Moby on His Studio Move, Recording 'Innocents'
RICHARD MELVILLE Hall, known far more universally as Moby, has been producing EDM anthems, contrarian pop, and quasi-concept albums since 1990. In his music, which he declares increasingly adheres to “weird old electronic-music-guy standards,” he imbues joy, insecurity, fragility, and warmth. As songwriter, producer, and vintage-gear enthusiast, Moby strives for tones that have presence and the kind of flaws that provide personality more than disruptions.
With his 11th full-length album, Innocents
, Moby and producer Mark “Spike” Stent channeled diverse vocal contributors, dusty circuitry, and signal chain idiosyncrasies into 12 tracks that are not always conventionally “good” recordings, but that are both emotionally and sonically resonant. “When we first started talking about working together, [Stent] was saying that if the record is going to good, it will have a warmth to it, an emotional quality … and that we had to allow each other to be really weird in the production,” explains Moby. If there’s one thing over the years that Moby has learned he does right, it’s doing things wrong.
“When I was growing up and first making music and trying to get a contract, I bought into this sort of sad belief … that there was a sonic ideal and every engineer’s goal should be to reach that perfection, finding the perfect kick drum, the perfect snare drum,” recalls Moby, speaking by phone from his apartment in New York. “But the more I found people that were striving for technical perfection, the more I found a lot of records sounding the same. Technically perfect records have been being made for modern rock and pop from 1996 until 10 minutes ago. They’re recorded the same, mixed the same, and the only differences are the songs and performers. But listen to Silver Apples, Suicide, early Heaven 17, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, all the way back to The Beatles . . . it was all very sonically different.
“Realizing that suddenly makes the studio a place where the goal is to make something interesting rather than something perfect,” continues Moby. “It emancipated me to believe a record can be anything you want. I am perfectly happy with noise and hum and wow and flutter and the things most people consider mistakes; to me, they are just part of the record.”
This isn’t a new approach for Moby, just one that he’s honed from blissful ignorance to strategic degradation. “I made a record [1996’s Animal Rights] years ago with Alan Moulder, and as I was recording I was putting the vocals into a reverb unit and then putting it into the dbx 160XT compressor/limiter,” says Moby. “And I thought it was a normal thing to do, because it sounded cool, but he was astounded because it’s the opposite of the normal way. I remember Alan explaining this to Flood and I remember his quote being, ‘Wow, that’s just so punk rock,’ because we were recording stuff really wet. Now I’ve become a little more cautious and I try and record vocals dry and do the weird stuff later, but I still love making sure that even my songs that have a very conventional quality to their arrangement have a lot of random sonic weirdness.”
Listening to Innocents
, an album greatly enriched by what Moby calls the “pre-mix” phase of creative outboard processing, it becomes readily apparent that he is a purist only when it comes to appreciating and even appropriating imperfections. Since recording 2011’s Destroyed, which heavily featured the native sequences from his extensive collection of pre-MIDI analog drum machines, Moby relocated to Los Angeles, setting up an eBay-dust-scented bedroom studio similar to his long-term base in New York. However, he broke analog fetishist cardinal rules by installing his percussion tools in spirit only.
“Over the course of a few hours, I went through my drum machine ‘museum’ and recorded whatever individual sounds or patterns they offered into either a Chandler [Limited LTD-1 mic preamp] or an API [512c preamp module in a six-slot Lunchbox chassis] for sampler playback or to insert in Pro Tools,” reveals Moby. “It was a way to have all my drum machines in one place without having to take them cross-country, but also a way to build weird hybrid kits where you have the hi-hat from a [Roland CompuRhythm] CR-78 and the kick from an old [Maestro] Rhythm King [MRK-2], etc., all in one Frankenstein-style pattern.” Select other beat boxes that had their parts comped include the Korg “Mini Pops” 120/Univox SR-120, Sequential Circuits DrumTraks and TOM, Electro-Harmonix DRM 16, Olson Solid State Rhythm Instrument, Kay R-12 Rhythmer, Mattel Synsonic, PAiA Drummer Boy and MXR 185 Digital Drum Computer.
To augment this custom library, Moby pulls from drums sampled from old records and fills from Battery, such as gunshots for snares and Einstürzende Neubauten-style banging on metal (selections with “a lot of attack, and weird decay” to open up other timbres). In addition, Moby and Stent recorded live parts in the guesthouse basement, using an AEA R84 ribbon mic set far from the Yamaha kit and put through the dbx limiter to squash the tone into a grainy thwack approaching “the apocalypse,” says Moby.
Stacking these drums achieved an intentionally tightly compressed effect without a lot of live quality to it. For the most part, however, processing was reserved for the aforementioned “pre-mix” period, when clean signals get sent to old tape machines, delays, and reverbs and fed back to Pro Tools without permanently corrupting the integrity of the original impulse (a contrast to those early “punk rock” days tracking wet signals). This collection of polish removers includes the Eventide DSP4000 Ultra-Harmonizer, Univox EC-80A Echo Chamber, Univox U3R Pro-Verb, Gibson Reverb 3, Univox Echo Tech EM-200, Lafayette Echo-Verb II, Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, Z.VEX Lo-Fi Loop Junkie, Electrix Pro Filter Factory, Moogerfooger Bass MuRF, Sky Soundlab Voice Spectra Vocoder, Multivox Full Rotor, Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay and SPL Transient Designer.
“I have a Neve 500 Series preamp module I love for strings and this Drawmer [S2 Dual Channel] stereo tube compressor that has a little more delicate high end to it, plus several Chandlers, APIs, and some Focusrites … all these tiny mixing desks essentially in a compact enclosure,” muses Moby. “So I might get a really nice clean recording but I can never get enough of sending things, especially vocals, out to something like an Echoplex with all the direct sound turned off, then fly them back to Pro Tools to achieve instant vintage. When I need to hear a strange space, I have a tape delay where the pitch is never steady, but I accept it for the performance it’s giving me.
“And my favorite thing is to take a snare, put it through reverb, and put it through the SPL,” continues Moby. “It’s super-super simple: an attack knob and a sustain knob. But the interplay between the two … it’s not subtle like the LA-2A [leveling amplifier] … it really mangles the sound. You have so much control over the attack and decay; you can even get rid of one or the other and get really great effects. I love it so much I have three, just in case. Apparently they now make a plug-in version, and I’m sure it’s good, but nothing can be as good as the circuitry because of all the chaotic artifacts that contribute to the result.
“In general, I don’t usually know how an engineer would use something correctly,” summarizes Moby. “So when I use something like the Eventide DSP4000 on the song ‘The Dogs,’ I apply one particular program that is chorus, reverb, and pitch shifting, and when you add back in the feedback to the pitch shifting, you get this unsteady warble that chews up the tone. Or on the song ‘Tell Me,’ I tried to get the [Moogerfooger] MuRF step sequencer to sync with Pro Tools, but I couldn’t figure it out, so I let it do these random patterns and it contributes this textural messiness I really like.”
All of this processing would threaten to become an atonal tangle were it not for the enveloping, sustaining melodies Moby pulls from his hardware synths, including the Roland Juno-106, Serge Modular, Roland JX-3P, Roland Jupiter-8, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Casio CZ-101, Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08 and Yamaha SY22. While he does use the Arturia family of vintage emulations for reinforcement purposes, Moby again prefers circuitry to predictability. It’s an appropriately physical, gradually detuning approach for an album of songs inspired by the complicated open-closed relationship people have with vulnerability and the human condition.
Thinking about the way people both mask and share their anxiety and compassion led Moby, with Stent as A&R man, to assemble a collaboration-rich album that features Cold Specks, Damien Jurado, Wayne Coyne, Skylar Grey, Inyang Bassey, and Mark Lanegan. Unlike Destroyed, which explored personal disassociation and structural limitations, Innocents
balances thoughtful laments with moments that feel spiritually uplifting and almost triumphant, though this celebration may well be an acceptance that we should savor what little time is left before the end of days. It’s an album built outwards to look inwards at an existence rife with little dissonances.
“The first quasi-single is the song ‘A Case for Shame,’ which started with one of my hybridized drum kits, a digital bell part off the SY22 and an Oberheim pad,” says Moby. “I sent this austere thing to Cold Specks, who wrote her part around it, sent me back her vocals, and then I orchestrated around that, adding a piano part, lots more drums, strings, guitar, bass, and lots of Echoplex. Most of the songs start simply, then I build parts on top, usually playing them and not quantizing.”
Some of those parts are inundated with more intentional compromises than others. “I’ve found myself holding an iPhone next to something like a Shure KSM44 or a Telefunken tube mic and recording simultaneously into both the quality mic and the voice memo app,” says Moby. “I’ll export the MP4 and put it into Pro Tools, almost treating it like an effect to mix behind the main vocal. I know we did that with some of the background vocals for ‘Almost Home.’ It has a compressed, bandpass quality to it that can be very interesting to have at hand.”
Another way Moby added automatic atmosphere was by reamping parts through a Mesa Boogie Electra Dyne Simul-Class 45/90 combo. “The song with Mark Lanegan, ‘The Lonely Night,’ was at one point relatively conventional sounding, but we wanted it to sound like it have been recorded at the end of the world. So we summed all the instruments and fed them through a Z.Vex Distortron pedal into this amp and what you hear is really four tracks: all the instruments on the left side going through a pedal and an amp; all the ones on the right side doing the same; Mark Lanegan’s vocals; and his vocals going through a pedal and a guitar amp. The end result is wonderful and broken down.”
Listening to “The Lonely Night,” or any of Innocents
for that matter, reveals an album of hauntingly amassed variables and oddly saturated parameters.
“I think one of the reasons I’ve dedicated my life to making music is because my nature I’m fairly analytical, but with music the more analytical I am, the more the music suffers, so it’s an opportunity to be more emotional and intuitive,” says Moby. “It’s all an opportunity to find a different character, to question and respond to something both familiar and foreign.”
|Mixsuite L.A., Spike Stent’s studio.|
Experimenting in the Studio
Producer Spike Stent talks about shaping Innocents and shares advice for mixing at home
According to Moby, Spike Stent was there “to preserve the good elements of chaos, but still make it something someone can listen to.” Stent first entered a recording studio in 1981 at the age of 16, apprenticing with Ken Thomas (who coincidentally mixed Moby’s last two albums) for several years before striking out on his own. Working with artists such as Throbbing Gristle, The KLF, and Massive Attack, to name just three of hundreds, Spike became intimately familiar with mixing as a creative not just technical arrangement tool. Collaborating with Moby was an unadulterated opportunity to mix with feeling in a way resembling those early career sessions.
“I went back to my roots on this record,” explains Stent. “I got the guitar pedals out and sent beats through all kinds of outboard compression [including a Thermionic Phoenix, a Thermionic Culture Vulture, Distressors, Empirical Labs Fatso, Retro Instruments Sta-Level, Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph, and Chandler Limited Little Devil]. A lot of times, when mixing records as I do, you don’t have a lot of time, you just need the result … but this one was a production, a journey where we could experiment.”
Pushing Moby to work with different people and indulge his less-polished instincts, Stent also helped sift through the compounding options and pare them down to a manageable dozen. “He’s an amazingly open, generous person and was up for all ideas … it was a matter of just picking the best of them. Moby is so hands-on, I could come in and out of the project. Once every two weeks we’d get together, then during key recording stages until the mixing stages. And that helped me keep perspective on how to keep all the ideas in check.”
Mixing in his custom Santa Monica facility, Mixsuite L.A., on his SSL G Series desk with KRK 9000 and Yamaha NS10 monitors, Stent was challenged to “get the rawness sorted out” as well as compensate for Moby’s fear of flabby low end. Resolving this challenge were plug-ins from Waves, SoundToys, and Universal Audio, among others, as well as hardware modules such as a Teletronix LA-2A, the UA1176 Anniversary Edition black-panel bluestripe, a dbx 902 De-Esser and GML 8200 EQ. In order to achieve a balance of definition and depth, live and synth bass parts were split between attack and warmth and sent through both the plug-ins and the outboard boxes to richen up the parts while retaining the bedroom feel.
Of course, not everyone has access to a board they can push hard as they navigate the sweet spots, so Stent offers this advice: “If you’re trying to do something in the box, be sure you have a bus compressor on because that will help you, but be careful not to overload all your buses. It’s easy to get into distortion quickly. I would have something on the master bus from the beginning: an EQ and any type of SSL quad compressor [an emulation of the SSL 4000G console master bus compressor, such as Waves G-Master]. If you’re going to have the SSL compressor on your master bus, just put it on 2:1, slow attack, fast release, and then just play around with it. But be careful: As you build up the mix, it will hit it harder and harder and you’ll need to back it off as you start pushing into it.”
Ultimately, whether mixing intimate dynamics or for radio-ready clarity, aspiring engineers need to be prepared to make some hard decisions. “Know when to be bold, when to abandon things, pull it all down, and start again,” concludes Stent.
Tony Ware is a
writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C., region. He likes his
music messy but his copy clean. A decade ago he used to collect vintage
effects pedals off eBay and still gets a thrill listening to a baritone
guitar through a big metal Maestro Fuzztain wedge.