How We Made: Giorgio Moroder on "I Feel Love"
We caught up with the disco master at Moogfest to discuss Moog Modulars, the importance of technical limitations, and crushing on Debbie Harry.
Giorgio Moroder is 74 years of age and has never been in more demand as a DJ. On the outdoor stage in Asheville, North Carolina, amidst plumes of smoke, a kind-faced man with white hair will twiddle the knobs of Ableton Live with a passion far exceeding today’s plastic echoes of DJ producer kings. Giorgio is here to headline day two of the technology-cum-synthtopia festival Moogfest. The music Giorgio is known for is a synthesis in every sense—a glorious blend of jittering robotics fused to Donna Summer’s superlative soul vocals, it became a blueprint for the future of (dance) music, one in which the insular virtuosity of the guitar soloist is replaced by the regimented pulse of a Moog synthesiser. Like his contemporaries Kraftwerk, Giorgio stared deep into the electronic abyss, reached down and plucked at the soul of the instrument, the ghost in the machine, creating the original robot with emotion.
Noisey sat down with Giorgio after a long day of intellectual lifting around the assembled luminaries at Moogfest to discuss his most famous composition, “I Feel Love.” Released in 1977’s heady summer of disco, it captured the mood of 2am perfectly, a dreamlike synthetic haze with a beating heart. And it was entirely created on the Moog Modular, which coincidentally, Moog just reissued at Moogfest.
Noisey: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
Giorgio: What a day! [laughs] You tell the same story again and again… that’s what it is.
Let’s not tell the any of the same stories this time. We can avoid anything you’ve already talked about today…
No, no, no! You know, it’s the usual questions, but whatever. You just ask me and I give you different answers maybe.
I saw your talk earlier…
Oh, so you know everything already.Not quite! Can we talk in depth about “I Feel Love” and the equipment you used?
"I Feel Love" was absolutely all done with the big one, the pieces of Moog all connected. The Modular. There I was lucky because I had a great engineer, Robbie Wedel I think, who was able to get me a sound out. Because at that time you needed 12 connections between oscillators and then every sound took like at least half an hour. Then I wanted to create sounds like hi-hat, so we created a white noise, cut certain frequencies off, then the snare then some other percussion. Then, actually for that one I think I used one of the Italian synthesisers, which had already polyphonic stuff. In the beginning, at least, I think I used that. But the rest was all from the Moog.
You made every drum sound on it too?
The drums was all except the bass drum. Because the Moog couldn’t give me a punch sound, it would give me “oomph” instead of “dum." So that was the only thing, and that was Keith Forsey. Who had quite a job, quite a big job because the drummer is used to playing drums, right? So now he has to sit there and just do this [mimes playing the bass drum alone]. So I think it took him maybe five or six takes to finish it, because it’s so against the nature, because he couldn’t make any noise.
The technology that’s available to musicians now is so far advanced of what you guys had.Oh, now it’s a piece of cake!
Keith Emerson tinkles the circuitry.
Do you think it was important that it was difficult for you?
[Laughs] Well I didn’t think it was important, but I thought, let’s do it! It was quite a challenge, actually. Especially as I didn’t want to start to compose a song traditionally on a piano and then say, okay, now I do the tracks. I thought, I do the tracks before. And I started with the bass line, “dum-dum-dum-dum.” And the good thing was that the sequence with the “dum-dum-dum-dum,” if you push a C, you’d would hear “dum-dum-dum-dum,” then if you push a D you would get (higher pitch) “dum-dum-dum-dum.” [Giorgio Moroder then sings Noisey the “I Feel Love” bass line. Much glee ensues.]
And it took a long time to take down the tracks. Because at the time the Moog was totally… what’s the word? Out of tune, all the time. I had to go back and go “dum,” “dum,” “dum,” tune it again. And we had a click, so the click on the tape would connect, I think it was a bell or something, which would trigger the Moog in starting the program. So I would go back maybe eight bars, start it, see if it was syncing up. And then at one point, record another eight bars or ten bars, bars, and then start again, tune, back again.
How Giorgio might have made it now: on a Nintendo DS.
It’s like the techniques The Beatles and George Martin had to come up with to overcome their limitations made them better records. So it feels like now people have it so easy, maybe they’re not making records with so much depth.
Yeah, it’s certainly… you don’t have to be a genius now to do it. In fact, I even have a guy who works for me now who doesn’t play the keyboard. He puts the numbers in. We did that same numbers thing with E=MC2. Because we had a computer called the Composer. Where you had, like a phone “doh-rey-mi-fah-so-la-ti-doh”. So you would input “ding-ding ding ding” and then it would play it. That was all too mechanical. To do “I Feel Love” was great because it was the first one, but then I noticed in E=MC2 it’s all a little too precise, too mechanical. Because now when you record digital, let’s say you play. You put the amount of mistakes. The timing that you want, so it becomes more shuffled. That Composer stuff was so so precise, it was a little cold.
You mentioned the JP8 (1981)—as new technology came out, were you quick to adopt it?
Yeah, especially as the Moog was always such a problem. I needed the guy who—well, at the time I was living in Munich, so I had to go back because he was one of the few I knew who had the machine and was able to make it work. But then as soon as the Minimoog came out, and the JP8, the JP2, the Prophet. And then later on, I bought a very good instrument called the Synclavier [below], which at that time was by far the best.
Oh, god. That was over a hundred thousand, I think [for reference, $100,000 in 1977 would have been worth $379,151.57 in 2013]. But I have a friend of mine who still uses it, because he has a ton of great sounds. Because whoever built that one got some incredible, great sounds.
So what do you use now?
I just use the internal sounds, like… what’s the one? Stylus, for drums. X-something.
Do you use Logic, or Ableton?
Oh, no, I use Pro Tools. It’s easy, the recording is perfect. The mixing is—almost everybody mixes in Pro Tools, so why not record in it. Some record it on Logic and then transfer, which I think it always a little bit of a mess. And then if you have to go back. And in the meantime, I think all the programs are so good.
Are you DJing on Ableton tonight?
Yes, I am.
That must be different to when you started DJing in the 60s.
[Laughs] Oh, that was the 45 record you’d put out. That was very different. But I did that very little. I would perform and do a little bit of a DJ, but I don’t think I did more than a year. Maybe once a week to make some money.
What do you make of 2014’s music. Does it feel futuristic?
It does. The sounds are so good, the effects are good. Some effects which I wouldn’t have dreamt to be able to create. And I think a lot of those effects came to the EDM as a mistake. I was talking to the Italian guy, Benni Benassi, who was one of the creators of the “uumph-shaa” [side-chaining]. And he said that was a coincidence. He had a compressor which went wild and suddenly that was the sound.
Thank you, Giorgio.
Davo has formally requested that Giorgio adopt him as his grandchild, and he's on Twitter — @battery_licker.