When I woke this morning to find a funky-looking 24-key Moog synthesizer staring at me from just above Google’s homepage search box, I knew exactly what I’d be writing about. I’ve played the piano since I was four, growing up in the 1970s noodling with funky-sounding analog synthesizers stacked around my house. Robert Moog (his last name actually rhymes with “vogue”) is one of those guys every synthesizer wonk knows about. His last name is synonymous with electronic synthesis technology, doubling as an adjective you might use to describe a “fat” synthesizer sound.
If you flip over to Google’s search page, you’ll see what I’m talking about: a fully functional Minimoog-like synthesizer (Moog’s earliest versions, as large as church organs, would have overwhelmed the page). Moog died in 2005 and would have been 78 today, thus Google’s birthday Doodle celebration. We can thank Google Doodlers Ryan Germick and Joey Hurst for selecting Moog and building a browser-friendly version of one of his synthesizers: Germick told Mashable that selecting Moog was about “[paying] tribute to someone who was like a patron saint of the nerdy arts.”
I’d add that Moog actually lived — to paraphrase Steve Jobs — at the intersection of “nerdy” and “artful.” Moog was a nerd, it’s true, but in a wonderfully musical sense. Born in 1934 in New York City, he spent his childhood studying the piano and tinkering with electronics, twin passions that dovetailed in his teenage years into a hobby building electronic music instruments (“homebrew synthesis,” if you will). In 1949, Moog used instructions he found in a magazine to build his very own theremin, an unearthly sounding electronic instrument played by moving your hands near — but not touching — two metal antennas to control pitch and volume (check out this video of the theremin’s inventor, Leon Theremin, playing his own instrument, which Theremin patented in 1928).
While pursuing degrees in physics and electrical engineering, Moog continued to tinker with electronic instrument design, founding his own part-time business and selling theremin kits out of his apartment. By the mid-1960s, he was building instruments of his own design, including the Moog synthesizer, a device you can hear on albums by early rockers like The Beatles and The Doors as well as The Monkees, The Rolling Stones and Simon & Garfunkel. The album that really got the ball rolling for Moog, however, was Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, in which Carlos performed various Bach compositions on a Moog synthesizer (you can hear samples of it here). It charted in March 1969, climbing into the Top 10 and remaining on the charts for 17 weeks, eventually nabbing three Grammy Awards, including “Best Classical Album.”
When you’re tinkering with the Minimoog-styled Google Doodle, don’t just hammer on the keys — fiddle with the knobs up top. (The ones cleverly arranged to form the G-O-O-G in Google’s logo. Get it? “Mini-Goog“?) Known as “envelope generators,” they’ll change the sound you produce when depressing the synthesizer’s keys by modifying parameters like the core waveform (square, triangle, etc.), volume and frequency. You can also noodle with settings like “attack” (how soon the sound plays after you hit the key) and “decay” (how long the sound plays after you let up on the key). And Google’s even tossed in a faux reel-to-reel that’ll let you record your performances, then broadcast them through a short link.
Here’s a clip demonstrating the many sound possibilities of the Minimoog.
And here’s another, from a 1980s BBC video, with footage of Dr. Moog himself demonstrating the Minimoog’s features.