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How synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog brought electronic music to the masses

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Visiting Asheville, North Carolina, in December, I walked past a sandwich board that read, “Synth you’re here, come on in.” It was a pop-up store selling T-shirts, mugs, and other memorabilia commemorating one of the town’s most famous citizens, electronic music pioneer Bob Moog.

This month, celebrating what would be the inventor’s 85th birthday, that storefront reopens as the Moogseum. It celebrates not only Moog’s innovations, but also those of his contemporaries who created the synthesizers and other devices that transformed music beginning in the sixties and seventies. It’s the latest project of the Bob Moog Foundation–the nonprofit archive and educational institution established in 2006 by his youngest daughter, Michelle Moog-Koussa. (It’s unaffiliated with Moog Music, the company her father founded.)

Moog, who died in 2005, did not invent the synthesizer. Instead, “he’s the one who made it mainstream,” says Mark Ballora, professor of music technology at Penn State University. He became a celebrity, and people used “Moog” (which rhymes with “vogue”) as a synonym for electronic music.

A classically trained pianist, Moog worked closely with a wide range of musicians to understand what they wanted out of a device for generating electronic music. His synthesizers found incredibly diverse applications–from Herb Deutsch’s avant-garde compositions to Bernie Worrell’s funkadelic jams to Wendy Carlos’s classical music blockbuster Switched on Bach. Moog also collaborated with other inventors–including digital music pioneer Max Mathews and even rival synth maker Alan Pearlman (who died in January).

With today’s software-defined digital media, it’s harder to appreciate the naked physics of early electronic music and the radical transformation that manipulating these forces enabled. “Nothing fazes the students now,” says Richard Boulanger, professor of electronic production and design at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a protégée of both Moog and Pearlman. “We’re transforming their voices and turning trash cans into drum kits, and we’re sounding like aliens just when we cough.”

But “when we first heard the sound of a Moog synthesizer in the late sixties and early seventies . . . it just blew your mind,” says Boulanger. “It was like the sound of the future.” Indeed it was: Today, Moog synthesizers are standard kit for many leading musicians, from Kanye to Lady Gaga.

The Moogseum packs a lot into its 1,400 square feet, including iconic instruments like the Minimoog Model D and Minimoog Voyager synthesizers, an interactive timeline of synth technology from 1898 to today, and a replica of Moog’s workbench.

Beyond celebrating the past, the Moogseum aims to teach future generations, including non-musicians. The central vehicle for this is the exhibit Tracing Electricity As It Becomes Sound–an interactive wraparound video projected inside an 8-foot-tall, 11-foot-wide half dome, created by Milwaukee-based media company Elumenati.

“What we’re trying to impart is that you are in the middle of the circuit board, observing what’s going on,” says Moog-Koussa. “There will be a custom knob controller, so that people can actually interact with representations of transistors, capacitors, and........

© Fast Company