How the Moog Synthesizer Changed the Sound of Music

In my little corner of the world, we’re eagerly anticipating the arrival of Moogfest this May, just moved down the mountains from Asheville—where it has convened since 2004—to the scrappy town of Durham, NC. Like SXSW for electronic music, the four-day event features dozens of performances, workshops, talks, films, and art installations. Why North Carolina? Because that’s where New York City-born engineer Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”)—inventor of one of the first, and certainly the most famous, analog synthesizer—moved in 1978 and set up shop for his handmade line of modular synths, “Minimoog”s, and other unique creations. “One doesn’t hear much talk of synthesizers here in western North Carolina,” Moog said at the time, “From this vantage point, it’s easy to get a good perspective on the electronic musical instrument scene.”

The perspective characterizes Moog’s influence on modern music since the late-sixties—as a non-musician outsider whose musical technology stands miles above the competition, its unmistakable sound sought after by nearly everyone in popular music since it debuted on a number of commercial recordings in 1967. A curious development indeed, since Moog never intended the synthesizer to be used as a standalone instrument but as a specialized piece of studio equipment. However, in the mid-sixties, a forward-looking jazz musician named Paul Beaver happened to get his hands on a modular Moog synthesizer, and began to use it on odd, psychedelic albums like Mort Garson’s The Zodiac Cosmic Sounds and famed Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine’s Psychedelic Percussion (hear “Love-In (December)” above).

Shortly after these releases, Mike Bloomfield’s psych-rock outfit The Electric Flag made heavy use of the Moog in their soundtrack for Roger Corman’s sixtiesploitation film The Trip (hear “Fine Jung Thing” above), and the analog synthesizer was on its way to becoming a staple of popular music. In late ’67, The Doors called Beaver into the studio during the recording of Strange Days, and he used the Moog throughout the album to alter Jim Morrison’s voice and provide other effects (hear “Strange Days” at the top). Contrary to popular misconceptions, Brian Wilson did not use a Moog synthesizer for the recording of “Good Vibrations” the year prior, but an “electro-theremin” built and played by Paul Tanner. He did, however, have Bob Moog build a replica of that instrument to play the song live. (The Moog theremin is still in production today.)

Then, in 1968 Wendy Carlos used a Moog Synthesizer to reinterpret several Bach compositions, and Switched-On Bach became a novelty hit that led to many more classical Moog recordings from Carlos, as well as to her original contributions to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. (Unfortunately, few of Carlos’ recordings are available online, but you can hear The Shining‘s main theme above.) Switched-On Bach took the Moog synthesizer mainstream—it was the first classical album to go platinum. (Glenn Gould called it “one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation and certainly one of the great feats in the history of keyboard performance.”) And after the release of Carlos’ futuristic classical albums, and an evolution of Moog’s instruments into more musician-friendly forms, analog synths began to appear everywhere.

Artists like Carlos explored the synthesizer’s use as not only a generator of weird, spaced-out sounds and effects, but as an instrument in its own right, capable of all of the nuance required to play the finest classical music. The modular synthesizer, however, was still an awkwardly bulky instrument, suited for the studio, not the road. That changed in 1971 when the “Minimoog Model D” was born. You can see a short history of that revolutionary instrument above. The Minimoog and its siblings drove prog rock, disco, jazz fusion, the ambient work of Brian Eno, Teutonic electro-pop of Kraftwerk, and soothing Gallic new age soundscapes of Jean-Michel Jarre. Bob Marley incorporated the Minimoog into his roots reggae, and Gary Numan charted the path of the New Wave future with the portable synthesizer.

And as anyone who’s heard Daft Punk’s now-ubiquitous Random Access Memories knows, the forefather of their sound was Italian superproducer Giorgio Moroder, who brought us nearly all of Donna Summer’s disco hits, including the futuristic “I Feel Love,” above, in 1977. Although nothing really sounded like this at the time—nor for many years afterward—we can hear in this pioneering track that it’s only a short hop from Moroder’s pulsing, flanging, synth arpeggios to most of the modern dance music we hear today.

Though we certainly credit all of the composers, producers, and musicians who embraced analog synthesizers and pushed their development forward, all of their musical innovation would have meant little without the inventiveness of the man who, from his mountaintop retreat in Asheville, North Carolina, personally oversaw the technology of a musical revolution. For more on the genius of Bob Moog, watch Hans Fjellestad’s documentary Moog, or listen to the Sound Opinions podcast above, featuring onetime official Moog Foundation historian Brian Kehew.

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