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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