Not wanting to be outdone by these esoteric European efforts, the US
was busy playing catch-up. One of the most successful projects was
the RCA MkII synthesizer at Columbia-Princeton University, which was
a kind of very crude modular, and a major influence on what was to
come later. Outside of academia, Bebe and Louis Barron's eerie
soundtrack to the film Forbidden Planet was far ahead of its time,
and is still bafflingly impressive today. And maverick genius Raymond
Scott had made a fine career producing bleeps and burbles for
advertising and cartoons, using a monstrous room full of home-made
valve-based music hardware.
All these sources were a direct influence on the young Robert Moog.
With an engineer father, and a mother who made him spend hours
practising scales on the family grand, Moog was already fascinated by
sound and by electronics. He had grown up with the '50s sounds of the
Barrons and Raymond Scott, and being both more than averagely bright
and also famously inventive, at the age of 19 he published a design
for a theremin in an electronics magazine. Over the next couple of
years, he made a small fortune by selling more than a thousand
Theremin kits for $50 each. By 1963, Moog Music was up and running.
Theremins and trashy guitar amps made up the entire product range,
but memories of a visit with his father to Raymond Scott's workshop
and sporadic news of developments at Columbia-Princeton kept Moog
experimenting with more novel circuits. By the summer of 1964, he had
working designs for a voltage-controlled oscillator and amplifier.
Visits by experimental composer Herb Deutsch led to idea swaps, an
exposure to more difficult academic music, and the beginnings of an
early modular prototype — a keyboardless monophonic design, triggered
by a not-so-very hi-tech doorbell push.
At this stage, the hardware still did very little. Even so, Moog and
Deutsch made a trip across the border to the music department at the
University of Toronto, and immediately wowed the composers and
academics there. This meeting was responsible for a suggestion that
changed the future of synthesis. Until now, the Moog system was
filterless. In Toronto, someone — history has failed to record
exactly who — commented that the system would be even more useful
with a voltage-controlled filter. Slightly later, Columbia-Princeton
composer Vladimir Ussachevsky made another essential contribution by
proposing the original concept of the ADSR envelope generator.
It's one of the quirks of the Moog design that it followed this
general collaborative pattern. Bob Moog himself is always careful to
credit the many people who made suggestions and contributed design
ideas. Far from being a solo Moog effort, the final shape of the
modular was a combined project featuring the input of many people.
Moog's genius was to create circuitry that put their ideas into
practice. Only the details of the filter design were ever patented.
The other concepts — modularity, envelope generation, voltage
control, and the rest — were left commercially unprotected. If Moog
had tried to create a monopoly on these fundamentals, it's likely the
synth industry as we know it today would never have happened.