Thom Holmes: Reflection on the Moog Influence

Moog: A History in Recordings

Thom Holmes

August 2015

The Moog Influence

I want to veer from the subject of recordings for this edition of the blog to honor Bob Moog and the industry that he started. In a way, this blog is still about the recordings because without them the analog synthesizer would never have grown in popularity. Behind the recordings, however, was the birth of a new industry, initially to manufacture the hardware and then to provide the ancillary products that would essentially facilitate the livelihoods of so many people today. In the middle of this activity was Bob Moog.

Bob-Moog-in-Circle-1974_sm

The modern era of electronic music began in the early 1970s with the standardization of techniques and architecture using the voltage-controlled synthesizer. These instruments, pioneered primarily by Bob Moog and Donald Buchla, provided a flexible toolbox of device modules powered by a voltage-controlled architecture.

Bob Moog was the most successful at marketing this new kind of instrument during the late 1960s. This was because he and his small company:

  • Made a relatively compact, turnkey system (compared to the classic tape studio of the time)
  • Listened to musicians

 

Moog originally thought that the market for the synthesizer would simply be the institutions that were already making electronic music the old fashioned way, with tape recorders and audio equipment not intended as musical instruments. He felt that his modular equipment, tailored to the needs of the purchaser, provided a sensible and economic solution with all the basic components of the classic electronic music studio in much less space. He was correct—nearly half of the early sales were to colleges and universities for their studios. But also among his first customers were dance companies, advertising firms, individual musicians and rock groups, all of whom saw the enormous promise of the technology for making electronic music accessible for the masses. This was largely because Moog listened to musicians and provided controls that they could understand. The genius stroke for Moog’s earliest modular unit was to provide an organ-like keyboard for triggering sounds, a feature insisted upon by Moog’s musician collaborator Herb Deutsch in 1964. While today it is difficult to conceive of a synthesizer without a keyboard, this was actually not the case when the early modular systems were conceived. Without a keyboard, the ordinary musician would have found the synthesizer to be too disconnected from the reality of simply playing music. Instead, the analog synthesizer found its place in most every genre of popular music, as evidenced by the recordings.

The success of Moog created a new market and industry for artist-friendly electronic music instruments. These were made for musicians, media companies, and institutions alike. By providing more sound-shaping features, the synthesizer distinguished itself from the already established market for electronic organs used in churches, rock bands, and the home. The synthesizer market broke wide-open with the introduction of the Minimoog in 1970, leading to a surge of activity in the invention and marketing of synthesizers from makers in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Russia and other nations.

At the end of 1970, R. A. Moog Co. (founded 1954, Flushing, NY) was the biggest player in the new field of electronic music instruments. Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments (founded 1963, Berkeley, CA), ranked number 2 followed by Electronic Music Studios (founded 1969, London), and ARP Instruments Inc. (founded 1969, Worcester, MA). A handful of others were beginning to emerge, but the big four at the time clearly dominated interest, and Moog probably had three times the unit sales of its nearest competitor.

The estimated sales revenue of these four companies in 1970, based on unit sales, is $2.03 million. This, essentially, represented the worldwide market, with purchasers primarily in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

Since that time, the market for electronic music products, no matter how you define it, has experienced significant growth since 1970. One industry organization estimated today’s global market for digital keyboards—including pianos and synthesizers—at $1.3 billion.[i] Moog’s revenues in 1970 were less than 1/10th of 1 percent of today’s global value.

Furthermore, there are several ancillary industries that exist, in part, because of electronic music and its related technology. According to the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM), the electronic music genre in 2012 was valued at $4 billion worldwide.[ii] Within this genre are individuals and companies whose business is electronic dance music, including managers, labels, promoters, publishers, agents, retailers, broadcasters and artists.

This enormous growth can clearly be traced to the emergence of R. A. Moog Co. and others around 1970. By the end of the 1970s, the number of synthesizer makers had grown from 4 to 33, to 36 by 1990 and over 125 today, including 30 keyboard makers and 97 software synthesizers. But the growth of the industry was not without its casualties. The transition from solid-state analog systems to digital systems was a particularly brutal time, the original Moog company being among its victims (although obviously since reborn). Only 6 of 18 companies that introduced synthesizers in 1978 were still doing business only eight years later in 1986.

It was within this exciting but volatile business climate that the modern synthesizer emerged. With each new generation of technology came new challenges for the musicians, producers, and audio engineers charged with making music. We are all largely in debt to the innovative thinking of Bob Moog for this. It doesn’t take a reach of the imagination to realize that without Bob Moog, there would have been no MIDI, no debate over interface design, no MAX, no software synthesizers. Bob’s inventive yet objective way of thinking opened the minds and imaginations of many who followed.

 

[i] NAMM 2011 Global Report, National Association of Music Merchandisers, Carlsbad, AC, 2012.

[ii] “Birth of the Association for Electronic Music Announced during the Midem. January 29, 2013. http://www.rockol.com/uk/news-464882/birth-of-association-for-electronic-music-announced-during-the-midem

Thom_Holmes_1Thom 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.

Twitter: @Thom_Holmes

blog: Noise and Notations

http://www.thomholmes.com/

 

If you want to read more from Thom Holmes, please see his many fascinating historical blogs here: http://moogfoundation.org/search/Thom+Holmes

Leave a Reply