies such as Behringer and Korg are turning out budget reproductions of classics. They’ve won praise from some musicians, such as Boulanger, for making the devices accessible to starving students, but derision from others who feel the companies are free-riding off the inventors’ legacies.

Behringer’s stripped-down reproduction of the Model D, for instance, sells for around $300 (without a keyboard), vs. $3,749 for Moog Music’s full re-issue (which is no longer in production). Kelly declined to speak on the record about Behringer’s and others’ third-party devices, but emphasized that Moog sells synthesizers in a wide price range, starting at $499.

Moog Music still hand-builds a limited number of classic models, including Moog’s giant modular synthesizers. [Photo: courtesy Moog Music]

Continuing education

We don’t know how Bob Moog would have felt about the knockoffs, but he did work hard to bring music technology to as many people as possible.

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“He would champion anyone and everyone,” says Boulanger, who describes himself as being “just some little guy” composing music when he met Moog in 1974. “He ended up writing articles about some of my music in Keyboard magazine [in the mid-1980s] and helped launch my career,” says Boulanger.

“When my father developed a brain tumor and was quite ill, we set up a page on CaringBridge for him,” says Michelle Moog-Koussa. “And from that we got thousands of testimonials from people all over the world about how Bob Moog had impacted and sometimes transformed people’s lives.”

But Moog’s five children were largely left out of that experience. “My father really held his career at arm’s length from our family,” says Moog-Koussa. She believes this comes from her father’s wariness of parents projecting desires onto their children.

“He had a very domineering mother who wanted him to be a concert pianist, and was quite heartbroken when he decided to pursue electronics,” she says. (Moog studied piano from age 4 to 18 and was on his way to a professional musical career when he pivoted to engineering.)

“We kind of knew the basics [of his work], but, at least half of those basics, we learned from external sources,” says Moog-Koussa. They also knew few of their father’s collaborators, aside from Switched-On Bach creator Wendy Carlos.

Since her father’s death, Moog-Koussa says she’s developed relationships with many of the legends her father worked with, such as composers Herb Deutsch and Gershon Kingsley and musicians Rick Wakeman, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and the late Keith Emerson.

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In a way, the foundation and Moog Museum seem as much an effort of Moog’s own family to discover their father as to educate the rest of the world.

“I don’t think we realized the widespread global impact and the depth of that impact,” she tells me. “And we thought, here’s the legacy that has inspired so many people from all over the world. That not only deserves to be carried forward, but it demands to be carried forward.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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