A Brief History of the Minimoog Part I


It’s 1971. The year of the first microprocessor, the year Walt Disney World opens for business and the year Alan Shepard played golf on the moon. But it was also a time when humble engineers conversed with musicians who were at the forefront of technology. These two very different groups of people were
speaking of the future and by 1971 , the sound of the future was largely created
by one instrument: The Minimoog. Hello. You don’t know who I am and really, why would that matter when
I’m surrounded by such elegant machines such as these. And it was the predecessor of these machines:
The Minimoog Model D that changed the face of popular music
around the world. Suddenly, the Minimoog seemed to be
everywhere: It was quickly embraced by
the gods of the new progressive rock, where fantastic imagery and futuristic sound
were the order of the day. But the Minimoog wasn’t only the domain of long-haired rockers and flowing capes, it was also represented in every
major musical genre of the decade. Jazz heavies like Chick Corea used the Minimoog
to invent a new method of soloing, bending notes courtesy of the Pitch Wheel, a radical new controller design that
set the instrument apart in the eyes of performers. And Kraftwerk, that legendary
German band of electronic pioneers, used the Minimoog to craft their
vision of to morrow. Their ground-breaking 1974 single, Autobahn, laid down the foundations for all
electronic pop that followed. But it wasn’t just musicians
who were interested in the future that turned to the Minimoog for its sound: Reggae superstar Bob Marley brought the Minimoog to his flavor of roots music when the band first turned up in the UK
to perform on the BBC. And as the decade drew to a close, rock futurists such as Gary Numan,
opted to feature the Minimoog and synthesizers like it while stepping
completely away from organic instruments entirely. Before it made its way to the stage, however, the Minimoog found its origins here: On the small main street in the sleepy town of
Trumansburg, New York, the future of music was being soldered together
one circuit at a time. R. A. Moog, Inc. began as a cottage industry that made guitar amplifiers and
an odd electronic instrument that you didn’t even had to touch to play,
called the Theremin. But as pop culture came to a boil in the mid sixties so did the ideas in the head of one
Dr. Robert A. Moog. By the end of the decade, his name would be known world-over because of a new modular instrument that he and his tiny work force created on modest wooden tables and benches:
The synthesizer. The Minimoog was smaller and infinitely
more portable than the groundbreaking modular systems that had made Dr. Robert Moog’s name
synonymous with synthesizers. The idea: To create a device that would
take the sonic power of the mammoth Moog synthesizers and put it in the hands of keyboard
players everywhere and one of those men who was there alongside Bob Moog when this magnificent instrument was born was Bill Hemsath, one of Moog Music’s
earliest engineers. Out of spare parts laying around his attic office, Hemsath assembled the first Minimoog
prototype during his lunch breaks: The model A. « I’d open my desk drawers and take
an apple out of one and take a modular out of the other and start. Now, my office was up on the second floor and I was next to the Graveyard and that’s where Bob tossed stuff that was junk but maybe we could use it someday. There was a 5-octave keyboard but he would steal key caps off of the treble end
for replacing chipped and broken ones but the number of remaining key caps determined the size of the keyboard and it turned out to be 3 octaves so I hack sawed that down and there was just a little bitty notch 
left in the left cheek and I needed something there.
« Well, how about a slide pod? That would fit. » So the forerunner of the wheel was that slide pod
just to fill in the space in the left cheek. And then there was an upper console case, 4-feet long but the end was broken out. We’d take the upper console, cut it down to match and with a little bit of fudging, it fit. I could get… how many modules was that?
About a half a dozen across. I was able to find everything in the junk
except for a 901, an oscillator controller; I had to steal that from the stockroom and bolted them together. This is the first
time in history that a keyboard was bolted to a a synthesizer. » Over the next 2 years, 3 more prototypes were made
and a number futuristic designs were considered but in the end a simple wooden case cut from walnut boards was deemed to be the perfect presentation
for this revolutionary instrument. From its inception when musicians speak of the Minimoog, the talk is about its unique the sonic characteristics. As Bill Hemsath tells it, that sound was partially the result of a minor miscalculation on the part one of his colleagues. « Our instrument had punch to it because we inadvertently over drove over the filter like crazy. Jim Scott did the filter and voltage controlled amplifiers. He made a calculation error and he over drove the filters by 10, 12, 15 DB,
something like that and nobody knew that until a month or two after
we’re starting production and everybody said: Leave it alone. The other thing, the other one is that back in…
this is 1970, roughly, integrated circuits were horrible. You don’t put audio through one of those
rotten integrated circuits in those days and so I purposely kept the whole audio path, discrete transistors and lovely, lovely
sound so it’s the overdrive and the use of discrete transistors
throughout the whole shebang. Nowadays we have good audio-integrated
circuits but not back then. » It was those slight deviations that gave the Minimoog its characteristic sound and caught the
imaginations of musicians the world over. At the time no one knew it but
those were the first steps of the synth pop insurgency of
the coming decade; it was an insurgency that began with
the small wooden box to my right but don’t take my word for it: Some anonymous narrator in a
fetching corduroy jacket. Put the word « Minimoog » into
the Google machine and see how many seminal album titles you get back. You quickly see that our voyage doesn’t end here.

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