Update: Dr. Robert Moog, known for the synthesizer that beared his name, died at his home in Asheville, North Carolina on Sunday, 21st August, 2006. He was 71. RIP Bob.
Pushing the Envelope;
An Interview with Dr. Robert Moog
From the book, "Electronic Music Pioneers"
by Ben Kettlewell
Dr. Robert Moog was born in New York in 1934. His academic degrees include a BS in Physics from Queens College (New York City), a BS in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University (New York City), and a PhD in Engineering Physics from Cornell University (Ithaca, New York.)
In 1954, while still an undergraduate studying physics at Queens College, Moog founded the R. A. Moog Company as a part-time business to design and build electronic musical instruments. The company became a full-time business in 1964, when he invented the components of the first modular Moog synthesizer in 1964. The Moog Synthesizer represented a significant advance over previous electronic synthesizers, in part because of its use of new semiconductor technology. The new instrument was also less expensive to produce. As a result, it was soon in demand all over the world and was frequently referred to as "the Moog". The name Moog became closely associated with the word synthesizer, and as a result, he immediately gained worldwide acclaim. His instruments made it possible for musicians to produce completely new sounds electronically. Moog is directly responsible for many of the music genres that exist today. Many styles of music, such as New Age, Ambient, Techno, and hybrids of Pop and World Music have spawned by this technology.
The release of Wendy Carlos' best selling album, Switched On Bach in 1968 brought Moog's synthesizer to the public's attention. The album demonstrated that, besides creating strange sounds, the synthesizer could be used to make beautiful music.
In 1961, several years before his synthesizer development work, Moog began to develop his ideas for his electronic instruments when he started building and selling theremin kits and absorbing ideas about transistorized modular synthesizers from the German designer, Harald Bode. Lev (Leon) Theremin invented the theremin in 1920. It had two metal antennas, a vertical rod and a horizontal loop. The performer varied the distance between his right hand and the vertical antenna to control pitch, and varied the distance between his left hand and the loop to control volume. The great theremin virtuoso was Clara Rockmore, a Russian musician who originally achieved renown as a violinist before turning to the theremin.
Moog's article, A Transistorized Theremin, describing the theremin, for the January, 1961 issue of the magazine 'Electronics World,' resulted in hundreds of orders for theremin kits, which he sold from his business, operated out of his apartment.
Moog designed his first modular electronic music synthesizer components in 1964, and exhibited at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in October of that year. After that, Moog began manufacturing synthesizers. Moog's first prototype synthesizer was designed in collaboration with composer Herbert A. Deutsch, who wanted Moog to build a device that had techniques to shape sounds, through moving pitches, siren like sounds that could be produced electronically. Herb Deutsch, at the time, had been working with the theremin, to teach ear training.
In 1978, after his bustling early days in the synthesizer business, Bob Moog moved to a beautiful quiet region of the Great Smoky Mountains, in Leicester, North Carolina. He started a new business in his workshop there, where he has developed a great reputation for building high-quality, technically fascinating, analog musical equipment. He continues that tradition with his world-renowned theremins and his Moogerfooger(tm) Analog Effects Modules, all produced by his company, Big Briar. The company recently exhibited a prototype of a new synthesizer designed by Bob Moog. The synth is a monophonic lead performance instrument with classic Moog Synthesizer style knobs, switches, wheels, and keyboard, and MIDI capability.
From 1984 to 1988, Moog was a full-time consultant and Vice President of New Product Research for Kurzweil Music Systems.
Moog's awards include honorary doctorates from Polytechnic University (New York City) and Lycoming College (Williamsport, Pennsylvania); the Silver Medal of The Audio Engineering Society; the Trustee's Award of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; the Bilboard Magazine Trendsetter's Award; and the SEAMUS award from the Society of Electroacoustic Music in the United States. He has written and spoken widely on topics related to music technology, and has contributed major articles to the Encyclopedia Brittancia and the Encyclopedia of Applied Physics. Robert Moog, was inducted into the Rock-Walk Hall of Fame on January 14, 1988.
In this candid 1987 interview, Dr. Moog discusses the building blocks of sound synthesis and takes us back in history, explaining how he developed his first modular synthesizer, and his thoughts on future technologies.
Robert Moog: The first composer I began working with was Herb Deutsch back in 1964. At that time Herb was working with experimental tape recording. He was making music that consisted primarily of tone color changes rather than conventional pitch and melody. He was interested in developing ways of making new sounds, sounds that had textures and qualities that hadn't been heard before.
The first instruments that we made for him were very experimental. They were made on what electrical engineers call a breadboard. It was a circuit board that I could solder components onto, right out in the open, without any cabinet, fancy power supply or anything. There were two instruments, one called a voltage-controlled oscillator and the other, a voltage controlled amplifier.
Let me first explain what an oscillator is. An oscillator produces an electronic signal that repeats regularly between 20 and 20,000 times a second, which we hear as a pitched tone. An amplifier simply makes a sound stronger or weaker. A voltage-controlled oscillator produces a pitched tone whose pitch can be changed rapidly by changing the voltage. Imagine my taking two voltage controlled oscillators, one of which is going fast enough for us to hear as a pitch, and the other going much slower. I used the second oscillator to control the first oscillator. This would enable me to create a sound whose pitch changes rapidly, like a siren, or a trill, or any one of a great variety of new sounds.
This is exactly what Herb Deutsch proceeded to do. He took voltage controlled oscillator and voltage controlled amplifiers, and put them together in ways which we just didn't foresee, and came up with the most amazing variety of sounds! He was tickled because these were the sounds he had been looking for, but couldn't obtain with conventional electronic equipment of the early sixties. I was tickled because he was doing something with the circuitry that was familiar to us that had never been done before to our ears.
After Herb and I tried out these two basic modules which are now very common, we talked about how we would control them, how we would turn the sound on and off. Up until then, Herb would just stick a wire in to make a sound, or turn a switch on. Of course, that's not how musicians work. Herb and I discussed a few possibilities. We talked about whether or not to use a conventional music keyboard, or should we have a whole bunch of buttons to push, or something that you could slide your hand along to change the pitch continuously like a trombone slide or violin bow. We decided to use a standard keyboard because it was readily available, and provided an inexpensive way of turning on and off notes and sounds. The first keyboard we built used an organ keyboard mechanism, along with some circuitry that would open and close the voltage control amplifier every time you pressed a key which made an envelope on the sound. You could adjust how fast the sound built up by holding the attack, and how fast the sound would decay by manipulating the decay. The envelope generator inside the keyboard opened up the voltage-controlled amplifier every time you pressed a key, and that is how the sound was shaped. By the summer of 1964, these were the components that we had assembled, the voltage controlled oscillators, the voltage controlled amplifiers, and the keyboard controller. It was these handmade experimental components that I showed at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York City, in the fall of 1964. That was the beginning. During that show in New York, I got my first orders for electronic music modular components. These were modular components, because each of the components did one thing, and one thing only towards generating, shaping, or controlling sound. In order to make a complete musical sound; you had to mix several of the components together. The first circuits were quite basic, actually. The only problem was that the pitch wasn't very accurate in the early prototypes. That didn't bother us at the time, because we were working with composers who didn't care that much about pitch accuracy. Only after our synthesizers became commercially important and our customers wanted to produce conventional melodies did we realize that we would have to improve and stabilize our voltage-controlled oscillators.
Vladimir Ussachevsky, who in 1964 was the head of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, gave us an order. He wanted me to design and build an envelope generator that had four parts to the envelope, the initial rise, or attack, the initial fall, or decay, a flat area called sustain, and when you let go of the keyboard or trigger, the fall back to silence which is called the release. This four part envelope, attack, decay, sustain, release, is now well know to all electronic musicians who play synthesizers. It's called the ADSR envelope. Back then, it was something brand new, an idea Ussachevsky developed for us to design and build.
The last module I want to mention is the voltage controlled filter, which was ordered by Gustav Ciamaga from the University of Toronto in 1965. This filter is a device that emphasizes or attenuates, (cuts down) various parts of a musical sound, ...what we call the overtones. In doing so it actually changes the tone color without changing the pitch or the loudness. The voltage controlled filter allowed the tone color changes in the sound to be affected rapidly, and analog synthesizers are distinguished more for their control filter capabilities than any other single function.
BK: Since you first displayed your prototypes at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York in 1964, there have been dozens of breakthroughs in electronic instrument technology, yet modular synthesizers still seem very popular. With the lower prices, and ease of operation of today's keyboards and modules, why do the modular synthesizers still maintain such a prominent position.
Moog: Modular synthesizers made by my company back in the sixties were a natural outgrowth and the development of the first modules that I designed. The idea was to put together as many modules as you required, and that the modules were compatible, and able to work with each other. And of course, the more modules you put together, the more complex the sound was, the more rich the timbres, more interesting altogether. Each module has a series of front panel controls and switches that define how it's working, and at what point it's making the sound. For instance an oscillator module would have a knob determining what the pitch was. Another one would select the waveform, etc. Musicians quickly learned what the correspondence was between turning one of these knobs and hearing a change in the sound, and setting up, and manipulating a rich new sound, or sound quality. It was musical texture reduced to simply turning the appropriate knobs.
I think that's why analog modular equipment is still popular. It gives an immediacy, a physical ability to manipulate actual controls and connections who's effect a musician can easily hear, rather than a musician having to conceptualize it ahead of time by determining what sound he or she is going after in a digital instrument.
The following is from a second interview, which took place in July 2000.
BK: Since our last interview, what do you consider to be the most significant changes in music, and music technology since that time?
Moog: I don't think that music has changed much within the last ten or twenty years. Oh sure, there are some new 'genres', but little about our national or global musical culture has changed. The big change happened 40 years ago, when rock music completely and abruptly redirected our national musical culture. Today we still have rock music, we still have pre-20th-century classical music, and we still have the pre-rock jazz-blues-big band stuff. Musicians are tripping over each other trying to sound like the sixties and seventies. We may be poised for another abrupt change in our popular musical culture, but don't ask me to predict when it will come or what it will be like.
With respect to music technology, the big change here is the total takeover of recorded music production by the personal computer. Any musician who is not yet computer-literate is bound to find himself at the margins of contemporary music making.
BK: What do you think about the evolution of electronic music and its offspring over the past 2-3 decades?
Moog: I haven't heard any recent "experimental" electronic music that has broken completely new ground. All the stuff that has been done on the computer has a somewhat different sound, but structurally it seems to me to be evolving from the truly groundbreaking stuff of the '50s and '60s.
In the pop arena, you can really begin to hear the influence of the experimental music of 30-50 years ago. A lot of today's techno and dance music sounds to me like "deja vu all over again".
BK: How do you feel the new technologies are going to alter the way music is created, performed and accessed in the twenty first century?
Moog: When I think back over the last 30 or 40 years, I see that NOBODY was able to predict a whole century's "progress" in the face of rapidly-moving technologies. In fact, making accurate predictions even five years ahead is difficult. Eight-channel recorders were just coming into existence during the 1960s. Did anyone back then foresee that, ten years later, there would be 24-track recorders that were synched together? Maybe a few far-seeing people in the tape recorder industry saw it. When Apple came out with its first computer in the late '70s, did anyone foresee that personal computers would be capable of professional-quality sound recording and editing in a mere 20 years? Ten years ago, who foresaw the explosion of web-based music distribution? Do you see what I'm getting at? These days, things are too complicated and moving too fast for anyone to predict anything accurately more than a few years into the future.
That said, I'll try to answer your question for the next five years. I don't think there will be a big change in how music is performed. Musicians still need to play together, and audiences need to listen together. The web is not going to change that, I don't think so.
I don't see much change in the way music is created either. Recording music one track at a time is a non-real-time way of approximating a live ensemble performance. That is, the goal of "tracking" is to "sound natural", - that is, like you're a group playing together. Furthermore, music recording software is modeled on the multi-track tape recorder, complete with stop, play, record, fast forward, rewind, and pause buttons. So all the latest and greatest technology is now used to produce the illusion of an old-timey musical performance. I don't think that will change very much. Oh sure, the technical details will change. Generalized personal computers are already evolving into configurations that are optimized for musicians. But the way music is created won't change very much within the next five years.
With respect to accessing recorded music,
probably the web will become an increasingly bigger part of the
picture. ASCAP and BMI can duke it out in Congress. Hey, I remember
when the Musician's Union threatened to strike in order to keep the Moog Synthesizer from being used in television
commercials. And I've read about the Luddites who, centuries ago, tried to impede
progress by destroying mechanical looms. I'm sorry If Tower Records and Blockbuster
Audio's sales plummet. On the other hand, it wasn't that long ago that those
megastore chains drove a lot of neighborhood record stores out of business.
That's the way it goes these days. Things are moving fast. As the Buddha said, "Everything is changing all the time."