INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MOOG
Conducted by Jorge Munnshe for Amazing Sounds (1998)
By the mid sixties, in the USA, Robert Moog, an electronic engineer who had a musical background, built the first voltage-controlled synthesizer. At once he awoke the interest of the scientific community with this. As well as that of the musical community.
It did not take long for Moog to get orders from musicians who felt the need to do new things. He built costumized units for each one of them. Some of his first customers were Wendy Carlos, Eric Siday, and Keith Emerson. Carlos utilized the synthesizer to perform in a masterly way the Brandenbourg Concerts by J.S. Bach, thus proving that electronic instruments were no worthless gizmos to produce sonic special effects for rays shot by Martian invaders, but they could really be musical instruments of their own right, with a warmth and an expressiveness capable of competing with those typical of acoustic instruments. Siday recorded with the synthesizer musical pieces for advertisements, thus taking the first step towards the nowadays widely trodden path of electronic music for television. Emerson utilized for the first time the synthesizer at a live performance, thus proving that it was not a laboratory machine, but an instrument with all its qualities, which allowed for live performances to take place.
What are you currently working on? Can you tell us about your recent activities and your projects for the near future?
"Big Briar's latest development is our Ethervox MIDI Theremin. We're starting to make and ship them now, but we still have a lot of work to do by way of taking care of the many final engineering details".
"Our next big project is to design a new version of the classic Minimoog. We will be introducing this instrument next summer. It will have all the great sound and function of the classic Minimoog Model D (the instrument that my old company made from 1970 to 1982), plus a few new features that musicians have been asking for. This new instrument of ours will have the MOOG trademark".
Is the collaboration with musicians a good help to direct your research towards the best way? Were the opinions of musicians about your first synthesizers useful when you were developing them?
"I've been collaborating with musicians since I first began designing synthesizers in 1964. Every good idea of ours has come about through the collaboration with musicians. When we were first developing synthesizer modules during the mid sixties, musicians were always giving us good ideas for improvements, and we always listened to them".
Out of the music industry, have you worked in other technology fields?
"Except for a couple of summer jobs in the mainstream electronics industry, I have spent my entire working life designing and building electronic musical instruments".
What do you think of the competition between analogical versus digital synthesizers?
"Well, there are some things that digital synthesizers can do better than analog, and there are some things that analog can do better than digital. It's possible to make a digital model of an "ideal" analog circuit, but it still sounds digital, because there is none of the characteristic analog warmth and richness of sound that comes from the little technical variations and imperfections of analog circuits. Digital instruments are fine for a lot of things, like sample playback, programmability, precision, and relatively low price. But soundwise, I think we're talking about the difference between, say, a plastic guitar and a wood guitar".
Can you tell us some funny anecdote in the history of Moog synthesizers and your contact with the musicians playing them that you remember in a special way?
"I remember the first time we showed our modular MOOG synthesizers out on the West Coast. It was 1967, the year before Switched-on Bach was released. We had sold a few modular systems to East Coast commercial musicians, but the Los Angeles music scene didn't know about us at all. We showed up at the 1967 Audio Engineering Society convention in Los Angeles with a large modular synthesizer. The musicians who saw our exhibit the first day went home and told all their friends, and the next two or three days were incredibly busy, and we wound up selling several synthesizers that were later used in all sorts of Hollywood films and West Coast pop and commercial music".
"One evening during that AES Convention, my friend Paul Beaver, who was an electronic instrument guru in LA at that time, took our modular system out of our exhibit and into a recording studio where they were laying down tracks for an Elektra album called Zodiac Cosmic Sounds. Paul recorded a few good fat analog sounds for the album. One of those sounds was used as the very first sound on the album. As far as I know, that's the first use of a Moog modular synthesizer on a West Coast pop record".
How did you decide to make theremins when you were around 16 year old?
"When I was in my early teens, building simple novelty electronic musical instruments was a hobby of mine. In 1949 I saw an article on how to build a theremin in the hobby magazine Radio and TV News. I built my first theremin from the instructions in that article. I was 15 at the time".
Has Leon Theremin (Lev Termen) been a big influence for your musical technology career? Can you tell us about your relation with him & his collaborators?
"I knew very little about Theremin when I first started. Remember, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was going full blast back then, and it was extremely difficult for anybody in this country to get information on people like Theremin. Little by little I learned about Theremin. At one point during the fifties, I got a schematic diagram of the "original" RCA theremin, and studied it carefully. That was the beginning of my real understanding of what a genius Theremin was".
"I met Clara Rockmore first during the early sixties, and then I became good friends with her and her family during the seventies. Clara was a protegee of Theremin, and a very close friend of his during the thirties, so I learned a lot about Theremin from Clara".
"I finally met Theremin in Bourges, France, in 1989, and again in this country in 1992. By then the cold war was over, so it was possible for Theremin to re-establish contact with his friends and colleagues in the West. By the time I met him, I knew a good deal about what he had done, and what an influence he had been on the development of electronic musical instrument technology".
How did you decide to make theremins after your work making Moog synthesizers?
"I never really stopped making theremins. I made them for sale from 1954 on. After 1964, my company was very busy making synthesizers, and the general public forgot about the theremin for a while, so I made very few theremins between 1965 and 1978. From 1978 to maybe 1990, there was very little interest in the theremin, but I did make a few theremins to order. In 1991 interest in the theremin seemed to pick up, so I came up with a new design, the Big Briar Series 91 theremins. In 1996 I published a do-it-yourself theremin article for Electronic Musician magazine, and this became the basis for our popular Etherwave theremin".
Do you think that your work making synthesizers & new theremin models is not only a technological activity, but an artistic one also?
"It's certainly more than a technological activity, although we instrument designers certainly use electronic technology as a design tool. But I wouldn't call it an artistic activity. We're toolmakers. Making tools is a craft, maybe even a high craft. I'd say that we are craftsmen rather than artists".
Have you been a professional musician? Have you composed some music? How do you think your life might be if you were chosen to work as a musician rather than an electronic instruments inventor?
"I've studied music, primarily as a child, because my mother wanted me to. And I played piano in a four-piece dance band during the fifties. We were pretty bad. I really don't think I could have made a living as a musician. It's not in me. Designing electronic stuff is my calling".
Would you like to add something else?
"I want the general public to know that I have applied to the United States Trademark office to get the MOOG tradename back. There is a little confusion now because one or two other people are also using my name as a trademark on electronic musical instruments. My position is that these people are doing so without my permission and are therefore violating my exclusive right to use my name as a trademark. We are opposing all uses of the MOOG name as a trademark, except on instruments made by me or by my company, Big Briar. Visit Big Briar's website for up-to-date information in the MOOG trademark".
"My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our website is: http://www.bigbriar.com".
"Anybody who is interested in MOOG synthesizers, or Big Briar theremins is invited to visit the Big Briar website, or to correspond with me directly by email. I can't promise that I'll answer every email, but I'll do my best".
Thank you very much!
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