Guest blogger Thom Holmes explores how technology and musical artistry influence one another
Some questions about electronic music are best answered historically. What qualities make electronic music inherently different than other music? Where did the idea originate to compose using the envelope of a sound? Why did some musicians in some genres of music adopt electronic music more quickly than others? The answers to these kinds of questions have been obscured by many years of established practice in the field. Yet, understanding how electronic music evolved remains important to today’s musicians and listeners who want to fully understand and appreciate this thing we call electronic music.
The Moog Synthesizer has been at the center of this history for the past 45 years. This blog is about that history as represented by important and influential recordings made with Dr. Robert (Bob) Moog’s synthesizers.
Bob Moog, in his exceptionally understated manner, once said that he was merely an engineer, a toolmaker whose work only gained significance in the hands of musicians. In this gracious self-assessment he acknowledged the debt that he owed to musicians, and unintentionally, the risk of doing so in the first place. For musicians can be a famously unpredictable bunch. What was done with this man’s early synthesizers ran the gamut from the simply extraordinary to the extraordinarily cheesy. There were absolutely no rules for how best to make electronic music. What each of these artists achieved on the scale of musical greatness was more or less shaped by the uniqueness of their own musical vision. Lofty ambitions don’t always lead to groundbreaking music but the significance of the Moog Modular Synthesizer and the Minimoog to the future of music was undeniable, even in those early years back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Technology, Artistry, Innovation
New instruments are rare in music. Some of the most familiar instruments—the flute, drums, woodwinds, and the piano—date back hundreds, even thousands of years. The synthesizer was to the piano what the electronic calculator was to the abacus—a tool that opened the familiar to new frontiers. Bob Moog was quick to point this out himself. “Music instruments have always, from the very beginning of human history, used the most advanced technology of their time,” explained Bob. “Musicians need advanced technology. … The technology of our time is electronics.” [i]
The development of electronic music instruments has come a long way since the early days of the Moog Modular. But we are still greatly enthralled to experience interesting music, and this brings me to the central theme of this blog.
I am interested in what early adopters of Moog’s instruments did with his instruments. Much of this work is evidenced by commercial recordings from the time. Every recording contributes to the story of electronic music that was inspired by Moog synthesizers. In the months to come I will spotlight specific genres and artists of early Moog works that proved to be influential, groundbreaking—even epoch—in the annals of electronic music.
This is a story of how technology and musical artistry influence one another, how the creative process responds when given new and unfamiliar tools. But this isn’t just about looking back at some great music. It is my sincerest hope that musicians of today—the newest generation of Moog players and performers—will find ideas and inspiration in these stories that will lead to their own innovations.
The Moog Formula for Success
While this blog will normally be focused on specific, vintage recordings using a Moog Synthesizer, this might be a good place to explain the early success of the Moog in the first place. Bob Moog was not the ﬁrst person to build a synthesizer, but he has become the most recognized. The idea of the synthesizer is as old as Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, when this American inventor ﬁrst used the term in 1896 to describe his plan to build a power-hungry dynamo that operated on direct current. Cahill’s concept was virtually the same as Moog’s—to use a combination of tone-generating and modulating devices to build sounds from their component parts. The Moog Modular Synthesizer, first conceived as a piece of studio equipment, quickly became the most commonly found synthesizer in electronic music studios during the late 1960s and 1970s.
The secret of Moog’s success was that he listened to musicians and solved the three most pressing challenges plaguing the use of synthesizers at that time:
Transistorized and solid-state components solved the ﬁrst two problems by reducing the size of the sound-generating components and producing stable oscillators. Providing controls over the myriad possible sounds that could be made with the synthesizer was a bigger challenge. Moog worked painstakingly to solve the problem of synthesizer control with the help of his many composer and musician friends.
Moog became the ﬁrst synthesizer designer to popularize the technique of voltage control in analog electronic musical instruments. This voltage signal was precise, quick, and activated by such easy-to-use voltage control components as the synthesizer keyboard, thus making the voltage-controlled analog synthesizer much easier to manage. Donald Buchla in the United States and Paolo Ketoff in Italy had been developing commercial synthesizers using the same principle at about the same time, but their equipment never reached the level of acceptance in the musical world—nor commercial sales—as Moog’s products. Moog’s first synthesizers were designed as modular devices with self-contained but connectable components to generate, modify, modulate, and output sounds. Moog succeeded in creating a product that could be manufactured with consistently high quality.
Early Moog synthesizers were also mounted in handsome walnut-framed cabinets that gave the instrument a superbly professional appearance. The wood cabinetry was a strategic choice on Moog’s part because it lent a traditional touch to a radically new kind of instrument, probably adding to its appeal to veteran composers and musicians. As a modular system, the Moog Modular Synthesizer was also built to order based on whatever components the customer had selected.
The Moog Modular Synthesizer came without any preset sounds. One had to learn to connect the component parts with patch cords, adjust the dial settings for individual components, and essentially “program” the kinds of sounds that you wanted. It was clearly an instrument ahead of its time and after only a few years, and a flurry of notable recordings by artists from nearly every imaginable genre, the Bob Moog and his synthesizer almost single-handedly launched an entire industry of electronic music instrument makers.
To read the second installment of this blog series with the first 10 recordings using a Moog, click here.
Click here to read the third installment of this blog series, “Not-a-Moog” Recordings which are frequently mistaken for Moog recordings.
Thom Holmes is a music historian and composer specializing in the history of electronic music and recordings. He is the author of the textbook, Electronic and Experimental Music (fourth edition, Routledge 2012) and writes the blog, Noise and Notations. For his ongoing project, The Sound of Moog, he is archiving every known early recording of the Moog Modular Synthesizer.
blog: Noise and Notations
If you want to read more from Thom Holmes, please see his many fascinating historical blogs here: http://moogfoundation.
[i] Torsten Schmidthttp, Synth-Aesthesia: An Interview With Bob Moog, 2003. Available online: http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazine/bob-moog-interview