Life and career
Early life and education
Robert Moog was born in New York City on May 23, 1934, and grew up in Flushing, Queens. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1952. His parents forced him to study the piano but he preferred his time in the workroom of his father, a Consolidated Edison engineer. He became fascinated by the theremin, an electronic instrument controlled by moving the hands over radio antennae. In 1949, aged 14, he built a theremin from plans printed in Electronics World.
Moog completed a bachelor's degree in physics from Queens College and a master's degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University before earning a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1964.
In 1953, Moog produced his own theremin design, and in 1954 he published an article on the theremin in Radio and Television News. In the same year, he founded RA Moog, selling theremins and theremin kits by mail order from his home. One of his customers, Raymond Scott, rewired Moog's theremin for control by keyboard, creating the Clavivox.
Development of Moog synthesizer
At Cornell, Moog began working on his first synthesizer modules with composer Herb Deutsch. At the time, synthesizers were enormous, room-filling instruments; Moog hoped to build a more compact synthesizer that would appeal to musicians. Moog believed that practicality and affordability were the most important parameters.
In 1964, Moog began creating the Moog synthesizer. The synthesizer was composed of separate modules which created and shaped sounds, connected by patch cords. One innovative feature of the synthesizer was its attack-decay-sustain-release envelopes, which control how notes swell and fade. Moog debuted the instrument at the 1964 Audio Engineering Society convention in New York. It was much smaller than other synthesizers, such as the one introduced by the RCA a decade earlier, and much cheaper, at $10,000USD compared to the six-figure sums of other synthesizers. Whereas the RCA's synthesizer was programmed with punchcards, Moog's synthesizer could be played via a keyboard, making it attractive to musicians. New Scientist described it as the first commercial synthesizer.
Moog's development was driven by requests and suggestions from musicians including Richard Teitelbaum, Herb Deutsch, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Wendy Carlos. Moog said in 2000: "I don't design stuff for myself. I'm a toolmaker. I design things that other people want to use." His other early customers included choreographer Alwin Nikolais and composer John Cage. Universities established electronic music laboratories with Moog synthesizers.
Carlos's 1968 album Switched-On Bach, featuring performances of Bach compositions arranged for Moog synthesizer, won three Grammy Awards and was the first classical album certified platinum. The album is credited for popularising the Moog synthesizer and demonstrating that synthesizers could be more than "random noise machines". The synthesizer was adopted by bands and musicians including the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Keith Emerson. It was followed by a more portable model, the Minimoog, the most famous and influential synthesizer in history.
Moog only patented his filter design. According to Sound on Sound, if Moog had tried to create a monopoly on other fundamental synthesiser ideas he created, such as modularity, envelope generation, and voltage control, "it's likely the synth industry as we know it today would never have happened". According to David Borden, one of the first users of the Minimoog, "If [Moog] had patented [the pitch wheel], he would have been an extremely wealthy man."
Though commentators have praised Moog's engineering abilities, they also described him as a poor businessman. In 1971, following a recession, Moog Music took on investors, merged with another company, and moved to "less than ideal" premises in Buffalo. Moog sold Moog Music to Norlin Musical Instruments, where he remained employed as a designer until 1977. Moog said he would have left earlier if his contract had not required him to remain employed there for four years to cash his stock. By the end of the decade, Moog Music was facing competition from cheaper, easier-to-use instruments manufactured by competitors including Arp, Aries, Roland and E-mu.
Big Briar and rebirth of Moog Music
A mural depicting Moog in Asheville, North Carolina
In 1978, Moog moved to North Carolina and founded a new electronic instrument company, Big Briar. He also worked as a consultant and vice president for new product research at Kurzweil Music Systems from 1984 to 1988. In the early 1990s, he was a research professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. In 2002, he renamed Big Briar to Moog Music after buying back the rights to the name. In later years, he designed electronic instruments including a piano operated by touchscreen.
Moog was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor on April 28, 2005. He died on August 21, 2005 at the age of 71 in Asheville, North Carolina.