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Awesome Men Throughout History: Robert Moog

So last weekend was Artscape, a huge public arts festival that takes over midtown Baltimore in July, invariably on the hottest or rainiest weekend of the month. I spent that time running lights and projection for High Zero, a local experimental music collective that brings musicans and artists in from all over the place for their Artscape performance series.

Moog!

I mention this because a lot of those musicians favor electronic music (or just loud, dense blasts of electronic noise), and I wondered (because I am a nerd and wonder things like this fairly often) how many of them would have been there without Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer and one of the most important figures in electronic music. Whether you’re into circuit-bending and other abstract craziness or just a bro with some Daft Punk on your workout playlist, Robert Moog has influenced your life. Which is enough to make him an Awesome Man, I reckon.

At first glance, Moog comes off more like a science nerd than a music nerd. He got his bachelor’s in physics from Queens College, another one in electrical engineering from Columbia University, and then a doctorate in engineering physics from Cornell. Clearly, it wasn’t his academic career that introduced him to music.

No, it was a childhood interest in vacuum-tube theremins that started him down that road. He started building them in 1948, then started selling build-it-yourself theremin kits through his small company, R.A. Moog Co., which naturally got him thinking about other complex electronic music systems.

While synthesizers existed prior to Moog, they were cumbersome, limited in circuitry and function, and were often custom-built for specific purposes (like scoring the film Forbidden Planet, which was quite the undertaking, given the amount of unique circuits that had to be designed for it).

Moog’s innovations, which were made possible by the invention of the transistor, made electronic music systems smaller, cheaper, more reliable, and much easier to use. Moog’s team made a lot of improvements – voltage control, sequencing, etc. – but the biggest one, in my opinion, was the introduction of a keyboard as the primary user interface for his synthesizers.  Now the synthesizer could be used as a real musical instrument instead of a wall-sized curiosity that you couldn’t play without an engineering degree. And because his versatile machines were much easier to mass produce than older models, he began selling assembly kits to recording studios and sound engineers, again through his own company.

It didn’t take long for Moog’s efforts to get noticed elsewhere, either. His demonstration of a Bach piece arranged for synthesizer by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, two early believers in his work, got a standing ovation at the 1968 AES convention, and a recording of Bach pieces similarly arranged by Carlos and Elkind earned them three Grammys and was one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of all time.

In addition, pop artists like Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and even Simon & Garfunkel were using Moog synthesizers in their recordings during the 1960s, and the 1970s saw Stevie Wonder and Giorgio Moroder produce more complex arrangements with the Moog; while Moogs had been used as an addition to traditional pop arrangements by the musicians noted above, Wonder and Moroder demonstrated that the Moog could be an alternative to them as well.

Of course, we know all this now, and electronic music has come a long way since then. But Moog was the guy who helped synthesizers make the transition from machine to instrument and, in his own way, gave them souls. I’ll leave you with him talking about that very subject, among other things, at the Red Bull Music Academy in Capetown, South Africa two years before his death, in 2003.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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