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Robert Moog: The True Genius Behind Psychedelic Music

Consumer Awareness and Flexibility Among Main Contributors to Moog's Success

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted December 14, 2015

Take a guess what this is...

modsynth

An early computer? A communications switchboard? A prop from a Frankenstein film? A device from The Manhattan Project? Art?

It's none of the above. This gnarled mess of wires, switches, dials, meters, and lights is actually a musical instrument.

You read that correctly. This thing is used to create music.

And although it might be difficult to recognize the hardware, the sound this instrument produces is unmistakable. There's no doubt that you've heard it a million times.

This instrument is called a modular synthesizer, and it's a precursor to modern synthesizers, which are used in some way in nearly all commercial music that's produced today, from country to hip-hop.

And whether you're a fan of the electronic sound or not, there's no doubt that the original idea to create music with electricity was a paradigm shift in music evolution. It sparked a multibillion-dollar industry with the synthesizer.

But the entire industry might not have even existed at all without one guy who developed his synthesizers specifically based on the direct feedback of his client base: Robert Moog.

Moog: The True Genius Behind the Psychedelic Sound

There's a chance you haven't heard of Robert Moog. But there's little chance you haven't heard a Moog synthesizer.

The Moog synthesizer began to enter popular music in the late 1960s — prominently in the psychedelic rock scene on tracks like "Strange Days" by The Doors.

Shortly after, the Moog synthesizer was recognized on landmark albums such as Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends and Abbey Road by The Beatles.

It was later used by other popular artists including Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd's Richard Wright, Pete Townshend, Stevie Wonder, and many others.

To put it simply, the Moog synthesizer was (and still is today) the Levi's of denim.

KEmoogKeith Emerson playing his Moog modular synthesizer on stage

Moog originally designed the components of his modular synthesizers in the early 1960s at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (now the Computer Music Center) in New York City.

While there, Moog innovated and developed several different kinds of sound-shaping modules based on the direct input of resident composers and engineers.

But of all the feedback Moog received, friend and composer Herbert Deutsch gave him a piece of advice that sealed the success of Moog's modular synthesizers over others: Include a traditional piano-style keyboard.

You see, Bob Moog did have some pretty strong competition. On the West Coast, former NASA engineer Don Buchla was also developing his own modular synthesizer at the same time.

But Buchla had a completely different approach to modular synthesizers, looking to create an entirely new instrument and way to make music. So he experimented with new control interfaces and eventually used touch-sensitive plates, as seen below.

buchlakeyboardEarly Buchla touch-sensitive control interface

Musicians were interested in both Moog's and Buchla's synthesizers. But it was Robert Moog's synthesizers that became the brand most associated with synthesizers for one reason: that piano keyboard that musicians could immediately understand.

Friend and composer Joel Chadabe says, “Bob was very interested in things that would be successful for commercial musicians.”

Later, Robert Moog would revolutionize the synthesizer industry again with the Minimoog.

minimoogMinimoog

Moog's modular synthesizers like the one Keith Emerson is seen playing in the photo above were large, complicated, delicate, and expensive for the average working musician.

The Minimoog was designed to include the most important parts of a modular synthesizer in a compact package at a price within the reach of commercial musicians. Again, Moog listened to the market and gave it what it needed and wanted.

The Minimoog became the template for synthesizers — and it still is today.

The Lesson From Robert Moog to You...

Listen to your client base.

It's seems simple enough, but you'd really be surprised by how many people have incredible ideas and/or products that don't gain traction in the market simply because they don't listen to what their client base needs or wants.

For the past two years, CB Insights has been compiling information on recent start-up failures. The number one reason most start-up ventures fail? They fail to provide the market with what it actually needs.

CB Insights noted in its findings:

Tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was cited as the number one reason for failure in a notable 42% of cases. As Patient Communicator wrote, “I realized, essentially, that we had no customers because no one was really interested in the model we were pitching. Doctors want more patients, not an efficient office.” Treehouse Logic applied the concept more broadly in their post-mortem, writing, “Startups fail when they are not solving a market problem. We were not solving a large enough problem that we could universally serve with a scalable solution. We had great technology, great data on shopping behavior, great reputation as a though leader, great expertise, great advisors, etc but what we didn’t have was technology or business model that solved a pain point in a scalable way.

Robert Moog developed his system by listening to what his client base needed and wanted: an intuitive way to play it at first, then a more portable and affordable, easier-to-use, mass-accessible product. For that, Moog's products have become a standard in the music industry, while Buchla's are still more of a curiosity.

So whatever business you're in, take a lesson from Moog: Listen to your client base, and give your customers what they actually need and want from you first.

But before you do anything, go check out some Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Good Investing,

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Luke Burgess
Energy and Capital

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