This one appeared in the June 2004 issue of Music Mart, prior to the release of the Bob Moog tribute movie.
 

INTERVIEWS: BOB MOOG

Leo Fender, Jim Marshall, Hartley Peavey - three names that musicians do business with more or less every day. Three men who have contributed massively to the music business. But there's a good case to be made for a perhaps less well known name, Dr. Bob Moog, having had an even greater impact, not just on the music business, but on music itself. Because Bob Moog (and, for the record - let alone the umpteenth time - it's pronounced to rhyme with Vogue) invented the synthesiser.

For all that this year he celebrates his fiftieth in the music industry, why Bob Moog's name may not be as well known as some of his counterparts is one of those curious stories which has as much to do with the vagaries of business as anything to do with musical instruments. After all, like Messrs Fender, Marshall and Peavey, Bob Moog had his name on the box - in his case actually on world's first synthesisers and, for a decade or more, few serious electric keyboard players would go on stage without a Moog product. By rights, he should have been as well known as anyone in instrument history.

But there were problems. Having built his business from scratch, in the 1970s he sold out to the giant Norlin Corporation. And as is so often the case when giant corporations buy small, innovater-led outfits, there were stresses and tensions, which eventually led to Dr. Moog (his PhD is in engineering physics) and Norlin parting company - leaving the later, in effect, owning his name.

As is the way of the world, Norlin ultimately hit the wall, leaving a Moog-shaped hole in the industry which Japanese keyboard manufacturers like Ronald, Yamaha and Korg had eagerly been filling for some years, anyway. Where was the good doctor during the 1980s? What had gone wrong? And why is it that only in the last couple of years that we have seen the Moog name on new products?

These, and so many more, questions were penned on my shirt cuff when I recently spoke with this living legend.

I began by asking Bob Moog how he had managed to get tied-up with Norlin in the first place. He laughs: "You want the whole, gory history?" I tell him Music Mart readers will accept nothing less - not least the horror of losing the rights to use his own name.

'It's not a horror,' he says. 'It's just a part of what happens when you name a company after yourself and then sell it. The name of the products and the company become a trademark and they acquire a secondary meaning. You still have your own name - people know who Bob Moog is.

'I started the company in 1954, when I was 19 years old - still a student. It was a part time company and I made theremins (see box out). Then, in 1964, I went full-time and we began making synthesisers. A couple of years after that, we became RA Moog Inc and it remained that way up until 1971, when I sold the controlling interest in the company to a venture capitalist, who then sold the company to Norlin, in 1973.'

But why did he sell the controlling interest in the company that was at the absolute cutting edge of the new technology of synthesis? 'We ran out of money,' is his candid response.

'It was a matter of not having much choice. I could come up with all sorts of euphemisms, but that's how it was. Immediately preceding that, we'd have a very good year and had bought a tremendous amount of components, thinking our business was going to go through the roof - but instead it fell flat.'

At the time, Moog was making the big, modular synthesisers that had been propelled to international success by Wendy Carlos's 1968 worldwide hit, Switched On Bach.

'I wasn't the greatest businessman in the world,' Dr. Moog admits. 'An astute businessman would never have let that happen.'

How had Bob Moog got on working for a large company like Norlin?

'Uhhh....' There's a pause and then he laughs. 'By and large, not particularly well. I was used to doing things my way and you would never call me conventional, so let's just say we didn't understand each other very well. I wound-up staying with Norlin for four years. I'd signed an agreement with them that stated that if I stayed there for four years they would buy my share of the company and I'd have some money.'

Watching the flow of products coming out of Norlin during the 1970s, one couldn't avoid the feeling that, though they carried the Moog name, Bob Moog might not have always been that involved in their genesis and development - was that the case?

'From 1973-77, I was involved in product development, but not on keyboard synthesisers. I was politicked out of synthesiser development.'

But the distinctive Moog touch wasn't entirely lost to musicians. Those who were around at the time, or who haunt secondhand gear shops today, will know Gibson's under-regarded Lab Series guitar amps - the subject of much Moog work.

'That's right - I developed the front end for all the Lab Series amplifiers. I developed the Maestro effects, I developed the electronics for the Gibson RD Artist guitar and the Synamp and I can remember distinctly that, by 1976, all the new electronics products that Moog were introducing, came out of my little operation within Norlin, but the much larger synthesisers division hadn't generated anything.

'Most people today don't remember what the '70s were like. In the 1970s, the electronic musical market was so hot that you could take five pounds of dog shit, put it in a paper bag and if you could get it to make a sound, you could sell it as a musical instrument. The general quality was nothing like it is today. And then the Japanese came in and the Koreans and now the Chinese and finally people have woken up.

'At the end of 1977 I parted company with Norlin, with enough money for my family and me to move to an area where we wanted to live and to build a house - so for three years I didn't do much else. By 1983, I had met Ray Kurzweil, who invited me to do some consulting. Early in 1984 they were putting the Kurzweil 250 into production. It was big - one of the first high quality sample-playing instruments where the sounds were resident in semiconductor memory, so that you didn't have to load everything from a disc. They were having trouble getting everything to work and when they finally did, they found it sounded like shit and nobody knew why.

'The reason nobody knew why, was that everybody there were software engineers and although they were musicians, they didn't have a sense of what you have to do with electronic circuitry in order for basic things like noise and distortion to be taken care of. So the President asked me to have a go at it, to see what could be done.

'So on Monday of a particular week, one of the engineers shows up at my little shop in Western North Carolina, with a Kurzweil 250, and by Thursday he went back with a list of 13 things that had to be changed - and once those were changed it sounded fine. That convinced the top brass of Kurzweil that I was this white knight, so they made me an offer I couldn't refuse and I joined the company in 1984, moved my whole family up there and remained with them until 1989.'

But Bob Moog is far from being a company man, as he agrees. 'I didn't fit-in to well there, either - but for a different reason. Just about all the engineers there were MIT people, which is a type of person who gravitates towards the complex, the finicky, the clever. But when I went to engineering school at Columbia, the Dean of Students told us that an engineer is somebody who can do for two cents what any damn fool can do for three cents. So there was that sort of conflict, but I remained there for five years, hoping the promise of my stock options would provide some sort of financial return. But then Kurzweil began to fail.

'In 1989, I returned to North Carolina, had a small business called Big Briar - just me and a part time assistant - that took me up to 1994, then in '94 I thought, "OK, maybe once more around the track, I'll try and build up a company that has some ongoing potential", so in '94, Big Briar went full-time. At first we built theramins: the Etherwave in 1996, in 1998, we introduced the Moogerfoogers, in 2002, we introduced the Voyager and it was then that I managed to get my name back as trademark, so we changed the name of the company back from Big Briar to Moog Music.'

Umm...except for in the UK, that is.

'Well, yes. Everywhere in the World, except for the UK,' says Bob Moog, a little ruefully.

Quite what the back story is here is unguessable. It appears that the trademark of "Moog Music" is owned by someone from Cardiff who, Bob Moog says, doesn't appear to want to sell it - nor even communicate much with Moog in the States. As a consequence, Bob Moog's products are branded in the UK as, for example, 'Voyager, by Bob Moog' instead of by Moog Music.

Bob Moog's reputation has been built on a combination of skills - obviously he has 'good ears' - but primarily he is known as a hardware man. So what is his take on VST and the increasingly software-based business that is increasingly coming to represent today's synthesiser business?

'Well, I have a reputation as hardware guy because back when I began, and through most of my career, that's all there was. Making good music sounds with software is something that's fairly recent, but I don't think of myself as someone who's only a hardware guy. I've learnt more about software as time goes on and, fundamentally, I'm an engineer. If wood is the right thing to use, we use wood. If copper is better, we use copper. Like any engineer, I look at the problem and try to find the best solution., As time goes on, I'm sure that digital technology will become a more important part of our products and, right now, the Voyager has a digital section, the Ethervox has a digital section, our latest Moogerfooger, the Multiple Resonance Filter, or MuRF, has a digital section too, so... well, we're always looking at the best way to design products but to me, at the moment, it still makes a lot of sense to use analogue circuitry in a lot of products because people just like the way it sounds.'

Does it bother him when software companies claim to have cloned a 'Moog sound'?

'No, most musicians who we take seriously know the difference - and there is a value to these things, anyway. The Arturia software, The MiniMoog V and so on, were things that went past us, we made suggestions and we're allowing them to use our trademark, so it doesn't rile us up at all, it's fun to have all that stuff in your laptop and carry it round like a book.'

So what does he listen to? 'Just about everything. In general I prefer live performance with an audience, although both are interesting. These days I get all the music I have time to listen to from people who have used our instruments. You know, when you get a couple of one hour CDs a week which you need to listen to, then there's not much time for discretionary listening - but I enjoy it all. I like a lot of the new stuff, the drum and bass, the stuff DJs do. I like the stuff that was done in the '70s, too - there's a lot of great music out there.'

And much of it thanks to the genius of Dr. Bob Moog.

Ends.

2005 Gary Cooper