Gear Pioneers: Moog’s Synth History

Few companies can boast a founder who is regarded as the Grandfather of synthesis. The history of Moog synths proves that the company’s impact is the result of  inspired design choices.

Moog Synth History - the Minimoog

If you’re old enough to be of an age that grew up watching bands on TV shows like ‘Top of the Pops’, you may well have played the weekly game of spot the name on the back of the synthesiser. While many acts merely borrowed synths from the TV hinterland or prop store, it didn’t stop children of a certain generation picking off brands, to indulge themselves in a sort of synthesiser train spotting.

While brands such as Roland were more fashionable in the 1980s, the occasional appearance of a synth with ‘Moog‘ branded on the back felt more enigmatic and mysterious. Some years after,  when referring to ‘a Moog’ without any sense of who or what it stood for, a professor of this writer’s declared, “It’s pronounced ‘Mogue’, as in ‘vogue’, after Dr Robert Moog”. It quickly became apparent that Robert (Bob) Moog was in fact the innovator of the synthesiser form that we now consider to be the most mainstream.


The story of Moog’s history begins with the birth of Bob Moog in New York, in 1934. The son of George Moog, an electrical engineer, Bob was taught basic electronics by his Father from the age of 10. So began a life-long interest in technology, through various hobby-based electronics which included radios and very basic organs. Throughout his early school years, Bob picked up countless academic awards, leading to his attendance at the Bronx High School of Science. It was here, aged just 15, that Bob built his very first theremin, an instrument and device which would stay with Bob for many years to come.

The accidental invention of Russian scientist Leon Theremin, this instrument had plenty of interesting value, not least for it being played without actually touching it! The theremin requires the performer to wave their hands above it, with the proximity of each hand controlling the volume and pitch of an electronically generated tone. The concept started life as an experiment into burglar alarm technology, with the amateur cellist Leon quickly realising its unique musical potential. Moog was enthralled.

Bob Moog graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1952, celebrating his departure by building multiple theremins and electronic organs, which he dubbed ‘Moogatrons’, for a demonstration as part of the school’s fair. Bob was accepted into a five year degree course program at Queens College and Columbia University, specialising in electrical engineering and physics, at degree level.


Moog Synth History - The Theremini
Moog continued to design theremins well into the modern era, including the remarkable Theremini



A year later, in something of a Father/Son enterprise, Bob and his Father George embarked upon their first commercial product; another Theremin, but with a model number of 201. Bob’s father was something of an amateur carpenter, so while Bob concentrated on the electronics, his father crafted the casing for the units. This was the first product to be produced under their own brand name of ‘Ramco’, later rebranded as R.A.Moog Co.

What followed over the next few years was a sustained success story, where Bob refined his theremin designs, and refined the product line. This period of research and development led to the production of the Melodia Theremin, which became his most successful Theremin to date. Although still being assembled in a slightly Heath-Robinson manner, allegedly on a kitchen table, the success of the Melodia provided Bob with much needed funds for further research and the opening of a R.A.Moog store, in Trumansburg.

Shortly after this, Bob attended a Music Convention in New York and met Herb Deustch. The two went on to collaborate on the concept of using voltages to control electronics to create sound, leading to the announcement of the first voltage controlled modules, at the AES convention in 1964. These devices attracted much interest, with boundary-pushing composers such as John Cage contacting Bob, with a view to harnessing this new technology in his compositions. In fact, Bob created electronic devices, not a million miles from Theremin technology, to sense the movement of dancers for the Cage work Variations V.

The trajectory of Bob’s technologies, as part of his collaborations with Herb Deutsch, led to the development of what is considered to be the very first standardised synthesiser systems in synth history. Three units were released in 1967, simply named Synthesizer I, Synthesizer II and Synthesizer III. In something of a groundbreaking moment, this marked the very first use of the term Synthesizer.

Moog Synth History - The IIIP
This portable version of Moog’s Synthesizer 3, was dubbed the ‘3P’ and was used by The Beatles among others. A new version of which is in production, though only 40 are being made.


A tsunami of endorsements from musicians and composers followed. The Beach Boys had famously used one of Moog’s Theremins on their track Good Vibrations –  although they technically cheated, by playing the instrument with a ribbon controller, rather than waving hands in the air. Other early Moog adopters included The Doors and The Monkees, but it was the groundbreaking album Switched on Bach (1968) which marked a big moment in Moog synth history. Wendy Carlos had originally worked on a demonstration for Bob, creating an arrangement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3. The resultant recording was played at the AES Convention in 1968, with Bob Moog recalling that “…poker-faced engineers had tears in their eyes”. upon hearing it for the first time. Moog’s synth prowess was proved.

The recording of Brandenburg No.3 become the highlight and final track of the first Switched on Bach record, but the album had its fair share of critics. Many classical musicians were uncomfortable with the notion of translating Bach to electronic instrumentation, from its original acoustic form. However, there were plenty of futurists and supporters; celebrated pianist and Bach specialist Glenn Gould defended the recording, citing it as “….one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation, and certainly one of the great feats in the history of ‘keyboard’ performance.”

By 1969, Moog had constructed a Modular Vocoder for the University of Buffalo, and completed a state-of-the-art Electronic Music Studio for composer Joel Chadabe. As if Moog’s instruments required any greater acceptance, Switched on Bach won two Grammy’s and the Beatles featured a Moog IIIP on their final album Abbey Road.


Moog switched on bach
Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach represented a major moment in Moog synth history, and a shift in the growing acceptance of the synth.


There was a degree of complexity to Moog’s earlier instruments. All his systems were modular in design, requiring technical knowledge and prowess to utilise the instruments to their optimum level, and that’s before you even got to the price tag! These systems were far from cheap, and with popularisation of the concept, there was clearly an appetite for something more affordable.

With almost biblical proportions, it came to pass in 1970 that Moog would introduce the instrument which has gone on to become the most highly regarded synth of all time; the Minimoog. For the first time, you could buy a synthesiser which was not modular (didn’t require patch cables), was portable and relatively affordable. Now we have to examine those last two points; as the Minimoog only had a 44-note keyboard, it was half the length of a traditional piano keyboard. This didn’t really matter, as it was monophonic (playing one note at a time) but it was stacked full of discrete circuitry, and it still weighed in at around 13Kg.

When it first went on sale in 1970, a Minimoog would sell for around $1595. In today’s money, that’s around $11000, so while it might have been cheaper than a modular system, by quite some margin, but it was still an enormous investment, and out of reach of many ‘normal’ musicians.


MiniMoog History
The Minimoog pioneered subtractive synthesis, and used voltage controlled oscillators to change the pitch from the keyboard.

The Minimoog has sealed a place in synth history, and for good reason. Firstly, it sounded amazing! This was in part due to two elements; the oscillators and the filter. The style of synthesis that Moog developed became known as subtractive synthesis. This means that you start with an oscillator which produces a tone, which in most cases will be relatively rich and bright, as a result of its rich harmonic makeup.

The Minimoog had three oscillators, all of which used voltage control to change the pitch from the keyboard. This means that it sounded terrifyingly enormous! Gary Numan often mentioned that the first time he heard a Minimoog. He walked into a studio, played a note, and the whole studio shook! Spurring Numan to switch his musical direction from punk to electronic, in a matter of moments.

The second element that shapes the tonal construct of the sound is called a filter; also placed under voltage control, the Minimoog filter eliminates harmonics from the top-down, referred to as a 24db Low-Pass Ladder Filter, and has become synonymous with the overall timbre of the instrument.


Moog Music were flying high during the seventies. Keith Emerson could be seen in a rock stadium near you, with a behemoth of a Moog modular. Smaller and more affordable instruments, such as the Micromoog became popular, but there was trouble brewing.

During the latter phase of the 70s, Moog were not the only cool-company in town producing synthesisers. Companies such as ARP and Sequential Circuits were also producing very desirable synthesisers, using techniques which would allow for more affordable manufacturing. There was also a desire for Polyphonic machines, and as the eighties dawned, so did the age of digital. Companies such as Roland introduced mass-produced synths, at ever cheaper price points, with the market forcing Moog Music into bankruptcy in 1986. While it took a further seven years for all stock to be liquidated, there is one thing that Moog had on their side; they had the legacy of  the name Moog, it was only a matter of time before the tide turned back in their favour.

The 80s delivered a seismic shift in the sounds that musicians and producers wanted to use. Analogue fell seriously out of favour, and the digital stylings of the Yamaha DX range was in. Exacting, clinical and sharp were the sounds at this time, consigning the analogue old-guard to the second hand ad’s. And this is where they stayed, until a handful of musicians realised that those Minimoog’s were suddenly affordable and plentiful in supply. As the 90s techno scene in Detroit flourished, so did the reemergence of the sound of Moog, along with drum machine relics, such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909.

As retro-flavoured fashions led demand, Moog synths rose from the ashes. There was a small matter of legal wrangling, requiring the buy-back of the company name. This was complicated further by the brand being exploited in different territories. A company in Wales purchased the brand in the UK, and was continuing to produce what has become known as the ‘Welsh Minimoog’. Eventually Bob regained his moniker and branding, started up a factory, and started producing new units for the first time in years.

One of the first of the new models was The Voyager; billed as the Minimoog for the new century, it gained considerable advantages over the original Mini, but appeared to lack the now familiar sonic grunt. Almost by way of response, Moog started producing affordable, high quality synthesisers, with improvements across the board. Elements such as a built-in overdrive circuit (to bring back the grunt!), 4-stage envelopes, dedicated LFO and patch memories. All facets that appeared on the Sub/Phatty range, bringing the sound of Moog to a new generation of electronic musicians.

But Bob always liked to return to his roots, and Moog continued to make them theremins too. Apart from the basic model, referred to in theremin circles as the ‘Standard’ model, the Etherwave Pro emerged in 2004. Its zen styling and capable feature set made it a hit for any serious thereminist, somewhat completing the circle for Bob, before he sadly passed away in 2005.


Recent years have seen Moog adapt to market and commercial music trends, with an embrace of their vintage roots, coupled with current studio connectivity.

The Eurorack form-factor had been around since the 90s, bringing affordable modular systems to a smaller and more bijoux design. This format really blossomed in the twenty-teens, and Moog were there, with the introduction of the Mother 32 semi-modular synthesiser. For a mere few hundred pounds, you could place a Moog filter and oscillator right at the heart of your Eurorack system, or connect it to your DAW through MIDI. Further units followed, allowing drum sounds and abstract poly-rhythmic creations, employing units such as the DFAM and Subharmonicon.

Moog Synth History: Moog Mother 32
The Mother-32 semi-modular system is a beloved creative tool that borrow’s from Moog’s synth history

The production of the semi-modular Grandmother and Matriarch synthesisers, uniquely turned to the 24db Filter 904A design originally found in their early modulars, while providing a standalone synthesiser with modular-style patch points.

Two more recent products look back on Moog’s synth history and also cast their eyes future-ward; The Claravox Centennial Theremin is a brand new instrument, oozing retro and vintage charm. Being a Theremin, the technology is largely unchanged, other than certain improvements to enhance the performance experience, but as an instrument and period piece, it’s sublime. It’s very Moog, with a hint of Art Deco, placed upon a wooden tripod.

Meanwhile, Moog’s musical nemesis, the polyphonic synthesiser, has finally received the Ashville treatment, with the release of the Moog One synthesiser. Available in both 8-note and 16-note polyphonic formats, it’s a synth with huge capabilities and sound. Loaded with three oscillators per voice, filters, envelopes and modulation routings which are comparable with any modular synth, its name says it all. It is ‘The One’, armed with plenty of modern credentials, shored up by that classic sounds from Moog synth history. It’s not cheap, but then it’s less than the comparable price of a Minimoog from the early 70s, arguably with greater musical capacity.



Moog One
Moog’s flagship product; The Moog One is a fully-fledged polysynth, with flexible oscillators and the classic Moog sound.


If there’s one overriding point, it’s that Moog has the most distinguished history in the history of synth design, and that legacy continues today, with a product range of highly prized synths and theremins, including a homage and reissue of the original Minimoog. One only has to look at the recent success of their Minmoog Model D app to recognise their god-like reputation. Moog’s history of synths features on music from jazz to rap, and from indie to pure pop. It’s classic, laden with high-grade sounds and components and quality assured. Hand assembled in Ashville, USA, Moog are the company that invented, mutated, made it through the dark times and rose again, almost like a sine wave repeating its cycle.

One devotee of the Minimoog, Rick Wakeman, was contacted by an actor friend, who had purchased a Minimoog for home use back in the 70s, and was concerned that it wasn’t working properly. Rick loaned it from him, only to struggle to locate any problem. Upon calling the actor to ask what the issue was, the actor replied, “it only plays one note!” (As monophonic synthesisers do…) With a Minimoog, you only need one note to make the floor shake! Just ask Gary Numan.