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Robert Moog

Robert Moog is the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, an electronic keyboard that makes unworldly sounding electronic music. He invented it in 1963. Also, Moog didn't invent the theremin, but he manufactures this early electronic instrument. A Russian invented it 70 years ago, and it's been used on many science-fiction films because of its eerie, wavering tones. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has just honored Moog with the technical Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement. This interview originally aired on Feb. 28, 2000.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on March 1, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 1, 2002: Interview with Harold Moore; Interview with Robert Moog; Review of the television program "Cowboy Bebop."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Robert Moog discusses his work with electronic music

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of synthesizer music)

BOGAEV: This week, Robert Moog, creator of the first music synthesizer, won
the 2002 technical Grammy, an award which recognizes contributions of
outstanding technical significance to the recording field. Electronic music
is so pervasive now we take it for granted, but it was a new concept in the
mid-'60s when Robert Moog invented the Moog synthesizer, which generated
sounds electronically. It caught on in all forms of music, from the
avant-garde to rock and novelty. The synthesizer became more accessible to
musicians and composers after Moog made his first portable, the Minimoog, in
the early-'70s.

Robert Moog lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he heads his company,
Big Briar, which manufactures Moogs and Theremins, the eerie-sounding
instrument that has been used in many science fiction films. When Terry spoke
with Robert Moog two years ago, he brought a Minimoog to the studio with him.
Terry asked him for a demonstration.

Mr. ROBERT MOOG: OK. So here's a plain sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: This is a pure electronic pitch. Now I will frequency modulate
it. By that, I mean that I will vary the pitch of its tone periodically.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: So most people would say that was a different sound than just this.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Now I can speed up and slow down the modulation...

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: ...or make it a different shape.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Here's what we call a square wave. It makes the tone sound like a

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: So that's just one example of how we can use one electronic circuit
to periodically, or even aperiodically, change the operation of another one
and make musically interesting sounds in the process.

TERRY GROSS reporting:

Now, you know, regular instruments, acoustic instruments, operate through
physically doing something to the instrument; you pound it, you press it,
strum it, bow it, blow air into it. Compare that with the principles of an
electronic music instrument like the Moog.

Mr. MOOG: The energy to make the sound is there. It comes out of the wall.
So the sound...

GROSS: Electricity, mm-hmm.

Mr. MOOG: Yes. So what I'm doing is controlling the sound. It's as if I'm
driving a car rather than pulling a wagon. I'm steering the sound with my

GROSS: So what you're doing is actually like changing the shape of the sound
wave as opposed to pounding on a drum or something.

Mr. MOOG: That's right.

GROSS: And so your knobs allow you to just change the shape of the sound

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: The amplitude, the shape of it.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, indeed. Yeah. And we can increase the complexity of the
sound. For instance...

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: ...there's one tone. Now we can add a second tone.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Here's one.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: The other.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Together.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: They form a richer third tone. So we can add sounds and wave forms
together. We can use one wave form to shape what we hear from another
circuit. And we can also filter out the overtones, the harmonics that are
made by these wave forms.

GROSS: Do you want to give me an example of that?

Mr. MOOG: Yeah. Here's...

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Let's get a brighter sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: There.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: This is called a low pass filter. Original--it was a technical
term, but musicians these days, at least ones who plug in, understand what
that means. So I'll close the filter and we'll cut out first the higher
overtones and then all of them.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Now when I vary the filter slowly like that, you can hear what's
happening, that the sound is getting more mellow and less bright as I turn
down the knob here labeled `cut-off frequency.' But if instead of my turning
the knob I use a wave form that goes up and then down every time I hit a key,
we'll get a sound like this.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Now that opening and closing of the filter was done not by me but
by the envelope generator. Now I'll make it faster and you'll see what effect
that has on the sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: And still faster.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Now that happened so fast that we--if I had to do that with my
hand, I couldn't possibly because my hand can't move that fast. But
electronics can move that fast. So now I have a different sort of sound. I
have a plucked string-like sound...

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: ...because I set up a sound here that's bright and with lots of
harmonics at the beginning and then within, say--I don't know--30 or
40/1000ths of a second it dies down and our ear identifies that as a
string-like sound.

GROSS: Are there records from the '60s, and in the early-'70s, when the Moog
was first catching on, that you think sound almost embarrassingly dated today?

Mr. MOOG: Ah. Well, you know, the first use of Moog synthesizer on the West
Coast sounds embarrassingly dated. It's a record called "Zodiac Cosmic

GROSS: How can that not sound dated?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOOG: Well, what happened is--this was in 1967, and we were wondering
whether we could stay in business because, you know, we weren't making any
money and nobody understood our products. We were invited to exhibit our new
synthesizers out at the Audio Engineering Society on the West Coast. So at
that exhibit, we were then invited to bring this one instrument that nobody
had ever seen out there to a recording session of "Zodiac Cosmic Sounds," and
the synthesizer was used to make some distinctly novel electronic effects, one
of which begins the album.

What the album is--it starts off with very conventional-sounding Hollywood
movie music, `bum, ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,
ba-ba-bum.' It was a mono record, too. Imagine how dated that is now. It
was 1967, it was a mono record, so it starts off that way. And then with a
low organ tone, the narrator comes on. He had a voice as deep as crude oil
and he said, `Nine times the color red explodes like heated blood. The
battle's on,' then `ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,
ba-ba-bum,' like that.

The producers at the time were very impressed with themselves about how in
this was and how hip and how many they were going to sell. Now when you play
it, people just break out laughing.

GROSS: So is the `bum, ba-bums' that you were doing on the synthesizer?

Mr. MOOG: No, they were done more or less conventionally.

GROSS: Where did the synthesizer come in?

Mr. MOOG: The synthesizer came in making--just drop in sounds. Let's see if
I can set one up. The Minimoog is really not big enough to do all the sounds
that we did, but let's, for instance, start with one sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Wait, another sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: OK. So that's about a whole tone apart.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: I add a third sound.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: OK. OK. Now that's the general sort of sound that they liked.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: And then we just glide up a little bit here...

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: ...that sort of sound.

GROSS: Great. Yeah.

Mr. MOOG: Now with the large synthesizer that we had back then at the studio
in Los Angeles, you could glide more slowly. You could add more frequencies.
You could make out a sound that was fairly striking for those times.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Moog. He's the creator of the Moog synthesizer
and a pioneer of electronic instruments.

Mr. MOOG: Right.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Moog, pioneer of electronic instruments, creator
of the Moog synthesizer.

What are the first records that you think really helped the Moog synthesizer
catch on?

Mr. MOOG: The biggie was "Switched-On Bach."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOOG: In light of that, everything else pales. "Switched-On Bach" came
out at the end of 1968. I can remember playing a cut from it at an Audio
Engineering Society convention in New York City about a month in advance of
its release, and I can remember all those cynical experienced recording
engineers listening to this and being so overjoyed that a piece of work so
innovative, you know, such high quality was being done that they gave Carlos a
standing ovation.

GROSS: Did you like "Switched-On Bach"?

Mr. MOOG: Oh, yes. Yes. In fact, I visited Carlos several times. Well,
Carlos and his associates were working on the piece, and I was just bowled
over. Every time I came something new was there to be heard.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear some music from "Switched-On Bach"? And it
was Walter Carlos back then...

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: ...wasn't it? Yeah. So this is Walter Carlos at the Moog

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

GROSS: That's Walter Carlos playing "Switched-On Bach," the record that
helped really establish commercially the Moog synthesizer. My guest is Robert
Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer and the related synthesizers that
he's since created. He's a pioneer of electronic instruments.

Is there a kind of retro thing going on now in music where people are looking
for vintage Moog synthesizers, the early ones that you designed and built?

Mr. MOOG: Yes. The market for instruments of ours that were made in the '60s
and '70s is rapidly rising. Of course, the supply is limited; approximately
12,000 Minimoogs were made over a 10-year period and maybe 1/10th that many
modular systems were made, and they're all very highly prized now. Ten years
ago, they wouldn't have been that highly prized because people were more
focused on the new bells and whistles coming out of digital technology. But,
you know, fashions change, people's tastes are capricious and now there is the
emerging realization that, yes, these sounds are musically good and, yes,
these instruments are fun to play.

GROSS: What can the early instruments do that the new ones can't?

Mr. MOOG: Typical digital instrument doesn't have a panel full of knobs.
Typical digital instrument has a few buttons that you can enter numbers with
and then store those numbers. And if you want to be analytical and precise,
that's an interesting way of setting up a complex sound the way you want it.
However, if you just want to play it, to reach out and change one part of it
spontaneously, you really can't do that by incrementing numbers. You need to
be able to have something to put your fingers on right then, in a small
fraction of a second, turn the knob, turn the switch and change the sound. So
that's one thing.

The other thing is that these sounds--you can emulate them by digital means.
You can come close. There are digital emulations of a Minimoog, for instance,
now that are on sale, so that you can turn the screen of your home computer
into a control panel of a Minimoog. But, however, the sounds that it produces
to a musician with experienced ears doesn't sound as good as the real thing.

GROSS: When you created the first Moog synthesizer, was it out of an interest
in electronics or music or both?

Mr. MOOG: I had been building electronic musical instruments since I was a
kid. It was always a hobby of mine, and I always approached it as an
electronics person, you know, somebody who liked to work with a soldering iron
and a pair of pliers who also had some musical training. By the time I got to
building synthesizers, I had, you know, perhaps 20 years' experience building
electronic musical instruments.

GROSS: Well, I know you build Theremins, and we'll get to that in a couple of
minutes. What else did you build?

Mr. MOOG: Well, back in the '40s and early '50s, building simple electronic
projects was a popular hobby for many people. Back then, you could buy, you
know, a few parts with tubes and build something on your kitchen table, and it
would actually work. So there were magazines subscribing all sorts of hobby
projects, and I can remember building one-note organs, two-note organs,
radios, phonograph, you know, amplifiers, and that was my life. That's what I
did back then. Other kids went out and beat each other up or played baseball,
and I built electronics.

GROSS: I think your father was an amateur radio operator.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, he was. He was a professional engineer. He worked for
Consolidated Edison in New York City.

GROSS: That's the electric company.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, it is. And he worked for them all his life, and he was also
an amateur radio operator.

GROSS: This is ham radio?

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: Do did you think your father's ham radio stuff had an impact on you?

Mr. MOOG: Why, sure. He was the one who taught me how to do electronics. He
taught me how to use a soldering iron. My father had a very complete hobby
basement, with machine tools and all sorts of electronic stuff. I used to
love to go down and just be with him and work with him.

GROSS: It was a real guy thing for you?

Mr. MOOG: I think so, yeah. Yeah. It was a dad-and-son thing especially.

GROSS: Did Mom ever go down to the basement?

Mr. MOOG: No. No, my mom had the rest of the house.

GROSS: Now before you started inventing your own instruments, you build
Theremins. So let's start with what a Theremin is. You've brought one with

Mr. MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: I imagine this is one that you've built.

Mr. MOOG: Yes, it is. Well, it's one that my company built.

GROSS: Right. That's good enough.

Mr. MOOG: Well, close enough.

GROSS: Give us a taste of the basic sound of the Theremin. Our listeners
will recognize it from lots of science fiction movies.

Mr. MOOG: OK, let me describe what I'm doing. I'm not touching the
instrument when I'm playing it now; I'm moving my hands around it to control
the volume and the pitch of the sound. But I'll just make a very quick sound,
and then maybe later I can actually try and play a melody.

(Soundbite of Theremin)

Mr. MOOG: So when you wave your hands around a Theremin, that's the sort of
sound you get. It's not particularly musical, but it certainly sounds
different from a piano or even a synthesizer. A Theremin is an electronic
musical instrument with two metal antennas. One is a vertical rod on the
right-hand side of the instrument. The closer you get your right hand to that
rod, the higher the pitch goes. So if you imagine a violin string in the air
between your shoulder and the pitch antenna, and by moving my hand along that
string, you can imagine the sort of gestures I make.

GROSS: But it's an imaginary string.

Mr. MOOG: It's an imaginary string; I'm not touching anything when I play.
On the left hand of the instrument, there is a metal loop, which controls the
volume. And the closer I get my hand to that loop, the softer the sound gets.
So my gestures consist of moving my right hand back and forth from my right
shoulder to the pitch antenna to make the notes and moving my left hand up and
down, as if I'm conducting an imaginary orchestra out there to control the
volume and articulate the sound.

GROSS: Well, would you play us a science-fiction effect on the Theremin?
You could even play something from one of the movies--a score that the
Theremin was used in.

Mr. MOOG: A science-fiction effect. I'll try.

(Soundbite of Theremin)

GROSS: And did you get that little vibrato by wiggling your hand back and

Mr. MOOG: Yes. I moved my right hand from my wrist rapidly back and forth
just as a violinist does.

GROSS: Would you like to leave us with some music on the Moog synthesizer?

Mr. MOOG: Let's see.

(Soundbite of synthesizer)

Mr. MOOG: Well, that's some music. I don't know how much, but it's some.

GROSS: Robert Moog, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so

Mr. MOOG: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to have the opportunity.

BOGAEV: Robert Moog, reported in 2000. He received a lifetime achievement
award for technical innovation at this year's Grammys.

Coming up, "Cowboy Bebop" from Japan. This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Adventure series "Cowboy Bebop"

Adults who like to watch cartoons are tuning in to the late-night block on the
Cartoon Network. One adventure series from Japan called "Cowboy Bebop" has
caught on with fans of anime, the Japanese name for cartoons. "Cowboy Bebop"
is shown on Saturday nights at 11:30. It first appeared in Japan in 1998.
Critic Milo Miles says there are lots of reasons to like "Cowboy Bebop."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: I think it's time to blow this scene, get everybody and
their stuff together. OK, three, two, one, let's jam.

(Soundbite of music)

MILO MILES reporting:

If you like James Bond, the movie "Blade Runner," old "Flash Gordon" comic
strips or Japanese sci-fi animation, like "Atera(ph)," "Cowboy Bebop" is
designed for you. In fact, this cartoon series seems to be reaching for so
many different styles and moods, there's no way it can avoid becoming just
another post-modern mesh. But it's remarkably unified and, once you pick up
its rhythm, clear and easy to follow, especially considering how notoriously
intricate Japanese anime can be.

Director Shinichiro Watanabe and head writer Keiko Nobumoto's basic premise is
that you're watching a TV adventure show from a hundred years in the future.
The heroes are a pair of interplanetary bounty hunters: young martial arts
ace Spike Spiegel and the older ex-cop, Jet Black. The first few episodes add
main characters; these include the shady young lady Faye Valentine, who
becomes a bounty hunter to support her gambling habit, and the hyperactive,
13-year-old girl computer hacker named Ed. Then the show simply runs rifts on
the various outrageous criminals the bounty hunters try and usually fail to
snare: space Mafia types, ecology terrorists, alien drug smugglers.

Toward the end of the 26th "Cowboy Bebop" episodes, the focus shifts towards
the dark secret in each of the main character's past. Simple enough premise
at work, but "Cowboy Bebop" is rich with taste and pinnace. Our multimedia,
quick-cut world has conditioned everyone to be ready for switches from Wild
West shootout to urban chase scene to outer-space rocket duels. The
characters romp through scenes that look like a combination of Disney with
guts and Lucas with brains.

And it can't be emphasized enough how soaked in music the show is. The norm
for anime is ponderous synthesizer rock left over from the '70s or sickly
sweet pop ballads, but on "Cowboy Bebop," the music is crisp and adroit. Most
of it is written by Yoko Kanno and performed by the group Seatbelts, with
occasional guest stars, like jazz drummer Bobby Previte. Kanno has done video
game soundtracks and is renowned among anime insiders for the music to the TV
series "Macross Plus." But "Cowboy Bebop" shows off her boldest, most
intelligent work. The theme, called "Tank!," suggests a re-energized James
Bond number, but the sly, idiomatic references to rock, blues, country and
especially funk jazz best suit the series' simmering party atmosphere.

"Cowboy Bebop" is available as six individual VHS tapes or DVD or as box sets.
The DVDs add a few charming features, such as trailers, music videos and
interviews with the creators in the studio. The discs also include both
English and Japanese versions, which is sometimes crucial because of careless
dubbing. In this case, it merely points up what meticulous care was taken
with the whole series. In English or Japanese, "Cowboy Bebop" has
bullet-proof cool.

BOGAEV: Milo Miles is a music critic living in Cambridge. "Cowboy Bebop" is
shown on the Cartoon Network on Saturday nights at 11:30 and is available on


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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