Bob Moog: From Theremin to Synthesizer

May 2, 2016

This Bob Moog feature by former Keyboard Editor-in-Chief Dominic Milano comes to you from the September/October 1975 issue. 


The synthesizer, an instrument that creates and shapes sounds electronically, is fast becoming one of the most popular instruments among keyboard players in all fields of music. It grew out of a technological era which began with the development of such instruments as Hammond’s electro-mechanical organ, the first all-electronic organ (designed by Winston Kock for Baldwin), Wurlitzer’s reed organ with electrostatic pickups, Conn’s massive vacuum-tube oscillator system, and the Ondes Martenot (an instrument that utilized a keyboard and a ring triggered continuous pitch-band). So it’s only natural that the instrument, with its infinite timbral capabilities, has achieved such a large degree of acceptance. Despite its sophistication, however, the synthesizer is still in its childhood. It wasn’t until 1963 that Bob Moog (rhymes with rogue) began work on what was to become the prototype for the first complete modular instrument capable of extensive sound synthesis. Since that date, Moog, as the founding name in synthesizers, has become a household word among musicians.

Bob Moog was born on May 23, 1934 in New York City. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, and later received a B.S. in physics from Queens College and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Columbia under a “combined plan.” He then went to obtain a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell. His education, however, was not limited to electronics alone. Bob was introduced to music at a very early age. “My first lessons were with a neighborhood teacher,” he recalls. “Later, I went to the Manhattan School of Music until I was fourteen. I received ear training and sight singing lessons. Music theory, but I have no college-level music training.

“I was interested in electronic musical instruments for as long as I can remember,” states Bob. When he was just beginning high school, he built a Theremin from some specifications he found in a magazine article. (Ed. Note: The Theremin is a device which consists of an oscillator generating single tones whose frequency can be varied by moving one hand closer to or farther away from a metal rod; amplitude is similarly controlled by moving the other hand in the vicinity of a metal loop.) The magazine was called Radio News, and by the time Bob began college they had published his design for a Theremin. Bob notes, “I was actually making Theremins for a living. So from then, which was in 1954, through my entire college career, I made Theremins, and enough money to get through graduate school.

“Electronic organs were just coming out at that time. I remember spending whole days at the Baldwin Organ display room in New York City: Listening, imposing myself on them, being a pain in the ass.” In this manner, Moog became aware of the electronics instruments of the time. One such instrument was Hammond’s Solovox. Moog recalls, “It had controls that were not too different from today’s synthesizer. You changed attack, switched filters in and out, switched in different octaves; all in all, not a bad instrument considering the time.”

Through his exposure to these innovations, Bob developed a fascination for electronic gadgets. He explains, “I was finishing my graduate work at Cornell; I was being trained to be a physicist, and I never thought that I would go into musical instruments as a living. They always seemed as a hobby to me. But, as my graduate career came to a close, I got this bug in my ass that just wouldn’t go away. Finally my wife and I agreed, ‘All right, let’s try something, just to get it out of your system.’

"Well, I was pretty successful with the Theremin kits that I sold out of our apartment in 1961: I sold about 1,000 kits at $50 apiece. It was a nice instrument!”
After this success with Theremins, Bob decided to delve further into the field of electronic kits. He designed a musical amplifier kit, which served to demonstrate to him what he didn't know about marketing research. He felt that he had something that everyone wanted, but it turned out that nobody did.

The effects of the kit’s failure were never to be felt, as it was at this time that Moog met composer Herb Deutsch. “Herb had been using the Theremin to teach ear training,” Bob recollects, “and he asked me if I knew anything about electronic music, because he was getting into tape composition. Well, I had heard of this guy Vladimir Ussachevsky, who had some weird set-up at Columbia. Although I never met him while I was there, I vaguely knew of his existence.”

Deutsch brought Bob to a concert that was being held at the studio of sculptor Jason Seley, who works with automobile bumpers. Deutsch had composed a piece for electronic tape and percussion, where the performer used not only traditional percussion instruments, but the sculptures as well. “It was an electrifying concert.” Moog feels, “these things sounded like you wouldn’t believe. You hit them with a mallet, they sound one way; you hit them with sticks, they sound another; you brush them, they sound a third way. I was completely turned on by it.”

After a couple of talks, Deutsch packed his family into his car and traveled to Trumansburg, New York, where Bob had his shop. Moog recalls that Herb wanted pitches that moved, siren-like sounds that could be produced electronically, so Bob constructed a simple voltage-controlled oscillator. Shortly after, Deutsch wanted to shape sounds that already existed, so Moog built him a very simple voltage-controlled amplifier. But these devices didn't seem to be anything important to Bob. He explains, “I didn't think of these things as being part of a large system, or even as being musical. They were just things that Herb wanted to play with. So there they were on a breadboard. We tried them out and before long Herb was making music with them. It was incredible to me, to see these simple little gadgets making music.” This prompted Bob to continue, and soon they had a keyboard, a voltage-controlled oscillator, a voltage-controlled amplifier, and a voltage-controlled filter. Moog adds, “These things are now essential aspects of all synthesizers. Then, they were just things that grew out of collaboration between Herb Deutsch and myself.”

Moog displayed his hand-made prototypes at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in the fall of 1964. His first order came from Alwin Nikolias, a choreographer who makes extensive use of electronic sound scores in his work. A later order came from Vladimir Ussachevsky himself. Moog recalls, “Ussachevsky wrote up a set of specifications for the envelope follower and generator. These are the same specs that you find copied on every synthesizer today. He didn't want to play these things with a keyboard. He just wanted to trigger a four-part envelope-creating device with a button, in order to impose attack, decay, sustain, and release on a pre-existing sound.”

Artist/inventor collaborations were the catalysts behind the conception of virtually all of Moog’s devices. For example, Wendy Carlos, of Switched-on-Bach fame, specified the first fixed-filter bank, and it was Gustav Shemaga, of the University of Toronto, who specified the first voltage-controlled lowpass filter.

“At first we didn't think of ourselves as being a part of the music industry,” explains Moog. “This got us into trouble from time to time, as there are some things that are not readily available to people outside of the industry. For instance, our keyboard was a regular electronic organ keyboard, but we had a hell of a time getting contacts for it.” Whether Moog considered himself a music merchant or not, musicians were the ones interested in his products. Moog goes on, “Musicians began to work with these things, and it became obvious that our gadgets, when collected as a single unit, made for a very powerful musical instrument.” Thus, it was in 1967 that the term synthesizer was put to Bob's equipment. Today, he describes the instrument this way: “First there are elements that produce sound; they are called audio generators.

There are circuits which modify sound that has already been produced; they are called audio processors. Then there are devices that don't handle sound at all, but rather, they generate electronic signals; they are called controllers. Now music, and this has been said by a lot of people before, is change. It's changing sound. Constant sound is not music; it has no musical content, no artistic message. That's why ease of changing pitch, tone color, and dynamics is such an important factor in the design of a synthesizer. Every instrument sold today as a synthesizer should have at least one audio oscillator to produce pitched sound, one filter to shape the sound spectrum, and articulator which would process and shape the overall loudness, and at least two control devices—one of which would be a keyboard, the other, an envelope generator which shapes the overall contour.”

Of course, most synthesizers in use today are compact, “live” performance models. This was not always the case. The earliest systems were large and cumbersome modular units, designed exclusively for studio use. It wasn't until 1969 that Moog was asked to produce a “Live” performance instrument. He reminisces, “The instrument was used in a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Involved in the performance where (drummer) Bob Moses, (keyboardist) Chris Swanson, (bassist) Hal Galpert, and an ‘unknown’ guitarist by the name of John McLaughlin.” Bob continues, “The instruments were modular systems that had pre-set capabilities. So, instead of changing a whole bunch of panel controls, you just pushed a button. Unfortunately the show went very badly. At one of the high points in the performance someone stepped on the plug and the whole thing just went. Nothing was right that day.”

The experience of the “Jazz in the Garden” concert served to illustrate to Moog the convenience and reliability at the performer’s fingertips. Out of this new-found insight came the idea for the Mini-Moog. According to Bob, ‘That was developed using the circuitry of our live performance equipment, arranged without patch cords. It used prewired switches on the front panel. As a matter fact, it was first exhibited at the Audio Engineering Convention in 1970, the same show at which ARP introduced their 2600.” Bob explains, “The time was ripe. A lot of us were thinking in terms of performable instruments that were oiled down, so to speak, from large modular equipment. The ARP 2600 is an integrated system that has a slightly different way of making the connections than the Minimoog. Both instruments have been widely accepted by musicians, and they started this whole trend towards compact performable synthesizers.”

Moog’s attention is now focused on the need for larger-scale preset devices and better, more naturalized controllers. As he describes, “Circuitry, producing sound, that's not the problem anymore. What is the problem is designing preset schemes that allow the performer to program his own presets, modify them in performance, and return immediately to them at the touch of a button.” His second concern is perfecting control devices that efficiently translate the movement of the performer’s hands or feet, or even breath, into musical gestures. Despite his constant research, Moog states, “We don't expect any startling breakthroughs in any of these areas, but every instrument we make approaches the solution to both of these problems more and more closely.

In both “live” and studio performance, musicians seem to be able to transmit some aspect of themselves through their music. As Moog puts it, “The thing that fascinates me is that every performer brings his own personality into the electronic media and comes up with his own sound. There's no problem telling Jan Hammer apart from Chick Corea, or Rick Wakeman from Keith Emerson, even though their equipment is composed of the same kinds of things. Even Tomita came up with a whole new sound using virtually the same equipment that Wendy Carlos used. It's really mind-boggling to see how these guys, once they gain control over their instrument, are able to communicate so efficiently with it.”

There can be little doubt that the awareness of synthesizers is growing. Moog believes that the development can be traced in steps: In the late 1960’s, the first people to deliver the synthesizer sound to the public’s ears were not the pop or studio musicians, but the commercial musicians. “They used the synthesizer for sound effects, musical sound effects, but some effects nonetheless,” Bob explains. Slowly musicians learned to use the synthesizer as a basic instrumental axe. Moog continues, “The way most musicians use a Minimoog today would have been unthinkable then. So, when Wendy Carlos’ first record came out (Switched-on-Bach, Columbia, MS-7194), The conventional wisdom was that you couldn't make ‘real’ music with a synthesizer. Now everyone takes for granted that you can use a Minimoog or an ARP Odyssey to make sound that's appealing and expressive.

Moog finds that people generally think of electronics as being cold and dehumanizing. He remembers, “I showed some modular equipment at a music teachers convention. The guy in charge of it thought he would do me a favor and invite the local press. Sure enough, the photographer took one look at the equipment, heard a couple of sounds, and then turned to a little girl and said, ‘Come here, honey.’ He asked her to put on the earphones and said, ‘Now make a funny face.’ That's the way the papers read. You know, people look at all the knobs and speakers and patch cords, and think that it doesn't look like a piano, so it can't be a musical instrument.”

According to Moog, there has never been an instrument that wasn't a highly technological contrivance for its time. He states, “If you want something that's contrived, there's nothing more contrived than a box with holes in it the shape of an ‘f’, with maple on one side and spruce on the other. Those things don't grow on trees. Pianos have hundreds and hundreds of precision-made parts, each requiring a very specialized technology to produce.” He goes on, “If we were to build an instrument in an effective way, we wouldn't build a more complex wooden structure than a violin, we’d make use of the technology that is under our control. That technology happens to be electronics. I'm sure that as this century comes to a close, we will recognize that electronics is as natural as wood- or metal-working. There's no reason why any electronic instrument can't be every bit as expressive and appealing as a traditional acoustic instrument.”

Moog feels that the performer must have the ability to control his instrument; if the instrument doesn’t lend itself to the player’s needs, then it isn’t a very useful instrument. Moog recalls, “When Peter Kubelka, an experimental film maker, was asked if he thought his hobby, cooking, was an art, he said, ‘Of course it is! It has complexity and dynamics.” Bob deems this true of music also. “I see my job”, he reports, “as being one that must provide the artist with the capability of imparting complexity and dynamics to his music. If the musician can’t control his music, it is bad music. On the other hand, if he has the control, the ability to put himself into his music, then it is good music. I would never take the credit for what Wendy Carlos or Keith Emerson have done. Nor would I want the blame for a performance that didn’t stand up to the audience’s expectations.”

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