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Robert Moog, 71; His Synthesizer Brought New Sounds to Music

Times Staff Writer

Robert Moog, a maverick engineer who made electronics sing in the psychedelic era of the 1960s through the pioneering synthesizer that bears his name and caused a revolution in electronic sound, has died. He was 71.

Moog died Sunday from brain cancer at his home in Asheville, N.C., according to his company’s website. He had been diagnosed in April with an inoperable brain tumor.

His improved synthesizer, with the addition of a keyboard, did for the instrument what Les Paul and Leo Fender did for the electric guitar, said Trevor Pinch, coauthor of “Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer.”

The transformation in electronic sound that Moog started is still unfolding, Pinch said.

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The electronic ditty on a cellphone, the thumping base on the iPod “are all part of his legacy -- synthesizers today are chip-size and ubiquitous,” Pinch said.

Moog, which rhymes with vogue, didn’t invent the instrument that could sound otherworldly as it mimicked string, horn or percussion instruments. RCA did, in 1955, but its primitive version was room-size, and the sounds were controlled by punching holes in tape, Pinch said.

The Moog became the state of the art keyboard when it came along nine years later, partly because the sound-distortion machine’s portability enabled musicians to bring it into the concert hall. In addition, the sound was immediate and easier to manipulate.

“Many people would say, ‘We need a Moog on this record,’ when they meant a synthesizer,” said Brian Kehew, who sent up electronic music in the late 1990s as a member of the Moog Cookbook and worked for Moog as a producer and designer.

The first album to use the Moog as its sole instrument was “Switched-On Bach” in 1968, featuring synthesizer interpretations of various Bach pieces played by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos. Carlos then used the Moog to electrify Beethoven for the eerie soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971. The Beatles employed it on “Because” on “Abbey Road” in 1969, and progressive rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded the first Moog synthesizer solo on their 1970 debut album.

Keith Emerson’s 10-foot-tall, 550-pound “Monster Moog” became an indispensable part of the group’s concerts, even though the synthesizer could be unreliable and had to be tuned throughout the performance. It sometimes had to be covered in foil to avoid picking up police radio traffic.

But not everyone was enthusiastic about an instrument they saw as dehumanizing music-making.

“When it first appeared, it was viewed as the enemy of real music and musicians, and there are still holdouts, which is a little hilarious,” said Robert Hilburn, pop music critic for The Times. “For the most part, synthesizers have been embraced as a welcome, even essential, instrument that has helped broaden rather than shrink our musical horizons and ambitions.”

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The synthesizer “freaked people out,” Moog recalled earlier this year. “One of the many things you could do was imitate vocal sounds -- make it go ‘Weeoooooww.’ That really upset. The reaction was a bit like that of primitive cultures believing cameras could catch your soul.”

In “Moog,” a recent documentary by director Hans Fjellestad, an interviewer leans toward Moog and sternly asks, “Tell me, Mr. Moog, don’t you feel guilty about what you’ve done?”

Moog enjoyed his friendships with musicians and made a point of studying how they used the instrument so he could improve upon it, Pinch said.

Moog had an ability to “grasp the difficult challenge of creating exactly what musicians needed,” Kehew said.

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Robert Arthur Moog was born May 23, 1934, in New York City. His father was an engineer and his mother was a piano teacher. The reluctant piano student often could be found tinkering in the family workshop, building radios from mail-order kits.

He became fascinated by the theremin, considered the world’s first electronic instrument, and built one at 14. Theremins can seem mysterious in performance because they are played by passing the hand around vibrating radio tubes. They are sometimes part of the spooky soundtracks in alien adventure movies, including “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), and a theremin is prominent in the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations.”

By manufacturing the offbeat instrument, Moog paid his way through Queens College and Columbia University, where he graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1957. Last year, Moog was still making theremins, calling them his “first love.”

After college, Moog had planned to take a corporate research job but thought he might be able to turn his hobby into a money-making venture. After he wrote an article about theremins for an issue of Electronics World, he sold about 1,000 theremin kits from 1961 to 1963.

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While working on his doctorate at Cornell University, he used his business profits to finance the creation of other electronic instruments, including a portable guitar amplifier kit, his first real product.

At a music teachers’ convention in 1963, he met Herb Deutsch, a teacher and composer who convinced Moog to design what would become the Moog synthesizer. In mid-1964, Moog showed his device at a convention of audio engineers.

The self-described “30-year-old nerd with no particular background in electronic music” suddenly was taking orders for his relatively affordable synthesizer. The Moog sold for $11,000 while RCA’s went for $100,000.

Still, “The people who were my contemporaries -- both engineers and musicians -- thought I was wasting my time,” Moog told The Times in 1988.

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When Moog heard the synthesizer pop up on TV commercials by the mid-1960s, he knew the sound was going mainstream. Business boomed at his company, R.A. Moog, until 1971. Mainstream interest in exploring electronic sound had started to wane, and a second generation of more user-friendly synthesizers hit the market.

In 1973, he sold his suburban Buffalo, N.Y., company and the rights to the Moog Music name. Five years later he moved to North Carolina.

By the mid-1980s, the analog technology of the synthesizer was under attack by digital technology, Moog said. But early digital equipment could sound cold, and it wasn’t as easy to fiddle with the sound. His classic equipment started experiencing a resurgence and showing up on EBay.

In the early 1990s, Moog was a research professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. After a lengthy legal battle, he reclaimed the right to use the Moog name in 2002 and again began selling instruments bearing his name. Customers included Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Beck, Phish, Sonic Youth and Widespread Panic.

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Moog was modest and “the sweetest gentleman imaginable, with a sparkle in his eye and wicked sense of humor,” said Erik Gavriluk, who worked with him on the first digital versions of his technology and founded the Bomb Factory, a recording studio and software manufacturer in Burbank.

“The Moog synth transcends technology, ergonomics and pop culture. It wasn’t some novelty sound or gadget,” Gavriluk said. “It was a continuously new sound that shook the entire music industry several times, in every decade, in every genre.”

Moog is survived by his wife, Ileana, and several children. A public memorial will begin at noon Wednesday at the Orange Peel, a concert venue in Asheville.


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