Robert Moog interview
“Raymond Scott was in the forefront of developing electronic music technology, and he was in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician.” – Bob Moog
Phone interview by Irwin Chusid, May 19, 1993. An abridged print version of this interview appeared in the 2-cd package Manhattan Research Inc. For this expanded version, we’ve incorporated quotes from Moog which were obtained during follow-up interviews in 1997.
IC: When did you first meet Raymond?
Moog: I remember going with my father to Raymond’s house sometime before 1957. At the time I was a student at Columbia University.
IC: When you started working with Raymond, did you collaborate?
Moog: I never really collaborated with him. We did one thing for him after that first visit, and many years later I did other things. I was going to Columbia and living with my parents in Flushing, New York. My father—who was an engineer—and I sometimes worked together. I was selling Theremins out of my parents’ basement. Scott contacted me and wanted to obtain the electronic sub-assembly of the Theremin to incorporate in this instrument he called a “Clavivox.” We drove out to Scott’s four-story house in North Hills, on Long Island. My father and I had never seen anything like that place. I remember him showing us around the place, and the whole basement was like a wet dream for a handyman. My father and I saw that he had room after room of fancy machines. The only thing he didn’t have was a workbench. Apparently he never did any work in [the basement]. Upstairs I remember amplifiers behind a screen, and they had big, fat vacuum tubes that would glow yellow—like the sun at sunset.
So there my father and I were with our mouths hanging open. My father was an electrical engineer who worked for Consolidated Edison, and I was this electronics nerd on track to become an engineer.
During this visit, Scott described what he wanted, although he didn’t tell us how he planned to use it. So we built and delivered this sub-assembly. Several months later, he called us back to show what he had done—his prototype of a keyboard instrument, and it was the Scott Clavivox. There was a very light vane, about an inch wide and a foot and a half long, positioned across the backs of the key levers. The vane was pivoted at the high [right-hand] end of the keyboard. When you pressed a key, the vane went up; the higher the key, the more the vane would rise. He’d attached a small metal electrode to the free end of the vane, and had wired in our theremin sub-assembly so that the vane electrode would “play” the Theremin. I think his prototype also had a weighted reed that vibrated about six times a second, thereby introducing vibrato into the tone.
At some point I remembering seeing in Scott’s house a big room full of racks with telephone-type stepping relays, all hooked up to be a mechanical sequencer. I don’t remember when I saw that, if it was when my father and I went there or years later.
IC: It was a huge device?
Moog: Yeah. It was relay rack after relay rack. It was the telephone switching technology of the time. He’d gotten the kind of relays they use in switching, when you dial the number, and those pulses would advance a big stepping relay. He had rack upon rack of these stepping relays. You’d dial it and the relay would step through all the positions. He had these things hooked up to turn sounds on and off. This was a huge, electro-mechanical—sequencer, is what it was! And he had it programmed to produce all sorts of rhythmic patterns. This whole room would go “clack-clack-clack-clack, clack-clack-clack-clack” and the sounds would come out all over the place.
That 30 feet of wall space that Herb Deutsch talked about [in an article in Music, Computers and Software] did exist, and I can’t remember the first time I saw that much stuff. But you don’t go from having nothing one day to having 30 feet of equipment the next. Scott probably was fooling with that stuff for years and years.
IC: According to Deutsch’s article, he first went to visit Scott in 1965.
Moog: If you have recordings with sequential sound from 1961, Scott could have begun this work in 1956 and ‘57 when I was first down there.
IC: It would put him in the forefront of developing this technology.
Moog: Definitely! No doubt about that. He was in the forefront of developing the technology, and he was in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician.
IC: Can you put Scott’s overall contribution to electronic music and studio recording and engineering in historical perspective?
Moog: He had two careers. His Lucky Strike Hit Parade gig and the Raymond Scott Quintet were what he did for money, for a living. But what he was really interested in was inventing. You can’t imagine all the shit he had in his basement. I mean, it was a football field down there—half a dozen BIG rooms in his basement, impeccably set up. The floors were painted, like some high class industrial laboratory. He had nothing but the best and the biggest machines. He had a whole room full of metalworking equipment and a whole room full of woodworking equipment, and this huge barn of a room for his electronic stuff. I’m not sure what else he did, but the Clavivox was just one thing he was fooling with.
Unfortunately, because of his paranoia, any influence he had on other musical instrument designers resulted from information that leaked out. He didn’t have that much influence on other designers. There are lots of other people who publish. Publishing was the last thing that Raymond Scott would have done.
He knew all about Trautwein, he knew about Theremin, he knew about Harald Bode. These people wrote articles about their developments, and there were few enough articles back then that if you wrote something, everybody knew about it. But Scott didn’t do that. It was word of mouth and very hard to substantiate.
IC: Scott had all these inventions—the Clavivox, the early sequencer, the Electronium. Why weren’t these commercially developed? Why did Raymond never capitalize on them, other than using them in his music or in commercials? Why was the Clavivox never manufactured?
Moog: I do know he tried. And in fact, somewhere I have a product photo of the Scott Clavivox.
IC: It looks like a keyboard on four spindly legs.
Moog: Yeah, like a little Wurlitzer piano.
IC: So he did try.
Moog: Well, yeah. But it’s like giving away your child. I think there was something irrational there. The last thing he needed was to make more money. The guy had this four-story house …
IC: 32 rooms.
Moog: Yeah, it was a big place! It had an elevator going from one floor to the other. Dorothy Collins lived on one floor, he lived on another, and the basement was this incredible playground.
IC: You’d be amazed at his living conditions these days . A few years ago money was really tight for Raymond and Mitzi. It still is, because Raymond spent, but he was not a businessman. Perhaps he figured that because he had so much money, it would always be there. When he needed equipment or a spare part, he went and bought it. The money began to dry up in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Moog: It’s very easy to spend money, and very hard to make it.
IC: Have you heard of a Canadian named Hugh LeCaine?
Moog: Oh yeah! There’s a book on his life.
IC: Scott credits him with inventing one of the first synthesizers.
Moog: Yeah, LeCaine worked for the National Research Council in Canada, and everything of LeCaine’s was published. That was the big difference. LeCaine had a profound influence on people like me.
IC: And Scott.
IC: Someone said that Raymond had a synthesizer as early as 1949.
Moog: There are all sorts of things that have been built that you could call a “synthesizer.” For instance, the Telharmonium, which used 15 kilowatt electrical generators. It was built [in the late 19th century].
IC: I guess anything which creates sound electronically could be considered a synthesizer.
Moog: Anything that creates sound and has the capability of being reconfigured. An instrument that you turn on and play, like a Theremin, is not a synthesizer. But an instrument that you turn on, and you turn this and turn that and flip this switch and put in that patch cord and actually change the quality of the sound—that’s a synthesizer.
IC: They weren’t calling it a synthesizer back then, were they?
Moog: No. However, in 1929 there was something called a “synthesizer.” Tom Rhea could tell you about that.
IC: At what point did they start using the word?
Moog: I can remember the word first being used consistently with respect to one invention—the RCA Electronic Sound Synthesizer. It was in the late 1940s—1949 or so. Two of them were built. They were four-voice instruments. One of them still exists—or did until recently—at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. It’s been described in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. It was completely programmed from a paper roll, like a piano roll. To compose on it you would punch holes in the roll.
In the mid-1950s, my father was developing synthesizers. My brother Stan and I would be treated to a demo whenever we visited him in Long Island. It was that huge wall that Moog described. – Carrie Makover
IC: Did you continue working with Scott?
Moog: After 1957, Raymond contacted us every now and then. He’d tell us about this, or ask about that, but it was very infrequent, and I can’t remember actually doing anything for him throughout the early ‘60s. But when I set up shop in upstate New York in 1964, somehow that interested him because that meant we could make special little things for him. He would call frequently, and it went beyond a business relationship. My wife and I became fairly friendly with him, and he would talk about his personal life in general terms. He used to come up to Trumansburg periodically to give me new assignments and check up on how our work was going. On one of those trips he told us about this wonderful woman he’d met, and on a later trip he brought Mitzi with him and they were married in Trumansburg by the local Justice of the Peace. We designed and built a lot of small circuits for him during the late 1960s. Scott was always very guarded about his current projects. I don’t believe that he ever told me exactly what all the stuff we were designing and building for him was going to be used for.
IC: You’re much younger than Raymond. Did you look up to him? Did he seem to you a figure who was larger than life, or a legendary character when you first met him?
Moog: He was larger than life. He had all this goddamn money, and he’d spend it on this playground. [Laughs.] He lived on an economic plane that was several layers removed from what I was used to.
He had so much imagination, and so much intuition—this funny intuition that some people have—that he could sort of fish around and get something to work, and do exactly what he wanted it to do. Obviously not everybody could do this. It took a huge amount of money, and a huge amount of imagination. And an impressive amount of craziness too!
Photo at top of page: Robert Moog, 1970, by Jack Robinson, Hilton Archive/Getty Images. Note: We have been unable to determine photographer credits for the other Moog pics. If you have this information, please contact us.