Sublime design: the Moog synthesiser

The Moog, 2014 Model Sub 37 – producer of squelchy bass lines and distorted expressive solos. Wikimedia Commons

The classic sound many of us imagine when the word synthesiser is mentioned is the sound of the Moog – the warm, solid propulsive groove of its bass sound and the distinctive sweep of its patented lowpass filter closing down or opening up.

If you’d like to be reminded, here is a famous synth-pop example from Gary Numan in 1979:

Gary Numan, Cars, 1979.

American engineer Robert Moog (pronounced to rhyme with vogue), who founded Moog Music in 1953, didn’t invent the synthesiser but he did standardise, popularise and importantly make portable what were once wall-sized units that cost as much as a house.

Moog began by producing large hand-built modular synthesisers for well-heeled clients that included Wendy Carlos of Switched On Bach fame, and they can be heard also on The Beatles’ Abbey Road, but the turning point came when he designed and released the Minimoog in 1971.

Minimoog Model D Synthesiser. Canada Science and Technology Museum

Using transistors rather than vacuum tubes, the relatively petite Minimoog (pictured above) used a fixed synthesis architecture. In contrast to modular systems in which “patches” where produced by patching cables in a bewildering variety of combinations to produce sound.

The fixed synthesis method of the Minimoog closed down sonic possiblities but also made the process much less daunting for musicians. The way this was laid out on the Minimoog has become the default design workflow for synthesisers both in hardware and software.

Minimoog control panel. Wikimedia Commons

Reading left to right across the panel (see image above) there are two, sometimes three, sound source voltage controlled oscillators. These are modulated (pitch and loudness are changed) by low-frequency oscillators that usually produce no sound but exist to effect the sound sources.

The effected sound is then fed to a filter that can sweep through a range of frequencies that give Moog synths a recognisable sound. Lastly, the signal goes through some shaping envelopes that control the attack, decay, sustain and release (ADSR) of a note and how it interacts with the filter (see graphic below). All of this is classic “subtractive” synthesis – meaning sounds are sculpted by removing frequencies from the original raw sound of the oscillators.

Wikimedia Commons=

At first, the appeal of the sound was all about novelty and many Moog-heavy albums were released, such as Music to Moog By (1969) by German American composer Gershon Kingsley, which took three years to score a worldwide number one when the track Popcorn was covered by the band Hot Butter in 1972:

Like many synthesisers of the period, the Minimoog could only produce one note at a time and this led to styles of playing and composition that worked within this monophonic restriction.

Let’s consider six key tracks that represent the evolution of this new kind of sound.

1) Chameleon, Herbie Hancock, 1973

There was an adoption of the instrument by funk and jazz musicians as a producer of squelchy bass lines and expressive often distorted lead solos. American keyboardist and composer Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic was a key proponent but it was also popularised by jazz players such as pianist Herbie Hancock. Listen to the bassline that opens the first track of his 1973 album, Head Hunters:

2) Autobahn, Kraftwerk, 1974

The Minimoog was used in developing the technique of simple, almost naïve, melodic lines that became a feature of synth-pop in the late 70s and early 80s, based heavily on the example of the German electronic music band Kraftwerk. You can hear this approach, with the addition of the Moog step sequencer firing notes in a relentlessly repeating order to drive the bass, in Autobahn from 1974:

3) Ricochet, Tangerine Dream, 1975

The step sequencer, with its robotic repetition of interlocking one-note-at-a-time layers, made possible a trance-like electronic style that still echoes through contemporary electronic dance music. In the first shot of German electronic music group Tangerine Dream performing live in 1975, the step sequencer on the Moog modular centre-stage cycles its lights through a note sequence that comes in on the bass at 1:30:

4) Jive Talkin’, Bee Gees, 1975

Meanwhile the funk technique moved into what became disco. The Moog bass at the centre of the 1975 Bee Gees track, Jive Talkin’, is mimed on a bass guitar:

5) I Feel Love, Donna Summer, 1977

Then, famously in 1977 American singer-songwriter Donna Summer and Italian producer Georgio Moroder brought the funk and step sequencer techniques together in a track that wrote the sequenced Moog bass sound into the DNA of dance pop, I Feel Love:

6) Blue Monday, New Order, 1983

I Feel Love was enormously influential in demonstrating to a generation of post-punk musicians just how the synth could be used in a form that had previously been shaped by the guitar. Enter English rock band New Order with Blue Monday in 1983:

In 2002, after going out of business as a company and out of fashion as a sound, superseded by samplers and digital synths, Moog came back from the dead to begin a new series of machines that began with a recreation of the Minimoog.

As part of a widespread return to hardware analog synths, that sees more hardware synths released each year by manufacturers than during the 70s, the Moog is again central to the idea of the synthesiser. Even the modular synth has been reborn as Eurorack, albeit in a smaller form, though still with core concepts based around many of the design decisions that stem from the Moog modular.

Many electronic musicians are now re-embracing the visceral appeal of electronic instrument designs that borrow from the classic elements of analog synth voice design, as documented in this chat with Trent Reznor and Alessandro Cortini from Nine Inch Nails featured in I Dream of Wires in 2013.

Occasionally, in the history of modern pop music, an instrument is so influential that it not only goes on to define genres but also sets the template for instruments that follow in its wake.

Such is the story of the Moog synth in all its variations across the last 45 years.

Read more articles in the Sublime Design series.

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