Interview: Robert Moog

January 29, 2002 by Billy Bob Hargus

Robert Moog, inventor and electronic music pioneer, introduced the synthesizer to the world in the 1960s, as well as a spooky sounding device called the theremin. Here he discusses what led to these innovations in sound.

Originally published March 1997 at online magazine Perfect Sound Forever. Published on KurzweilAI.net January 29, 2002.

That ingenious musical contraption that we know as the synthesizer came about when Robert Moog worked out the concept for the instrument in the early ’60s. By then, Moog had already been running his own company for 10 years, manufacturing electronic devices/instruments. There had been a number of electronic instruments developed before (including the theremin, which Moog worked with) but once the Moog synthesizer came about, it launched music into unknown dimensions. This would also lead to the drum machines, MIDI, samplers and other electronic hardware that are commonplace in the music that you hear today. Rock, disco, house, new age, progressive rock and many other musical styles would never be the same without the Moog. Awards have been justly heaped on him from Universities, Billboard magazine and the NARAS (who hand out the Grammies). Today, Moog heads Big Briar, once again creating electronic instruments. Not a bad legacy, you have to admit.

PSF (Perfect Sound Forever): How did you get interested in electronics?

My father was an amateur radio operator. He taught me the basics when I was a little kid, maybe eight years old or so, and I was hooked.

PSF: Other than Theremin, were there other electronics pioneers that inspired you?

I used to study the schematics of Hammond, Baldwin, and Wurlitzer, but I didn’t find out too much about the actual people who designed the stuff until I went to college.

PSF: What led you to the creation of the synthesizer?

In 1964 I met Herbert Deutsch, who was (and still is) a composer and music teacher at Hofstra University. He asked me if I knew anything about electronic music, and told me that he wanted to find a source of electronic instruments for making new musical sounds. I worked with Herb for a couple of weeks, at the end of which, we had some basic ideas for the synthesizer.

PSF:Were you surprised by how well accepted it became?

Well, it didn’t become accepted all that fast. The general public didn’t know about it until Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’ ‘Switched-on Bach’ came out at the end of 1968. Then a whole bunch of record producers tried to cash in on Carlos’ success and produced a ton of ‘Moog Records’ in 1969 and 1970. Most of those records were not successful, so the synthesizer fell into some disuse. Then Keith Emerson did ‘Lucky Man,’ and that started rock musicians using the synthesizer on stage. By 1973 or so, Minimoogs were finally getting popular enough to be considered ‘well-accepted’. So we’re talking nearly ten years between the time I began designing synthesizers and the time they became well accepted.

PSF: Were you worried that synthesizers would replace musicians/orchestras?

I was never worried that synthesizers would replace musicians. First of all, you have to be a musician in order to make music with a synthesizer. And second, I never thought that analog synthesizer sounds would ever be mistaken for traditional musical instrument sounds. To me the synthesizer was always a source of new sounds that musicians could use to expand the range of possibilities for making music.

PSF: Who were some of your first buyers of the synthesizers?

The first person to buy a synthesizer from us was Alwin Nikolais, a choreographer of modern and experimental dance. Nikolais was already making his own dance scores on tape. Our second customer was Eric Siday, a well-known composer of music for radio and television commercials. Then we made stuff for a lot of the academic and experimental musicians, especially Vladimir Ussachevsky, who founded the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center.

PSF: Do you see the programming flexibility with synthesizers happening with other instruments?

For experimental musicians, having a synthesizer was right in line with experiments that had been going on with all musical instruments- finding different ways of playing conventional instruments so that new sounds were created. I think that these experiments affected the design of synthesizers, and the synthesizers encouraged musicians to further explore the capabilities of traditional acoustic instruments.

PSF: Synthesizers decreased in size and got more powerful (like computers)- was that your original intention?

That’s a general trend of all electronic equipment. It wasn’t our intention so much as something that we knew would probably happen.

PSF: Have there been some unusual synthesizer models that you’ve created or helped create?

We’ve done a lot of experimental stuff that never went into production. I think my favorite was a four-oscillator synthesizer that was controlled from a pitch follower circuit, that we built for the electric sax player Eddie Harris. Eddie used it for years and made several records with it.

PSF: Are there any particular synthesizer musicians who you enjoy or find bring out the real potential of the instrument?

That’s a really hard question to answer. Every creative musician brings out something different from the synthesizer. To name a couple, I’ve enjoyed everything that Wendy Carlos, Jan Hammer, and Keith Emerson have done. I’ve also enjoyed some really interesting work that experimental composers like Jon Weiss have done.

PSF: What do you think was your original musical intentions with the synthesizer- making sound effects, imitating other instruments, making unique sounds, all of these?

It was certainly not imitating other instruments! ‘Making unique sounds’ is close to our original musical intentions. I would say that we wanted to give musicians new ways of working with sounds.

PSF:John Cage and David Tudor worked on some designs for synthesizers. What kind of work did they do in this regard?

John Cage was a composer. He was a ‘systems’ person, meaning that he thought in terms of hooking up different already-existing devices into an elaborate system. David Tudor was also a composer, but he built most of his own equipment. For him, his equipment was an integral and inseparable component of his compositions. I wouldn’t say that either John Cage or David Tudor actually designed synthesizers.

PSF: Are there any particular creations/inventions related to the synthesizer that you are especially proud of?

Well, I’m well-known for the lowpass filter that is the basis of ‘the Moog Sound’. It’s a simple circuit but it works really well. Also, just the idea of a modular system where everything works with everything else has turned out to be a useful concept for musicians.

PSF: Other companies sprung up making synthesizers (ARP, Oberheim)- what made Moog different?

I don’t think there’s any one thing. Each of us had our own sense of what kind of sounds were good, what kind of front panel controls musicians would relate to most easily, and what electronic functions would be best. I can’t tell you, for sure, what made the Moog instruments sound the way they did. It’s a combination of a lot of subtle but small things.

PSF: Did you see the progression to sequencers, MIDI and tape samplers as inevitable?

Sure. There were lots of predecessors to those things. Look at the Mellotron, with its tape loops. It wasn’t too hard to see that once digital audio became possible, Mellotron technology would give way to what we now call samplers. The same is true of MIDI and sequencers.

PSF: What led you back to working with theremins?

I never stopped working with theremins. Even while I worked for Moog Music and Kurzweil, I built custom theremins from time to time. After I left Kurzweil and returned to North Carolina, I decided to come up with a completely new theremin design. That became our ‘Series 91′ instruments. We’ve been making them for about six years now.

PSF: What do you think is the future of synthesizers?

Back in the late ’70s, I wrote a long article on the future of electronic music for a magazine called ‘The Music Journal.’ In that article, I predicted that the band of the future would have its own finely-crafted custom controllers, but that the sound-producing hardware would be standardized to the point where it would be part of the facilities of the hall, like a sound system. I think we’re getting close to that now. Look at instruments like the ‘Zen Drum’ which is a beautiful percussion controller that plugs into fairly standard sound modules via MIDI. I still think that this is the future: finely-crafted control devices (performance interfaces), standardized sound producers, and a network like MIDI to link the two.