Why and how was Moog successful in inventing the synthesiser, over contempories such as Buchla?

The advent of the synthesiser had a profound affect on music, economically and creatively. It has created and destroyed jobs, and was vehemently opposed by the musicians unions; it has allowed new styles of music, unimaginable before, to flourish. And it was the product of a geeky boy called Bob Moog (pronounced to rhyme with ‘rogue’) and his trusty soldering iron. But contemporaneously to his invention, hundreds of miles away, Don Buchla was working on a similar piece of hardware. He didn’t call it a synthesiser, and it’s not as well known, but it did very similar things and was certainly part of the same impact. So why is it Moog, and not Buchla, whose name is famous as the inventor of the synthesiser? And why not anybody else? This essay will firstly examine Moog’s life, and his development of the synthesiser, to try and uncover if there was anything in particular about him that marked him out as ‘special’; it will then examine Moog’s creation in the broader discipline of design; and then compare Buchla’s methodology and philosophy to Moog’s. At the end, we will have some understanding of what it was about Moog that pushed his name into the limelight.

Bob Moog (born in 1934), as a child, had a dynamite characteristic that led him to develop his famous brand of synthesisers; he was shy. Out of place with the rough neighbourhood children and their endless fighting, or the moneyed children at his Bronx Science School, he found sanctuary in the basement, where his father taught him to solder; he was the archetypal electronic hobbyist. His mother, on the other hand, required of him to practise the piano. Was it here that he found the inspiration to combine his parents’ influences? No. Moog himself would not visualise his potential until years later. However, he had an excellent introduction to the world of electronic music; when he was only fifteen, he built his first theremin.

Here was a hobbyist kit that was not just a toy, like so many bought in magazines; once built, the theremin is a serious, and bizarre, instrument. Used as the wailing sound of Martian UFOs in so many ‘B’ movies, at its heart was the same principle as all electronic instruments – two high-frequency oscillators whose combined form produces a sound (of lower frequency), when fed through a speaker. This is why tape driven or electronic sound is now (in the digital age) referred to as ‘analogue’; what is stored or created as a series of changes of magnetic charge, or electrical voltage, is exactly analogous to the changes of air pressure that are sound. After graduating in Physics and Electronic Engineering, he got into a business manufacturing theremin kits. It is now that we enter what we may think of as our start state. Moog met an experimental composer, Herb Deutsch, at a convention, while selling his theremins. They started talking, and hit upon the idea of a ‘portable electronic music studio’. Moog asked Deutsch,” what do you want to be able to do?” and Deutsch replied “… I want to make these sounds that go wooo-wooo-ah-woo-woo.”

Let us try do define exactly what state the ‘wooo-wooo-ah-woo-woo’ business was in at this point. Most electronic music at that time was tape driven; producing a piece of electronic music was often a case (as with Herb Deutsch) of cutting up tape samples of sounds, sticking them back together and playing the result. One device, the Mellotron, consisted of a keyboard, underneath every key of which lay a piece of tape and a playback head. When the key was depressed, whatever sound had been recorded onto the tape was played, and up to about 8 seconds worth of audio could be stored, acting a little like a primitive sampler. Synthesis itself – creating sounds from scratch, using electrical circuitry – existed too, but nothing like in the form that Moog was about to create. An RCA synthesiser existed at Moog’s university, but he never saw it; it was the size of a room, contained 750 vacuum tubes, and had to be programmed with punch cards, just like the computers of the day (1957). If he had, maybe he wouldn’t have used the name for his own invention.

And just like the computers of the day, it was the transistor that was at the heart of the revolution of what was possible with synthesis. Synthesisers were interesting, but huge, and stagnant – there was little or no dynamic control over pitch, or other aspects of the sound that was being produced. The transistor in particular that Moog prized most highly, and must be commended for, was one that had an exponential relationship between input voltage and output current – the same relationship that exists between frequency and pitch. That is, when a string, vibrating at 44Hz, the note ‘A5’, is held halfway along its length, it will vibrate at twice the speed, 88Hz; but its pitch will raise by only one octave, to ‘A6’. This is due entirely to how our senses render sound (consider the linear scale of a keyboard); but what we hear is what we are interested in, and Moog realised that by using a linear ‘control voltage’, an appropriate, useful, pitch could be generated. From then on, he used a simple ‘volt-per-octave’ standard. Moog had a small, experimental kit set up, with an oscilloscope as well as a speaker, to appreciate the look and get to know the character of the sounds he produced more; and with his voltmeter, he could play around with the circuitry and see it as it changed. He developed an envelope generator (to create more dynamic sonic textures, it has four periods of control over a voltage – attack (how quickly the voltage increase from zero), decay (how quickly it falls off), sustain (how far it falls off) and release (how quickly it falls to zero once the control voltage finishes) – ADSR, to use ARP’s terminology), and attached a keyboard up to his synthesiser to have a more traditional interface. Each key had two switches attached – one to create the control voltage, at a determinable level, and the other to start the envelope. From his very first set-up, with everything splayed out on a board for easy modification, he had two oscillators. This in particular was a simple, yet groundbreaking, innovation, allowing a huge amount of new variety, as signals could be fed around and into each other (frequency modulation). It is amazing how many of his inventions and innovations, within the larger idea, became standard features. He wasn’t making them for profit, nor was he making them for anyone else other than himself and Deutsch at this stage; but as his work began to get better known, people started coming to him with their orders, their ideas, and Moog got a reputation (in small circles) as the man who could make your sonic-related dreams come true. And if not, then what came out was sure to be interesting anyway.

In search terms, Moog did not seem to be using any kind of heuristic. He had a vague idea of his ultimate goal – the portable electronic music studio – but maybe he was just performing a blind search, doing what seemed to be the right move at every state. Just about every progression was kick-started by his collaboration with some artist, and it seems to be this that was a real aspect of his genius – knowing who to work with, listening and understanding their requirements, and being able to really deliver, although usually late. A failure might have chosen uninspired people, not recognising it; Moog gravitated towards, and found himself, in the company of people who were in touch with what he was doing, and their excitement at what he could do for them turned into his drive to create. Gustav Ciamaga drove him to develop a sweep-able filter – his only patent in the Moog 100 was his low-pass ‘ladder’ filter, and not only was it patented, it’s sound was instantly recognisable. Wendy Carlos desired touch-sensitivity, portmento and a fixed filter bank. It was his working with artists – his consumers – and their ideas that really drove him.

We can examine his work in more depth, though. Design is a hybrid; the process of design can be thought of as involving both logical and creative processes, which cannot be separated and worked upon individually. There is an art to it, as well as a science. Design problems are characterised by there not being an obvious logical route through the problem space: “Design, of the sort we are interested in, is ill-structured in that tasks involve underspecified goals and operators.” There is also likely to be underspecification of the transformation function across the problem space. It is difficult to say exactly what the problem is without saying exactly what the solution is in a design task, and vice versa; like with Herb Deutsch’s ‘underspecified’ woo-woo machine, he didn’t know exactly what he was after, but he would know it when he saw it. In a design task, there is no right or wrong answer, only better or worse, and only by exploring the possibilities can designers find better solutions. This is the creative side of Design showing through; in a simple logical system, there would be a clear divide between goal states and non-goal states. As complexity increases, and more factors have to be balanced, solutions that are equally good for different reasons may present themselves, and with the creativity element present, it is very difficult to know when to stop searching for a better solution when one is found – it may only be a matter of taste. This would explain that Buchla waited as long as possible before demonstrating his Buchla Box because he could afford the time until the end of the funding season; conversely, it would also explain why Moog ‘arrived’ at a solution sooner, when he had no time limit imposed – because no design is truly final, he might as well show where he was up to, which happened to be a complete system (at the time, it was the only one, so that is somewhat tautologous!). Design is no job for an expert system. It requires a balance between knowing what is possible in a system, and an aesthetic appreciation of form. Designs evolve over time, and gradually get better.

Goel and Pirolli write of ‘reversing the direction of the transformation function’, how a designer can challenge their given brief and negotiate for one that better suits their expertise. This is the result of an underspecified problem; maybe the designer can help clarify exactly what the problem is – and maybe it coincidentally fits in with this other thing that they were doing… In more disciplined areas, it doesn’t make sense to move the goal posts, because the specific problem may only consist of the parameters involved – to say ‘this chemistry experiment would work if I were using different chemicals’ is tantamount to saying ‘this chemistry experiment is a failure’. “Design constraints are nonlogical and therefore manipulable” , but with Moog the case was even more manipulable, because he even had a hand in setting his own specification.

Problems are frequently solved by breaking down the problem into ‘manageable chunks’, of varying interconnectivity, size, and structure. Chunks in design are thought of as having loose connections between each other, and can be quite independent. They are also less likely to be arranged in a hiearchical structure, and more in a span; it is a mangrove rather than a tree. It is fascinating quite how literally this applies to Moog’s development process. The interesting thing is that the finished product is just a bunch of modules, as if he forgot to stick them back together properly and put a lid on the box. Of course this is absolutely intentional. He seems to have directly mapped his view of the sound creation process into circuitry, and then realised the real benefit of having such a loose series of connections – and it is not just that the connections are loose, but that they are removable. Moog could have finalised and hardwired his synthesiser (like later ventures, i.e. the Minimoog), but it instead designed a system which had its own design problem built in for the user to complete to get any sound out of it! And although there must be an order to the signal flow, preferably starting with a key press and ending with an amplifier, Moog’s synthesiser is not a hierarchical system – modules themselves can all be attached in any order, with any number, each serving a specific (and yet sometimes malleable) function. There is overall a linear path from key to amplifier, in that there is one input and one output, but actual process could be very complicated, with the signal being split, modified, modulated and so forth. The point is, one cannot talk about how Moog structured his synthesiser, expect saying that he left it up to the user. And it goes further than just the one synthesiser, of course, because modules were also available separately. In this respect, Moog was creating a set of design tools, a framework to design upon, and by not specifying how they should be used – what should be plugged in where and at what dials the levels should be set at – he was inviting his users to experiment and play around.

Let us return to discussing Moog’s ‘on the fly’ approach; in his studio, he had several forms of feed-back, and the beauty of working with circuit boards is that with a handy soldering iron, they can be quickly edited and experimented upon. Once the germ of an idea exists, not much has to be put down on paper before one can start soldering. This is tremendously advantageous to the design process – an architect can hardly start putting a few walls together in his studio to see how they look in reality (now, computer aided design has let architects do this virtually). Being able to experiment, and maybe not being sure of the consequences, can only increase a designer’s knowledge of the problem space. Failures are not erased from the record, they are learnt from. And old boards can still be salvaged and the best made of them, or stored in case some new knowledge from a different part of the problem space sheds some light on how to better a previous partial solution.

Having studied something of what made Moog the household name he is today, let us turn our attention to Don Buchla, Moog’s contemporary who is not as well known in mainstream culture. His story is remarkably similar to Moog’s; born three years later on the other side of The U.S.A., Buchla had a similar hobby for electronics and a passion for music, and graduated in physics; after numerous electronics jobs (without much formal training), including building particle accelerators and the odd NASA job, he found himself disinterested in mainstream work and wanting to do something new and exciting – and found himself at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. This was founded by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, electronic music composers, who had decided to pool their resources and equipment into a common treasury. It staged radical concerts and housed a studio, a ramshackle affair containing any useful or interesting electrical gadgetery they could get hold of (frequently out of skips). The (completely necessary) do-it-yourself ethic took a more dynamic turn when Subotnick and Sender realised they wanted a specific device to make music with, instead of abusing whatever they found. They wanted more control, more portability, a “black box” for composing… exactly what Deutsch had vaguely desired Moog to build for him, without really being able to put his finger on what it was. Buchla received $500 to build an “intentional electronic music device” of the centre’s 1964-1956 $30,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Buchla’s effort took longer to design. After a near-simultaneous germination in 1963, Moog finished his prototype in mid-1964, over a year before Buchla unveiled his ‘Buchla Music Box Series 100’. Quite what Buchla’s delay was isn’t clear; it may be that his position on a pay roll meant he was willing to wait until the end of the year of funding before unveiling his creation, and producing it sooner would have been needless. Moog didn’t have a ‘due date’ to work towards. Many of the above abstractions of Moog’s design ethic would also apply equally well to Buchla.

Buchla, drawing on his own background and unaware of Moog’s work, hit upon the voltage control method as well; But Buchla’s charge – the supercedence of tape splicing – led him to invent a piece of hardware now known as a ‘sequencer’ instead of a keyboard interface. His first sequencer would loop a series of eight notes (as control voltages) at a determinable speed. From the Tape Center’s perspective, this eliminated the need to splice together eight pieces of tape to form a melody. Buchla didn’t want his new, exciting instrument to look like a fake piano; for the same reason, he rejected the term ‘synthesiser’, with its implications of copying something natural. By not attaching a traditional interface to his ‘Buchla Box’ (as it became known), he was intention was to focus on the machine, the wires and so forth, while the sequencer looped it’s melody: “… it’s a far more experimental way. It’s appealing to fewer people, but it’s more exciting.” This statement is very telling. It informs us right away that the reason the Moog synthesiser is more commercially successful than Buchla’s is less to do with their working methods and more to do with their ideas about how their invention should be used, and circumstance. Moog, in New York, already had a business, so going into mass-production of synthesisers was an easy step for him, and one he made almost blindly, merely responding to a demand that was so latent it did not exist except in the minds of a few visionaries until the products were being made (and, when production was in full swing, some very effective sales techniques). Buchla, in California, had much more of his own vision of what he wanted his instrument to be used for – a conventional scale was not sacred to him, or his Tape Center contempories, such as John Cage and David Tudor, so he never appreciated the need for a volt-per-octave standard. He had a production unit and it became his living, but never went into ‘mass’ manufacture and was very suspicious of mainstream, homogenised culture.

In a way, the similarities between the two inventor’s systems outweigh the differences. Both formulated a voltage control system; both realised that by decomposing the unit into modules connected by patch chords, and analogously, decomposing the problem into sub-problems, they could produce a much more creative, customisable machine. What were the real differences between the Buchla Music Box Series 100 and the Moog? Aside from the keyboard/sequencer distinction discussed above, there was a difference in exactly what modules were contained in these prototypical set-ups, indicative of how each designer saw their invention being used; Buchla included a ring modulator, while Moog had a filter, and soon a frequency modulator. Ring modulation involves multiplying together two input waveforms, to produce their sum and difference; the output waveform is chaotic and sounds metallic, akin to a bell. Frequency modulation is a smoother process. The Buchla Box also included some touch-sensitive pads, that he called ‘kinesthetic input ports’ (a typically Buchlian name) to voltage-control other devices. If one so desired, these could even be tuned to match a scale and used as a keyboard. A large and meaningful distinction involved the patch chord set up of the systems. Since there was a difference between a control voltage and a signal voltage, Buchla decided to separate the two sorts by using two different kinds of leads – normal phono leads for signal voltages, and unscreened wires with a stackable plug at each end (so several inputs could go into one socket) called banana plugs for control voltages. He didn’t want his users – and he didn’t think his users would want – to use modules that were optimised for control, for signal, and vice versa. He would also argue that this helped build more complex systems that were easier to understand, because at a glance a user can tell what is a signal wire and what is a control wire. He had a clear, ideological divide between a zone of control and a zone of signal. Conversely, the Moog had only one type of lead. One minor advantage of this is a purely logistical one, that only having one kind of lead means only having to worry about one stock of cables, or needing a banana plug when you only have a bunch of spare phonos; but the main reason is best put by Moog himself: “in order to separate them you’d have to think you would never want to use an audio signal as a control… maybe his was easier to use… but mine was more versatile.” Control and signal voltages are both just different frequencies of the same current, just as an oscillator can be slowed down into a low frequency oscillator to affect the timbre of the sound instead of the pitch. It’s interesting that while Buchla saw Moog’s work as tying users to a keyboard interface, Moog thought Buchla’s stood in the way of freedom to use the circuitry as they saw fit. Moog’s philosophy seems to be that ‘the customer is always right’. Really, both their ideas for interface and connectivity can be argued as liberating. A keyboard means you have to keep playing instead of knob-twiddling, but gives you more control over the tune than the sequencer. Banana plugs mean you can build more complex systems, but at the expense of an expanded range of features.

Buchla’s ideas about synthesis are no less interesting for being less successful. Indeed, if commerce is the only real way we can measure success, then in this arena it is not very useful to talk about success when the only measure is units shifted, if that had nothing to do with the quality of design. Buchla’s synthesiser was as good as Moog’s, and they are both still working in the area. The reason why ‘Moog’ is a household name really comes down to his keyboard interface. It was this ‘compromise’ that led to the successful record ‘Switched-On Bach’ – a selection of classical works played on a Moog. The keyboard led to the development of the hardwired Minimoog, designed with live performances in mind and taken up by many more bands than the sprawling modular units ever were (not that it couldn’t be hacked up and modified if desired). A Buchla Box was great for creating ‘weird shit’ sounds at Grateful Dead concerts, but with a keyboard, you could play along to a song in a group, not just make introspective soundscapes, interesting to only a select few. The standards set forth by Moog – a keyboard interface, volt-per-octave, confusing patch chords, exponential transistors, and certainly his envelope generator and filters – are synonymous with synthesisers today, even in the face of forty years of competition. It is only recently, with the growth in digital synthesis, that may of his features have been superseded.

Bechtel, W., and Richardson, R. C. (1991). Discovering complexity: Decomposition and Localization as Strategies in Scientific Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goel, V., and Pirolli, P. (1992). The Structure of Design Problem Spaces. Cognitive Science, 16(3), 395-429.

Pinch, T., and Trocco, F. (2002). Analog Days: the Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer.
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