The Moog Source
The father of modern synthesis talks exclusively to us about the new generation of sound creating instruments.
Henning Lohner attempts to extract sound secrets from the father of modern synthesis.
The name of Robert Moog must be amongst the best known in the world of electronic music. There can't be a single synthesist of any note who has not at one time or another owned or played a Moog, and at least one of the instruments he developed, the MiniMoog, ranks alongside the Hammond and the Fairlight as a contemporary keyboard classic.
Moog ended his association with the company that bears his name in 1977, and sought out fresh challenges, in freelance consultancy and custom instrument building. Yet the need to be involved in a forward-looking company persisted...
A chance meeting with Ray Kurzweil at the 1983 Music Merchants Convention in Atlanta, where Kurzweil was demonstrating an early computer-only prototype of the machine that would eventually become the 250 led to Moog being taken on as a consultant for the company, and finally in 1984 joining the company full time — bringing together two of the greatest names in musical instrument innovation.
I began by asking him about his work for Kurzweil:
R.M: My title is: "chief scientist". It doesn't really describe what I've been doing... I exist partly in marketing and partly in engineering. The engineering side of my effort is towards what you would call 'basic research', exploring new ideas before they actually have to be incorporated in new products, so we know what they're capable of doing. In particular, I'm interested in new designs for keyboard actions and keyboard motions sensing. And, this will be an ongoing thing... a very little bit of my work wound-up in the 250. A lot more of it will windup on succeeding products that will be introduced in the future."
The consulting you did at first, was that related to what you're doing now?
R.M: "Yes. I began my consultantship by working on keyboard designs by making certain recommendations to improve the keyboard feel of the present 250 and those recommendations were in fact incorporated before the instrument went into production."
Are you going to do anything with the sampling and/or synthesising of sounds themselves?
R.M: "I think eventually, yes... now that we have user sampling and that we have the "MacAttach" way to connect the Macintosh computer"
R.M: "Well I'll tell you why they didn't discuss it, but we can get into the technical details later... we began by having a Macintosh computer on top of one of the instruments during the demonstration and we found that in the short time that there was to demonstrate the instrument, a lot of people were confused. They thought you had to have the computer in order to operate the 250. Now, in fact you don't need a computer at all. The computer is just used to 'dump' sound files and sequence files onto and then recall them; eventually, the computer will be used for more than that as the software develops, but right now the computer is the storage medium, storage means. And all of the usual manipulation of the keyboards and sounds as well as the storing of an individual sound sample itself takes place within the 250."
Have you worked with any other computers besides the Macintosh?
R.M: "No... needless to say, we had discussions about which computer it could be. The Macintosh was selected because of three reasons: first is that its graphic capabilities are really terrific, and they're in line with what we needed to have a system that could operate with a musical instrument. We wanted to be able to dispense with the alphanumeric keyboard, and in fact all the software designed is like that now, that in order to use it, say to store/retrieve information, all you need is the 'mouse'. That's the first thing.
"The second thing is that the operating system of the Macintosh is very compatible with the operating system of the 250; they're both 68000 based machines. So it makes it easy to do some fairly complex interactive things. The third thing is that the Macintosh is getting to be — in the United States anyhow — a very popular and readily available computer.
Are similar things in graphics being planned such as PPG are doing with the wave-display?
R.M: "Yes. We will have a software package for that; that sort of thing will be done in the Macintosh. You need a very good graphics terminal to be able to do that. I can't say exactly when that will be, but it will come definitely.
Can one generally say that you'll be working much more with computers?
R.M: "Yeah... up 'till now there was no possibility to use the 250 with a computer, although there was a computer 'porthole' and although software existed. Now, we have software for the Apple Macintosh and we'll certainly have a lot more, so in that sense, all of our customers will have much more to do with computers in the near future than they do now."
About the 250: Kurzweil mentions something called "contoured sound modelling". Can you explain that a little?
R.M: Yeah, it's a proprietary scheme... and 'proprietary' is a polite word for "we're not going to tell you what it is"! It is a very complex, elaborate software, a set of programs that are used to compress the data of a series of sounds, so that we can get it into a reasonable amount of memory. If we took just raw sounds and digitized them — every sound, every key on the piano is different, for instance. And within one key, every level of dynamics has a different waveform. It's just not that it's louder, the whole waveform changes."
Which is a much more natural sound.
R.M: "Yeah, now we want to get all that information in there, we want to be able to construct those differences, but we want to eliminate all the superfluous information, you know, the redundancy, the information that we don't need in order to reconstruct this. And that's what "contoured sound modelling" is all about. If all the sounds that are in the machine now were without the data being compressed, it would take more memory chips than are made in a year!"
Do you think you'll be making separate units which you can add to the keyboard?
R.M: "Well, we have some options right now. They're options that need to be installed at a service center. One of them is the ability to sample sounds by the user and the other is a whole new block of sounds that have been developed recently. This new block is called the "daughter board"; it contains several dozen of the sounds that our software people have just gotten through to compressing.
"This whole "contoured sound modelling" is not one program, I want to stress that, it's not one little trick. You know, even if I was in a position to tell you how to do "contoured sound modeling" would take hours and hours to explain all the things that are done. The software engineers who use our "contoured sound modelling" programs to develop and compress sounds spend months, literally months on a given sound, getting it to where it sounds suitable for playing on a keyboard at all dynamic levels across the entire keyboard."
That grand piano sound for instance really is amazing.
R.M: "That, we started off with recordings of grand piano sounds, but it's not the same grand piano. We actually picked one grand piano for the bass, another one for the midrange, and a third one for the high. We found that way we got what seemed to be a more even, richer range than we could have with any one of those alone. So that's a level we give to developing our sounds.
In your view, how does the Kurzweil compare to instruments such as the PPG, for instance?
R.M: "The 250 is the only instrument which is conceived of primarily as a performance instrument. With studio features also in the instrument, you know there's a whole multichannel sequencer in there and all this amount of editing capability and synthesising capability to make your own sounds, but when you're all done, it is easier to play them on a 250 than on any other instrument because there is an 88 note keyboard (87 way split)) which is velocity sensitive.
"There's an enormous amount of memory that holds all these sounds where you don't have to load in every sound off a disk, and because these sounds are loaded in ahead of time and they're basic, rich musical sounds: piano, violins, guitars, xylophone, trumpets, well you've heard them. You know, these sounds are always in the instrument, always there when one wants to call on them, and that's why it's — I think — more suitable for live performances."
A look into the future; what personal projects could there be that you would like to realise, possibly apart from being at Kurzweil now? Is there something in your mind that you think you maybe can get to now?
R.M: "My work on keyboards is part of my overall interest in manual control devices. I really think the next big frontier in electronic-musical instruments now is going to be touch sensitive control. Mostly the instruments, most of the keyboards don't offer anywhere as near the amount of control that we could achieve.
This sounds like a hint to your 'philosophy'; if I may ask: compared to acoustic instruments, you're trying to make electronic music performable, to make it live.
R.M: Well it already is live! It lacks control over nuance, I think. Some people think, well, that's the way electronic music is; I don't see it that way. If you can take the same sound generators that we've had all along and attach to them very sensitive control devices that you can manipulate with your hands, with your breath, or with your feet, there's no reason why you can't play music that is more interesting, more appealing, more responsive than what you can do now without these things. "
Where do you think of the future of electronic versus acoustic instruments? Do you think there's going to be more mixing, such as in bands anyway, and also symphony orchestras having electronic instruments with them?
R.M: "I don't know... I don't know about symphony orchestras. Symphony orchestra is a mature, complete medium, a medium of musical expression. It hasn't changed that much in the last hundred years and I just don't think it's going to change any more. There might be special synthesiser and orchestra type things, but when you start talking about an electronic band, you're really talking about a different medium of musical expression. There will continue to be symphony orchestras, they'll continue to play — there will continue to be string quartets and concert pianists, and what not. I think among people who play 18th, 19th and 20th century keyboard music, they will continue to look to the acoustic piano because it's all part of the same thing. I think as time goes on, composers are going to be looking more towards writing for electronic instruments than they are for acoustic instruments — although, you know, there's both."