interview by Skylaire Alfvegren
SECONDS: You were born in New York City. Could you tell me a little bit about your childhood and what got you interested in electronics?
MOOG: I'm an only child. My mother gave me piano lessons but I was always more interested in working with my father in his shop. He had a super-duper hobby shop where we did a lot of woodwork and that sort of thing. I liked to build stuff with him and he taught me how to solder when I was eight years old. I've enjoyed electronic stuff ever since.
SECONDS: Did you also have an interest in science at a young age?
MOOG: Yeah, I was more a technician than musician.
SECONDS: Were you interested in Avant-garde European Electronic Music or Musique Concrete?
MOOG: Not especially. I met Herb Deutsch in 1964 and we did the initial work that led to the Moog synthesizer.
[talk about Deutsch and initial work]
SECONDS: That was the year you came out with the modular Moog.
SECONDS: Did you feel you were at the forefront of a revolution with that?
MOOG: No. Herb and I were just having a good time. There was no long-term vision at all.
SECONDS: Didn't RCA build the first synthesizers in the Fifties?
MOOG: There was synthesizers before that. The earliest one I know of was called the Couplo Givaleux synthesizer, which was built in France and exhibited at the 1929 World's Fair in Paris. It had completely Electronic sounds. They were very dull sounds by today's standards.
SECONDS: Before you were interested in synthesizers, you were interested in Theremins —
MOOG: The first one I built was in 1949 from an article in a hobbyist's magazine called Radio & Television News.
SECONDS: In 1954, you founded the R.A. Moog company. What were you up to between in 1949 and 1954.
MOOG: I was a graduate student. I have a B.S. in Physics from Queens College, a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Columbia Engineering School and a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from Cornell University.
SECONDS: Was it your meeting with Herb Deutsch that you got you interested in electronic synthesizers?
SECONDS: That was around '64 or so?
SECONDS: I saw in one interview you did that you were working with a number of composers in those early years. Who were they?
MOOG: First it was Herb. The first person who actually ordered something was Alwyn Nikolais. He was a choreographer in New York City at the Alwyn Nikolais Dance Troupe and he composed all the music for his dance scores. It was very experimental Avant-garde dancing and he used electronic instruments to compose the scores. The second person was a musician and composer who produced commercial music for radio and television. His name was Eric Siday. He would compose five-second sound-bites for radio and television stations that were what was called sound logos. He was one of the top people doing that in New York City at the time. Another composer I worked with Vladmir Usetchesky at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center. Lajran Hiller was at the University Of Illinois, George Rockburg was at the University of Pennsylvania — am I going too fast?
[describe what a synthesizer does]
SECONDS: Oh, not at all. Did people find out about your synthesizers mostly through universities?
MOOG: From the time I began, till about 1967 or so, most of our customers were universities and a few oddball experimental musicians like Eric Siday.
[Describe Mini-Moog as opposed to regular Moog]
SECONDS: You introduced the Mini-Moog in 1971, right?
SECONDS: Would you say that the integration of electronics into the Rock mainstream occurred at that time because of the Mini-Moog?
MOOG: I guess that was the first synthesizer that we made that was designed more for stage performance than for experimental studio composition.
But Keith Emerson, for instance, had one of our modular synthesizers and was on stage with that thing even before we introduced the Mini-Moog.
SECONDS: As I understand it, The Mothers Of Invention were the first to record using the Mini-Moog —
MOOG: I never heard they were first but they might have been. Don Preston may have been the person who played the Mini Moog with Frank Zappa.
[Talk about Don Preston and Hammer, Wakeman, Corea]
SECONDS: What other Rock artists expressed an early interest in the Mini Moog?
MOOG: Jan Hammer. He was a Mini-Moog virtuoso. Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Chick Corea — lots of people.
SECONDS: You've said that you didn't intend for your synthesizers to mimic the sounds of conventional instruments, that the equipment was designed to make new sounds. Are you surprised that synthesizers have come to replace everything from strings to piano to trombone?
MOOG: Well, they don't. The musicians union was worried about that but in fact what synthesizers are used for today is to make new, distinctly electronic sounds. A lot of the digital stuff doesn't synthesize anything but instead plays back recordings of specific musical sounds. These are the things they use to play piano sounds and choir sounds, the more conventional acoustic sounds.
[talk about musicians's union and politics vis-a-vis soundtracks]
SECONDS: Did the synthesizer revolution take a different course than you expected it to?
MOOG: I don't think I had any expectations. It was a show unfolding before me.
SECONDS: Who else was developing synthesizer technology in the early Sixties?
MOOG: There were two of us. I was on the East Coast and Donald Buchla was on the West Coast. We were pretty much doing the same thing with the same kind of technology but Don's music orientation was a lot more experimental. Whereas I equipped some of the instruments we made with keyboards, Don would never do that because a keyboard was too conventional. He used different ways of playing sounds. That took him to one group of musicians and my approach took me to another group. The commercial musicians found my stuff more accessible.
[Describe different approaches, musicians]
SECONDS: In the Sixties and Seventies, the synthesizer was found in everything from Easy Listening to Hard Rock. What were you most surprised to find it used for?
MOOG: I can't remember being surprised by any particular type of music that it was used for. I can be surprised by how musical a particular musician was with the instrument. One after another, musicians found different things to do with the instrument that other people didn't find.
SECONDS: In 1973, Moog Music became a division of Norland Music. At that time did the name 'Moog' became a trademark belonging to Norland and is that why you've been working under the name Big Briar since 1978?
MOOG: 'Moog' was a trademark for us since the Sixties. The whole company was sold to Norland and so the trademark went along with that. Norland remained in ownership of it until they sold the company in 1984. Yes, that's why I use the name Big Briar.
SECONDS: I've read you're planning to release new products under the name Moog.
MOOG: That's right. What's happened since 1984 is that Norland's gone out of business and the people they sold Moog Music to in 1984 have also gone out of business. The new owners have not used the Moog trademark for many years. No Moog synthesizers have been made, no Moog Music products at all have been made or advertised. That puts the Moog trademark in a status of having been abandoned. Once it's been abandoned, anyone who wants to can apply for registration of the name. At the present time, there are three separate organizations who are applying for the use of the name. I am one and there are two other people trying to get the name — as a matter of fact, I'm suing one of them now. We have a formal lawsuit in process against a company called Moog Music Of Cincinnati.
SECONDS: Have they been releasing products under the Moog name?
MOOG: Yes. When you apply for the name, the trademark office allows you to use the name with a little 'TM' next to it, which means your application is in process. If you are awarded the registration of the trademark, then you can put an 'R' in a circle after it. That's a little lesson in trademark law that I'm not sure that I knew a few years ago but I sure know now. Our position is that nobody else has the right to use it because it's my name and I'm a living person with a reputation.
SECONDS: That brings me to sort of a silly question. What is the background of the name 'Moog'?
MOOG: There's nothing exotic about it, it's just a traditional Dutch name that goes back hundreds of years.
SECONDS: At the demonstration in L.A., you mentioned The Cosmic Sounds Of The Zodiac album. What was your affiliation with it?
MOOG: In the spring of 1967, we came out to the Audio Engineering Society convention at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. We brought a modular synthesizer and that was the first time anybody on the West Coast had seen one, so there was a big buzz. Halfway through the convention, my Hollywood representative, Paul Beaver, asked if we could take the modular synthesizer out of the exhibit overnight and take it to a recording session for an album he was involved in. I said sure and went with him. That was one of the recording sessions for Cosmic Sounds and I got to hear Paul Beaver make the sounds on that modular Moog synthesizer for the album. I'm one-hundred-percent sure those are the first Moog sounds that ever made it on an album made on the West Coast.
[Describe this record]
SECONDS: Have you ever done any record production?
MOOG: No. I'm the instrument builder, the tool maker. I've gotten credits for this or that on a lot of records but I've never actually played anything. It's not my schtick.
SECONDS: Are you still in touch with Wendy Carlos?
SECONDS: My editor at this magazine has interviewed her and he seems to think that she downplays your role in her early records.
MOOG: Well, she may very well downplay my role. I built the instrument for her, but I didn't help her make the music. She had some supernatural powers, she knew immediately how to use it. She didn't need me at all.
SECONDS: Have you found that some people are really adept with the Moog, that they've got a sixth sense?
MOOG: Absolutely. Certainly Keith Emerson was like that. He didn't understand the electronics behind it but he'd fool around with an instrument that you put in front of him, get a sound he likes and ten seconds later come up with a whole way of using the sound that was very musical.
SECONDS: You've been in Asheville, North Carolina since 1978. Why did you decide to move there?
MOOG: I love the woods. The climate's nice. When we came down here, you could buy very nice mountain land for not too much money. Right now there are six of us and we have a space that we rent, twenty-five hundred square feet, and we build Theremins.
SECONDS: How many hours do you put in a week?
SECONDS: What other hobbies do you have?
MOOG: Gardening, weeding. I'm a family body. I have four children. The oldest is Laura and she's thirty-seven. She's a social worker in Greensboro, North Carolina. The second oldest daughter is Rene, she just turned thirty-five and she's a program director with C.A.R.E. in Atlanta. The youngest daughter is Michelle, she's going to be thirty and she and her husband Joseph are now living in Asheville and engaged in projects with me. We're doing something outside of Big Briar but not very outside. Then my son Matthew is just about twenty-eight and he's with an Internet company called Cool Savings. They distribute coupons over the Internet.
SECONDS: So none of your children pursued music or electronics.
SECONDS: Are you happy about that?
MOOG: I'm happy they're doing things they like to do.
SECONDS: What do you currently manufacture at Big Briar besides Theremin kits?
MOOG: At the present time, we're manufacturing just Theremins. We have Ether Waves available, available completely built or as a kit. That's in the three-hundred to four-hundred dollar range. We just introduced a MIDI theremin, the Ether Vox. It's our flagship product now and has full MIDI implementation.
SECONDS: Did you think this was a product whose time had come?
MOOG: It's certainly getting more recognition now than it's gotten in the last fifty years. A filmmaker by the name of Steven Martin has made a documentary on the life of Leon Theremin. A lot of Rock Bands are beginning to use Theremins and experimental musicians are becoming interested in alternate control devices to make musical gestures.
SECONDS: How would you explain the explosion of interest in the Theremin in the Nineties?
MOOG: The film is really a compelling story at the human level, but it also acquaints people with the earliest tradition of electronic musical instruments. In the Eighties, musicians were interested in all these new digital instruments and synthesizers that sounded Òreal.Ó Now musicians are beginning to look for something new.
SECONDS: How do you feel about musicians associating Theremins with your name, like The Moog Cookbook? Do you find that flattering?
MOOG: You know, it happened in the Sixties too. As soon as Switched On Bach came out, there were whole bunch of records called Moog this and Moog that. Well, it's a popular name right now. It's something else I'm just watching unfold.
SECONDS: Would you equate the climate right now with that of the Sixties as opposed to the Seventies or Eighties?
MOOG: I hear a lot people say, ÒBoy, it's the Sixties all over again.Ó There's one street in town here in Asheville that could be Haight-Ashbury. I see these cycles going on. I came of age in the Fifties and people were wearing ties and striving to make a good buck for themselves — and then that fell apart. People had enough and the Civil Rights movement and the drug culture precipitated something and made it come to life. I see the same sort of thing now. Everybody wants to be spiritual and experimental whereas in the Eighties everybody wanted to make a buck.
SECONDS: Even musicians.
MOOG: Yeah. It's just a big helix going around and around.
SECONDS: To get back to Theremins, the first time I saw how empty and simple the interior of a Theremin was, I was very surprised. Could you explain in layman's terms the principle by which the Theremin works?
MOOG: The very first Theremins used vacuum tubes. To use a technical term, an oscillator makes a repeating wave form and if the repeating wave form is in the human hearing range than you hear it as a tone but if it's faster than the human hearing range, you don't hear it. The way a Theremin works is that there are two oscillators, each of them going in the radio frequency range, but the frequency difference between them is something you can hear. With my hand, I can change the frequency of one oscillator a little bit, but the difference between it and a fixed oscillator is a big difference. That's how with the small effect of moving your hands you can cover a range of five octaves. The Theremins we make now have a lot more features but the basic idea is still the frequency difference between two high-frequency oscillators.
SECONDS: How did you come to meet Leon Theremin for the first time?
MOOG: It was at an electro-acoustic music festival in Bourges, France in 1989. This is just as the Iron Curtain was falling and Theremin was able to get out. He was ninety-four years old and he came to this music festival as an honored guest. He'd been like a god to me all my adult life. At ninety-four, he didn't come across as a god at all, he came across as an old man hazily remembering what he had done with his life.
SECONDS: Do you sell anything besides the Theremins?
MOOG: We sell things that people who buy theremins would be interested in having, from a gig bag for your theremin to bumper stickers.
SECONDS: People have commented that you're not at the forefront of technology anymore.
MOOG: After I left my old company, Moog Music, I didn't do much of anything for years and then I worked for Kurzweil for years and then I came back and taught part-time while doing consulting. Within the last few years, we've started up Big Briar and have been making Theremins. It's my intention to come out with a new version of the Mini-Moog, which we hope will put the name ÒMoogÓ back in the musical instrument arena.
SECONDS: How is it going to differ from the original model?
MOOG: We've been planning it for quite a while; we're doing the engineering now. It will have the authentic sound of the Mini-Moog — that we will not change at all. It will have all the functions of the Mini-Moog and look like it but in addition will have some new features, such as MIDI.
SECONDS: Were you involved in the development of MIDI?
MOOG: The basic MIDI standards were proposed in 1981 by Dave Smith and É I forgot what the other's name was. Dave Smith, at that time, was the head of Sequential Circuits. He made his proposal and there wasn't much development, it was just people talking about it and I was one of the ones who talked about it. I had a lot of articles in magazines in 1982-1983 getting people interested but I didn't actually develop the MIDI protocol.
SECONDS: Will you stop with the MIDI Theremin interface or continue to develop computer software?
MOOG: I have no plans to stop doing anything. We have a lot of ideas and I'd like nothing better than to introduce things as fast I can think of them but it costs money to introduce a new product. Before we do, we get some solid evidence we can sell it and that changes as a function of time. It looks like a lot people out there would like a Mini-Moog now, and we want to see what people want before we design the next thing.
SECONDS: Is the home computer becoming more of an outlet for music production?
MOOG: Oh gosh, yes. I can't imagine being a musician today without using a computer. I think the computer is the greatest tool for musicians since the invention of catgut.
SECONDS: Did you ever imagine you'd be able to have equipment on your desktop?
MOOG: I don't know what I thought twenty years ago. Electronics has always advanced faster than people could predict. I wrote an article in 1976 for a magazine called The Music Journal where I predicted MIDI within one year. I also predicted sound synthesis would become standardized, which is certainly true today with the general MIDI sound-set. I predicted in 1976 that what was unique to a given musician was not the sound producing technology but the control of technology. I said everybody was going to have their own finely tuned controller, whether it was a Theremin or a keyboard, and sure enough that's the way things are going.
SECONDS: Do you have any predictions where electronic music technology will be heading in the next ten years?
MOOG: I think the two things we just talked about I see the clearest. Computers will become more important to musicians and sound synthesis will become more standardized and the devices you play will become more complex.
SECONDS: Do you ever run into analog synthesizer purists? Are they upset you're working with computers?
MOOG: Sometimes. My view is that I'm the engineer and as an engineer, it's not my place to be a purist. On the first day of engineering school, the dean of students said, ÒLet me tell you guys what an engineer is. An engineer is somebody who can do for two cents what any damned fool can do for three cents.Ó That's always been my view. We fill requirements at the cheapest price. If using ÒimpureÓ ways is the cheapest, then that's how we'll do it.
SECONDS: What music do you listen to?
MOOG: I listen to just about everything. I'm the most interested in experimental music — the crazier, the better. Among Electronic musicians, the artist I have the greatest respect for is Wendy Carlos. I'm not thinking of Switched-On Bach as much as I am her original music.
SECONDS: Do you keep abreast of trends in popular music?
MOOG: I'd have to say no. I find out about them but I don't make a point of following them.
SECONDS: Over the years, who has utilized Moog technology to the best and worst effect?
MOOG: There's an awful lot of worsts out there. What I call bad is musically uninteresting stuff and there's no end to that. I think a lot of these Techno bands are really interesting — Orbital, Stereolab, and Weezer. And Roger Manning and Brian Keho with their Moog Cookbook — that's a hoot! I laughed my head off!
SECONDS: Some very serious types were put off by Moog Cookbook.
MOOG: You can't stick me with that one. I'm not very serious.
"I can't imagine being a musician today without using a computer. I think the computer is the greatest tool for musicians since the invention of catgut."
"As an engineer, it's not my place to be a purist."
— Robert Moog