Moog goes micro
Though music synthesizers were the size of entire recording studios back in the days of vacuum tubes, and now can be played on an iPhone or iPad, it’s really the size of the sound that matters to musicians and consumers alike.
The late Robert Moog, whose teenage passion for electronic musical instruments led to his invention of the first “tubeless” synthesizer in 1963, told Keyboard magazine in January 2005 that “the best computer emulations sound good, they sound close, but no cigar.”
Moog, who died in August of that year, was discussing the difference between analog and digital sound quality. While he told the magazine digital synthesizers offer the flexibility of programming and the ability to try out musical ideas “without investing $10,000 to $15,000 in an analog modular system,” Moog’s preference for analog was loud and clear.
But what would the “father of music synthesis”—so dubbed by Keyboard—say about Animoog, an iPad app offering a digital synthesizer experience? The app, after all, was developed by the company Moog himself relaunched in 2002—Moog Music Inc. of Asheville, N.C.—and is the company’s first digital synthesizer.
The Model D Minimoog was the first in the Minimoog line, which was introduced in 1970. Image courtesy Moog Music.
Keith Emerson was the first musician to tour with a Minimoog, in 1970, during Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Pictures at an Exhibition" show. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Surka.
The first commercial modular Moog synthesizer system, circa 1964. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Chad.
Moog Music released its first digital synthesizer in 2011 with the release of the Animoog iPad and iPhone app.
Chances are good that Moog would agree with Moog Music Chief Engineer Cyril Lance, who likes Animoog’s accessibility to the consumer market, but acknowledges the limitations of the iPad sound quality when compared to professional music equipment.
“The radical thing that’s happened is this kind of democratization of music as a result of Animoog,” Lance said. “If you were to go get an analog synthesizer, it would cost thousands of dollars. And now, for anywhere between $9.99 and $29.99 (the cost of iPhone and iPad apps, respectively), you can download this app on something you use for your e-mail.
“It used to be that only recording studios could get a really good sound,” Lance continued, “but now a high school student with an iPad can get an incredible sound, and could record an album.”
Granted, Lance added, the iPad audio codec (the microchip audio decoder) could only be described as consumer-grade compared to the audio codec used in recording studios. But when it comes to choosing sides in the digital vs. analog sound debate, “I never like to say one is better or worse than the other. I don’t look at things that way.
“We build musical tools for musicians,” he explained, “and our tools inspire musicians to actualize their music.” While most of the musicians who purchase Moog Music instruments work within the analog realm, Lance said others use both analog and digital instruments—pulling the sound they want out of each.
That said, Lance stressed the importance of Robert Moog’s analog legacy in the design of Animoog.
“We used analog sound as a starting point,” Lance said. “But the app is more than just the sound—it’s a philosophy of instrument design based on modularity and control voltage. We took the essential building blocks of our legacy and utilized the new technologies of digital signal processing (DSP) and touch-screen to create a new synthesizer. What’s really exciting is it has its own sound, but it’s based on the sonic history of our company.”
Since the dawn of the transistor, which enabled Robert Moog to create his first analog synthesizer, DSP and touch-screen technology probably are the most significant advancements to come along for synthesizers throughout the industry at large, Lance observed. And with each passing year, he noted, the power of microcontrollers and microchips continues to rise and their size and cost continue to decline.
“DSP technology is probably as significant a step in the evolution of synthesizers as the transition from tubes to transistors,” he said, adding that the adoption of touch-screen technology was a huge innovation for synthesizers, enabling a better user interface and improvements in overall synthesizer design. “That has opened a lot of doors in terms of how you can control sound.”
Moog Music straddles the old analog technology and the new digital technology, Lance said, but the focus is on using new technology to enhance the legacy building blocks that have a certain analog sound and personality.
“Our modern synthesizers can be controlled and interface with the digital world seamlessly now, so advances in microelectronics have enabled us to create modern analog synthesizers that work seamlessly in the modern digital-production department, but still retain their essential analog soul. µ