In the Beginning Was the Lunch Break
The Minimoog was the first synthesizer ever to become a “classic.” It was one of the first affordable synthesizers, it introduced many new musicians to the instrument, most notably rock musicians. Unlike the modular Moog synthesizer, developed and built by Bob Moog himself, the Minimoog was a team effort. Riding high on the success of Switched-on Bach
, released in 1968, Moog employed as many as 42 people, including a team of engineers. In 1969 Bob Moog was traveling a lot, giving lectures and demonstrations, and his team did most of the development of the new portable synthesizer. From the first prototype to production the Minimoog was developed in less then a year. The most important role was played by two engineers: Jim Scott and Bill Hemsath, who had to demonstrate the Moog Modular and after dozens of presentations finally came up with the idea of building a smaller, simplified version of a synthesizer based on the most frequently used modules and patches. Hemsath noticed that there were some standard sets and patches which are most useful and are always the same. Once during his lunch break he walked through the attic of Moog’s factory, which was filled with broken synthesizer cases, and started to piece together what he would need to recreate the most familiar Moog sounds: oscillators, a filter, envelope generators, a keyboard. In a little while he had collected most of the elements of what was to become the first compact synthesizer. It took about two months to put all parts together. Hemsath remembers completing it by Thanksgiving. He even found the name for his new instrument: Model A Min, R. A. Moog Company, Trumansburg. Eventually the name was changed to Minimoog.
At first Bob Moog was not that enthusiastic about this particular project. And the great success of the Moog Modular in 1968 didn’t last too long either: by the end of 1969 the market for modular systems flatlined and by 1970 Moog was almost broke. At the same time engineers slowly realized that Min might be a saleable item, but the company was starting to go under. Jim Scott recollected: “We were literally digging transistors out of cracks in the floor and testing them to see if they were any good or not.”1
Nevertheless, a new Model B was developed. It had a very attractive design, was extremely portable and totally self-contained. Not only could it be carried from gig to gig, but it could also be easily sent back to the factory for repair. It was Sun Ra who first recognized the potential of Model B. He had taken it and was making music with it. Finally Model B became really successful, which persuaded Bob Moog to back the project. He redesigned the circuitry, especially the oscillators, which became much more stable. To test the new Model C, which also had a very unusual design, Chris Swansen had to take it on tour in Europe. Just before that Moog said: “Chris, let me try and drop it, because somebody’s gonna drop this.”2
They dropped it and it fell apart. Somehow they got it back together and Swansen took it with him. That was a very important lesson on how strong these things have to be.
Not long after this Don Pakkala (who was a former machinist) developed a pitch wheel. Together with Hemsath he created a new design, incorporating pitch and modulation wheels, which became the classic Model D. The new instrument was a great success, but unfortunately it came out too late for Bob Moog to keep control of his company, while the Minimoog became an absolute standard for the synthesizer market for decades.