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Moog: A Revolution in Sound

By Graham Reynolds, Fri., July 25, 2008

Moog: A Revolution in Sound

The organ as we know it dates from the 14th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in 1709, and Robert Moog developed his first synthesizer prototype in 1964. Each left music a completely different beast in its wake.

The young Moog (born in 1934), armed with a physics degree from Queens College, an electrical engineering degree from Columbia University, and a passion for music, started out selling theremin kits. In 1963, he moved to the unlikely upstate New York town of Trumansburg, just north of Ithaca, to set up his business, with an eye toward a new instrument.

By the following year, his first synthesizer was ready. With experimental composer Herb Deutsch supplying musical advice and fellow engineer, musician, and businessman Walter Sear helping with the business end, Moog perfected his instrument for sale.

The synthesizer, like most radicalism, lived on the fringe. It took composer Wendy Carlos (then Walter Carlos) and her debut, 1968's Switched-On Bach, to bring Moog's invention into the mainstream. Carlos' renditions of Johann Sebastian Bach classics not only became the genre's first platinum seller; it put the synthesizer at the center of America's musical mainstream. Three years later, Carlos followed with the score to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

The keyboard has for centuries been the chosen instrument of composers, starting with the organ, then the harpsichord and clavichord, and finally the piano, the instrument of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, and the vast majority of composers in between. While the piano retains its stronghold, the synthesizer and MIDI keyboard have largely taken over. More new scores than not are entered into a computer, using some sort of keyboard and a MIDI connection.

Since Moog created his first keyboard synthesizer, the instrument has continued to produce radical offspring, the most important of which are digital synthesizers, using zeros and ones instead of a continuous electronic signal; samplers, using bits of recorded sound stored in their memory; and MIDI controllers, using a standardized digital interface language. Between the three, their effects on popular, experimental, and film music cannot be overestimated. It's a rare day that we go through without hearing a sound that owes its existence to Bob Moog.

Later in life, the inventor settled in Asheville, N.C., building theremins and creating a new keyboard, the Minimoog Voyager. On Aug. 21, 2005, Moog succumbed to a brain tumor, having witnessed in his lifetime the musical revolution he made possible.

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