Robert Moog, Inventor of the Music Synthesizer

Karen Grigsby Bates remembers musical innovator Robert Moog, who died recently of a brain tumor at the age of 71. His signature creation, the Moog Synthesizer, transformed electronic currents into sounds that could be almost infinitely modified, sparking a revolution in how music is created.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And finally today, this musical remembrance.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Believe it or not, that's Bach played through a Moog synthesizer. Its creator, Robert Moog, died yesterday. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Robert Moog didn't set out to be a musical revolutionary. He wanted to be an engineer. From the age when most boys were playing with bikes and cap guns, Robert Moog wanted to fool around with electronics. His parents indulged his interests, and he and dad George spent long hours in the family garage in Queens, New York, building electrical equipment. At 14, Robert developed his first electronic instrument. It was called a theremin.

After high school, Moog went on to Columbia University and eventually earned a doctorate from Cornell. While he was still in grad school, Moog developed his first electrical synthesizer. The machine enabled musicians to create a spectrum of sounds, from distorted musical notes to sounds that were eerily human and sometimes reminiscent of animals, sound changed all by turning a dial or sliding a lever.

(Soundbite of synthesizer sounds)

BATES: Although there were other synthesizers on the market when Moog built his first one, a subsequent model had an advantage the others didn't. The keyboard synthesizer's small size and portability allowed musicians to take the machine on the road, for concerts as well as for studio work. Moog gave "Fresh Air's" Terry Gross a tour of the Minimoog in a 2000 interview.

(Soundbite of interview)

Dr. ROBERT MOOG: It has a keyboard; that's just one control device. But the most important control device is our panel full of 27 knobs, and there are what we call left-hand controllers, wheels on the left-hand side of the keyboard that we can also play in a live-performance musical situation. What I'm doing is controlling the sound. It's as if I'm driving a car rather than pulling a wagon.

BATES: In the '60s, the Minimoog did indeed go on the road with scores of rock groups, including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Doors. The company Robert Moog formed to meet the demand found itself with a backlist of orders. Everybody wanted to wrap their music in the electric blanket of Moog sound. Even some classical musicians got into the act. Walter Carlos, now Wendy Carlos, won a Grammy in 1968 for "Switched-On Bach." And remember this from disco diva Donna Summer?

(Soundbite of song "I Feel Love")

Ms. DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Oh, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good.

BATES: By the mid-'70s, though, musicians began experimenting with other methods of augmenting their sound. As digital synthesizers became more popular and affordable, the Moog's popularity diminished, and eventually Moog's company went out of business. But, Moog told Terry Gross, in recent years the tide had begun to turn.

(Soundbite of interview)

Dr. MOOG: You know, fashions change. People's tastes are capricious. And now there is the emerging realization that, yes, these sounds are musically good and, yes, these instruments are fun to play.

BATES: As a whole new generation of musicians are discovering, such as the band Wilco, which used the Moog on its 1999 album "Summerteeth."

(Soundbite of song "A Shot in the Arm")

WILCO: (Singing) Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm. Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm. Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.

BATES: That shot in the arm to the Moog's popularity may be key to carrying Robert Moog's life's work into the musical future. Robert Moog died yesterday at his home in Asheville, North Carolina; he was 71 years old. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song "A Shot in the Arm")

WILCO: (Singing) The ashtray says you were up all night. When you went to bed...

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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