Dr. Robert Moog – the granddad of synthesizers

Dr. Robert Moog – the granddad of synthesizers
The author (right) with Dr. Robert Moog.

When – like me – you’ve been involved in electronic music for almost 30 years, Dr. Robert Moog—the inventor of the legendary Moog synthesizer—holds the kind of status that believers hold for the Pope or the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel much awe for the chubby, white-haired elderly gentleman who walks into the interview room and shakes my hand.

Dr. Robert Moog is about as intimidating as the old grandpa in a TV commercial for German toffees. Throughout the interview, he carries himself with such humility and diplomacy that you almost forget that this man is a key figure in contemporary music history. I switch on my minidisc recorder, and Robert Moog begins to tell his story.


It all began when Robert Moog was growing up in the USA of the 1940s, where electronics was a popular hobby among common people. Back then, newsstands were filled with electronics magazines with instructions for small devices you could build with just a few components. Together with his father, young Robert enjoyed soldering these little gadgets together, first for himself, then for others.

“And what I most enjoyed making were the devices that could make sounds. In 1949, when I was 14, I saw an article on how to build a theremin, which is a fairly simple instrument to build yourself,” explains Robert Moog.

“I didn’t have any technical background, but I learned a lot about electronics and sound. And when I started high school, I spent almost all my free time designing and building theremins. Finally, in 1961—while I was studying engineering—I wrote a DIY article on how to build a theremin with transistors.”

The magazine Electronics World put the article on the cover, and at the end of the article, Robert Moog mentioned that you could buy the parts from the R. E. Moog Company. As a result, he got so many orders for theremin kits that he had to skip school for half a year.

“So I thought: ‘I’ve hit the jackpot!’ I suddenly had the opportunity to make a living doing something I really enjoyed! And I still had that feeling when I started building synthesizers.”

Electronic Music As Robert Moog himself tells it, the synthesizer was not actually his own revolutionary vision. The individual components were developed along the way—as responses to other people’s wishes and needs.

“At a conference, I met a music teacher who asked me if I knew anything about electronic music,” Robert Moog explains. “Electronic music at that time was an activity for dedicated experimental musicians and mostly took place at larger universities. It was people like Pierre Schaeffer in France and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, who worked with primitive tone generators and tape recorders. And I didn’t actually know much about that.”

Tone generators could only produce static single tones. But the music teacher who approached Robert Moog was interested in sounds that moved—changed over time.

“And when he described those sounds to me…” Robert Moog interrupts his story with sounds like “wiuu,” “aeuw,” and “bip-bup-bip-bup,” before continuing: “I got the idea to use voltage-controlled circuits. I built a few simple voltage-controlled tone generators and amplifiers. He heard what they could do, recorded the sounds, and pieced together a piece of music. And when I heard it, I was blown away!” Robert Moog laughs again.

“That was the beginning,” he states. “That’s how I started in the synthesizer business.”

The aynthesizer Composer Vladimir Ussachevsky later came with more requests for new components, which Robert Moog built – and the parts were eventually assembled into the first real Moog synthesizer. But although his instruments became a great success, his modesty forbids him from taking credit for it.

“The history of technology is driven by two factors. Firstly: What can be done if the cost is irrelevant? Secondly: What can be done so cheaply that you don’t have to think twice about it?” explains Robert Moog.

“The first electronic instruments were constructed with vacuum tubes, and it would be very difficult to build voltage-controlled instruments with tubes. However, that was possible with the transistors that came later. And it wasn’t until the mid-60s, when transistors of good quality became available at a reasonable price, that I could start building synthesizer parts for commercial use.”

In fact, other companies like Roland and Korg soon built even cheaper models. But the Moog synthesizer remained the flagship among electronic instruments. Robert Moog himself does not see himself as a musician. He is definitely a engineer.

“But I never do anything without talking to musicians first. If I were building race cars, I would talk to race car drivers. If I were building airplanes, I would talk to pilots. I am not able to imagine how the instruments will be used. But I can talk to musicians, and they can explain it to me in a language that both they and I understand.”

New Sounds

“Our first customers were experimental musicians interested in creating new sounds. The next were those working with radio and TV commercials. They are always looking for quirky and attention-grabbing sounds and effects. By the late 60s, people had become accustomed to synthesizer sounds through the commercials. They might never have heard of the Moog synthesizer, but they had heard the sounds and associated them with something cute and fun,” recalls Robert Moog.

But then the perhaps most groundbreaking synthesizer record ever was released: Wendy Carlos’ Bach interpretations ‘Switched-on Bach.’

“Carlos swept all the cute quirkyness aside and proved that the technology was serious enough to make ‘real’ music with, and electronic music became very popular. For in the late 60s—at least in the USA—you could sell any kind of music. People were very open to new sounds.”

Wasn’t there a lot of people who saw the synthesizer as an easy and cheap replacement for ‘natural’ instruments? Robert Moog shrugs. “From the start, I was most interested in creating new sounds, because that’s what my customers wanted. After ‘Switched-on Bach,’ some people were keen on using sounds that were more recognizable, and many talked about imitating ‘real’ instruments.”

“But you really can’t,” he states dryly. “They are two different ways of producing sound.”

Still Surprised

Today, you again hear analog synth sounds everywhere, and since the 90s at least a hundred musicians have asked Robert Moog if he’s going start producing the Minimoog again soon.

“It’s not just nostalgia for the old sound, though that’s certainly part of it. But just because the instrument is over 30 years old doesn’t mean it has nothing more to offer,” explains the synthesizer’s creator, who still gets surprised by what musicians can get out of it.

“Everyone discovers something new. To this day, musicians get new sounds out of the synthesizer. They learn to play it in new ways and create new tones and expressions. But is its potential exhausted? No, no one has done that. I mean—we don’t even know what its potential is,” says Robert Moog, beaming at the thought of having created something that, 30 years later, contains unexplored possibilities.

Recent attempts to simulate analog synthesizer sounds digitally have not convinced Robert Moog.

“As we all know, you can simulate the analog sound up to a certain point. But there is a difference. It’s like if I built a violin out of plastic. I could play it, and it probably wouldn’t sound so bad if I were a really skilled violinist. But it would still make a big difference. It would be much harder to play. I have nothing against digital technology, but I always return to analog.”

I thank him for the interview and turn off my minidisc recorder. Suddenly, he seems to have completely forgotten all about his own revolutionary invention. He is entirely absorbed by the minidisc, studying it curiously, asking me what it cost. Most likely, he would love to tear it out of my hands and take it apart to see how the little electronic device is engineered.

But, of course, he is way too nice.

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