Tag Archives: Moog

Google Doodle for Bob Moog’s Birthday

Moog Google DoodleDid you see the Google Doodle for today? It’s a functional model of an analog synthesizer in honor of what would have been Bob Moog’s 78th birthday. You can adjust the oscillator, filter, and envelope settings to create a wide range of sounds. It even has a recorder attached to it so you can capture your creations and share them with others!

Over a year ago now, I wrote a couple of posts about Moog (rhymes with ‘rogue’) and his synthesizer. The first was inspired by a documentary about Moog and his work. Here is a trailer for that, in which he discusses how people reacted to the synthesizer when it was first introduced:

Moog recounts how critics at the time really didn’t know what to make of his creation. For them, “real music” came only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. These new electronic synthesizers seemed more like sophisticated noise-makers, something useful for sound-effects engineers, but hardly something that could be categorized as a “musical instrument.” Moog’s most strident critics actually accused him of “destroying music” by introducing a most “unnatural” device.

The synthesizer’s shift from “noise-maker” to “musical instrument” is captured well in Pinch and Trocco’s book Analog Days, which was the subject of my second post on Moog. These authors trace the early days of the Moog, describing how it quickly became a staple feature for psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. But in the fall of 1968, a recording was released that completely changed how people thought about what the synthesizer was, and was good for. It was called Switched on Bach, and as the title implies, it featured the works of Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on the synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, and was one of the first classical recordings to ever go platinum. That album inspired many other keyboardists to explore the potential of the synthesizer and integrate it into their creative work.

I think the history of the synthesizer is valuable for two reasons. First, it reminds us to be careful about conflating the concepts of “natural” and “traditional.” The synthesizer was certainly untraditional when it was introduced, but is was just as much an artifact, and therefore unnatural, as a violin or saxophone. And instead of destroying music, it opened up entirely new sonic possibilities that helped expand the creative potential of musicians. We need to be careful when making dire predictions about how this or that new device will destroy some aspect of our traditional culture—it may very well turn out to be quite the opposite.

Second, the synthesizer, like the iPad or the telephone, is the kind of device that requires a bit of “working out” before a culture decides what it actually is and what it’s good for. The synthesizer’s social meaning was underdetermined and somewhat flexible when it was first introduced, and the way it turned out was influenced just as much by its initial users as it was by those who designed, produced and marketed it. Early adopters often play key roles in redefining and reshaping new devices so that they better fit into the target culture.

OK, enough theorizing—now go make some music!

The Struggle to Define a New Device: More on the Moog

I’ve been reading more about the Moog synthesizer, and in this post I want to talk about a story I ran across in Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s wonderful book, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. The story concerns the early days of the synthesizer and a rather significant recording you might have heard of.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the Moog, it was not immediately obvious to everyone what exactly the early synthesizers were, much less what they were good for. The avant-garde musicians were excited by the new sonic possibilities created by the synthesizer, and sound effects engineers quickly embraced it for their work, but both of these early uses had the effect of defining the synthesizer as an ethereal noise-making device, and not an instrument capable of making “real” music. One reviewer criticized the early synthesizers as sounding like an “obnoxious mating of a catfight and a garbage compactor,” useful only for “cheesy, invader-from-Mars movies” (132).

So how did the synthesizer get redefined as the keyboard instrument we know today? In their book, Pinch and Trocco describe in detail how this occurred, but there was one crucial story that seemed to be the turning point in the process. It’s a story that has all the elements you’d ever want: Johann Sebastian Bach, analog synthesizers, and one of the first transgendered musical performers.

By 1968, the Moog synthesizer had already been featured on a few rock albums, but it’s use was still limited to creating ancillary, psychedelic, sonic effects. Groups like The Byrds, The Doors, and even the Beatles had been enthusiastic adopters of the Moog (especially after they discovered the synesthesia-like effects its sounds often had for those high on LSD, a drug that was legal in the US until late-1968), but their use of it was limited to a narrow set of common sounds that each copied from the other. This made the Moog an important, almost required component of late 1960s rock music, but it was still “largely seen as a way to add an unusual psychedelic effect here and there,” as opposed to an instrument capable of carrying the melody or harmony (122).

Switched-On BachThis all changed in the fall of 1968 with the release of the album Switched-On Bach. The recording featured the works of Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer, which was quite a feat considering that the Moog could produce only one note at any given time, and changing between different sounds required the time-consuming shuffling of patch cords and adjustments to various knobs. The album was entirely a production of the studio, with countless splices and overdubs to create the required effects, but those effects were nothing short of redefining: for the first time, someone had created very recognizable keyboard, and at times orchestral, music using nothing but an analog synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, becoming one of the first classical albums to go platinum, eventually reaching the Billboard Top 10.

The performer, or “synthesist” as they were commonly known, was credited as Walter Carlos. A classically-trained pianist who also had a passion for electronics, Carlos studied music at Brown University, but actually majored in physics, and brought that technical expertise to a masters in music composition at Columbia. Uninterested in the compositional serialism that was dominant at that time, Carlos turned his attention to electronic music, meeting Bob Moog in 1964, and purchasing one of his modular synthesizers soon after.

Carlos and Moog got along famously. Carlos was demanding, and could translate what he wanted musically into Moog’s native language: electronics. Carlos pushed Moog to improve the touch response of the keyboard, and develop new modules that would allow him to better recreate the timbres of orchestral instruments. Carlos was a perfectionist, and the quality of music he was able to produce was beyond what anyone else had done with a Moog. In many ways, Carlos’s efforts reshaped the Moog from a sound-effects device into a keyboard instrument capable of playing Bach.

The relationship between Carlos and Moog provides us with a nice example of how “users” of technologies often turn out to have profound effects upon them. Many cultural critics tend to assume that the influence of technology on culture goes in only one direction; that technologies “impact” culture, and culture has little to no influence on those technologies in return. But when we examine historical cases like the Moog in detail, we often see examples where the early users profoundly shaped devices as they were being adopted. In fact, the line between inventor, producer, and user is often quite blurry and porous during the initial years of a new technological artifact or system.

The commercial success of Switched-On Bach spawned a litany of copy-cat albums: Switched-On Bacharach, Switched-On Gershwin, Switched-On Santa, and Chopin á la Moog, to name just a few. My personal favorite is The Plastic Cow that Goes MOOOOOG, a title which no doubt further cemented the common mispronunciation of Moog’s name; Moog is actually a Dutch name that rhymes with “rogue,” though most people (including myself before I heard otherwise) assume that it is pronounced like a cow’s “moo” with a “g” on the end.

The album’s success also made Carlos an overnight star, but sadly it was a fame that Carlos could not fully enjoy. During the making of Switched-On Bach, Walter Carlos was slowly becoming Wendy. Carlos began cross-dressing and taking hormone therapy during 1968, and was living “permanently as a woman by the middle of May 1969″ (137). Carlos made a few public appearances as Walter, wearing a man’s wig and makeup to simulate sideburns and facial stubble, but eventually withdrew from public scrutiny to complete the metamorphosis. Since the music he/she created was impossible to play live, there was no demand for a tour, and Carlos returned to the studio to create more albums featuring the Moog.

The lesson here is that Switched-On Bach was a powerful resource in the struggle to define just what this new device was, and what it was good for. It demonstrated without a doubt that the Moog was a real instrument capable of producing not just psychedelic or ethereal sonic effects, but recognizable melody and harmony. Pinch and Trocco also note that this album was the reason many notable pop and rock keyboardists, such as Keith Emerson, Patrick Gleeson, Tomita, and Stevie Wonder embraced the synthesizer as a new instrument, capable of playing the lead musical line (147).

Moog Documentary

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Here is a trailer for it:

(If you are interested in watching this documentary, it is currently available via instant-play on Netflix, or you can watch it in segments on YouTube.)

I have to admit that as a documentary film, it wasn’t the best it could be, but I love the subject matter. The synthesizer is another one of those artifacts that, when introduced, caused quite a lot of angst in the surrounding culture. Avant-garde musicians loved it, sound-effects engineers eagerly embraced it, but the wider culture didn’t really know what to make of this thing. It looked far more like a telephone switchboard than it did a musical instrument.

File:Bob Moog3.jpgThe original Moog synthesizers were complicated beasts, with dozens of dials, switches, and patch cords. They had keyboards as well, but the synthesizer could produce only one note a time, so the keyboard was really just a mechanism to set the initial pitch of the generated wave, which could then be bent and transformed by the various processing modules. Most avant-garde musicians actually had little use for the keyboard, preferring instead to generate new kinds of sounds and pitches that did not fit into the traditional tempered scale. Other synthesizer makers that were more influenced by these musicians (such as Don Buchla) omitted the keyboard entirely.

File:Minimoog.JPGSeveral progressive rock musicians also started using Moog’s synthesizers, most notably Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Because these groups toured, they asked for a more portable, self-contained version, and in 1970 Moog introduced what became his most iconic instrument, the Minimoog.

Sadly, critics accused Moog and his synthesizer performers of destroying music. For these critics, real musical sounds could originate only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. Electronically-produced sounds were simply not ‘natural’ and thus not music.

But is there anything really ‘natural’ about a violin, saxophone, or drum? Each one of these musical instruments is an artifact, something created by humans that does not exist apart form human agency. At some point in history, violins were invented, developed, adopted, and shaped into the instrument we know today. Violins are certainly old, and their sound can move the human heart, but they are hardly products of Nature.

We must be careful when we swing around that word ‘natural'; we too often use it as an unreflective synonym for ‘traditional’. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is a rather hard and unyielding one, but what is considered ‘traditional’ is maleable; it changes over time, adapting to new cultural developments.

Historical cases like the Moog synthesizer should teach us that the dire predictions of today’s cultural critics need to be taken with a large grain of salt. The synthesizer didn’t destroy music; quite the opposite occurred as musicians embraced the new sounds and techniques made possible by that new instrument. It would have been difficult in 1970 to foresee how the synthesizer would enable new approaches to music-making that we today take for granted.

So will mobile phone texting and Twitter be the death of writing? Will Facebook destroy ‘real’ community? It is unlikely that we can foresee now just what changes these systems will engender in our society. These systems will, no doubt, reshape our cultures in profound ways, but our cultures will also reshape these systems in return. The real question is which social groups will be the predominant shapers of these systems as they evolve?