Robert Moog, the man who set the synth ball rolling in the first place, on the receiving end of questions from German journalist Henning Lohner.
We start an occasional series of interviews with the people behind today's musical technology. First behind the microphone is Robert Moog, father of modern sound synthesis and now Chief Scientist for Kurzweil.
E&MM: You've probably told the story many times, but how did you get around to working with Kurzweil? Was the fact that your own company stopped making synthesisers the main reason you looked for someone else to work with?
Bob Moog: I left Moog Music in 1977 — that was about when my employment contract came to an end. I felt at that time that I wasn't going anywhere, and Moog Music - or the company that owned it at the time, Norlin Industries - didn't seem to know exactly what I should be doing for them. So I thought I'd do some consulting and some custom instrument-building, which I did from '77 till about 1982 or '83.
But I always thought it would be nice if I could find a company with a management team that I respected, where the head of the company understood what my contribution could be. And finally it happened! In the summer of '83 I visited the very first Kurzweil exhibit at the Music Merchants Convention. At that time there wasn't even a commercial product, just a demonstration of a computer program which you could play from a keyboard. Then I met Ray Kurzweil and several of the other people who were with the company at the time. At the beginning of '84, I was hired as a consultant for one project, completed that project, and was then hired in an ongoing consultancy capacity.
The more I worked for them, the more I enjoyed the work and, apparently, the more they saw the benefit I could be to the company. Finally, at the end of last summer, they made me an offer which I found very attractive... I decided it was in the interest of everybody for me to move to Boston and join the company full-time.
So what exactly is your function within Kurzweil?
My title is Chief Scientist, though that doesn't really describe what I've been doing. It's an interesting position. In fact, for someone like me who has a lot of ideas but not much administrative capability, it's an ideal position.
I exist partly in marketing and partly in engineering. The engineering side of my effort is directed towards what you would call 'basic research': exploring new ideas before they actually have to be incorporated into new products, so we know what they're capable of doing. In particular, I'm interested in new designs for keyboard actions and keyboard motion sensing. It's an ongoing thing — a very little bit of my work wound up in the 250, but a lot more of it will find its way into succeeding products that'll be introduced in the future.
I began my consultancy by working on keyboard designs, making certain recommendations to improve the feel of the keyboard on the present 250. Those recommendations were in fact incorporated before the instrument went into series production.
Right now, I'm not directly involved with any other parts of the instrument. There's a limited amount that I can do to get everything done properly in a reasonable amount of time. I'm concentrating on keyboard work, and I'm also helping the rest of the engineers with my own experience. For instance, one contribution I made to the audio channels of the 250 was by way of just working with one of the engineers to give him my experience of working with that sort of circuitry. And that was a great help to the company.
Are you going to do anything with sampling and/or the synthesis of sounds themselves?
I think eventually, yes... Now that we have Kurzweil users sampling and the 'MacAttach' method of connecting the keyboard to the Apple Macintosh computer, it shouldn't take too long. If you're wondering, the reason we weren't majoring on that side of things at Frankfurt this year was simple. 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 getting confused. They thought you had to have the computer in order to operate the 250; in fact, you don't need it at all. Right now, the computer is just used to dump sound files and sequence files onto and then recall them from. Eventually, the computer will be used for more than that as the software develops, but at the moment it's just the storage medium. All the usual manipulation of the keyboard and its sounds, as well as the storage of an individual sound sample itself, takes place within the 250.
There's been criticism of Kurzweil's decision to tie the user-sampling facility in with the Apple Macintosh. After all, it isn't really the world's most accessible micro. Have you worked with any other computers besides the Macintosh?
No. Needless to say, we had a lot of discussions about which computer we should go for. In the end, the Macintosh was selected for three main reasons. The first is that its graphics capabilities are really terrific, and they're in line with what we needed in order to have a system that could operate with a musical instrument. We wanted to be able to dispense with the alphanumeric keyboard as a means of input, and in fact all the software being designed now conforms with that. To store and retrieve information, all you need is a 'mouse' and the music keyboard.
The second thing is that the operating system of the Macintosh is easily compatible with that of the 250. They're both 68000-based machines, and that makes it relatively easy to do some fairly complex interactive things. And the third reason is that the Macintosh is getting to be - in the United States anyhow - a very popular and readily available computer.
"As time goes on, composers are going to be looking more towards writing for electronic instruments than they are for acoustic ones."
So can we conclude that you'll be working with computers a lot more in the foreseeable future?
Yeah. Up till now, there was no possibility to use the 250 with a computer, even though a computer 'porthole' and some software already existed inside the machine. Now we have some software for the Apple Macintosh, and we'll certainly have a lot more, so in that sense, all our customers will have much more to do with computers in the near future than they have now.
Still on the subject of the 250, can you explain the concept behind Contoured Sound Modelling?
Well, it's a proprietary scheme. And 'proprietary' is a polite word for 'we're not going to tell you what it is'! It's a very complex, elaborate set of software programs used to compress the data of a series of sounds. What it enables us to do is get a lot of data into a reasonable amount of memory.
If we took just raw sounds and digitised them, we'd run into problems. For instance, every key on a piano is different, and within each key, every level of dynamics has its own waveform. It's not just a matter of loudness - the whole waveform changes.
Now, we want to get all that information in there because we want to be able to reconstruct all those differences, but we also want to eliminate all the superfluous information - the redundant data that's not needed in order for that reconstruction to take place. And that's what Contoured Sound Modelling is all about. If all the sounds that are in the 250 now were there without their data being compressed, we'd need more memory chips than are manufactured in a year.
So where does the Kurzweil system go from here as far as add-ons are concerned?
Well, we have a couple of options that are available right now, though both of them need to be installed at a Service Centre, obviously. The first is the provision for user-sampling, and the second is a whole new block of factory 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 gotten through to compressing.
I want to stress that Contoured Sound Modelling is not one program. It's a lot more than just one little trick. It would take hours and hours to explain all the things it entails, because the software engineers that use those programs to develop and compress sounds spend months on any given sound, getting it to the point where it's suitable for playing on a keyboard at all dynamic levels across the entire length of the keyboard.
That applies especially to the grand piano sound, then?
Well, we actually started off with recordings of grand piano sounds, but it's not all the same piano. We actually picked one grand piano for the bass, another for the midrange, and a third for the top end. That way, we found we got what seemed to be a richer, more even range than we could have achieved with any of the instruments on their own.
So, putting commercial considerations to one side as far as possible, how do you feel the Kurzweil compares to instruments like the Fairlight and PPG?
"My boss, Ray Kurzweil, has made the outrageous statement that he's going to bury the acoustic piano - I think he might just pull that off."
The PPG, Fairlight and Synclavier, instruments of that size, are primarily studio instruments. You're expected to develop your own sounds and spend a lot of time putting music together on them. OK, you can play a PPG or a Fairlight perfectly well in a live situation, but their orientation is still very much towards the studio type of environment. You have your alphanumeric keyboard and your display, and with a lot of work, you can do some very beautiful things. Which is fine - the way you create beautiful things is by putting a lot of work into them.
But the 250 is the only machine that's conceived primarily as a performance instrument. Of course, it has plenty of studio features as well, such as a complete multi-channel sequencer and a great sound synthesising and editing capability, but when you're all done, it's easier to play those things from the 250 than from any other instrument. You've got an 88-note keyboard which is velocity-sensitive, there's an enormous amount of memory to hold all the sounds so that you don't have to load in every sound off disk, and all those sounds are rich, musical voices — piano, violins, guitars, xylophone, trumpets - and they're all available instantly.
I actually have a Fairlight myself, and I love the damn thing! It's like a wonderland to me - all these things you can do. But if I wanted to give a sit-down concert the way our musicians do at a show like Frankfurt, I'd much rather have a 250.
What personal projects are there that you'd still like to realise, apart from being at Kurzweil now? Do you have anything particular on your mind that you'd like to achieve?
Well, my work on keyboards is just a part of my overall interest in manual control devices. I really think the next big frontier in electronic musical instruments is going to be touch-sensitive control. Even the keyboards we've got now don't offer anything like the amount of control that we could achieve. The keyboard could be much more sensitive to physical exertion.
Is it part of your current philosophy to try to extract the performability of acoustic instruments from electronic devices? Are you trying to make electronic music more 'live'?
Well it already is live! What we lack right now is control over nuance, I think. I know some people believe that's the way electronic music is and probably always will be, but 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, your breath, or your feet, then there's no reason why you can't play music that is more interesting, more appealing, more responsive than what you can currently achieve with what we have now.
Do you see a blending together of electronic and acoustic instruments ever occurring in the field of, say, symphony orchestras, as opposed to rock bands?
I don't know about symphony orchestras. The symphony orchestra is a mature, complete medium of musical expression. It hasn't changed that much in the last 100 years, and I really don't think it's going to change any more. There might be special synthesiser-and-orchestra type things, but when you start getting into the world of the electronic band, you're really talking about a different medium of musical expression.
There'll continue to be symphony orchestras, just as there'll continue to be string quartets and concert pianists - and they'll continue to play. I think that among people who play 18th, 19th and 20th Century keyboard music, the acoustic piano will still be looked upon as the instrument. But as time goes on, I think composers are going to be looking more towards writing for electronic instruments than they are for acoustic ones.
So you see the two sides co-existing for the foreseeable future, in much the same way as cinema and theatre, for instance?
Exactly. You know, just because you can go and see Raiders of the Lost Ark on a super-wide screen and with six channels of Dolby sound, doesn't mean to say theatre is dead. People will always want to go and see plays.
Let's take something else. When you have dance troupes going around performing in different parts of the world, you start talking about practical matters. My wife loves to go to see both classical ballet and modern dance, so over the years I've seen a lot of these troupes come through from all over the world. Some of them have been strictly classical, some of them highly experimental, and some of them right in between, but what they all have in common is a desire for decent music to dance to. Usually, what they wind up doing - even the world-class ones - is bringing along a tape recorder and a couple of speakers.
For instance, we saw Baryshnikov quite recently, and that was a big event - high culture for where we were at the time. He brought just four musicians with him because that was as many as he could deal with. A synthesist, a keyboard player, a violinist, and I think a percussionist: and that was it. After that performance, my wife and I got talking with the synthesist on the subject of music for dance and I happened to mention that I was working for Kurzweil. To cut a long story short, that same musician is now going out as Baryshnikov's only musical accompanist - on a Kurzweil 250. And that wasn't something we pushed or got our PR people to do; it just happened.
It's going to happen a lot more, too, because a couple of people sitting at a couple of 250s can, for all practical purposes, make all the music a lot of dance troupes will ever need. They can make it live, and they can make it sound good. And you know, that seems to be a perfect compromise between dancing to a tape recorder and a couple of speakers on the one hand, and having to pay through the nose to hire a bunch of musicians on the other. So that's how I see things going.
My boss, Ray Kurzweil, has made the outrageous statement that he's going to bury the acoustic piano. And I think he might just pull that off, at least as far as home instruments are concerned. You know, most of us learn to play the piano not on a nine-foot Steinway grand but on a spinet or an upright piano that our parents managed to save up for with great effort. Now that's becoming harder because wood is getting more expensive, labour is getting more expensive and, by and large, the pianos you can get for a reasonable price are getting lower and lower quality. On the other hand, the 250 and the instruments that'll follow it will be getting cheaper and cheaper - that's the way it is with electronic equipment.
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Interview by Henning Lohner
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