A music fan who shaped a good deal of modern music. A music fan, scientist, engineer…but poor businessman that is. We remember Robert Moog today, inventor of the modern synthesizer, who was born this day in 1934.
Moog grew up in New York City, and loved music. But he had little real inclination to play it, despite his parents putting him in harp lessons. Instead he was fascinated by the instruments, and by his dad’s career. His father was an electrical engineer for ConEd. At age 14, he built a theremin (a strange sound-shifting instrument used on the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” for instance) from blueprints. By 1953 – while still a teen – he began manufacturing them in small numbers and selling them by mail order, for about $50 (about $550 in today’s funds). “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he’d later say, “I was doing this to have a good time.”
He carried on to university, eventually getting two engineering degrees including a PhD.Somewhere along the way, a customer of his hooked a keyboard up to one of his theremins and that got him thinking about the possibilities. He began thinking about the idea of having the range of sounds made by a theremin controlled by a number of dials and combined with the sounds and simplicity of a simple electric piano keyboard. Thus by a 1964 New York engineering conference was born the Moog Synthesizer, the first commercially available musical synth. There had been a few synthesizers before that, but they were of little practical use for musicians, costing over $100 000, being large enough to fill a whole room and being run by punchcards. Moog’s synth was portable, albeit huge by current standards, and cost under $10 000, and of course utilized keyboards. In 1970 he refined it into the smaller, cheaper Mini Moog, which was the first really popular synthesizer in pop music, quickly being adopted by Rick Wakeman of Yes and Frank Zappa’s band among others. By then he’d already gained some credibility in the industry when the classic-lite album Switched on Bach, playing upbeat Bach music largely on a Moog, won a Grammy.
For all that, Moog was not great at business. He started Moog Music in the ’60s, sold it at one point but then bought it back but he lacked the acumen for running a large company and it didn’t do well financially. Among his “problems” was that he only filed for one patent. If he had patented all the groundbreaking innovations he’d introduced in his instruments, he doubtless would have made far more money…but perhaps stalled the progress of his instrument breaking through. As Sound On Sound wrote, if he patented all he could have “it’s likely the synthesizer industry as we know it would never have happened.” By the second half of the ’70s, Moog was losing ground to a number of competitors including Roland, who were able to refine the instrument a bit more and mass produce them at lower costs.
By the 1980s, he’d moved to North Carolina and had become a university music professor, although he still ran a music instrument company. He passed away from cancer in 2005, leaving behind his second wife and five children, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously..
So put on some ’80s clothes and crank up the Depeche Mode or Soft Cell and remember the “archetypal American maverick inventor”, who as the Guardian put it “changed the complexion of pop and classical musical worlds.”