Phil Moffa is one of those guys. Renowned as a true master in the studio, the past 15 years has seen Moffa establish his legendary studio Butcha Sound in one of Manhattan’s most famous recording spaces (in the original control room of Daily Planet Studios) and become the go-to engineer for some of dance music’s elite. He’s also delivered a healthy troupe of his own material, releasing on Anthony Parasole’s imprint The Corner, Plan B and Hypercolour while also garnering fervent praise for his collaboration with DJ Spider under their Mind Scraper guise.
Making his way to London this coming Saturdays for Seth Troxler’s long awaited Acid Future After Dark show, Moffa will be making his Farringdon debut, gracing our Room One stage where he’ll be performing live and testing the range of our custom built Martin Audio rig. A couple of weeks back we spoke with Moffa at his Manhattan studio to get a brief insight into his bountiful world including word on his recent studio collaboration with the legendary Nile Rodgers and, of course, his upcoming live performance.
First up, can you tell us about your studio, Butcha Sound?
Phil Moffa: On the production side, it’s a hardware based studio. All the creation and music writing is done with equipment and instruments. At the centre are two Elektron Octatracks – a very powerful sampler that’s popular amongst those who come to the studio and even changed the way that I do things. I also have a lot of classic Roland stuff including an 808, 909 and a Juno 106. I use a Future Retro Revolution as a 303 – people love that as well. I have modules and filters all over the place as well as Studio Electronics stuff, Niio Analogue, Sherman, Jomox, and Moog.
There’s lots of filters, pedals and effects that I use and for processing. There’s vintage things like Pultec EQ and DBX compressors. For the mixing board, I use an Allen & Heath console which is probably the most important thing of them all, as well as a pretty extensive patch bay that connects everything – I’d be pretty dead without that. I can’t forget the Fender Rhodes and of course my DJ set up and all my records that I use for sampling. A lot of what I do is sampled-based so that too is a very important element. Then there’s all the synths and gear tucked away behind the scenes – the vocal booth is just packed full of synthesisers.
So, what’s your favourite bit of kit?
The Octatrack is definitely my favourite right now. I love sampling and I think it not only can it act as any piece of gear and beyond it can also replace any other drum machine for me. The machine is way ahead of its time. But people often ask me what I would choose if there was a fire and I only had time to grab one thing and my answer is the TR-909. I’m very attached to its history and the legacy of this particular unit, and Jeff Mills signed it so I’m particularly partial to that piece. I’ve had it for a long time even when it was still affordable and if I knew then what I know now, I would have bought ten more of them.
"Every day is a different story. Every day I get files from people at all different steps in their production whether it’s in its infancy or close to being finished or its somewhere in between."
What’s your working process like?
If I were working alone and if I was creating something from scratch, I’d just be digging for samples and getting a nice groove going and experimenting on different pieces of gear, but if I was working with other people, then anything could be possible. I’m an engineer to a lot of producers and some days I might be helping to facilitate starting something from scratch and connecting the gear they want to use. I’m also a mix engineer so sometimes I’ll be mixing within Pro Tools. I don’t use anything else, I have no need for anything else. To me, Pro Tools sounds the best and its functions for recording, mixing and editing are like no other. Every day is a different story. Every day I get files from people at all different steps in their production whether it’s in its infancy or close to being finished or its somewhere in between.
It’s interesting because I like to work with people, making beats from scratch and jamming but when it comes to mixing, its best to be alone rather than having someone look over your shoulder and comment. You’re going to do things for a while that will temporarily make things sound worse before it sounds better so having someone with you throughout that process isn't very helpful.
Is that the most challenging thing about being an audio engineer? Working with other people?
I think the most challenging thing is to manage all of the projects and give them a part of your brain space so they can be executed. I think every project each producer has is their baby and I’m responsible for all of them. I’m getting emails from everyone at different stages of the project from when it is just getting started to me sending out the masters for approval. There’s a lot to keep track of while treating them all with the same importance.
It seems that there may be people out there who aren’t aware how important the role of the engineer is or even what it is that you actually do…
I think it’s interesting because with a lot of electronic music there’s a large range of producers who are fully capable of doing it all themselves. But it’s also important that you can deliver a professional mix, get it pressed to vinyl and have the dynamics for a large sounding mix. These things come from years of learning how to use an EQ, understanding levels and also using a professional room that’s treated in order to get clarity so that it sounds the way it should in a club. With this experience, you learn about levels of kicks and claps and how you want them to stand out and sound good but you don’t want them to overtake the mix. As well as things like learning about the lead, the most important elements of the song, you have to learn how to place that level well, whether it’s a vocal, synthesiser or hook. So I find it odd when I see people getting criticised for working with an engineer. The recording industry in music has always had several people working their jobs to the best of their ability, whether it’s a producer, engineer, session players or an artist. All of these people fill a role that help make the recording the best it can be and I find it strange that sometimes people are criticised for bringing in more talented people to do a particular job.
There’s always been this discussion about whether or not engineers are credited enough? What are your thoughts?
I don’t know if it’s because they’re not being credited. I think they are but the average consumer of music doesn’t look for those details. I recently read an interesting essay on economics and the thousands of jobs and people involved in making one simple and inexpensive pencil. So I think, as with anything, there’s lots of people who come together to make one thing possible: those who made the gear, people who had the vision to make the musical instruments – all these people are super important in the process as well.
How much creative input do you have when working with other people?
I definitely do my best not to write the music. If I’m engineering, I make a point not to program the patterns. To me, that is the decision of the producer. I might add a hi-hat of whatever but when it comes to writing the music, I like to sit somebody down in front of the machines and let them do their thing. Saying that, I do feel it’s cool to explore effects, delays, reverbs and other special effects. It’s the producer’s decision whether or not we use it and that’s something that goes way back to history of recording too. The producer will decide which takes are good from the vocal takes to instrumental, whether it’s a keeper or if we need to it again. The same thing can be said for a patch, delay, reverb, or dubbing something out. And very often, something that’s recorded needs additional filtering so I’ll sit them down in front of a filter, press record and walk away.
How do you think it’s affected the way that you work?
You learn a lot from people and their process especially when you’re able to see behind the scenes of someone’s production and you see how they create a certain sound or compose a pattern. Though I think whoever you hang out with while you’re in this environment you’ll absorb so much while at the same time they are learning something from you. There’s no telling what’s possible when you’re in that type of conversation.
Are you always able to gel creatively with those you work with?
I’m pretty versatile as far as that goes however I do find myself turning down things I think aren’t in my zone. At this point, I’m able to only work on house and techno and occasionally a little bit of classic New York hip hop. I don’t have any interest in working in pop music and I’ll turn down anything that involves bands because I’m just not at all interested in making anything that involves recording live drums. I love the instrument but it is too much of a hassle.
Did you used to do that kind of thing?
Yeah! I really have done it all. I mean, there’s so many different types of world music I’ve not visited but I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t done: I’ve miked instruments and recorded bands. I’ve done jazz, classical and even Chinese opera.
I saw that you’ve been working with Nile Rodgers lately…
That was one of the most significant sessions I’ve engineered. Nile had been in touch with the Martinez Brothers about a working on a record together. It was back in January on Chinese New Year and Nile came into the studio, hung up a very special Chinese New Year ornament, plugged in the guitar and completely destroyed it. He’s very professional with a very powerful persona and he was extremely cool and great person to work with. I remember he brought in a hard drive of old Chic sessions, it was everything they had ever done on two inch 24 track tapes and an engineer had converted it to 192kHz quality and I mean, when I say these mixes sounded done, I mean it was just as good as it gets in terms of recording quality. I was told that when Chic were recording these particular sessions they nailed almost every take – there were very few times when they ever did second takes on any of the tracks so we ended up working on the very rare take ones that they didn’t nail first time. We broke the tracks down, muted a couple elements and created a loop that they could jam on top of - The Martinez Brothers played percussion and Nile played guitar. After we gave them the parts and two months later we got a call to say that it’ll not only be included on the album but it’ll also be the first single!
Yeah, we were blown away by that. It actually ended up being the first Chic record in 22 years to make it to number one on the Billboard charts. I think it might’ve been the fourth time it had ever happened to them.
And what about what you’re up to at the moment? You’ve got a collaboration with Spider on the way, right?
We have two actually! One that is floating around already called Psychic Surgeons on Spider’s label, Sublevel Sounds. We have another that’s a tribute to the studio called Madison Square Dungeon that’s about the basement studio and its proximity to Madison Square Garden. My studio is underground and one block south of the basement of the Garden so the vibes are really strong here. Everyone who walks in always mentions the crazy vibes and I think that’s a part of it. So that’s coming out on Plan B and I also have a collaboration with The Martinez Brothers and Jesse Calosso called Soundview – which is named after a neighbourhood in the Bronx. The EPs called The Method and will be the next release on Tuskegee. It was created by us jamming in the studio where everyone got in front of a machine and we hit record. Seth Troxler and I also have material that we’re finishing this week. There’s so many tracks there but that’s all I can really say about that for now. In terms of my own output though, I am consistently writing and creating. I have so many tracks that I’m working on right now both for the purpose of the live show and ones that I can use in the studio.
And you’ll be bringing your live show to Room One next weekend. Tell us about that…
When I play live, I mostly do interpretations of my own studio tracks. There are a couple of tracks that are part of my live show but never really become records. I basically recreate how I build a song in the first place: I get the machines going with lots of parts and faders on the mixing board and a load of effects connected to them and then I build the arrangement by bringing elements in and out. It’s very similar to my writing process except in the studio after the song has been recorded, fully produced and mixed I put the samples back into the sampler which gives that better mix quality. Though I’m cool with the live set sounding raw. I used to be really concerned about making sure I have something on the master fader or having some kind of final process but I don’t think that’s necessary. I think the beauty of live is that there are dynamic moments and accidents and it sounds different to somebody who’s going to be playing before or after with their records or CDJs.
What will you be bringing with you?
I’ll have two Octatrack samplers and a DJ mixer – so the samplers almost function as decks – routed to the faders as well as a bunch of pedals for delay and reverb. I’ll also have a synth that Spider and I built called the Mindscraper. It’s a noisy, DIY-type synth that we made in collaboration from a few different gadgets. Thing is, when traveling its particularly hard to roll with so many things, so I’ve basically slimmed it down to two samplers, a couple of effects pedals and synth modules and a mixer. With that, I’m pretty much all good.
Photos: Ben Hider