The Eerie Aural World of Robert Moog We remember Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer. He died this week at age 71.
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The Eerie Aural World of Robert Moog

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The Eerie Aural World of Robert Moog

The Eerie Aural World of Robert Moog

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

(Soundbite of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desire")

FLATOW: If you're a fan of '70s pop and rock and music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Beatles and Yes, then you're probably familiar with the work of Robert Moog. He wasn't a band member, but the creator of the Moog synthesizer, the instrument that ushered in the era of electronic music. A physicist and electrical engineer, by training, Moog created the Moog III, the Minimoog, the Prodigy, the Liberation, the Polymoog, instruments that allowed musicians to create sounds even he never imagined. You're listening right now to "Jesu Joy of Man's Desire," written by Bach and performed here with a Moog synthesizer by the composer Walter Carlos, now known as Wendy. And he becomes a pop music star in his own right, taking a classical musical piece like the one you're listening to, "Jesu Man's of Desiring." Let's listen to some more of that.

(Soundbite of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desire")

FLATOW: Robert Moog died this week in North Carolina at the age of 71. And for the rest of the hour we're going to pay tribute to him and to his pop music legacy. If you'd like to talk about Robert Moog or the Moog synthesizer, give us a call. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guest. Lawrence Fritts is a professor of Composition and Theory and the director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He joins us from his office.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Fritts.

Dr. LAWRENCE FRITTS (University of Iowa): Hi, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: He certainly was a pioneer. He changed the face of music, did he not?

Dr. FRITTS: Absolutely. Just listening to the Carlos piece a few seconds ago, I was reminded really what a shock it was in my teen-age years to hear "Switched-On Bach" and to hear what the Moog synthesizer was capable of. So, yes, it was a tremendously profound impact across music.

FLATOW: How did he start out? What got him on this line of work, moving in this direction?

Dr. FRITTS: He started out, amazingly enough, building theremins in high school. A theremin is a musical instrument that was invented in the 1920s by Leon Theremin in Russia, and it involves two antennas, moving your hands--the performer moves their hands in relation to those, and alters pitch and frequency and creates this wee-ee-oo, sort of "War of the Worlds" type of music.

FLATOW: Yeah, that spooky music you're always used to hearing.

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wee-oo!

Dr. FRITTS: That was it.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. FRITTS: And so he figured out how to make these and starting building kits and reportedly sold more than a thousand kits to finance his college education.

FLATOW: And so then--where he moved on from then?

Dr. FRITTS: So then he moved on, developed the idea of taking an oscillator--an oscillator is an electrical device that produces a waveform and a frequency. And they've been around for quite some time. He took a bundle of oscillators, hooked them together and enabled the performer to control them with what we call a control voltage, so for the first time a keyboard player like Wendy Carlos is then able to change the pitch of the oscillator in real time to create a performance.

FLATOW: I understand you bumped into him in your career at some point.

Dr. FRITTS: This is the most amazing story. So Bob Moog is an engineer above all. So when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he was there, working on a prototype for the composer John Eden, who I was studying with, a prototype of a multiple little--a touch-sensitive keyboard. And initial performance went well and everything was fine. But then over the next week, he and I were both working in the studios, I was working on my composition, and he was sitting across the hall with no pencil or paper, no tools; he just had this thing taken apart and he was just staring at it. First night, that's all he did, stared at it for four hours, and went home. Second night, I came in, he started at it for four hours and went home. Third night, was staring at it, came across to my office and asked for a hacksaw. He sawed off a 5/8ths-inch piece of metal, which I still have. So man of few words...

FLATOW: That was...

Dr. FRITTS: ...not a complicated set of notes and diagrams, you know, he just pure brain power.

FLATOW: I want to play that piece we started out with, "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," and I want to see if I can--Matt, can you get that up? Tell us as we listen to it how this demonstrates the capabilities of the Moog synthesizer.

Dr. FRITTS: If you listen very carefully, during the attack of each note, you'll hear a little `chiff,' the little `chi, chi' sound. That's a deliberate placement of the noise component; white noise, we call it. And that's an integral part of Carlos' synthesis technique is to introduce noise components at the very attack of a note. You'll also notice the little de-tuning that causes the oscillators to be a little out of tune and produces a great amount of richness, and it's sort of like an aural effect when you have three singers all slightly out of tune. And finally the listener should know that this wasn't recorded simultaneously. It was--this was a monophonic instrument, meaning it could only play one note at a time. So she was playing, literally, one line on a recorder and then backing it up and multitracking and playing along with it.


(Soundbite of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desire")

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah, but to my ears, maybe those chiffs, those attacks, are maybe a little overexaggerated now from a 2005 standpoint as opposed to a 1968 standpoint.

(Soundbite of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desire")

FLATOW: Wow. I never realized that about playing the one note at a time.

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: So you really had to be a technician also, not just, you know, put your fingers on a keyboard.

Dr. FRITTS: That's right. Yeah. So you had to know something about the physics of sound, you had to know how oscillators worked. You had to know what the different characteristics were of waveforms. You would take a waveform that would have a certain wave like on an oscilloscope--I've seen many pictures where Bob is working with his synthesizer hooked up to an oscilloscope. And if you see a smooth wavy wave, that's a sine wave and that's a certain sound. Other waves are more angular. The more angular a wave is, the richer it is in frequency and harmonic content. So what the Moog synthesizer does is a technique called subtractive synthesis. You send the module of the oscillator into a filter, and then the filter extracts and suppresses different harmonics to produce a richer, maybe more--in some cases, more mellow sound.

FLATOW: Wow. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Mike in Ithaca. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, there. Yeah, hi, Ira. I wanted to comment that in 1968, I believe it was, possibly '69, I can't remember which, but as an undergraduate, I took a course called bionics in robots. And it was normally lectured by Dr. Block in theoretical applied mechanics at Cornell, but one lectures we had to go was one given by Robert Moog.

Dr. FRITTS: Fantastic.

MIKE: He was already quite famous, so he was only occasionally on the Cornell campus even though he was a professor here, so he only was here that one day. But "Switched-On Bach" had just came out, and when he saw the size of the audience, because a lot of people came, he dumbed down the lecture considerably because of the size of the--it was still interesting, but it wasn't the lecture we were supposed to get.

Dr. FRITTS: Right.

FLATOW: How did he react to his celebrity?

MIKE: I think what he did--it was sensitivity. In other words, he still wanted to convey information, both historical and scientific, but when he saw the size of the audience, he had to dumb it down, both in terms of choice of material and how he spoke about it. I saw Ed Wilson do that at a lecture once, too, actually, on sociobiology; when he saw the size of the audience, he just dumbed down his lecture considerably.

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

MIKE: Same kind of thing. It just shows great sensitivity, I guess, on the part of the lecturer.


Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Mike.

Dr. FRITTS: Thank you.

MIKE: But the lecture was great, too, you know.


MIKE: OK, thank you.

FLATOW: Nice reminiscing--yeah, thank you. 1 (800) 989-8255.

So did he go touring around, lecturing? Do you know?

Dr. FRITTS: I think he did somewhat. I met him as a graduate student, part of, you know...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. FRITTS: ...what his gig was, was to do a lecture with that. He appeared to me to be a fairly uncomfortable lecturer. He didn't seem to have a lot of, you know, that pizzazz of a lecturer...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. FRITTS: ...and the interaction with the audience. And so maybe that's why I remember more why he really seemed to be in his element as he was staring at the insides of his machine.

FLATOW: And he sold his company, right? He did not keep...

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah, this seems to be, you know, a relatively bitter part of his life. Sold his company in the early '70s, and then it's some--you know, of course, sold the name along with it, and I think in the last couple of years was able finally get the name back and was engaging in a limited production of some Minimoog types of synthesizers.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. Christopher in Key Vaca, Florida--hi, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hello there. I took a class with Robert Moog's wife in Asheville. I wanted to comment on it. They were preparing to go back to Japan. He was really revered in Japan, I understand. In what--he was recognized in this country nicely but over there they treated him pretty much almost as, you know, a god.

Dr. FRITTS: And he was. He was a god, yes.

CHRISTOPHER: In that respect, in early electronics stuff, he was just like their guru.

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: He was--some people have referred to him as the Einstein of music.

Dr. FRITTS: Yeah.

CHRISTOPHER: I'd have to agree there, yeah.


Dr. FRITTS: Yeah. Yeah.


Dr. FRITTS: Absolutely, it was an undeniable accomplishment.

FLATOW: Because it was so hard to do what he did knowing--you know, you had to have the right melding of the two sides of your brain, I imagine...


FLATOW: ...the technical side and the musical side.

Dr. FRITTS: Right.

CHRISTOPHER: Now I'd like to mention that even though, you know, Moog is the person that has the bulk of the credit for developing the voltage-controlled modular synthesizer, there was one being developed on the West Coast, literally, at the same time...

FLATOW: Oh, really?

CHRISTOPHER: Don Buchla. And I've talked to Don and I said, `Gee, what's the timeline?' And Don Buchla told me that he and Bob had agreed at one point both to share credit for the simultaneous development of this, that they weren't able to figure out who actually did, you know, the final invention, or the final brainstorm, I guess. So for electronic musicians, the Buchla and the Moog are sort of equivalent synthesizers.

FLATOW: John in St. Louis. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. Robert Moog was, as you say, a physicist, but he knew George Kelischek, a German violin maker, who was a musician, and I played along with him at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and Moog taught a class and my two sons built a rudimentary synthesizer under his direction. He was a very gentle and kind man.

Dr. FRITTS: Wow. That's a fantastic story.

FLATOW: That's a great story. Thanks for sharing that--yeah, go ahead.

JOHN: I also ran across his--when he sold to Gibson, I ran across his marketing supervisor who Gibson took on, but he had quit and he was now selling electronic equipment for identifying cattle for years because they weren't interested in the instrument, really. So it was a sad, sad thing when he sold it.

Dr. FRITTS: That's the--yeah, that's the story that I heard. I don't even know if it was Gibson, per se. I think it may have been Gibson's parent company called Norlin. And so I think Norlin is the sort of overriding corporate face, I think.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, John. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking about the Moog synthesizer this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking with Lawrence Fritts of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Did anybody really improve on it or--you know? What happened following that technology?

Dr. FRITTS: To my mind, the Moog sort of went downhill. After the initial period of the '60s in which they had these big suitcase-sized modular synthesizers, then they tried to sort of streamline it, make it smaller and more portable, then there's this thing called Minimoog, which became very popular with improvising jazz musicians and so forth. It was very small and portable but it had very minimal capabilities so to my mind, to my taste, nothing really touches, you know, the big classic modular synthesizers of the '60s.

FLATOW: See if we can get a call in quickly here. Hi, let's go to Chris in Minneapolis.

CHRIS (Caller): Ah, yes, I just wanted to make a comment. Basically, in the intro your mentioning bands from the '60s and you're playing Bach. And it just struck me that it might leave an impression upon listeners that this was music of the past. But there are wonderful bands that are still using this technology; Stereolab is one of them, but there are others, and it's not replaced--not been replaced by digital synthesizers.


Dr. FRITTS: Well, I can attest to that so in my Electronic Music Studios here we've just refurbished our Moog. One of the original Moog engineers named Mike Bucki has a company called Modusonics, and he repairs vintage Moogs and he even makes original modules to the original specifications. So, yeah, but certainly Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, a lot of bands are using these classic analog Moogs.

FLATOW: So the digital world has not overtaken it.

Dr. FRITTS: It has not. Don't know where we're going on that. We're trying to get both worlds to talk to each other right now, so that's our goal.

FLATOW: Do you play one, Chris?

CHRIS: No. I just love the music. I don't play.

FLATOW: All right. That's good enough. Thanks for calling.

CHRIS: Thank you.

FLATOW: So what do you think history will say about Bob Moog?

Dr. FRITTS: Well, it's the Stradivarius instrument of the 1960s. These things are going to have to be preserved. They have certain characteristics, you know, certain resonance frequencies, certain modes of playing and, you know, as time goes on and these instruments fall into disrepair, we're going to be losing the Stradivarius of the '60s.

FLATOW: Are there enough of them around to keep them alive?

Dr. FRITTS: Yes, I just talked to Mike Bucki of Modusonics yesterday.


Dr. FRITTS: He thinks that there are between 100 and 500 of the original modular synthesizers. And so he's busy, you know, soldering, you know, all these things back together as they come in and so hopefully it will keep them around for a few years.

FLATOW: And you have to keep teaching people how to use it.

Dr. FRITTS: Well, they teach themselves. So thanks to the Internet, they're able to see tutorials on this, on--your listeners might be interested on my Web site at the University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios, we have a classic set of Moog demonstrations done by Peter Todd Lewis in 1979. So type in Google, type in `Moog demo,' and we have a half-dozen or a dozen MP3 files that show the workings of Moog.

FLATOW: Easier than that, go to We have a link for you...

Dr. FRITTS: Ah, great

FLATOW: ...up there already. I want to thank you, Lawrence, for taking time to talk with us.

Dr. FRITTS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: And happy music to you.

Dr. FRITTS: Same to you.

FLATOW: Lawrence Fritts is a professor of Composition and Theory and the director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.


FLATOW: And if you'd like the--you want to find those links that we talked about to the synthesizer, surf over to our Web site at We have links to everything we've talked about today, and also we have a podcast there waiting for you if you want to take this show with you or other shows that we've played in the last few months. We're now podcasting SCIENCE FRIDAY. You can stick it on your iPod or other player and take it with you.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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