SYNTH NODES ‘MOOG THE GREATEST SYNTH OF ALL TIME’ SUDDI RAVALOctober 26, 2018
It is impossible to overstate the influence of the Moog on the synth market.
Review – Suddi Raval
There was a time once in late 60’s and 70’s when most people didn’t even use the term synth when referring to electronic keyboards, Moog was a far more popular term just as today most of us say the word Google if we want to do an Internet search or use the brand name Hoover if we need to use a vacuum cleaner.
The innovations they developed in the early days of synthesizer technology were so groundbreaking they weren’t just game-changers, they pretty much wrote the book. It is fair to say that it would be virtually impossible for any other synthesizer manufacturer to be more influential than the Moog.
It’s easy to forget today why Moog has played such a critical role in synthesizer history.
The reasons why all other synths will always follow in the footsteps of Moogs is because there was no such thing as what we describe as the portable synth before Moog
They deserve all the credit for the humble synth keyboard because they invented the very concept.
You may ask, if the technology for synthesizers had already existed and the distinctive design of a black and white keyboard that we find on every piano had already been in existence for centuries, then how was it that Moog came about to invent what we see today as the portable synthesizer?
We have to go back to their history to see how this incredible machine came into being and the amazing series of events that occurred prior to the Moog changing the way we made music and more importantly the way in which the public viewed the synthesizer. For a long time, the musical synthesizer only existed as a modular device.
This was, and still is today (as it is still very popular and would be far more commonplace if it wasn’t for the huge price tags) a variety of modules each of which had a specific and separate purpose generating or modifying the sound.
As incredible as the world of modular synthesis was, they were at times the size of a small wardrobe when the modules were attached together to make a machine that was usable as a musical instrument. Not only was this extremely off-putting for the average musician due to its impractical size but it was also ridiculously expensive and very hard to learn.
Famously, Keith Emerson received a box full of Moog components with no manual when he received his first Moog back in 1969. Most of us would have given up in the same position. Luckily he didn’t.
Although Keith Emerson is now synonymous with the Moog brand for his legendary work with the machine and even worked with Moog to redefine the design of the machines.
He hilariously asked Moog for a free modular system. He confidently proclaimed he would “endorse it and everything”. Their response was “The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have paid for one, why can’t you?“
Even at this stage, with the machines have been in production for many years, they were very far from a household name. Most people had never heard of a synthesizer, never mind the name Moog. All that changed when Wendy Carlos recorded her vision of Bach classics reimagined on the Moog synthesizer.
With the unique demands, this project required Carlos helped the Moog company fine-tune and perfect the synthesizer resulting in the Switched on Bach album.
Wendy Carlos’s debut album, released in 1968 under her birth name Walter Carlos, went top ten in America, bringing the Johann Sebastian Bach classics to an entirely new audience. The synth was finally in the mainstream and it was never to disappear ever again.
As the sound of the synthesizer increased in popularity so did the pressure on the engineers at Moog to develop a more compact machine. Something that could be taken more easily on tour and on stage.
Robert Moog, the owner of the Moog Company and his engineer Bill Hemsath, began work on the machine and with some difficulties attempted to rehouse the giant megalithic modular synthesizer into a more compact and portable casing that would eventually result in the Mini Moog and eventually to the Minimoog Model D.
By now Moog was able to produce transistor based synths as opposed to the earlier valve based machines allowing his legendary synthesizers to be more compact, less expensive and more efficient than earlier vacuum tube-based systems.
To get a brief glimpse of the beast, we can see what the Minimoog consisted of. It can be broken down into 3 main areas: The sound generator, the filter, and the amplifier. These developments are things which are largely credited to Moog and his team because many of the basic components of analogue synthesis exist
Today due to Moog’s innovations the sound generator is made up of 3 VCO’s or voltage controlled oscillators and a white noise. The filter section is often referred to as a VCF, this is a voltage controlled filter and lastly, the amplifier is called the VCA.
The voltage controlled amplifier. There are countless moments in music history where the Moog was pivotal to the music and the list of people who have used a Moog is more like a greatest-musicians-who-have-ever-lived list.
Gary Numan’s band Tubeway Army used the Minimoog extensively on their album Replicas. The first single from the album, Are Friends Electric topped the UK singles charts ensuring an even wider audience for the Minimoog sound. Numan says he had no intentions of making synth music before he entered the studio.
He saw one in the studio when he was booked in to record a Punk album. With a number single in the British Charts and international success for Tubeway Army, the Minimoog sound was to be even more in demand than ever.
Synth legends Kraftwerk also deliver an important moment in electronic music history using the Moog. It was pretty inevitably they were going to be huge fans of the work of Bob Moog. They used a Moog on their 23-minute journey Autobahn in 1974.
Another contender for the most iconic track to use a Moog is New Order’s Blue Monday. I still remember clearly how I felt when the opening lyrics asked me “How does it feel?” Incredible that the bassline that we have all grown to love was sequenced using Bernard Sumners homemade Powertran
Parliament, an act that may as well have come from another universe made great use of their Moog. One of the best examples must be when they released their single Flashlight in 1977.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nail has had a lifelong obsession with the Moog. The first synth he got was a Moog Prodigy and he says that was a huge turning point for him.
In his early 20’s he locked himself away and taught himself the basics of studio techniques. After he acquired a Minimoog early in his career, this helped shape the sound he was to develop later in his band Nine Inch Nails.
After he released his second album Downward Spiral in 1989 word reached Bob Moog himself and Bob decided to pay the band a visit backstage at one of his gigs much to Reznor’s surprise and amazement.
Some other famous moments in music that became synonymous with the Moog are Space’s Magic Fly, Hot Butter’s Popcorn, The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, Emerson Lake and Palmers Lucky Man, Rush’s Closer to the Heart & Pink Floyds Wish You were here.
I hate it when a good synth is wasted and all the user is doing is making bass guitar emulations but on the flip-side, I do love it when the producer uses a synth as a synth. Showing off the synthetic possibilities of the machine. Lipps Inc’s Funktown is a prime example of a riff that could never have been without the synthesizer.
For me personally, one of the finest moments in any genre of music to utilise a Moog was
the moment Giorgio Moroder decided to use the Moog almost exclusively bar the drums on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Described by Brian Eno as the sound of the future, he couldn’t have been more correct
Production of the Minimoog stopped in 1981 but with analogue synthesizers increasing in demand the Moog Company decided to revisit their classic machine in 2002. It was redesigned by Robert Moog and released as the Moog Voyager but the excitement of the synthesizer communities was really set on fire by the announcement in 2016 by the Moog Company that the original Minimoog Model D was to be released as close as they could make it to the original.
Sound on Sound magazine who were one of the first to review the re-release claimed they genuinely couldn’t tell the difference between the new version and the original. Unfortunately, Moog announced in June 2017 that they were to stop production of the machine.
Whilst there are still many retailers who still have some stocks of the machine they will not last forever so if you want to be the owner of a synthesizer equivalent of a Ford Model-T, I’d move fast if I was you as my guess is, no matter what you pay for it, it will prove to be a bankable investment in no time as demand will continue to increase as the numbers dwindle.
If the prices that a real machine cost, old or new, is never going to appear in your spare cash box you can always opt for one of the soft-synth versions available.
No one is ever going to claim it will ever sound as good as the real thing, and there is nothing like the feel of a hardware machine, it will probably be the closest most of us will come to a real Minimoog. We can only thank you, Bob Moog, for all you have given to the synthesizer community.
Suddi Raval is an artist, producer, freelance journalist, & author