THE MOOG SYNTHESIZER
by Pat Jacobs
The Moog synthesizer was one of the first widely
used electronic musical instruments, and was invented
by Dr. Robert Moog (the correct pronunciation of the
last name rhymes with "vogue").
He had a great educational and business background,
graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in
1952. In 1953, at just age 19, Moog founded his first
company, R. A. Moog Co., which would later become Moog
Before long, he had also earned a bachelor's
degree in physics, another in electrical engineering,
and a Ph.D in engineering physics!
He built his own Theremin while at age 14 or 15!
The Theremin is an instrumental device that was
invented by Leon Theremin, born Lev Termen, in 1918 or
It's played by waving your hands in the vicinity of
two metal rods, controlling the pitch and volume, that
were attached to a wooden cabinet. Moving a hand
closer to the vertical rod changes the pitch; moving a
hand closer to the horizontal loop changes the volume.
You can hear the Theremin in the 1951 classic sci-fi
film, "The Day the Earth Stood
Still." Remember the
errie sound effects?)
In 1955, RCA produced the first modern synthesizer,
but it was Moog who created the first subtractive
synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller, unlike
the few other synthesizer manufacturers; it was
demonstrated at the AES (Association of Electronic
Science, I believe) convention in 1964 (It could
sometimes take several hours to set up the machine for
a new sound).
During the 1960s, the R.A. Moog Co. was employed to
build and market the modular synthesizers.
The Moog (at this time) wasn't considered a
performance instrument, but rather a complex,
studio-oriented professional audio system which could
be USED as a musical instrument; the keyboard was
simply a convenient and familiar way to control it.
Electronic music at this time was quite atonal (This
means having no recognized tonal center or key, or not
being in any key).
The original model was designed for creating
RECORDED electronic music. The later ones were much
improved and better for real-time performance.
Through his involvement in electronic music, Moog
developed close professional ties with artists such
as Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Rick
Wakeman (of Yes), John Cage, and Walter Carlos (now
Wendy Carlos), who was one of his earliest customers.
Carlos not only used the synthesizer, but also
provided valuable feedback to the further development
of the instrument.
As Walter Carlos, he released "Switched-On Bach"
(1968) and "The Well-Tempered Synthesizer" (1969).
"Bach" earned him three Grammy Awards. The composer
also used a synthesizer for the soundtrack to "A
Clockwork Orange" (1971).
Carlos' success spawned a "mini-craze" of other
synthesizer records from '68 to the mid-1970s. There
were "Country Moog Classics", "Exotic Moog" by Martin
Denny, and other synthesized albums covering rock and
MIck Jagger bought a modular synthesizer in 1967;
The Beatles also bought one, using it throughout the
"Abbey Road" album, particularly on "Because." George
Harrison used a Moog in late '68 on his solo album,
The jazz musician Sun Ra has used one; The Moog was
also featured on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's song,
"Lucky Man" (Remember the unique instrumental solo
ending? That was the Moog, baby!).
The first album to use a Moog, however, was "Cosmic
Sounds" by The Zodiac. The first pop music album to
feature this instrument was "Pisces, Aquarius,
Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd." by The Monkees in 1967.
(Group member Micky Dolenz owned one of the first
twenty ever sold!)
The first live performance of a Moog was made by
pianist Paul Bley at Lincoln Center in New York City
on December 26, 1969 (Bley had developed an interface
that allowed for real time performance on the
One of the best-known and most creative users of
the Moog is Stevie
Wonder. He's won numerous awards,
including Grammys, for the synthesized albums "Talking
Book" and "Innervisions", among others.
In 1971, the Moog Co. began production of the
MiniMoog Model D which was among the first widely
available, portable, and relatively affordable
Unlike the modular synthesizer, this was
specifically designed for keyboard layers; it stayed
in tune well and had a very user-friendly design.
particular model was the first to solidify the
synthesizer's public image as a keyboard instrument
and became the most popular monphonic synthesizer of
the 1970s (13,000 were sold between 1971 and 1982.
Another widely used and very popular Moog
synthesizer was the Taurus bass pedal synthesizer,
released in 1975.
Organ-like pedals and synthetic bass
sounds were featured; this model was used by several
rock bands of the time (Genesis, Yes, Electric Light
Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Rush, and others).
Despite several business difficulties (and an
eventual recovery), Moog continued renovating his
invention and developing new ones until his untimely
death (brain tumor) at 71 in 2005.
The Bob Moog Foundation was set up as a tribute to
this award winning musical pioneer and a continuation
of electronic music development.
more articles by Pat Jacobs
Photo above courtesy of Kevin Lightner,
used with permission