Audio / Features

It’s pronounced (MOHG): A Brief History of How Moog Changed the Music World

17Share

On rare occasions, a specific instrument manufacturer becomes so iconic that their name becomes synonymous with the instrument itself. Guitars have the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster, organs have Hammond, and synthesizers have Moog. While there is an ever-growing world of analog and digital synths, alongside ever-more imaginative software-based synth programs, Moog synths and their classic tone remain the brass ring for many. Responsible for the concept of modular synthesis (which is currently enjoying a new renaissance), many aspects of Moog synths, especially their famous ladder filters, are often copied in the analog and digital realms.

As you might suspect, such an innovative line of products has an interesting and somewhat idiosyncratic history. The current iteration of the company, Moog Music, has its roots in founder Dr. Robert Moog’s storied past, and picks up where Moog left off in the late 1970s when he left his eponymous company for other ventures, including a stint at Kurzweil during the mid to late ’80s. However, to know and understand what Moog Music stands for, you need to take a look at Bob Moog’s own history.


The late Dr. Robert Moog, who went from selling Theremin kits to inventing voltage-controlled synthesizers.

 

Born May 23, 1934, in New York City, Moog found his entry into electronic music not behind the keyboard of some proto-synth, but rather building and selling Theremins, the proximity-controlled instruments you play via hand gestures—prevalent in the sound tracks of many 1950s sci-fi movies.  Moog continued to make Theremins, and then “assemble-it-yourself” Theremin kits throughout the 1950s and ’60s, helping to finance his way through undergrad at Queens College, CUNY; graduate school at Columbia University; and finally his Ph.D. in engineering physics, from Cornell.

The Birth of Modular and Moog as We Know It

Clearly not satisfied in handling one challenge at a time, just before his graduation from Cornell, Moog, working alongside composer Herbert A. Deutsch, created the basis for what would eventually become his Moog Modular synthesizer. What started life as a few breadboards eventually took shape, and by the 1964 Audio Engineering Society’s Convention, Moog had unveiled prototypes and began taking orders for what would become a sonic revolution.

While his Theremin and Theremin kit business was always successful, it was not until Moog created his modular approach to synthesis that his thumbprint would truly begin to be felt. Pioneering subtractive synthesis based around voltage-controlled oscillators, Moog employed transistors rather than tubes used in earlier synthesizer systems built by others, whose size and cost made them mostly impractical for larger-scale production. Thanks to the (comparatively) smaller size and modular design, the Moog Modular began finding its way into recording studios to be used in film scoring, as well as on albums.


The Moog factory, in Asheville, North Carolina

 

Though we take for granted that synths are played with an organ-style keyboard, the modular design was not, in fact, designed for performance, and its sounds could be triggered in a number of ways, including via different modules or its ribbon controller. Familiar to anyone who has worked in a professional recording studio, the Moog Modular used patch cables to connect different modules to one another, allowing for a wide possibility of signal flow and, therefore, sonic options.

Helping the ’60s and ’70s Sound Psychedelic

The eerie and seemingly infinitely changeable sound of Moog synthesizers played no small role in the burgeoning psychedelic sound of the 1960s and the ’70s, finding its way onto releases from artists ranging from The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Doors, and many more. Bob Moog himself once quipped, after the Moog was used on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy, “There’s a psychedelic scene where everybody’s stoned, and that’s where they used the Moog. You know, you really couldn’t get stoned back then without having some synthesizer music playing.”

“There’s a psychedelic scene where everybody’s stoned, and that’s where they used the Moog. You know, you really couldn’t get stoned back then without having some synthesizer music playing.”

While proving popular with pop artists of the time, the synthesizer as an instrument was still a bit of a footnote prior to the release of Wendy (née Walter) Carlos’s now famous Grammy-Award-winning album, Switched-On Bach. Carlos, a musical prodigy, performed classic Bach pieces entirely on a custom-built Moog synthesizer. The album truly showcased what synthesizers are capable of, and helped bring the Moog name to the lips of musicians around the world.

Big Sounds from Small Places: The Arrival of the Minimoog

1970 saw the arrival of the Minimoog, which has become the format most people think of when they think of Moog. Scaling down the Moog Modular into a keyboard-based piece that could easily be used for live performance as well as in the studio, the Minimoog became quickly popular with a wide variety of artists, and saw a few revisions, though Revision D remains the most sought after and emulated. While Moog Modulars were frankly cost and size prohibitive, the Minimoog placed the synthesizer within the grasp of more people, thanks to its size, production, and pricing.

The importance of the Minimoog on synthesis, and popular music as a whole, almost cannot be overstated. Originally finding a home in acts like prog rock giants Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, the Minimoog’s influence on early electronic music was felt on its heavy use on Kraftwerk’s classic, Autobahn.

A Moog by any Other Name…

In 1977, Bob Moog left Moog Music, and started a company called Big Briar, continuing to steadfastly produce Theremins. Once again, Moog continued to push boundaries with the release of his Moogerfooger line of effect pedals (still available today), which found their way into synth players’ signal flows, as well as the pedalboards of many famous guitarists.


One of the line of Moogerfooger effects pedals

 

Without his guidance and ideas, Moog Music faltered in Bob Moog’s absence and, in 1993, stopped all manufacturing. However, in 2002, like a voltage-controlled phoenix rising from the ashes, Bob Moog reacquired the rights to the name Moog Music, and moved Big Briar’s product line to the Moog Music name.

Seemingly to celebrate this victory, Moog Music released the first iteration of the Minimoog Voyager, with its final iteration being the Minimoog Voyager XL. This marked a new era for Moog Music, seeing the release of many more affordable and digitally controlled units, allowing users to now save presets while still maximizing the sound of analog synthesis.


Moog Minimoog Voyager XL Monophonic Synthesizer

 

Bob Moog died in 2005, leaving behind a legacy of sound and inspiration for a wide variety of musicians, composers, and performers. Moog Music has continued onward with his vision, and the company is seemingly more relevant than ever, thanks in no small part to the resurgence of modular synths and the growing appetite for all things analog. The future is exciting, as we all wait to see what will take place in the Moog lineup.  

17 Comments

Awesome article!

It is a real shame that Herbert Deutsch never gets mentioned in any of these Bob Moog articles. He worked very closely with him in developing the first Moog synthesizer, particularly the keyboard interface, and was the musician part of the equation. Moog never liked to mention him though, not sure why. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Deutsch. And yeah, Bob pronounced it "mohg" not "moog" but he was quoated as saying either one was fine for the synth!

Hey Todd, 

I agree Herbert Deutsch typically doesn't get any mentions in these kinds of pieces, but I did give him a nod if you want to take another look! His contributions were no doubt integral to Bob's early synths. Thanks for reading!

You can't mention the impact of Moog on the music industry without including Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  Aside from prominently featuring a Moog synth in their music, ELP toured with a full sized Modular Synth, which towered over Keith Emerson on stage.  Moog Music has recently started offering those modular synths again, including a model that's a copy of the original ELP unit.

Lou, 

It's fun to see modular synths once again gaining popularity, notably in the Eurorack format. I do give a nod to ELP, as you said, you can't really talk about the early days of modern synths and not mention them!

hi Jaime!

MOOG was a legend, this sound come with me since a long time! Nice, ELP, and so on!

But I think you have forgotten a little detail. Moog made a cooperation with Gibson in early 80's to build a guitar amplifier... The "LAB Serie" I bought a L5 in 82 or 83 and play on it with my old Gibson SG Standard (1962). This amplifier (my L5) made an australian tour in with Charlélie Couture in early 90's. Today it's still in a great shape!

Moog made the preamp, compressor and filters, Gibson made the "crate" and the power stage of this amp. The result is an amazing amp...

Thanks for these informations!

Patrick, 

That is quite the obscure reference! Moog has flirted with guitar gear for a long time, with some things, like their Moogerfoogers and minifooger pedals being more widely adopted than the LAB series or the Moog guitar they released in the mid 2000s. Thanks for reading!

Very good article - thanks! There were also other Moog models out there in the sixties, e.g. the Sonic Six which was a cheaper version of the MiniMoog that I used for many years. I remember that my musicians friends made fun of me because I was such a Moog lover and tried to put the sound in every piece we played. I definitely have to listen to Switched On Bach" again....

Hey Wolfgang, 

Good call on the Sonic Six, not one I was familiar with before. Switched on Bach is a trip, really required listening for what synths can do! Thanks for reading. 

Yeah, it was a nice write up, but it wasn't done by a professional.
Thumbprints being felt?? Come on!

So happy you thought the write up was nice, thanks for reading!

Beautifully well written article, a great man, visionary, and a pioneer in the art of music production. Who can't think of MOOG, and not think of the excellent soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange ?

Most of the history, I knew, but some of the finer details, I did not. That, and the hietus of the production and why. A truely missed artist of the music world, at least he has left behind a legacy, and will be remembered by his work, for many years.

Hey Casey, 

Thanks for reading. Bob Moog had a very interesting history indeed, and he did a lot of great work for companies that did not bear his name, which is not the most widely known thing. Fortunately Moog Music as a brand is in good hands today!

My first real synth was a Realistic Concertmate MG-1 (built by Moog); first actual was a Casio VL-1...have been a Moog (and synth) fan since the late 70s, have always been fascinated by synth sounds.  If it weren't for Dr. Moog, music wouldn't be the same!

Great article about a great man.  I remember wandering into the electronic music studio at Mills College in Oakland, and beholding a huge modular Moog studio synthesizer.  This inspired me to study electronic technology, and begin a 5 year project of building my own gigantic synthesizer from scratch, using schematics from Electronotes issues.  Happy times. 

Great article about a great man.  I remember wandering into the electronic music studio at Mills College in Oakland, and beholding a huge modular Moog studio synthesizer.  This inspired me to study electronic technology, and begin a 5 year project of building my own gigantic synthesizer from scratch, using schematics from Electronotes issues.  Happy times. 

Hey Frank, 

Thanks for reading! What an opportunity that must have been, and as we see more and more affordable and impressive analog synths hitting the market, one that more folks can have. 

Close

Close

Close