Electronic keyboardists today from Lady Gaga to Brandon Flowers owe their careers to Bill Hemsath.
While he was never a voice coach, talent agent or label producer, the Madison resident is probably one of the most overlooked figures in modern music history.
As the inventor of the Minimoog, a first-generation modern synthesizer, Hemsath and his imaginative instrument turned simple keyboards into full orchestras and by doing so changed the way music sounded and built a bridge to new genres for a galaxy of artists.
The Minimoog (“mini-moe-guh”) was first conceived by Hemsath in 1969 while he was working as an engineer for the New York-based musical instrument company R.A. Moog Inc. Crafted from spare parts collected during Hemsath’s lunch breaks, the first prototype was jokingly referred to as “Hemsath’s toy.”
“Raised in sawdust”
“I probably would have been a cabinet maker,” Hemsath says in retrospect.
The native Ohioan moved to Mississippi eight years ago. With children living one mile in either direction, Hemsath spends his current days tinkering in a garage full of kitchen cabinets and restored radios.
“I was raised in sawdust,” he says before launching into a detailed discussion on home renovation. Hemsath spent his preschool years building cabinets and laying floor with his engineer father on the north end of Cleveland.
As a first-grader, he got in trouble for copying radio schematics out of a school book. When he was older he found work in a radio repair shop and after high school was admitted to the Case Institute of Technology (“It was the number three technical school in those days after MIT and UCLA.”)
Always interested in music as well as woodwork and radios, Hemsath would occasionally fashion organ pipes and test them to see what sounds came out.
“A musician is not usually an engineer,” he says. Hemsath was both.
By the time electronic music pioneer Bob Moog opened his music instrument shop in sleepy Trumansburg, N.Y., he had already gained experience working with vacuum tubes and theramins (an eerie high-pitched device the Beach Boys used in their hit song “Good Vibrations”).
Moog built his first analog synthesizer in 1964 and sold one the following year to Hemsath who was then working for the Cleveland Institute of Music. The wide panels and hundreds of patch cords and wires made it resemble a telephone switchboard.
“It was a strange animal,” Hemsath remembers. His relationship with Moog soon turned into a job. “Designers weren’t walking around all over the place,” he said.
In addition to his engineering duties, Hemsath began giving in-store Moog demonstrations to customers. This led to slight improvements like when one customer wanted to replicate a woodwind instrument, Hemsath designed what was called an “electric clothespin” for the device.
Most regular customers couldn’t afford the Moog and couldn’t even pronounce the company’s name. Only 250 were manufactured and before long the company was starting to feel pinched. “Moogs were nice but required a rudimentary knowledge of electronics,” Hemsath said.
“Hemsath’s toy” turned out to be the savior of the company. After he and his colleagues realized the prototype’s potential they made the executive decision to rush it to production.
The Minimoog had a short keyboard bolted to it with only three octaves worth of keys. Similar to a sewing machine kit it could be folded into an inverted shell and resembled a suitcase once closed. Hemsath developed a pitch wheel to bend notes and a panel for headphones. While it contained all the spirit and capability of its larger protegee, the Minimoog was way more functional and user-friendly.
With sales of more than a thousand units a year from 1970 to 1981, the Minimoog became the Macintosh of electronic music. “We were inventing the business,” Hemsath said.
Budding keyboardists clamored to try it out and in spite of a hefty price tag ($1,800 in 1975) the Minimoog became one the most coveted instruments of the decade.
With stores in New York and California, the Minimoog found audiences on both the avant-garde East Coast and the psychedelic West Coast. Progressive rockers from Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer to Rick Wakeman of Yes incorporated it into their studio sessions. “Chariots of Fire” composer Vangelis used one frequently as did Gershon Kingsley, whose Minimoog composition “Popcorn” became a cult classic of the disco era.
“I was in high school and begged my parents real bad for a keyboard,” remembers Ricky Johnson. The Deltan keyboardist backed his band up on his Morrison Brothers Minimoog playing venues in Shaw and Indianola. Since it was monophonic he couldn’t play chords and had to adjust notes using the knobs. “Changing the sound while playing was what I was pretty good at,” Johnson said. He can now replicate the old Minimoog sound on his current keyboard by using a computer program.
Mississippi College professor and organist Robert Knupp remembers how hard it was to learn the controls. “It would do a wide variety of sounds and you could choose different wave lengths and modify those if you were really creative,” he said.
Jackson voiceover artist Sergio Fernandez played a Minimoog in clubs in the mid 1970’s. “It was something new,” he said. “Here you had an instrument that a piano player could bend the notes like a guitar player. It was a very exciting time. This is the classiest. This is the real deal.”
One night while playing, Fernandez accidentally tipped a beer over into the Minimoog.
“It seemed like it was working okay so I go into the next song,” he said. “All of a sudden the Minimoog on its own just started going up and down like an old timey fire truck siren.” Fernandez and his band stopped playing and let the Minimoog finish the song on its own. “It was never the same after that Heineken,” he said.
In Hemsath’s living room sits a harpsichord he built from a kit. He sits down and jumps right into some Bach.
Hemsath and his colleagues weren’t exactly tuned in at the time to the way Minimoog was sweeping pop music. When artists would send in demos of their music, Hemsath joked that the records were usually either melted down or used for Frisbee practice at the workshop. He speaks fondly, however, of meetings with classical composers Aaron Copeland and John Cage.
Hemsath’s career with Bob Moog came to an end shortly after the company was sold to a Buffalo manufacturer in 1971.
“I felt sorry for Bob,” Hemsath said. “That (the Minimoog) was done in his factory and in his name but not by him — he resented that. The Mini was not his baby.”
Hemsath worked for nine years at Cornell University programming auditory perception machines for the psychology department. Other inventions followed for Hemsath ranging from restaurant steamer controls to a personal computer for Christian missionaries. He cobbled the latter together using a waterproof suitcase and motorcycle battery. “I’m constantly inventing things,” he said.
As the synthesizer boom continued and spawned other companies and other instruments, the manufacturing process became more staccato.
“What we see as time goes on are fewer and fewer knobs,” Hemsath said. “The simpler we make them, the more they could sell.”
Today the Minimoog is part of a bygone era but for that brief window of time, a tiny keyboard with a revolutionary sound turned a handful of electrical engineers into rock stars.
“We got it right,” Hemsath said.