Robert Moog Interview
By Paul Clark via Email, March 1997
Best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, Robert Arthur "Bob" Moog was an American pioneer of electronic music. At age 19 Bob and his father begin building and selling Theremins. A couple of years later, inspired by composer Herbert A. Deutsch, Bob designed and built the first Moog Modular synthesizer. In 1968 Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach album, recorded entirely with a custom-made Moog Modular synthesizers, was a big hit, both in the classical and pop music world.
Fast forward to 1975 and Moogs' Minimoog, Taurus Bass Pedals and Polymoog change the face of popular music, creating electronic music and prog rock.
Around the time of this interview Bob was working on the Moogerfooger MF-101 Lowpass Filter, MF-102 Ring Modulator processor and Minimoog Voyager.
Was there one defining moment while developing your first synthesizer that you realized it had the potential to radically change the way music is made?
No, there was no one defining moment. I got into designing electronic music composition equipment because I liked working with creative musicians, people who were always looking for new ways of making music. I worked with a lot of musicians, and each one made his or her own contribution to our synthesizer design technology.
What were the major technical problems you encountered when designed the first prototypes?
The first circuits were pretty simple, actually. The only thing was that the pitch wasn't very accurate in the early prototypes. That didn't bother us at the time, because we were working with composers who didn't care that much about pitch accuracy. Only after our synthesizers became commercially important and our customers wanted to produce conventional melodies did we realize that we would have to clean up and stabilize our voltage-controlled oscillators.
Did you ever intend for the synthesizer to become a constituent part of an orchestra, purposefully trying to develop filters that would in some way emulate existing orchestral instruments?
No way. We kept telling people that our equipment was designed to make new sounds, not to emulate existing orchestral instruments. In fact, the filters that we developed were distinctly electronic-sounding. Orchestral instruments have formant characteristics that are very different from sounds that are shaped by our filters.
One of the most popular sounds produced by early mass produced synthesizers seems to have been the sound of strings. Is this a particularly easy sound to create?
The early 'string synthesizers' used conventional electronic organ technology in combination with 'bucket brigade' analog delay lines which time-shifted the tones, then remixed them to simulate string ensembles. It's a more complex way of making musical sounds than you would normally find in an electronic organ of the '70's, but it was a lot simpler than our synthesizer technology.
I once had the pleasure of playing a modular Moog synthesizer in a studio in London and remember wondering which module actually came first. The VCA is, I would have thought, at the heart of the instrument but how did you decide what to build next? Was the whole system developed at the same time?
My very first prototype (early 1964) consisted of two VCO's and one VCA, period. With that amount of stuff, a tape recorder, and some simple mixing and equalizing equipment, you could make a variety of new sounds that seemed absolutely amazing at the time. Next came ADSR envelope generators, envelope followers, and a simple keyboard controller. The VCF didn't come for another couple of years.
Do you still have the original blueprints of the your first synthesizers?
I'm afraid not. I have some hand sketches that I made as part of our development work, but the formal drawings were kept by the people who took Moog Music over when I left.
When you're not at work in your workshop what do you like to do? do you have any hobbies or pastimes?
I'm basically a family man. I like gardening, hiking and reading.
When can we see a Bob Moog film biography? Everyone I know thought you were great in the Theremin film. Have you been approached by anyone in Hollywood?
I was in one other film. It was called The Visionaries and produced in the '70's by the United States Information Agency. It contained five minute segments on six different inventors, one of whom was me. It was shown around the world where it was seen by millions of people, but the USA did not allow it to be shown in this country. Aside from that and the Theremin documentary, I haven't been in any films.
In the Theremin documentary you said something to the effect of "....the Theremin being a very highly tuned instrument, making full use of what little workings there are inside its wooden cabinet.....". What did you mean by this and how can we get back to producing instruments that work on the same principles?
Back in those days, electronic components were big and expensive. It was the designer's job to figure out how to accomplish a specific function with the absolute minimum of components. The RCA theremin circuit contains seven or eight vacuum tubes, maybe a couple of dozen resistors and capacitors, a few transformers and inductors, and almost nothing else. But each tube is a large, delicate, expensive component. In contrast, a typical modern integrated circuit may contain hundreds or thousands of circuit components, all of which fit on a tiny silicon chip. If you take inflation into account, a 1929 vacuum tube cost much, much more than a typical 1997 integrated circuit. I think it's hard to 'get back to producing instruments that work on the same principles', because the components that are available to us are already extremely complex, and some of the basic old-timey components are simply no longer available. A good example is the variable capacitor. This device is electrically simple, but it's large and mechanically complex. They are no longer used as the tuning elements of radios. Instead, we have pushbutton switches that increment a frequency synthesizer circuit, which is electrically sophisticated and complex, but small and cheap to mass-produce.
I understand you were at the NAMM exhibition in Anaheim this January, what were you doing there and what new instruments and devices can we expect to see from you in the near future?
I attended the NAMM show to see my many industry friends, and to see what's new. I also went to help my friend and colleague David Van Koevering to launch his new line of digital home piano instruments. The Van Koevering instruments have highly interactive touch-screen-controlled graphical user interfaces.
The next Big Briar product will be a state-of-the-art MIDI theremin, which we'll introduce this coming summer. After that, who knows? There's a good chance that we'll develop some new synthesizer products.
According to a growing number of music journalists the next "big thing" on the popular music horizon is music created almost entirely with electronic musical instruments, and we hope to see some new Moog products among those used! Are you excited that modern music has developed the way it has since the introduction of the Moog and what do you see way out there in the future? Are there any technological surprises coming our way?
I don't think that there are any big surprises relating to sound-production technology. However, I do believe that we will see some major advances in computer-based music production and performance systems. Even right now, you can fit a complex sound engine on a card that can fit into your computer. And, if you have a pentium-class computer, you can use the computer itself to make musical sounds. With a computer as the interface between the sound-producing circuit and the musician, you can program a very wide range of application-specific "virtual instruments". In fact, we will certainly get back to the ideas of the '60's and '70's that excited experimental musicians around the world. Back then, musicians were really turned on by the idea that you could organize a whole system of music production instruments to meet your specific creative needs.
With respect to new 'Moog' products, we plan to introduce products under the Moog name in the very near future. These products will use technology that I am familiar with, and that I helped to develop. But they will also make good use of MIDI and other digital system protocols.