Minimoog Google Doodle, 23rd May 2012

As a bit of a follow on from my previous posting I mentioned that there are many story in the development of electronic music and one that was not covered in the tiny exhibition at the Science Museum was the story of Moog Music.  To rectify this a little (I don’t intend to write a complete history!) and in celebration of what would have been Robert Moog’s 78th birthday on Wednesday the 23rd May 2012 (see the Minimoog Google Doodle below) I thought I’d do a Minimoog mini-posting.

The actual google doodle (which was live on 23rd May 2012) not only managed to spell Google (just about) but was also playable  – you could press the keys with your cursor and even twiddle the knobs to alter the sound!  And if you managed to make a tune from it you could record and play it back.

Launched commercially in 1970 the Minimoog was one of the first portable synthesisers (although I believe the EMS VCS3 unit came out a year earlier in 1969 and although it didn’t have a keyboard it was considerably cheaper).  The Minimoog was designed to be as near as possible as useable, affordable and portable as a top-notch electric guitar – at the time synthesisers were generally huge machines, custom-built and cost about the same amount as a small house.  The images below show the before and after – the first image is of the Moog 55 – your typical modular synth with patch chords linking the oscillators, envelopes and filters that create the sound.  The second is of the slimmed down version, the much more portable Minimoog (although EMS did one better on portability with the Synthi A in 1972 – basically a VCS3 in a briefcase!).  You can see why the Minimoog was so popular simply on a portability level, let alone the diverse analogue sounds it generated!

Robert Moog (he pronounced it like Vogue but with an ‘m’ in place of the ‘v’) began his synthesised career making and selling vacuum-tube Theremin kits in the 1950’s (and transistor versions in the early 60’s).  He moved onto making modular synthesisers by the mid 60’s before condensing things down into the Minimoog.  The incredibly rich analogue sounds that could be created on the Minimoog made it a hugely desirable synth and its technical configuration was a template for other manufacturers for years to come.

Moog synthesisers came to public consciousness partly due to the unexpected runaway success of an album called Switched On Bach from 1968 (the original album cover below was shortly changed to a much more sober version of Bach standing by the synth) and it’s follow-up The Well Tempered Synthesiser (1969).  Switched on Bach actually reached the Billboard top ten in 1969 and was the first platinum selling classical album!  A selection of Bach’s music was programmed and played entirely on a Moog synthesiser by Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos, after a sex change) and she worked closely with Robert Moog to improve the technology.  Its subsequent surprise success triggered an outpouring of Moog albums throughout the early 70’s, from the seriously classical to the cheesiest pop cover versions, which further increased demand for the instrument.

There were a number of classical moog albums that started the craze for the electronic sounds, I won’t bother reproducing the sleeves of any of the Moog drenched pop albums that ruined it.  That said, I have reproduced the notes on MOOG! by Claude Denjean (one of the better sounding pop Moog albums) which acknowledges the importance of Carlos’ efforts and reveals the hope that was invested in this new wonder instrument:-

The Moog Synthesizer, this incredible and new electronic musical wonder, has had an uneven ride on records, especially in the popular field. Effectively used on two great-selling albums (Switched-on Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer), the Moog served the classics as a kind of musical duplicator, that is, reproducing and imitating the sound of real instruments. In the “pop” field it has been a fairly different story. Most often used as a gimmick for the odd effect, the Moog has not fully come into its own in the popular field. This may be due to the Moog’s personality: it speaks with strength, it doesn’t care to be in the background and if used improperly it completely overshadows everything else that is going on.  On this LP Claude Denjean comes to terms with the problem by giving the Moog its rightful place in a fair exchange between synthesizer and orchestra. To exciting settings of twelve great hit songs, this LP really gives the Moog, in all its electronic glory. That plus the stereo excellence of Phase 4 adds up to irresistible listening.

The Minimoog was used in all genres of proper music (as opposed to the novelty albums) and was first used on tour by Keith Emerson and played a huge part in the sound of many bands of the 70’s and 80’s.  Among those who used it far more successfully (and creatively) than the cash-in albums include Tangerine Dream, Yes, Gary Newman, Future Sound Of London, Bob Marley, Kraftwerk, Gentle Giant, Ultravox, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Orb, Blondie, Joe Zawinul and Sun Ra – and there are many, many more who have done and still do use it’s distinctive sound!

If you’re still not sure what a Moog sounds like, try this:- Jean-Jaques Perrey E.V.A., or, Emerson, Lake and Palmer Lucky Man (from about 3.20 in), or, Hot Butter Popcorn, or even, The Beatles Here Comes The Sun.  And if you have a spare eight minutes you might like to have a look at a nice little programme all about the Minimoog, appropriately titled The History of the Minimoog.

So much for a mini-posting about the Minimoog!

We are witnessing the birth of a new instrument – awesome to contemplate!  The Piano, with all the inspiration it provided for composers in the 100 years after it’s invention, is so limited compared to the Synthesizer that one cannot even hazard a guess as to what effect the latter will have on the course of composition and performance in years to come. 

reproduced from the sleeve of The Moog Strikes Bach arranged and performed by Hans Wurman (1970).

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7 comments on “Minimoog Google Doodle, 23rd May 2012

  1. audioeire says:

    Nice points about the impact of the Mini-Moog. The quote from Claude Denjean was remarkably prescient because so much music has been ruined by improper use of synthesisers, not only those by Moog of course but those prolific cheesy DX-7 preset FM sounds from the 80’s spring to mind too.

    Re. the portability of the EMS VCS3 and the Mini-Moog, EMS went one better in 1971 with the Synthi A, which was pretty much a repackaged VCS3, by fitting it into a sort of suitcase with a handle!

    • Hello audioeire, I totally agree with you there, I think the synth got a bad name due to it not being used properly – the Korg M1 is another, that piano sound that was on all pop tracks from the late 80’s on, yuck! You’re right, I forgot to mention the Synthi in a briefcase (I might sneekily ammend my post later!). Thanks for commenting on my blog, it is really appreciated!

  2. Rob Harris says:

    Hi PC, glad to comment – you’ve an interesting blog. I think synthesisers needed a different aesthetic to conventional instrumentation, and things began to change overall after the novelty of digital synthesis wore off in the 90’s but IMO was already evident with a few of the better electro artists like Kraftwerk.

    Re. cost, apparently EMS wanted to make a synthesiser costing no more than £100. They didn’t achieve that but the VCS3 was still inexpensive as it sold for around £330 when released (according to what I read anyway). They went one better with the Synthi A, which was pretty much a repackaged VCS3 that sold for only £195 or so in 1971, which was a real triumph in cost at a time when basic electronic equipment was very expensive, e.g. basic calculators apparently sold for close to £100, until the mid-70’s with the Sinclair Cambridge! The Synthi AKS (rather than the stated VCS3) was the one used on Dark Side of the Moon as it features an added digital sequencer – a handy blaggers fact!

    I’m quite the ammender of posts myself – not a problem IMO since they are up for posterity!

    • Hi Rob, Thanks for the positive feedback, I’ve only just starting this blogging thing!
      I was very interesed in your posting about early recording technology, I seem to remember something on the news a few years ago about the paper recording being found.
      I can’t believe why EMS went under if they could produce synth for that little then, but I guess they couldn’t and it was a false economy (I wish I’d been around in the 70’s with the money to buy one!).
      I’m interested to read your next posting, like I said in mine – there’s so many stories!
      Thanks again!

  3. Rob Harris says:

    Hi PC, you’re welcome, and cheers for the positive feedback on the phonautograph article. I’m also new to this blogging lark myself other than having had some articles published on a few audio/music websites a while back. I enjoyed reading your article on early electronic music – not as familiar with the BBC workshop as I ought to be!

    I believe EMS went under because it had a number of products that failed technically and commercially afterwards. I read in SOS that they made a polyphonic synth that was a real technical failure, like that of Moog’s. It was part of a cottage industry so I imagine a few failed products incurring debt would push it under quicker than a bigger firm.

    • Hi Rob, the Oramics exhibition is very small but it is well worth a visit if you do get the chance to go – I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Science Museum itself as well, seeing all the old technology that once seemed so futuristic was fascinating…!

  4. Rob Harris says:

    Indeed old technology can be extremely interesting, and it sounds (scuze the pun) like a great exhibit with plenty of valves (which are a huge interest of mine especially when it comes to audio) but unfortunately I don’t often get over to your patch of the world much. Interestingly some old technology gets dumped due to little more than fads in new innovation rather than over merit! BTW when I was a student in London briefly back in the 90’s, I used to enjoy going to the V&A.

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