Cellular Electronica

Veteran guitarist David Torn is busier and more widely heard than ever, contributing to albums, film soundtracks, and sample CDs. In many ways, Torn is
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Veteran guitarist David Torn is busier and more widely heard than ever, contributing to albums, film soundtracks, and sample CDs. In many ways, Torn is

Veteran guitarist David Torn is busier and more widely heard thanever, contributing to albums, film soundtracks, and sample CDs. In manyways, Torn is a textbook electronic musician: he uses technology increative, sophisticated ways and makes a living as a recording artist,sound designer, composer, and producer. Moreover, he works in apersonal studio, Cell Labs, which he built at his Bearsville, New York,home in 1993 to accommodate his projects.

Torn's 30-year career is driven by his passion for adventurous,improvisational, left-field music. In pursuing that passion, he pushesthe limitations of his gear. His musicianship and mastery of technologyare broadly appreciated in the music industry and have always openeddoors for him.>

During the 1970s, Torn established himself in jazz-fusion andart-rock circles. His album catalog spans the '80s and '90s, and hissolo efforts include Cloud About Mercury(1986),WhatMeans Solid, Traveller?(1996), andThe David TornCollection(1998).

Torn has also collaborated with Mick Karn, David Sylvian, Me'ShellNdegéocello, Will Calhoun, Jan Garbarek, Tony Levin, RyuichiSakamoto, and k. d. lang, among others.

Torn produced his latest solo album, Oah, in Cell Labs andreleased it under the identity Splattercell on his Cell Division labellast year. Torn devised the new name to distinguish his foray intoelectronic music from the progressive jazz-fusion style that definedhis earlier career.

Torn's brand of sonic mayhem has become a hot commodity inHollywood. He helps noted composers score major releases, and hisrecent credits include Traffic, A Knight's Tale, Three Kings,and Heist. Torn also works with Human, a New York-basedcollective of Clio Award-winning composers. Torn's edgy, iconoclasticsounds can also be found on sample CDs by Q Up Arts (TonalTextures and Pandora's Toolbox) and Sonic Foundry(Textures for Electronica and Film Music). A double-CD set for QUp Arts is in the works.

At the root of it all is Torn's fascination with loop-based music.One could say that Torn is a pioneer in that genre. In the early '80s,he assembled a guitar-looping rig that he still uses today. It consistsof two devices for looping guitar or any other instrument (includingvoice) and a rack of gear for processing those loops.

“Before I built this studio, the thing that interested me wasthe idea of treating audio data as people were treating MIDIdata,” Torn says. “When the opportunity arose to do it inan economically feasible way, I just jumped right in.” Thesedays, Torn routes the output of his looping rig into Emagic's LogicAudio on his Mac G3 to create what he calls “rhythmicallyorganized materials,” or cells, that serve as buildingblocks for his music.

Interestingly, Torn was once disenchanted with electronic music.“Many years ago, I had completely given up on anythingMIDI,��� he says. “There was a dangerous moment with MIDIwhen everybody used the same sounds, grooves all felt the same, andpeople were making music to fit into a particular box.”

However, Torn finds that today's electronica is fresh and inventive.“I'm enthused by Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, TalvinSingh, and Boards of Canada,” he says. He adds that electronica“often comes from a forward-looking source, and then, all of asudden, it's deep in the pop culture. TV commercials are musically morecreative than anything you hear in film these days. I'm waiting for thenext mind-blowing drum record, whoever makes it. Right now thetechnology is so wide open that I look forward to hearing more originalmusic.”

Torn graciously took time out from his busy schedule to discuss CellLabs, the creation of Oah, his tracking methods, his loopingrig, and his television and film work.

Looking at your list of credits, I can see that you have workedon an impressive number of projects in the past year alone.

We actually hit upon the single most active period of my career as amusician. I'm a working maniac. So many things are happening, and itall feels so good. I've taken to working in my project studio. Thegreatest thing that I did for myself and that a record company [CMP]did for me was to help me build this room in 1993; there's no goingback now. I often do sessions for other people here — includingbig films — and I just don't leave home. [Laughs.] I'mvery tool oriented and have been since day one. My abilities as amusician are more conceptual than skill oriented. I never consideredmyself a great guitar player and still don't. My skill has always beenmore sonic or textural. I feel good about using the studio as a barrieragainst outside pressures to create within certain boundaries. It's apositive thing to make music that is different from anything elsearound, that is personal. That's been the focus around here.

Is Cell Labs a room within your house?

No, it's separate from my house. We have a garage that is somethinglike 46-by-22, and I commandeered a space that's about 16-by-22 withinit. My big window looks out into the forest behind my house.

Is Cell Labs tuned?

Not at all. It was not designed acoustically; it's just a box, and Ido whatever I can in here. There's a very small sweet spot formonitoring playback. If you play drums or electric guitar in here, it'spretty overpowering, and you have to work hard to control the soundbecause the room sings a little bit.

Taking that into account, how do you mic drums?

I pick two microphones and either have them on the sides of the kit— if they're matched microphones — or use an overhead withsomething placed a little bit higher than the bass drum and about afoot and a half to two feet away from the bass drum. In my room, itmight be better to use more microphones so that you get more detail andless of the room, but I've made a lazy man's decision to make the bestout of the warts in the sound. I don't believe that you need a$3,000-a-day room with fully vintage equipment in order to get soundsthat are musical.

So you believe in making the most with what you have?

Yeah! There are some strange and varied arguments for it. They runthe gamut from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, which a lot ofpeople feel is his most moving work ever, recorded on a 4-trackcassette machine, to some of the great records of the hip-hop world.You have the Squarepusher paradigm, where there's a guy with an [Akai]MPC2000 and an Atari computer making some of the most incredible soundsin 15 years. I like to make the music feel like it's moving forward andnot getting trapped in technical details. I'm an engineer's nightmare,I am. [Laughs.]

How else do you get drum sounds?

On basses and drum kits, I often use the dbx Subharmonic Synthesizerto get some tone out of that stuff that hangs between 38 and 50 cycles,because I like that impact. I listen on Genelec 1030As, and they tendnot to reproduce those frequencies very tonefully, so I end up usingthe Subharmonic Synthesizer, which is the bane of my mixes when I takethis stuff to a mastering engineer. We have to roll off the frequenciesbetween 38 and 42 cycles because I've overdone it. Sometimes it startsmasking the actual fundamental tone in the frequencies that are in thehundreds. I like that big overhyped bottom that's in a lot of dancetracks.

How do you mic guitars?

I record almost all electric guitars direct to disc. My Rivera amphead feeds an ADA Ampulator, which feeds the guitar rack, and therack's outputs feed an ADA Microcab II. When I do use microphones, Iuse the [CAD] E-200 and attempt to get it as close as possible off-axisto the speaker. I usually move the microphone around until the capsulestarts to shut down a little bit. It's either the E-200 or a ShureSM57, which I don't do the capsule-breaking trick with. One othermicrophone of choice is a Sennheiser 441, and that's it. In a big room,I will ask for ribbon mics as ambient mics if I have the opportunity.But in my own studio, I almost never use microphones — not forelectric guitar. At the volume that I like to play guitar, I woulddrive my neighbors insane at five o'clock in the morning, not tomention the fact that my wife would have left me many years ago.[Laughs.]

In 1999 you completedOah,a fierce electronic tourde force that you concocted withinLogic Audio. How didyou conceive it?

I work with music on a cellular basis. I use live looping toimprovise textures, rhythms, or riffs, and I document them all. I setup inputs to a DAT or the computer and just let the playing side of meflow. I do the same thing when I'm working on samples that I'm creatingon the computer. I've been working with live looping for so long thatit has become more focused, working with what I call cells. I'm not oneto take samples and use them verbatim. I usually mangle things prettydeeply. It's like mixing very disparate ingredients and trying to makethem work together. When I sense a compositional role for something, Iwill work my ass off to make things fit together.

When I have an inspiration, I want my first reaction, so I move veryquickly. Then, I listen to things over and over again before I'll playsomething, and in that listening process, I work on minutiae within thepiece itself. I'll do stupid little things like move sliding rhythmsaround against each other, put delays on certain rhythms, or maybeprogram a synth. It's in service to the fact that eventually I'm goingto play on top. It's an odd attitude, but I think that it serves myability to capture my own spontaneity. It doesn't matter to me if thatspontaneity is noticeable to the end listener, but it's important forme to know that it's there.

This Splattercell thing is all over the map. The source materialcomes from different places. I'll give you a couple of examples.[Drummer] Matt Chamberlain was in town working on a record. He set up abizarre little kit in this tiny room, and we put up two mics. I'd throwideas at Matt; he would play; and I would process him live straight toDAT through fuzz boxes, wah-wah pedals, and stuff. After Matt splitthat day, I began to organize these pieces. As the album was fallingtogether, I would see if I could find something from Matt's materialthat would suit the tunes. Then I would start chopping, splicing, andaudio-mangling stuff until the tracks fit, either as overdubs or asbeds.

On the other hand, I had Geoff Gordon do some stuff on a gubgubbi [aone-string percussion instrument from Bengal] and other Indian andMiddle Eastern percussion instruments. He was in San Francisco, so Isent him to Kit Walker's studio up in San Rafael, California. I toldhim, “Do your recording in Logic Audio, and here are thetempos.” I e-mailed him a list of feels, and he sent back 600megs, following my loose directions. Then I did the same stuff with hismaterial as I'd done with Matt's. For example, track 5 [“BusyCutting Crap”] has this wonderful gubgubbi track in it that Iprocessed, chopped up, and reordered like you might do in[Propellerhead's] ReCycle, except I don't use ReCycle.Kit did a good job of recording Geoff. I told Kit not to worry about ittoo much because everything was going to pass through some mangling;just make sure that the phase of the stereo tracks is coherent. Massivebands of frequency won't disappear in mono because, as you may or maynot know, that's the way I listen, in mono.

Why is that?

It's a practical reality: I have only one ear that works at all. Theother ear is 100 percent deaf, so I'm sensitive to phase and phaserelationships. I listen on near-field monitors that are pretty closetogether in stereo. Everything in my recordings that's in stereo isimagined in my head. I often have people, like one of my kids or mylocal friends, come by, and I say, “Does this seem prettycentered to you?” [Laughs.] I'm really careful about thisstuff because I only hear in mono.

Track 9, “Chrysanthemum Bang,” was a collaborativeeffort. How did it come together?

That was me, Zack Alford the drummer, and [bassist] Fema Ephron justjamming in a local studio, Applehead, live to 2-track. It was allimprovised. There were a couple of great riffs, so I pulled them offthe DATs. I liked this one set of grooves that we had played, and Islowed it down by about 40 percent. I processed it, chopped it up,formed it into a tune, and started overdubbing. I credited [drummer]Abe Laboriel Jr. with the samples of his that I used because, well,it's respectful to do so.

My intention is to inject some organic materials played by skilledplayers with a lot of feeling into what we've begun to callelectronica. I love hearing the technology used and abused, but for me,it needs to have people playing; it needs to feel like there's somesweat and some crap in it. Having the root of the cellular data besomewhat organic continues to be important to me because I've done abunch of purely electronic things, and they often feel like they'remissing something, something visceral.

Another example of this is the tune “Is Love,” which wasdrummer Dean Sharp and I in this room together. He was playing a Taosdrum kit, and I was playing this little Scandinavian pump-organ thingthat I have. There was no microphone set up, so I turned on an Olympusmicrocassette recorder, which I always keep around, and recorded whatwe were doing. Within Logic Audio, I began to overdub asynthesized bass. I put a vocal in, and there are some scrunchy guitartextures.

When you process live tracks, do you look for something specificto build on, or do you accidentally discover things that work?

An improvised guitar solo on track 7, “A Dozen Books to Breakthe Fall,” was pretty processed to begin with. I liked the feelof it, but I thought it wasn't fitting in. I used a rather severeautomation process on that solo because I felt like the processingshould flow in the same way that the solo itself flowed. I wanted theprocessing to match the music rather than say, “Put this plug-inon here” without any motion at all. I processed it in[Arboretum's] Hyperprism using automation within LogicAudio. Once I had done that and bounced the file, I threw it into[U&I Software's] MetaSynth and did some odd filtering on itto soften the blow, because it was a pretty harsh solo. The ringmodulator/pitch changer that I used in Hyperprism created somejarring effects that were too jarring for the tune, so I usedMetaSynth to soften the blow.

Your guitar-looping rig is at the root of your music, and youhaven't yet touched on that. How do you typically processsounds?

The looping thing starts with an actual playing event. I have anumber of instruments that I built myself, and they all have anoptional output to the same processing devices. I have the option forother input devices: a microphone for feedback, microcassetterecorders, radios, clocks, an analog drum machine from India. All kindsof odd devices are input through the same system. I can make a seriesof loops live without anybody hearing them, including myself, until Ifade them in with pedals.

I might use some feedback. I may insert harmonica notes, my voice,or a different instrument, like a pedal steel — generally in realtime, all in the same running loop — while I'm listening to atrack or a click or watching the picture. I put the stuff into thecomputer and start tweaking further. It's hard to describe. They'reimprovised loops that I process like crazy.

I understand the rig has evolved during the past 15 years or so.Please describe it and how it works.

I have a very strange guitar setup: odd footpedals and even odderways to make sounds on the guitar manually, in addition to thefootpedals. There's a send from the guitar to an outside rack with twolive looping devices: my old standby, which is a modified Lexicon PCM42, and an unmodified Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro. The PCM 42 wasoriginally modified for me by Gary Hall to have more looping memorythan the stock units. The PCM 42 sounds wonderful. You can alter thepitch using voltages, and it's nearly impossible to do anything of arecognizable rhythmic value. I approach it quite differently than theEchoplex, which is deadly for rhythmic looping.

The loops are then processed by a Lexicon PCM 80, an Electrix FilterFactory, a Waldorf filter, and a Korg Electribe ES-1 — it couldbe one or all or none of these things. I also have a Big BriarMoogerfooger pedal that processes the output of the loops. All of theseprocessing devices are in a separate rack with a mixer that has asingle stereo output. I control the sends and returns of the loopingdevices and processors so that I can make a mélange of two orthree loops, process them all differently, and set up feedback loops.That's what goes to all of the sessions. Sometimes the computer comesalong, too, because people like the postprocessing thing. I can also docertain things in real time on the computer that are prettyinteresting, especially with VST plug-ins and Logic, butspecifically with some really screwy ensembles that I've built in[Native Instruments] Reaktor. My favorite program for theMacintosh is Reaktor, not only because of its ability tomanipulate live input and samples but also for its ability to designyour own sound generation.

Additionally, I can step sequence the output of the PCM 42 into theKorg. I can step sequence a gating effect so that what was once acompletely ambient and nonrhythmic event can then be step sequencedlive and then synced to a computer or to the Oberheim Echoplex DigitalPro, for example, which is my rhythmic looping device. It's a strangesystem. I rewire it every time I'm going to do something. It's afive-space rack with a lot of stuff on top.

Plus, I have the pre-beta version of the Electrix Repeater here,which I've been involved with for six to eight months now, and that'spretty exciting. It will become my featured looping device. With theRepeater, you can actually improvise a loop at the beginning of asession or a gig and then recall it at the end — at a differentpitch, in a different time signature, and at a different tempo.

This rig has held up after all these years on the road?

Oh yeah. I started touring around '82 or '83, so it's banged aroundquite a bit. It hasn't altered that much over the years, funnilyenough. All of the devices have changed except for the two Lexiconunits, although the PCM 80 used to be a PCM 70.

Tell me about the film projects that you do.

I'm happy creating and working for people like [composers] CarterBurwell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Howard Shore, Cliff Martinez, Pete Nashell,and Teddy Shapiro. Carter does a broad range of scores — reallybeautiful ones like Kalifornia or The Chamber, in whichI'm mostly playing acoustic guitar. Carter wanted the acoustic guitarwith all of the live processing that I track as a part of the sound sothat the guitar would better meld with the orchestral parts. I wouldalso texturalize the sound and do some live looping that would helpmarry that sound even further — the orchestral sound with thisvery sweet, low-volume acoustic guitar. Again, every situation isdifferent. With Sakamoto, it's so far been all about noise andimprovising to things that are completely written.

Often, some percentage of what I play for another composer iswritten, but it seems to be an increasingly smaller percentage. I'm notjust a guy who creates ambient loops — I can read a score; I cansee where the chord movements are; and I'm technologically proficientenough to get what might normally be a static, looping ambient textureto change keys along with the arc of a picture and score.

How do you contribute to a film score?

Every film has its own life story. Take Traffic, for example.[Director] Steven Soderbergh used a temporary score with Brian Enotracks. Cliff Martinez called me and said, “How do I do this? Itlooks great, but it's not my style of writing. Jeff Rona said I shouldcall you.” Cliff sent me the script and some scenes from thepicture. I would look at the picture; then, we'd talk about somespecific elements that he needed and what kind of key signatures orchordal movements he wanted — but more in an emotional, painterlyway than in a specific way. I looked at the picture with and withoutthe temp score and started working here at home. I provided him with400 or 500 megs worth of materials that I thought looked really goodwith the film, and he started using them as building blocks. He sent mea couple of cues that he asked me to overdub on, which I did here— again, using the guitar-based loops and some more extremethings that were based on guitar loops. I was to go to Los Angeles andfinish everything up out there with him, but as it turned out,everybody was happy with the way things were going, so I kept workinghere by myself. Every film is different.

There is no longer a clear line between sound design and music. Ithink that's good. It represents a maturity in the installed listeningbase in the world; we expect to hear textural movement in our sonics,even if they're behind a piece of music that is somehow moreclassically composed or a song that has a standard pop structure orwhatever. I think that's one of the reasons why I've become sort of indemand in the film world — I cross the boundary myself.

You've also produced recording artists such as Tim Berne, MickKarn, McKinley, Andy Rinehart, and Douglas September. How do you handleyour role as record producer?

Most of the people whom I work with as a producer are independent,so we're always dealing with budgetary constraints and timeconstraints, which are good. Sometimes people should kick their ownasses to get something done. I didn't mean to be an engineer; it'scertainly not my forte! When you're as tool intensive and as sonicallyoriented as I am, the lines begin to blur between what is engineeringand what is composition and arrangement.

You recorded a Douglas September album [Oil Tan Bow,available fromamazon.com, cdbaby, and douglasseptember.com] at Cell Labs and encounteredsome problems with the sound in your studio. Tell me about thosesessions.

Douglas is a singer-songwriter from Canada whom Michael Shrieveintroduced to me. Douglas's singing is somewhere between Bob Dylan, TomWaits, and Don Van Vliet — Captain Beefheart. Douglas andguitarist Robby Aceto wanted to make a live record, but my studio isnot set up for that because it's only one room. I was the engineer andthe producer. I'd rather be the producer and not so much the engineer,so there are some really amazing flaws in the recording, some of whichI fixed, and some of which I didn't. [Laughs.] I mixed it in acouple of days.

How did you make September's live tracks work?

I just make do with what's around. Robby was playing a hollow-bodyKay electric guitar through my direct-to-tape rig going straight to thecomputer. On one song, just for a hoot, I put a mic on Robby's guitar.Douglas was sitting next to him with a mic on his voice and one mic onhis acoustic guitar, banging his foot on the floor, singing, andplaying with the most extreme dynamic range. Naturally, there was allthis bleed from Robby's guitar into Douglas's mic; there was no wayaround it. I was listening to the bleed into Doug's mic. On a lark, Imuted Robby's direct-to-tape tracks for the beginning of the tune, andit sounded like he was playing a nice old National guitar. The bleed ofRobby's guitar into Doug's vocal mic created a nice space, or air,around Doug's acoustic sound. So for the entire beginning of the tune,I didn't use the electric guitar at all. At some point in the middle,the electric guitar crept in and then exploded.

I love when stuff like that happens and it's serendipitous. Whenyou're trying to capture somebody's inspiration onto a recordingmedium, it's so valuable to be open to things. It's just likeimprovising when you're playing. Sometimes the best things that happenwhen you're playing are train wrecks. You think, “This can'tpossibly be worth anything.” Then you go back and listen, andthat's the best moment. The happy-accident paradigm, I think, is not tobe dispensed with. That's maybe what makes some music great for longerperiods of time. I probably won't listen to a Christina Aguilera recordten years from now. There's nothing wrong with it; it's just verycontrolled within boundaries that are rather narrow. I learnedsomething working with my friend [producer] Craig Street: never let amoment go by in the studio that isn't recorded. I don't want to misswhat happens with players if I'm producing, nor with myself if I'mplaying. I just let it roll constantly, and then if I want to use theDAW, I'll edit it later.

I'll bet that those pleasantly surprising moments are whatinspire you to go out to your studio every day.

Absolutely. These things make me feel enthusiastic, yet I know thatit can all slow down. In a year, you might not be in demand, and you'llhave to be extremely resourceful to try and get around those moments.That's why an insane person like me will do things like make samplelibraries. I'm not just a guy who plays stringed instruments anymore:I'm a programmer; a remixer; a producer; a sample-library dude; and aguy who plays improvisational gigs in New York every couple of monthsfor no money at all, just to do it. I try to get involved withmanufacturers on new products that I think will help keep theprogressive side of music actually progressive in some small way.

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that looping is sort ofa hip thing to do. The kids think it's cool, and everybody does it. Allof a sudden, there are magazines about looping and pieces of softwarelike Acid or the new thing from Cycling '74, Radial, orboxes like the Repeater, which is an incredible breakthrough. It'spretty hip right now. For a guy like me, it's like,“Finally!” It's taken a while, but it's exciting to beactive in some of this stuff. I'm planning on staying here for a whileas well.

Matt Gallagheris an assistant editor atEM,Onstage, and Remix.

The David Torn Discussion List is a mailing list for Tornfans.

Solid States includes news, articles, and a trading post for hisrecordings.


Glyph Technologies storage drives
Power Mac G3/300 MHz
Sony Vaio P3/128 MHz


Echo Digital Audio Darla
MOTU 2408 hard-disk recording system


Baglama saz from Turkey
Crews Maniac Sound amplified guitar
Fender Mini-Strat (high-strung; manufactured in Japan and no longer inproduction)
Fender Mustang (1965 model)
Gibson ES350T (1957 model)
Ithaca Stringed Instruments (2) acoustics
Kapa Continental (1965 model)
Kikuyaes (with homemade motorized bowing bridges)
Klein electrics (2)
Magnatone lap steel
Najarian electric ouds (2)
National Delphi
National Resonator (1992 model)
Rivera M100 amplifier with compensated line-out
Sho-Bud pedal steel
Supro lap steel
Teuffel Tesla custom electric
Tokai Strat with Veillette Baritone neck


Astatic Model G crystal mics (2)
beyerdynamic M 500 ribbon mic
CAD E-200 condenser mic
MadCat SaltShaker crystal mics (3)
Shure KSM32 condenser mic
Shure SM57 dynamic mics (2)


MOTU MIDI Express interface/patch bay/synchronizer


Genelec 1030A powered monitors
Bose car-stereo system (for critical listening in his car)


ADA Ampulator tube power amp/speaker-cabinetemulator
ADA Microcab II stereo-miked guitar-cabinet emulator
Big Briar Moogerfooger MF-102 ring modulator
Boss EV-5 expression pedals (3)
Digital Pro with software by Aurisis Research
DigiTech VCS-1 tube compressor
DigiTech DHP-55 digital harmony processor
Electrix Filter Factory analog filter
Electrix Repeater loop-based digital recorder (beta version)
Guyatone FB-X Funky Box
Guyatone MD-2 Micro Digital Delay
Guyatone WR-2 Wah Rocker
Lexicon LXP-15II multi-effects processor
Lexicon PCM 42 digital delay processor (modified by Gary Hall and BobSellon)
Lexicon PCM 80 digital effects processor
Lexicon Reflex digital reverb
Mesa/Boogie Formula tube preamp
Oberheim GM1000 guitar processor
Oberheim/Trace Elliot Echoplex
Olympus varispeed microcassette recorder
Prescription Electronics Experience effects pedal
Prescription Electronics Throb effects pedal
Prescription Electronics Vibe-Unit effects pedal
Retrospec Squeeze Box