The Moog Synthesizer
Bob Moog started his career of synthesizer selling with Theremin kits put together in his basement.These were sold through the popular electronics magazines of the day. The Theremin is a radio based device with two aerials, one for pitch and one for volume and the instrument is played by moving your hands around the aerials.
The original Theremin was designed in the 1920’s by a Russian emigre often called Leon Theremin (Lev Termen). The Theremin’s finest exponent was a lady called Clara Rockmore, regarded as the finest Theremin virtuoso ever.In the late 1920’s she toured the world with concert orchestras playing the instrument.
Have you ever heard a Theremin? Well yes you have and probably more often than you think. All the 1950’s horror films used them in their soundtracks, but the most famous popular song to feature it was Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys for the wailing solo in the middle of the song. Moog folklore says that the device used for the solo was a Moog Theremin with a custom built ribbon controller so that the Beach Boys could recreate the solo every night without the extreme musicianship required to play it by aerials.
Another more recent use of the Theremin was in the British detective drama Midsomer Murders where it is the primary instrument in the theme music.
The Early Modular Years
Bob Moog had met one of his own Theremin customers, the electronic composer Herb Deutsch at a New York music trade show in the winter of 1963. With a shared interest in electronics they got talking on the subject and Deutsch asked Moog if there was any way to make a portable electronic studio that composers could use at home, as up to that point almost all avante-garde electronic music required banks of bulky tape machines and a lot of cutting and splicing to even create short passages of sound.Other equipment used were test oscillators and ex army surplus radio equipment. All in all, not covenient, very bulky and very time consuming.
Bob Moog went back to his basement over the winter to tinker with circuitry and by the next spring had some ideas. For a period juring the summer Herb Deutsch went to stay in Trumansburg in upstate New York to collaborate with Moog on designing a portable electronic studio.
Bob had cobbled together 2 Voltage Controlled Oscillators and a Voltage Controlled Amplifier, on tag strip circuit boards. Being Voltage Controlled, they could be tweaked with knobs or played by a keyboard or patched together to play each other. It seems that even at this time the 1 Volt per Octave standard was set.
Deutsch suggested that an automatic way of controlling loudness over time would be good and after more tinkering the Envelope generator was born, triggered by a second set of contacts on the keyboard.
Bob Moog obtained a small floor space at the Audio Engineers Society (AES) trade show in autumn 1964 and demonstrated his new equipment to rapturous awe in a hall filled with giant tape recorders.
He got orders for 3 units, the Moog modular was born, and Bob Moog was in the synthesiser business.
One of the best books ever written about these times is “Analog Days” by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, more of a sociological book than a technical tour de force, but very informative and a great read.
The Minimoog – The Impetus
The early Moog systems were a difficult product to market, the products were to say the least esoteric, the modulars were not a product that could be sold in a music store in the same way as a guitar, a trombone or a drum kit. The main customers for this new and cutting edge product were the the new and cutting edge composers of the time, most of which had Doctorates in musical composition and who wished to change the face of music. The Music Departments of the major universities had the funds and were not averse to investing in new technology, but the music they produced was not something that appealed to the Rock’n’Roll generation and public awareness of the synthesiser was scant.
The turning point for the synthesiser was Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach album in 1969. This album was exquisitely crafted by Carlos using an advanced version of the Moog Modular, many of the modules being suggested by Carlos and custom made by Bob Moog. This multitracked masterpiece was a painstakingly constructed version of some of Bach’s most popular pieces played entirely on synthesiser as opposed to orchestra. Its working title was “Electronic Bach” but the record company CBS came up with the slightly more hip “Switched on Bach”.
The album became a cult classic in that year, almost surprising all concerned, but it launched the synthesiser into the popular culture.
The success of SOB (as it is commonly abbreviated to) led to all the other record companies thinking that they had to have a synth album also, so sales of modulars from Moog rocketed as all the big record companies, producers and wealthy musicians felt it was something they had to have.
The number of staff at Moog in Trumansburg climbed to over 40 and production was ramped up to meet demand, the future looked rosy both for Moog and the synthesiser industry, but the storm clouds were not far away. The other new owners of very expensive Moog Modulars were under pressure to generate some product to justify the expenditure and the results were often musical disasters. The cost of a well specified Moog system could buy a respectable house or a very respectable car (in the Rolls Royce class).
The melee of crass and poorly thought out Moog synthesiser albums included such classics as “Switched on Santa”, “Chopin a la Moog”, “Moog plays the Beatles” and “Switched-on Nashville Country Moog”.
The commercial failure of these musical monstrosities meant that the record companies cut their losses and the cash cow they hoped a Moog synthesiser could generate was put out to grass.
In the space of a year orders at Moog fell to a tenth of the heyday times and thought was being put into what it would take to keep the company alive.
The Moog factory used to send technicians along with their more high profile clients to help them with programming and producing the sounds they wanted in studio sessions and it turned out that a basic pattern developed, the now common 2 oscillators into a filter and VCA with envelope generators for both filter and VCA. An LFO assignable to both oscillators and filter were among the most requested configurations.
A design engineer at Moog, Bill Hemsath is credited with the birth of the Moog portable synth which would become the Minimoog. He cobbled together during his lunch hours a simple system built from existing module circuit boards but without the jack sockets needed to produce a sound from a Moog Modular, he prewired the modules behind the front panel in the basic configuration described above.
The prototype synth ( which Hemsath called the Min) went gigging with a band called Mother Mallard and while it was not as versatile as a Moog Modular, it was much quicker to set up a sound on and was well received. This version has been described as the Model A Minimoog in hindsight.
The Model A had 2 oscillators and 2 ADSR envelopes from the modular systems and a slider pot left of the keyboard for pitch bend. The 3 octave keyboard was cut down from the modulars 5 octave keyboard.
With the proof of concept established, Bill Hemsath designed the next version to be somewhat closer to a production product.
This incarnation of the portable Moog has 3 oscillators, a noise generator and 2 ADSR envelope generators.
The legendary avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra borrowed this one for several months on tour, only returning it to Trumansburg when it broke down. The front and keyboard were protected by a wooden cover which clipped onto the synth to make a rectangular flightcase. The thoughts of a solid walnut cabinet being a road flight case bring tears to the eyes. Note that the keyboard is C to F in 3 and a half octave format, and the pitch bend is in the middle of the control panel.
This version of the Minimoog looks very similar to the production version, the only important difference being the pitch bend and modulation sliders. The keyboard is the Minimoog standard F to C.
The circuitry was built on prototype boards, the design not yet finalised, and this model was exhibited at several trade shows in the 1969-1970 era (exact times and dates being somewhat fuzzy and lost in the mist of time). Response to this new synthesiser was very positive.
The Minimoog model D
The model D Minimoog is the one that we all know and love but even this version was only meant to be a preproduction version, the model E was to be the mass production version, with all the front panel controls on a circuit board along with all the sound generating circuitry. The legends and folklore of the following sequence of events are quite confusing and to an extent contradictory ( the almost contemporary ARP Odyssey and EMS VCS3 had most of the controls and circuitry on the same circuit board).
The early RA Moog Minimoogs had an oscillator board which Bill Hemsath claims was designed by Bob Moog himself, which seems slightly at odds with the folklore that Bob wasn’t keen on the idea of a portable synth or the MInimoog itself, in some ways the early Oscillator board was quite ingenious, only one Tempco resistor for the three osc’s, as it was in the Master Summing Node. Alas the poor quality of transistors and resistors and capacitors in that era led to a perception of poor tuning stability for the early RA’s. That being said, the early Trumansberg Minimoogs have attained an almost priceless quality in these times, and some people regard them as the definitive Minimoog.