August 26, 2005

Moog Synthesizer Creator Dies

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Robert Moog Ph.D. ’65, father of the popular electronic synthesizer, passed away last Sunday at the age of 71. He suffered from an inoperable brain tumor, discovered in April.

While his family encouraged him to play piano, Moog’s real interest was in physics. His talent in the subject allowed him to attend Bronx High School of Science in New York City, one of the city’s more prestigious schools. He continued from there to earn a physics bachelor’s degree at Queens College and an electrical engineering degree from Columbia University. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell.

Moog — rhymes with vogue — spent his lifetime making undeniable contributions to the field of music recording. Synthesizers today are used in all types of music, including rock, hip-hop, jazz, and even classical. He received a Grammy Trustees Award in recognition of the deep impact he made by developing synthesizers.

Moog arguably began his career in the field of recording at the young age of 14, when he built his own theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. By age 19, Moog had started selling mail-order theremin kits for $49.95.

In 1964, the year before he received his Ph.D. from Cornell, Moog developed voltage-controlled synthesizer modules — essentially, the first real-time playable and reconfigurable synthesizer. Three years later, Moog developed a second synthesizer, which sold for a mere $11,000 under the company name Moog Music Inc. The company’s first factory was located in Trumansburg, where it remained until 1971. The Moog synthesizer was used by now famous musical groups such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Who.

The only other synthesizer available at the time was manufactured by RCA, cost upwards of $100,000 and was built specifically for use by university-financed labs. Moog had created an all-in-one practical instrument that could conceivably be marketed for widespread use, not to mention its comparable ease of use and size.

It was Wendy Carlos’ 1968 Grammy-winning album, Switched-On Bach, that brought the Moog synthesizer national prominence and use. The Minimoog, released in 1971, was incredibly popular in the 1970s, selling approximately 13,000 units in that decade. Bands like the Beatles, Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones brought the synthesizer into more households when they began using them in their music.

“I’m an engineer. I see myself as a toolmaker and the musicians are my customers,” Moog once said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “They use the tools.”

At the end of 1977, Moog left his company to found Big Briar, to focus on developing and manufacturing custom electronic musical instruments, though he would come to reacquire the company in the coming decades. Moog keyboards ceased production in 1986 but in 2002 he revived it with a new model, the Minimoog Voyager, continuing to refine and enhance the way music is made.

“Bob shaped music in deep and meaningful ways by changing how music could be produced and ultimately, how it would sound. He contributed to a new soundscape — a legacy that we will continue in his honor,” wrote Mike Adam, president of Moog Music, in a statement on the company’s website, “He was a musical pioneer for the love of it and musicians everywhere have had the opportunity to expand their own creative horizons with Bob’s inventions.”