Google is using their homepage today to celebrate what would have been the 78th birthday of Robert "Bob" Moog, the inventor of the eponymous Moog synthesizer, an electronic musical instrument that would change the sound of popular music forever.
The general principles of Moog's original design are intact in Google's tribute. Now web-searchers everywhere can experiment with a subtractive synthesizer, and maybe even play a few of their favorite songs (see how below).
Subtractive synthesis, the type of synthesis used in Moog's design, works by filtering a full-sounding tone, removing elements to change the overall timbre. The process is somewhat similar to what happens to a human voice. No matter what sound a person sings, his or her vocal chords vibrate the same way. The sound is filtered by the shape of the singer's mouth, creating changes in tone and timbre – the difference between singing "ooh" or "ahh." In a subtractive synthesizer, filters work much the same way as the singer's lips and mouth. The oscillators work as the synthesizer's "vocal chords."
In Google's Moog Doodle, users have a chance to play with a simple virtual synthesizer. By clicking on the piano keys, or by using a computer's keyboard, visitors can play their own tunes and experiment with different synthesizer sounds. When the logo is clicked on, the white keys can be played using the row on the computer keyboard beginning with the TAB key, and the black keys with the row of numbers above.
The sound controls are shown in four sections, above the keyboard, echoing Moog's modular design. The first section contains volume controls. The large knob changes the master volume, and the three knobs to its left control the treble, middle, and bass levels, respectively.
The second module contains the oscillator controls. Google's synthesizer contains three different oscillators, all of which generate "raw" waveforms. The first column of three knobs control the octave range of each oscillator, creating sounds ranging from the extremely deep and barely audible to ear-piercingly high and sharp. Each of the three knobs can be controlled independently. Experimentation with these controls may lead to interesting results. The two large knobs in the oscillator controls allow you to change the tuning of two of the oscillators. This acts in a similar way to loosening or tightening a string on a guitar. Finally, the column of three knobs on the right side of the oscillator controls will allow you to choose different waveforms for the oscillators. These can also dramatically affect the shape of the sound.
The third module contains the filters. Once more, these will greatly influence the sound of the synthesizer. The two knobs in the upper left and the lower left corners of the filters module shape the sound by cutting off the highest frequencies and emphasizing certain tones. The knob between them controls portamento, or glide: the degree to which the synthesizer will "slide" between played notes. The other three knobs in the filters selection will apply more modifiers to the sound. Play with these and see what you come up with!
The final module, envelope, will change the overall shape and length of the sound. The top envelope knob controls "attack," or how abruptly a tone will begin to play. The second knob controls "release," which determines how long it will take for silence to resume after a key is released. The last knob controls "sustain," or how loud the note will be when it is held down.
A combination of all of these controls, even on a fairly simple synthesizer like Google's can produce nearly an infinite variety of sounds.
Lastly, Google's Moog Doodle contains a four-track recording device that will allow you to capture your masterpiece and share it with friends.
Now that you understand the purpose of the sound controls, it's time to try out some material. And what could be better than the greatest synthesizer riffs ever written?
Gary Numan, "Cars" (played on Google's Doodle)
One of the most iconic synth riffs ever is Numan's first solo single, released in 1978. "Cars" can be played in two parts.
The main synthesizer riff plays the notes D, C#, G, A like this:
T, 5, Q, W 3x
T, Y, 5
TAB, Q, E, Q
The much-simpler high synthesizer part simply alternates slowly between the A note and the G note. Try a higher portamento value to increase the "glide" between the notes.
I, O, I, O
Soft Cell, "Tainted Love" (played on Google's Doodle)
The one-hit-wonders' 1981 single contains an iconic synthesizer riff. If only Google had Doodled a drum machine to accompany it. It can be played in two or three parts, but be forewarned if you plan to use the accompanying recording tools: the poor accuracy of its note playback makes recording such percussive songs very difficult.
The main synthesizer plays the notes G, A#, D#, A#, C, like this:
Q, Q, 3, 3, 6, 6, 3, R
The second, thicker synthesizer plays the G note along with the first:
Kraftwerk, "Autobahn" (played on Google's Doodle)
The grandfather of synthesizer riffs, "Autobahn" was the title track on Kraftwerk's 1975 album. It can be played on Google's logo with two parts.
The bass synthesizer plays two octave F notes, played on a computer keyboard thusly:
TAB, TAB, U, TAB, U, TAB, U,TAB, U, etc.
The lead synthesizer part is equally simple, playing the notes F, A#, C, and F on light and airy-sounding synthesizer:
U, 3, R, TAB
Daft Punk, "Da Funk" (played on Google's Doodle)
Daft Punk's now-classic 1995 instrumental single is probably the hardest of the four to play.
The main riff descends through the notes G, F, G, A#, D, C, D, F, A#, A, A#, C, G like this:
I, U, I, 0, T, R, T, U, 3, W, 3, R, Q.
The chord for much of the song is simply the G note, played with a syncopated rhythm:
I, I, I, I, etc.
Sadly, until Google turns their logo into a poly-synth (a synthesizer that can play more than one note at a time) we won't be able to do Van Halen's "Jump" justice.