A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Along with Synthesizers, Music History was made in Trumansburg

Today they’re making pizza in the old Baldwin Furniture Store in Trumansburg – fifty years ago they were making HISTORY. It was November, 1963, while Robert Moog worked on his doctorate degree at Cornell University, that he first met music educator and composer Herb Deutsch, an event that would prove to be a pivotal point in music history.

First a little background. It all started ten years earlier when a teenage Bob Moog was attending high school on Long Island. Having a strong interest in electronics, Moog became aware of an early electronic musical instrument designed in 1921 by Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen. The instrument known by his anglicized name of Theremin, consisted of a wooden cabinet filled with vacuum tube circuitry, with two metal rods extending from the top and side. The sound it produced was ethereal, unlike any other instrument, but the method of playing it was truly out of this world.

In fact, the Theremin is played without being touched by the performer. The pitch and loudness of its sound is determined by proximity of the performer’s hands to each of two antennae – one for pitch and the other for volume. It didn’t take long for people to realize that this instrument, marketed as “the easiest musical instrument to play,” was in fact the most difficult instrument to play with any degree of accuracy.

Robert Moog's first commercial product, Model 201 Theremin, built in 1954.

The R.A. Moog factory in Trumansburg, 1971.

Testing and tuning a Moog Synthesizer, 1970.

Robert Moog with his synthesizers, Minimoog at front, ca. 1977.

Popularity of the Theremin soon peaked, then quickly faded. Hollywood brought the Theremin back in the 1950’s, when it was used for eerie effects in psychological thrillers and science fiction films. It was around that time that Moog became interested and designed his own Theremin as a high school project.

Moog’s Theremin was such a success that in 1953 he went into business as RAMCO producing commercial Theremins and do-it-yourself kits while working out of his parents’ basement. Moog designed and built the electronics and his father, a power engineer and woodworker, helped with the metal work and cabinetry.

After being featured in the January 1954 issue of Radio & Television News, orders for the instrument flowed in to the newly renamed R.A. Moog Company. Over the following years Moog produced several models of Theremin, while experimenting with new designs of other electronic musical instruments.

By 1964, Moog was living in Trumansburg while attending Cornell and operating his business in the old Baldwin Furniture building. That year he attended a music educators trade-show, where he met Deutsch and invited him to spend the following summer in Trumansburg to help develop his experimental designs. In a letter to Deutsch prior to their meeting, Moog wrote: “I am thoroughly excited about our plan to work together this summer. I should have a good assemblage of studio equipment in a few months.” That assemblage of equipment took the form of several prototype modules, each made up of hand-soldered breadboard circuits with a maze of electronic components and wires, for the purpose of generating, modifying and controlling electronically produced sounds.

The result of that summer collaboration was the production of a revolutionary electronic musical instrument – the very first Moog Synthesizer. The following year saw more collaboration and refinements and in August 1965, the first concert of Moog Synthesizer music was held by Deutsch and a few colleagues at the Trumansburg factory.

As word of his invention spread through the music industry, Moog’s electronic music synthesizer was attracting much attention. Orders came in and over the next few years instruments shipped to recording studios, composers, universities and professional musicians around the world.

Then it happened… in 1968 New York City composer and studio engineer Wendy Carlos released a groundbreaking album called Switched On Bach. Produced entirely with a Moog Synthesizer and utilizing multi-track recording techniques, the album caused an overnight sensation throughout the music world. Suddenly, although mispronounced more often than not, “Moog Synthesizer” was now a household term. (For the record, Moog rhymes with Vogue.)

Over the next two years Moog shipped 150 synthesizers to customers including The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, and The Beatles. During that time the R.A. Moog Company was hopping. The factory occupied both floors of the former furniture store. Inside, engineers designed new instruments; production workers soldered components into circuit boards and assembled modules; and technicians, surrounded by scopes and meters, tested and tuned the instruments.

Through it all, strange electronic sounds echoed throughout the building, coming from all areas of the factory, including a small studio filled to the ceiling with synthesizers, amplifiers, loudspeakers and recording equipment.

Meanwhile, two doors down the street Kostrub’s Luncheonette was experiencing a boom in business with a steady influx of curious-looking out-of-towners. Clearly, big things were happening in this small town, but no one, including Moog and Deutsch, could have imagined just how big.

Between the pop albums, “switched-on” classics and TV ads, the new Moog sound had become very popular. But a Moog Synthesizer was not cheap – definitely out of reach for the average musician. Besides that, the instrument was not easily portable, and with its system of patch-cords (similar to a telephone switchboard,) it was hardly conducive to live performance. As a result, the limited market for these large studio systems was soon saturated. Sales peaked in 1969, declined quickly after that, and by late 1970, the company’s future looked doubtful.

Along came Minimoog. Designed as a small, portable, live performance instrument, the Minimoog synthesizer was easy to understand, flexible, capable of producing many of the popular Moog sounds, and sold for considerably less than a large studio system.

In November 1970, the first production Minimoog shipped from the Trumansburg plant. It was an immediate success, sales took off, but unfortunately it was too late to revive the struggling R.A. Moog Company. It was then that an entrepreneur from Western New York bought the company, changed its name to Moog Music, Inc., and late in 1971, relocated the company to a Buffalo suburb. Over the next several years 12,000 Minimoogs would be produced along with a variety of additional new models, the Moog company would continue through a series of different owners and identities, and the old Baldwin Furniture Store in Trumansburg would eventually become the Little Venice restaurant.

But the real significance of Moog’s work was realized in those early years back in Trumansburg. To the composer and performer the Moog Synthesizer brought a new, virtually unlimited pallet of aural material. Even more importantly, Moog’s efforts during that time helped pioneer a technology that has continued to evolve and influence music production and instrument design to this day.

Moog was not alone designing electronic music instrumentation in the 1960’s, but he brought a combination of innovation, passion, and craftsmanship to the industry that was key to his success. Historically, the making of musical instruments has been an art practiced by craftsmen, and Moog continued that tradition. He held a deep appreciation and respect for musicians and let their input guide his designs. Moog was an artist and craftsman, producing innovative instruments with intuitive user-interfaces, utilizing new technology but never at the expense of sound quality or functionality.

Fifty years ago Robert Moog and a small group of people in an old Trumansburg storefront made music history. As they worked, results of their efforts echoed through the walls of the building – and resounded around the world.

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Treasures of the Tier - A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther