The Minimoog at 40 From the Dawn of the Synth Age to New Voyages
By Peter Kirn
Fri, 1 Oct 2010
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PlantiariumHot on the heels of the first moon landing, building on what had been a modestly successful business in electronic sound, a small team of engineers at the R.A. Moog company unwittingly set the course of the modern synthesizer. Forty years later, what came out of their workshop still defines essential ingredients of electronic instruments, in ways musicians have since taken for granted.

< Bob Moog performing on two Minimoogs at the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, in 1972.

 Web extras:

The story of inventions is an odd thing, in which each dial on the invention is a potential path into an alternate history. In this case, handsawed wood, half-broken parts, and reverse-engineered airplane controls combine with ingenious engineering personality to produce Moog’s first great hit. Of course, the story isn’t over. Moog Music’s resurrection of its founder’s name, with a successor to the original Minimoog, has proved a winning formula for a new generation of musicians. Led by the Voyager line, the Minimoog may be bigger than ever before.

 


The Birth of the Minimoog

The Minimoog really was the first recognizably modern synth. In 1969, the word “synthesizer”—whether Moog or any other maker—meant complex, expensive, heavy, large, and fragile modules and patch cords. The need for something new was clear. It was certainly apparent to Bill Hemsath, the member of the Minimoog team who constructed the original prototype with Bob Moog.

“One of my jobs was to demonstrate products to potential customers,” says Hemsath. “We had a Model III—a large studio synthesizer with dozens of modules. Every time, I’d plug the oscillator into the filter and the filter into the VCA—probably six patch cords, total. It occurred to me after a month or two of this, what if I built a box that way?”

With the need to replace the Moog modular racks with something portable, Robert Moog hired outside consultants to do drawings of what the case might look like. The resulting concepts were fitting for the Space Age. “They look like spaceships with curved backs—silly, but lovely,” Hemsath recalls. “I think they did a dozen of those futuristic things. Down in the corner was this little, square wooden box with a flip-up lid.”

As Bob Moog once recounted in Keyboard, a quick poll of musician friends revealed that they preferred the “natural wood and simple lines.” Hemsath remembers a more practical reason: “Everybody said, ‘I can make that. I can build that.’ So we threw out all the curved stuff, and Bob and I came in the next Saturday morning to the woodshop and just started sawing until we had that.”

Moog06< Bob Moog in his workshop, from our May 2003 feature on the making of the Minimoog Voyager.

The future of the synth may have been determined by just which junked and cannibalized parts lay in storage. “There was a five-octave keyboard that [Bob] would steal key caps off of to replace chipped and broken ones,” Hemsath remembers. “Then there was an upper console case—it was four feet long but the end was broken out. So I got to work on the keyboard. The number of remaining keycaps determined its size, which turned out to be three octaves. So I hacksawed that down. There was a smashed keyboard case, and I cut it down to match. Originally, [Bob] had the portamento control on the left cheek. That was missing, so there was a little notch in the left cheek. And I needed something there. Well, how about a slider? That’d fit. So the forerunner of the wheel was that slide pot, just to fill that space.”

The result was the shell of what would become the Model A, the firstMinimoog prototype. Hemsath bolted together modules from spare and rejected parts. “I’d sit down at my desk and take an apple out of one drawer and a module out of the other,” he says. By his count, just one model 901A oscillator was fresh stock; everything else was salvaged from Moog’s junk bin.

Even this Frankenstein-like model was already taking the shape the Moog team wanted. It was the synthesizer as discrete object—something Bob Moog had built years before, with his suitcase synth kit, but now with some of the sophistication of the modulars. “You could carry this thing around,” beams Hemsath, even today. “It was a complete synthesizer in one hand.”

With Bob Moog, Jim Scott, and Chad Hunt, the design was refined over four models, culminating in the Model D manufactured for the public. Each model introduced new innovations (see “Thank a Minimoog”). The great achievement of all of this is the lasting power of the Model D design. Introduced in 1970, it was still made in 1980, and remains highly sought-after today—not only because of the vintage-cool factor, but because it’s still useful, a Stradivarius for the 20th century. Hemsath takes pride in the fact that it didn’t change. “Ninety-five percent of the stuff in there [in 1980] was what we designed in 1970. Something that would remain in production for ten whole years—that, intellectually, is what I like more than the sheer numbers sold—the fact that we did a good job the first time out.”

In the summer of 1970, the Model D was ready for manufacturing and introduced to the world. Dick Hyman, the legendary jazz pianist and composer, presented its debut at a public performance at the Eastman School of Music.

A Crossover Hit

Bob1974< Bob Moog in his office, 1974.

The Moog company wasn’t aiming especially high in sales. According to Hemsath, Bob Moog expected to sell a lifetime total of 200. When the last Mini rolled off the assembly line in 1981, the company had sold well over 12,000—a success unheard-of in the modular era.

That doesn’t mean the reception was immediately enthusiastic. In June, 1971, R.A. Moog ehxibited the Minimoog at the NAMM Show. “We did not experience a warm reception,” said Bob Moog. “Most of the dealers didn’t know what to make of an instrument with words like ‘oscillator bank’ and ‘filter’ on the front panel. Retailers would pass our booth and ask questions such as ‘What’s that?’ and . . . ‘You expect me to sell that in my store?’” Moog conceded that part of what was lacking was “convincing musicianship” to demonstrate the creation—that perennial challenge for new music technology.

As with the Moog modular and Wendy Carlos, the ambassadors of the Minimoog again proved to be musicians. In Bob Moog’s eyes, they “showed us all what the instrument was capable of. Keith Emerson nailed its analog sound into the vocabulary of rock, first on his modular behemoth and then on his Mini. Then came Jan Hammer, who developed incredible chops with the left-hand wheels. The playing styles developed by both Emerson and Hammer, along with Chick Corea, Rick Wakeman, and many others transformed people’s ideas of the Minimoog from something akin to a box full of knobs to an expressive musician’s axe.”

An Imperfect Classic

The Minimoog’s endurance doesn’t mean it was perfect. Hemsath regrets not including velocity sensitivity: “There were three contacts on each key. One was for pitch, but the trigger had both a front and a back contact. We never used the back contact. If we had, we could’ve done velocity sensing.”

One flaw is also part of what makes the Minimoog beloved. “Jim Scott did the filter and the voltage- controlled amplifiers,” recounts Hemsath. “He made a calculation error, and he overdrove the filters by ten or 15 dB, something like that. If you look at, say, an ARP synth, it was crisp and clean, and it was beautiful and sounded like water. Our instrument had punch to it, because we inadvertently overdrove the filter like crazy. Nobody knew that until a month or two before we started production, and then everyone said to leave it alone.”

The rest of the Minimoog’s appeal lies somewhere between the mathematical and the ineffable. Hemsath notes the commitment to discrete transistors in favor of integrated circuits—the latter, while perfectly usable now, were “terrible” in 1970. Bob Moog credited the Minimoog’s success to the sum of many design decisions: “The warm, low-order distortion introduced by the VCF and the VCAs, the rapid attack times of which the [envleopes] are capable, the small amounts of noise in the oscillators that keep them from locking together at very small frequency differences, and the frequency response as a whole. I also believe that musicians like the Minimoog because its controls have a comfortable feel.” But he also ascribed something beyond engineering: “Our own intuition and discretion were our most important tools. In this respect, we performed like artists rather than engineers.”

VoyagerXL_STRAIGHT< THE NEW VOYAGER XL
Wondering what that stretch-limo Moog on our cover is? The Minimoog Voyager XL restores a full keybed for the first time since Bill Hemsath hacked off the spare one to build the Model A. With 61 keys and a ribbon controller, it’s bigger than any Voyager before. It also brings back patching, but in a friendly, integrated patch panel that keeps the cords out of your way. “The extensive patchability harkens back to Moog Modular synths,” says Marketing Director Chris Stack. “A four-channel CV mixer, two-channel attenuator, lag processor, and MIDIsynced LFO make this a dream machine.”

The Return of Moog

The irony of the Minimoog’s triumph is that not long after its introduction, a chain of events set into motion the business transformation that would eventually cause Bob Moog to lose access to his own name. Dr. Moog himself left in 1977, the company he left behind failed to keep pace with competitors, and quality suffered. The Norlin-owned Moog Music shuttered in 1986, leaving Bob Moog with his own Big Briar company, which returned to the smallscale electronics and Theremin that had first inspired his love of synths.

The story might have ended there. Instead, the second coming of Moog has proven a turning point in the saga of the music technology business. In 2000, Bob Moog announced that he would make a new Minimoog. In 2002, he reclaimed the trademark not only for Moog Music, but for “Minimoog.” With a new team in place, the father of the modern synth chose to tackle the unthinkable: Make a successor to the best-known synth of all time that would not only replicate, but best the original.

Demand for what would come to be the Minimoog Voyager was immediately astonishing. “When Bob announced he would introduce a successor to the Minimoog, there was a huge response.” recalls Mike Adams, president of Moog Music. “We literally had millions of dollars in preorders for this undeveloped instrument.”

The Voyager itself, now eight years on the market, has already proven its staying power. Guided by Bob Moog, the design combined the distinctive Minimoog sound and voltage control with new enhancements that reimagine the instrument for the 21st century. Unlike virtual analog synths, the Voyager boasts all-analog audio paths and, more importantly, control voltage. In fact, its modulation routings are significantly more flexibile than the original. It also adds features that 1970 buyers couldn’t have imagined, like a touchpad controller, MIDI, and preset storage.

Moog Marketing Director Chris Stack emphasizes that the return to control voltage, alongside other ways of “touching” sound on a modern Voyager, is part of the appeal. “The design and topology of Moog gear plugs musicians into the fundamental building blocks of sound in unique and musical ways,” says Stack. “Whether it’s controlling the Voyager’s analog oscillators through its touch surface or bending the strings of the Moog Guitar, players are in direct contact with the source of their sound. This results in some of the most expressive music ever made.”

For a perhaps surprising illustration, look no further than the success of the limited-run Voyager Old School reviewed in Keyboard in October 2008. While based on the Voyager, the Old School returned to a Model D-style case, dropped the touch controller and, controversially, eliminated presets and MIDI, turning the clock back to 1970. Signs at the 2008 Winter NAMM Show read “Are You Old School?” (On the website createdigitalmusic.com, an anonymous Moog employee reported that the original suggestion was, “Got Balls?”)

Some worried that the Old School would have limited appeal, but it was a huge hit. “After its introduction, we were amazed by the music that was being produced with it,” says Chris Stack. You can partly thank what’s happened outside the Moog case: “Software such as Ableton Live lets musicians record Old School notes, riffs, sound effects and more and arrange and process them in ways that was difficult or impossible back in the heyday of the Model D,” Stack notes.

The Voyager continues its forward march. The Moog DNA is found in the Voyager, in the wildly successful Little Phatty, in the Moogerfooger effects, and now in the Taurus 3 (reviwed on page 60). Most significantly, this year the Voyager gets its biggest upgrade—literally.

Generation Moog

None of this success would have happened had a new generation not embraced Moog with open arms. “Inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk, Devo, Yes, ELP, Wendy Carlos, Bennie Worrell, and Giorgio Moroder, new, younger artists have rediscovered synth-laden sounds,” says Moog’s Emmy Parker. MoogFest started out as as a small nightclub event in New York City. Now in Moog’s home of Asheville, North Carolina, it has become a mecca, this year having grown into a threeday, multi-venue music festival offering a lineup from MGMT to Devo to Massive Attack. The programming strays far enough from traditional synth territory that public radio personality and Echoes host John Dilberto accused MoogFest of being “just another hipster alt-rock festival.” In Keyboard’s opinion, Moog Music and the Bob Moog Foundation should take that as a compliment about their rising profile in our comparatively synth-averse pop culture.

In fact, the name “Moog” inspires the kind of grassroots loyalty that automobile and soft drink makers spend billions trying to drum up. Without the slightest urging, Moog fans famous and unknown express their affection. “In just the last few weeks we’ve seen it show up in photos from Trent Reznor’s studio and onstage in Björk’s new live DVD,” says Stack. “Just as gratifying are the huge number of YouTube videos we see of Voyager users in their home studios, pushing the sonic boundaries in ways we haven’t imagined.”

Perhaps that’s the ultimate achievement of the Minimoog. Without it, Bob Moog would certainly still be remembered for his pioneering work in electronic sound. But with it, some 40 years later, the second most popular word for “synth” after “synth” is “Moog.”

THANK A MINIMOOG: DESIGN BREAKTHROUGHS

[Special thanks to Dave Kean and the Audities Foundation for these pictures of rare Moog protoypes. Visit them at audities.org. —Ed.]

Mini-A-FrontModel A: simplified controls. Bill Hemsath’s “demo patch” was the basis of a musician-friendly, ready-to-play instrument. Said Bob Moog in Keyboard, “You couldn’t do much with it, but you could create some basic analog sounds, and—more importantly—you could play the instrument in real time. Remember, this was a long time before synthesizers had presets. The Model A had few controls, so a musician could remember how everything was set without having to stop and study a front panel jungle. For that reason, every musician who tried the Model A liked it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mini-B-FrontModel B: no more patch cords. Hemsath recalls just how tedious re-patching instruments could be. Case in point: composer Dave Borden and his trio in Ithaca, New York. “They showed Mickey Mouse cartoons while the musicians were patching,” says Hemsath. “At the end of the cartoon, they’d play the next number. Some of the people came for the cartoons.” Not so with the Minimoog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mini-C-FrontModel C: pitch and modulation wheels. The now-famous wheels began a long evolution that started with a joystick. The company needed to work through a list of dozens of promises Bob Moog had made, literally phoning those people to confirm they wanted this or that feature. Hemsath got the joystick.

“I started out with a model airplane joystick,” he says. In order to correct nasty slop and backlash, he stripped it to three moving parts, two pots and a stick, which later became a module on the Moog price list. “I couldn’t use the joystick for [the Minimoog] because it’s got this one-inch square hole. Cigarette ashes, flies—anything could get in there. It ocurred to me to split the X and Y axes apart. I think originally I had two ‘ciagrette’ levers: one for modulation, one for pitch.” Machinist Don Pakkala turned those levers into wheels, adding a center detent for pitch.

 

 

 

 

 

Mini-D-Prototype-SideModel D prototype: Temperature-stable oscillators. Oscillator drift was still a reality on the Minimoog, but in an essential step for portable instruments, it was the first Moog with proper temperature resistance. “Somebody brought one in from Binghamton in the middle of winter,” says Hemsath. “It was, like, zero degrees out, and this had been in his trunk all night long. He brought it in, plunked it on the bench. We turned it on, and it was in tune. Yes! We succeeded.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

model-D-RAA retail-friendly synthesizer. Complex and fragile modulars downright scared music resellers, but the Minimoog was different. It took a salesperson to realize its potential. As Bob Moog once told Keyboard, “Starting in central Florida, David Van Koevering introduced the Minimoog to instrument retailers on their own turf, wielding his unrestrained enthusiasm to close sales. If it weren’t for Van Koevering, the rest of us might have concluded that Minimoogs were unsalable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VOYAGER TIMELINE

Signature2002
Signature Edition

The first Voyager added extensive modulation, touch control, MIDI, and preset storage to make a better Minimoog than the Minimoog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Performer2003
Performer Edition

Looked similar to Signature Edition, but increased memory to 7 banks of 128 presets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

50th_Edition2004
50th Anniversary Edition

Limited run commemorating 50 years since the original R.A. Moog company started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ElectricBlueProfile2005
Electric Blue

Added custom-color trim and blue backlighting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VoyagerRackmountl2005
Rack Mount Edition

Voyager sound and knobs in a compact rack format.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Select_WalnutJade2006
Voyager Select Series

Offered a choice of six different backlight colors and seven wooden cabinets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OldSchool12008
Voyager Old School

Recalling the Model D, this retro Voyager skipped MIDI and preset storage to go allanalog. Even the knob positions weren't scanned digitally—it was pure voltage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xl_oblique_rt2010
Voyager XL

Eight years after the original and 40 years after the Model D, the XL adds 61 keys, ribbon control, a MIDI-synced LFO, and onboard modular patch panel.

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