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A Young Person's Guide To Electronic Music | Robert Moog

The father of the voltage controlled synthesiser lectures in London, and E&MM reports.

Illustrating the technical aspects with a Sonic 6.

During September this year, one of the best known figures in electronic music equipment design, Dr. Robert A. Moog, visited this country to give a series of lectures entitled 'A Young Person's Guide to Electronic Music'. These lectures, held at the Science Museum, London, were sponsored by Syco Systems, importers of the Fairlight CMI and other exotic music-making equipment.

Dr. Moog has been involved in electronic music since his university days, setting up R. A. Moog Co. as a part-time business in 1954. He in actual fact obtained two degrees, one in Physics and one in Electrical Engineering before his PhD in Engineering Physics.

In 1973 his company, now Moog Music Inc., became a division of Norlin Industries, but later in 1977 Dr. Moog left Moog Music to form a new company, Big Briar Inc. who specialise in designing custom electronic and computer music controllers.

Three lectures in all were given covering The History of Electronic Music, its Technical Aspects and the Musical Applications.

Lecture 1

"Within the past fifteen years, electronic music has come from being an experimental laboratory curiosity to an important component of our musical experience. This first lecture deals with the history of electronic musical instruments, especially with regard to how inventors over the past eighty years have chosen to meet what they perceived to be the needs of musicians.

The Telharmonium was a very large electric musical instrument that was built in the United States around the turn of the century. It used one generator for each pitch, each generator producing up to 15 kilowatts of power! The installation resembled a power plant more than a music studio. Subscribers received 'Telharmonic Music' over phone lines - the first known precursor of Muzak.

The invention of the vacuum tube (valve) around 1914 ushered in the age of electronics. One of the first electronic musical instruments, invented in 1920, was the Theremin, an expressive-instrument that is played by the motion of the performer's hands in the space surrounding the instrument, the right hand controlled the pitch, while the left controlled amplitude with no tactile reference at all! Another was the Ondes Martenot, which used the same general technology as the Theremin, but employed a keyboard and a sliding band. Ondes Martenots are still heard in concert.

Yet another important instrument of the 30's was the Trautonium, which introduced the concept of 'Formant Control', that is the simulation of acoustic resonances, that enabled the performer to shape tone colour as well as pitch or loudness.

The first instrument to be called a synthesiser was developed by Coupleaux and Givelet and shown at the Paris Exposition in 1929. It used pneumatic player piano mechanisms to actuate pitch and tone colour changes. Another important early synthesiser was the Hanert Synthesiser, built around 1940 in the United States by John Hanert, chief engineer of the Hammond Organ Company. The Hanert Synthesiser consisted of an array of photocells that 'read' a graphic score, plus a large bank of electronic sound producing circuitry that responded to the 'output' of the photocells. The 'score' for the Hanert was a long piece of paper, perhaps twenty metres long, a bit like shelf paper. The photocells rode on an automated carriage along the paper to read the score. After the Second World War, the Radio Corporation of America developed a similar large synthesiser. The RCA synthesiser used a paper roll that was punched like a piano roll, to programme the sound producing circuitry. The RCA Synthesiser is still in use at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City.

The Moog synthesiser was developed in 1964 in response to the needs of musicians who were learning to compose with tape recorders, and needed to generate and modify sounds electronically in a wide variety of ways. The Moog synthesiser came to the public attention when electronic music composer Walter Carlos transcribed several pieces by J. S. Bach for Moog synthesiser, and assembled the transcriptions on a multitrack tape recorder. Carlos' Switched-on Bach was enormously successful, at least in the United States, and precipitated a deluge of 'Moog Records', which, in turn, opened up the ears of keyboard Rock musicians who were also in the process of delving into musical electronics. British keyboardist Keith Emerson was responsible for much innovative 'Moog Playing' during the early '70's.

Today, synthesisers are widely sold and accepted by professional keyboardists, especially rock and jazz musicians. However, a new horizon is coming into view: computer musical instruments. Computers have much to offer musicians. They are the most versatile tools that musicians have ever had to work with. Computer technology and computer musical instruments such as the Fairlight, will provide musicians with new, musically potent resources for years and decades to come."

Lecture 2

Dr. Robert A. Moog.

"Electronic music is not a type of music. It is a musical medium that is defined by its technical nature. Contrary to what many people think, there is nothing new about musicians using technical developments to make music. In their days, a drum of supple animal skin, a carved reed flute, a lute, a trombone, and a grand piano, were the very height of technology. The point is that musicians have always employed the most sophisticated, technologically advanced instruments. Except for singing, music would not exist at all without technology. It is the same today. Electronic music and computer music is new only in that it uses today's technology instead of the technology of some other era.

Each new musical-technological medium enlarges the resources that are available to musicians. No medium outmodes' or replaces' any other. Most electronic musicians see themselves as part of the total musical scene, not the practitioners of some isolated, inaccessible art.

What, then, are the potent new resources of the electronic music medium? As I see it, it is the ability to build up sounds, sound patterns, and complete pieces of music from component parts. An electronic musician usually starts by constructing a sound out of basic elements. The elements are:

The Oscillator that makes regularly-repeating waveforms that are heard as pitched tones;

The Filter that emphasises some part of the sound spectrum and cuts others out, thereby altering the tone colour;

The Amplifier or the Articulator that shape the overall sound;

The Modulator that imparts regularly repeating variations in otherwise static sounds;

The Envelope Generator that varies a property of a sound once per sound event, and; The Noise Source, that produces random, unpitched sound.

These are the basic sound generating and modifying processes that electronic musicians use. Rich, interesting, complex sound can be built by combining many of these processes.

Synthesisers are instruments that offer many of these resources to musicians in a convenient, logical format, like a kit of tools. The term Synthesise means, after all, to assemble a complete entity out of its component parts.

Once the sound itself is produced, musicians then use a variety of programming and controlling devices to assemble many sounds into a melody, a sequence, or a texture. The device that is most familiar is the keyboard controller, that enables a musician to play successions of sound of any texture. Another device is called a Sequencer, which may be thought of as an automated keyboard that can automatically produce repeating and other machine-generated patterns.

To produce the complete piece of music, a multitrack tape recorder is often used. One line of sound at a time is recorded. In a complex piece of music that is realised on a multitrack recorder, there is usually too much to control for one musician at one time, so the musician records just one line at a time. Then when the lines are all recorded, the musician mixes them together, using a mixing console. All of the music of Carlos, Tomita, Patrick Gleeson, as well as hundreds of other musical works, are made in this manner.

Thus, in producing a piece of electronic music, a musician may first perform the role of Composer, deciding how his music will be organised, then the role of Instrument Builder, setting his equipment up to make the desired material, then the role of Performer, playing the tones on a keyboard or similar device, and finally the role of Conductor, combining all the lines of sound to make the final music.

Computer music is the newest development. Computers can be used in all phases of music production. They can be programmed to assist in composition, to produce tones directly, to generate melodies and sequences, and to programme entire pieces of music. Computers are the most potent tools that have ever been available to musicians. However, we can expect that it will take many years before we learn how to programme computers too so that musicians can have easy access to all the potential resource of computers."

Lecture 3

Dr. Moog mimes to a piece played on the Theremin.

In this lecture Dr. Moog played various taped samples of music showing the vast variety of work which has been performed in the electronic music medium.

The first tape was of a piece by Ravel, played by Clara Rockmore who was a violin virtuoso until she lost the use of her shoulder. In this recording she, accompanied by her sister, had transferred her musicianship to the Theremin, which had been specially built for her by Leon Theremin himself. It was a very moving recording proving that it is the skill of the musician which makes electronic music emotional.

The next piece was by Walter Carlos. He was interested in synthesisers in their earliest days, composing pieces for commercials to make some money to pay for equipment. The piece was from 'Switched on Bach' which was nothing short of sensational when it was released in 1968. This opened the ears of a lot of musicians.

Five years later another classical work was released this time by the Japanese commercial musician Isao Tomita; 'Snowflakes are Dancing' was a fully electronic transcription of the work of Debussy. "This was much more clouded, more richly sonic than the orchestral performance."

At this time some members of the music industry saw the synthesiser as the gimmick of the year and imagined that anybody could make music with it. Dr. Moog illustrated this with three very mechanical versions of popular records which were assembled mainly to make money. "A skill and talent was needed to create expressive music beyond reading a score with mechanical perfection. Differences on the threshold of our hearing make music sound interesting to our ears - with feeling."

Rock musicians were becoming interested in the new medium, but you couldn't take all this studio equipment on stage - or could you? "Keith Emerson's use of the synthesiser on stage, difficult as it was, opened up the ears of a lot of performing rock musicians, introducing the synthesiser to the rock community." 'Hoedown' (from ELP's Trilogy) was played to demonstrate his inventive use of the synthesiser.

"Another rock musician, Jan Hammer, was the one who was most responsible for developing what musicians call 'the wheel technique' for bending pitch in a guitar like fashion." This was illustrated by an all Minimoog piece, 'No Fear', from the album 'Like Children'.

"Since then people have taken the trouble to develop a technique to play synthesisers." Another piece called 'Train' which "creates an experience or a feeling" was by 'Mother Mallards Portable Masterpiece Company'.

Computer generated music was demonstrated by Jean Claude Rousay's, 'Mutations 1' and a piece by the Austrian composer Hubert Bognermayr called 'Erdenklang' played on the Fairlight CMI and sent to his friends as a Christmas greeting.

Excerpts from the film music of 'Apocalypse Now', composed by 4 studio synthesists and 'Tron' by Wendy Carlos illustrates how "Electronic music has now come full circle. Wendy Carlos looks on the synthesiser merely as a musical resource to be completely assimilated into an orchestra."

Dr. Moog finished the lecture by playing two 'Moog' records of popular arrangements which were "interesting for what the musician was able to impart to his music in the way of personality."

Current ventures

Although no longer with Moog Music, Dr. Moog is still heavily involved in instrument design and manufacture. He is now following his main interest which is making controllers which allow the musician a more intuitive control over the sound making process and are limited only by the musicians ability to play.

In a future issue we will be publishing an in-depth interview with Dr. Moog.

Previous Article in this issue

Allen & Heath 1221

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Nov 1982


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