In honor of Bob Moog’s birthday, here is a never-before-seen interview with Bob from 1999. This is during the period when he ran his theremin company Big Briar, before he acquired the rights to the Moog Music name and began producing new synthesizers. Bob was kind enough to grant an interview with Asa over e-mail, and it is interesting today to see how far Moog Music has come since its humble beginnings as Big Briar.
Q : What do you think of the current revival of Moog synthesizers in pop music?
A : For me its a very gratifying phenomenon. Back in the sixties and seventies, our instruments had the reputation for the best sound, while our competitors instruments had the reputation for more bells and whistles. At that time we made the decision to build instruments that would be favored by musicians with really good ears. It has taken a while for the world community of musicians to understand just how important it is to have really good analog sound, but now they do. So I think that the current revival of the Moog Sound is the result of musicians learning to be really discriminating about sound quality.
Q : What do you think of the digital revolution? Should superior technology bring us more distinctive sounds, or should electronic instruments grow to duplicate already-existing sounds, like violins and drums?
A : The digital revolution covers many things in electronic music. First were the eight-bit digital synthesizers like the DX-7, which provided new, interesting sounds at a relatively low price. At about the same time sampling instruments provided musicians with fairly high-quality traditional musical sounds that could be played from a keyboard. Then MIDI came along and provided ways of connecting keyboards, drum machines, and computers/sequencers into integrated systems. Then came all kinds of music production software: sequencers, notation programs, librarians, and so forth. And now, computers are becoming so powerful that, with one or two specialized peripherials, you can handle the whole music production operation including sound synthesis, mixing, and recording. To me, theres no doubt that the computer and digital electronics is the greatest technological tool that has ever been put at the service of musicians. Whether musicians should use this technology to develop new sounds or emulate already-existing sounds depends on the purpose of the music. Ive heard some recently-produced dance music that sounds obviously electronic, and I heard a Broadway Show score that was produced entirely through MIDI, using sampled sounds. To me they both sounded good and seemed appropriate.
Q : What are your opinions about Moog Music and their products in the years following your departure?
A : I left Moog Music in 1978. Moog Music stopped building synthesizers around 1984. The engineers at Moog understood the analog synthesis technology that I developed, and they designed some good instruments using that technology, like the Source and the Memorymoog, after I left the company. But they didnt come up with anything new in the way of new synthesis methods or new sounds.
Q : Can you explain the basic principles of the theremin for our readers? How does it operate?
A : The theremin is a monophonic (one pitch, like a horn or a voice) instrument that you play by moving your hands in the space around it. There are two metal antennas, one for pitch and one for volume. The closer you get your hand to the pitch antenna, the higher the pitch goes, and the closer you get your other hand to the volume antenna, the softer the sound gets. The classic theremin circuit was first developed in the 1920s by Leon Theremin, a Russian musician/physicist. The technical name of the circuit is beat frequency oscillator. Actually, the pitch-generation portion consists of two high frequency oscillators, plus a network that produces an audio tone equal in frequency to the difference between the frequencies of the two high frequency oscillators. (That may sound more complicated than it actually is.) The theremin is used like any other monophonic instrument. You can play classical or pop melodies, or jazz, or even rock. A lot of our customers are in rock groups. For instance, theres John Spencer of the Blues Explosion and Angelo Moore of Fishbone.
Q : What else have you been up to lately with Big Briar?
A : Well, were getting ready to introduce our new MIDI Theremin this summer. After that, who knows. Its too early for me to talk about it.
Q : How did Mellotrons and Chamberlains differ fundamentally from synthesizers?
A : I dont think of the Mellotron or the Chamberlain as a synthesizer. Theyre both tape loop players. They play recordings of real instrumental sounds. They were the precursors of digital samplers. The Moog synthesizer, the Mellotron, and the Chamberlain are all analog instruments. The sounds of the Mellotron and the Chamberlain exist as analog recordings, whereas the sounds of the Moog are produced by analog electronics. Its not easy to describe why the Mellotron and the Chamberlain sound different than a digital sampler. At least part of the difference has to do with the details of how the original Mellotron and Chamberlain sounds were recorded. In the case of the Moog, well, analog synthesis includes that warm-sounding analog distortion that is very difficult to get with digital circuitry.
Q : Have you ever personally tailored a Moog synthesizer for an artist, aside from a modular system?
A : We’ve done a variety of custom designs and modifications, going all the way from building a Minimoog with a separate hand-held keyboard for Jan Hammer, to building a very large experimental computer-controlled performance instrument with multiple-touch-sernsitive keyboards. In fact, back in the seventies and early eighties, Moog Music had a custom engineering department. They put together modular systems, but they also did a wide variety of custom design and building.
Q : Companies like Roland and Korg designed classic analog synths in the 70s and 80s, and carried on doing so into the digital age. Why, in your opinion, didn’t Moog Music try to adapt the Moog sound to digital synthesis? Did you consider doing so after leaving Moog?
A : Roland and Korg made analog synths because nobody knew how to make inexpensive digital synths back then. Theyre making digital synths now because digital technology is much more adaptable to the high-volume manufacturing techniques that Roland and Korg went after. I dont know why Moog didnt adapt, since I wasnt there at the time, but I suspect that nobody there believed that they could compete with the DX7 and the other digital instruments that were coming out. As to why we dont try this on our own, Roland and Korg are large, well-funded companies. They have dozens and dozens of experienced engineers to design all the instruments that they make. We are not large or well-funded. We are a small company with engineering experience in analog circuitry. There is a good demand for analog instruments now, so we see no reason that we should try to compete with giants like Roland or Korg.
Q : Lastly, the token question. How do you feel about the fact that youre the father of a musical revolution?
A : A lot of people ask me that question. Its a satisfying thing to have made a contribution. This is true of anybody. A farmer, sending a truckload of milk or vegetables to market, feels satisfied that hes contributed to the well-being of a lot of people. Thats the way I look at it. As far as being the father of a musical revolution goes, thats just lucky timing. I was in the right place at the right time to have the first really successful analog synthesizer records done on instruments that we designed and built. It was useful, it helped us to stay in business, but I wouldnt say that that aspect of our success is particularly satisfying.