Celebrating the Man Who Built the First Synthesizers
“I can feel what is going inside a piece of electronic equipment.” — Dr. Robert Moog
You might have never heard of Dr. Robert Moog, but chances are you have heard one of his fine creations. For the past 50 years, he has designed the most influential and inspiring musical instruments of our time, most notably the Moog synthesizer. Bands ranging from the Beatles and the Beach Boys to Beck and Outkast have all used his instruments.
Born in New York City in 1934 to an engineer father, Moog was tinkering with soldering electronic components together from a young age. At 14, he built his first theremin, an instrument invented in the 1920s that’s played by waving your hands in close proximity to two antennas, to control pitch and volume. By 21, he was manufacturing “build-it-yourself” theremin kits with his father. He sold enough theremin kits through electronic hobbyist magazines to pay his way through Columbia University, where he got his degree in electronic engineering. He went on to receive a doctorate in physics from Cornell University.
In the ’60s, Moog’s love for the theremin led to ideas that eventually became the first musical synthesizer. In those days, his analog synthesizers stood 10 feet tall and weighed in at nearly 500 pounds. By 1970, he refined the instrument into the more portable “Minimoog,” which is considered by many to be the mother of all synths and was manufactured as Moog’s flagship synthesizer for 13 years.
By 1983, digital synthesizers had taken over. Into the early ’90s, Moog’s analog synthesizers were regarded by keyboard snobs as old, useless junk, save for the few bands that kept the Moog synth sounds alive. But when alternative rock music took over the airwaves in the mid-’90s, the vintage synth sound once again became popular. In 2002, he began making a revamped version of the 1970 Minimoog, called the Minimoog Voyager. He also designed the most unique and well-built guitar-effects line, the Moogerfooger series, and continued to make the most sought-after line of modern theremins, the Moog Etherwave series.
“Bob created and designed new effects and circuits up until the day he died,” confirmed Mike Adams, the president of Moog Music, Inc.
No wonder, then, that Moog is regarded as a cult hero by countless musicians. He set out to make an instrument that produced sounds never before heard and, by all measures, he succeeded. As the godfather of analog synthesis — essentially, the originator for anything that makes music via electronic circuitry — he is responsible for everything from Nintendo music to cell-phone ring tones. Moog felt that each musician had the ability to create a unique and spiritual human/machine connection through his instruments. As a musician who uses Moog synths, I can attest to this connection. No other keyboard instrument feels or sounds like a Moog. When playing the Moog, you feel as if you are making it come to life. It’s almost as if you can feel it breathing.
In April 2005, Moog was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (or GBM), a form of brain cancer. His doctors said the tumors would be impossible to operate on, due to their location in his brain. While he passed away at home in Asheville, North Carolina on August 21, 2005, Moog’s legacy will live on inside the circuits of electronic musical instruments of the past, present, and future.