On my lunch hour today, I watched a documentary called Moog, about the synthesizer and its inventor, Dr. Robert Moog. It’s not really a biography, either of Moog or the synthesizer itself—it’s more of an exploration of where the synthesizer came from and how it’s been used since its invention.
As a boy, Moog became obsessed with the theremin, probably the earliest electronic instrument, one that is played without being touched. In the early 60s, he began working on his own electronic instrument. At first, he intended to market it to experimental musicians, but it quickly became popular among advertising people, who liked it for the strange sounds it made, and for the fact that those strange sounds could replace live musicians. From there, it made its way into the musical mainstream.
There were several early milestones in the synthesizer’s history, including the 1968 release of Switched-On Bach by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos, the first album of synthesizer music to reach a wide audience, and the 1970 Carnegie Hall concert by the First Moog Quartet. (The group is seen performing in the film.) In 1970, Moog met Keith Emerson. At their first meeting, Emerson gave Moog a test pressing of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s first song to use a synthesizer: “Lucky Man.” Two years later, the First Moog Quartet would make the pop chart, sort of, when a band formed by one member recut a song the quartet had recorded in 1969. “Popcorn” by Hot Butter squeezed into the Top 10 in the late summer of 1972. From that point, the synthesizer became an important instrument in rock and pop, although the film doesn’t explore that history.
The film features a number of musicians famous for their synthesizer use, including Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic, the group Stereolab, and Edd Kalehoff, who is perhaps the greatest synth whiz you’ve never heard of. Kalehoff has written a great deal of TV theme music over the last 40 years, including themes for ABC News and The Price Is Right. Over at YouTube, you can see him performing in a 70s-fabulous commercial for Schaefer Beer.
Moog notes that although the synthesizer is an electronic instrument, it’s analog, not digital. Instead of converting a string of zeroes and ones to sound waves, the synthesizer modifies an electric wave to produce sound. He also says that when the synthesizer was invented, it didn’t have a keyboard. The choice to attach a device that could easily change the pitch of notes was an arbitrary one. It could just as easily have been a device allowing users to change timbre, vibrato, or tremolo. Moog wonders whether, by attaching a pianolike keyboard, he may have boxed in the creative impulses of users by deciding for them how the instrument should be used.
The film makes clear that Moog was the sort of man who did a lot of meta-thinking. He died in 2005. The film was made the year before to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his company, Moog Music. It isn’t for everybody. You have to really care about the synthesizer to enjoy it, but if you do, you might.
“Sinfonia to Cantata #29″/Wendy Carlos (buy it here)
“Popcorn”/Hot Butter (buy it here along with some other cool 70s instrumentals, or head to Dr. Forrest’s Cheeze Factory for 81 different versions of it)