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Brilliant Careers: Robert Moog

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By Frank Houston

April 25, 2000 |  In the 1920s a Russian inventor named Leon Theremin unveiled the first purely electronic instrument. You played the theremin by waving your hands in the vicinity of two metal rods, controlling pitch and volume, that were attached to a nondescript wooden cabinet. Between the strange arm motions and the instrument's invisible machinations, the theremin's overall effect in performance was theatrical and mysterious.

But like the 200-ton telharmonium, the world's first mechanical music synthesizer (invented by Thaddeus Cahill around 1900), the theremin was difficult to play. It soon disappeared behind the curtain, relegated to cheap performances in B-grade alien-invasion movies. In 1955, four years after the theremin's eerily weepy sound was employed in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," RCA introduced the first modern synthesizer. The machine made sounds by manipulating electrical waves to denote timbre, pitch and volume. Like early computers, it filled a room and was tended by men in lab coats.

A few years later Robert Moog, a graduate student in physics at Cornell University, published a magazine article explaining how to build a theremin, offering do-it-yourself kits for $49.95. Orders poured in, and Moog sold 1,000 that year. "We had $13,000 in the bank," he recalled recently, "a humongous cache of wealth for a graduate student back then!" The windfall enabled a career that helped bring electronic music out of the realm of novelty acts and university labs. A decade after the first RCA machine, Moog introduced the first widely adopted electronic instrument -- the synthesizer that bears his name.

When Moog (rhymes with "vogue") unveiled the Moog music synthesizer in 1965, his engineering skills combined with a bit of business luck to radically change the way music was made. Synthesizers went from being computers to instruments that could be found in any music store. The flowering of rock music may have come via Leo Fender, Les Paul and the Gibson Guitar Co., but the innovative music of the early 21st century owes far more to Moog and his imitators and successors.

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Growing up in the '40s in Flushing, Queens, Moog suffered the usual cruelties boys inflict on the smarter, more introverted members of their tribe: "I was the class brain," he recalled in one of several e-mail interviews. "I knew I was smarter than they were, so they felt compelled to beat me up periodically to keep me in my place." He spent a lot of time with his father, who liked to dabble in electronics, and started his own electronics projects. He built his first theremin with the help of a hobby-magazine article at age 14. "I was hooked," he recalled. Five years later, Moog published his own do-it-yourself theremin article.

Moog's mother, meanwhile, gave him piano lessons and made him practice hours every day in the hope that he'd become a concert pianist, "klopping" him if he "didn't practice right." He found refuge in New York's prestigious Bronx High School of Science, where he "actually had some friends who were as nerdy as I was." Later, at Queens College, Moog finally developed what he called "a medical-minimum amount of social grace," and even started dating.

After getting some exposure to the liberal arts at Columbia University's Engineering School, Moog began graduate education in the engineering physics department of Cornell University. He took eight years to get his Ph.D., largely because of his part-time hobby: building theremins and other electronic instruments. The degree came in 1965, a year after Moog launched his synthesizer business.

Moog built his synthesizer in 1964 after a composer told him about the need for user-friendly electronic instruments utilizing new solid-state technology. The Moog was modular: You used patch cords to select your waveform (the sound's timbre) and frequency (pitch), and plugged in the interface -- a keyboard, instead of the binary code on paper that had defined the first RCAs. Moog's engineering wizardry did the rest.

Significantly, Moog's was the first synthesizer to use attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelopes, set with four different knobs, which control the qualities of a sound's onset, intensity and fade. Like many of his designs, Moog's envelope generators became a basic component of later synthesizers. The sound was monophonic -- one note at a time -- but that was enough, since studio recording techniques could create whole orchestras from single notes by the late 1960s.

RCA synthesizers, intended for an elite market of labs financed by universities and record companies, had cost $100,000 and up. In 1967 the new Moog sold for $11,000. It wasn't the only synthesizer around; many experts also commend Donald Buchla's modular synthesizer, built around the same time. But the Moog became prized for its utility and elegance, making Moog the name that brought synthesized music to the masses.

"I remember seeing it as a teenager and thinking, 'I gotta get my hands on it,'" says Jeffrey Hass, director of the University of Indiana's Center for Electronic and Computer Music. "I wasn't alone. It had a tremendous impact on many people and brought electronic music to many composers, both popular and academic."

. Next page | The Moog's biggest break came in 1969, with Moog-made renditions of Johann Sebastian Bach

Photograph by Corbis-Bettmann

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