Moby | Broken-Down Machines

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

All photos by Sunny Khalsa

Plenty of artists go through an overtly self-destructive phase, which can sometimes lead to compelling, albeit harrowing expression. For songwriter/producer/vintage-synth enthusiast Richard Melville Hall, a.k.a. New York-based dance music icon Moby, it took a decade edging the opposite way, toward increasingly self-exploratory compositions, before he felt it was time to be publicly DestroyedDestroyed–the title of his ninth album and an accompanying book of personal photography taken during solitary travel moments.

While proven capable during his 20-year career of delivering anthemic electronic dance music, Moby has set out on Destroyedto explore the concept that “the familiar can sometimes be strange and disconcerting, and . . . the things that might at first seem a little bit cold or off-putting can actually be really warm and inviting.”

“Demoed” to Samson''s stereo H4 Zoom Recorder, a MacBook Pro''s built-in microphone, and Pro Tools through Avid Audio''s Mbox interface, or even as melodies hummed into a Blackberry while Moby was ensconced in various hotel rooms around the world, the material on Destroyedis intended to capture a sense of nomadic impulse and transitory reflection. Moby cites a Buddhist worldview of “wabi-sabi,” which is a kind of acceptance that existence is full of endearing entropy, as a thematic undercurrent for the formal production, which involved a series of self-recorded synths and drum machines runs, and additionally emotive, while “imperfect” instrumentation. All this is thematically edged between bookend songs “The Broken Places” and “When You Are Old.”

The sounds that were ultimately compiled to replace the scratch tracks come from a back catalog of discontinued analog gear sourced from eBay during restless nights in unfamiliar cities. Moby refers to his collection as the “museum,” as he maintains he has “almost one of every old drum machine ever made” (impressive within a 1,200-square foot apartment). These include the Sequential Circuits DrumTraks, Electro-Harmonix DRM 16, Roland CR-78, Olson Rhythm Instrument, Univox SR-120, Kay R-12, and Mattel Synsonics (the genesis of the collection, owned since 1982), which, along with Moby''s own drumming on a Yamaha kit recorded with AEA R84 and Shure KSM44 mics, provided the beds for Destroyed.

“Modern musicians who sit down to make a record, they have access to literally, like, 3,000 kick drums and 3,000 snare drums and limitless sonic possibilities, because of sample libraries and soft synths,” says Moby. “They can sculpt any sound wave into a state of sterile perfection. But I like the idea of almost consciously limiting or restricting myself in terms of the sounds I have access to, so that means instead of using a soft synth that has 10,000 patches, I''m using an old Korg Micro Preset that really only has two or three options whose frequencies may not behave, but have presence and can become even more beautiful when you break them down even more through processing.

“Basically, I''m an autodidact, because I''ve never gone to audio engineering school, so I''ve had to learn everything on my own, and that tends to yield some idiosyncratic results,” continues Moby, who repeatedly refers to himself as someone who “makes weird records in my bedroom” (which he means almost literally, as his [generously soundproofed] studio is in his Nolita loft in New York, as it has been for most of two decades).

For a bedroom musician, Moby has seen his fair share of the public eye. As the new millennium came to pass, Moby was mounting the peak of his commercial success—in some ways literally, as he''d often end performances shirtless, arms thrust outward and head thrown back, standing atop used-and-abused digital synths as the tempo increased through a fever-pitched arrhythmia to a strafing whirr. After spending the lion''s share of the 1990s as a cult club music figure, releasing ecstasy-enriched tribal acid house and funky techno that eventually transitioned into roiling industrial rock, Moby exploded on to the national consciousness with the 1999 album Play. That album''s loops of dusty gospel and field recordings proved irrepressible, and they were woven throughout commercials, TV shows, and film scenes.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

By 2001, Moby was at the pinnacle of what he calls his “clueless,” self-involved rock star phase, touring heavily for a previously elusive audience, falling in love with fame, staging big shed festival shows like the Area:One tour that allowed him to perform along idols and quirky contemporaries, and producing bombastic pop-crossover tracks. Eventually he ended up feeling “partially compromised, spiritually compromised, artistically compromised,” and he has spent the latter part of the past decade drawing back from more unsubtle sounds. Thankfully, he never battered his analog synths the same way he did the digital ones, as the enveloping, sustaining atmosphere of these full-bodied oscillators—such as the Roland Juno-106, Serge Modular, Roland JX-3P, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Casio CZ-101, and Prophet 08—are integral elements to Destroyed. (Moby calls upon soft synths like Arturia Analog Factory on rare occasions when he wants more control/extension/reinforce at the frequency extremes, but never for the primary track.)

“Years and years and years ago, I realized I loved big, rich analog string sounds, and they''ve appeared somewhere on almost every record I''ve made,” Moby confesses. “I saw an interview with Bob Moog quite a while ago, and he''s talking about analog circuitry in an almost spiritual way, and I think I''m the same in that I almost anthropomorphize the physicality of it, whereas digital is just a recreation of what happens in the analog world. So I do have a lot more respect for analog, but I''m equally, increasingly obsessed with processing and layering these pristine sounds until they take on a granular texture, which is equally beautiful.”

A prime example of this idea can be found on the song “Blue Moon,” which kicks off the latter third of the 15-track Destroyed. Like many tracks on the album, the genesis of “Blue Moon” comes from first establishing a rudimentary tempo/rhythm line from one of the drum machines (often the Korg Univox SR-120 rhythm machine, which allows 32 preset patterns to be combined in numerous ways with fade in/out and fills/breaks). On top of that, some bass synth signatures might be sequenced, but for the most part, Moby prefers playing live to setting up Din Sync to a master clock, triggering CV/Gates, etc.

“At some point, I think I''ve incorporated every type of primitive sequencing that''s ever been invented, but why record your motions to MIDI when you can just record the audio of yourself playing, and then you get the those little timing errors that can provide a track loads of personality,” he reflects. “I prefer playing instruments to programming. If it''s got a quarter-inch output, I might as well just plug it into my Chandler [Limited LTD-1 mic preamp, supplemented by an API Audio Lunchbox]. I think there''s a difference between messy and flawed in a good way, and substandard and unusable in a sort of badly produced digital way. I never really go out of my way to make a recording messy; it''s either just the product of the equipment I''m using or the fact that I try not to let myself re-record or quantize things if the spontaneity adds to the sound.”

Once he''s made runs through the song with all his intended components (detuning synths, artifact-enriched drum machines, drums, Epiphone SG guitar, Fender Precision Bass and some Akai S3200/S1000 samplers), using his computer as a modernized tape machine rather than a comping tool, etc., Moby enters the third step in his production methodology: processing, which results in tones such as the chapped chords during the bridge of “Blue Moon.”

“I record everything into Pro Tools, and ideally that''s the only digital component in the process,” he reveals. “As much as possible I prefer to work with outboard delays and reverbs and other processing, routed through an analog mixing desk. My studio is filled with these random old discontinued units produced from the ''60s to the early ''80s, because there''s always a period in the album that''s concentrated on processing. First, there''s the songwriting, and the recording, but before the mixing, I just start running things through all these filters, and that''s where a lot of the most compelling atmospherics are created. I''m happy to put something recorded relatively well through an old tape delay and end up with a seriously degraded signal that actually ends up sounding in many ways more interesting and appealing than the original.”

Image placeholder title

This processing arsenal includes modules such as 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, dbx 160XT Compressor/Limiter and SPL Transient Designer. Moby feels the value of these last pieces of gear can''t be overstated: “I would recommend this to anybody who''s willing to end up with odd-sounding records: whatever processing you''re using, the last stage of the processing in re-recording should be like a dbx 160XT Compressor or the SPL Transient Designer, because it boosts the trail of whatever two-second reverb of delay you are doing, making a tail that might otherwise disappear elegantly into something uncomfortably loud, so you end up with so much more atmospherically. I think I just bought my third Transient Designer, just for the fear that at some point I won''t be able to get one.”

Another reason “Blue Moon” exemplifies the production ethos of Destroyedis its spiritual echoes of Joy Division/New Order—specifically, the song “Dead Souls.” The analog aesthetic of the mid- to late-1970s is reverberant throughout Destroyedand its creative treble disorders, which recall the legacy of such producers as Martin Hannett. Moby found inspiration in the affective, while not technically “correct” sonic qualities of early albums by Suicide, the Silver Apples, Can, OMD, Heaven 17 and Simple Minds, as well as such seminal recordings as Hannett''s work for art-funk ensemble ESG on 99 Records. Even tracks from the surrealistic period, from Cream''s Disraeli Gears and early Jimi Hendrix, are touch points for the effectiveness of “rough” mixes.

With these tendencies in mind, Moby turned to mix engineer Ken Thomas to assist in finishing the assembling and editing down of tracks for Destroyed. Thomas'' resume includes album credits for Wire, Throbbing Gristle, M83, and Sigur Rós, so he knows how to balance the austere and the heavily treated, and how important it is to keep song arrangement intact at the core of all experimentation. Thomas mixed Destroyedon a Neve board, over a highly compressed two-to-three-mixes per-day schedule that was established to avoid any overcompensation and second-guessing.

“Neve boards, especially the one we used [a custom 1972 Series 80 custom wrap-around 56 input with Flying Faders automation located at the Magic Shop in New York], have an Anglophile sound to their character,” says Thomas, who expounds further on the difference. “It''s not as punchy as a Harrison, an MCI, or any American desk. Neves definitely sound more musical in their EQ.”

Thomas also mixed Moby''s last full-length, 2009''s Wait for Me, and Destroyedproves to be an extension, in ways, of the sessions for that highly insular, instrumental album. While Destroyedhints more at catharsis on tracks such as the pulse-tamped “Sevastopol,” step filter-fattened “Victoria Lucas” and hand-bent “Lacrimae,” it is a far cry from Moby''s earlier, more hedonistic productions. Thomas, who finds Moby as a much a sound artist as a musician, says that Moby''s willingness to fidget about with things and push them out of their “proper” place was “quite refreshing,” even if all the OCD layering of drawn-out tone responses could present challenges: “Sometimes he''d set up a very pristine mix, and then I''d basically come in and deconstruct, saying something like, ‘Well, why shouldn''t the kick drum only be in the left ear?'' or ‘I think this song would be better without drums, so let''s mute them all,'' and he always has kind of a bemused look in his eye,” says Moby. “But [Ken] gets really excited at unconventional mixing and engineering, and he''s really great at making it sound as good as possible, no matter how idiosyncratic.”

Thomas says his main task fell to warming tracks up, tightening bass, and sometimes putting on a little top end, with Stereo EMT 140 Tube Plate Reverb to pull things together and some high-pass filters across the spectrum sometimes. The primary goal was to add a modern valve quality and bring out more brightness. He''d first concentrate on any vocals, which he found to have a “pureness” to them that could be colored around. Then, using various limiters, de-essers, gates, filters and EQs from Chandler, dbx, Drawmer, Empirical Labs, Focusrite, Joe Meek, Lang, Meyer Sound, Pultec, Sontec, Teletronic, Urei, and, most of all, Neve, Thomas worked his way through the instrumentation, carving and compressing on a case-by-case basis to gave the recording a sheen, but one that maintained dynamics as sacred texts, as Moby made it clear his goal was not to have someone ride the faders in the pursuit of another “brash and impersonal” pop production. Presenting certain frequencies as more forward, more open to be observed and absorbed, took precedence over tensing them overall into a driving force.

Though it doesn''t harken back to Moby''s beginnings in the rave scene, Destroyeddoes ultimately act as a befitting album to come exactly 20 years after Moby''s clubland debut. A paean to “broken-down machines,” a category Moby cheekily includes himself in, Destroyedis imbued with an appreciation for flaws and subtlety that might come from Moby''s studies in transcendental meditation first introduced through David Lynch—the same David Lynch whose show “Twin Peaks” provided the musical motif Moby borrowed on his initial international hit, “Go.” Now directly linked to the visual medium''s ability to balance a journey''s arc within singular moments, Destroyedshows Moby unifying his impetus to both document his tendencies and remain fluid, allowing tones and bones to age gracefully.

Moby's Musings

Aging gracefully isn''t so much of a concern with electronic music, because there's so much gear and information out there so you can pinpoint exactly what era you want your sound to recall. Now it''s so easy, especially with the world of soft synths and plug-ins, to choose any era and recreate it sonically pretty perfectly, you know. I know some kids who are producers who are in their early 20s, and all they want to do is make records that sound like they were made in 1984. So they have these archives of old, you know, MPC and DMX samples and old synth samples, and they try to make records that really sound like electronic music from an earlier era. So, there''s that question of people who go out of their way to, sort of, almost sound old and dated, and then there are people who can''t help but sound old and outdated. I think it''s different in the world of rock music, where, you know, where sonically your options are a little more limited, because rock music is conventionally guitar-bass-drums. And in the world of electronic music, and I''m not saying this is better or worse, but electronic music does have kind of a limitless sonic palette. I think it''s easier for electronic musicians as they age to not sound dated, because they have easy access to the sonic palette that kids in their 20s have.

But there''s also no reason to fear any certain age, if it speaks to you and your work. Someone could hear the analog strings I love to use and think that in my context, or in the context of my career, that these things seem dated, but the truth is, I just really like them, you know? It would seem a little absurd to just kind of reject a sonic element purely on the criteria it''s something you were doing awhile ago; that seems kind of arbitrary.

My studio is smaller than where I keep my drum machines. In New York, my studio is basically a small bedroom. So, people think I''m either being self-deprecating or exaggerating, but when I''m in New York, I sleep in the closet and I have my studio in the bedroom . . . and I''m pretty comfortable there.

I don''t mix that much in my studio, because I''m not really a very good mixer; I really like working with other mix engineers. And I''m an average recording engineer. So, what I try to do is, I go into my studio to record and I don''t worry too much about recording things as perfectly as possible. You know, I have some decent microphones and some good pre-amps, and then I just start recording and I hope that I''m doing an okay job. I know some of my friends who are great recording engineers will spend hours miking the drumset and trying to get the perfect sound, and I just tend to throw a couple of mics around it and hope that I get the best recording I can, because I''d almost rather have a strangely recorded guitar that was recorded quickly and with a lot of spontaneity than a perfectly recorded guitar that was miked perfectly and played 50 times and comped together. So I guess that''s a rule that I have for myself when recording, that there''s almost never a reason to record something twice. So even if I make mistakes, I try to force myself to only record something once.

I think the records that I make would drive someone crazy if they had audio OCD. The sort of person that loves listening to a flawlessly produced record would be kind of driven crazy by one of my records, and this has been going on for a long time, I remember years and years ago, there''s a song on the album Play called “Everloving,” and the version that''s on the album is actually a demo that was recorded to cassette. I tried to go back and re-record it, you know . . . and I tried to make it sound better until I realized that the demos that had been recorded on cassette actually just had a better feeling than any of the other versions that I''ve done of it. So, you know, that version that''s on the album, you can hear there''s tons of noise, and tons of mess, but at least to me at least subjectively it just feels right.

In mixing there are a lot of unspoken rules and assumptions that people make about the mixing process, like people assume that the drums have to be loud and they assume that the kick drum has to be perfectly panned at 12 o''clock. And I go back and listen to my favorite records made in the ''60s and ''70s and, you know, if you ever want to listen to a terribly mixed record that feels emotionally perfect, um, listen to Cream''s Disraeli Gears, or Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, even Jimi Hendrix. A lot of these recordings, they''re recorded so strangely and they are mixed so strangely, but they work. I''d much rather listen to a poorly recorded, poorly mixed Jefferson Airplane recording from 1968 than a flawlessly mixed pop record from 2009 that has no emotional core to it.

Go listen to “I Feel Free” by Cream on headphones, or even on stereo. Sometimes when I go in at the beginning of mixing a record, I''ll bring in my top five favorite songs that have been terribly terribly mixed, and that is always number one on the badly mixed but amazing sort of like song list. I''ll play it for the engineers and you can just see the sort of almost bewilderment in their eyes when they are listening to something that is mixed ostensibly wrong, but still feels perfect. Most engineers are brought up with this idea that the drums have to be recorded and mixed perfectly, and the bass has to be compressed, and the whole mix has to be compressed, and there are all these rules and assumptions . . . and not a single one of them is true. I mean, they are only true if you want to get your song played on daytime pop radio, but if you want to make music and records that can be listened to in peoples'' homes, that sort of technically perfect flawless mix and production approach, actually, I think in a weird way decreases the chances that people are going to want to listen to your record. A lot of those big bombastic production techniques yield recordings and records that do sound good in a parking lot at two o''clock in the afternoon when listened to under compression on FM radio. But at home they tend to sound a little too brash and impersonal.

I guess one of the things that makes my approach to making records different is there''s no compartmentalization of tasks, because it''s pretty much just me doing everything. I think sometimes if you are a guitar player, you''re primarily just focused on the guitar parts, and if you''re an engineer, you''re focused primarily on the engineering, and if you''re the songwriter, you''re focused on the songwriting. And a lot of amazing records get made that way—in that compartmentalized way—but again, for better or worse, it''s just me, alone, in my tiny, little studio doing everything. You know, not doing everything particularly well, but just, you know, not delegating any of the tasks, except for the very end when it comes to mixing. And even then, I''m involved in order to keep things from being too pristine or conventional.