The RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer was the first programmable electronic synthesizer that was the size of a room and contained hundreds of vacuum tubes. Robert Moog would use recently available silicon transistors.
In 1963, his business was designing and building theremins (an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact).
He met with composer Herb Deutsch at a New York State School Music Association trade fair and discussed the need for a “portable electronic music studio”.
Moog received a grant of $16,000 from the New York State Small Business Association and began work in Trumansburg, New York. The prototype was a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) and voltage-controlled amplifiers (VCAs) that he used to modulate the output of each other. Deutsch was blown away when he saw it and immediately started composing music.
In 1964, Moog and Deutsch demonstrated the synthesizer at the electronic music studio at the University of Toronto. Robert would construct the synthesizers to order and choreographer Alwin Nikolais became the first person to purchase a commercially made Moog synthesizer.
The first order for a complete Moog synthesizer, for which Moog had to design a keyboard and cabinet, came from composer Eric Siday (responsible for the famous Maxwell House “Percolator” TV commercial).
The Moog synthesizer consists of separate modules which can be used to control each other – such as oscillators, amplifiers, envelope generators, filters, noise generators, ring modulators, triggers, and mixers – which can be connected in a variety of ways via patch cords. No sound is produced until a workable combination of modules is connected.
The synthesizer can be played using controllers including keyboards, joysticks, pedals, and ribbon controllers. The RCA Mark II was programmed with punchcards, Moog’s synthesizer could be played in real-time via keyboard, making it attractive to musicians.
Wendy Carlos is probably the best-known Moog performer and arranger. Her album Switched-On Bach (1968) is still the best-selling classical record of all time. This sensational rendering of Bach’s music showed that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument capable of generating an enormous range of expressive effects and crossing musical boundaries.
The first Moog music Keith Emerson heard was in a London record store. It was “Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos. He borrowed Mike Vicker’s Moog (Manfred Mann) to use with his band the Nice.
Later with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he would purchase his own and due to the number of modules became known as the “Monster Moog”. Keith became friends with Robert Moog and often call him between gigs for technical advice.
Gershon Kingsley was a German-American composer, a pioneer of electronic music and the Moog synthesizer, a partner in the electronic music duo Perrey and Kingsley, founder of the First Moog Quartet,
and writer of rock-inspired compositions for Jewish religious ceremonies and most famous for his 1969 influential electronic instrumental composition “Popcorn”. The most famous cover of “Popcorn” was by one of his Moog Quartet, Stan Free, who recorded it as “Hot Butter”.
In 1970, Moog Music released the Minimoog, a portable, self-contained model, and the modular systems became a secondary part of Moog’s business. The Minimoog has been described as the most famous and influential synthesizer in history.