The development of the Moog Synthesizer happened in the early days of electronic music. At that time, once a sound was created, it couldn’t be changed. The sounds were created by tapes that were cut and spliced together. One day Robert Moog came to New York City to demonstrate one of his synthesizers at a conference. His synthesizer allowed for the creation and change of sound without having to do tedious tape cutting and splicing.
The Moog Synthesizer was born, and soon many other companies joined in on the fun, creating more and more advanced synthesizers that allowed for greater expression in music. In this blog we are going to discuss the history of early electronic music and how it came to be. Hopefully you find it interesting!
The recent release of the documentary “Electronic Voyager” – a film about the life of Bob Moog and the history of the synthesizer – reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in 2007 about my visit to the Bob Moog Foundation. The post is quite long and I’ve been meaning to edit it for years but just never got around to it. Now that it’s been 10 years since my visit, I think it’s time to finally get this thing edited and posted.
I was able to spend an afternoon with Michelle Moog-Koussa (Bob’s daughter) at the Bob Moog Foundation in Asheville, NC. Michelle is executive director of the foundation and a wonderful person who kindly shared her knowledge of Bob and his work with me.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by electronic music. How it was made, how it sounded and how it affected people. I remember sitting in front of the television watching “The Tomorrow People” and thinking to myself that the music in the show sounded alive and as if it had a mind of its own.
Fast forward many years later and I am still fascinated by electronic music and what new sounds are being produced.
This blog is all about that fascination. It is about the history of early electronic music and the synthesizers which made it all possible.
My hope is that you will find this blog educational and entertaining.
In the late 1950s, Robert Moog began building theremins in his garage in Queens, New York. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, it is played without actually touching it by moving your hands around two antennas: one controlling pitch and the other controlling volume. It is a very odd-looking musical instrument, as demonstrated by my daughter, who also plays theremin:
Robert Moog was fascinated with electronic music and wanted to find an easier way for musicians to play electronic instruments. In 1964, he began work on what would become the first modular synthesizer–a series of modules (oscillators, filters and so forth) that could be connected together to create a wide variety of sounds. I’ve posted a picture of one of these early modular synthesizers below:
The synthesizer became popular because it was capable of creating sounds that no other musical instrument could. In fact, many people credit Bob Moog with starting the “electronic music revolution” because his instruments were used by many performers from Jean-Jacques Perrey to Rick Wakeman to Keith Emerson and beyond.
It’s funny to think of the humble Moog synthesizer as a dinosaur. After all, it’s an electronic instrument — but if you look at the many videos that are available on YouTube, they’re often populated by long-haired men in jeans and t-shirts playing jazzy licks on their keyboards. This might seem like an odd observation, except that this was how it was in 1968 when Robert Moog introduced his synthesizer to the world.
And yet, even though Moog’s synth wasn’t very big (it had only four octaves), it caught fire with musicians who were interested in experimenting with new sounds. Moog’s synth became so popular that a new genre of music was created: “psychedelic” music. By the early 1970s, psychedelic music had become mainstream pop music. It is hard to imagine that in the late 1960s, when electronic instruments were still very much in their infancy, Moog could have predicted that his synthesizer would become one of the most important instruments of all time.
The moog synthesizer has been called “the first electronic instrument.” It was not the first keyboard instrument; there had been electric pianos before moogs were invented. But moogs were the first fully electronic keyboard instruments.
The invention of the Moog Synthesizer begins with its creator Robert Moog, who in the early 1960’s began building theremins as a hobby. The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that was invented by Russian physicist Léon Theremin circa 1920. It was the first musical instrument that could be played without touching it, and it became pretty popular in the 20’s and 30’s.
By 1965, Moog had started making modular synthesizers while completing his Ph.D. thesis on voltage-controlled oscillators at Cornell University. By 1966, he had started to make his modular synthesizers commercially and then in 1967, Moog made a deal with Dick Hyman (a jazz pianist) to produce the first compact portable synthesizer called the Minimoog Model D.
The Minimoog Model D that Moog produced was designed as a portable version of his previous modular synthesizers, and it became a huge success among musicians worldwide. It is widely recognized as being one of the most important instruments in modern music history, as well as being one of the first widely used synthesizers.
The earliest analog synthesizers used a variety of control devices to produce the required control voltages. These included wheel controllers, a joystick, a ribbon controller and various types of foot pedals. The earliest analog synthesizers did not have a keyboard as we know it. Instead, they had a bank of drawbar style controls that allowed for precise adjustment of the pitch of each note in a chord.
These early synthesizers produced their sounds using different combinations of oscillators, filters and amplifiers all controlled by voltage signals. The voltage signals were controlled by the performer via a variety of different methods. The earliest analog synthesizers did not use standard musical scales to create the pitches of the notes they played.
Rather they produced the desired note by adjusting the frequency (pitch) of the oscillator creating that note and then adding together multiple oscillators to create chords or other complex sounds. The availability of standardized pitch control in later models allowed for easier performance with existing instruments and also allowed for new kinds of performance such as playing with two performers on one keyboard (duets).