[EAS] Robert Moog dead at 71
Peter J. Kindlmann
pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Sep 11 18:53:17 EDT 2005
Let me take you away for a moment from the calamities of the last two
weeks, and note the passing of Richard Moog, a pioneer in the
technology for music. In the later 1960s his work, and that of Don
Buchla, inspired my own exploration at Yale University of the genre
of modular analog sound synthesis design, the first using integrated
circuits. It was electronics technology in its early days, first
generation op amps and early RTL, DTL and CMOS logic families. But it
was technology sufficiently resourceful to inspire artists and
collaborations between artists and engineers. Richard Moog started
much of it.
If the URL doesn't work for you, the text of The Economist obit
follows below. There is also a Moog biography at the Web site of the
company that bears his name, Moog Music.
Finally, a convenient bibliography of those early days is at
Sep 1st 2005
From The Economist print edition
Robert Moog, an electronic-music pioneer, died on August 21st, aged 71
IN ONE sense, music went electric in the 1950s when companies such as
Fender and Gibson began mass-producing electric guitars. But that was
only half a revolution. The music was electronically amplified, but
the original sound was still generated by mechanical vibrations, as
it had been for thousands of years.
Glimpses of an all-electronic future had been offered since the end
of the 19th century. The Telharmonium, a 200-ton mechanical ancestor
of the Hammond organ designed to be played down the telephone, had
allowed musicians to tinker with sound waves to produce interesting
new noises as early as 1897. From 1920 the Theremin, played by waving
one's hands in front of two radio receivers, generated eerie
electronic glissandi without any moving parts.
In 1955 RCA, an American industrial company, combined these
innovations in their Mark II Synthesiser, which used electric
currents both to generate and manipulate sound waves. The Synthesiser
was "played" using a binary programming language stored on punch
tape, and it filled a whole room at the University of Columbia.
Electronic music seemed destined to remain a curiosity-until, in
1964, a shy young man called Robert Moog, a graduate student at
Cornell University, unveiled his own analogue synthesiser at a
meeting of America's Audio Engineering Society.
Mr Moog's background was ideal. He had been the class swot in Queens,
and bullied for it. His mother had nagged him to become a concert
pianist; his father, who loved to tinker with electronics, had kept
him amused out of class by helping him to build a Theremin, whose
subtleties enchanted him. His analogue synthesiser was elegant,
turning a room-sized machine into something that could be set up in a
recording studio; and it was musician-friendly, with a keyboard just
like the one his mother had kept his nose to.
Musicians wishing to master the instrument still had to learn a new
vocabulary of waveforms, oscillators and filters. But it was a
rewarding study. Synthesisers can generate an almost infinite variety
of sounds, ranging from simulated guitars or pianos to, as Jim
Morrison of The Doors once claimed, "the sound of broken glass
falling from the void into creation".
News of the invention spread fast. In 1968 it found fame when Walter
(now Wendy) Carlos, an early practitioner of electronic music,
released "Switched-on Bach", a hit album of Bach recorded entirely on
Mr Moog's equipment. But the instrument's big impact was on popular
music. The dark, druggy, disillusioned pop Zeitgeist of the late
1960s exactly suited the weird sounds made by the new machine. The
Beatles used a Moog extensively on their late album "Abbey Road".
Emerson Lake and Palmer, an early progressive rock band, were so
enamoured of Moogs that they took one on tour with them, despite its
bulk and delicate temperament.
Music to the masses
Other firms were quick to realise the potential of the new invention.
By the 1970s, there were several competing models. Mr Moog continued
to innovate, introducing in 1970 the smaller, portable Minimoog that
allowed electronic music to get to night clubs or the beach. He kept
at the cutting edge until the 1980s, and the arrival of
computer-based digital synthesisers. Even now, some musicians-Fatboy
Slim, for one-continue to prefer the warm, analogue Moog sound.
His invention kick-started electronic music, both as an influence on
mainstream music and as a sub-genre in itself. Bands such as Pink
Floyd spearheaded the new sound, their music featuring long keyboard
solos that seemed to originate in the emptiness of outer space.
Stevie Wonder brought the synthesiser to a more mainstream audience;
Herbie Hancock helped introduce it to jazz fans. Later, Kraftwerk and
similar groups released entire albums of ghostly, futuristic music
made without a traditional instrument in sight.
For all his electronic and musical talent, Mr Moog was no
businessman. He had begun well enough, making a packet as a young man
by selling build-it-yourself Theremin kits, but after he had invented
his synthesiser he could not manage its success. When Moog Music was
bought by a firm called Norlin, he was relegated to minor
He left in 1977, setting up another company, Big Briar Productions,
and working on a variety of strange new instruments that he hoped
would allow musicians even greater expressiveness. (His ideal, for
all his modernity, was to produce an electronic instrument that could
be played with the human emotion of a cello or a flute.) None of his
later inventions had the same impact as his original synthesiser, but
that didn't bother him. He saw himself as a simple "toolmaker",
working to give other musicians the sounds they wanted. He rejected
the idea that he had democratised electronic music; that, he
insisted, had been achieved by cheap Japanese keyboards in the 1980s.
Here, at least, he was mistaken. Without his inventions, thousands of
composers in almost every conceivable genre of music-and millions of
their listeners-would have been restricted to the familiar sounds of
traditional instruments. And music would have been the poorer for it.
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