Robert Moog (pronounced like rogue) is a self-confessed geek. The man whose name is synonymous with the first synthesizers holds a doctorate in engineering physics and a technical Grammy Award for contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field. Part obscure pop icon, part inventor and part musician's magic technician, Moog is both an inspired academic and a practical engineer. In 1970, he released the world's first truly portable electronic music synthesizer, the Minimoog, which revolutionized popular music. Moog's instruments have been influential in the work of bands including Tangerine Dream, Yes and Kraftwerk and composers such as John Cage and Wendy Carlos, as well as featured on albums by Stereolab, 808 State and Radiohead. He's the mad inventor who musicians go to when they have a sound they need to transfer from their heads to yours.
Born in New York City in 1934, Moog was a smart kid who shared his father's passion for electronics and who received daily piano lessons from his mother. As a teenager, he fell in love with the Theremin. Invented in the 1920s and based on regenerative radio-receiver technology, the Theremin was one of the first truly electronic musical instruments. Popular in '40s and '50s horror-movie soundtracks, the Theremin is a unique instrument that is elegantly bizarre to watch being played: The musician moves his or her hands over two antennas as if sculpting sound. To this day, Theremins remain an ongoing interest for Moog.
At age 19, Moog started selling custom-made Theremins through New York rep Waiter Sear (who also sold tubas and later made porn and grade-Z movies). In the mid-'50s, pioneering inventor and composer Raymond Scott invented the Clavivox protosynthesizer for which Moog designed a subassembly circuit. Moog and Scott maintained a social and professional relationship for 20 years — Moog's strong rapport with creative pioneers is a hallmark of his career.
At a demonstration of the Theremin at a New York State School Music Association convention, Moog met composer Herb Deutsch; in 1964, Moog founded the R.A. Moog Company and launched his first analog synthesizer (designed with Deutsch). By 1965, Moog employed more than a half-dozen people.
In 1968, Wendy Carlos' million-selling LP Switched-On Bach catapulted the Moog synthesizer into the public consciousness and inspired a tidal wave of Moog novelty records. Moogs were also used on tracks by the Beach Boys and The Beatles. The Moog was particularly popular with lounge-music producers from the '40s and '50s and also became closely associated with the swinging '60s. Moog records now have their own collectors' subcategory filed under exotica or lounge. Moog himself dismisses much of that output as kitschy commercialism, and his interests clearly lie in pushing the envelope of electronics rather than in pop-music fads.
In 1977, after a number of mergers and takeovers of his original company, Moog fled corporate politics for the quiet of the great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and started Big Briar Inc. the following year. From 1984 to 1988, he was also a full-time consultant and vice president of new product research for Kurzweil Music Systems. To this day, Moog creates and sells high-quality specialty musical equipment — synths, Moogerfoogers and, yes, Theremins — through Big Briar. He continues to invent custom analog instruments and to explore solutions for academic and experimental electronic musicians. Today, Moog's original vintage analog synthesizers are considered classic instruments and are sought after by musicians of every ilk.