Few industry figures are so well positioned to blow the lid off so many different kinds of studio sleight-of-hand as is BT. Since helping invent trance music in the early ‘90s, the classically trained BT has gone on to engineer, produce, remix, or otherwise knock musical heads with a mind-bogglingly diverse roster of musicians, from Tori Amos to M. Doughty to The Roots to ’NSync. And his movie soundtrack and scoring work — for The Fast and the Furious, Monster, and most recently Stealth — has allowed him to explore and expand his mastery of both orchestral and electronic music.
But throughout his musical journey, the 34-year-old BT has seen plenty of nifty studio techniques, some of which he’s adapted for his own purposes, some of which he’s pilfered outright. And he has no qualms about sharing the wealth.
So on this cool Los Angeles evening, in his modern, multilevel hillside abode, with a wall of guitars looming overhead and a Mac G5 purring contentedly at his corner workstation, BT opens up his bag of tricks. Come closer . . . closer . . . closer.
THE FIRST THING HE THOUGHT WHEN HE HEARD EQ WAS DOING A RIP-OFF ISSUE
Seeing the guys from Portishead in the studio, and seeing them put an Auratone speaker in the piano, and put a book on the sostenudo pedal — a phone book, huge book. And then with two people, held down a bunch of keys, so just those strings would ring, and played the entire mix into the piano so that the piano is used as a tuned reverb. And then played the tuned reverb back under the track and side-chain compressed it to the beat. And I was like, “I’m doing that shit in everything I do for the rest of my life! It is the coolest sounding thing I’ve ever heard.”
Soon after I’d seen that happen, those guys working, I did “Blue Skies,” the song that I wrote with Tori Amos, and I took the bass line in it, the New Order-y, Peter Hook-y lead bass line, and I ran it through my VP-330, the old Roland Vocoder, and then I played the root motion of the chord progression of the song, and it sounds amazing. Because it’s like you’re hearing the side bands of the harmonics of the sound — [which] is then pedaling through the progression. It makes that lead bass line gel so much with that track, and so it’s something that I really took with me.
WHY THIEVERY IS A GOOD THING
I actually think that people from the electronic music community are much more precious and secretive. It’s much closer to the vest. That fear is based in people think[ing], all the technology is so readily available now, if I talk about my sort of proprietary-type trade secrets, then everybody can go to some P-to-P site, download crack software, and have the technology to do what I do on record.
And I think that’s retarded, personally, because I feel like it’s counterproductive to the evolutionary process. I talk about everything that I do, to the point that it’s actually kind of bad for me sometimes, because it keeps me evolving.
Here’s how I feel about this: If what you do is so reliant on the technology that you can’t share it with other people, or people can instantaneously emulate you, well, then, find something else to do. Or accept that you are a byproduct of the tools you use. If I walk into a studio and somebody hands me two wood blocks and a crappy tape recorder, and I can’t make something that sounds like me, I’m lost.
OK, WHERE’S THE MIC?
I’ll give you another huge thing that I learned from John Leckie, who’s one of the guys who worked on Dark Side of the Moon, he’s one of Peter Gabriel’s favorite engineers. I remember he was recording a Pakistani ensemble at Real World, and it was the most breathtaking sounding recording I’d ever heard in my life. And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I can only imagine the kind of miking configurations he’s got going on in there.” John said, “Come in here, man, let me show you.” We walked in the room, there are no mics. Anywhere. No mics anywhere. And there’s like 10 of these quality Pakistani musicians sitting on the floor, and I’m like, what the hell? What is it?
He had two of those little stereo B&K microphones, like that big [holds his thumb and forefinger a tiny distance apart] . . . and all he was doing was running them through a Fairchild. That’s it. Two Fairchilds, some Neve EQ, and these frickin’ little microphones suspended from the rafters. That’s it, man. It was like, “Oh my God, it doesn’t have to be complicated.”
IT SOUNDS CRAZY…
I have an anecdotal story that’s so ridiculously hysterical. I can’t tell you who it is, but you can speculate. He’s like one of the biggest rock producers alive right now. He’s a recluse. People don’t know much about him. That’s all I’m going to say about him.
My friend Richard Fortes is a phenomenal guitarist. He’s played everything for everybody. He plays guitar for Guns N’ Roses right now. He did a session with him, and this is in the Sound Tools days, like, pre-Pro Tools? And the assistant engineer got there, and turned on the Mac IIc or whatever the hell it was at the time, fires up the Sound Tools to record into. Richard’s like, “OK, cool, can we start?” And he’s like, “Oh, no, we gotta go get some food and stuff.” And Richard says, “Why?” And he’s like, “You gotta let the RAM chips heat up.” He’s like, “What’re you talking about?” He’s like, “It sounds better. You gotta let the RAM chips heat up.” And I’m like, does this really happen? And this guy’s a frickin’ genius, too, is the scary thing. So, I guess, along with genius come neurosis and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and things that have no bearing in reality.
…BUT IT JUST MIGHT WORK!
But his trick for recording drums, which is, like, one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever heard in my entire life, is SM57s on the whole kit. Everything. For a top snare mic, two tom mics, two overheads, and a kick drum. Everything. And then really nice pres. If you knew what records I was talking about, that he had done this on, you would be like, “that’s the most expensive overhead miking configuration, possible, like Oh, God, they’re definitely using Royer, like seven-grand microphones.” No, dude, they’re using 57s. It’s incredible.
’VERB: THAT’S WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ (OR NOT)
I grew up on ‘80s records that are super lush-sounding. You know, tons of reverb, the Trevor Horn productions. Then, you know, listening to New Order and Depeche Mode, all these beautiful, lush plate reverbs and Lexicon 480s, and these ridiculous effects chains, things like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. And then you hit, kind of, the late ‘90s, early 2000s, and all these hip-hop records are so dry. And I didn’t understand that until I did that track with the ’NSync guys. And Justin kept saying, “Man, don’t put ‘verbs on anything. Nothing. Not even our vocals.” And I’m like, “It sounds like crap!” And he’s like, “No, dude, don’t do that. It doesn’t need it.”
There’s two things about hip-hop that I’ve really kind of poached. The one is the idea of not using any kind of reverbs and delays. What I like doing with that is — [though] I still love that kind of ‘80s lushness — is using things that are really either close-miked, if it’s a real instrument, zero room or incredibly small percussive sounds with no reverberation on them at all. And I think that mixing and matching that kind of like hip-hop aesthetic with the things that I grew up listening to is a really special sound. And especially when you’re playing around in something like Surround Sound, you have so much room to have things really present, and other things that are just washing, and it’s a beautiful sound, man.
YOU NEVER GET A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST SIDE-BAND COMPRESSION
Nic Fanciulli’s mix of “Flashdance” Deep Dish track, which was my peak time track in a DJ set for like six months. You just play that track, and people go spastic, 10,000 people going mental, right? And you go, what is it about this that’s so breathtakingly powerful? It’s the loudest record I’ve ever had. What happens when your ears are bombarded with really loud sound is they saturate, they naturally compress. People that are the best at using compression, people like William Orbit — I don’t think there’s anybody better at using compression — you can listen to one of their records really soft, and it still sounds ridiculously loud. So listening to that record, I thought, what the hell is it in this record that makes it sound so loud?
What they did, and it took me a long time to figure this out, is, it’s a straight eighth-note bass line, and it’s moving in octaves, so it’s like the low note first, and then the octave above on the “ands.” Straight four-on-the-floor kick drum, right? So the bass note is emphasizing the kick drums, right? The sound is a really buzzy saw sound, like 16 Saw Oscillators??? Obviously an analog synth, right? But then underneath it they’ve also put a sine wave, which is like the old drum-and-bass trick, which is another trick that I poach, where you’ve got a high-pass filtered bass line that’s a really buzzy or distorted sound — like high-pass filter or even band-pass filter, when they sweep the band pass — but you’ve got a high-pass filter on it at, you know, 120 Hz, and then you get all the ass end in the sound from the sine wave. That’s like, an awesome trick, and I’ve used that on “Hip-Hop Phenomenon,” “Fibonacci Sequence,” tons of tracks.
Anyway, they side-band compressed it to the kick drum. So you get this incredible, sucking sound on the “and,” so it’s like, bvvahhhbvvahh, like that. It pulls into every beat, and you hear it, and I swear to God you can listen to it on laptop speakers, so soft, and it feels like it’s gonna tear your head off. It’s ridiculous. It’s something I stole in a track I’m working on right now. It’s an awesome trick that you can apply to so many things. Side-band compressing an important synth sound, or a hooky lead synth to a loop is wicked sounding, man.
MR. TRANCE ATTENDS THE SCHOOL OF ROCK
Another trick that I learned from another rock producer, who I probably shouldn’t talk about either, because he’d probably get pissed off that I was giving away his stuff, is using a de-esser on overhead mics for drums. That’s something I do all the time.
Ben Grossman, who’s mixed everybody, he does that side-band thing as well, but something he does, ‘cause drums are one of the hardest things there are to record: Anything that’s a cymbal, doing it as an overdub. It’s a nightmare for a drummer to play, you know, ‘cause you just get ‘em to play kick, snare and toms, and then you can compress the living crap out of it.
There are three things in a rock record that make a rock record impossible to mix: the vocal, the guitars, and the drum overheads. Rock records are not mixable. It’s like magic that people mix rock records well. And the way that people are doing it is stuff like that. Like sideband. It’s the same sort of thing . . . they’re using it as like a reverse expansion, so if you’re, you know, pegging 7k, what it does is, you have an attack, so it’s like it pulls it down when it really starts ringing hard, and then it leaves room for your vocal.
WHAT DO PRODUCERS WANT TO KNOW WHEN THEY STOP BT ON THE STREET?
The funniest one is my stutter edit technique. People will go, “What plug-in do you do that with?” It’s like, two bars of that usually takes me about 16 hours. There’s not a plug-in. I do that by hand. [Laughs.] Come over to my house and prepare to have carpal tunnel syndrome, get a lot of coffee in you. Sometimes it’s just hard work.
With friends, I actually made a plug-in to do stutter editing live. It’s really neat, but it’s nowhere near what I can do in the studio doing it by hand. My friend Luigi Castelli and I, he did the coding, but I designed it and stuff. We’re starting a software company, and I’m digging in on making a bunch of apps this summer. Really excited about it, man.
WHOSE HARD DRIVE WOULD BT LIKE TO SNEAK A PEEK AT?
My number one is Autechre. What the hell are they doing? I make records for a living. What are those guys doing? If you read this, call me. [Laughs.] It’s the most spectacular sound design I’ve heard on anything, ever, anywhere. Autechre records are, from beginning to end, spectacular. And it’s heady, intellectual music. For electronic music, it’s like wanky jazz, you know what I mean? The only people that can listen to wanky jazz are jazz musicians. It’s like that for electronic musicians, it’s the sort of thing you play to your friends, and they’re like, you’re a complete frickin’ geek, dude, this makes no sense at all.
But as someone that just loves the process of building sounds, and the different sound design techniques — I mean, building whole rhythms based on, you know, phase vocoding, where you can hear they started with like a simple kick-snare pattern, then using all these phase vocoding time-stretch algorithms to elongate these simple, clippy, you know, hundred sample sounds, they make these unbelievable collages of sound.