Join us as we open the doors of the RA Moog Company at 49 East Main Street in Trumansburg, New York, and meet the people whose innovative ideas led to the creation of a groundbreaking synth

Bob Moog is mad. Not mad professor mad… he’s livid. It’s November 1970, and his boutique synth outfit can barely see daylight from the mounting debt that’s gathering outside their factory. There’s a backlog of orders to deal with and the competition (of which there’s been little to none for quite some time now) is starting to uncloak on either side of his corporate bow. And if all this weren’t bad enough, he’s also got a mutiny on his hands.

“It was the only time I saw Moog angry. He really really lost his temper,” says Jim Scott, project manager of the then budding Minimoog synth, and one of the conspirators.

Moog had marshalled the engineering staff into his office to find out why they’d gone against his express wishes and started to lay out the circuit boards for what would ultimately become the company’s first portable, performance instrument.

When Moog left for one of the many speaking engagements he’d been giving after the associated success of Wendy Carlos’ world-beating ‘Switched-On Bach’ LP, he was “only” looking for his team to produce 10 more prototypes in his absence. Those Model C variants were to be designated for field testing, but with financial pressure building, the small crew at Moog began to collude on how to not run aground.

“Lawsuits were being threatened, and one of the reasons I got hired was to work off our backlog of modular systems,” continues Scott. “The general manager at the time was doing things like lying to the bank down the street about deliveries we had made and were awaiting payment on. We could see that we were all going to be out of jobs pretty soon if we didn’t get something on the market to get in some cash flow and attract more investors.”

Despite the urgency, this was Moog’s company and he was the ultimate decision maker in terms of how it was run – a point he made as clear as a chalk stream upon his return.

“It was a small office and we were all crowded in there,” says Scott. “And Bob is pounding on his desk and using language that he definitely did not learn from his mother to describe his displeasure. He was glaring at all of us and nobody said a word. All of us were checking to see how clean our fingernails were and counting the flies on the ceiling in an attempt to avoid eye contact.”

Once the steam had been vented, Moog acquiesced and the Model D was officially put into production. Given the circumstances, he could have hardly argued against it. To say nothing of the fact that the EMS VCS 3 and the ARP 2600 had been presented at the same convention of Audio Engineering Society (AES) where Moog had recently demonstrated the Model C. 

Moog was famously keen on innovating, and after becoming the first name in synthesis at the tail end of 1960s, his passion lay in working closely with artists and coming up with custom features that would expand their creative possibilities. The Stones, The Beatles, and most of the other pop elite who could put enough zeros on a cheque, came to Moog when they began to investigate electronic sound, even though a pre-wired set of modules on a circuit board seemed like a step backward. 

The idea for the Minimoog was originally brought up by Gene Zumchak, one of Moog’s early staff engineers.

“He and Bob did not get along,” says Scott. “Zumchak was less than diplomatic, and loudly proclaimed that we should do something with a built-in power supply and light enough that you could carry it on stage. But Bob’s heart was really in building one-off custom units. He was running the company as if sales of the modular systems were going to go on forever and ever, and not realising that he was saturating the marketplace.”

Until things became dire, Moog’s staff were more or less keen to follow his lead. “The shop”, as Bob referred to it, was a fairly relaxed affair. Located at 49 East Main Street, in Trumansburg, New York, the RA Moog Company had little in the way of pretence about it, especially when you consider that they were building the sound of the future within the modest walls of an old furniture store. 

Located in what was essentially a bedroom community for the prestigious Ivy League halls of Cornell University, Moog staffed his outfit with mostly local townsfolk who were probably happy to have work off-campus.

Outsiders were onboard as well, including one Cornell student David Borden, who haunted the synth works during the wee hours. Along with his pal Steve Drews, the two had been playing avant-garde music locally. Sometime in 1967, Borden started hanging out at the studio that Moog had put together in one corner of the factory, experimenting with whatever happened to be installed at any given moment.

“I was the unofficial weirdo in the basement, working at night,” says Borden.

It was during one of his late-night sessions that he ran into Bill Hemsath, one of Moog’s young engineers.

“One night,” says Borden, “I came in and he was still there and he said to me, ‘This is something I put together so I could demonstrate the Moog sound without having to punch in all those patch cords, which confuses people. I think this will help them understand more about the sounds that are available on the synthesiser.”

Hemsath, who would become Moog’s engineer-in-chief, had the perfect background to become a Moog employee. He had studied electrical engineering and music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and had been performing electronic music live. Following a couple of trips to Moog HQ in Trumansburg, where he had been borrowing equipment periodically, he received a job offer from the man himself. During one of his lunch breaks it came to him to start hacking together his demo unit out of spare parts that were lying around his attic office.

“I was next to the graveyard,” Hemsath told Moog Music for the ‘A Brief History Of The Minimoog’ YouTube video in 2011. “And that’s where Bob tossed stuff that was junk, but maybe we could use it someday. There was a five-octave keyboard which he would steal key caps off of the treble end to replace broken ones. The number of remaining key caps wound up determining the size of the keyboard and it turned out to be three octaves.”

By wiring up a collection of six basic modules from one of the bigger Moog systems, the “Min,” as Hemsath referred to it, was born. Included on that first prototype was an element that exists, half a century later, on most synthesisers to this day.

“There was just a little bitty notch left in the left cheek, and I needed something there,” says Hemsath. “Well, how about a slide pot? That would fit. So the forerunner of the wheel was that slide pot. Just to fill in that space.”

Without completely grasping the potential of what he’d lashed together, Hemsath fooled around with his creation at home until it got in the way and he brought it back into the office. That’s when David Borden, one of Moog’s unofficial musicians in residence, latched onto the idea of using it with his burgeoning synth combo, now aptly called Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. 

“I used it on one of my early pieces called ‘Easter,’ but it was 1973 before we put out a recording,” says Borden. “So I had erased the prototype Minimoog tracks because I had bought another one by that time. But it’s also on some recordings that have never been released.”

Mother Mallard performed ‘Easter’ live at Cornell’s Sage Chapel on Easter Sunday 1970, which marked the first time anyone outside of Moog’s inner circle had put any version of the Minimoog into use. And even in the rudimentary phase that the “Min” (or Model A prototype as it’s now commonly known) represented, it still proved to be a viable design – something that wasn’t lost on the company’s staff. 

“That prototype got all the other engineers excited, but it didn’t get Bob Moog excited,” remembers Borden. “But they were quietly trying to refine it, and Bob said, ‘No. These small synthesisers are just crap. They can’t do everything you can do on a modular and it limits you so much it isn’t worth the trouble of developing it’.”

Luckily, Hemsath and the rest of his team weren’t quite ready to abandon what seemed like a promising project. A decidedly slicker unit was put together and referred to as the Model B. This second version featured a solid, angled panel, three oscillators with a frequency slider and a noise generator. The case also featured a handle and a cabinet cover to emphasise its potential portability.

One of the two units produced got into the hands of avant-jazz pianist Sun Ra who, as a result, was probably the first musician to issue a recording using any type of Minimoog. You can catch a few glimpses of it in his 1974 Afro-futurist sci-fi film, ‘Space Is The Place’. At one point, the Model B is posing as an intergalactic communications device in the Outer Space Employment Office and is being using to screen potential earthlings for resettlement on a distant planet. 

Sun Ra even bought the synth a plane ticket and sent it solo on a flight back to Trumansburg when it needed repair. But when he put it into action onstage, the results, according to another of Moog’s in-house engineers, were suitably otherworldly.

“I happened to be in New York City and I saw Sun Ra was booked into one of those clubs on the Lower East Side,” remembers Jon Weiss. “And Bob said, ‘Well, you might want to go down and see how’s he doing with that Mini.”

Weiss had come to Trumansburg on a summer work/study program from Antioch College in 1968 and, having hit it off with Moog, he decided to stay on. Weiss’ familiarity with the modular gear eventually got him sent to the UK to show Mick Jagger how to pilot his. Weiss recalls that while his employer wasn’t completely sold on the new synth, he was curious about what Sun Ra was able to get out of it.

“Bob was sort of amused by the whole thing,” says Weiss. “Whether Sun Ra had paid for it or didn’t pay for it didn’t really concern him so much as the idea that it was being used. And I heard him playing at that club… it was like the signals were coming in from Saturn. I never heard anything like that coming from a Minimoog. It was wonderful.”

As the team at Moog moved onto the Model C, Bob began to accept that the Minimoog was actually happening. The next design wouldn’t be that far off what the public would see once 1971 dawned, but for a moment there was talk of giving the synthesiser a sort of space age ‘Logan’s Run’ look.

“They hired some sort of artist,” says David Borden, “and he made drawings of what a Minimoog might look like and they were hanging around the office. There must have been 10 or 12 of them.”

Ultimately, what they decided on was a simple wooden case with a hinge that would allow the control panel to lay flat. With the boss now more or less fully invested in the eventual production of the Minimoog, Borden clearly remembers Moog saying, “We have to make the Cadillac of small synthesisers. These other ones are all shit”.

To make sure they got to that standard, Jim Scott took particular care with his portion of the signal path, especially when Moog was preparing to take one of the prototypes to demonstrate at the New York City AES convention in October 1970.

“I had driven the sound chain of the Minimoog at 40 millivolts,” explains Scott. “I overdrove the hell out of it, not to enhance the sound, but just to get a good signal to noise ratio. The very first C model was put together on my workbench. With Bob set to be introducing the Minimoog to the planet at AES in New York City in front of an audience of audio engineers, I still had no idea what kind of noise would be picked up in the sound chain of the filter and the amplifier. Those circuits operate at low levels. We’re talking 10ths of millivolts. And everything is cabled with unshielded wire inside. 

“So I simply cranked the gain up until the sawtooth came out looking like a perfect sawtooth. When I listened to it, it sounded OK. It sounded like a Moog synthesiser. There was no discernible problem with noise pickup, so we sent it off to New York City so he could demo it and when it came back from the show Hemsath said, ‘Scott, you overdrove the hell out of that circuitry’. Which is something none of us in our right minds, thinking like engineers, would have done. And then Hemsath said, “Whatever you do, dooooon’t change it’.”

The Minimoog, with its muscular sound, immediately stood out among its peers. But even as the next iteration went into production in late 1970 (now featuring pitch and modulation wheels to replace Hemsath’s slide pot), Bob Moog told Jim Scott, “I doubt that we’ll ever sell 200 of these things”. The price? $1,195 or about £6,000 in today’s money.

What Moog didn’t count on was David Van Koevering – an evangelical Swiss bell ringer with a long-running interest in science and electronics.

“I became fascinated with the technologies,” Van Koevering said during an interview with the National Association of Music Merchants in 2003. “I knew musically that Minimoog was valid. And I knew the sonic power it gave the musician… they could touch an electronic instrument, that could now, through an amplifier, compete with a guitar player. Because a piano couldn’t necessarily, and a Hammond organ couldn’t necessarily. It didn’t have the bite. But you could take a Minimoog with a monophonic potential, one note at a time, and shape that sound to have such an attack that it was more biting or effective for a solo than a guitar.”

Van Koevering took delivery of one of the first 20 instruments and didn’t look back. His strategy was a masterclass in going viral in an age where the telegram was still the fastest way of communicating something outside of a daily newspaper. 

Van Koevering would roll into town, find a gigging band with a keyboard player and loan them the synth for a set or two once he showed them how to coax a couple of basic sounds out of the instrument. The following day, he would help the keyboard player gather the bits of his blown mind and waltz him down to the local music shop and insist the proprietor buy two units – one for his freshly anointed disciple and one to have on hand for the next long-haired believer who’d eventually walk through the door.

“Van Koevering was literally the Johnny Appleseed of the Minimoog,” says touring keyboardist with The Who and Moog historian, Brian Kehew. “He was taking it across country to music stores and musicians and one by one plonking it into people’s hands. He was always ready to sell you something, even if nothing was for sale. It was just the way he was wired having been a preacher and an evangelist since the early days. He believed in what he had. He knew that the Minimoog was the coolest new instrument in the world.”

Less than a year later, there was a Model D in the multi-faceted arsenal of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. He got it off the teenage acting sensation Jack Wild, who apparently became disinterested in the Minimoog because, unlike an organ, it could only play one note at a time. But in Wakeman’s hands, the synth was a revelation in rock circles. 

Already an accomplished player who’d undertaken session work for the likes of David Bowie, Cat Stevens and T Rex, the Minimoog made Wakeman appear as something of a full-on keyboard wizard – coaxing the sort of futuristic sounds from it that were the perfect complement to Yes’ fantastical lyrics and album sleeves. 

From the moment the Minimoog sparks up on the quieter sections of their 1972 hit ‘Roundabout’, it’s clear that the world is fast approaching peak prog. With the band’s ascendancy pushed further by the release of the ‘Close To The Edge’ album in 1972 and the mammoth amounts of touring they did in the early 70s, Wakeman’s use of the Minimoog was placed front and centre in the eyes of many a budding keyboard player – whether they could afford the sequinned cape or not.

Forward-thinking jazzers were also considering how they could push the boundaries of performance and sound and they had their heads turned when the word about performance synthesisers started to circulate.

“All I knew was that it was a compact instrument with a keyboard, oscillators, VCAs, filters and everything was pre-patched,” remembers soon-to-be fusion hero Jan Hammer. “You didn’t have to work like you were in a lab to get it to perform. On top of that, when I tried the pitch wheel, there was another 100 per cent plus. I don’t know if it was an afterthought, but that did it for me. I knew synthesisers from afar. I’d seen them in studios, but I never really got hands-on. The Minimoog and the way it was laid out and designed, it was almost like going to a very quick school to learn electronic music.”

Hammer brought the Minimoog into the elevated musical sphere that was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, where the addition of a third soloist instrument gave the band an edge that similar combos couldn’t keep pace with. Particularly since Hammer had made virtuosic use of the pitch wheel. To a keyboard player, bending notes was a step through the looking glass. It was a technique that Chris Swansen had adopted when the Milwaukee native was installed as one of Moog’s in-house musicians during the development days of the Mini.

“Chris was one of the first to utilise the ribbon and keyboard technique that became popular,” says Jon Weiss, who would play in a trio with Swansen, and helped to engineer his 1972 solo long-player ‘Pulaski Skyway’.

Swansen would go on to be featured on some of the demo discs that Moog would issue to promote the performance side of its synthesiser line. He even had a Model C hot-wired with a ribbon controller before working with a full-blown Model D that featured the pitch and modulation wheels.

Once that particular feature was beginning to be popularised, and musicians saw the benefit of having something on hand that was a sight more portable than the Hammond L100 Keith Emerson had been chucking around the stage, the Minimoog began to leach into all manner of popular music. You can hear it on everything from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ to the proto-punk work of The Stranglers. It’s a huge portion of the funk that Bernie Worrell brought to Parliament, and a key factor in the new wave vibes of Devo and Gary Numan.

Despite Van Koevering’s success in spreading the gospel of the Minimoog far and wide, and its overall escalating popularity, Moog’s financial fortunes couldn’t be salvaged. Eventually, the operation was sold to a venture capitalist in the spring 1971. They not only took over the company wholesale, but moved the operation out of Trumansburg to a suburb of Buffalo called Williamsville. Many of the staff who helped the company reach the heights it had seen opted not to relocate.

“Robert Moog and the service manager were the only ones to relocate,” says Jim Scott. “The rest of us all quit.”

Ultimately, the Moog name was branded on over 12,000 Minimoog units and it remained in production until 1981. A comprehensive selection, including one of each prototype, is now housed at the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project (EMEAPP) in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. Both Scott and Brian Kehew are among a group of experts who have been putting in extensive hours there dissecting and documenting what made the Minimoog the sonic wonder of its time.

“We’re investigating the whole story of the Minimoog from its creation through its evolution,” says Kehew. “And we’ve also done testing on alternative machines to see if there were measurable differences that make individual Minimoogs sound different. Brian Wilson’s Minimoog was at the studio we were at when we did a version of Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’ in my Moog Cookbook band. And we loved the sound of it. 

“There’s this legend that older Minimoogs sound better, and I disagree. They sound better for certain things, like bright and sparkly sounds, but for the deep fat bass sounds, I tend to think that the later models, with all the changes that went on, are better. It’s like the Chevrolet Corvette. They change all the way from the 1950s through to the present day, but it’s still called a Corvette.”

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