A lesson from Bob Moog

The trip to Trumansburg

Back in the summer of 1969 or so I attended a sleepaway camp in the Catskill Mountains. I was an 8th grader at the time I think.

One of the features of this camp was that on the weekends all of the campers split into groups and went various places on field trips. One camp counselor had worked for Bob Moog, and arranged a visit to Moog Music's facility in Trumansburg for about 10 campers. I was lucky to be part of this group.

The Moog Music facility was a single-width storefront. I don't remember too much about the exterior appearance, except that it was long and narrow, like a regular store in a small town. Some of the pictures at moogarchive.com look like the place as I recall it (I wrote this article before finding those pictures).

There was an aisle down the right side wall going towards the back; on the left side were four or five working areas. Each working area consisted of a workbench perpendicular to the wall, bins of electronic parts stacked against the wall, and a chair where the worker would sit. I remember that the worker I watched was an old lady. Her job was to neatly place the components into printed circuit boards, I guess in preparation for soldering.

In the rear was another room which contained some machinery for working sheet metal, etc., probably for making panels and cases.

In the right towards the rear of the front part was Bob's studio. It was here that we were taken, and introduced to Mr. Moog.

Bob's lesson

The studio was a single room, about 10x12 feet. On the back wall was a large modular synth. Along the top row, on the right end, was an oscilloscope. It's just like the classic picture you see of a full modular Moog setup.

Patchcords were hanging neatly in rows on the wall. They were color coded by length. Colored bands on the ends indicated the lengths of the cord, so it would be easy to grab a cord of approximately the correct length. Bob used the resistor color codes to indicate length (black brown orange red...)

Bob had a very kind voice and was easy to listen to and understand. He explained that every sound, when in electric form, could be represented by a wave. To demonstrate, he played a tape of something (a trombone I think), and patched it into the scope. We could all hear the trombone sound and see the wave represented by the trombone sound on the scope.

Bob then explained that the synthesizer was capable of making waves, too. If you could make a wave on the synth that looked like the one the trombone made, it would sound like the trombone too. He then proceeded to patch up a quick trombone sound on the modular, and run it both to the speakers and the scope, so we could all see and hear that this was true.

Right away I wanted a synth of my own. I was already a pretty good piano player; a synth would allow me to play all of the parts of the other instruments, whether I knew how to play them or not!

Bob then demonstrated a different kind of sound, that of a bass drum. We all saw it on the scope; then he created something that looked and sounded like the bass drum.

Also on the walls were a large number of pairs of speakers. One of the other kids asked Bob why there were so many speakers. Bob explained that when you heard the sound of a real instrument thorough a speaker, your brain had a reference and would know whether it sounded right, and what it was supposed to be. But when you created a sound on the synth, it would be a sound that never existed before. It was helpful to have many speakers in order to be able to check the sound you had made on all of them to see how it really sounded.

The aftermath

Needless to say, I wanted a synthesizer of my own very badly. I loved hearing any music that had a synth in it, and started reading about how synths worked so that I could figure out what I was listening to and describe the sound (Typical such description: it's three oscillators producing sawtooth waves, two at unison and detuned slightly, and a third an octave below, muted by a lowpass filter. The pitch of the oscillators was modulated slightly by running a slow oscillator, producing a sine wave, through a voltage controlled amplifier whose gain was being controlled by an envelope generator with a slow rise time...)

At some point my parents took me to Rondo Music to look at a new trumpet for school band. In the back was a room which contained an Arp Odyssey. I fooled with it for awhile, and had no idea what I was doing. I picked up a Minimoog brochure, brought it home, and hung it on the wall in my room. I figured out what every knob did.

When I graduated from high school in 1974 I received a Minimoog as a gift. (I had a choice between that and a Rhodes.) We went to Rondo Music and bought it. I knew how to play it almost right away because I had been studying it for so long.

Today, 2005

I still play keyboards and I still have that Minimoog. It works perfectly. (I have a Memorymoog too but it does not work.) Sometimes I take the Mini to my rock gigs. It's amazing to me that so many people (audience and band members alike) don't know what it is or have never seen one or really heard one played.

I am thankful for Bob Moog's kindness and patience in 1969 explaining synthesis to a bunch of kids. I wonder how many of the other kids ended up as electronic musicians because of that day. I'm sure that many musicians ended up as electronic musicians and using Bob's instruments because of the easy manner in which he was able to explain what they were and how they worked.