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Moog, Robert

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(1934-2005) Inventor, along with Don Buchla of the principle of voltage control for analog synthesizer circuits, and producer of the first synthesizers sold as commercial products. Moog's involvement with synths began as a consequence of his life-long interest in theremins. In 1953, while doing his graduate work at Cornell University, Moog established his first company, R. A. Moog Co., in a storefront in Traumansburg, New York, to sell theremin kits. Over the next several years he expanded into audio amplifiers and other pieces of studio equipment. After recieving his Ph. D. in electrical engineering in 1957, he began thinking about how to expand the theramin business, and this led him to investigate early synthesizer circuits.

The biggest problem Moog saw with early synths such as the RCA Synthesizer was the necessity for the performer to control and vary every parameter directly, in order to avoid ear-fatiguing static timbres. Through the early 1960s, Moog developed the principle of voltage control, which allowed one circuit to act as a control for another. He developed the first useable voltage controlled oscillator and voltage controlled filter circuits.

(At about the same time, Don Buchla in California was independently developing the same concepts and building his own early-model synthesizers. At this time, neither Moog nor Buchla was aware of the other's work. It is unclear just when they did become aware; it may have happened in 1964, when Moog exhibited a prototype at an Audio Engineering Society convention.)

At this point Moog made two seemingly arbitrary decisions about how to produce his synths which had long-lasting consequences for the synth industry. The first decision was to package the various synth circuits into independent modules, which would plug into frames. The frames would provide structural support and power, but no signal routing; signals were conveyed from one module to another via patch cords. Thus, without specifically meaning to, Moog invented the modular synthesizer. Second, as a control mechanism for his synth, Moog looked around for something that would be both familiar to musicians and easy to implement. This turned out to be an organ-type keyboard with switches under the keys to sense which key was pressed and generate the proper control signals. By this decision, Moog irretrivably, for better or worse, placed the synthesizer in the category of a keyboard instrument.

Moog's products became hugely popular in the late 1960s, but expanding the company strained Moog's finances. He sold R. A. Moog to an investor in 1970, and the company's name was changed to Moog Music. Moog had sharp disagreements with the management that took over the company, and began phasing himself out of it thereafter. In the late 1970s, he left Moog Music and moved to Asheville, North Carolina where he established a new company, Big Briar. With this company, he went back to his first love, theramins. He took a professorship at UNC-Asheville, did some consulting for Kurzweil, took orders for custom work, and did a few collaborative products with Buchla including the Piano Bar. This state of affairs lasted until the late 1990s, when Moog began expanding Big Briar with the line of Moogerfooger effects. In the meantime, the original Moog Music had gone out of business and the intellectual rights had changed hands several times. Moog launched an effort to regain the rights, which succeeded in 2002. At that time, Moog changed Big Briar's name to Moog Music, and launched its first new synth, the Minimoog Voyager, an updated version of the 1970s classic.

These last four years of his life may have been his most productive. The reconstituted Moog Music introduced a blizzard of new products based on Moog's designs. Moog toured regularly, doing public appearances and renewing acquaintances with musicians who had made Moog products famous in the '70s, such as Keith Emerson. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer in April 2005, and he died months later.

Moog is universally recognized as a pioneer and guiding light of the synthesizer industry. Circuits he designed, such as the transistor ladder filter, have been widely used in synths and other applications. The principle of voltage control made it possible to create complex timbres easily, greatly expanding the instrument's sonic palette in the 1960s. And his concept for the modular synthesizer was validated by the resurgence in popularity of modular synthesizers in the last ten years before he died.

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