Fifty years ago, Robert Moog opened a storefront in Trumansburg. Popular music would never be the same.
Trevor Pinch is ecstatic. From his office on the third floor of Cornell University’s Rockefeller Hall, he reflects on the recent announcement that the campus’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections will be housing Dr. Robert Moog’s personal archives.
Pinch, co-author of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer and professor of science and technology studies, believes these materials have found their true home. “The Moog synthesizer is one of the most significant musical inventions of the 20th century,” he says, “and it happened in Trumansburg, of all places.”
From Theremins to synthesizers
Robert Arthur Moog (rhymes with “rogue”) was born into the throes of the Great Depression in Queens, New York. An avid hobbyist, he spent hours tinkering with electronics in his father’s basement at a time when war surplus was plentiful. At the age of 19, after graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he founded R. A. Moog Company and began selling Theremin kits from his home. (The instrument, named for its founder – Russian physicist Leon Theremin – is a unique electronic device that produces sound without direct physical contact by the musician.)
After earning two undergraduate degrees – one in physics from Queens College and another in electrical engineering from Columbia University – Moog moved to Ithaca to pursue a doctorate in engineering physics at Cornell. From his apartment in Bethel Grove, Moog continued to sell Theremin kits, priced at $50, to subsidize his graduate studies.
In 1963, Moog rented a former furniture store on Main Street in Trumansburg to house his company, and later moved his family into a farmhouse near Taughannock Falls. Shortly after relocating, Moog bumped into experimental composer Herb Deutsch at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. This began a collaboration that was to last decades, and one that sparked a discussion of how to develop what Deutsch called a “portable electronic music studio” – the synthesizer.
Chilling the follicles of H. G. Wells
In 1964, Moog was awarded a $16,000 grant from New York’s Small Business Association. Deutsch visited Trumansburg that summer, and by October Moog was prepared to debut a prototype of their new instrument at the Audio Engineering Society’s convention in New York City. It was here that R. A. Moog Company of Trumansburg made its first sales.
By 1965, Bob Dylan had gone electric. Technology was changing the way musicians expressed themselves. “There was a symbiosis between the instrument and the culture,” says Pinch. “The Moog influenced music, but music influenced the development of the Moog itself.”
David Borden, a minimalist composer who still lives in Tompkins County, was among the first to have access to these instruments. “In retrospect, I was extremely fortunate,” he says.
Moog’s west coast salesmen, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, introduced the instrument to a wider audience at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. This led to the use of Moog synthesizers, which were manufactured in Trumansburg, on recordings by The Doors, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, and Simon and Garfunkel.
Remarkably, most Americans were introduced to the sound of the synthesizer not through popular music, but through advertising – composer Eric Siday used an early Moog on an American Express commercial. “The listening public first became aware of the electronic medium subliminally,” a bemused Moog later wrote.
The watershed came in 1968 with “Switched-On Bach” by Walter Carlos (known as Wendy Carlos today). An unlikely hit, it rocketed into the Top 40, where it stayed for 17 weeks. The album, which featured the songs of Johann Sebastian Bach played on a Moog synthesizer, eventually sold over a million copies and earned Carlos three Grammies.
The results were nothing short of epochal, and production took flight. “It opened everything up,” says a former Trumansburg employee who still lives in the Finger Lakes Region. Carlos later used a Moog to score the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange.”
These instruments, known as modular synthesizers, were expensive and unwieldy. Still, units like the one used by Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer possessed a grandeur that translated well to the theatrical aspects of live performance. In a feature for Creem magazine, Lester Bangs commented on the scope of Moog’s creation: “The sight of the massed ELP arsenal would chill the follicles of H. G. Wells,” he wrote.
While the modular was gaining in popularity (sales peaked in 1969), the engineers at the Trumansburg factory were faced with a conundrum: Design a more ergonomic and affordable instrument, or risk extinction.
R. A. Moog Company continued to expand, and by the late 1960s the factory in Trumansburg comprised 42 employees. Pinch maintains that there were advantages to housing a business in this locale. “The women who Bob employed to assemble circuit boards were quilters, which is an Upstate hobby,” he says. “They were deft at manipulating with their fingers.”
“Bob hired local people at a time when the town was unresponsive to what we were doing,” says a former employee. “He was the most generous person.” Moog even staged a benefit concert, featuring a synthesizer quartet, at Trumansburg’s Charles O. Dickerson High School to raise money for the band’s uniforms.
In 1969, Moog patented what would become the most important element of his synthesizer’s characteristic sound – the low-pass or “ladder” filter. In an interview with gANK magazine, he touched on the importance of this invention. “At the time I developed the low-pass filter,” Moog said, “that kind of circuitry was unknown.”
According to Pinch, this was no coincidence – the Moog family’s proximity to Taughannock Falls had a significant impact. “The sound of a waterfall is a natural form of white noise,” he says.
Later that year, chief engineer Bill Hemsath began taking time during his lunch breaks to tinker in the “graveyard,” an area of the factory where Moog left spare components. With his employer out of town, Hemsath began investing more and more time developing a smaller, more portable cousin to the modular, staging what Pinch refers to as an “engineering insurrection.”
It was this hobbyist’s spirit that contributed to the birth of a new instrument, one that would soon change the landscape of popular music.
The most important keyboard instrument ever made
By the turn of the decade, things were looking grim for R. A. Moog Company. “Sales of the modular had dropped,” says Pinch. “They were on the edge of financial viability.” By his own admission, Moog was no businessman. “I wanted to be an engineer,” he told gANK magazine. “That’s all I knew.”
The answer was to design a performance instrument. The modular, with its cost, size and confounding array of patch cords, was a creature of the studio. The climate was ripe for a new innovation.
In contrast to the modular, the Minimoog featured hard-wired circuitry and a unique addition that was to become the template for all future synthesizers: the pitch wheel. The instrument also benefited from a calculation error on the schematic – the synthesizer’s filter was overdriven, producing a rich form of distortion that gave the Minimoog a distinctive edge.
Although the notion of the world’s first portable keyboard synthesizer was alien to music retailers, the instrument’s greatest selling point was its sonic fortitude: For the first time, keyboard players could rival guitarists for the spotlight.
Progressive rock musicians were quick to embrace this new technology. In the 2004 documentary “Moog,” Rick Wakeman of Yes commented on the Minimoog’s impact. “It’s the most important keyboard instrument that’s ever been made,” he said.
Although sales of the Minimoog had increased by 1971, R. A. Moog Company was deep in debt. In May of that year, venture capitalist Bill Waytena moved the company to Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo. Trumansburg said goodbye to Robert Moog.
Now his archives – documents, hardware and reel-to-reel tapes – have returned to the Finger Lakes.
On Main Street in Trumansburg, the R. A. Moog Company’s former storefront – what was once the birthplace of the analog synthesizer – is now an Italian eatery. The only reminder of the innovations that began there a half-century ago are a modest stone marker that reads: “Robert Moog created the Moog synthesizer here in 1964.”
How might the town’s identity have changed had Robert Moog managed to keep his factory in Trumansburg? What are the consequences of a technology that is now so ubiquitous we take it for granted? And why, if this is the Moog synthesizer’s spiritual home, is there not a proper memorial denoting its significance?
Perhaps this one sentence, etched into a block of slate, is all we need. After all, Robert Moog was no rock star. All he wanted to be was an engineer.
by Jon Ulrich