50 Years Of Moog: The Most Popular Synthesizers in Rock'N'Roll


October 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Moog analogue synths. The first Moog Modular model was first introduced on 12th October 1964 and quickly became the most popular synthesizer in rock'n'roll history.

Moog 50

Dr. Robert Moog's invention was ground-breaking. Previous electronic instruments were either too limited (like the Theremin, cool as it was - and still is...) or were massive, custom-built units. The Moog Synthesizers were the first transistor-based, voltage-controlled systems, and this fact changed the game altogether: because they used transistors, instead of tubes, it meant they could be made smaller, cheaper and also be more reliable.

Voltage control was a practical design choice, and also innovative. In Moog synthesizers, each voltage-controllable module has one or more inputs that accept a voltage of typically 10 V or less. The magnitude of this voltage controls one or more key parameters of the circuit, such as the frequency of the low frequency oscillator, the attenuation or gain of an amplifier, or the cutoff frequency of a wide-frequency-range filter. Thus, frequency determines pitch, attenuation determines instantaneous loudness (as well as silence between notes), and cutoff frequency determines relative timbre. Each key on Moog’s keyboard controller triggered a specific voltage which corresponded to a different frequency, essentially allowing the oscillator to be played one note at a time. It was a new way of creating powerful sounds like no-one had ever heard before!

And, sure enough, the music world soon got wise to the wonders of the Moog sound! Curiously enough, the event that put Moog on the map was the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, better remembered by Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar, and The Who smashing up their gear.

Two unsuccessful electronic musicians, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause set up a stall at the festival, to showcase their new Moog synth. They bought one of the first Moog synthesizers the previous year, and had been trying to interest Hollywood studios to use it in movie soundtracks, without success. But at Monterey, it all changed, and many of the artists attending the event, such as The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel, instantly demonstrated an interest.

Some of the first songs to use a Moog analog synth were released soon after, including 'Reflections' by Diana Ross & The Supremes and 'Strange Days' by The Doors:

In 1968, Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos) released the Switched-On Bach, with Moog synth reworkings of famous classical pieces by the composer. The album became one of the highest-selling classical albums ever, and almost overnight the name Moog was on everyone's lips. Carlos went on to work with Stanley Kubrick on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange. By 1969, even The Beatles were using Moog, in several tracks from Abbey Road.

Beatles' Ringo and George Harrison with a Moog during Abbey Road Sessions Beatles' Ringo and George Harrison with a Moog during Abbey Road Sessions

Beatles songs such as "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "Because", "Here Comes the Sun", and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" featured a Moog.

But it was Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who became the name most associated with the Moog synth.

Keith Emerson and his Moog Keith Emerson and his Moog

By the mid-70s, it seemed everyone was into Moog synths: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, Tangerine Dream, Genesis, Rush, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Parliament-Funkadelic.

Even Black Sabbath used it, on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath's 'Who Are You?' track. The song was written by Ozzy Osbourne after he bought a Moog synth that, according to Tony Iommi, he didn't even know how to use! However, the results were great:

One of the reasons Moog got so popular in the seventies, is that newer models were smaller, self-contained units, designed for live performers: The Minimoog (with pitch and modulation control wheels) and the Taurus were the go-to synths at the time. Their sounds were so popular, that even today Moog manufactures new  versions of them: the Minimoog Voyager and the Minitaur.

The Moog Moogerfooger pedals (used by many acts such as Mars Volta, Sonic Youth, etc) and the new MiniFooger range, work great with keyboards and guitars, so today you don't even need to own a synth to enjoy some of the classic Moog tones!

Moog is still popular today: The list of Moog synthesizer users includes Queens Of The Stone Age, Mastodon, Graham Coxon, Cake, The Cure, Rush, Muse, Radiohead, Black Label Society, and many more.

Moog Werkstatt

The new Moog Werkstatt-01 Analog Synth Kit (pic above) is the most affordable Moog synth yet, which promises to introduce Moog to a whole new generation! In fact, the Werkstatt is aimed at anyone from school children to gearheads into "modding" their equipment, and is already creating some buzz, thanks to the fact that it delivers the classic, analogue Moog sound at a cheaper price!

It seems Moog will still be a name we'll be talking about 50 years from now!


By Ivan Silva