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Synthesizer pioneer Moog dies at 71

Robert Moog was one of the fathers of modern electronic music, creating hugely influential early instruments. Photos: Putting on the Moog music

Anyone who has ever run their fingers over the keys of a synthesizer, or danced to pounding electronic music in a nightclub, owes a debt to Robert Moog.

Moog, one of the early pioneers in electronic instruments, died Sunday at the age of 71, after being diagnosed with brain cancer in late April.

An inventor and entrepreneur, Moog came up with an early synthesizer that was among the first electronic instruments to be widely used by musicians, and was ultimately deeply influential in the development of many modern music genres, from rock to electronica.

"Bob shaped music in deep and meaningful ways by changing how music could be produced and ultimately, how it would sound," Michael Adams, president of Moog Music, said in a statement. "He was a musical pioneer for the love of it, and musicians everywhere have had the opportunity to expand their own creative horizons with Bob's inventions."

Moog (whose name rhymes with "vogue," not "fugue") wasn't the first to experiment with the electronic creation of sound, but his work led in large part to the commonplace use of synthesizers across the music industry.

Robert Moog

He began his career as a student at Cornell University in the early 1960s, when he published a magazine article outlining how to build a "theremin," the very early electronic instrument invented in Russia in 1919 that produces the eerie whistling sound familiar to most from the "Star Trek" theme song. He started a small business to sell theremin kits, selling them on the side while he was in school.

In later interviews, he said he began discussing the need for new electronic instruments with one of his customers, a composer named Herb Deutsch, and by late 1964 he had a first prototype made. Word filtered around the then-small electronic music community that he was doing something interesting, and a representative from the prestigious Audio Engineering Society contacted him, inviting him to fill a booth at a convention.

Moog set up a card table at the show, showing off a few of his prototypes, and was surprised to take several orders, including one from a technician at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where much of the work on electronic music was being done.

Still working on his Ph.D. thesis at the time, he worked part-time with a small staff to complete orders. By mid-1965, he'd finally finished school, and other orders were coming in quickly. The sound hit the popular culture in full force in 1968 with the release of Wendy Carlos' album "Switched on Bach," which won three Grammy awards.

Moog's early synthesizers were "modular," which meant that individual components (usually in near-suitcase-size packages) could be linked together with patch cables, and collectively controlled with a keyboard. In 1971 his company created a smaller version with a keyboard attached, called a Minimoog, in response to musicians' requests for something they could actually carry to performances.

The Moog boom settled down a few years later, however. Moog himself sold his company, but kept working there to design new products until the late 1970s. He then continued to design electronic instruments, including theremins and guitar effects pedals, for a series of his own companies, before ultimately buying the Moog Music name back in 2002.

Over time, the Moog sound was adopted on albums by the Beatles, Parliament, Funkadelic and Herbie Hancock, among many others.

Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess remembers first hearing a Moog solo on a record as a 17-year-old classical piano student at the Julliard School in the early 1970s. After figuring out what the instrument was, he covered his bedroom wall with pictures of the Minimoog, and ultimately persuaded his parents to buy one as his first electronic system, he said.

"Thirty years later, I still play my Moog synthesizers and they continue to blow my mind," Rudess said. "He was a really kind and wonderful guy. He changed so many people's lives."

Kevin Lightner, a California music technician who worked with Moog on and off over several decades, said the inventor's role in music history is secure.

"People will argue whether he was the father of the synthesizer or wasn't the father of the synthesizer, but the fact is he was a huge pivotal figure," Lightner said. "There were tons of industries that jumped off from his work."

Moog's family has established the Bob Moog Foundation in his honor, dedicated to advancing electronic music. More information about Moog, including reminisces by people who knew him, can be found at a CaringBridge site dedicated to his memory.