From 1986 to 1988, I worked with electronic-music pioneer Robert Moog (rhymes with vogue), custom-building experimental keyboard instruments. In 1993, I wrote this account of our work together, and an abbreviated version was published around that time in Piano & Keyboard magazine, no longer in business. This is the first publication of the unabridged version. A Postscript with updated information about Moog and his family follows the article.—L.F.
When Bob Moog called me in January 1986 to ask if I would work with him on a small project, the last thing I needed was another job. I was running a piano-service business, finishing up work on The Piano Book, writing a regular monthly magazine column, and doing about ten hours a week of charitable volunteer work. I couldn’t see fitting another activity into my schedule, so I said no. Then, after hanging up the phone, I thought, “Larry, you fool—how often do you get the opportunity to work with someone of this caliber?” So a few days later, I called back and said maybe.
Several weeks later found Moog and me standing in his freezing garage, inspecting a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand. I had serviced these hybrid electric/acoustic pianos before, but only occasionally. Their distinguishing feature is that though they have no soundboard and are electrically amplified, they do have tuning pins and strings, and a real grand-piano keyboard and action.
We had removed some of the outer case parts and were peering at the action. “Do you think you can remove that?” Moog asked, gesturing at the action, in what sounded like a cross between a genuine query and a test question. After all, Moog had found me because, like him, I was a columnist for Keyboard magazine. “He can write,” I could imagine him thinking about me, “but does he know anything about pianos?” Of course, removing a grand action stack is something any self-respecting piano technician can do blindfolded; I unscrewed eight or ten screws and out it came. Moog appeared impressed; though I was surprised by his response at the time, I don’t know why I’d assumed that this famous electronics engineer would necessarily know much about piano actions. Anyway, having clearly passed the test, and since Moog said the project would take only about three months’ worth of Saturdays to complete, I agreed to work with him.
Had I known then how complicated the job would be, and that it would last not three months but two-and-a-half years’ worth of Saturdays (and sometimes Sundays, plus three months of full-time work), I never would have signed on. It’s a good thing I didn’t know, because it turned out to be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had.
I’m sure Moog must have explained to me on that first day what the project was all about, but looking back, I can see that it was months before I understood it or saw the whole picture. Apparently, for years Moog had been in consultation with musicians and composers, most notably John Eaton, then of Indiana University, on ways to expand the limits of keyboard instruments. Over the years, tone-producing technologies had advanced by leaps and bounds, but keyboards had changed little from their traditional design. On an acoustic piano, for example, a musician has control over only three parameters: which note is played; how long it sustains (and even then, only until the sound dies away); and the velocity with which the key is depressed, which governs the loudness. On some electronic keyboards, only one additional parameter has been added: polyphonic aftertouch, the pressure of the key at the bottom of its stroke, the sound of which depends on the particular keyboard or is programmable by the user (not to be confused with a piano’s aftertouch, which is something entirely different).
It was Moog and Eaton’s idea to expand the number of different operations a player could perform at the keyboard, and to make each of those operations programmable by the user. For a long time this idea remained only a dream because of several technological obstacles: computers were too slow and expensive, sensor technology wasn’t advanced enough, and interfacing with tone-producing elements was difficult due to lack of a common computer language for musical instruments. By the mid-1980s, however, all of this had changed with the advent of cheap personal computers, further miniaturization of sensors, and the development of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).
Moog planned to add several features to the traditional keyboard. First was a touch-sensitive keytop (playing surface) that would sense, for each key, the position of the player’s finger from left to right and fore and aft, as well as the total surface area of the finger on that key. Another new feature would be a sensor that measured a key’s vertical position in its stroke. By computing that position over time, the key’s velocity could also be determined. Finally, a force sensor would be included at the bottom of the keystroke to provide the usual aftertouch-pressure information. Each of these operations was to be assignable to any aspect of tone contained in the MIDI specifications, such as loudness, pitch, vibrato, tone color, reverb, and many others.
For example, the vertical position of the key could be used to control the loudness of that note while the amount of aftertouch pressure controlled the degree of vibrato—and the surface area of the finger on the key controlled some aspect of the tone’s harmonic characteristics. From the virtually unlimited number of possible combinations (subject, of course, to the capabilities of the tone-producing devices to which the keyboard is attached), the player would program his or her choices into a computer connected to the keyboard, and these choices, which might change over the course of a piece of music, would become part of the composition itself. The name to be given to this odd instrument was the Multiple-Touch-Sensitive (MTS) Keyboard.
Actual construction of the MTS keyboards had briefly begun at Moog’s workshop, next to his home in North Carolina, several years prior to our meeting, but everything had to be hurriedly packed up and moved when Moog accepted an invitation from Ray Kurzweil to become Vice President of New Product Research at the newly formed Kurzweil Music Systems, near Boston. While the Moogs spent a year adapting to their new home and life in the Boston suburb of Natick, most of their keyboard gear remained packed away in the garage, where we found it on that cold February day. In addition to the Yamaha, which was to be turned into an MTS keyboard for New York musician Gregory Kramer, there were four four-octave organ keyboards (three for John Eaton, and one for Moog to experiment with), and one six-octave keyboard for Steve Porcaro of the band Toto, an order that was later canceled when Moog realized he would not be able to fulfill it within a reasonable length of time. Moog decided to begin with the Yamaha, so we separated the keyboard part from the strung back (easily done on this instrument) and set the keyboard up on its legs in the shop.
Moog’s “shop” in his Natick home was a far cry from the ample industrial building he had erected in North Carolina. It was actually a large furnace room with a concrete floor, perhaps 10 by 20 feet, with the furnace and water heater at the far end. The rest of the room was quite filled up: along one long wall were two large workbenches and a couple of filing cabinets; along the opposite wall, rows of steel shelves extend to the ceiling, stuffed with every manner of industrial and electronic hardware; with a third workbench and drill press near the door. This left a long, narrow space for the keyboards and us. The relative lack of space was a source of some frustration for Moog, but, fortunately, the two-car garage accommodated some overflow, including a radial arm saw, a belt sander, and some additional work space. Next to the workshop room was a more spacious office, with desks, computers, and a Yamaha upright piano. Both of these rooms and the garage were on the entry level of the house; the family’s living space was upstairs.
The major activity in building the MTS keyboards was the fabrication, wiring, and installation of the keytop sensors. The keytops for the naturals were cut out, oversized, in the shapes of their respective keys from thin sheets of epoxy-glass circuit-board material, each containing several octaves’ worth of keytops. On one side of each keytop had been laid a conductive pattern, leading to terminals at the four corners. The keytops for the sharps (piano technicians call all black keys “sharps”) were small rectangles of such material, also cut from sheets. On each keytop, on the side opposite the conductive pattern, after I carefully masked off areas not to be painted, Moog screened a thin film of black “resistive” paint (i.e., paint that conducts electricity but with some resistance). The paint was cured under heat lamps, then sprayed with a thin coat of urethane. When everything was dry, I soldered a multi-wire ribbon cable to the terminals at the back end of each keytop, and then a connector plug, for connection to scanning circuitry, to the other end of each cable.
The way the keytop sensors worked was described to me this way: The resistive paint surface and the player’s finger form two plates of a capacitor, the finger being considered grounded at high frequencies by virtue of its connection to the rest of the body. The urethane coating over the resistive surface is the insulating dielectric of the capacitor. A high-frequency alternating voltage is applied to the four corner terminals and the painted surface via the ribbon cable and the conductive pattern on the back of the keytop, and the resulting current at each terminal is measured. The proportion of the total film current measured at each corner terminal indicates the position of the finger relative to the corners. Each key is electronically scanned 200 times per second to give a continuous reading of these values.
After wiring up the keytop sensors, the next step was to glue them to the keys. On the Yamaha we decided to glue them directly to the plastic keytops already on the keys. Removing the plastic seemed unnecessary and difficult, and these being one-piece tops and fronts, would have left us without key fronts as well. First we had to trim a small piece off the back ends of the Yamaha keytops to accommodate the ribbon-cable connections. Each sensor was then glued to its appropriate key with five-minute epoxy and clamped until dry.
Following the gluing came the most tedious and time-consuming job of the entire project: trimming and filing the oversize sensors to exactly match the shapes of the keytops to which they were glued, as well as to eliminate any sharp edges and create a uniform appearance from note to note. Despite the tedium and epoxy dust, I found this job strangely satisfying, probably because some semblance of art was involved. After testing for good connections, the black-painted keytop sensors on the natural keys were painted with white epoxy to once again resemble a piano. The bottom edge of the fallboard was trimmed to accommodate the now slightly higher keytops.
The 88 ribbon cables now trailing from the keys had to be connected to the scanning circuitry, which consisted of 11 circuit boards. The question was where to put all this stuff without fouling up the movement of the keys and action—one reason Moog had hired a piano technician to assist him. Fortunately, almost as if anticipating our need, Yamaha had thoughtfully provided a rather large, empty space beneath the keyboard of the CP-80. Moog cut out a portion of the instrument bottom, hung a couple of hinged trap doors, and installed the circuit boards inside. A shallow slot was cut down the side of each key, and each ribbon cable was dressed down the slot into the cavity below. The cables were carefully routed so that the collective mass of wires would not push up on the keys above, thus limiting their movement. The 11 scanning circuit boards were all wired together and connected to still other circuit boards that made sense of their data.
As mentioned, Moog’s other innovation was to add a sensor for the vertical position of the key in its stroke. This sensor, another variable-capacitance device, consists of an aluminum vane attached to the bottom of the key and a pattern on a circuit board mounted on the keybed below. In this case, air is the insulating dielectric and the capacitor’s output depends on the distance between the vane and the circuit board. The vanes—small rectangles of thin aluminum—were stuck to pieces of foam rubber and attached to the bottoms of the keys, carefully positioned over the circuit-board patterns. The boards were spring loaded so that their distance from the vanes could be finely adjusted. As with the keytop sensors, these 11 circuit boards were also wired together and connected to other circuit boards in the cavity below.
The Four-Octave Keyboards
When we began work on the four-octave keyboards for John Eaton, we at once became aware of how pampered we had been by the Yamaha. Purchased from Pratt-Read in the late 1970s, these were no-frills, generic organ keyboards designed to be adapted by each manufacturer for its own use. (They were actually five-octave keyboards from which we removed the lowest octave to make room for a large touch plate used for making global changes in sound, sort of like a pitch-bend wheel on a synthesizer, but operating in the same manner as a touch-sensitive keytop sensor.) In contrast to the precision and uniformity of the Yamaha, however, the Pratt-Read keyboards were a mess. Warpage of the keys and misalignment of the keyframe pins made even removal and replacement of the keys difficult. Whereas throughout most of the project I took my directions from Moog, here he made it clear that I was on my own—he could be of no help to me. I really felt put to the test. Miraculously, after several hours of furious pin bending and key sanding, I was able to create four fully functioning keyboards, but it had been like taming a team of wild horses. On my side was the fact that, among the four keyboards, there were four octaves of unused keys that could be scavenged for replacements. Unlike piano keys, organ keys are straight, so any natural key in good condition could serve as a replacement for any other natural of the same note name, and sharps were completely interchangeable.
Once the keyboards were functioning, I proceeded to perform much the same operations on them as I had on the Yamaha, but with some differences. Since I could easily remove the plastic keytops without removing the fronts, I did so (actually, these keys didn’t have fronts per se, but rather beveled undersides). I also removed the plastic sharp tops and replaced them with ones of a better size and shape for our purposes. Then I glued the sensor keytops directly to the wooden keys of the naturals or to the plastic sharps in the usual fashion, with ribbon cables attached, and filed and shaped the nearly 200 of them to match the shape of the surfaces on which they were mounted. Since these keyboards did not need to resemble pianos, the naturals were left the black color of the resistive paint rather than being painted white. The vertical-position sensors and circuit boards were installed in much the same manner as on the Yamaha.
Moog had already built attractive walnut cabinets to house the four-octave keyboards, leaving room for the circuitry at the rear. Therefore no major surgery was necessary other than to cut off the keys a few inches behind the balance point, the rear of the keys serving no purpose. The ribbon cables were arched over the balance point to the scanning circuitry at the back, leaving the key bushings available for servicing should that ever be necessary.
Since there was no action, as on a piano, to hold down what little there was of the rear of the keys and, therefore, to hold up the front, it was necessary to devise a spring-loaded mechanism. The springs had to be strong because they would be acting on an extremely short key-lever arm, but they also had to be very small to fit in the space between the key ends and the circuitry. After a few tries, Moog found some short, stiff springs that fit the bill, and I attached them to the keys with screw eyes. The springs were actually a little too strong, but some experimentation taught me just how much I had to deform them to get them about right. Thereafter, just turning the screw eyes provided the fine adjustment. Frankly, this spring system didn’t seem particularly elegant to me, but it did the job reasonably well.
I balanced the spring-loaded keys with standard piano technician’s gram weights to a weight of about 64 grams, rather than the usual 50 or so grams found on a piano with the dampers disengaged. When balanced to 50 grams, these MTS keys felt terribly insubstantial, probably due to the extremely low inertia caused by the absence of a hammer action. A weight of 64 grams was similar to that of some other electronic keyboards I measured, and to that of piano keys with the dampers engaged. Since we had no idea just how these keyboards were going to be used, our principal aim was to make the touch uniform from note to note, and reasonably consistent with the touch a player of electronic keyboards would expect.
Because the spring-loaded keys exerted considerable upward pressure at the front, we used a key-stop rail to prevent the keys from jumping off their pins and to adjust the key height. Wooden rails turned out to not be strong enough to avoid bowing in the middle, so Moog turned up some lengths of heavy iron bar that, though clearly overkill, served nicely. We mounted each bar on threaded rod so that it could be adjusted, and padded it with felt where the keys would rest. Fine adjustments to the key height were made by affixing punchings (thin paper or cardboard spacers) to the keys where they contacted the felt. The key dip was regulated to be about the same as that of a piano.
The foregoing account probably gives the impression that, other than a few problems, the construction process went rather smoothly and in a rational sequence. Not so. Actually, we frequently switched our work from one keyboard to another, sometimes for reasons of efficiency and sometimes because Moog had not yet worked out certain design details or the solution to some problem. Sometimes we switched just so we could honestly assure each of Moog’s two anxious customers that his keyboard was receiving our undivided attention. This was especially important because, when we began working, the project was already several years behind schedule.
Each step of the way, too, required some experimentation and its attendant failures before we could proceed. For example, our earliest days were spent experimenting with adhesives. We were looking for a type with which we could glue the vinyl ribbon cables to the wooden keys so that the cables could be removed for servicing the keys, then just stuck back down without regluing. After many unsuccessful attempts, we ended up bending and routing the cables so that gluing was largely unnecessary.
Another problem was the clamping of glued surfaces. The keytop sensors, in particular, had to be lined up very precisely with the keys during the gluing process. The clamps we were using at the beginning applied pressure unevenly, causing the keytops to move. Attempts to correct the positioning while the epoxy was drying often resulted in bad glue joints that sometimes were not apparent until after I’d spent hours trimming and filing the keytops to shape. At such times, I tended to sulk, but Moog, ever inventive, rose to the challenge by building jigs that utilized clamps of the type found in industrial mass-production applications, largely solving our problem.
The most serious challenge we encountered was in the installation of a system for sensing aftertouch pressure. Moog had received a license to use a patented system of force-sensitive resistors consisting of a circuit board with a conductive pattern printed on it, loosely overlaid with a resistive film. When no pressure was applied to the film, the resistance between film and conductive pattern was high and no current would flow. When a piece of felt at the bottom of a key would press down on the film, however, the film was supposed to contact the conductive pattern on the circuit board over an area roughly proportional to the amount of force applied, and the current to flow in like proportion. Building this system required a tremendous amount of detailed, intricate wiring and soldering.
Unfortunately, after installing and testing this system in several keyboards, we came to the conclusion that it was highly unreliable for this application. Applying the same amount of pressure would not always yield the same or even a similar amount of current flow, and sudden, unpredictable current spikes were frequent. Moog decided to change the system from one based on resistance to one based on capacitance. He removed the resistive film entirely and covered the circuit boards with a thin Mylar tape to act as the insulating dielectric. The piece of felt at the bottom of each key was replaced with a piece of electrically conductive rubber, to act as the other plate of the capacitor. When the rubber was forced down on the Mylar-covered board, it would expand slightly in surface area and would electrically interact more strongly with the conductive pattern on the circuit board below. This difference would be picked up by the scanning circuitry we installed, and, like the other data being scanned, would be turned into musically usable information. The new system worked like a charm—but now, of course, I had to rip out all the old wiring and replace it with new.
During many of our Saturday-afternoon sessions, Moog and I worked together, he at one workbench and I at another. Over time we arrived at a satisfactory division of labor. Usually he operated the power tools, assisted me with testing, and performed general troubleshooting. I did the operations requiring good hand-eye coordination: soldering, gluing, and shaping of keytops. Occasionally we invaded each other’s territory—I on the drill press and he with the soldering gun. Of course, Moog did all the electronics design and provided overall direction for the project; I did all the piano-technician work.
Moog taught me what I needed to know about electronic assembly: how to make good solder joints, how to identify resistor values, and so forth. He also tried a few times to teach me basic electronics, but despite my professed interest in the subject, I proved quite dense (I’d probably breathed in too many solder fumes). Moog did not ask to be taught how to regulate keyboards.
Occasionally our work together was punctuated by other interesting projects. Once Moog took on a short-term consulting job for a company that made stenograph machines for court stenographers, and was researching the feasibility of producing a digital stenograph machine. For a few days, Moog put my key-making talents to use making typewriter keys. On another occasion, in his capacity as a Kurzweil executive, Moog hired me to critique the serviceability by piano technicians of a digital piano Kurzweil was developing. He also kindly took a few days out to read the completed manuscript of The Piano Book and give me valuable feedback.
As enjoyable as it was to work with Moog, perhaps the best part of the day for me was lunchtime. As soon as Moog ascertained that one of us was hungry, he would slip upstairs, and I would follow about ten minutes later. During these few minutes, Moog would invariably have turned a few leftovers into an incredibly creative and mouth-watering spread that rivaled the offerings of many fine restaurants. Even the lowly tuna salad—or, when nothing else was available, the last-resort, melted-cheese sandwich—became uncommonly good in his hands.
It was during lunch, too, that I got to spend time with Moog’s wife, Shirleigh, a real estate agent, when she was not out showing houses. She’s an even more accomplished cook than her husband, as well as the author of a delightful cookbook, Moog’s Musical Eatery (The Crossing Press, 1978). The Moogs have long been students of the culinary arts, growing, canning, and freezing much of their own food, as well as cooking and entertaining. Shirleigh’s book arose from her experience entertaining hundreds of musicians and composers during the Moogs’ synthesizer days in upstate New York. The book is fun to read even if one doesn’t cook, because many of the recipes are accompanied by stories about some famous person who came to dinner on the night that dish was served. There is also a section on meal planning for groups of from three to a hundred, the latter from her experience of being asked at short notice to cater a meal for a hundred musicians for no more than $100. (Shirleigh’s second book, A Guide to the Food Pyramid: Recipes & Information, was published in 1993.)
At lunch, Shirleigh regaled me with stories from the Moogs’ former lives, as well as from the rapidly eroding world of New England real estate (real estate values in New England declined precipitously in the late 1980s). Although she was the junior member of her real estate firm, she consistently outperformed all the others in the office. I wasn’t surprised: her obvious business acumen, strong personality, and sociability couldn’t help but command the confidence of her clients.
During that time, I also met three of the four Moog children. (The oldest, Laura, a social worker in Greensboro, North Carolina, was on her own.) Renée, a world-traveled photojournalist, was in the Peace Corps in Senegal during most of my time with the Moogs, but she was home just long enough for me to buy a photo of hers I fell in love with—a colorful market scene in Ecuador—that now graces my kitchen wall. Michelle went off to college in Washington, DC, during that time, and is now a paralegal in Chapel Hill. Matthew, the youngest, was in high school; he went on to start a successful publishing company while attending college, and is now in marketing with Microsoft (see “Postscript” at the end of the article). What impressed me most about the Moog kids was their independence. Even as teenagers, they did their own laundry, were expert cooks, and generally took care of themselves like adults. In fact, I’d venture a guess that they were better behaved and more conservative than their parents, who really knew how to have a good time.
Having stuffed myself at lunch, I was at first afraid that I might become too sleepy to work all afternoon. Moog took care of that. Shortly after I returned to work, Moog would always appear with a bowl of cookies—if not homemade, then Pepperidge Farm—and sometimes a bowl of ice cream. When the cookie bowl was empty it would be refilled. Buoyed by a sugar high, I frequently worked well into the evening.
Most of the time we sat working together we listened to the radio and talked, trading stories from our respective lives and careers, and getting to know one another. I found Moog to be a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate man, a good listener, with an appealing touch of shyness, much more modest and reticent than his public persona and his fame would have led me to believe. When he did speak, it would frequently be to offer a wry comment about some government or corporate excess or folly, or to tell a story or joke. It was in telling stories and jokes that Moog really came alive. He has a terrific flair for the dramatic, his voice and facial gestures pursuing every nuance of a joke’s possibilities. I can imagine that if his life had gone differently, he might have enjoyed a successful career in the theater instead of in engineering. The only problem was that sometimes Moog got so involved in his story telling that he would upstage himself by exploding with laughter at the punch line.
It was through these tales that I got to know, little by little, the life story of this remarkable man and his inventions. In many ways it is the typical American success story: modest amounts of intelligence, curiosity, fun, and risk-taking combined with a large dose of being in the right place at the right time (as opposed to the other American story of triumphant struggle against all odds and adversities).
It seems that Moog, as a youngster growing up in Queens, New York, took an early interest in electronics, building his first theremin from directions in a magazine article at the age of 14. The theremin, which was to play so prominent a role in Moog’s life, is an electronic musical instrument invented in the 1920s by Russian scientist Léon Thérémin (who recalled demonstrating it to Lenin). Based on electrical capacitance, the theremin is played by waving one’s arms in the vicinity of the instrument’s two antennas. The distance between the right hand and a straight antenna controls the pitch, that between the left hand and a loop antenna, the volume. Although it has had some use in serious compositions, for the most part it is considered a novelty and an experimental instrument. Frequently used by Hollywood, the theremin was briefly manufactured by RCA in the 1930s.
By the age of 19, Moog had designed his own theremin, and a brief mention in a magazine started to bring orders in the mail. Throughout his undergraduate years (a double B.S. in Physics and Electrical Engineering from Queens College and Columbia University, respectively, in 1957) and in graduate school (a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from Cornell University in 1965), Moog continued to build theremins part-time. In 1961, he hit on the idea of offering theremins in kit form. This time a small ad brought in over a thousand orders. “I thought I had found the goose that laid the golden egg,” Moog says. Deciding that there was more money to be made in the kit business, Moog expanded his offering to include other musical hardware, such as amplifiers, in kit form, but all except the theremin kit bombed. (Interestingly, in 1991 Moog again returned to making theremins.)
In 1963, Moog met Herb Deutsch, a music professor at Hofstra University, at a conference for music teachers. Deutsch had built a theremin from one of Moog’s kits and was using it to train his students’ ears in pitch recognition. Deutsch said he had some new ideas to discuss with Moog, so Moog invited Deutsch to visit him at his home in Trumansburg, New York, a collaboration that led to the development of the Moog Synthesizer. Moog was not the first to produce an instrument capable of synthesizing instrumental sounds, but his machine came with a keyboard and certain other features and sounds that found favor with musicians, and sales took off. “It was really just a lark. I had no plans to mass market the instrument, but the demand was overwhelming.” With sales already rising, they exploded after the 1968 release of Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’s album Switched-On Bach, which featured Moog’s instrument.
The Moog Synthesizer appealed to a wide variety of amateur and professional musicians, who found an amazing number of ways to use it, leading Moog to meet many interesting characters. Moog loved to tell stories about this period of his life, especially stories containing expletives that allowed him to show his “naughty” side. I recall one of many such stories:
“It was only the second synthesizer I ever delivered, in 1965 (in the early days I delivered them myself). It was for Eric Siday, a very successful composer of commercial music, his credits including the Maxwell House coffee commercial and other really big-time corporate clients. He and his wife lived in a very swanky, ten-room apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with a view overlooking a large courtyard. Just about every room, except the bedroom, had been taken over for Siday’s musical instruments, electronics, and musical paraphernalia. Even the maid’s bathroom had been commandeered as a tape library. I brought in this large crate containing the synthesizer and was unpacking it in the hallway when Mrs. Siday, who apparently yearned only for a normal life with a house in the suburbs, seeing still another machine being added to her husband’s collection, shouted, ‘Eric, more shit in this house!’ and began crying hysterically.
“There’s a sequel to this story, though. Apparently Siday got even more rich and famous using the synthesizer in his work—picture in Time magazine and all that. Several years later he commissioned me to build an instrument that could be considered the forerunner of today’s drum machines. I had never done something like this before, and what with my other commitments, it took me much longer to build than I originally told him it would. He was quite impatient for it to be done, calling me a lot, etc. It was mounted on a rack, and when I finally wheeled it into his apartment, he immediately whisked it away into another room to try it out. At that point, Mrs. Siday walked right up to me, nose to nose, her finger poking me in the ribs, and said, very quietly, ‘You lousy bastard. Do you realize how much suffering you’ve caused my husband by being so late with this machine?’ ‘Yes, Edith, but isn’t it worth it? Look how happy he is,’ I replied. Her answer: ‘Ah—more shit in this house!’”
Sales of the Moog Synthesizer peaked in 1969 and 1970, by which time Moog was managing a company with 42 employees, something he says he was never cut out to do. By 1971, a combination of competition, recession, and a saturated market caused sales to decline, and Moog, short on cash, sold the majority interest in the company to a local entrepreneur who, in turn, sold it a few years later to Norlin Music, a large conglomerate. Moog was kept on as president for a few more years—largely as window dressing, he says—but sold his interest in 1977. Eventually Norlin ceased making synthesizers and sold off Moog Music, which today is hardly more than a name on the books, and one with which Bob Moog no longer has any connection (see “Postscript” at the end of the article).
The Kurzweil Period
In 1978 the Moog family bought 89 acres of land (later increased, through another purchase, to 118 acres) near Asheville, North Carolina, and moved from the Buffalo suburb where they had lived since 1971. Moog spent the next few years building a round house, doing much of the construction himself, and then, under the name Big Briar, Inc. (named after the cove in which the Moogs’ residence is located), resumed designing novel electronic music equipment, especially new types of performance control devices, and providing consulting services to manufacturers.
In 1983, Ray Kurzweil began to occasionally consult with Moog. Looking back, Moog realized that Kurzweil was probably testing him out for an eventual position in his company, but nothing came of it for a while. Then, in 1984, Kurzweil ran into trouble. With the first units just off the assembly line, their flagship synthesizer, the Kurzweil model K250, was having sound-quality problems, and people were complaining.
“Kurzweil had hired all these high-powered engineers for their knowledge of digital technology. But sound quality is largely an analog problem, an ‘old-fashioned’ technology about which they knew very little. So they were having all these meetings, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” Analog, of course, was what Moog knew best. “So they called me up to Boston and asked me to solve the problem right then and there. But their offices were so noisy and hectic with people running around that I knew I wouldn’t find the quiet I needed. I persuaded them to let me take an instrument back to my shop, and in three or four days I came up with a list of at least 17 different sources of the problem, mostly small things.”
An invitation to become a Vice President of Kurzweil Music Systems, with an offer he “couldn’t refuse,” soon followed. Initially Moog did refuse, but reflecting on the cost of sending two more children through college convinced him that temporarily moving to Boston made sense; so the family rented out the North Carolina homestead and packed up their belongings.
As the months wore on, Moog worked with me less and less often. Sometimes he would be around the house writing or doing chores, but more frequently he would be traveling for Kurzweil. Moog commented: “Whatever you say about Ray Kurzweil, you have to say that besides being technically brilliant, he really understood the importance of public relations in business. If anything, in the end, he relied on it a bit too heavily.” Moog had been hired both for his engineering skills and for his P.R. value, but it was the latter that increasingly took up his time. By 1988, Kurzweil was sending him on speaking gigs of ever dwindling importance, and it was getting him down. Perhaps also reflecting on his years with Norlin, Moog sighed, “Whenever I work full-time for a company, they seem to have trouble making good use of me. They value my presence, but my skills always seem to fall in the cracks between their needs.”
Feeling underutilized, missing North Carolina, and with their youngest about to graduate from high school, the Moogs figured it was time to move back, and in May 1988, Moog quit his full-time work with Kurzweil and started working full-time with me. Our goal: to finish by August all the keyboard work for which I was needed. In mid-August, a few days before the moving vans were to arrive, we replaced the walnut covers for the last time, and packed up the keyboards in the shipping crates from which we’d removed them two-and-a-half years earlier. My last day with Moog was spent helping him pack up shop equipment and dismantle steel shelves.
The Keyboards in Concert
I didn’t see the keyboards again until nearly four years later, in May 1992. The occasion was their premiere performance by John Eaton. The winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, Eaton had moved from Indiana University to the University of Chicago, and since we’d last worked together, Moog had managed to complete the electronic assembly and programming of two keyboards for Eaton to use in concert. Although my presence was certainly not needed, I was curious as to what kind of music might be produced by this instrument I had helped build, and flew to Chicago to attend the concert.
The concert, which was well publicized in the Chicago press and well attended, actually contained a number of premieres, and Moog’s keyboards were scheduled for the end of the first half. The first piece on the program was called Microtonal Fantasy (for two pianos tuned a quarter of a tone apart). I found the piece terribly funny. It sounded exactly like so many of the pianos I’d been called on to service as a piano technician—the ones that hadn’t been tuned in 30 years.
The piece for the MTS keyboards was called Genesis, and was preceded by brief remarks from Moog and a demonstration. To be honest, not being a fan of modern music, I can’t remember much about the piece—I find it difficult to remember things I don’t understand or appreciate—but to call it “atonal” would be an understatement. I tried to keep in mind that the keyboards themselves had no intrinsic sound and could just as well play Mozart as Eaton, but it was little consolation at the time.
After the intermission, the New York New Music Ensemble performed the Chicago premiere of “a theatrical romp for instrumentalists” based on the Ibsen play Peer Gynt. The musicians doubled as actors and ran around the stage with their instruments. The highlight of the evening for me, however, came after the concert, when I was able to go backstage and again touch the keys I had shaped.
Asked whether these keyboards might be produced in any quantity, Shirleigh Moog chimed in, “Not if I have anything to say about it.” Perhaps thinking of the throngs of dinner guests she had entertained, she continued, “Once in a person’s lifetime is enough to go through that.” Moog was just a little more noncommittal. “If enough people want to pay me $16,000 each, which is what it costs to custom-build them, I might make a few more.” Did he think it likely the demand would be there? “If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years designing instruments, it’s to not try to guess what the musicians are going to want.”
Postscript: In 1988, at the conclusion of our work together, Bob and Shirleigh Moog moved back to Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog continued his consulting and electronic development work under the Big Briar company name, making theremins and analog effects devices. Bob and Shirleigh divorced in 1994, and in 1995, Bob married Ileana Grams, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina, whom he called “the love of my life.”
Norlin, which had owned the Moog Music name, went out of business in 1993, and in 2002, after a legal battle, Bob reacquired the right to the commercial use of his name. With a renewed interest by musicians in analog synthesizers, Moog began to bring out updated versions of his original instruments under the Moog Music name. Also in 2002, Bob brought on Michael Adams as a business partner (now sole owner), but continued working at Moog Music full-time. He also taught a course in electronic music at the University of North Carolina.
In spring 2005, Bob Moog was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and he died in August of that year, at age 71.
After Moog’s death, his family established the Bob Moog Foundation to honor his legacy “through its mission of igniting creativity at the intersection of music, history, science, and innovation.” To that end, the Foundation preserves and exhibits the Moog archives, and runs educational programs in electronic music to teach students science through music, among other activities.
Moog’s first wife, Shirleigh Moog, is retired and lives in Asheville. Of their four children, Laura Moog Lanier is a social worker living in High Point; Renée Moog lives in Portland, Oregon; Matthew Moog runs an Internet marketing firm in Chicago; and Michelle Moog-Koussa is Executive Director of the Bob Moog Foundation, in Asheville.
1) Bob Moog Foundation archives
2) William LaVista, a student of Bernard Friedland, who was a professor of Bob Moog at Columbia, and is now at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Friedland is supervising a project to adapt the MTS keyboards for use with modern computers.
3) Gregory Kramer
For more information:
Bob Moog Foundation www.moogfoundation.org
Moog Music, Inc. www.moogmusic.com
Larry Fine received his training in piano technology at the North Bennet Street School in Boston in 1976. He is author of The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano (Fourth Edition) (Brookside Press, 2001), and its successor, Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, available online at www.PianoBuyer.com.