24 May 2012
Top Gear: the Minimoog
Moog is such an evocative name — the “moo” of placid, bovine friendliness, darkly laced with the stylised, ultramodern violence of “Droog” — that it’s hard to believe Bob Moog, inventor of the synthesizer, was actually christened thus. And in one way, indeed, his hideously successful progeny have rendered him the phonetic impostor: his surname is pronounced to rhyme with “vogue”, but a Moog synthesizer sounds resolutely like a cow.
Born in New York in 1934, Moog collected degrees and doctorates in physics and engineering before setting up the R A Moog Company in 1954 as a kind of hobby, designing and selling home-made transistorized Theremins (the spooky thing you play by waving your fingers at an aerial). By the mid-1960s, the ground-breaking Moog products were the huge and exclusive “modular” synthesizers. Different components of the sound-generating process — an oscillator here, a filter there, an amplifier with chips trod into it somewhere on the floor — could be linked together however you liked by plugging cables between them. Moogs were so expensive that they sold only to big studios, universities, and rich musicians.
The big Moog publicity breakthrough was the appearance in 1969 of Switched On Bach, a record consisting of 10 Bach compositions played on a Moog synthesizer by composer Walter Carlos. It was a canny, sexy choice. The rudimentary electronic technology was not up to recreating the high dynamic drama and virtuoso sonorities of Romantic music, for example — Switched On Rachmaninov would have been a disaster. Collaborator and musicologist Benjamin Folkman revealed in his sleevenotes, however, that baroque and electronic music shared “characteristics such as crisp, bright sonorities, terraced dynamics, and high relief of voices [...] among [their] most idiomatic features.”
Put simply, the mathematical purity of baroque music was able to withstand any amount of grungey sonorities, while conversely, the sinoidal purity of certain electronic tones could often enable the listener to hear different simultaneous musical lines more clearly. Switched On Bach, which married shameless harpsichord imitations with joyously new-fangled burbles, squawks and chirrupings, sold nearly 50,000 copies in its first six weeks, and rapidly went on to sell a cool million.
Suddenly rock musicians were clamouring for the Moog sound on their own records, and a new era of space-age sonic experimentation was ushered in. Meanwhile, the surreal fascination of cinematic sci-fi had found its perfect audio analogue — Moogs and Theremins, for instance, provided the backbone for the extraordinarily avant-garde electronic soundtrack to Forbidden Planet. On probably the most unpopular album ever made by a Beatle, George Harrison noodled around on a Moog for two hours and called the result, with typical inspiration, Electronic Sound.
In 1971 a fat slice of Moog was suddenly made available to everyone with the release of the Minimoog, which became the company’s definitive instrument. Intriguingly, early designs for the Minimoog were like something out of a camp space romp: gleaming, curvy white plastic with coloured lights and oddly shaped controls. But Bob Moog asked around a few of his musician friends, and they insisted on the more traditionally serious, wood-grained look. The angled control panel, though, was still pleasingly reminiscent of a Nasa console. Crucially, it also made a strong statement to the effect that the keyboard was not privileged: to play the instrument correctly demanded dexterity in dial-turning and electronic sound-forging as well as the usual pianistic motor skills.
The Minimoog was suddenly everywhere. Pink Floyd married the Minimoog’s squelchy muscle to walls of guitar to produce their brooding epics, and the synthesizer as a force in pop had arrived. The iron logic of historical necessity led straight to the music of Kraftwerk, the Orb, 808 State and the Prodigy — bands which, despite vastly increased synth resources, have all used Minimoogs. But remember: no technology is entirely benign in its effects: had there been no Moog, and therefore no Switched On Bach, we might never have had to suffer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s evil prog-rock traduction of the Enigma Variations. Was it, in the end, really worth it?
You’ve Heard It On:
Pink Floyd, “Animals”
Kraftwerk, “Neon Lights”
Neil Young, “Trans”
Gary Numan, “Cars”