A Miniature History of the Minimoog

One of the most influential and least well known instruments of the 20th century.

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Ryunosuke Kikuno / Unsplash

Here is the Moog Synthesizer designed by Robert Moog. One of the first synthesizers used in music, it allowed musicians to create their own sounds and to express themselves in an entirely new way. Albums such as ‘L.A Lady’ by The Doors and ‘Abbey Road’ by The Beatles implemented this version of the Moog.

When considering the most considerable contributions to the musical world, most would overlook what appears to be just a small, simple keyboard. But the Minimoog is far from simple, and its impact is anything but small. 

Its creation comes from the town of Elma, New York, just outside of Buffalo. Here, Robert Moog founded Moog Inc. in 1951. But it was not until 1964 that he saw significant success with the invention of the Moog Synthesizers. Guided by classical composers like Vladimir Ussachevsky and Wendy Carlos, he created the first synthesizer, branded the Moog synthesizer. 

Success lasted throughout the 60s, with musicians like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Doors all making use of Moog’s invention. But the market shrank; synthesizers were expensive, sensitive, and inconvenient to use. Ordinary musicians had no access to synthesizers and were locked out by a fixed market of studios and a dozen or so major musicians. 

Moog grew desperate. One of his engineers, Bill Hemsath, created the first model of the Minimoog by sawing a keyboard in half and wiring it with elements of the larger Moog Synthesizer invented by Robert Moog himself.

Moog saw the potential for the Minimoog and approved production in 1970. Engineers could not quite synchronize the oscillators that produced the sound in the Minimoog. But that flaw only added to the unique flare of the Moog. 

The Minimoog, the first synthesizer designed to be portable and affordable, hit shelves in retail stores near Buffalo. But it was not until David Van Koevering’s famous Island of Electronicus that the Minimoog was brought to a national audience and truly showed its capabilities. A close friend of Robert Moog, David Van Koevering, sought to spread the gospel of the Minimoog, setting up an island right off the coast of Florida as his pulpit. 

Koevering was a showman, and without him, Moog estimated they might have sold 100 model Ds. But the Minimoog went on to sell over 12,000 in its 12-year lifespan. It marked a new era in musical expression. To quote Koevering’s opening of Electronicus, “Tonight we take you one step closer. All the sounds you’ve ever heard are like a second. The Moog is an eternity… Tonight we witness the dawn of a new enlightenment… Seclude yourself now and let the music sweep you away and into the dawn.”

And into a new dawn the Minimoog did bring music. It gave power to the musicians of the day during an age in which the values of self expression and individuality in music were paramount. 

In the 1970s of America, the two genres most associated with these values were Rock and Jazz. Some of the first musicians to make use of the Minimoog were Jazz artists such as Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, and even Miles Davis.

From the circles of Jazz, the effects of the Minimoog rippled outwards. Rock musicians quickly saw the potential of a portable moog synthesizer. One of the first to use it was Rick Wakeman of the band Yes. His performances let him compete with guitarists, bending the notes with the pitch wheel on the Minimoog, producing a wailing effect. 

With the Minimoog synthesizer, you could challenge the mind shattering note bends of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix or sax players like John Coltrane. But the capabilities of the Minimoog did not stop at bent notes.

Perhaps the most famous example of the Minimoog’s use in Rock can be found in Pink Floyd’s legendary album, Wish You Were Here. The iconic, synthetic bass line of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ was produced with Richard Wright’s Minimoog, adding a glimmering, flowing effect to the song. 

Likewise with the influence of the Minimoog on Jazz and Rock, so too did it spread out to the burgeoning Disco and Funk scenes of the 70s. The Bee Gees were the first major disco act to make use of the Minimoog, followed by other music legends such as Abba, Earth Wind and Fire,  and Gloria Gaynor. The Minimoog synthesizer helped to create a generation of timeless music. 

Funk music saw perhaps the biggest impact from the Minimoog. It was designed to be affordable and accessible, and funk grew out of the desire amongst the Black community to create music that was truly theirs. A musician could go into the studio, perform on their Moog, and continue to travel with their Minimoog just like many Rock or Jazz musicians of the day. 

And with the unlimited capabilities of the Minimoog, artists like Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan produced some of their most influential and longstanding songs of all time. Chaka Khan’s ‘And the Melody Still Lingers On’ would not be the same without the keyboard artistry of Herbie Hancock.  Stevie Wonder’s entire album Songs in the Key of Life, featuring songs like ‘Sir Duke,’ ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ and ‘Pastime Paradise,’ would be completely different without the unique sound of the Minimoog.

Other genres such as Reggae and Soul saw the influence of the Minimoog as well. James Brown, known as “the Godfather of Soul” would help spread the Minimoog in soul music, notably with his production of Fred Wesley & The JB’s Blow Your Head in 1974. At the same time, Bob Marley pioneered the sounds and moods of reggae with his own portable synthesizer, with such songs like ‘No Woman No Cry’ and ‘Stir it Up.’ 

1981 marked the end of an era, and the end of the production of the Minimoog. But that did not mark the end of its influence. Hall and Oates used a refurbished Minimoog on some of their most famous songs, such as ‘Maneater’ and ‘Rich Girl.’ Alongside Hall and Oates, groups like Devo, and Phil Collins would forge the classic bouncy bass lines and iconic melodies of the 1980s. 

But no discussion of the Minimoog and the 1980s can be had without mention of the King of Pop himself: Michael Jackson. Growing up out of Motown studios and the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson was well acquainted with the synth. And the album that cemented him as the King of Pop would not exist without the Minimoog.

Thriller remains the best selling album of all time, almost 40 years after its release, due to the unique instrumentals, ethereal songs, and, of course, Jackson’s own performance. The rhythm and beats of Billie Jean, and P.Y.T could not be accomplished without the Minimoog, and the hard basslines of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Beat It’ were forged from the moog. The Minimoog offered the range and variety that allowed Thriller to be the perfect blend of Funk, Rock, Disco, and Pop. 

As Hip Hop exploded into popular music from the Funk and Disco scenes of the 1980s, it brought the Moog synthesizer along with it. Rap legends like Biggie Smalls and Dr. Dre would use the Minimoog to create their beats. The Minimoog can be found in songs like ‘Hey Ya,’ ‘Still D.R.E.,’ and countless others. Even the Beastie Boys, over 20 years after the discontinuation of the Minimoog, used it to create their music. 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the day the final Minimoog was produced. It was eventually outcompeted by rising Japanese tech brands, who created synthesizers that could do the same for cheaper. But many artists, even to this day, continue to use the Minimoog. Its rich sound and unique capabilities are something that many do not believe can be found elsewhere. 

The hooks of Pink Floyd or Dr. Dre. The bass lines of Michael Jackson and Hall and Oates. The melodies woven by Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. Rock, Funk, Rap, all music as we know it, would not be the same without the humble Minimoog model d, crafted out of junk, half a keyboard, and an old wooden cabinet. 

For those of you who want to hear a few of the most iconic songs featuring the minimoog, I have created a Spotify playlist: 

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2Y8DV7fyus70vNkUBNQDks?si=187f2bbf747a4b79

“Tonight we take you one step closer. All the sounds you’ve ever heard are like a second. The Moog is an eternity… Tonight we witness the dawn of a new enlightenment… Seclude yourself now and let the music sweep you away and into the dawn.”

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