Bob Moog: 1934-2005

This isn’t going to be a maudlin obituary: In case there is life after death, I don’t want to piss off Bob. See, Bob defined the polar opposite of “inflated self-importance.” For a long time, I was kind of bothered that he didn’t seem to really grasp the extent of his contributions, and the massive amounts of respect and love that was felt for him throughout the industry. “Hey, I’m just an engineer, I make tools.”

While he didn’t invent synthesis, Bob’s unique talent was the ability to cut through the equations, and make musical instruments — ones that sounded really good, had the richness and character of acoustic instruments, and felt warm and organic instead of cold and technical. Bob himself was so human that it rubbed off on the instruments he made. Thanks to his inventions, synthesis connected to musicians and the public: Wendy Carlos’ masterpiece Switched-On Bach, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Moog-drenched version of rock, Beaver & Krause’s ambient excursions, the Beatles, the Byrds, and so many others (and unfortunately, a zillion best-forgotten Switched-On copycat albums).

Bob got it right the first time. Half a century after its introduction, his 24dB/octave lowpass filter design remains the sonic standard by which all filters are judged. The patch cords on his modular gave the name “patch” to any sound, even if it had nothing to do with cables. The normalized collection of modules that made up the Minimoog have been duplicated time and time again, not just in Minimoog emulations, but in most subtractive synthesis designs. And let’s not forget his love affair with the theremin, which kept its flame alive through the years.

Bob’s creations have touched everyone in this industry. I have a ton of Bob Moog stories: The time he stayed over at my house and signed my Minimoog (which he hated to do, but he was a good sport about it), how uncomfortable he was when people came up to him and said “You’re Bob Moog!” or “You changed my life,” and the time I hosted the “Afternoon with Bob Moog” at the 2004 AES in San Francisco, where along with the audience, I was completely mesmerized by Bob’s recollections, humor, and warmth.

But my favorite was at Summer NAMM a few years back. Bob had been deep into designing the Voyager, and wasn’t aware of Reason. So I pulled him away from the Moog booth, and took him over to Propellerheads. Of course, they were thrilled to have him there, but then came the moment during their demo I was waiting for: When they hit the Tab key, and Reason flipped around to show the virtual patch cords, swaying ever so gently. Bob laughed his head off, with that trademark Bob Moog Huge Smile, and found the whole thing absolutely delightful — his patch cords lived on, implemented by people who hadn’t forgotten the heady, early days of modular synthesis.

Okay, so Bob was cool. But there’s more to it than that: If you were born after 1960, you’ve never really known a world without synthesis. So it might be hard to imagine what a bolt of lightning it was when the first Moog modular synthesizer appeared. I tried to capture a bit of that feel in the intro for a review of Arturia’s Moog Modular V in Keyboard magazine:

“You wake up in a world where Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong are still alive, and AM radio is a vital part of teenage life. Sony’s Walkman hasn’t been invented yet, because the newly developed Compact Cassette exists solely for dictation. You are up on the latest technology, though; you have a transistor, not tube, radio and your turntable — which of course, has an option for playing 78 RPM records — has just been upgraded to stereo.

You leave your apartment, and get on the subway for the 1964 New York AES Convention. And there you see something that stops you in your tracks: a box set up in an unused booth, that looks more like a telephone switching station thanks to the cables that obscure the prototype’s front panel. But it’s making sounds — sounds you’ve never heard before — and the young inventor is actually constructing sounds with this machine. You’re blown away, and while some shake their heads, you’ve seen the future: the commercial introduction of the Moog Modular Synthesizer. And from that day on, music would never be the same.

And indeed, it wasn’t. Bob gave us all so much and materially, didn’t really get all that much in return. But what he always did get was a flood of respect, appreciation, and love from the myriad people whose lives he touched — and in the process, transformed.

Thanks again, Bob. Maybe it made you uncomfortable to admit it, but you really did change our lives. Big-time.