May 232018

Today is the birthday (1934) of Robert Arthur Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), a US electronics and mechanical engineer who is best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Moog was not a musician, but he knew how to work with innovative musicians to showcase and push the boundaries of his inventions. The two most famous are probably Walter/Wendy Carlos and Keith Emerson. I have to say that I very much miss the days when the Moog synthesizer was brand new (late 1960s to early 1970s), and still play the early records (although I no longer have my original vinyls because of my many moves). Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and computer can generate a host of synthesized sounds and they all sound artificial and dull to me. Moog’s first synthesizers were gritty and it took real artistry and technical knowledge to put them through their paces.

Moog was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1952. He earned a B.S. in physics from Queens College and a Masters from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1957. He received his Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965. In 1953 at age 19, Moog founded his first company, R.A. Moog Co., to manufacture theremin kits.  He produced his first theremin in 1948 from circuit diagrams, and then went on to refine the electronics and then manufacture and market the kits based on his design. During the 1950s, composer and electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott approached Moog, asking him to design circuits for him. Moog later acknowledged Scott as a major important influence. The Moog synthesizer was one of the first widely used electronic musical instruments. Early developmental work on the components of the synthesizer occurred at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now the Computer Music Center. While there, Moog developed the voltage controlled oscillators, ADSR envelope generators, and other synthesizer modules with composer Herbert Deutsch. Moog created the first voltage-controlled subtractive synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller and demonstrated it at the AES convention in 1964. In 1966, Moog filed a patent application for his unique low-pass filter U.S. Patent 3,475,623, issued in October, 1969. He is a listed inventor on ten US patents.

Moog had his theremin company (R. A. Moog Co., which later became Moog Music) manufacture and market his synthesizers. Unlike the few other 1960s synthesizer manufacturers, Moog shipped a piano-style keyboard as the standard user interface. Moog also established standards for analog synthesizer control interfacing, with a logarithmic one volt-per-octave pitch control and a separate pulse triggering signal. The first Moog instruments were modular synthesizers. In 1971 Moog Music began production of the Minimoog Model D, which was among the first synthesizers that was widely available, portable, and relatively affordable.

Walter (later Wendy) Carlos was one of Moog’s earliest musical customers, and he credits Carlos with providing feedback valuable to further development. Through his involvement in electronic music, Moog developed close professional relationships with artists such as Don Buchla, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, John Cage, Gershon Kingsley, Clara Rockmore, Jean Jacques Perrey, and Pamelia Kurstin.

Moog was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor on April 28, 2005, and died at the age of 71 in Asheville, North Carolina on August 21, 2005.

Quite a number of classically trained musicians objected to Switched on Bach and other presentations of classical music on the Moog synthesizer, and I think that Carlos’ response was quite apt (although a touch disingenuous). It heart he said words to the effect that if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. His basic point was that his use of the Moog synthesizer to play Bach, Mozart, Purcell, etc. did not destroy the originals. You can still play them as they were originally written – even on period instruments if you want. All that performing these pieces on the Moog did was add a different set of possibilities to what already existed, and continues to exist. Here is Carlos rendition of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary – used by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange:

All right – so maybe you don’t like this rendition. You’ve still got this one:

You can shut your ears to the first and listen only to the second, if you wish. I prefer to listen to both. As far as I am concerned, they both have merit. In any case, the world of music is always changing, even when performers want to replicate the sounds of the past. No matter how much research you do into performance styles, period instruments, and whatnot, you are never going to duplicate the sounds of past musicians, or know exactly how composers conducted their own music. It’s always interesting to experiment, but, for my money, it’s also interesting to try new things.

In the world of cuisine, electronic engineers have made some significant strides. For centuries, professionals in culinary arts and perfume production have had to rely on the services of “noses” – rare and well-trained individuals with a highly developed sense of smell, who can analyze and synthesize complex tastes and odors. Since the 1980s, electronic devices have been designed and tested that can mimic – to a degree – the human sense of smell. These machines are particularly useful in detecting the deterioration and spoilage of food products for market. What they cannot do, of course, is mimic human aesthetic sensibility associated with smell and taste.

A really interesting new development if the use of electronics in manipulating taste (akin to the way Moog manipulated sound is described in this article:

A team at the University of London is developing an apparatus called the Taste Buddy. It sends signals to taste receptors in the tongue that stimulate specific areas making you think you are tasting something quite different from what you are actually eating. The apparatus is in prototype stage at the moment and is quite big. The hope is to miniaturize it using microchip technology so that it can be inserted into cutlery, such as forks and spoons. That way, when you eat something using a spoon with a Taste Buddy in it, the spoon will trick your tongue. So far they are able to make foods taste sweeter than they are naturally. However, the claim that they will be able to make cabbage taste like chocolate or tofu taste like ice cream seems far-fetched to me. Most flavors concern receptors in the nose more than those on the tongue, and they are very complex. In fact, flavor chemists have not yet been able to isolate all the taste components of items such as chocolate and coffee. They seem to contain thousands of aromatic components and they cannot be duplicated adequately yet. So, I expect they can make cabbage taste sweeter than it is naturally, but making it taste like chocolate is surely a pipe dream. Still, the idea of a Moog spoon does seem intriguing. Like Moog and his synthesizer, I would not want the Taste Buddy spoon to replicate flavors from the natural world, any more than I would want an electronic keyboard to sound like a pipe organ. I’d want to use the Taste Buddy spoon to make funky new flavors that cannot be produced naturally. That would be original.

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