Moog, who engineered a new rock sound, dies at 71


August 23, 2005



During the last half century, a handful of visionary entrepreneurs have achieved a status as iconic as the pop musicians who used their instruments.

There are Leo Fender and Les Paul, whose electric guitars inspired the rock revolution, and there is Chicagoan William F. Ludwig, whose drums powered its rhythms. Then there is Robert A. Moog, whose synthesizers started the next wave of the music's evolution, taking its sounds into a new millennium.

Mr. Moog died at his home in Asheville, N.C., on Sunday as the result of an inoperable brain tumor detected in April. He was 71.

Born and raised in New York, Mr. Moog (which rhymes with "vogue") was, as a teenager in the early '50s, intrigued by the theremin, a simple electronic instrument played by waving your hands near two antennas, one controlling volume and the other pitch. At the time, it was mostly used to add creepy sound effects to science fiction films, but a decade later it provided the hook for the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," as well as the otherworldly sounds in Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused."

Mr. Moog started building his own theremins and marketing them via the R.A. Moog Co. while still attending college. He eventually earned degrees in physics from Queens College and electrical engineering from Columbia University, as well as a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University.


Many of the most innovative and groundbreaking efforts in rock history wouldn't have been possible without the instruments built by Robert Moog.
The best way to remember the pioneering musical figure, then, is to listen to the craftsmen who have made creative use of Moog's instruments. Check out these albums:
*Kraftwerk's "Autobahn"
*Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon"
*Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions"
*Brian Eno's "Another Green World"
*The Who's "Who's Next"
*Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral"



This hardly sounds like the resume of a rock legend, and indeed, Mr. Moog was later uncomfortable with his status as a cult hero, a position he achieved thanks to another instrument he introduced in 1964.

Mr. Moog wasn't the first or the only engineer working to perfect the modular synthesizer, a much more complex electronic instrument that could produce virtually limitless tones. But while working with composer Herb Deutsch, he was the first to grasp the practical applications, attaching an easily playable keyboard where previously there had been a morass of jacks and wires resembling a telephone switchboard.

Walter (later Wendy) Carlos used an unwieldy modular Moog to record the 1968 album "Switched-On Bach," a Top 10 hit that won three Grammys. But the synthesizer's popularity really exploded thanks to the keyboardist-friendly Minimoogs that began appearing on rock albums in 1970, including the Beatles' "Abbey Road" and numerous releases by progressive rock bands such as Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Keyboardists and Moog fans Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman first made the slide-ruler-toting engineer a reluctant celebrity in the early '70s, before Mr. Moog sold and lost control of the company bearing his name. But his fame grew even greater starting in the early '90s, when a new generation of musicians rediscovered the early Moog synths and began championing them over snazzier but much less exciting digital keyboards.

The charm of Moog's analog synths is that they consistently surprise their operators: A vast array of knobs, dials and switches yields unexpected, unusual and completely unique sounds. Old Moogs began to appear on countless new albums by techno artists who favored their fat, atmospheric drones, hip-hop artists who loved their massive, teeth-rattling bass tones and inventive indie-rockers such as Stereolab and Chicago's Tortoise. (John McEntire's Soma Studio in Wicker Park boasts an entire wall full of vintage Moog gear.)

A decade ago, Mr. Moog began making theremins again through a new company, Big Briar, but in 2002, he reacquired the right to sell instruments under his own name, and Moog Music began marketing a new version of the Minimoog called the Voyager, a futuristic moniker befitting its space-age sound (and its stellar price).

Mr. Moog's creations have since been celebrated in several books (including 2004's Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and films (notably the 2004 documentary "Moog," recently issued on DVD), and at musical events such as last year's "Moogfest," all of which were greeted with mild bemusement by the man himself.

"I'm an engineer," Mr. Moog said in 2000. "I see myself as a toolmaker, and the musicians are my customers. They use the tools."