The Orgins of the Synthesizer: An Interview with Dr. Robert Moog
By Brian L. Knight
Through the avant-garde compositions of Brian Eno and
Frank Zappa to the pyrotechnics of Keith Emerson, the Moog Synthesizer has become one of
the most recognizable instruments in the music industry. Just as Les Paul is the
father of the electric guitar, Dr. Robert Moog is the father of the Moog synthesizer.
Moog, who has a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from Cornell University, first became
interested in electronic instruments when he worked with the theremin. This instrument,
which Dr. Moog will later explain better than I can, is best recognized for providing the
space-age effects for 1950s sci-fi movies and more recently, has graced the stage of Phish
concerts with keyboardist Page McConnell behind the helm. Dr. Moog was not the
inventor of the theremin but rather an electronic artisan who kept the quirky instrument
alive and well. The real credit for the invention of the theremin belongs to Leon
Theremin, a Russian electronic engineer who introduced his version of the theremin in 1920
at the young age of 21. In 1927, Leon Theremin presented the instrument to the
American public and it began it cult-like rise to popularity that is still occurring
The theremin was one of the first electronic instruments that Dr. Moog manufactured with
the company that he started in 1954. During this time, Dr. Moog also focused his
attention on the development of an electronic synthesizer and in 1964, he introduced the
Moog synthesizer to the world. At first, only avant-garde composers and musical
experimenters used the instrument. They used the advancements of the synthesizer to
create a whole breadth of virgin sounds. The Moog Synthesizer was finally introduced
to a large audience through Wendy Carloss 1968 album Switched on Bach, which
featured Carlos, a Moog synthesizer, a multi-track recorder and some interesting
electrical interpretations of classical compositions.
After the success of the Wendy Carlos album, the instrument hit a widespread appeal,
especially in the world of progressive music. Most notable was the band Emerson,
Lake and Palmer, which was known to carry five Moog synthesizers on tour with them. In
a growth pattern similar to computers, the first Moogs were large unwieldy devices but as
technology progressed, they became smaller and more accessible. Today, Dr. Moog has
one full circle. He has left his work with synthesizers and returned to his first
passion of theremins. Down in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, Dr.
Moog started Big Briar, where he continues his work with theremins as well as other
electronic devices. It was from these mountains that the Vermont Review had a chance
to talk with Dr. Moog via the cyber waves.
Vermont Review: First off: Does your name rhyme with "vogue" or is like a
Cows "moo" plus a "G" at the end?
Dr. Robert Moog: It rhymes with vogue. That is the usual German pronunciation. My
father's grandfather came from Marburg, Germany. I like the way that pronunciation sounds
better than the way the cow's 'moo-g' sounds.
VR: How did you first get involved with electronics? Electronic music?
R.M.: Electronics has been a hobby of mine ever since I was a kid, building one-tube and
two-tube radios with my father. I built my first electronic musical instrument from a
do-it-yourself article when I was maybe 12 years old, and I built my first theremin from a
do-it-yourself article when I was
15. By the time I was 19, I had published my own do-it-yourself theremin article,
and I was making theremins for money (with my father's help and support).
VR: Who were your initial peers - electronics people or musicians?
RM: Peers? I don't think I had peers in those days. I did have teachers (starting with my
father). Hey, I was a nerd. I liked working by myself. It wasn't a social
activity for me. I had enough 'social activity' with my fellow students always
beating me up in public school.
VR: Is it easy to translate from the needs of musicians into what you can achieve
RM: I'd say it's a skill, a high craft. You have to really pay attention. You
can't treat it like an ego gratification activity. It's something I seem to be good
at, if I do say so myself. Not everybody who does it is good at it,- just like
VR: You first worked the theremin in the early 1960s and now you are revisiting it with
Big Briar. Do you feel that you have gone full circle?
RM: Sure. But the circle doesn't close. It's more like a spiral. You come back
close to where you were 30 or 40 years ago, but you're a different person, hopefully a
more developed person, so you're doing things somewhat differently. In addition,
external conditions are very different too.
VR: Can you describe the theremin in laymens terms?
RM: How's this: The theremin (small 't' when it's the name of an instrument; capital 'T'
when it's a person's name) is an electronic musical instrument that you play by moving
your hands in the space surrounding it, without ever touching it. The theremin has
two tubular metal antennas: a straight vertical tube on the right, and a horizontal loop
on the left. The closer you get your right hand to the straight rod, the higher the
instrument's pitch goes. The closer you get your left hand to the loop, the softer
the note sounds.
VR: Can you describe your relationship with the two theremin pioneers - Professor Theremin
and Clara Rockmore?
RM: I didn't meet Leon Theremin until 1989, at which time he was 94 years old and very
hard to converse with. Before that I learned about him from what Clara Rockmore told
me, and what little about him that I able to find in print. People didn't even know
that he was still alive until 1967, when
Harold Schoenberg of the New York Times visited the Moscow Conservatory and bumped into
him by chance. So while I was growing up, Leon Theremin was this remote godlike
personage to me, but I had no idea what he was like as a human being.
Clara Rockmore *was* a real person to me. I arranged a meeting with her when I was in my
twenties. I showed her a theremin that I had built. She was patronizing, to
say the least. She told me that that I would have to build a better theremin before she
would take it (and, by association, me) seriously. I met her again in 1969. By
this time I had a growing reputation as a synthesizer builder, so Clara found it easier to
take me seriously. Also, she was beginning to feel old age moving in on her, and
make a recording of her playing to leave to posterity. We made that recording during
the mid seventies. It's now available on CD (DELOS D/CD 1014). Since then, we were
good friends. She even allowed me to restore the theremin that Leon Theremin built
for her in the early 1930's.
VR: Is the theremin destined to live on the fringes as a musical instrument?
RM: As Einstein said when asked if there is an afterlife, "We'll see".
VR: Why isnt it more mainstream? (Its range? Ease of use?)
RM: 1. It is hard to play. 2. Until fairly recently, there haven't been very many
good theremins out there. That's changing now.
VR: What is your relationship now with your former company Moog Music, Inc?
RM: My former company, Moog Music, no longer exists. At one point in the recent past,
another person starting using the Moog Music name for his business. That person is
now bankrupt. I have taken legal action to reclaim my right to use the Moog Music name.
This action is still in progress.
VR: Is their something legal going on here that you would care to discuss?
RM: Oh yes, there is 'something legal' going on. My trademark attorneys are doing
very well for themselves. People generally think that the right to use the Moog name
as a trademark should obviously belong to me, since it IS my name, and since everybody in
the electronic music field DOES associate that name with me. However, our trademark
law is more complex and counter-intuitive than that, and it's just a big deal to work
through those complexities, legally speaking.
VR: The theremin seems to be always associated with the eerie sounds from horror movies.
Is that just one type of sound that it is able to make or can it make less eerie
TH: Well, it hasn't always been associated with eerie sounds. Back in the 1930's and
1940's, the theremin was associated with classical and shmaltzy pop music. Starting
in the 1950's the horror and sci fi movies began to use the theremin. Some uses were
100% musical, like the scores for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.
Other uses were more for effect, like The Day the Earth Stood Still. One
reason is that, sure, it is easy to make an eerie sound with the theremin. Another
reason is that the theremin is *good* at making spooky and eerie sounds. But even
in today's movies, the theremin is often used for 'less eerie effect'. For
instance, the score for the movie Ed Wood was performed by Lydia Kavina, a very
talented thereminist indeed. The score is a bit eerie (just as many non-theremin
movie scores are), but it is very musical and beautifully performed.
VR: The following questions are coming from a layman: What is the relationship
between a Theremin and a Moog?
RM: The theremin is an integrated musical instrument. It has a fixed configuration,
a fixed timbre, and a fixed way of responding to the player's motions. So it is like a
violin or a trumpet, but electronic instead of acoustic. A synthesizer (at least a
modular synthesizer like the Moog synthesizers of the '60's) is a collection of functional
modules that you can interconnect in an extremely wide variety of ways. It does not have a
fixed timbre or a fixed way of responding to the player's input. Thus, you can use it to
a very wide range of sounds and timbres.
VR: What is the relationship between a Moog and a Mellotron?
RM: Any Moog instrument is a synthesizer. That is, it generates all of its sounds
electronically, from scratch. A Mellotron plays its sounds from pieces of magnetic
VR: What is the relationship between a Moog and a pipe organ?
RM; Musically speaking, a pipe organ has hundreds, maybe thousands, of tone sources
(pipes). Each of the pipes produces a steady tone of a single pitch. You get the big
pipe organ sound by combining the tones of many, many pipes at one time. A Moog
synthesizer, on the other hand, produces a very few tones at one time. Most models
produce only one or two tones at a time. But each of these tones has complex
time-varying contours that give the sound its complex character and identity.
VR: What are the pros/cons of digital and analog synthesizers?
RM: Analog synthesizers enable the musicians to vary as many as 20 or 30 performance
parameters (properties of the sound) conveniently, quickly, and smoothly by means of panel
controls. Also, the sound of analog synthesizers is smooth and fat, and devoid of
the sorts of noise, grit, and jumps that
often characterize digital synthesizer sounds. Digital synthesizers are cheaper, and
it is simpler to select pre-set sound qualities. However, the sound qualities
themselves are not as high as analog synths.
VR: How many Moogs were sold in 1965?
RM: I'm not sure. Maybe five or six, maybe more, - or less. Actually, back then, we
did not usually sell complete systems. We usually sold individual modules. The
notion of a complete system of modules that was called a 'synthesizer' did not arise until
1967 or so.
VR: Was the development of a Moog a result of a demand?
RM: In a sense, yes. The demand was never articulated clearly and explicitly and at
one time, but rather emerged slowly, over a period of several years, in response to
requests and suggestions of many musicians.
VR: Was there an initial goal with the development of the Moog? To enhance existing
music? To simplify? To replace?
RM: NOT to replace! The initial goal was simply to build stuff that experimental musicians
wanted to use.
VR: Who bought them? (composers?, experimenters?, studios?)
RM: All of the above, because most all of our early customers were experimental composers
who had studios.
VR: What was the general response?
RM: There was no 'general response', because everybody responded differently. Some
of our early customers understood exactly what to do with our stuff, while others were
baffled by the principles underlying it. Some wanted to make cute melodies, and were
frustrated by the difficulty to keep things in
tune, while others just wanted to make musically interesting noises, and were not
interested at all in tuning. That's the way it was. There was a very wide range of
VR: Are the first batches of Moogs considered collectibles?
RM: I understand that ALL Moog synthesizers are now considered collectibles.
VR: Are they all accounted for?
RM: Most are. Some have been lost to fires, thefts, and rowdy audiences
VR: There used to be arguments that synthesizers were not truly musical instruments due to
the concept of using "manufactured effects" or using pre-recorded samples.
RM: Synthesizers (at least Moog synthesizers) do NOT use manufactured effects and they do
NOT use pre-recorded samples. In fact, what makes a synthesizer a synthesizer is
that it does NOT use these things. Any instrument that has only preset effects, or that
plays back pre-recorded samples, is not a
VR: While composers like John Cage, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa obviously refute these claims,
the critics are still out there. What is your answer to the critics?
RM: They're full of shit. Where is it written that a critic may not be full of shit?
VR: Who have been some of your favorite wizards of the Moog?
RM: Most of the people who use Moog synthesizers do musically interesting work.
I don't want to get into naming favorites.
VR: If you are the "Henry Ford" of the synthesizer, who is the Mario Andretti?
RM: Wendy Carlos, without a doubt.
VR: What do you think of the music of Frank Zappa?
RM: Interesting and creative,- a pleasure to listen to
VR: Sun Ra?
VR: Wendy Carlos?
RM: Wendy is the most skilled and artful synthesist, period.
VR: Keith Emerson?
RM: Great musician. Great keyboardist. Absolutely natural at synthesizer
VR: Could you tell us a little bit about your association with Mother Mallard's Portable
RM: Mother Mallard is David Borden's group. They're based in Ithaca, NY. During the
late sixties, while my company was located near Ithaca, we collaborated a great deal with
David Borden and his fellow musicians. Mother Mallard was one of the very first
all-synthesizer performance groups. Their work of the sixties and seventies was seminal in
advancing the art of live synthesizer performance. Today the group performs on acoustic as
well as electronic instruments, but their music continues to be an important inspiration
to creative electronic musicians.
VR: The Moog has a lot of obvious ties to ambient, techno and avant-garde artists (such as
Tangerine Dream and the ones mentioned above). Are there any "mainstream"
musicians that use the Moog that you like?
RM: What is 'mainstream' today? Is it Mozart? Glenn Miller? Paul McCartney?
Keith Emerson? Whitney Houston? Chemical Brothers? Eminem? I don't think we
have a 'mainstream' any more. Our contemporary musical culture is fractured,
fragmented, and fast-changing. Hundreds of groups out there are playing Moog
and other synthesizers. I like most of it, to one extent or another.
VR: Electronic music has risen from the avant-garde underground (Cage and
Stockhauzen) to the mainstream (modern techno music). Do you feel like you
had the vision the entire time and it simply took a long time for everybody
else to figure it out?
VR: Your new company, Big Briar is located Western North Carolina. Anywhere near the
beautiful Nantahala region?
RM: About an hour from here.
VR: Are you a canoer/kayaker? What do you do in your spare time?
RM: I like to canoe but I haven't done it at all for a long time. In my spare time now I
read, garden, and do the family thing.
VR: It appears that most of your expertise derives from the technical side of
the music. Do you play any music yourself?
RM: I can read music, but you wouldn't pay money to listen to it.
To find out more about Dr. Moog and his business Big Briar, check out their web page at http://www.bigbriar.com.