In Play, American dance producer Moby made one of the albums of 1999, which owed its critical recognition in no small part to the hit single 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' Tom Flint talks to Moby to find out how the track was made.
It's impossible to gauge exactly what effect the track 'Go' had on the dance music scene when it was released back in 1991, but it was enough to propel the song's writer, musician, engineer and producer — Moby — into the public eye. 'Go' sampled the main theme from David Lynch's cult television series Twin Peaks, and built a whole new track around it. Perhaps Moby wasn't the first to use a familiar or catchy sample as the basis for a song, but he did it in a unique way, and although the technique has since become familiar fodder for many dance, hip‑hop, rap and even rock tracks, Moby's work still seems to stand apart from the rest. His preference for working alone and producing all aspects of his music himself may have something to do with this. His strong convictions on animal and human rights, veganism and Christianity — all causes which he writes about freely in the sleeve notes of his records — also set him apart from the crowd. Even his musical education, from classical guitar lessons as a child through his apprenticeship as guitarist in a score of '80s rock bands (Flipper, The Vatican Commandos and Ultra Vivid Scene, to name but a few) seems unlikely in someone known primarily as a dance artist.
Moby's first official album release, 1995's Everything Is Wrong, was a suitably eclectic mix of dance, ambient and almost Husker Dü‑style hardcore. As if trying to further confound anyone attempting to pigeonhole his musical style, Moby's next venture was the formation of a rock band, a project which resulted in a hardcore industrial album called Animal Rights.
His most recent album Play (released May 1999) has been rightly acclaimed by critics, and demonstrates a return to the dance genre with which most people still associate Moby. As with the aforementioned 'Go', many tracks on the new album have been built around samples from existing sources — this time, however, the focus is on recordings of old blues and gospel singers. Appropriately, sleeve notes give special thanks to "all the archivists and music historians whose field recordings made this record possible." The entire album was recorded at Moby's home studio using his minimal setup (see the 'Everything Is Right' gear box), and took a year to make, passing out of Moby's control only for the final process of mastering.
The first few releases, 'Body Rock', 'Honey' and 'Run On' received little attention in the UK, but most people will surely have heard the distinctive 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' which has had considerable airplay, and reached number 16 in the UK charts in 1999.
Moby explains his starting point for the album. "Every song starts out quite differently, some with vocal samples, some with piano, guitar or drum machine. I just sample things. If I use them I use them, if I don't use them I don't. But I do like to work from a really large palette of sounds. The vocals came first on the songs that have vocal samples and then I added the rest of the compositional elements afterwards. The piano, keyboards and most of the drum parts — it's all me playing those instruments. I have been asked where I got the guitar samples I used on this album, but the answer is I started playing guitar when I was eight — it's one of the only things I know how to do really well, so I don't need to sample someone else's guitar."
Despite his attempts to play as many parts as possible, Moby's extensive use of samples is a recognition of his own limitations. "I sample vocals because, try as I might, I cannot sound like a black woman from 1945. I'm a skinny white guy! If I want to have female African‑American vocals I either have to bring in a woman to sing them or I need to find vocal samples."
The construction of 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' started with the vocals, which Moby had sampled three years earlier from a recording of a 1953 gospel choir. Once safe in the memory of Moby's sampler, in this case an Akai 3200, the vocal could have been processed in any number of ways, and yet the sample as it appears on the record is free from noise‑reduction, editing or other processing. Each time the male vocal line (actually singing the line 'Why does my heart feel so bad?') is triggered, a wash of background noise, echoes and other vocal remnants can be clearly heard. Moby explains their conspicuous presence: "At one point I ran it through a Pro Tools filter that can get rid of surface noise, but once I'd got rid of the noise I felt like a lot of the interesting character of the vocal had disappeared as well, so I just decided to leave the vocal with all the scratches and surface noise.
"Noise doesn't bother me at all. A little bit of background noise creates such a nice atmosphere. There are a bunch of songs on the record where you can hear some SMPTE bleeding through, or you can hear the noise of the room in which the guitar was recorded, for example. I hate sterile recordings. Life is messy and there's no reason why recording shouldn't be. Let the patches be messy and let there be a little bit of noise, and if it's a really irritating noise get rid of it. If making it pristine means that the recording's going to be wonderful then great, it works for some people, but I think too many engineers and musicians get focused on this arbitrary idea that recordings have to be pristine and sterile. Some of my favourite records are really messy ‑‑‑ you can hear the human element there."
Although Moby seldom 'cleans up' his samples, however, he's not bothered about maintaining the integrity of the original recording. "If keeping the integrity of the sample makes for a better song then great, but if completely changing the integrity of the sample makes for a better song, I'm happy to do that as well. I don't care about authenticity."
Having selected the vocal sample as the compositional starting point for the song, Moby began working on the distinctive piano chords which are best heard at the start of the track, but continue throughout most of the rest of the song. "One of the things I love about working with pre‑existing vocals is you'll have a vocal sample in a certain key. The vocals on the song 'Natural Blues', for example, are in B flat minor. In B flat minor you can play a variety of chords around it that will reinforce it — A flat major, F sharp major — and that, for me, is the way the songs gets written. In 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' the vocal sample is in A minor. On top of A minor you can also play E minor, G major, D major, and it works on all those. Obviously, if you have a vocal in A minor and you're playing a G major chord on top of it, it's going to have a different emotional quality than with an A minor chord, so I Just started playing around with it. When I go into my studio it's just me, alone with my equipment, and I work on music. I never really think about it, it's an intuitive, emotional process, not very analytical".
For Moby, selecting a piano sound is also an intuitive process, and he is reluctant to offer any reasons why he might have chosen one sound source rather than any other. "Sometimes I use acoustic piano , sometimes I use the Pro Piano — it doesn't really matter to me where I get the sounds from. The main piano on this song I think was the Emu Proformance piano module, but there are two pianos on there and the other one, I think, is off an old Yamaha synth."
Following the piano chords, Moby introduced the main drum part, programmed on a Roland TR909. To complement the drums a sampled breakbeat taken from a hip‑hop record was laid on top, with its tempo adjusted to suit the song's rhythm. Moby: "I never time‑stretch really. I don't care about changing the pitch. If I have a drum sample and want it to be a little bit faster, I just speed it up and sacrifice the original pitch. I've never understood why people worry so much about maintaining the original pitch. If you slow it down the pitch gets lower, if you speed it up the pitch gets higher — big deal!"
Surprisingly, all the string pad parts of 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?', which can be heard washing into the first verse behind the vocal, were played on Moby's ageing Yamaha SY22 and SY85 synths. Moby's basic, yet effective approach to his string arrangement is mirrored by his minimal use of effects on the track. "The only effects I use are an SPX900 reverb on the piano and the vocals, and a little bit of delay when the verse comes back in and after the first chorus."
A second vocal line used in a 'question and answer' style (repeating 'Why does my heart...' after the main line) is introduced after the first chorus, with a grungy sound achieved by resampling the main line at a lower bandwidth before passing it through a high‑pass filter. This work was done when Moby made the original sample several years before. The part was finally treated to some delay and heavy EQ during the mix. The last main element to be added to the composition was the simple sub‑bass line which underpins the track. This part was also played by Moby, this time using a Roland Juno 106 synth.
Having assembled the basic elements of 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?', Moby's next move was to concentrate on the song's arrangement. "Compositionally it's quite a simple song. The verses are four chords — A minor, E minor, G major, D major — then the chorus is C major to A minor and then F major to C major, and that's pretty much the whole song. So once I had the basics written it was just a matter of arranging it and adding little elements, like in the second verse a ride cymbal is introduced and there's the second call‑and‑response vocal."
Through the process of working by himself in just one location, Moby could switch back and forth between writing, arranging and mixing without worrying about studio time or the schedules of producers, musicians and engineers. Moby explains the method. "The subtle arrangement stuff tends to take me a long time until I'm really happy with it. In most cases on this record I would work on something and develop it as an idea and then work on it over the next couple of months — just fine‑tuning it. The difference between the finished version of a song and the original version of the song can be really marginal. 'Natural Blues' took me about a year to work on but the finished version sounds almost identical to the original."
It may seem strange that songs which have so few basic elements and a minimal production require such a long period of arrangement time, but Moby's reasons for taking his time have developed from 15 years of working almost exclusively by himself. "I recognise that my perspective on a piece of music will change drastically over time. Sometimes I'll work on a piece and think it's the greatest thing I've ever done then go back to it a week later and think it's terrible — and vice versa. In terms of evaluating my work, I have to build in quite a lot of time, because my objectivity can be compromised quite easily. If I give myself a couple of months after everything's done that's enough to figure out whether things are as good or as bad as I imagined them to be."
Moby estimates that it took him several months to get the song to the point of being 'compositionally finished' and ready for mixing. Although two of the tracks on Play were mixed elsewhere, Moby chose to complete work on "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' in his home studio. Consequently, it was simply a case of deciding when to begin mixing, rather than having to prepare a multitrack to take to another studio location. All the audio samples remained in the samplers which, along with the synths, were patched into Moby's Spirit 24:8:2 desk ready for mixdown. "I have everything going into a bunch of different patchbays, then I have the patchbays wired so that I don't have to use cables to patch them into the desk inputs I'm trying to send them to. I did all the sequencing in Cubase. The version I use is actually about five years old. It might be the first generation of Cubase with audio, but I never use the audio portion, I just use it as a sequencer."
Curiously, Moby further limits his use of Cubase by avoiding any programming of control change or SysEx to send patch setup information to the synths and modules. "If you hit control‑B on Cubase it gives you a little notebook, and I just write down all the synth patches in there. When I call up an individual song I just hit control‑B, then walk around my room changing all the patches manually. And it's easy enough — I only have six or seven synthesizers, so it takes me all of 90 seconds to change the patches. One of the things I like about electronic music or sequence‑based music is you have that ability to make mistakes, and suddenly have a bass part played by an oboe or have your string part played by a weird old analogue synth.
"I tend to mix direct to DAT, with all the virtual tracks like the guitar and bass and some of the other live instruments sync'ed up on either ADAT or 2‑inch. The 909 is easy to sync because it's MIDI, but I have an old 606, 303 and 808 which are non‑MIDI instruments. I have a Korg sync box that converts MIDI into DIN Sync, but I don't ever use it because it's such a pain in the neck. I usually just sample the sounds and trigger them from the sampler."
Moby's explains how he approaches the mix itself: "In general I tend to lose a little bit of low end on vocals, add a little bit of mid‑range and a little bit of high end, but for the most part I've never really seen the need to do too much EQ‑wise. It's much more a function of the sounds themselves. I do tend to let the bass be low‑end, and give everything its own little niche. For some reason when you have too many sounds occupying the same space in the audio spectrum it just seems to clutter. Sometimes it can be exciting, but in general it doesn't work.
"Because I work at home on most of the songs, I'll make 10 or 15 different mixes over the course of a couple of weeks. I'll do a mix then go back and normal the board to do another mix. As time goes on I think 'Uh oh, the mix is pretty good but it needs this little compositional element,' so I have to go back and add that part. I don't have any recall situation so it's always starting from scratch — the board gets completely normalled every time I use it."
Amazingly, Moby makes no notes of his mix settings before normalling the desk, producing only the occasional stereo mixdown DAT tape for reference, and his method of selecting the final mix is equally unscientific. "When it comes to choosing mixes I usually select them purely on intuition — on an emotional level. I just use my ears. I've done some mixes that were technically really good but I've ended up using the rougher mixes because they have a nicer quality to them. Essentially, when someone puts on a CD they're not really going to be too impressed by studio technique unless it has a nice emotional quality to it. People don't buy records for sound quality, they buy records for emotional quality."
It's clear that Moby places a great deal of faith in his own ability to judge what sounds right, and typically also uses his intuition to choose singles. "I work closely with the record company. Daniel Miller, who runs Mute, is a really close friend of mine, so when it comes to picking singles we tend to do it together. When I'm working on the record I send him tapes. He'll come over to New York a couple of times and we'll sit down and listen to the music and he'll tell me what he thinks. In all honesty, we picked 'Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?' as a single because we really liked it and thought it was a really nice song. I never expected it to be a hit single, or played on the radio."
As I browsed through the sleeve notes on Moby's albums I noticed that the gear lists documented in the 1995 release Everything Is Wrong are almost identical to his current setup. Could it really be possible that this successful musician had no spare cash to spend on new studio gear during the last four years?
"From Everything Is Wrong until now I've bought a vocoder and a new sampler and that's about it. On the one hand I'd love to get a bunch of new equipment, but on the other hand there's something to be said for working with equipment with which I'm comfortable. I'm thinking that at some point I will actually switch over and get a full Pro Tools setup and start doing things more in the computer, but for this record I didn't feel compelled to do that."
- Apple Mac running Steinberg Cubase sequencer.
- Soundcraft Spirit 24:8:2 desk.
- Alesis ADAT digital multitracks.
- Akai S950.
- Akai S1000.
- Akai S3000.
- Akai S3200.
- Casio CZ101.
- Emu Proformance piano module.
- Oberheim Matrix 1000.
- Roland Juno 106.
- Roland Jupiter 6.
- Serge Modular Synth.
- Waldorf Pulse Plus.
- Yamaha SY22.
- Yamaha SY35.
- Yamaha SY85.
- Dbx 160XT Compressor.
- Eventide DSP4000.
- Soundlab Vocoder.
- Yamaha SPX900.
SEQUENCERS & DRUM MACHINES
- Roland TB303.
- Roland TR606.
- Roland TR909.
- Roland TR808.
- Hafler Pro 5000 Power Amp.
- Technics 1200 turntables.
- Ibanez Electric Guitar.
- Fender Precision Bass.
The album Play seems to have a far more positive feel than its predecessor Everything Is Wrong. The artwork is, as with his previous albums, accompanied by essays on various political and social issues, yet also included are a series of pictures of Moby standing on his head and leaping in the air — playing around perhaps? Curious, I asked Moby what concept he had in mind.
"The only concept or agenda in making the record was to make something I really loved, and in the process make a record other people would love as well. There's a school near my house and on the wall they have a giant mural which says Play. I saw that every day when I was making the record and it just entered my consciousness. It's positive and ambiguous at the same time, because play could mean a lot of different things, in the basic sense of people playing games, or at play, or a theatrical play, or play in the Hugh Hefner swinger sense of someone who's going out and having a lot of sex."