Remembering the Moog

Remembering the Moog

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 23, 2002.

The first thing to know is that "Moog" rhymes with "rogue" or "vogue" — it's not simply a cow's phrase with a "g" tacked on the end.

The other thing to keep in mind is, of course, a tad bit more important: It was the Moog that started the whole electronic music craze that continues today.

When Robert Moog produced his first electronic keyboard in 1964, it was not the first synthesizer. The theremin was invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Lev Termen — but you controlled its notes by waving your arms around in front of it. Not the easiest instrument to learn (or play), it's remembered mostly for those spooky sounds in old movies.

Moog took the basic technology of the theremin and brought it from the world of science into the musical world.

"The theremin was a novelty instrument because it was so difficult to play," said Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, an organization dedicated to preserving historical musical instruments. "What Moog did was make the concept of the synthesizer accessible by attaching it to what everybody knows — the piano keyboard."

There had been attempts to improve on the theremin in the 1950s, including one well-financed effort by RCA. But all those machines utilized non-musical input devices: paper tape and oscilloscope knobs were two of the easier methods for controlling early synthesizers.

Once Moog hooked up his analogue sound synthesizer to a keyboard, a new instrument was born.

"The synthesizer has probably had more impact on pouplar music than any other instrument in the last 50 years," Del Fiorentino said.

David Weil, curator of the Computer Museum of America in San Diego, agreed that the Moog was a ground-breaking instrument: "It turned out to be an important tool in bringing the information age together with the creativity of music-making to create an entirely new branch on the evolutionary tree of technology.

"As with other technological tools, it soon became useful in diverse enterprises, leading to the incorporation of sounds and music in many more applications, from cellphones to greeting cards."

While the Moog was an analogue machine, Del Fiorentino said there's no doubt it's the direct ancestor of today's digital keyboards — as well as synthesizers taking the form of guitars, drums and even saxophones.

"Without a doubt, it's probably the most improtant instrument from the music products industry standpoint since the tone wheel for the Hammond B-3, and that's saying something since the Hammond came out in 1935," Del Fiorentino said.

"It was like the lightbulb, that's how important it was in the industry."

However, when the instrument first came out it was considered a bit of a novelty. "There were a lot of people who didn't know how to use it,"Del Fiorentino said. The breakthrough for the Moog — and electronic instruments in general — is considered to be the 1968 release of the all-electronic album "Switched-On Bach" by Walter Carlos.

"When synthesizers first came out, had a niche in psychedelic music," Del Fiorentino said. "But Walter Carlos proved you could play classical. ... Within a few years, it was clear that this was an instrument that can be played in any kind of music. ‘Switched-On Bach' really revolutionized what people thought electronic music and electronic instruments could be. Now we have a genre of electronic music."

The Museum of Making Music has a couple of Moogs in its collection, although Del Fiorentino added that they'd love to have a Mini-Moog as that was the truly influential machine.

The Computer Museum of America has no Moogs in its collection — but Weil stressed that he, too, would like to add a few because of their influence in shaping the future of digital music and the eventual development of midi, which forever married the personal computer and music.

As for Robert Moog, he remains active and recently bought back the rights to sell electronic keyboards under the "Moog" name — he recently re-launched his newly re-named company at

Del Fiorentino had the opportunity to interview Moog earlier this year for the Museum's Oral History Project, and says of him, "He's a very well-spoken, unbelievably knowledgeable person who's very interested in continuing to produce musical instruments. So often, we see folks who come up with one or two ideas and rest on their laurels, and he certainly isn't one of those."

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