Innovation is a critical component in shaping the future of any commodity-driven business – it determines the difference between prosperity and insolvency. Regardless of its history, a product’s success is dependent upon its ability to maintain appeal. Companies who fail to oblige by these empirical conditions have unfortunately faced its consequences: either becoming defunct or nearing it. This philosophy holds true even in something as priceless and timeless as art. Today’s evolving populations seek sensory satisfaction from a myriad of sources that did not exist a short time ago. The tools used for the creation and consumption of art have become more technologically advanced as time goes by. These forward-thinking beliefs are strongly ingrained in pioneering electronic musical instrument manufacturer, Moog Music.
Formerly known as R.A. Moog Co., the company was founded in 1953 by a 19-year-old Queens College student, Robert Moog. He grew up with a keen interest in electronics, and especially those that created sounds. This included devices assembled on his family’s kitchen table, using vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors and transformers – an avid hobby of Robert’s. At around 8 years old, this curiosity led him to learn its functional basics taught to him by his father, who was an amateur radio operator. The knowledge he instilled in Robert at a young age eventually blossomed into an ardent passion. Initially specializing in Theremin kits, Moog Music began constructing a modular synthesizer in the mid-1960s with the help of Robert’s friend, Herbert Deutsch. Moog envisioned that the state-of-the-art instrument would be targeted towards a niche group of customers, using it to produce only a limited range of sounds. The result is something that far exceeded his expectations; it reached a much bigger demographic and transcended many genres in its usage.
The Moog synthesizer was used on Wendy Carlos’s 1968 record Switched on Bach, the first classical album to sell more than 500,000 copies, which helped the instrument become a timeless machine. This irreplaceable feature has given the company another competitive advantage: authenticity. While other companies can build similar keyboards, they can never replace the history behind Moog’s modular synthesizers, each a pillar of modern electronic music.
Artists were originally drawn to the synthesizers’ futuristic technologies, but it’s the impeccable quality and unique sound that developed their genuine support. Moog electronic instruments are diligently handcrafted with premium materials in North Carolina. The company’s commitment to durability when assembling its equipment has helped it garner a loyal following, which include the likes of globally renowned musicians Daft Punk, Dr. Dre, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and more.
Sadly, Moog Music lost its founder and chief designer in 2005, when Dr. Robert Moog passed away from a brain tumor at the age of 71. Since then, President Mike Adams has been at the helm of the company, preserving its extensive legacy and integrity through its innovation, authenticity and meticulous craftsmanship deeply rooted in the foundation of the company. His efforts are focused on helping musicians find their creative imagination, turning it into a reality. We travelled down to Asheville, North Carolina to meet with Adams to learn more about his company, and to observe the detail that goes into creating products of Moog Music.
Moog is a pioneering company and has been manufacturing since the 1960s. Over time, how has the brand kept its integrity and maintained its position at the top of the synth market?
Probably through the magic of the passionate folks that work at Moog, and by continuing to follow the roadmap that Bob Moog laid out for us. We’re focused on building great tools for musicians so that artists can translate what they hear in their heads into reality.
What are the most memorable/iconic moments in the company’s long history?
October 1964: Bob publicly debuted the first prototype of the Moog Modular synthesizer at the Audio Engineers Society convention. He also met Wendy Carlos at this AES convention, who literally made the Moog synthesizer a household name when she released Switched-On Bach in 1968, which was the first classical record to sell more than 500,000 copies — it stayed in the Billboard Top 200 for more than a year.
Prior to his passing, Dr. Moog stressed the importance of using innovative technology to create his instruments. How has the company pursued this mission in the current age of electronics (and especially its usage in music production)?
We are always looking at new technologies and how they can both improve the way we build tools for musicians and also offer new ways for musicians to use technologies to express their unique art. Bob was pivotal in the application of radically changing technologies in electronics around the ‘50s and ‘60s and continued this tradition throughout his career. Electronic music continues to evolve along with new technologies and all of us at Moog are dedicated to continue this legacy.
Nowadays, it’s possible to replicate synth sounds with plugins. Why should people purchase analog gear like Moog?
Plugins can approximate hardware synth sounds, but they don’t authentically replicate them. Here’s how I like to think about it: the Moog factory is in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. If I sent you a photo of the mountains we live in, the photo wouldn’t affect you the same way that standing on top of the mountain yourself would. That doesn’t mean that the photo isn’t still beautiful. Plugins are great tools for musicians; they’re just not the same as a hardware synth.
Moog currently specializes in high-end and professional equipment. Does it have plans to release affordable products for beginners or those who aren’t ready to invest as much but want to get into analog synths?
Our goal is to make great electronic musical tools for musicians. Whether it costs $35,000 USD or $499 USD, the same attention to detail and design goes into it. We will never sacrifice build quality and sound, but we are always looking for ways to make our instruments accessible to more people. Today, we have three great synths that are under $500 USD: the Animoog, the Werkstatt, and the Minitaur. Depending on the technology in the future, we may have instruments that cost under $1 USD. Never say never.
Has Moog released or plan to release any digital products?
We have an iOS synthesizer called Animoog. In many ways you could argue that it’s the most powerful Moog synth we’ve ever designed. It’s certainly the best-selling synth we’ve ever released.
Which music artists are Moog’s biggest advocates?
There’s really too many to list. We’ve been extremely fortunate that artists are willing to pronounce their love for Moog synths publicly for free. In addition to the prominent artists are the people that support Moog behind the scenes, like the engineers, the musical directors, the sound designers, and producers that continue to use Moog no matter what artists or projects they are supporting.
Moog has kept a very classic aesthetic, incorporating woods and metals into their design. What is the inspiration behind this?
It’s beautiful in our opinion and it lasts a lifetime, so the designs have to be timeless. Additionally, instruments have to be durable to withstand years of touring and simultaneously look good on stage in front of thousands of people.
What do you envision for Moog’s future?
I can’t help but think that the future is bright, because the employees of Moog care so much about what happens to it, to each other, and to the artists that use our instruments. In the 10 years since Bob has passed away, we’ve gone from 20 employees to 80. We’ve got a lot of smart and creative people in our factory who are totally focused on designing timeless instruments. The only thing I know for certain is that some of the instruments will be familiar and some of them we can’t even begin to imagine. No matter where technology takes us, Moog will continue to make great tools for great artists.
Words by Clarance Leung
Photography by Brian Twitty
For the full story, pick-up a copy of the HYPETRAK Magazine: Volume 2 for $12 USD over at HBX.