“Very humble,” said Mike Adams, president of Moog Music, Inc. without hesitation. He had been asked to describe music icon Robert Moog. Was he a great inventor or more of a Thomas Edison who surrounded himself with great minds? After all, his legacy does have the appearance of a clever branding strategy.
Adams insists Moog deserves every bit of credit he gets. Moog was a musician and a techno-wizard. “By the time you could eat a bowl of spaghetti, he’d have this whole thing covered up [in schematics],” recalled Adams with a sweeping motion of his hand toward his conference-table sized desk.
But was the man, often hailed as the father of the musical synthesizer, an entrepreneur? Adams recollects Moog used to say he “got into business by slipping backward on a banana peel.”
“His first love was the theremin,” began Adams. He built his first when he was only fourteen. His dad, something of an electronics enthusiast himself, encouraged the habit. The devices were patented in 1928 by their inventor, Leon Theremin. They essentially consist of two antennae. The musician controls the pitch of a tone by moving his hand toward and away from one antenna, and he controls the volume response by changing the distance between the other hand and antenna. The resulting woo-woo-woo sounds were a hit in 1950s sci-fi thrillers. The devices are still used by new rockers like Flaming Lips and Little Dragon, who were among the many performers at Asheville’s recent Moog fest; and New Age artist Jean Michel Jarre, who first introduced electronic music to the Paris Opera House.
Well, Moog also liked to write, so in 1954, he submitted an article entitled, “The Theremin,” to Radio-Television News. Due to a large number of inquires following publication, Robert and his father went into business as RA Moog to manufacture theremin kits. The business helped pay Moog’s way through college. He earned a B.S. in physics from Queens College, and went on to get an EE degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell.
One person who called for help after reading Moog’s article was a professor of music at Hofstra University, Herb Deutsch. Deutsch and Moog crossed paths again in 1963 at a New York State School Music Association conference. They hit it off and got lost sharing their passion for electronic music. It was the beginning of an epic collaboration.
Over dinner one night with their wives, Deutsch, the musician, and Moog, the electrical engineer, speculated about inventing a “portable electronic music studio.” Back in the day, synthesizers took up entire rooms. RCA synthesizers, with which Moog was familiar, recorded on paper tape. The devices, used only by professors or super-geeky composers, were far from being musical instruments. Deutsch wanted to spend some time with Moog to create the “new musical instrument.” He asked Moog to write a “real formal” letter he could present to his superiors at the university. Moog complied, and Deutsch received a research grant – in the amount of $200.
Thanks to recent advances in semiconductor technology, Moog and Deutsch were able to work with voltage-controlled oscillators (VCO’s) and voltage-controlled amplifiers (VCA’s) to create sounds that could be varied in pitch and volume. Deutsch would ask Moog if he could create a particular effect, and Moog would say, “Sure.”
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