Bob Moog: An Inspired Life in Sound

Dr. Robert "Bob" Moog is best known for inventing the the Moog synthesizer in 1964, revolutionizing the world of music by providing musicians with a vastly expanded sonic universe. How did he get to that point, and what came afterward?

By Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

We explore his life's path to find out.

Robert Moog, Age 14

This striking self-portrait was taken in Robert's bedroom in the spring of 1948, in Flushing, Queens, New York City. It was submitted with his application to Bronx High School of Science, an elite specialty high school where he longed to be admitted for many years.

He went by his full name, "Robert", until he was about 20 years old. At the time of this photo, when he was 13, about to be 14, Robert showed a talent for music, having taken piano lessons since the age of four years old, and also for science. Just a year earlier, he had listed his “science hobbies” in a letter to his grandmother as biology, chemistry, electricity, electro-chemistry, and electronics.

Bob Moog Self PortraitBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Robert's Eighth Grade Class

Robert attended public elementary school at PS 24 through 8th grade. The school was about a half a mile (.8 kilometers) from his house, so he walked there each morning. Robert was an excellent student, winning various awards for his academic achievements. He was a self-described geeky kid who was particularly talented in science and math. He lamented that he didn't really fit in with the "jocks" in his class, and was excited to be graduating and attending the elite Bronx High School of Science. He is pictured here, top row, second from right, with the rest of his graduating class.

PS 24 Graduation Photo 1948Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Robert, playing hand-built theremin

Robert, 15 years old, demonstrating one of his first hand-built theremins in the basement of the family home, likely at a family gathering. He started making electronic hobbyist projects with his father, George Conrad Moog, an electrical engineer for Con Edison, in his early teenage years. Father and son spent countless hours in the basement workshop creating a variety of small instruments, but the younger Moog soon developed a fascination for the theremin and dedicated himself to studying its circuitry design. He designed the circuitry for the theremin pictured here. His father, an amateur woodworker, crafted the cabinet.

Bob Moog Demonstrating Early ThereminBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

"The Theremin", 1954 magazine article

Robert became proficient enough at building theremins over the next few years that he wrote a DIY article on how to build a theremin, which was published in January of 1954 in hobbyist magazine Radio and Television News, when he was just 19 years old. This article launched  his career, with people beginning to order parts to build theremins, as well as assembled theremins, directly from his new company.

Cover, Radio & Television NewsBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

"The Theremin", Robert MoogBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

The Birth of R.A. Moog Co.

R.A. Moog Co.'s first ad (left), placed in Radio and Television News to accompany his first how-to theremin article.

Early R.A. Moog Co. AdvertisementBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Robert had this logo designed just as he began making early theremins in 1954. It exemplified his central position in the young company, and its dedication to  music through vacuum tube-based musical instruments. 

R.A. Moog LogoBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

The First R.A. Moog Catalog

One of the earliest R.A. Moog Company catalogs, informing customers of available products and educating them about this little-known instrument.

R.A. Moog Theremin Catalog (1954)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Note the family home address, where Bob's business was founded. 

R.A. Moog Theremin Catalog Back Cover (1954)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob with his parents, Shirley and George Moog, circa 1955

Around this time, Robert begins to refer to himself as Bob. At the time of this photo with his parents, he was attending Queens College, located about a mile away from the family home. He was enrolled in a five year joint program with Columbia University wherein he spent two years completing his general classes at Queens and three years studying engineering at Columbia, resulting in two bachelor’s degrees, one in electrical engineering, the other in engineering physics. He continued to expand his theremin business throughout his college years.

Robert Moog with parents Shirley and George Moog (1955)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Street view of the Moog family home on Parsons Boulevard in Flushing, Queens, New York, where the R.A. Moog Company was based in his father’s basement workshop. As the company grew, Robert's father, George Moog, built him his own workshop in the attic, from which he ran his business while attending college at Queens College and Columbia University.

Acceptance Letter from Cornell University

Bob was accepted to Cornell University as a graduate student for studies in Engineering Physics in the fall of 1957. When he moved to Ithaca, NY from New York City to attend Cornell, he took his theremin business with him and continued to manufacture new models from his various small apartments during graduate school. With this new iteration of his business he, instead of his father, was fabricating the wood cabinets as well as the circuitry.

Acceptance Letter from Cornell (1969)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob and Shirleigh Moog, June 1958

Bob married Shirley May Leigh in the summer of 1958. Shirley changed the spelling of her first name to Shirleigh, combining her first and maiden name, to differentiate herself from her mother-in-law, Shirley J. Moog. Bob and Shirleigh are pictured here on the steps of their first apartment just outside of Ithaca, NY. While Bob attended graduate school, Shirleigh taught elementary school in a nearby two-room schoolhouse.

Bob and Shirleigh Moog (1968)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Electronics World Magazine, 1961

Pending the birth of their first child, Bob decided to write an article on how to build a battery-operated transistorized theremin (transistors being fairly new technology at the time) to help generate some income while he was working on his graduate thesis. The article was so successful that Bob sold more than 1,000 theremin kits over a two year period, with Shirleigh assembling the kits on the couple's kitchen table late into her pregnancy and beyond.

Cover, Electronics World MagazineBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob, with baby Laura, Summer 1961

Bob and Shirleigh had their first child, Laura, in May of 1961, while Bob was still in graduate school and running R.A. Moog, Co., making theremins on the side.

Bob Moog and Daughter Laura (1975)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob Surrounded by Curious Attendees, NY High Fidelity Show

Bob's Melodia theremin, which sold for $49.95 as a kit, was so popular that he decided to show it publicly at the New York High Fidelity Show in 1961.

Bob Moog Demonstrating Melodia Theremin (1961)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Herb Deutsch With Early Moog Synthesizer

Herb Deutsch, a young music professor at Hofstra University, used one of Bob's Melodia theremins in his classroom. He was also an experimental jazz composer, and after meeting Bob at the New York State School Music Association conference in the Fall of 1963, he asked Bob to build him an instrument that would create new sounds for his compositions. The two collaborated in the summer of 1964 at Bob's R.A. Moog Co. workshop in Trumansburg, NY, with Bob building the circuitry and Herb specifying the musical needs. The result was this early Moog modular synthesizer, the instrument that would go on to pave the way for a revolution in the world of music.

Herb Deutsch composing on Moog PrototypeBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob's PhD Certificate, 1965

After eight years of pursuing his doctoral degree while raising two children (daughter Renée born in 1963), running a theremin business, and a burgeoning synthesizer business, Bob earns his PhD in Engineering Physics after eight years of study.

Bob Moog Diploma from Cornell University (1965)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Mickey Dolenz with Moog Synthesizer, 1967

The early Moog synthesizers eventually evolved into more complex systems, like this Moog IIIP modular synthesizer, being played here by Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. The Monkees had one of the earliest songs in pop music to use the Moog synthesizer, "Daily Nightly", released in November of 1967. The Doors, The Byrds, and The Beatles also had early hits using the Moog synthesizer from 1967-1969.

Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees playing Moog modular synthesizerBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Switched-on Bach, Wendy Carlos, 1968

While the Moog synthesizer was used in several pop songs in the late 1960s, mostly adding subtle background sounds, it was this groundbreaking album by Wendy Carlos that brought the Moog synthesizer to the fore as a true musical instrument. Switched-On Bach, released in October 1968, was the best-selling classical album and remained so for many years. It won two GRAMMY awards and remains a standard for innovative use of the early technology.

Third daughter Michelle was born in March of this same year.

Wendy Carlos - Switched On BachBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob on the Today Show with Hugh Downs, 1969

Following the success of Switched-On Bach, Bob and Wendy Carlos were invited on the Today Show with Hugh Downs, a reflection of how popular Wendy's music, and the instrument she  had used to create it, had become.

Bob Moog, Hugh Downs on the Today ShowBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Jazz in the Garden Concert at MOMA, August 28, 1969

Following the success of Switched-On Bach, R.A. Moog Co. became increasingly visible and experienced significant growth in their modular synthesizer sales. On August 28, 1969, a team of engineers from the company and two quartets of musicians traveled to New York City to offer a concert at the Museum of Modern Art for the "Jazz In the Garden" concert series. This was one of the first times that multiple large modular synthesizers were used in live performance. This concert was one of many highlights for the company that year.

Bob Moog, Jazz In the Garden Concert, MOMABob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

1970 GRAMMY Trustees Award

In 1970, Bob was recognized by the GRAMMY association with a Trustees Award, given to an individual who, during his or her career in music, had made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording.

Bob Moog's GRAMMY Trustees AwardBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Receiving 1970 New York Small Businessman of the Year Award

Bob received the New York Small Businessman of the Year Award in 1970. Ironically, this is the same year that the company slipped into debt and near bankruptcy after orders for the expensive, complex modular synthesizer systems saw a steep decline.

Son Matthew, Bob and Shirleigh’s fourth child, was born in February of this year.

Bob Moog Receiving New York State Small Businessman of the Year AwardBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Moog Music, Inc. Factory

To relieve the company of its crushing debt load of $250,000 ($1,700,000 in today’s money), Bob sold R.A. Moog Co. in 1971 to venture capitalist Bill Waytena for the price of the debt alone. Waytena moved the company to the more industrial Buffalo, New York, and changed the name to Moog Music, Inc. Bob remained the president of the company, but in name only. Waytena ran the business, and Bob, over the next six years, gradually became less and less involved in synthesizer design and was used more as a figurehead. 

Moog Music Factory Williamsville, NYBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob with Minimoog and Moog Modular Synthesizer

Bob is shown here around 1971/1972, with the company's new Minimoog synthesizer (developed by the engineering team at R.A. Moog, Co. in an attempt to save the company). The first 200 units were sold by R.A. Moog, Co. in late 1970 and 1971. After the company was purchased, moved, and re-named, sales of the Minimoog soared due in great part to the tireless efforts of super salesman David VanKoevering. The Minimoog went on to become the most iconic analog synthesizer of all time, with over 12,260 units sold through 1982.

Bob Moog with Minimoog and Moog ModularBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Big Briar Logo

After years of being treated with disregard by Bill Waytena, Bob Moog left Moog Music, Inc. at the end of 1977. He moved his family to the mountains of western North Carolina in June of 1978, and that month established his own business, Big Briar, Inc., for the purpose of manufacturing custom electronic musical instruments. Big Briar is named after Big Briar Cove, where the family lived. Due to an agreement with his former employer, Moog Music, he no longer had the right to use his last name in the name of his new company.

Big Briar, Inc. Logo (1978)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Fayetteville Times Article

The move to North Carolina represented a shift in Bob's life away from the stress of corporate life, and allowed him to focus on designing instruments and devices that he felt were of particular importance to advancing the world of synthesis. During this period he also wrote scores of articles for Keyboard and Electronic Musician magazines, consulted for various synthesizer companies, and spent more time with his family.

Fayetteville Times Article about Bob Moog Moving to AshevilleBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Big Briar Alternative Controllers

By 1980, one of Bob's passions was adding more human nuance to access the realms of synthesis, as he believed that was missing from contemporary synthesizer design. That led him to create a series of alternative controllers in 1982, including the X/Y touchpad controller (which showed up decades later in the Minimoog Voyager), a theremin controller, and a small multi-touch sensitive keyboard controller. He was also working with avant garde opera composer John Eaton on a much larger Multiple Touch Sensitive (MTS) Keyboard at that time.

Bob Moog with Big Briar ControllersBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

The Kurzweil Years 1985-1989

One of the companies that Bob consulted for in the early 1980s was Boston-based Kurzweil Music, founded by Ray Kurzweil. In 1984, Kurzweil offered Bob a position as Vice President of New Product Research, which he accepted and remained there until 1989. This position allowed Bob to earn a salary that could support his family, which Big Briar did not. In 1989, Bob returned to North Carolina, where he taught at UNC-Asheville and resumed his work with Big Briar, making custom instruments, theremins and Moogerfoogers.

Kurzweil Advertisement Featuring Bob MoogBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob playing a rare Big Briar 91C Series theremin at UNC-Asheville. 

Bob with the Voyager

A lot of things changed for Bob after returning to Asheville. In 1994, he and Shirleigh divorced after 36 years together; he married philosophy professor Ileana Grams, expanded Big Briar, won back the right to use his name on musical instruments, changed the company name to Moog Music in 2002, and partnered with Mike Adams, a local businessman. Bob was then able to concentrate on building new instruments, like the Minimoog Voyager, an updated version of the iconic Minimoog, shown above. His professional life had come full circle.

Bob Moog Laughing with VoyagerBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Bob Moog, 1934-2005

Bob was diagnosed with a brain tumor in late April 2005, and passed away less than four months later, on August 21, 2005. In lieu of a long string of tributes, the family decided on "Good Vibrations" as a summation of his life. Bob is remembered by legions of people all over the world for revolutionizing the world of music by making synthesis accessible to musicians in the mid-1960s, for creating highly-crafted, legendary instruments, and for his humility and warm, creative spirit.

Bob Moog Grave MarkerBob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

Credits: Story

 All images from the Bob Moog Foundation Archives and the Moog Family Archives

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