How Moog Brought Usability To Synthesizers

At UX Collective, a publication that focuses on user experience and product design, designer Mateo Nava has shared an interesting look at How Bob Moog brought usability heuristics to the electronic synthesizer.

The article looks at the design of the Minimoog Model D, the design decisions that were made in translating the Moog Modular into a portable keyboard and how the Minimoog has influenced later designs.

Upon its release, Moog’s Minimoog condensed a significantly complicated instrument down to a considerably smaller format that could be more easily adopted by musicians. Unlike its predecessors, which seemed to tailor their designs for electrical engineers and specialized scientists knowledgeable of electronic sound synthesis, Moog’s design started with the user first.

Even Moog himself touches on this in the context of his process saying, “Artist feedback drove all my development work… The point is that I don’t design stuff for myself. I’m a toolmaker. I design things that other people want to use.”

Through unique design choices such as the implementation of pre-wired modules that eliminated the need for manually patching sound signal paths (which add friction for the user), clear visibility of system status as evidenced by knobs and switches, and the invention of the pitch wheel, Bob Moog introduced a design interface in the Minimoog that would become a roadmap for electronic instrument designers to follow.

As a result, Moog would not only define generations of musical instruments through an enormously successful instrument design but, in doing so, also leave a lasting impact on a plethora of musical styles: an object-lesson for the way in which experience design spills over into many facets of our culture.

Note: While article is an interesting read from a design perspective, it credits the Minimoog design to Bob Moog, leaving out Bill Hemsath, who created the original Minimoog design, and the team that developed Hemsath’s idea into what became the iconic Minimoog.

20 thoughts on “How Moog Brought Usability To Synthesizers

  1. “Unlike [the Minimoog’s] predecessors, which seemed to tailor their designs for electrical engineers and specialized scientists knowledgeable of electronic sound synthesis…”
    Quite a lot of this seems contrary to what I have heard before. Bob Moog was an electronics engineer, but knew from early on – probably even when marketing his early theremin kits – that his target was musicians. He was known for bringing musicians into the lab to discuss the design and usability of his products. He seemed to crave their feedback in the process of refining and updating his instruments.
    Reading the above puts a rather different spin on Moog’s design process and timeline. Granted, the early modular synthesizers were probably difficult for many musicians to wrap their minds around, but the Minimoog had to wait for the musicians (and audiences) to experience and unfold the potential of electronic music before it could be conceived.

    1. You have to remember that modular synthesis back then was extremely esoteric, and the only people that mastered it were academics and musicians that were very technically oriented, like Wendy Carlos.

      The barrier to entry was so high, in terms of cost and learning curve, that there was about 10 years where a handful of musicians that understood modular synths played on almost all the records that used synths.

      I’ve read stories of rich musicians like the Beatles and the Stones buying Moog modulars during that era and then selling them quickly, because they were too complicated to figure out. Tangerine Dream’s first Moog came from the Stones.

      Even the Minimoog was complicated for a lot of musicians back then. Rick Wakeman tells a story about getting his first Minimoog at a bargain price, because it wouldn’t make any sound. The owner thought it was broken, but they’d just changed all the settings randomly and no sound was coming out!

      1. i believe the quote you are talking about is in the 2005 documentary “moog” (free on youtube) and the guy says “i can’t get it to play a chord!” and sells it to wakeman real cheap, not because it won’t make a sound, but because he spent all this money on an instrument he didn’t realize was monophonic.

      2. The new series with Rick Rubin interviewing Paul McCartney is really engaging, also on this subject. McCartney talked about Bob hanging around at EMI Studios demonstrating the modular. They thought of him as a nice weird professor carefully explaining how the system worked. The Beatles went in, were mesmerized, and immediately incorporated some patches into their recordings (I forgot which songs).

  2. Something that is underappreciated about the Minimoog is that it’s got such a broad ‘sweet spot’. It’s basically designed so that anything you do is going to sound good, or at least musically useful.

    This cut out some of the wacky stuff you could do with the Moog modular, but it meant it was practical to change patches on stage in realtime. I can dial in the sound I want in about 10 seconds on a Minimoog, which is less than it takes me to find and load a patch on some modern synths.

  3. My first thought after reading this was my first encounter with a minimoog at a trade fair here in Norway – when it was new. It did not make any sound at all. Even when I cranked up all the controls to 11. (The attack on the envelopes included).

    1. Having the attack set to maximum will actually produce no sound unless you hold a note for a pretty long time. It has to be set to 0 if you want sound to come out as soon as you hit a note.

  4. One other factor I’m surprised so few people comment on: the Minimoog didn’t look and feel like a piece of lab equipment.

    You could put one atop your home organ or piano and the predominantly wooden case and big, friendly switches were likely not going to be an aesthetic clash. If the person approaching it blind has any experience with organs they immediately understand the 32,16, 8, etc octave settings. Pitch settings have larger knobs to facility finer control. It was an exceedingly friendly design in these regards.

    Contrast that with the nearly contemporaneous Odyssey. Not a single fibre of wood is visible, only a molded ABS base and sides (which likely was great for cost savings and ease of assembly). Legending, especially on the first whiteface models, has a very mid-century test equipment vibe about it. All the sliders are the same length. None of them are detented for octave footages. This isn’t to cast shade on the Oddy; it’s a great piece of gear. But it comes from a somewhat less welcoming design aesthetic, down to choices like selecting waveforms not in the Oscillator section but in the Filter one.

  5. This completely misses the point that the model D was just a chain in an evolution of thinking that was leading somewhere better with each step. This whole “cult of Moog“ stuff creates some really bizarre thinking in people.

    1. It seems that you’re the one that’s missing the point.

      Evolution isn’t a nice gradual series of steps from amoebas to people. It’s painstaking experimentation, with most experiments ending in failure and dead ends.

      In evolution, entire branches of the animal kingdom can be traced back to a single species. Successful experiments are very rare and very important – in both evolution and in product design.

      If you look at synths before the Minimoog and after, it’s like cell phones before and after iPhone. Nearly every synth made still uses ideas defined in the Minimoog.

      If you look at the last 50 years of synth keyboards, almost every synth puts controls directly above the keyboard. Almost every synth follows the Minimoog’s left-to-right signal flow for controls. Almost every synth features pitch and mod wheels placed to the left of the keyboard. Most synths even use variations of the Minimoog’s black panel + wood sides styling.

      These weren’t baby steps, when you look at what came before. And the decisions weren’t obvious, when you look at other companies’ attempts to create all-in-one synths at the time. Korg put the controls below the keyboard. Buchla used colorful text and controls on a light background, and a c-shaped signal flow. Many early monosynths did not provide any expressive performance controls.

      Putting controls over the keyboard means you won’t bump them accidentally when playing. The left-to-right control layout make it easy to understand the synth’s architecture and capabilities. The pitch and mod wheels work so well that they’re standard in synth designs, in spite of 50 years of experimentation. The white text on a matte background means that the labeling is legible in stage lighting. The wood sides mean that a 50-year-old instrument has character instead of having sides that are scratched up or broken.

      The Minimoog is just an extremely successful design. If the Minimoog was “just a chain in an evolution of thinking that was leading somewhere better with each step”, Moog wouldn’t be able to reissue it after 50 years, price it at $3,500, and sell every one they could make.

    2. > the model D was just a chain in an evolution of thinking

      The chain might be a mesh. Back in the 1930s a friend of mine who basically was a depression years hobo at the time built a really cool microtonal synthesizer which he used to perform with in a avant-garde band at the time. The synthesizer worked and was playable until around the year 2000 when it finally stopped working. Of course he’s always been a big nobody to the global Academie despite his massive innovations so we can just shelve this footnote and continue to worship only the educated elite.

  6. usability
    1. Keyboard and gate are prepatched to osc and envelopes – press a key – get a pitched sound with a start and an end
    2. most used paths are prepatched osc (mix) filter amp …

    its the most basic setup that people could not figure out

  7. I struggle with the statement that modular is “…which seemed to tailor their designs for electrical engineers and specialized scientists knowledgeable of electronic sound synthesis…”
    Flexibility breeds complexity…not an engineering design perspective.

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