The Moog synthesizer was one of the first widely used electronic musical instruments, and was invented by Dr. Robert Moog (the correct pronounciation of the last name rhymes with “vogue”).
He had a great educational and business background, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1952. In 1953, at just age 19, Moog founded his first company, R. A. Moog Co., which would later become Moog Music. Before long, he had also earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, another in electrical engineering, and a Ph.D in engineering physics!
(He built his own theremin while at age 14 or 15! The theremin is an instrumental device that was invented by Leon Theremin, born Lev Termen, in 1918 or 1919-accounts vary.
It’s played by waving your hands in the vicinity of two metal rods, controlling the pitch and volume, that were attached to a wooden cabinet. Moving a hand closer to the vertical rod changes the pitch; moving a hand closer to the horizontal loop changes the volume. You can hear the theremin in the 1951 classic sci-fi film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Remember the errie sound effects?)
In 1955, RCA produced the first modern synthesizer, but it was Moog who created the first subtractive synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller, unlike the few other synthesizer manufacturers; it was demonstrated at the AES (Association of Electronic Science, I believe) convention in 1964 (It could sometimes take several hours to set up the machine for a new sound).
During the 1960s, the R.A. Moog Co. was employed to build and market the modular synthesizers.
The Moog (at this time) wasn’t considered a performance instrument, but rather a complex, studio-oriented professional audio system which could be used as a musical instrument; the keyboard was simply a convenient and familiar way to control it. Electronic music at this time was quite atonal (This means having no recognized tonal center or key, or not being in any key).
The original model was designed for creating recorded electronic music. The later ones were much improved and better for real-time performance.
Through his involvement in electronic music, Moog developed close professional ties with artists such as Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Rick Wakeman (of Yes), John Cage, and Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos), who was one of his earliest customers. Carlos not only used the synthesizer, but also provided valuable feedback to the further development of the instrument.
As Walter Carlos, he released “Switched-On Bach” (1968) and “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer” (1969). “Bach” earned him three Grammy Awards. The composer also used a synthesizer for the soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange” (1971).
Carlos’ success spawned a “mini-craze” of other synthesizer records from ’68 to the mid-1970s. There were “Country Moog Classics”, “Exotic Moog” by Martin Denny, and other synthesized albums covering rock and other genres.
Mick Jagger bought a modular synthesizer in 1967; The Beatles also bought one, using it throughout the “Abbey Road” album, particularly on “Because.” George Harrison used a Moog in late ’68 on his solo album, “Electronic Sound.”
The jazz musician Sun Ra has used one; The Moog was also featured on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s song, “Lucky Man” (Remember the unique instrumental solo ending? That was the Moog, baby!).
The first album to use a Moog, however, was “Cosmic Sounds” by The Zodiac. The first pop music album to feature this instrument was “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd.” by The Monkees in 1967 (Group member Micky Dolenz owned one of the first twenty ever sold!).
The first live performance of a Moog was made by pianist Paul Bley at Lincoln Center in New York City on December 26, 1969 (Bley had developed an interface that allowed for real time performance on the synthesizer).
One of the best-known and most creative users of the Moog is Stevie Wonder. He’s won numerous awards, including Grammys, for the synthesized albums “Talking Book” and “Innervisions”, among others.
In 1971, the Moog Co. began production of the Mini Moog Model D which was among the first widely available, portable, and relatively affordable synthesizers.
Unlike the modular synthesizer, this was specifically designed for keyboard layers; it stayed in tune well and had a very user-friendly design. This particular model was the first to solidify the synthesizer’s public image as a keyboard instrument and became the most popular monphonic synthesizer of the 1970s (13,000 were sold between 1971 and 1982.
Another widely used and very popular Moog synthesizer was the Taurus bass pedal synthesizer, released in 1975. Organ-like pedals and synthetic bass sounds were featured; this model was used by several rock bands of the time (Genesis, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Rush, and others).
Despite several business difficulties (and an eventual recovery), Moog continued renovating his invention and developing new ones until his untimely death (brain tumor) at 71 in 2005.
The Bob Moog Foundation was set up as a tribute to this award winning musical pioneer and a continuation of electronic music development.