Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Robert Moog Google Doodle

The Google Doodle for Robert Moog's birthday is going to go down as a landmark, this much is for sure. It is a full fledged tone generator with all the wave modulation that one can ask for, and comes with a four track recording and playback button. And all of it with a very amazing range of controls. While modern listeners may be quick to call it a crazy squelchy sound, those of us who have witnessed the evolution of the synthesizer will be all starry eyed and ranting about this for a while.

Screen snippet of the Google Doodle for Robert Moog's 78th birthday

The app, built using the web audio research that the madmen at Googleplex have been doing for a while comes with 19 fully functioning knobs, a modulation wheel, a four track recorder, and volume control for individual oscillators. The three oscillators are paired with filters that let you tweak the attack, decay, sustain and contour, and an on/off switch for the modulation wheel. It works with a keyboard (QWERTY and the numpad) as well as with a mouse, but if you are trying to build a melody, the keyboard is the obvious choice. So, skipping the jargon, here is a Doodle that lets you create your own sound, modulate and envelop it the way you want, and then record up to 30 seconds and four tracks of it, play it back, and share it.

It took me a while (a huge while actually) to figure out all that it contained, and once I did, I was awestruck and nostalgic for quite a while. Before I return to the magic of this doodle, a quick look at the world of Robert Moog and what he did for the modern sound.


Robert Moog (May 23, 1934 – August 21, 2005) was a pioneer in synthesizing audio output using oscillators and modulators, and building upwards from the Theremin principle, he was the first person to build usable synthesizers with keyboards and controllers that could be used in the setting of a musical performance. Till this time, other than the occasional use of Theremins, the only significant electronic sound was the distortion used by electric guitarists. With the introduction of what came to be known as the Moog Synthesizer in the late 60s, popular musicians began incorporating the synthesizer sound into their work. Early adopters included The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. As it infiltrated pop music, an entire new genre developed, that of electronic music. Acts like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder and the disco or electronic dance music industry took it to new heights of popular acceptance, while bands like ELP, Yes, Bread, Genesis and Pink Floyd used it as a staple of the emerging progressive rock scene. Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Chick Correa and Rick Wakeman took it into soul and jazz. Of course, the synthesized versions of the classical genre also created an entirely new music market, that of the souped up classics, leading to releases like Switched On Bach and Greatest Hits of Beethoven.

It is perhaps difficult to understand the enormous significance of this development looking at the music of today, with digital audio applications having infiltrated all forms and genres of music. But for people who have fiddled around with single ring modulators and envelopes, and tried sticking wire across speaker cones, the magic of the 70s will never die. The many years of monophonic synths giving way to the polyphony that we take for granted when we look at modern Rolands and Yamahas was mystic as well as imbued with a sense of loss, a loss of innocence and limitations, maybe somewhat similar to how people felt when gas lights gave way to electric lights.

I still remember the first commercially available monophonic keyboard with envelop controls that I ever laid my hands on, the CASIO VL-Tone, with numerically programmable filters and envelopes and a very limited range of preset tones with modulators. I remember listening to Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra and the later releases of Queen, and wondering what kind of synthesizers they used. For me, even as I let techno, trance, and electronica waft through my senses, the joy of discovering synthesized sound for the first time, and then playing around with it is a feeling that I will never forget, and a feeling that will never ever be recreated. For that, I remember Robert Moog. For that, I thank Google and the guys behind the Google Doodle today, Ryan Germick and Joey Hurst (the same guys who did the similar playable Les Paul guitar doodle), no matter how many productive hours it takes away from all who were part of those magical time, and I am certain, many for whom it will be a discovery of that magic. Happy Birthday, Bob.

Let us keep memories alive. Do you believe in magic? Did you also experience the magic? Do you have your own magic moments with synthesized sound? Do share in the comments.

update - i found this after writing the post, the official google blog post on this doodle.

2 comments:

  1. When I saw the instruments, I was curious to know who this person is. That is all. I did not know so many years of hard work , went in to create such magic!

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