image courtesy of Moog Music
Intro and interview transcription by Donald Bell
[editors note: On August 21, 2005 Bob Moog died from brain cancer at age 71 at his home in Asheville, N.C. Despite our best efforts to publish this interview before his passing, issue #2 of Robotspeak mailed out on August 26th. Having spent the past two months immersed in Bob's legacy in prepartion for this issue, his loss was made all the more impactful to me, Alan and Steve. Although I would have liked very much for Bob to have seen this interview before he died, I cherish the time we had with him and the immersuarble inspiration he's given us.]
Sometimes I like to imagine what it would be like if Bob Moog were my grandfather. We’d hang out on the front porch of his modest North Carolina home and discuss our relative preferences for saw waves over square ones. It’s a fantasy that warms my geek heart the king of analog synthesis, the gentle genius beloved by electronic musicians the world-over, adopting me into the Moog clan and giving me handmade theremins for my birthday.
Did you ever make your own music with your instruments?
No. I had very little to do with the actual music-making. I was the technical support. I was the toolmaker.
How did you first become interested in electronic music, and specifically the theremin?
You have to understand what the music scene was like back then. That was fifty years ago, even longer in fact. I was a teenager. I was a nerd. (audience laughs) I was going to Bronx Science High School in New York and I loved electronics. Everybody else what out playing baseball or beating each other up and here I was making electronic stuff -- simple stuff with vacuum tubes, with my father. It was a fairly popular hobby back then, more than it is today. There were magazines that catered to do-it-yourself electronics hobbyists. One of these magazines, Radio News, published an article on how to build a theremin and that got me going. It turns out that the theremin has always been a popular do-it-yourself project. The earliest do-it-yourself theremin article I’ve ever seen was from a German magazine article from 1932 that a friend showed to me. So I got into the theremin because it intrigued me as a technical thing that made sound. I had some musical training at the time and there was just something about working with sound and circuits that made sound that I really liked. I kept it up all through high school. I was known in high school as the kid who makes theremins. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had written my own do-it-yourself article on how to build your own theremin, published in 1954. From that article I started getting orders and my father and I had this little part-time business making theremins one at a time. It was just slightly more than a hobby. I certainly had no business experience. I didn’t understand at all what the musical possibilities of the theremin were. Most of the people we came in contact with -- this will show how different things were back then -- most of the people who contacted us played religious music. A lot of them were mid-western. I actually had a representative, who himself was a minister, who used to go around from church to church putting on these little sermons with musical accompaniment, and the theremin one one device he used. He sold twenty or thirty hand-made theremins that we made to people like himself in the mid-west. He was based in Michigan City, Indiana.
Now keep in mind that at that time Leon Theremin, the inventor of the theremin, was completely shutoff from the western world. It was the Soviet Union. It was the cold war. If you want to read the story of Theremin there’s an incredibly well-written book called “Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage” by the author Albert Glinsky. Now, you may laugh at the word espionage, but Theremin was an absolutely brilliant designer who in his twenties designed the space-controled instrument in a time when electronics and vacuum tubes were completely new. As time went on he designed a lot of other things. Theremin was the first person to develop color television. During the cold war the United States and our engineers used to laugh because every now and then we’d hear over the radio that the Russians claimed to be the first to invent color T.V., or the first to invent this or that. We used to snicker at that, “Ha-ha. Those pink-o commies. All they can do is lie about being the first.” I’m hear to tell you that most of the things they told us about back then were true. It’s been documented very carefully now that of all the people in the world working on color T.V., Theremin was ahead of all of them. So that’s the kind of a technical mind the guy had.
After the second world war he was given an award by Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union at the time, and had a job working for the KGB -- that’s like the Russian FBI. It’s really amazing because Theremin, among other things, he invented the bug. Now, you think with anything electronic it has to have a battery, right? How do you bug the American Embassy in Moscow? If you get something in there, how do you replace the battery? Well Theremin designed a bug that didn’t require a battery.
Wasn’t Theremin working as a Soviet slave-scientist?
Yeah, throughout the second world war Theremin was in jail in the Soviet Union and he basically designed what they told him to. In fact most of the great soviet scientists were in jail during the second world war because the Soviet government wanted to make sure they were there when they were needed. But after the war, Theremin designed a completely passive bug device -- passive means it doesn’t take any juice. It looked like a cigarette pack with a pencil sticking out of it. It was made out of metal and it turned out to resonate at exactly 300 megahertz, which back then was a fairly high frequency. The sides of the metal box were very thin, so they vibrated when there were sound waves in the room and that changed the resonant frequency of this thing. So it turns out that when you bounced high-frequency radio waves off it, what bounced back would be modulated by the audio. So as long as there was something beaming 330 megahertz at this thing, it acted like a little radio transmitter transmitting the sound in the room.
So the KGB put Theremin’s bug inside a carved great seal of the United States and it was presented to the American ambassador by a group of Soviet Boy Scouts. This is the honest truth, it’s all been documented, there’s photographs of this thing. The American ambassador hung the seal up on the wall over his desk and for several years the bug was used by the KGB to listen to what was going on inside the embassy. They had a powerful transmitter beamed at tis thing across the street in a separate building and a receiver farther down the street that would pick-up what was being reflected.
It was finally discovered after years and years of being up there. The American ambassador finally discovered it and showed it to various experts in England and the United States. The British Home Service set-up a laboratory to figure out how it worked -- it was very clever. It took their whole group of technicians six months to figure out how it worked. The CIA set up a group too and they never did figure out how it worked.
So we were that far behind the Soviets?
We were that far behind Theremin. This is one person’s brilliant idea. That’s the kind of mind the guy had. And Theremin did all this without any knowledge at all of the western world.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center existed somewhere on Divisadero here in San Francisco. I still haven’t been able to find out where. In the early days, did you ever have any contact with Don Buchla and the San Francisco Tape Music Center?
No. I had no contact with them in the early days. I found out about Buchla and the San Francisco Tape Music Center by reading about them in occasional accounts in the newspaper. Buchla was some faraway guy who was doing something similar to what I was doing, but not exactly. Morton Subotnick was an important early figure at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and I’ve met Morton many times. He’s one of these really funny guys, like Rick Wakeman, y’know? They start talking and as soon as they start talking you start laughing. Mort told the story about how when the San Francisco Tape Music Center was first getting started in the sixties they were constantly getting shut down by the police. One day some cop came in and he said, “Alright, where’s the stuff? Where’s the drugs?” A neighbor must have complained about the noise. Then somebody said, “There’s no drugs here, we’re musicians. We’re getting ready for a show.” The cop said, “Yeah? Is that what you’re doing?” So they played him a little bit of their music and then the cop said “Gosh, I play accordion. Do you think I could play with you?” (laughter from audience). So yeah, they we’re weird times and anyone making music back then has a story like that.
Besides Wendy Carlos and Morton Subotnick, who are some other musicians who think really pushed the envelope in the early days with Moog?
Well Morton Subotnick did either three records or four records. He did “Sidewinder”, “Silver Apples of the Moon”, “Wild Bull”... They didn’t sell like “Switched On Bach”, but everybody who was into electronic music had to listen to them. They were very influential. And of course with the Buchla modular systems of the time you could really do things you couldn’t do with a keyboard -- all the sequencers and random generators and touch surfaces allowed you to do those things that Mort was doing. So there was a whole school of composition here of which Buchla was a very important part. Buchla himself is a musician, of course, who does a lot of performance in addition to developing hardware. Who else was out here? Pauline Oliveros was out here.
What about Bernie Krause? Or was he later?
He and Paul Beaver, our first representative were partners and they did several records together with Moog stuff. I don’t think they ever did anything with Buchla stuff. The two of them together had their effect too, but I don’t think you would say they we’re quite as innovative as what Subotnick did. Maybe they were innovative but they weren’t as radical.
What were you doing?
Well whenever they wanted something special or they wanted to buy some new stuff they would make contact with us somehow, either call up or stop by. We weren’t that far from New York city -- six hours by bus -- and we’d talk about what we could do for them.
What are your feelings toward analog electronics and why do you continue to produce analog instruments?
I feel that I should have a well-thought out answer for that because everyone’s interested in that. There are a lot of answers. One is that I have been doing analog electronics now for fifty years and I know pretty well how to make stuff that sounds good. The downside of analog electronics is that it’s expensive. As digital electronics get developed more and more, the computer and so on, the hardware you need to make a given sound becomes cheaper and cheaper. So on my Macintosh laptop, which I bought less than a year ago and paid less than a thousand dollars for, I can make a lot of different sounds. However, the sounds themselves, coming from numbers and put together with filters and level control circuitry and so on, is very different from the kind of circuitry you have in analog instruments. There’s a difference that is easy to hear. If you have a line that’ fast moving where the sounds don’t last too long and it’s buried in with lots of other stuff, it may not be easy to hear. But when you’re trying to be expressive and you’re trying to shape a sound and get some complexity into it -- and that’s all you’re doing -- you’re on stage and everybody’s listening to you and you’re playing that sound, the sound is very different and the feel is very different. I should be able to tell you why that is, but I really can’t. I can just note that it’s true. Some people are aware of it and other people are not. Especially this business about the feeling. The waveforms in here (points to Moog Voyager) are made continuously, just like the vibrations of a string or an air column and the filters and the amplifiers operate on those sounds continuously. The sort of control that I as a designer have of how a sound is shaped, distorted and modified as it goes through, is a different sort of control than you have when you’re writing software to generate sounds. That’s just about the sound quality and the experience of playing an analog instrument. The bottom line for musicians who get into something like this voyager is that very soon after you begin to explore the sounds you begin to get a feeling. It’s not a feeling in any one particular part of your body, it’s nothing wild and crazy, but it’s a feeling of making contact, of what you’re doing being natural somehow and flowing easily. Part of that has to do with what I can describe on a schematic diagram or on a graph of the waveform, and part of that has to do with something that I don’t know how to describe at all now. What goes on in the world and what we’re aware of is not all in our head. A lot of it is in our head and a lot of it is outside of our head. There’s a field out here that we don’t know how to describe and we don’t know how to prove it’s there, but most of us, especially if you’re a musician, you know what I’m talking about.