Electronic-Music Pioneer Remembers Genre's Infancy

Robert Moog says his classic MiniMoog synthesizer caused outrage in early days.

BOSTON -- It sometimes takes a while for a new idea to catch on.

Nowadays, the space-age sound of MiniMoog synthesizers from the 1960s and '70s is

an essential part of the arsenals of Beck, the Rentals and other modern rockers; the

instruments are considered classics. But when they were new, there were plenty of

doubters who didn't believe electronic sounds had any place in music.

"There was this big scientific conference, and I was there to demonstrate the MiniMoog,"

65-year-old Robert Moog, the synthesizer's inventor, explained Monday during a speech

to students and administrators in the music-synthesis program at Boston's Berklee

College of Music.

"And one journalist asked me, 'Mr. Moog ... do you feel guilty for what you have done?' I

was so f---ing mad. I got in my car with my whole family and I drove up on an island in the

middle of the street, full speed. I was out of control."

As it turned out, he chuckled, "the conference only succeeded in two things anyway. One

was that the Acoustical Society of America was saying that loud music was damaging

people's hearing. The other was that the U.S. Steel company had just designed a

soundproof garbage can.

"After that, I realized a few things," Moog said. "With new technology, people are always

going to have the wrong idea. Musicians will do what they want to do -- some people like

it, some people don't. People who don't like it might like it a year from now, because it

takes a while to get used to new things."

Moog was at the college to deliver a speech entitled "What's So Great About Analog,

Anyhow?", in which he traced the history of electronic music -- from the Theremin, an

early-20th-century instrument, to his latest invention, the MoogerFooger, a foot pedal

designed to apply the trademark Moog sound to guitar, bass or even vocals.

Surrounded by strands of thick wire, faded vinyl album jackets, audio components and

one of the vintage instruments that bears his name, he looked like a mad scientist of

sound.

"He's one of the primary founders of the whole field," said Jan Moorhead, chairperson of

Berklee's music-synthesis department. "While we can tell students about it ... when Bob's

up there, it has a heavier impact. He's the guy."

Moog, who remains an avid proponent of analog, as opposed to digital, sounds, said he

became interested in synthesized sounds as a student at Columbia University in the

1950s. He earned a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell and formed MoogMusic,

which introduced the world's first commercial synthesizer in 1964.

But the synthesized-music revolution began in 1968, when Walter Carlos (now Wendy

Carlos) released "Switched On Bach," a synthesized version of Johann Sebastian

Bach's best-known compositions. The Moog-heavy album became the best-selling

classical release of all time; soon, Moog said, bands from the Beatles to the

easy-listening group Mannheim Steamroller were requesting customized MiniMoog

machines.

Today, North Carolina-based Big Briar Company, which Moog founded in 1978 as an

offshoot of MoogMusic, manufactures new musical implements based on his original

technology. The inventor said there's pressure to reissue the vintage instrument.

However, he added, while the cost of electronic components has dropped,

manufacturing costs have skyrocketed, making a Moog reissue improbable.

"This was introduced in 1970 for about $1,200," he said, caressing a shiny, vintage Moog

model with clunky knobs, switches, a wooden casing and dulled ivory keys. "Back then,

1,600 bucks was about a quarter of what you would have to pay for a new car. Today,

that much money would be $5,000 or $6,000. Nobody's going to pay that kind of money

today for something that makes one sound."

As for music in general, he said, "I actually don't have a clue as to what's going to

happen to music next. But now that electronic stuff has been a part of popular culture for

a few decades, I hope electronics will assume an increasingly important role in everyday

musical performances."

"Musicians today are rediscovering the strengths of that '60s and '70s technology," he

said after the speech. "A lot of them are doing techno stuff, where the more abstract and

electronic the sound is, the more useful it becomes. People have been using

synthesizers for a long time now -- they've discovered things that are exactly what they

want, which is what I think analog is really best for."