Technically ingenious and historically significant, Moogs ooze character with a sound that can be kitsch – or pulverising
David McNamee guardian.co.uk, Monday 2 August 2010
In the Moog ... Dr Robert with his iconic synthesiser in 1970. Photograph: Hilton Archive/Getty Images/Jack Robinson
What are they? The most iconic synthesisers of all time. FACT.
Who uses them? Pretty much anyone with an interest in electronic music will have had a dalliance with a Moog at some point, so enduring is their legacy and appeal. But it was Walter (later Wendy) Carlos who first brought attention to Moog and synthesisers in general with the landmark Switched-On Bach album in 1968. Here's a Spotify playlist of other Moog heroes.
How do they work? Dr Robert Moog's great innovation was voltage control. Previous attempts at synthesiser-type instruments, such as the Hammond Novachord or the hulking United States Air Force-constructed RCA Mark II, generated sound using hundreds of individual vacuum tubes. But the invention of the transistor prompted electrician Moog to consider using voltage to control the frequency of an oscillator (which generates pitch) as well as loudness. By using basic increments of one volt per octave change of pitch, Moog was able to make simple circuits using everyday components. His 1964 paper Voltage-Controlled Music Modules – which initially proposed the idea – invented the analogue synth as we know it.
Where do they come from? At 14, entranced by Clara Rockmore, Bob Moog made his first theremin. Years later one of Moog's theremins would fall into the hands of the godfather of electronic music, Raymond Scott, who invited the young electrician to see how he was using it. Moog's theremin had been gutted, its innards wired up into a keyboard-controlled contraption Scott called the Clavivox, which had a profound influence on Moog. He continued to build circuits for Scott's technology throughout the 50s, and in 1964 debuted his first Moog modular synthesiser.
Comprising a potentially infinite array of oscillators, filters, noise generators, ring modulators, triggers and mixers, linked by telephone exchange-type patch cables, and played using joysticks, pedals, ribbon controllers and keyboards, the modular Moogs had no interest in replicating existing instruments. They were machines for creating sound that sounded electronic. Massive, fragile and impossible to tune, the modulars were designed and built to order in consultation with high-end consumers, but synthesisers at this point were far out of the price range (and comprehension) of the average musician. This all changed with the launch of the Minimoog in 1970 – a portable, sturdy and powerful keyboard synth designed for concert performances. Tweaked now so that the synthesiser could reliably perform as either a melodic lead or propulsive bass instrument (rather than just as a complex sound-generating machine), the Minimoog changed everything.
Why are they classic? Though technically ingenious and historically significant, what we really love Moogs for is their sound. Synth nerds might rep just as hard for less-hyped gems such as the EMS VCS3, but the Moogs oozed character. Their sound could be quirky, kitsch and cute, or pulverising, but it was always identifiable as Moog.
What's the best ever Moog song? There are so many 70s Moog-pop chart classics. Hot Butter's Popcorn, Space's Magic Fly to name another, Autobahn and Are "Friends" Electric? all rank pretty highly. But in 1977 Giorgio Moroder pulled the voice of God from the void. Everything that isn't the kick drum or Donna Summer are the big-brained dreams of a Moog modular. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you I Feel Love.
Five facts and things
Stop pronouncing Moog with an "ooh". It should rhyme with "vogue". At least that's how Bob Moog chose to pronounce his surname, although the original Dutch variant is something entirely different. The "vogue" pronunciation makes the pun in the Moog Rogue more apparent, but the pun in The Plastic Cow Goes MOOOOOOg sadly redundant.
The pitch control on the Modular Moogs was so shonky because few of Dr Moog's early customers – sound artists, choreographers, and studios interested in electronic sound effects - were interested in playing conventional melody on the instruments, so making the things stay in tune seemed a low priority.
Gary Numan's classic breakthrough, The Pleasure Principle, is almost an album-length advert for the Polymoog. Those beautiful, stark, synth-strings frozen all over the songs is the Polymoog's Vox Humana preset.
After a serious of disasterous changes in ownership, Bob Moog left his own company in 1978. He worked as a consultant on other electronic music innovations such as the Fairlight CMI, and in the 90s manufactured his own theremins and Moogerfooger effects pedals. It wasn't until 2002 that he reacquired the Moog Music name and returned to synths with the Voyager – a well-received update of the Minimoog.
Dr Moog sadly passed away in 2005, at the age of 71. The last synth to bear his creative input was the posthumously released Little Phatty. Moog Music has since made inroads in the guitar market, with the launch of the Moog Guitar in 2008