Tom Moulton, Father of the Disco Mix (1976)

This interview is reproduced from the January 1976 “Disco” issue of Black Music magazine.

TOM MOULTON is the behind-the-scenes figure of disco music. His name has appeared on the credits of discs by Gloria Gaynor, B.T. Express, Bobby Moore, Al Downing, Peoples Choice, South Shore Commission and many others. Yet Moulton’s vital contributions to the hits of a dozen soul acts is in a manner new to an industry increasingly immersed in the complexities of a technological age. For Tom Moulton, a white New York based engineer, is the father of the “disco mix”.

Mixing a record is a complex process. Modern recording uses sixteen or twenty-four track machines, which means that every instrument is recorded and controlled separately, and can be balanced against the others. Tapes can be edited in a variety of ways, and played at any speed. Effects, like echo, repeat and phasing, can be placed on instruments, and stereo separation is exploited to give breadth to a recording. Compression, expansion and limiting are techniques which can firm up a sound by making quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter, or emphasize the dynamic range, or completely remove certain frequencies. Equalizers (which are found on home stereos in the form of bass and treble knobs) can be used on each instrument separately to change its characteristic sound. Most studios have bass, lower middle, upper middle, treble and top frequency controls which provide endless permutations of tone for each track. Tom Moulton has specialised in mastering these facilities, an assignment usually left to the producer. Tom’s services are called for whenever a company wants to perform a magical transformation: changing an uptempo soul disc into a ‘disco record’. Black Music spoke at length to this charming articulate man in his luxurious New York apartment to unravel the mysteries behind the oft quoted but seldom understood complexities of the ‘disco mix’.

BM: Tom, begin by telling us a bit about your background. How did you get into the music business?

TM: When I was fifteen years old I had a part-time job in a record store, and I liked it so much that I left school to try to get into the music business as a salesman. I worked for Seeburg’s (the jukebox company), and King Records. Then I went up to Boston and worked for a retail chain. I got a salesman’s job with RCA, left there, and went into United Artists as a promotion man. By that time I was so fed up that I left the business for about a year.

Then I went to a couple of discotheques, and I noticed how people were really starting to get into music, in a different way than I had ever realised; and I noticed how, towards the end of a record, people would really start to get into it and then, for some strange reason, they’d lose it, because another record would come on, or two records would be playing at the same time. So I figured, God, if people get off that much on music, there’s got to be a way to take them from where that peak is at the end of a record, and hold them, and take them up another level.

I started fooling around technically with tapes at home, and I finally got one place to try one of my tapes. I noticed that by doing edits, and by using parts of the actual record over again, like the instrumental break, people would yell and there’d be an emotional reaction. I just wanted to make people get off on the music, or at least extend that feeling that they had at the end of a record. Say I do a forty-five minute set; you start your records off at one level, and try to build up to a peak. When I do a mix, I try to take that whole forty-five minute trip and put it into one record. You start here, and then by the time the record is over you have them up at the ceiling.

BM: When did you get into the disco thing?

TM: It was 1970.

BM: Are you freelance?

TM: I am; I do a lot for Scepter — and they’ve done a lot for me. They gave me my first chance at something like this, with the BT Express.

BM: What is the appeal of discos?

TM: People go to get away from everything. Here in New York, a lot of people go to the discos to get away from the world, to get away from the city, and be totally free while dancing: being freaked out with the music and the lights. But you watch people, and they come in, they don’t know if they want to dance or whatever, and all of a sudden they’ll hear a record, they get up on the floor, and they totally come out of it. You just watch the expression of how they’re getting into it; I love to see people turn on like that to music.

BM: How do you mix a track for disco?

TM: A disco record has to have excitement, so what I do when I’m involved in a record is, first of all, something has to turn me on about it or I won’t get involved. What I usually do is hear a rough mix, and see what they’ve tried to do with it. Then I take it into the studio, and I try to get the right tempo for it. I slow up and speed up records, which I do on the sixteen track, and I get the right groove. Then I try to make things in there like the guitar, or piano, or something… I try to get some kind of drive going, some excitement. I notice that the beauty of things, like the bells, or vibes, or something, that are in there, or like a guitar that’s playing some pretty chords, I’ve noticed that the contrast has a funny reaction on people. It’s a hard driving thing, but all of a sudden there’s all this beauty there at the same time. I notice things like that really turn people on. And what I also try to do is put in breaks if I can, cause that takes people even higher. It’s down to flow; I try to take people somewhere. I never stay on the same plane because I think that becomes boring.

For example, the People’s Choice record (‘Do It Any Way You Wanna’). You hit them right over the head the first time with that drum beat, and then you build them from there, but you don’t let them go. You gotta keep their attention. When I first heard that on tape, it was the same thing all the way through the record. The same monotonous thing. So I did that record thirty seconds at a time; I started with the drums and the bass, then I punched in the guitar, then another guitar, then the Fender Rhodes. And you go like that. Then you keep bringing the hook back in; I brought the hook back three times. The original was close to that, except I kept repeating things to make it interesting. I’m not sure what the record would have done if it had come out the original way, but I know this way made it more exciting.

BM: Are you involved in computer mixes?

TM: I use computer mixes quite a bit now if it’s twenty-four track; it’s difficult with sixteen. It’s good if there’s a lot of riding to do, like if you want to get certain licks in on the guitar, or maybe the voices. It’s good in that respect, especially if there are a lot of things on there that you want to get out. The other thing I like about computer mixes is that you can use group masters, so you can bring the whole orchestration up at times, or put the strings and horns in something to accentuate what somebody’s singing. I find the computer mixes are fantastic for that; but even now I rely on the computer just as a group master, even on the sixteen track, ‘cause it just makes it easier. The use of computer mixes still isn’t perfected yet; the computer can perform two hundred and twenty functions, and we’re only using about three percent of its total capabilities.

BM: What do you think is your best mix?

TM: I think the most creative was probably Gloria Gaynor. The first one was probably the one I like best. It was just the excitement of taking two old songs that they felt, well, the only reason we’ll let you do them is basically because they’re old, and who really cares about them; they didn’t say it exactly that way, but since they’d already gotten the hit records, I mean, why would anybody want a five minute version of ‘Honeybee’? And I had to convince them into doing that.

BM: Did you change the tempo on that one?

TM: Yeah, a little bit.

BM: Don’t you find that that distorts the vocal performance?

TM: No; I speeded that up a little bit, but what that does is it puts things up in a higher range and makes the drums a little brighter. It makes the voice a little higher, and if you roll off the bottom and put more highs on the voice, you can almost make like she’s really screaming, like she’s really into the record. I’ve done that with a lot of records, where it sounds like they’re singing their ass off, but they’re not, ‘cause it’s done technically. I did that on ‘Leavin’ The Good Life Behind’, by Phyllis Hyman on Private Stock, (unfortunately that one wasn’t a hit) and on ‘Just Can’t Say Goodbye’, by The Philly Devotions. I suppose my all-time favourite mix is ‘I’ll Be Holding On’ by Al Downing. The radio stations here played the long B side on that; they never once played the short one. Stations started playing the long versions, like on ‘Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied’, what they call the disco mix. I was thrilled when I heard that.

BM: The disco mix on ‘I Don’t Know If I Can Make It’, by Dawson Smith, sounds toppier than the vocal A side, especially the guitar and percussion.

TM: I did a mix on the vocal version as well as the instrumental, but they used the producer’s vocal version. My instrumental was just the track to the vocal version without the voice. My whole number on that was that I wanted to make it more dynamic, rather than just a street record. That guitar is brought out by adding brightness. I like a clean sound on most records; if I’m gonna hear a guitar playing I want it to sound alive; I don’t want it to sound compressed, or so tight in the record that there’s no life to it. When things bounce out of a track it sounds real, it sounds alive. I find also a great deal depends on the mastering of the record. I like to take a lot of bottom off the bass, so I can push it more, and pick up the melody line without destroying the bass drum sound. I like the bass to ride above the bass drum. Now, if you take off a lot of the bottom, roll off the bottom or some of the mid-range, it gets very thin, but it’s clean. Then when you go to master, you push the bottom again, you put the bottom back in, but you get a very clean bottom sound, without it all being boom boom boom, vibration rather than music.

BM: It’s been said that disco mixing is a matter of emphasizing highs to compensate for bottom-heavy speaker systems.

TM: I think I was probably the one that brought back the bright sound on top. The only reason for that is, at that volume, I always like to keep a dry top. I like to keep the cymbals as dry as I can, because when you have a lot of echo on a record, and you play it at that volume, everything just jumps together, and it sounds all distorted. I notice with a dry sound on the cymbals, they cut through, and the cymbal tracks would sort of float across the speaker. And I notice that people react to highs like that.

BM: There was also a lot of top on the Banzaï record.

TM: Yeah, well I think that was the hottest record I’ve ever mixed. That was deliberately done that way. I had a tape of that, and ‘Undecided Love’ by The Chequers, at the same time. I got them from France, and I turned Scepter onto them so they could buy it. But I did say that if you buy them, buy them with the stipulation that we get the sixteen tracks so I can redo them. I feel ‘Undecided Love’ is gonna be a big hit now. And there’s a break in that that never existed, and that’s 5:35, including that. I always try to get records to hit 5:35, it just seems to be a magic number with me. ‘I’ll Be Holding On’ was 5:35, and so was ‘Free Man’.

BM: Is there such a thing as a slow disco track?

TM: It’s hard to say; I feel there’s gonna be a trend towards that, what it is I don’t know, but right now, I would say no, there isn’t. In New York, the gay discos still influence the sound. You’ll find the gay discos are much more into things they’re not familiar with, whereas in the straight discos, people still feel they have to hear something they’re familiar with, and only occasionally can you slip in that new record that’s foreign to them. But now it’s getting to the point where gay discos aren’t gay anymore, they’re mixed. Because a lot of people are getting hip and saying, “Oh, we don’t want the same old music. We want to be able to go where it’s new and fresh”, and that’s what a lot of people do now. But I think you’ll find that in your big cities rather than your smaller towns. They’re not really into that sort of thing yet, and they watch what New York does.

BM: Are there any older records which are natural disco tracks?

TM: Yeah, there’s quite a few of them; ‘Think’, by Aretha Franklin, ‘Just One Look’, by Doris Troy, ‘Who’s Makin’ Love’, by Johnny Taylor. Things like that are really kind of disco records.

BM: When did disco begin in America?

TM: It began in the early sixties; but it really took off around 1971. I feel disco started happening more because radio got very tight with their playlist, and there was a lot of music which just wasn’t being exposed. And of course, the economy doesn’t help either. People want to be able to go out and have a good time. If you believe that history repeats itself, I think we’re going through the dance era of the forties again.

BM: Like the old tune ‘Brazil’ being recorded again?

TM: There’s quite a number of them now; there’s ‘How High The Moon’, on Gloria’s new album.

BM: What do you feel catalysed the new boom?

TM: Everything has an effect, when you put it all together, but I don’t think just one thing does; it takes everybody to get on a good thing, or it’s not gonna work. That’s what I tried to get the disc jockeys here to do; a couple of years ago I said, “Hey, the only way you guys are ever gonna get anywhere is if you all stick together, and then you can become something”. One will help the other this way, rather than each one trying to become a star themselves.

BM: Is that how the record pool came about?

TM: The record pool was really formed because of ‘The Chicago Theme’, by Hubert Laws; let’s say that was the basis of forming it. There was a man who was working for the company, CTI, who was giving out test pressings, and a couple of other disc jockeys tried to get it. The guy said, “I’m sorry, you’re not big enough”. So they called me and said, “I can’t believe anybody would say we’re not big enough”. And I said, “Well, I don’t have a solution to it”. I tried to call him, and he was very nasty about it. So the next thing I know is, “Well look, we’re all gonna get together then, and if we all don’t get it, then none of us are gonna play it”. And I said, “That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard you say”. That’s the reason they all got together, and of course I tried to help them .

BM: Are there any other disco mixers you admire?

TM: I don’t really know anyone else who does what I do: see, I call myself the objective side of a producer. I’ll go in there being totally objective, and take out everything that doesn’t work, and put in stronger things that are the key to it. And the reason I’ve come to that conclusion is, I’ve tried to produce some things myself, and I found it very difficult in the mixing to be objective, to say it’s not really mine, it’s somebody else’s, and I’m out to get everything that’s good in the record.

BM: Have you ever overdubbed anything onto a record?

TM: Sure, background voices. In ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ by Gloria Gaynor, the drums in the beginning. See, that was only once in the record, so we went in and overdubbed it, put it in again, kept repeating it.

BM: Did you change anything in ‘Call Me Your Anything Man”’, by Bobby Moore?

TM: No, but we had to triple the strings. We did it technically, cause there were only three violins, and rather than… I don’t like to add things to a producer’s record, I don’t think that’s right: if I can do it without that sort of thing, I would rather. ‘Cause I enjoy what I do, but I’m not trying to take it away from the producer either.

BM: ‘Anything Man’ had a lovely summer quality.

TM: I loved that record. Everybody always says the same thing, they always say “summer quality”. I was just fascinated with it. It’s the melody which I think attracted me to that record, and the girls’ voices. It’s like a lovers’ record, I can’t explain it. Like, to me that was a ballad. It wasn’t really disco. The original had a sideman (a rhythm box simulating sixteenths on a closed high hat) up louder, but the whole mix was much harder. And there’s that thin line where you’ve got to compromise, where you still want to retain the feel of the record, but you also want the beauty, and the minute that was up too loud, it clashed with what he was doing, it ruined the intimacy of what he was trying to say. You’ve got to consider the vocalist too.

BM: Has disco affected dance itself?

TM: It has; I don’t think the hustle would have come up without the disco. They call it the hustle, I don’t actually know how it got its name, but I know that a promotion man at RCA was the guy who gave Van (McCoy) the idea to record it. The rhythm is really a Philadelphia sound, what I call pretty soul.

BM: Is the bump surviving?

TM: I don’t think it was ever that big in New York. It was big with the blacks, but not so much with the whites. On a national basis, I’d say the bump is probably still popular.

BM: Has disco transcended ethnic lines?

TM: I find black music on the whole more effective than white records when it comes to generating excitement. I’ve grown up with black music, and maybe I’m prejudiced, but I prefer black music, only because there’s an excitement there. It’s like the way a black group performs versus a white group. It seems like a black group needs less to make it exciting, I don’t know why that is. Even vocally, they sing between the notes. I guess you’d call it soul. And why should that kind of music be just for the blacks, that’s not fair. I appreciate anything that’s real and exciting. That’s what I try to do in a mix.

BM: Aren’t discos expensive?

TM: No, they’re not. It’d probably cost you around five dollars to get in, then you’d probably spend maybe two or three dollars for a drink or whatever. That’s not a lot of money here.

BM: Are drugs prevalent on the scene?

TM: I think you’re gonna find them anywhere. I don’t think there’s as much as there used to be, but there’s still a lot of drugs around, let’s say grass, or they might be on amyl nitrate, what they call poppers here. But I don’t think there’s as much as before.

BM: Do you think that disco has hurt struggling live acts?

TM: No, because if you look at the charts, there’s still a great percentage of ballads. I just think that disco music has opened a whole new area and created some new record stars. Those small clubs still exist. There’s still a lot of people who like that kind of music.

Maybe it’s hurt them a little bit, but there are still people who want to hear the small trio, the piano lounge. A lot of restaurants have opened discos where before they had nothing. If you’re gonna go the music route, discos are hot right now. Rather than someone saying, “I wanna really increase my business so I’m gonna throw out the small group and start getting discos”. There are still a lot of places that have the small lounge acts.

BM: Do you see any signs of disco fading?

TM: No, because I don’t think it’s peaked yet.

BM: A lot of people have jumped onto the disco bandwagon; has James Brown?

TM: What James Brown used to do really wasn’t disco music. James Brown generates a raw excitement, and that’s a prime reason why a number of his records were played in the discos, because it had that raw excitement to make you wanna move. There’s a certain line there where it becomes listening music, and music where you’ve got to tap your foot or something; and that’s what you try to get out of a mix, to get people, like, to slap them in the face and say, “Hey, come on, let’s move”.

BM: What do you think of James Brown’s two latest disco albums?

TM: I wouldn’t want to comment on those.

BM: What do you think of ‘Bad Luck’, by Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes?

TM: It’s got to be one of my favourite all-time records. That of course was a million seller here. That’ll probably be the biggest record of ‘75 in terms of popularity, because people just don’t get sick of it.

BM: And The O’Jays?

TM: Believe it or not, The O’Jays are the biggest sellers on Philadelphia International. They’re probably one of the strongest black acts around; they do have some white appeal, but it’s primarily the black appeal for The O’Jays. ‘Love Train’ was probably their biggest seller to the white audience, and ‘For The Love Of Money’ was an incredible disco record.

BM: And The Temptations?

TM: It’s funny about Motown. I think the most exciting thing they’ve come out with is ‘Forever Came Today’, by The Jackson Five. That became a number one disco record here in New York; but as for some of their other products, it seems like there’s no excitement anymore. It’s like they don’t take it far enough, they confine it.

BM: Does that hold for The Commodores?

TM: Oh, I wish you didn’t say that. There’s one song I love right now, it’s my favourite song. It’s called ‘This Is Your Life’, it’s a ballad. That to me is one of the greatest Motown records I’ve ever heard. But I didn’t care for ‘Slippery When Wet’. If they applied the same approach to The Commodores’ up records as they did to ‘This Is Your Life’, they would really dominate the disco world.

BM: What about some other groups?

TM: I love Kool & The Gang, always have. I like The Ohio Players, they’re interesting. I’m surprised they’re as commercial as they are, because when you listen to them they’re really not that commercial. Love The Isley Brothers.

BM: Is side one of ‘The Heat Is On’ disco?

TM: Yes and no. That’s a group disco-wise that’s predominant in the straight clubs. It’s too repetitious for the gays. And it’s bigger in black clubs.

BM: And Barry White?

TM: He’s sort of over now. His last big record was ‘You’re The First, The Last, My Everything’.

BM: Are you involved in any work other than disco?

TM: I’ve been doing a lot of ballads lately. I think ballads are much easier to do. You can get more emotion out of a ballad, where, with a disco record, there’s a lot of things that you’ve got to keep going. ‘Cause if I get bored with it, then I know other people are. You’ve got to keep the excitement level up, whereas on a ballad you depend more on the lyrics and the melody.

BM: How do you see the future of disco?

TM: As long as people can go out and have a good time for five dollars, and feel uninhibited, because maybe it’s dark, and let’s say, escape, and just come out of your shell and dance, I think discos are gonna be around. Because it’s really a cheap way of having a great time.

© Davitt Sigerson, 1976

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