Wired | ** legacy collection ** Ray Kurzweil remembers synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, PhD

Honoring his lifetime of music innovation.
January 1, 2000

Wired — November 1, 2005 | Ray Kurzweil

This is a summary. Read original article in full here.

I first heard a Moog synthesizer in the mid-1960s when I happened across a TV news segment about the newfangled instrument and its sci-fi sounds, as the reporter put it.

I had just finished a high school computer project on algorithmic music composition, but this was the first time I had heard synthesized sounds. It left me with an inspired feeling that a threshold had been crossed.

Robert Moog, PhD — the name rhymes with vogue — died August 21, 2005 at age 71, but his impact on music was permanent and profound. Through the end of the 19th century, music had been made entirely from found and crafted implements – vibrating strings, resonant boxes and tubes – and of course the human voice. In the 20th century, musical devices went beyond such natural ones (which were sometimes electrically amplified) to fully embrace high technology in the form of electronic music synthesis. The first synthesizers appeared in the early 1900s, but they were obscure experiments until Moog brought them into the mainstream.

The Bob Moog I knew, however, wasn’t focused on his pivotal role in music history. He was motivated by his love for invention, for applying electronics to music, and for interacting with the musicians who used his technology. He had a rare combination of talents: an intuition for signal processing and an equally clear sense of the language of music.

related reading:
Wired | “Bob Moog’s beautifully intricate drawings of synth circuits”
Wired | “Moog Music re-creates a trio of its legendary modular synths”

Moog built his first electronic musical instrument, a theremin, when he was 14. Invented around 1920 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, it enables musicians to create sounds by moving their hands between two electrodes. Moog started selling portable theremin kits in 1961 and was soon flooded with orders. Although he was pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cornell University at the time, this unexpected success firmly established his career path.

He debuted the Moog synthesizer — a slim keyboard attached to a bulky cabinet arrayed with oscillators, amplifiers and filters — at the 1964 Audio Engineering Society convention in New York. At $10,000, the instrument was affordable — at least to a few musicians. RCA had introduced a synthesizer a decade earlier, but that model filled a room and cost in the low six figures. Moreover, RCA’s version got its performance instructions from punchcards, while Moog’s could be played by ordinary musicians. Although only a few dozen were sold, the Moog synthesizer caught the music world by storm. Its striking sounds showed up on albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkees and spawned a genre of space-age novelty records.

Moog’s most important early customer was Walter (now Wendy) Carlos. In 1968, Carlos released the landmark album Switched-On Bach, featuring synthesized Bach compositions painstakingly multi-tracked one line at a time. No one expected it to get much notice. The release party lumped it with another obscure work called Rock and Other Four Letter Words. Carlos didn’t even show up, although Moog did. But Carlos’ record became a huge hit, selling multi-platinum and earning 3 Grammy awards. It effectively launched a new era in music creation. The palette of sounds available to musicians exploded.

related reading:
Bob Moog Foundation | main
Bob Moog Foundation | memories of Bob Moog

Bob Moog Foundation | synth art gallery
Bob Moog Foundation | YouTube channel

Switched-On Bach caught the attention of my father Fredric Kurzweil, a noted orchestra conductor and music educator. In my teenage years, we had many conversations about the nature of music, and now our talks broadened to include technology.

Shortly before his own death in 1970, he told me of a strong feeling he had, that one day I would combine my interests in computers and music. This conversation, a direct result of Moog’s work, was very much on my mind when I founded Kurzweil Music Systems in 1982.

The company’s mission was to harness digital technology in music. As a result I crossed paths with Moog many times at various music conferences. I found him unusual in his earnest, sincere and self-effacing manner.

He didn’t much believe in small talk, and a casual comment was likely to cause him to think deeply about his response. Often he’d meet a simple question like “How’s the convention going?” with a prolonged, awkward silence while he pondered an answer. Those who learned to be patient with this style of conversation were consistently rewarded with a keenly insightful response.

Starting in 1984, Moog spent 5 years working for Kurzweil Music Systems as vice president of new product research. His thoughtful approach was great help in realizing our ambitions. He’d sit silently during executive committee meetings, not out of indifference or distraction, but because he was listening. At a crucial moment he would offer his opinion, with a gentle voice of authority and spoken from a deep appreciation of the musician’s perspective.

It’s these personal qualities, as much as the indelible mark he left on the world of music, that come to mind when I remember Bob Moog.

Ray Kurzweil

related reading:
Wired | “Google doodle honors the father of the modern synthesizer”
Wired | “Geekiest uses so far of Google’s Moog synthesizer doodle”

about | “The Bob Moog Google doodle — a fully functioning web based synthesizer in tribute to the late Robert Moog, Phd — prominently features a record button. Hundreds of cover songs are being recorded by users around the world using the Bob Moog doodle. Here’s a sampling of some of the best and geekiest cover tunes recorded with the Moog Google doodle, as seen on YouTube.”

video set | Google doodle for Robert Moog, Phd
A real interactive video synthesizer you can play!

Google | doodles: main
Google | doodles: Robert Moog, PhD

about from Google | Google honors Robert Moog, PhD. He was an American pioneer of electronic music. Bob Moog best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, one of the first widely used electronic musical instruments. Can you see the Google logo? Moog was born on May 23, 1934. In 1953 at age 19, he founded his first company R.A. Moog. In 1972 he changed the company’s name to Moog Music. He died on April 28, 2005. Happy Birthday, Robert Moog.

related reading:

Moog Music | main
Moog Music | legacy


Spectrasonics | main
Spectrasonics | Bob Moog tribute library

Moogfest | main
Moogfest | YouTube channel