I’m sure Moog must have explained to me on that first day what the project was all about, but looking back, I can see that it was months before I understood it or saw the whole picture. Apparently, for years Moog had been in consultation with musicians and composers, most notably John Eaton, then of Indiana University, on ways to expand the limits of keyboard instruments. Over the years, tone-producing technologies had advanced by leaps and bounds, but keyboards had changed little from their traditional design. On an acoustic piano, for example, a musician has control over only three parameters: which note is played; how long it sustains (and even then, only until the sound dies away); and the velocity with which the key is depressed, which governs the loudness. On some electronic keyboards, only one additional parameter has been added: polyphonic aftertouch, the pressure of the key at the bottom of its stroke, the sound of which depends on the particular keyboard or is programmable by the user (not to be confused with a piano’s aftertouch, which is something entirely different).
It was Moog and Eaton’s idea to expand the number of different operations a player could perform at the keyboard, and to make each of those operations programmable by the user. For a long time this idea remained only a dream because of several technological obstacles: computers were too slow and expensive, sensor technology wasn’t advanced enough, and interfacing with tone-producing elements was difficult due to lack of a common computer language for musical instruments. By the mid-1980s, however, all of this had changed with the advent of cheap personal computers, further miniaturization of sensors, and the development of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).
Moog planned to add several features to the traditional keyboard. First was a touch-sensitive keytop (playing surface) that would sense, for each key, the position of the player’s finger from left to right and fore and aft, as well as the total surface area of the finger on that key. Another new feature would be a sensor that measured a key’s vertical position in its stroke. By computing that position over time, the key’s velocity could also be determined. Finally, a force sensor would be included at the bottom of the keystroke to provide the usual aftertouch-pressure information. Each of these operations was to be assignable to any aspect of tone contained in the MIDI specifications, such as loudness, pitch, vibrato, tone color, reverb, and many others.
For example, the vertical position of the key could be used to control the loudness of that note while the amount of aftertouch pressure controlled the degree of vibrato — and the surface area of the finger on the key controlled some aspect of the tone’s harmonic characteristics. From the virtually unlimited number of possible combinations (subject, of course, to the capabilities of the tone-producing devices to which the keyboard is attached), the player would program his or her choices into a computer connected to the keyboard, and these choices, which might change over the course of a piece of music, would become part of the composition itself. The name to be given to this odd instrument was the Multiple-Touch-Sensitive (MTS) Keyboard.
Actual construction of the MTS keyboards had briefly begun at Moog’s workshop, next to his home in North Carolina, several years prior to our meeting, but everything had to be hurriedly packed up and moved when Moog accepted an invitation from Ray Kurzweil to become Vice President of New Product Research at the newly formed Kurzweil Music Systems, near Boston. While the Moogs spent a year adapting to their new home and life in the Boston suburb of Natick, most of their keyboard gear remained packed away in the garage, where we found it on that cold February day. In addition to the Yamaha, which was to be turned into an MTS keyboard for New York musician Gregory Kramer, there were four four-octave organ keyboards (three for John Eaton, and one for Moog to experiment with), and one six-octave keyboard for Steve Porcaro of the band Toto, an order that was later canceled when Moog realized he would not be able to fulfill it within a reasonable length of time. Moog decided to begin with the Yamaha, so we separated the keyboard part from the strung back (easily done on this instrument) and set the keyboard up on its legs in the shop.
Moog’s “shop” in his Natick home was a far cry from the ample industrial building he had erected in North Carolina. It was actually a large furnace room with a concrete floor, perhaps 10 by 20 feet, with the furnace and water heater at the far end. The rest of the room was quite filled up: along one long wall were two large workbenches and a couple of filing cabinets; along the opposite wall, rows of steel shelves extend to the ceiling, stuffed with every manner of industrial and electronic hardware; with a third workbench and drill press near the door. This left a long, narrow space for the keyboards and us. The relative lack of space was a source of some frustration for Moog, but, fortunately, the two-car garage accommodated some overflow, including a radial arm saw, a belt sander, and some additional work space. Next to the workshop room was a more spacious office, with desks, computers, and a Yamaha upright piano. Both of these rooms and the garage were on the entry level of the house; the family’s living space was upstairs.