Moog modular synthesiser

Book review: ‘Switched On’ by Albert Glinsky, plus author interview

Image credit: Steve Harvey | Unsplash

A deep and comprehensive biography of the man whose name became synonymous with the synthesiser: Bob Moog.

When you think of synthesisers, be it vintage or modern, the chances are high that you picture a Moog, or something very much like one. From their earliest incarnation in the mid-1960s, Bob (born Robert Arthur) Moog's designs, both visually and sonically, soon became synonymous with the word 'synthesiser' in general, helping to kickstart an entirely new approach to music, and also potentially creating a highly lucrative industry sector.

The key word in the previous paragraph, at least as far as Bob Moog and fame and fortune is concerned, is "potentially". Becoming a legend is one thing. Turning that legend into tangible financial reward is quite another. To say that the Moog story had its ups and downs over the years would be a spectacularly dry understatement.

As is often the case, pioneers end up being the ones with arrows in their backs (one of Bob Moog's favourite sayings). The Moog story is reminiscent at times of other music industry legends whose names may be enshrined forever, and their inventions universally adored, but who themselves suffered somewhat at the hands of a voracious business world - people such as Leo Fender and Rupert Neve - for whom art and commerce weren't always such cosy bedfellows.

'Switched On: Bob Moog and the Synthesizer Revolution' by Albert Glinsky (Oxford University Press, £25.99, ISBN 9780197642078) - aka simply 'Switched On', as per the book's stylishly minimalist spine - delves deeper into Bob's life than anyone has gone before. Much more than a by-numbers history of Moog synths, 'Switched On' goes all the way back to the 1940s to Bob's childhood, tracing the crucial evolutionary steps that led the young electronics enthusiast to formulate his own designs.

Glinsky's recounting of Bob Moog's life is, as the dust cover précis succinctly puts it, "at turns triumphant, heart-breaking, and frequently laugh-out-loud absurd".

With a much greater focus on telling the full story of Bob Moog, the man, than any previous Moog biography - Glinsky had the distinct advantage here of generous Moog family help on his side - this approach helps the arc of the story to unfurl organically, with more natural, gradual steps plotting the entire course of Bob's life. It's not as if one day in the 1960s Bob Moog suddenly starts soldering circuits, invents a new instrument and a synth legend is born.

The start of the book actually takes the reader back even further, to Bob's grandparents' arrival in New York City as German immigrants in the late 19th century. 'Switched On' is so in-depth, in fact, that you're well over halfway through a 450-page book (not including the index) and it's still only 1971!

Switched On Cover Inline

Image credit: Oxford University Press

With amusingly offbeat chapter titles - remininscent of playful Moog synth preset names - such as 'Transistor Man and the Crusaders', 'Hallucinations for your ear', 'Panicsville' and so forth, it's hard not to be drawn into the story, as well as feel the depth and warmth of Glinsky's appreciation for Moog.

That was also a two-way appreciation street: Bob admired Glinsky's work on his biography of Leon Theremin, for which Bob wrote a foreword - and it was Leon's invention, the theremin, that first captivated a young Robbie and opened a door into a new world of electronic music. It is no surprise that almost 50 years after Bob first encountered the theremin in 1949, a new Moog interpretation of this instrument would be helping to keep the struggling company afloat.

Before that event, of course, there is the rich history of both Bob Moog and the eponymous company and synthesisers which he created for the reader to enjoy. The early years of a young Robert Moog's life hint at the seeds that were likely sown in his consciousness: the 1939 New York World's Fair opening so close to his home, for example, that the famous giant Trylon and Perisphere statues were visible from the Moog's Flushing Meadows family address.

The World's Fair was a celebration of electricity, and Bob visited 'The World of Tomorrow' with his father, seeing amongst other mesmerising objects of the future a vocoder that could synthesise the human voice and an electronic keyboard that could imitate the tone of traditional acoustic instruments. It's hard not to extrapolate the effects - however subliminal - on the mind of young Robbie Moog after seeing all this.

'Switched On' also details Bob's childhood electronic experiments with his father George (who worked at Con Edison, one of the energy companies still powering New York City today) in the latter's toolshed, building an electronic organ together, constructing ham radio equipment and acquiring woodworking skills.

Again, it's undeniably seductive to connect the dots of a young Robbie's early carpentry efforts and the later Moog synthesiser case designs - such as the MiniMoog - that were so iconic for their generous use of natural wood that many competitors similarly adopted the use of such material to try to piggyback sales by riffing on the look of a Moog.

Meanwhile, his mother, Shirley, pushed the young Robbie hard on the piano - Bob later said, "My mother gave me piano lessons like you give somebody an enema" - in the hope of creating a child prodigy or concert pianist. Classical recital's loss was ultimately synthesisers' gain, and despite Bob's insistence that "I was not a musician at heart", his lifelong involvement with producing musical instruments suggests otherwise.

The retelling of these early years in the book also serves as a fascinating window into the social history of the US during the 1940s and 1950s, as the country emerges from World War II and the baby boom era begins, leading into the creative freedom of the 1960s and 1970s. You get a real sense from Glinsky's book of a country on the cusp of seismic social change, with all that followed.

By the early 1970s, of course, Bob Moog had transitioned from selling his own theremin design from home - starting in 1954 and establishing the R.A. Moog company name - to producing the iconic synthesisers that would come to define him, including the MiniMoog.

However, even at this relatively early stage, Bob Moog was already becoming disillusioned, writing to a friend that "the synthesiser business has dropped off" and calling it "a grubby business". No sooner had Moog released its now-classic instruments than aggressive competitors horned in on the synth action, typically offering customers more features and lower prices.

Moog approached designing and building synthesisers more like a hobby - much like those early tinkerings in his father's workshop, writ large - and ultimately failed to capitalise on the genius of his own inventions. The only aspect of his designs that he patented was the ladder filter, which continues to define the sound of a Moog synth today.

The business side of the Bob Moog story is a cautionary tale, to say the least. Certainly, the defection of a key Moog engineer to a competitor in 1970 - who took with him one of Moog's synthesisers, as well as schematics and circuits - was a blow to Bob Moog and his fledgling company. It was a somewhat depressing harbinger of the many business complications to come. As early as 1971, Bob was obliged to become an employee at his own company, taking a hefty pay cut in the process, as the first of a series of takeovers increasingly moved him to the sidelines.

Under pressure from cut-throat competition, both domestic and foreign, by the early 1980s Bob Moog was out of the company entirely, despite in the public's mind still being synonymous with the brand name. The release of the Moog MG-1 - accompanied by endorsement from Elton John, no less, and selling at Radio Shack for $499 - was a huge seller for the company Moog, but a crushing disappointment and embarrassment for the man whose name it bore. In a Newsweek article that year, Bob Moog dismissed the invention that people routinely described as 'his baby', saying: "That baby had grown up to be an ugly bastard".

From the early 1980s on, and long into the 1990s, business was something of a struggle for Bob Moog. Litigation was rife, with shysters trading sloppily on the Moog name. It's all detailed here in the book, although Glinsky mercifully never lets his story get too bogged down in tedious legal descriptions, nor does he dwell unnecessarily on the negative tone of these years.

Bob's later years - encapsulated by chapter titles such as 'Genius for hire' - lay out his professional wanderings and ultimately his redemption, as the Big Briar company he started in 1978 finally gets back the rights to his own name and trademarks in February 2002, albeit at a personal cost of $230,000. Paying out vast sums of money just to be able to use his own name was something of a recurring theme for Bob Moog.

The story at least has something of a happy ending, with Bob Moog able to genuinely celebrate the 50th anniversary of the R.A. Moog company in 2004, along with the commercial success of a brand new Moog synthesiser design, the MiniMoog Voyager. Bob Moog died in 2005.

This is where Glinsky's book ends: as a biography of the man, not a history of the company, this makes sense. While Moog Music Inc continues today, producing classic Moog synths at its Asheville, North Carolina, US, factory, preserving the designs and upholding the inspirational spirit of Bob Moog, the life of Bob Moog spans the years 1934-2005.

Within those 71 years, a great deal of innovation and change happened in both the artistic and commercial worlds - both to Bob and because of Bob. The list of musicians who have used a Moog is as long as you like and equally impressive - the sound of the first Moog is all over The Beatles' 'Abbey Road' album, for example - but the Moog synthesiser also changed sound design for cinema. The Moog was the first synthesiser to be used in a film, for 1967's 'The Trip'.

By 1979, and with 'Apocalypse Now', the Moog was front and centre at the cinema. As director Francis Ford Coppola writes in the book's foreword: "The Moog gave us the ability to roll sound effects and music into one". Employing "the largest Moog synthesiser in existence at that time", Bob's synth "gave us the ability to conceive the soundtrack to 'Apocalypse Now' as an entity in itself - one that joined with the film, and was at least as important as the film".

'Apocalypse Now' was also the first film to be released in 5.1 surround sound, with the Moog's varied throbs and pulses crucial in defining the oppressive aural experience of that Vietnam war film. The rich and expressive Moog sound had also featured prominently on the dark and ominous 'A Clockwork Orange' soundtrack in 1971, giving further exposure to the Moog's capabilities specifically - but also to synthesisers in general.

Therein lies the dichotomy of Bob Moog's work and life. Almost by accident, but also through his designs, he helped to launch an entirely new world of sound - along with a music technology industry ever-eager to make money from it, as rival companies from all corners of the world sprang up to serve this new market. Bob saw his own designs copied and replicated by others, as well as later suffering the ignominy of seeing his own name used as sales leverage on sub-par products, over which he had no input or control.

Glinsky's book tells the full story, covering every up and every down in a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable read. There are high points. There are dark moments. Through it all shines the good humour and indomitable perserverance of Bob Moog himself - who remained upbeat, inquisitive and productive across the years, despite all those arrows in his back. An inspiring tale indeed.

Remembering Bob Moog

Author Q&A: Albert Glinsky

E&T: It seems that there was a degree of conflict in Bob about the role of the synthesiser in music and the changes this might bring about, both for working musicians playing traditional acoustic instruments - which the Moog could theoretically ‘replace’ - and for the sound of modern music itself. Do you feel that he made peace with this dilemma?

AG: You picked a great topic to delve into! This was definitely a tricky issue to cover in Switched On. There’s no question that replacing musicians was not Bob’s intention when he put together his first prototype for the avant-garde composer Herb Deutsch. He just meant to simplify the compositional process, and to widen the palette of electronic sounds that were available to composers. But from the outset there was this irresistible tendency to use his synthesizer as a replacement for professional musicians. And, as I detail in the book, Bob was always torn by this use of his invention.

On the one hand, he was proud of the fact that his synth could do such a convincing imitation of acoustic instruments—quite a technically impressive feat! And, of course, he himself used it for that purpose at the famous 'Jazz in the Garden' concert at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. On the other hand, as time wore on, it became impossible to ignore the hard reality that synths were increasingly replacing musicians.

But then one has to ask: is Bob accountable for how his instrument was used? I think this ends up raising all sorts of incredibly challenging issues. Think about people who invent or discover something which is then used for very different purposes — maybe Einstein and the atomic bomb, for example. These questions aren’t black and white — you could argue that, in a sense, every consumer who buys a synth grapples with this problem, depending on how they choose to use it.

By the way, there’s a little story I tell in the book where a TV reporter confronted Bob — live, and on camera — demanding, “Tell me, Mr. Moog, don’t you feel guilty about what you’ve done?" Without giving away the punchline, which — typical Bob — was both hilarious and incredibly poignant, let me just say that this issue was a recurring nightmare in Bob’s life and I doubt he ever reached psychological closure with it.

E&T: What are the key takeaways from the Moog story, do you think? It seems like a lot of the typical, sometimes frustrating, business ups and downs - peaks, troughs, long drawn-out and expensive legal battles - but at least balanced/tempered by the high regard and respect for the work Bob did (even if the ‘legend’ tag didn’t necessarily translate into financial reward).

AG: When I began research for the book, I assumed that the main story would be a musical one — how Bob built the first commercially successful synthesiser, famous rock musicians picked it up, and yada-yada-yada, Bob Moog became a worldwide celebrity. And, of course, the way in which Bob’s work forever altered our aural landscape, and the course of music, is front and centre.

But as I started down the rabbit hole of all the documentation in Bob’s archive, it became clear that there was another story here, one that ran parallel to the musical one: the business story. It never ceases to amaze me how creating a product that everyone wanted — that famous people were lining up to buy — was only the first step toward success. Bob still had to figure out where to find the money just to buy the parts to make the instruments everyone wanted! He still had to pay his workers a salary — and being the ethical person he was, he wasn't going to fire them during the lean months. Being able to float a business of that complexity was a huge puzzle.

'Switched On' ended up being, in some ways, a business allegory too, one that I imagine might have value for today’s entrepreneurs and business students. Then there’s also the theme that runs in the background through Bob’s successes and failures: the emotional and personal toll on his family. Quite often, with anyone who invents or discovers something significant, there's a supporting cast. The world may not be aware of their contribution, but they’re the secret sauce behind those great achievements.

E&T: There are some big names from the worlds of both movies and music attached to this book - a foreword by Francis Ford Coppola, a testimonial from Jan Hammer - not to mention all the famous people that appear throughout the Moog story. What does this say about Moog’s reach and influence and about Bob Moog himself?

AG: Rolling Stone once said that the Moog synthesiser, “bent the course of music forever,” and it’s hard to think of any single person who did more to influence our aural landscape today than Bob Moog. So yes, the Moog story is laden with iconic names, from rock stars to classical and movie people, and it was fun to chronicle how they used his synth and how it changed the musical environment.

Yet ultimately, what stayed with me the most was Bob’s own personal story. He was always pretty modest about his achievements. He once joshed, “If I’m the ‘father’ of electronic music — as I’m often called — then who’s the mother?” Typically, he always downplayed his own role in history: "I happened to be there at the time that the culture needed me. It’s just a fluke — it could have been somebody else.”

Amid all the glitter and renown — all the famous names — is the story of a pretty unassuming man, one whose faults and foibles we can all identify with. That contrast was fascinating to write about.

E&T: As you say in the book, Moog as a business did not prove hugely lucrative for Bob personally. Might Bob Moog have fared better in today’s ‘boutique’ production world? Or is the threat of overseas competition and cheap imitations even greater today, especially if you want to build your products to a high spec and standard?

AG: I have to start by asking what your definition of ‘boutique’ production is. I suppose that Bob’s company, Moog Music, Inc. (MMI), which continues his legacy today, could be thought of as ‘boutique,’ although it's a multi-million dollar business.

But MMI is a good example of how one can run a sustainable business ethically — it’s worker-owned, they source parts locally whenever possible, and the company is the pride of its hometown, Asheville, North Carolina. There’s an esprit at MMI and customers pick up on that. People come from all over the world to tour the factory.

Foreign and domestic competition remains, as it has for decades, but the main difference is how the continuation of Bob’s company is run today — still ethically, and with the same high quality workmanship, but with a keen eye to the necessities of a successful business, something that always seemed to be of secondary interest to Bob. But then, he was an engineer, not a businessman, so how could he have been expected to navigate both the engineering and commercial worlds at the same time?.

E&T: What were Bob’s favourite Moog instruments?

AG: I don’t know that I ever found a quote from Bob stating a favorite among all his instruments, but I can certainly hazard a guess as to the top thre candidates.

There’s no question that he had a soft spot in his heart for the theremin, the electronic instrument with the wackiest interface, since it's played without the performer ever touching it (instead, the hands are waved in the instrument’s electromagnetic field). Bob got his start in musical electronics by building theremins — he made his first one in high school and his last one just a few years before his death.

Bob wrote the foreword to my previous biography, 'Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage', and in it he stated that Leon Theremin was his “hero and virtual mentor” for most of his life. He also admired the great theremin virtuosa, Clara Rockmore, even going so far as to personally bankroll an LP of her playing — a recording which remains a classic today. The theremin is one of those instruments that’s endlessly fascinating — and Bob could play a mean “Summertime” on it!

Another top-tier instrument, no doubt, was his original modular synth, which brought Bob worldwide attention and really put him on the map.

And finally: the Voyager, the sequel to the Minimoog, and the last instrument he had a direct hand in. Like a recalcitrant child, the Voyager gave Bob enormous headaches — the trials and tribulations of bringing it to production were overwhelming — but once it was launched into the world, he was quite proud of it.

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