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Electronic Equivalent : Robert Moog among music advisory board's members

October 09, 1988|RICK VANDERKNYFF

One of the first things Clark Spangler did in revamping the extension program in electronic music offered at UC Irvine was to assemble an impressive list of names for the program's advisory board.

Among them is John Chowning of Stanford University, the developer of FM digital synthesis (the basis of Yamaha's synthesizer line, including the top-selling DX-7). But the most recognizable name on the board is one that has become almost synonymous with the development of electronic music: Robert Moog.

Moog's company was among the first to commercially release an analog synthesizer in 1965. With its maze of patch cords, it was little more than a lab instrument until Walter Carlos brought synthesizers into the public consciousness with the 1969 release of "Switched-On Bach." Moog's instrument is immortalized on the album cover.

In 1970, Moog (his name rhymes with "vogue") brought synthesizers to working musicians for the first time with the introduction of the Minimoog, a portable instrument that brought together the most frequently used modules of the earlier synthesizer, eliminated patch cords and incorporated a keyboard. Moog has said that he initially expected to sell about 100 Minimoogs; 12,000 were sold in the 10 years that the instrument was produced.

Today, the industry that Moog helped create continues to mushroom. The aforementioned DX-7 sold 200,000 units before a new model was recently released. Moog, reached by telephone at his home in North Carolina, said he had no idea in the early days that synthesizers would take off the way they did.

"Nobody saw it. I didn't see it--I wasn't worried about it," Moog said. "It was the process that was important to me. I just enjoyed what I was doing from day to day."

When questioned about the controversies that have surrounded electronic music since the beginning, Moog wanted specifics--"Which controversy?"

One of the biggest arguments is that electronic synthesizers that duplicate the sound of conventional musical instruments put human musicians out of work.

"It has to do with change," Moog said. "In change, that's what happens in the short run. I'm personally sorry that some people are affected in the short term."

On the other hand, he said, "there's no reason at all that the practice of the arts should escape the effects of the industrial revolution."

Another charge against synthesizers is that they are cold and sterile, that they lack the expressive capabilities of traditional acoustic instruments. That's a problem Moog has been working on for almost 15 years. He left Moog Music Inc. not long after it was acquired by Norlin Industries in 1973 and joined Waltham, Mass.-based Kurzweil Music Systems.

One of his pet projects at Kurzweil is the development of expressive keyboards, where such elements as the speed of the keystroke, the position of the finger on a key and motion of a key from side to side all control different aspects of the sound created, "the same way a violinist moves his hand up and down the bow," Moog said.

Now that synthesizers have been widely accepted by musicians, both professional and amateur, Moog said the next step in the electronic revolution is to get the instruments into homes. Kurzweil Music Systems and other companies see a potential gold mine in the home market that once belonged to upright pianos. Self-contained, easy-to-use keyboard synthesizers that include such features as drum machines and sequencers (which digitally record a performance, and allow for editing and multitrack layering) are already making inroads.

"The cost of electronic instruments is going down as their performance is going up," Moog said. Meanwhile, the cost of acoustic instruments--even poor ones--is rising.

"I'm not saying that any electronic instrument is going to replace the grand piano," Moog said. "A grand piano is the pinnacle. . . . Home spinet pianos are not the pinnacle, they are compromises."

The advance of electronic music into new arenas is nothing new to Moog, who had to deal with his share of skeptics in the early days of synthesizers. "The people who were my contemporaries--both engineers and musicians--thought I was wasting my time."

But today, he said, "except for purely traditional classical music, it's hard to think of areas where electronics hasn't made a major impact."

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