Machine Love: Phil Moffa

Machine Love: Phil Moffa

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Producers love Phil Moffa’s studio. That’s partly because it’s a treasure trove of killer gear—not just top-shelf pro audio equipment, but also shelves of vintage rarities and weirdo toys that are a delight to explore. It’s also because of his immaculate organization, which means producers can immediately make music without worrying about which instruments are plugged in or why they aren’t getting any signal. Moffa opened Butcha Sound Studios six years ago in the control room of what was once Daily Planet, a famous recording and rehearsal complex only a few blocks from Madison Square Garden in Midtown Manhattan. Sitting down at a console like this is a luxury in New York City, where producers are used to working in cramped spaces, with thrown-together studios assembled on a shoestring budget. Here at Butcha Sound they get to stretch out in a room where all of the instruments, compressors and effects modules are interconnected and singing together in serene harmony.

Moffa is now one of the most sought-after mixing and mastering engineers in house and techno. Seth Troxler, Anthony Parasole and The Martinez Brothers are all repeat visitors, and Moffa has collaborated with each of them, for labels like Hypercolour and The Corner. DJ Spider, one of New York techno’s elder statesmen, is a good friend and frequent collaborator, and together they explore the space between nosebleed techno and freewheeling textural experiments. Moffa’s solo hardware sets, meanwhile, walk the line between profoundly adventurous sound design and remarkable restraint. He’s both one of the top engineers in his field and an artist who’s been involved in the New York club scene for nearly two decades. Max Pearl caught the subway to Midtown late last year to chat studio philosophy with Moffa, from his guiding principles to the nitty-gritty of his methods and techniques.

A lot of people come to you for the final steps in the production process. What does that entail?

That’s the majority of what I do—lots of mixing and mastering. My involvement can begin sooner with people that want to start from scratch or just have a couple of stems. We might even take their MIDI notes and send them over to the hardware synths. More often people bring stems of tracks that they made in a DAW and I will begin by building the rhythm section on one side of the mixing board. I’ll send everything through this rack of old-school gear, putting the kick through a Pultec EQ, sending the snares and claps through the DBX compressors. Then they can record layers of audio with nice hardware effects, like the old Lexicon reverb unit and the Eventide delay.

Does that ever tip over into having a hand in the actual production process?

It only goes as far as effects and things like that, but anything could be possible. I think that in any studio situation, throughout the history of recording, whoever is present is going to have some form of input. As long as it makes the final outcome better, that’s what it’s all about, and I don’t think it takes away from the original ideas that are there. But I do make an effort not to write melodies or other parts for people—like, I don’t think placing a crash cymbal on every sixteenth bar really qualifies as producing for them. If someone comes in and it’s their opportunity to create something, I might set up the samples and put them in front of the machine, but I make an effort not to compose the patterns.

So it’s kind of like when you’re cooking, and you need to have the right mise en place to do the job properly. You provide that for your clients.

That’s a great analogy. When you start with quality ingredients you end up in a better place.

You’re also a professor in the production department at SUNY Purchase’s music conservatory, right?

I’ve been a faculty member for 13 years, and my main thing is teaching master classes. It’s basically me and three kids in a studio at a time, going over a mix of technical stuff like Pro Tools or engineering concepts, and ideally more experimental and creative things. Now that electronic music is so popular, the kids are coming in with more experience. It’s getting better every year so we have to raise the bar higher in terms of who we let in.

There was this group of kids that just graduated a year or two ago, and man, they were making the most futuristic stuff I ever heard. That includes this kid Photay as well as Acemo, who are both involved in the Brooklyn DIY scene. I’m seeing them playing on The Lot Radio, doing Boiler Room. I saw Photay in the street he was like, ‘I just got back from doing a festival with Gilles Peterson.’ Ten years ago, none of my students knew anything about our scene. They were mostly guitar players.

What are the most important points you try to get across to your students?

I’m always encouraging them to use hardware. Especially obscure gear—Akai samplers, little DIY synths—and we put it all together and get everything running on the same MIDI clock. They don’t know anything about that stuff. Hitting a road block with some ’80s synth trying to find the MIDI receive message, for example, that’s totally foreign to them. And then on the experimental side, I encourage them to have noise and ambient jams. I’m always trying to get them to jam, and then record those jams, rather than be mouse-based musicians.

So you’re into weird toys.

Absolutely. I’ve built a lot of kits and circuit-bent a lot of stuff. There’s this one synth that DJ Spider and I made called the Mindscraper, and I always keep it running in the background during my live shows. Here I’ve got it fed into a pedal that I made from a kit as well. The original one of these that we made also had a passive ring modulator, and we used it for a noise show together as Mindscraper. This was one of the tones we used throughout the set.

A lot of your discography is collaborations. Do you prefer working that way?

I find that a lot of the best results come out of that. From the perspective of an engineer, you can learn a great deal just watching someone work. Even if your experience level exceeds the other person, putting the drum machine or synth into their hands will always yield interesting results. It’s just helpful that I’m at the helm to record it properly and get a good signal as an engineer. But I’ve definitely been getting my own solo tracks in by the dozens, too.

Interestingly, you work a lot faster, and you make quicker, more final decisions when collaborating. I find that when working solo I will explore one sound going into a filter for three hours, and I know that nobody would have the patience to go through that with me. I could spend forever on it, because I’m a perfectionist. But if you’re with somebody, your time is short and you need to move forward, and they help you take it to the finish line.

Your music is heavy on atmosphere. Are you drawn more to that side of things, like evoking a mood, than to the strictly musical aspect?

I like to joke that the majority of my music is just a loud kick drum with a bunch of effects. I’m very interested in drone and ambience and texture, and that’s something that comes from the experimental music that I made in my 20s, and a lot from collaborating with DJ Spider, who introduced me to the idea of starting with layers of dirt underneath before you get the track going. As long as that’s there you have context.

Would you say that’s often the first step in songwriting for you? Before you add drums or anything?

I definitely find myself getting to the drums much later. With every track or year that goes by, I end up leaning more towards starting with a texture underneath that brings the whole track together. Because almost everything I do is made from samples. Whether it’s the Octatrack or the MPCs, that’s usually the majority of my sounds—samples and then processing, plus effects.

Why do you prefer sampling?

I gravitate towards re-contextualizing something that already exists. I find vinyl and movies to be such rich sound sources because they already have a history, and can be turned into something completely different. I love sampling from vinyl in particular, because it’s linked to the history of this thing that we do. In the old days, that’s what it was—it was a sampler and a crate of records, and I prefer that. And then I always like to route things into filters, which can take something that’s digital and turn it into something that feels analogue, like it’s breathing. With little turns of a filter knob, you can transform something really quickly. So that’s the combination of choice for me, after many years of doing it.

In another interview you said that with effects like reverb and delay, those shouldn’t be things that you just set and leave for a whole track. Why?

One of the reasons that I like pedals a lot is because the controls are right there on the panel for you to manipulate. And I think that set-it-and-forget-it is a terrible way to go about it. I much prefer tweaking not only the parameters of those spatial effects, but the amount of that effect, in a dub style. I’m always turning up the aux send from the mixing console to add splashes of those effects—and then just riding it the entire time. I think they’re as valuable in terms of instruments as anything else in the mix, and just to put a little reverb on a clap and walk away from it is lazy.

Could you make music that you’re proud of with only software?

Anybody can make music with anything. You’re asking if I could make music with something that’s sophisticated and complex? The answer is yes. I think a greater challenge would be to make it with nothing, or you know, with only the simplest things, like some little noise machine and a four-track. That would be the greater challenge.

I like the idea that every producer should be forced to make something with limited means.

Absolutely. I always say that if somebody wants to learn how to DJ, they should do it with a pair of turntables. If somebody wants to learn how to produce, they should do it with a single machine. If you can make tracks with just an MPC, or even something simpler like a Korg Electribe, and you can master that, your foundation will be way stronger. It’s like learning the alphabet before you learn words. If you were to just step into this really complicated software and somebody gives you every plug-in, I think that you’d be overwhelmed.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence of live hardware sets that we’re seeing in the New York scene?

I think it’s great. And one of the things that draws me to it is that I find it to be really challenging to pull off. If you’re playing a string of mastered, finished tracks, they’re gonna sound great, ideally. But if you’re at the helm of a bunch of machines without any post-production, there’s something beautiful to the rawness of that, because it’s not compressed or anything like that. With hardware sets there are some crazy frequencies that can get away from you, that would have otherwise been fixed in the mixing and mastering process. And audiences are way more forgiving of anything that can go wrong in that context. In fact, they usually start to scream and clap and go crazy when a sound gets out of control.

To get back to your role as a studio engineer, I’m curious—what does it take to develop an ear for the right mix?

A lot of it’s trial and error—and it comes with the experience, for example, of bringing records to a club and seeing how they translate. Often, something that had enough bass in your house will sound completely thin when you get to the club. So learning your own room can be part of the experience of learning how to mix in general. It’s important to know how things are gonna sound when you go from your room to the environment where your listeners are, whether that’s people listening on their phones or in the club.

An old engineer’s trick is to make a CD of tracks that you know really well. When you get to a new studio you put it on, and it’s got this collection of experiences you’ve had throughout your life—hearing this song on the radio, in the car, at the grocery store, on TV, and now you’re hearing it in the studio. You put together this blend of all the times you’ve heard it and you can say well, this sounds kind of bright in this room so I better be careful and not mix this track too bright.

Some of this studio’s most interesting gear was actually left here, partially broken, when you moved in. Can you tell us about some of those pieces?

In acquiring this room, I got some of the gear that wasn’t in service. I’ve been pulling it out piece by piece and bringing it into play. That includes the Studer A80 R half-inch tape machine and the Urei monitors that are soffit-mounted into the wall. One of the craziest pieces of gear that I have isn’t so obvious because it looks like a piece of furniture. This big wooden box behind the tape machine is actually an AKG BX20 spring reverb. It’s like a King Tubby special. Real old school, from the ’60s, with a four-foot spring inside. The reverb lasts, like, two seconds, and I’m in the process of building a remote so I can change the time on it.

Then there’s this Eventide delay, which is one of the first delays ever made, and it’s actually broken. When we acquired it I plugged it in to see if it worked or not, and all it does is make this high-pitched sound. It does it on its own, constantly, and it never stops. I might send it through the AKG reverb, and then I usually put it through a filter.

What’s your live setup like?

I play with two Octatrack samplers, the Electro-Harmonix Cathedral reverb, the Plankton Electronics Jellyfish delay, the Mindscraper noise-making synth and a 303. And I connect all of that to an Allen & Heath Xone mixer. The decision to use two Octatracks was kind of an epiphany for me. I ended up buying another one to hold me down after I sent the first off for servicing. Then when I had the two of them in front of me, a light bulb went off and I thought, holy shit, I can set both of these machines going and then have four tracks instead of two, meaning there’s a master and a cue output times two. So I can play a song on one and improvise on the other, which is something that I do with every track—mostly adding drums on the fly, using the one that isn’t playing the main song. I go back and forth between the two multi-tracks as if I was mixing records together. It’s like multi-track DJing.

Then I had the next epiphany, which was to use the Xone DJ mixer instead of a mixing board, because the faders and EQs on a desk aren’t so hands-on or performance-friendly. I realized that if I’m using two aux ins with two effects pedals, I can just use the Xone, which has two aux ins and returns. The Octatracks have separate inputs on them, so the 303 and the Mindscraper can be plugged into those, which can receive that signal and pass it onto the Xone. Plus, the Xone is great because every club has one, whereas when you ask for a mixing board you don’t know what the hell you’re gonna get. You may get a really low quality mixing board or a mixing board you’ve never seen before, or one that’s too big or too small. The Allen & Heath is the same everywhere you go, and it’s made for performance, plus it’s got filters on every channel. It ends up being a really clean performance layout for me.

When you’re mixing and mastering you send a lot of tracks through the Studer tape machine. What does that bring to the sound?

I find it does an incredible job with all the clichéd things that a tape machine is supposed to do. It glues the whole track together, it makes it feel more 3D, it gives a bump to the bass, it makes it sound more finished. It also saturates and tames the highs. Which is especially cool when using acoustic drums—otherwise they sound terrible when you record them to a digital platform. But it doesn’t sound good on everything. Sometimes the digital one sounds better, or sometimes you want something with a lot of high-end, or you want it to have a certain amount of dynamics, then it can just be a vibe thing.

I’m getting into the experimental side of it as well. I’ll record noise performances to it at one speed and then play them back at a different speed to bring it up or down an octave. I came into the room the other day and the amp that’s connected to it was just making this crazy modulation all by itself. It was silent in here except for that, and I was like, I gotta start recording this. Then I started plugging it into the different filters, and all the machines were feeding back, and I recorded it onto the tape at 30 inches per second, but played it back at 15 per second so it dropped an octave. That’s the kind of texture that I was talking about earlier, the kind of sound I might put underneath a track as a starting point, then go from there.

So between all of these broken machines and happy mistakes, you seem to invite a lot of randomness into your music. Do you think that’s what makes the music feel more human? That element of unpredictability?

Oh man, I think that’s your concept. I don’t wanna steal that from you—but I think it’s a great one.

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