Giorgio Moroder: making mechanical music
Image credit: Getty Images
When FPT Industrial decided it needed a start-up sound for its latest powertrain, it called on music legend Giorgio Moroder. The work was debuted at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. We talked to him about this unusual collaboration, as well as his influential work in electronic music.
If you don’t already know the name, we guarantee you will know some of his work - or the whole musical genres it spawned. Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack work for films like ‘Top Gun’, ‘Flashdance’ and ‘Electric Dreams’ won him three Oscars, four Golden Globes, and a bunch of Grammys. But it’s his 1970s dance music production that has had the greatest, lasting impact in music. Often cited as the father of disco, he brought in synthesisers, pioneering electronic dance music (EDM) and a path that heavily influenced genres like house, techno and beyond.
We meet in Las Vegas to talk about his collaboration with FPT Industrial, making the ‘start-up’ signature sound for its new powertrain for industrial vehicles, which is otherwise quietly powered by natural gas, hydrogen or batteries.
“We asked Giorgio to give the Cursor X a soul, really, a sound of the future that will characterise and will be an iconic sound for all our customers that will drive the vehicles all around the world,” said Analisa Stupenengo, FPT Industrial CEO.
Preludio will soon be the sound of millions of vehicles from trucks to tractors, but before we talked about his new Preludio track I started by asking Giorgio how he came to produce what became his most famous track ever.
E&T: Wikipedia describes you as “singer, songwriter, DJ and record producer”. How would you describe yourself?
Giorgio Moroder: Well, one thing is for sure, I’m not a singer. I tried several times but I’m not. I’m a composer and producer basically and, like some people say, maybe an innovator, like some stuff I did with electronics and disco, with the sexual songs like ‘Love to Love You Baby’ with Donna Summer and so on.
E&T: Let’s go back to 1977: you are recording with her ‘I Remember Yesterdays’, a concept album with songs in the style of each previous decade – except for the last track, which looked forward to the future.
GM: Right. We had songs of the 50s, the 60s, then songs of today and then what could we do to call it the sound of the future? And that was ‘I Feel Love’. I wanted to do something different... what could be different? Different would be not using musicians. I mean, I played some stuff but I’m not a traditional musician. So I wanted to do something mechanical, which would come from computers, from synthesisers, which were synced up with a click; I used the big Moog, very difficult to work, and I just thought, let’s try to do something different. And then, of course, as Donna Summer came in, sang it beautifully. The idea was to have this mechanical machine but then the beautiful, very romantic voice of Donna Summer. That combination worked quite well.
I started with those two Moog, the big ones, started with a bass line. First I had a tempo, ‘tick, tick, tick’, which would trigger into synthesiser, then I started with a bass, ‘dum-dum-dum’ [sings] but I didn’t know what to do and then it developed this way. It was totally, totally unusual for me because usually I sit with a pad and a sound, a drum, maybe a bass; this time I just started with a bass line. I didn’t know what took over but I said, OK, let’s wait.
E&T: Did it strike you as very, very new? Did you have any sense at the time of how important it was to become?
GM: I don’t remember, actually. We were talking, could this really do well and – yes, the record company at the very beginning was not that interested, or less in America. In England it became number one immediately. But then when Brian Eno told David Bowie “David, don’t look for the new sound because Giorgio Moroder has found it,” I thought maybe he’s right, maybe this is the sound of the future.
E&T: And of course the song meant to sound like it was from the future really did became the sound of the future.
GM: It became, yes, and you can still hear it. It’s an inspiration for a lot of EDM and stuff.
E&T: Fast-forward four decades or more and we’re here at CES. The synthesisers you used at that time could probably fit in a small pocket gadget that’s maybe out on the show floor here somewhere.
GM: It’s incredible. I remember with a Moog we had cables and [it was] difficult to find a sound and difficult to tune it every two minutes. We had to retune it and now it’s like, yes, you have – you could compose a song on the iPhone, it’s incredible. Especially if you go into the computers… the limitations, there are no limitations. You have millions of sounds but good sounds, not just sounds.
E&T: Do you use bang-up-to-date music production equipment? Or do you use old favourites, or a mixture?
GM: Do you know what, I regret a little bit that I didn’t keep any of the old synthesisers. I just have a Moog, the little mini-Moog, and I have a JP8 and that’s it. Now I would love to have all that old stuff. I came back here quite often in the last 20, 30 years. I think I’ve got some major stuff here, innovative stuff. I use basically the sounds and the music which is in the computer. I have several programs which I can use.
I use synthesisers but I just do really good demos. I have a loop, a drum loop, I start playing the chords, I sing sometimes, I do little demos, which have all the elements of a song. Then I have my musicians who do it. Most of the time – with the technology today – I have one musician in Los Angeles, I have one in Germany and one in England. I would send some of the tracks to London and this guy would do some synthesisers. I would have the guitarist in Los Angeles and he would play. So it’s an interesting way to work now. It’s all internet, it’s all “I’ll just send you the thing”.
And the technology with the singers, for example: Sia, I never met her. I spoke with her on the phone, but I never met her. I sent her the tracks, she composed the music, she sang it, mixed it and gave it to me, which was impossible 20 or 30 years ago.
E&T: How did you tackle this track of a few seconds for FPT Industrial?
GM: First I came up with the melody, and then the work started – one sound, that’s OK, but let’s have a second one, then a third one, and it was a big job of combining the sounds. But the difficult thing is to know is it good, is this the one, or shall I add some more or shall I take out some more? Because, you know, in a song you have four minutes. In five seconds, there is no time, it starts and you have to be done.
‘I have my wife: if she doesn’t like it, then I give it up. You have to force yourself to stop because, like a painter, you can always add some more stuff and there’s a time to say, OK, this is it.’
E&T: How do you test your ideas? How do you know when to stop and finish?
GM: I have my wife... if she doesn’t like it, then I give it up. You have to force yourself to stop because, like a painter, you can always add some more stuff and there’s a time to say, OK, this is it. Then there’s a problem, the record has to come out, so you have to be done. Especially in a movie – in a movie you cannot fool around. I mean, the 15th of the month you have to deliver otherwise you’re out of business. With records it’s a little easier.
E&T: How did the collaboration work?
GM: With the electric and the hydrogen engine, you don’t hear the sound. So FPT wanted me to do something – you start the engine and you hear [makes engine noise] and you know the engine works. That gives the driver that feeling, OK, now I’m ready, I feel safe and I’m ready to go. So I think it’s a very innovative thing and I think FPT was the first one who used that sound.
E&T: Do you have any plans to compose any more songs for powertrain devices?
GM: If they ask me, what could be interesting, to create a sound of an electric car, you know, the law is coming up that you have to have a sound outside because people don’t hear you, blind people can be scared. So that’s one of the ideas I’m working on, kind of see what we can do with FPT.
E&T: What sort of sound might you go with for that?
GM: I don’t know, I just – you know, an electric engine has an ugly sound. It’s not a great sound, right? [makes grinding engine noise] So I would probably use some notes, of course, combined with possibly a little bit of a [makes gurgling sound] it will give the feel that it’s still moving. You have to give the insight, you have to give the feel to the driver that you’re driving.
Then the outside, of course, you have to have a sound which wouldn’t disturb people but they would hear it.
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