Synthesizer inventor discusses where ideas come from

Robert Moog looks, acts and sounds like an inventor. In a loose fitting black suit, with a nimbus of white hair, surrounded by an assortment of gadgetry and tangled wire, it’s easy to imagine this man as the head of a laboratory dedicated to reanimating the dead or designing a giant robot to dominate the world. But if there was anything mad about this scientist it was that spark of divine madness that comes to brilliant dreamers, those very sensitive souls capable of seeing profundity in ordinary things, such as lazily observing ants at work.

“You’d be amazed at how much you can learn just watching ants build a nest,” said Moog. “But you have to watch them in a focused, directed way.

Dreams were one of the first topic of discussion April 14 at the UAA Recital Hall, where Moog gave a lecture entitled “Where Do Ideas Come From?” as the keynote address for the First Annual Undergraduate Symposium, an event whose purpose is to encourage and publicize innovation among UAA’s undergraduates. Moog started off with a cursory discussion of a few great innovators — Copernicus, Newton, Einstein — but seemed to really come alive when he got on the subject of Thomas Edison.

“Edison, one of the world’s most prolific inventors, always took an afternoon nap,” Moog said. “He had a couch right in his laboratory and he would take a nap on it and when he did he would hold a weight in each hand. He would slowly drift off to sleep and when he fell asleep he would drop the weights and that would wake him up — and whatever he was dreaming about at the moment he awoke would be the basis of his next invention.”

Moog has made a profession of understanding electronic sounds that seem at first to come from a dream. In order to create an instrument that makes fascinating synthesized sounds, he had to learn what makes natural sound fascinating in the first place. There was almost something Edisonian about Moog as he demonstrated the way his synthesizer combines tones; even though all of us are familiar with electronic music now, Moog’s enthusiasm about the process of developing a harmony from three static electric tones made you feel as though you were present at the first unveiling of the phonograph.

“What you’re hearing now,” Moog explained, “is three musical tones between one octave. The tones aren’t quite in tune. They’re just off enough so that they have a beating in between them that gives the sound life.”

Moog further developed his synthesizer’s sound by designing several musical “envelopes” which would allow the musician to modify the way a sound developed and decayed. In his Thursday night lecture, he emphasized the fact that his invention has been changed enormously by the feedback of musicians who used it after its debut in the late 1960s, musicians whose reactions and ideas helped develop an instrument that people would actually want to play.

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Moog said his innovation might have caught the popular ear a little too quickly, as illustrated by a hilarious slide show of late ’60s album covers from second rate bands who tried to capitalize on synthetic sound as music’s next big thing. Titles included “Country Moog,” “Moog Strikes Back,” and a jazz record called “Moog Indigo.”

“A lot of these people thought they could just plug the synthesizer into a tape recorder and have music come out,” said Moog. “They weren’t willing to go through the six to seven years it takes to really understand the potential of the invention.”

This cautionary note underscored Moog’s presentation — a reminder to inventors that if you’re going to have a dreamer’s couch, you first need a laboratory to put it in.