The landscape of modern music was changed forever the day that Dr Robert Moog created his iconic analogue synthesiser. I did this interview for Dazed back in 2004 to help mark the 50th anniversary of his company’s inception. Less than a year later the cult inventor had died of a brain tumour. In the interview we talked about his life and the impact his creation has had on the world. He was a true gentleman and is sorely missed by synthesiser fanatics the world over. Happy Birthday Mr Moog! - Tim Noakes
Synthesised music is a reminder of how technology has the ability to manipulate the past and reconfigure the future in new and exciting ways. Out of the illustrious line up of innovators that have helped push sound synthesis into the mainstream Dr Robert Moog, the inventor of the first modular synthesiser, is one of the most revered and influential music technologists in the world. Since he started his electronics company 50 years ago, Moog has become as revered as the musicians that made his analogue invention famous. The venerable 70-year-old inventor decided to give Tim Noakes an insight into his career and how his synthesisers have changed the world.
Dazed & Confused: What first drew you to electronic music?
Bob Moog: I was pretty much a nerd when I was growing up, and I liked building simple electronic projects of all sorts, it was a hobby of mine. When I was 14 my father and I made our first therimin. Electronics brought us closer together, as I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. We sold our first one for money when I was 19.
D&C: Were there any specific electronic musical companies that inspired you as a budding inventor?
Bob Moog: I was very interested in the commercial electronic music of the time, and especially the sound of the Hammond organ. Hammond made all sorts of electronics instruments at the time, like the Nova Chord and the Solar Vox, which were keyboard instruments designed for home music making. They sounded interesting so I bought the technical manual and studied how they put their circuits together.
D&C: Did you do anything else in your spare time?
Bob Moog: No not really. I was a complete klutz. Sports didn’t interest me, I just really loved electronics. While I was at high school I used to go to the Hammond organ studios in New York and rent an organ by the hour to just fool around with it. It was a pretty upscale place in mid-town Manhattan and was full of people who were looking at making a pretty serious investment. But the difference was I didn’t want to play it; I just wanted to hear what everything did.
D&C: So when did this hobby turn into a profession?
Bob Moog: Well I never thought I would make a lifetime career out of it as I originally studied to become an engineer. I enrolled in an engineering course at Queens College in New York City and then went to the Columbia University engineering school. After I got my bachelors in engineering I went on to do a PhD in physics and thought of studying solid physics and becoming an industrial scientist. In 1961, I wrote an article for Electronics World about how to build your own therimin and sold DIY kits for $50 each, out of which I think we sold about a thousand kits to mainly itinerant musicians playing religious music. It wasn’t all profit, but we ended up with a few thousand dollars, which was nice because my wife was pregnant with our first child at the time and I was still at grad school.
D&C: Was there anyone in particular that propelled your career forward?
Bob Moog: Herbert Deutsch helped my career a great deal. He was a composer who wanted to make electronic music on tape. We began to talk and it interested me, so I offered to build him some stuff, which turned out to be the beginnings of the Moog Synthesiser. I ended up using my hobby more than anything I ever learnt in grad school.
D&C: What year did you establish Moog as a company?
Bob Moog: The company was originally founded in 1954 as the RA Moog company, when I was 15 years old. It was that same company that made the modular synthesiser in 1964.
D&C: It is widely noted that your Mini Moog was the first portable synthesiser. Was it one of your main objectives to make Moog equipment accessible to everyone?
Bob Moog: We didn’t think of our market as amateurs, but catered to what the professionals needed, stuff for musicians who wanted to get into electronics. We used the kind of circuitry that was in the modular stuff but we simplified it. It looked technical and had the wires, but musicians could, if their head was in the right place, use it. With production of the Mini-Moog, we went from being custom instrument manufacturers to making electronic musical instruments. The Mini-Moog was a standard design that was sold in stores and we had much less contact with musicians. By and large the people we dealt with were the field and marketing people who told us what we should make so that they could sell them. I don’t think we were years ahead of our time, it just gave musicians something new to play with like Keith Emerson who took a Mini Moog on stage in 1971.
D&C: How influential do you think Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach was to the success of your invention?
Bob Moog: She was the one that showed you could make real music through the Moog synthesiser. Up until then nobody really believed it. Switched On Bach came out at the end of 68 when the conventional use for the synthesiser in the music industry was to make funny noises or special effects. Wendy made the crossover from classical to mainstream music and that album went on to sell a million copies. Everything Wendy did was a step forward in one way or another
D&C: Did you meet many sceptics along the way who dismissed synthesised music as a fad?
Bob Moog: Yes, but I wasn’t trying to achieve anything musically. I was simply trying to build instruments in response to the requirements of musicians like Wendy Carlos and if they were happy, I was happy. When somebody thinks there is something wrong with what you’re doing, I find it hard to say anything tactful because my customers were happy. I wasn’t forcing anything down anyone’s throat. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to hear it. There’s no shortage of people around the world of people that don’t like anything.
D&C: Who were your competitors at this stage?
Bob Moog: My biggest competitor was ARP but they don’t exist anymore due to business reasons. They had one too many food fights in the executive suite and disappeared off the face of the earth. Our company by that time was a division of Norland music, which is the largest manufacturer of music in the USA. Original Moog music turned from making synthesisers to contract anufacturer for telephone companies and record companies and so on.
D&C: How did Moog Music adapt to digital technology?
Bob Moog: I left Moog at the end of 1977. The companywent on for another 6 or 7 years and then stopped making synthesisers completely, so they never got into digital keyboard instruments. I did things that interested me. I spent 2/3 years working on a house for my family, which cleared my head. I did some custom work here and there. Then in 1984 I was asked to join Kurzweil Music Systems as their vice-president of electronic research. I was there till they went bankrupt, around 1990.
D&C: Over the past few years there has been a massive resurgence in synthesised music. What do you think of modern electronic music?
Bob Moog: Mainstream musicians are a lot more experimental than they were 30 or 40 years ago, they are experimenting with a lot of different stuff. Some of it is analogue and electronic, some of it is on laptop computers and some of it is completely off the wall! I see things as being in flux now. There is a well-known sound to today’s pop music, but it seems to me it is always changing
D&C: How central do you think your role in the development of electronic music is?
Bob Moog: I am just an instrument builder, not a musician. There are lots of instrument builders and I occupy a space in the history of music technology with what happened in the 60s and 70s but I’m not the one who makes the music. The philosophy behind what we did was not to build equipment for any one kind of music, but to make it as basic as possible, to suit the needs of as many musicians as possible.
D&C: Do you find it strange that people wear your company’s logo on their T-shirts?
Bob Moog: I don’t understand it, but it’s not strange, it is just part of what I do.
D&C: Do you view your job clinically or is it still a passion of yours?
Bob Moog: Well, both. We manufacture stuff here and anytime someone buys one of our instruments, it’s a contract. We don’t sell them junk we make sure it is high quality. The way I choose to design is something other than a nine to five job; my ideas come at all times, sometimes when I’m asleep
D&C: As far as the future of sound synthesis is concerned, do you think that physical synths will become redundant, that everything will become virtual?
Bob Moog: I think musicians are always going to need physical control, the simulations are all just shadows of the real thing. I suppose it is possible to make instruments that don’t have to be played live, they could do that, but I don’t think if it will happen very soon.
D&C: Finally, which of your synthesiser designs means the most to you?
Bob Moog: There isn’t one. They were all designed at different times and respond to different needs. A newer instrument incorporates everything I learnt in an older model and adds something to it, for instance our Mini Moog Voyager. I don’t want to say it’s the best we’ve ever made, but it’s got the most in it, because it draws on all my current ideas and everything I have thought of in the past.