Electric company

Long before he invented the first practical synthesizer, won a Grammy or even moved to Asheville, Dr. Robert Moog was a child in Queens, practicing piano under the eye of his ambitious mother.

She had visions of her son as a famous concert pianist. And while that didn’t happen, Moog’s name — much like that of his idol Leon Theremin — did enter the lexicon of contemporary music.

And Moog’s contribution to that field remains unrivaled.

The day before the 2002 Grammy Awards were held, a group of about 600 prominent music-business people watched as the Special Grammys were presented in a private ceremony. These awards reflect particularly stunning achievements — achievements that have altered the course of popular culture.

Among those honored were Alan Freed, the man who coined the term “rock ‘n roll”; Apple Computer; and a certain Asheville resident.

“The awarding of the Grammy, on one hand, wasn’t a surprise. On the other hand, I didn’t expect it, and I was very grateful,” Dr. Moog said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve gotten a lot of stuff over the years. I’ve been in this for a long time,” he points out.

Later, he adds, “My mother is proud right now. … It didn’t escape her spirit.”

The next wave

The great misconception about Moog is that he invented the synthesizer. He didn’t.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. “There were many, many people, starting with Leon Theremin in 1920, who did important work in music technology.” (Theremin invented an eerie-sounding electronic-wave instrument that eventually bore his name; the theremin’s unearthly quaver became the hallmark of 1950s sci-fi movies.)

Industry giant RCA established a synthesizer lab in the mid-1950s, long before Moog’s synthesizer was unveiled in 1965. The downside to the RCA model was that it was both prodigiously expensive (about $100,000) and about the size of an office building.

Moog’s innovation was smaller and cheaper — the first one was piano-sized, with a price tag of $11,000. His creation was featured in the Walter Carlos album Switched-On Bach, which sold more than a million copies. It also prompted the Recording Academy to give Moog his first Grammy, a National Trustee Award, in 1970.

Era-defining albums featuring the Moog synthesizer — The Beatles’ Abbey Road among them — soon followed.

“We began with synthesizers in 1964,” relates Moog. “I had no idea where it was going. I had no concept that it was going anywhere. I was just doing something interesting for a composer who wanted to make electronic music,” says Moog. “The next thing I know, we’re showing it publicly. And the next thing I know, we’re taking orders for it — sort of slipping backwards on a banana peel into the synthesizer business.”

Moog’s synthesizers — particularly his much more affordable and portable version called the Minimoog — rapidly changed the face of pop music. Everyone wanted one. Within a few short years of its introduction, the Minimoog became the industry standard. “Somebody reported in to us that if you were a keyboard player in Houston, you could not get a job unless you had a Minimoog,” the inventor recalls.

The demand was staggering and Moog’s factory was constantly struggling to fill orders. This problem came to an abrupt halt in the mid-1970s. “A lot of people in the music business bought our modular synthesizer,” he remembers. “They quickly made records to take advantage of the popularity of the instrument. The market became saturated.” (Asked what he feels is the worst recording ever made featuring one of his instruments, he refuses to “hurt [anybody’s] feelings,” but does comment, “The garbage pail is so full, I’d be really hard-pressed to find the very worst.”)

Soon, digital musical instruments — far cheaper to produce than the analog kind — quickly became the recording world’s hot items. “What happened was that in the early ’80s, digital audio technology rolled in,” Moog acknowledges. “They provided a lot of new capabilities that musicians found attractive.”

Moog left Moog Music in the late 1970s and moved to North Carolina. He spent much of the next decade working as a teacher and consultant, and continued his boyhood hobby of making theremins. He found moderate success making specialty instruments for people, and eventually the demand required Moog to find some help filling orders. Because his name was an asset of his original company, Moog Music, he couldn’t use it for his current operation. Thus, Big Briar Instruments was born. The operation has grown considerably over the last decade, and just recently, Moog re-acquired the rights to his own name. Big Briar, which has spent the better part of the last quarter-century trying to make a name for itself, is again Moog Music.

Today, it’s more than just nostalgia that’s fueling the public’s interest in Moog instruments.

“As early as the late ’80s,” explains the inventor, “people began to miss having all those knobs. You know, being able to reach up and change properties of the sound as they were playing.”

The company’s current project — an updated version of the Minimoog called the Voyager — is a big hit with the staff. Not surprisingly, many of Moog’s employees are musicians.

“We employ a lot of musicians with day jobs,” Moog notes. “They love the instruments, they love the technology, they love working with our customers.”

And they seem to take the vagaries of their boss’ scientific mind in stride. Confronted with the rumor that he forgot to tell his own employees about his recent honor (they allegedly learned of the Grammy win from Moog’s West Coast P.R. firm), he shrugs. “I thought I did,” he notes. “What can I say? It’s [communication] at the beginning of the 21st century.”

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