February 26, 2002 by Amara D. Angelica
In 1964, physicist-musician Dr. Robert Moog invented a new technology that would revolutionize music: the electronic music synthesizer. Like the personal computer and the Web, the synthesizer has put the tools of creating music in the hands of everyone.
After creating and running several companies1 to develop and market his products, Moog joined Kurzweil Music Systems as VP of New Product Development in 1984, just after the Kurzweil 250 synthesizer, the first electronic instrument to successfully emulate a grand piano, came out.
Moog worked on a series of home products and the Kurzweil 150 (which used additive synthesis, allowing musicians to invent new sounds) and the Kurzweil 1000 line, the first instrument to use proprietary sound modeling technology on a single chip.
“He was a sage advisor on our plans and designs,” said Ray Kurzweil, who as CEO of Kurzweil Music Systems at that time. “He was particularly sensitive to the needs of the users, and articulated the musician’s perspective. He was very interested in new ways of controlling music.”
This interest in empowering musicians goes back to 1954, when Moog developed his first commercial product, the Theremin Model 201, named after the Russian inventor, Leon Theremin. The first purely electronic musical instrument, the theremin is played simply by moving the hands near two antennas on the device to control pitch and loudness.
Moog’s current company, Big Briar, Inc.2, has recently brought back this instrument as the EthervoxR MIDI theremin. “It enables musicians to incorporate theremin-type control in a wide range of musical gestures,” said Moog. “So far, few musicians have explored this feature. I believe that use of theremin-type control — the direct application of hand gestures to control musical material–will continue to develop, but over a long period of time.”
One direction in which this kind of technology might develop is suggested by MIT professor Tod Machover’s “hyperinstruments” project, which is developing devices that allow non-musicians to shape and create complex and interesting musical pieces by using gestures or word descriptions (such as musical “adjectives”).
How about creating music using real-time motion-capture of body movements, similar to Ray Kurzweil’s Ramoma virtual performance experiments? Multiple musical parameters could be controlled by making specific body motions. This might be especially interesting in generating “5.1″ surround-sound CDs and DVDs for home theaters.
“Multidimensional control of musical material is valuable, but it has to be intuitively accessible,” advised Moog. That’s one of the appeals of the current “vintage synth3” movement, he said, which is “basically a return to the analog technology that shaped the sound of the pop music of the ’70′s. Musicians now understand that the versatility, accessibility, and relative ease of control of ‘vintage analog’ are valuable musical resources, which are on a par with but complementary to the resources of digital sound production.”
The big advantage of analog technology is that musicians can continuously control the pitch, timbre (quality), envelope (sound buildup and decay for a note) and other parameters and easily experiment with different effects in real time.
That’s why Moog is bringing back the world’s best-selling analog synthesizer, the Minimoog (popular with rock musicians in the 70s) as the MinimoogR VoyagerTM, which is going into production shortly. The new device adds MIDI control so it can interface with computer software, velocity- and pressure-sensitive keys, a 3-D touchpad, and other improvements.
“Once production is under way, we engineers here will be designing products that build on the Minimoog tradition.” The products will be determined by the results of ongoing market research, he added.
Photo courtesy of Big Briar, Inc.
But Moog is also concerned about a downside of modern electronic instruments. “While the synthesizer has made it easier to create music — even simulate an entire orchestra on the desktop, music, especially mainstream pop music, will continue to become more a craft that is practiced by one person at a time ‘offline’ in a studio, and less a real-time group activity (i.e. live performance). If that happens, then I believe that we will have lost a valuable cultural resource. I personally am interested in directing music technology toward live performance. We need lots more activities that bring people together, not isolate them.”
Moog’s pioneering work was publicly recognized on Feb. 27, 2002, when the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences gave him the Technical GRAMMY Award for “contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field.”
“This a recognition richly deserved for your seminal contributions,” said Kurzweil. “I greatly value the years we spent working together at Kurzweil Music Systems during the late 1980s, and the times our paths have crossed since. Your consistently thoughtful insights into the art and science of creating music, and the intimate interaction between the musician and her musical instrument, have always deeply impressed me. I have to say that you’re one of those people whose ideas I always listen to most carefully.”
See Ray Kurzweil’s congratulatory remarks honoring Bob Moog, to appear in the 2002 GRAMMY Awards program.
Amara D. Angelica, editor of KurzweilAI.net, is a musician experimenting with both analog and digital synthesizers
1. The Moog Archives, created by Roger Luther, General Manager of Bob Moog’s various companies until 1993, chronicles these companies and products.
2. “We have recently reacquired ownership of the registration of the Moog MusicR and MinimoogR trademarks and are now in the process of changing the name of our company from Big Briar to Moog Music, Inc.”–Bob Moog.