Sonic Surgeon

Electronic Musician’s extensive interview with electronica and pop whiz BT, who talks about his incredibly detailed music production methods, his latest work, and his take on the gear and software that he uses.
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When BTstarts talking about music technology, he seems almost like a kid in acandy store; everything to him is mind-blowing, amazing, or insane. Hepractically bubbles over with enthusiasm about the latest, greatestgear or some cool, new software that he's used. He could seemingly goon for hours about plug-ins, software instruments, surround mixing,time correction, and the incredible and meticulous detail that he putsinto the production of his music. But awed though he might be by thetechnology at his disposal, he's in control of it to a degree that fewothers are bending and twisting digital audio and synthesis to fit hisunique musical vision.

One comes away from talking to BT convinced that he's not only apioneer of new and different ways to use digital processes such aswaveform editing and time stretching, but that he uses them with alevel of detail that's truly remarkable. He approaches the productionof his music with almost surgical precision. Yet with all the digitalmanipulation that he brings to bear, there's nothing machinelike aboutthe end product. He's a highly talented songwriter and producer, andhis recordings exude musicality.

A case in point is his recent CD, Emotional Technology (seeFig. 1), a sparkling collection of catchy, driving dance musicmixed with elements of rock, pop, and hip-hop. It features intricatesound design and frequently distorted, heavily processed vocals, and itis made up of tracks that have been meticulously (almost obsessively)chopped up, rearranged, and time-corrected.

BT, whose full name is Brian Transeau, is firmly established as afixture on the electronica and pop scene. His initial claim to fame wasas one of the key figures in the development of the electronicasubgenre of trance (aka epic house). Subsequently, however, he hasbranched out in a variety of creative directions. Besides being a soloartist, he has worked as producer, arranger, mixer, and remixer for adiverse group of artists, including Tori Amos, 'N Sync, Britney Spears,Mike Oldfield, Paul Van Dyk, and Lenny Kravitz. He's also an in-demandfilm scorer; his credits include Fast and Furious, Monster, UnderSuspicion, and Zoolander.

BT grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Rockville, Maryland,where, at age four, he got his start in music studying classical piano.As a teenager, his attention shifted from Bach and Beethoven tosynthesizers and sequencers. He writes on his Web site (www.btmusic.com),“After being introduced to artists like Cabaret Voltaire andDepeche Mode, I turned my back on classical music for quite awhile.

He enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music but dropped out in1990 after only a year in order to pursue his music full-time. His pathtook him from Boston to Los Angeles, and back to the D.C. area.Eventually his music was heard by British DJ Sasha, who helped him findan audience for it in England. BT's first release, IMA(Perfecto/Kinetic Records, 1996), became huge on the English dancescene and catapulted him to fame in the world of dance music.

Eight years, four CDs, countless remixes, and a slew of film scoreslater, BT lives in the Los Angeles area and works mainly from hispersonal studio. By his own admission, he spends ungodly amounts oftime holed up in there working. I sit there 40 hours straightsometimes, he says.

To ease the strain of such marathon hours, he's made his studioenvironment as pleasant as possible (see Fig. 2). To that end,it's now stocked with three Apple Cinema Displays. “It takes halfan hour to drag something to the trash,” he jokes. His computers,which form the heart of his studio, include a Macintosh G5 (which isjust now being integrated into his setup), a pair of Macintosh G4s, acustom PC running Windows XP, and a Symbolic Sound Kyma system. (Seethe sidebar “Inside BT's Studio” for a complete list of hisstudio gear.)

My initial interview with BT for this story took place not longafter the release of Emotional Technology. We spoke at the barof a trendy New York hotel, and BT was accompanied by Tootsie, hisubiquitous Boston Terrier, who sat quietly in the chair next tohim.

There's a lot of sound design mixed in with the music onEmotional Technology.Have you always done that on yourrecords?

I have, actually. The sort of soundscape; the designing of a space.I like to create compositions individually as an environment, andwithin that environment it's all about setting space. So sound designhas always been an integral part of what I do. And, obviously, thebetter the tools get, the better my programming chops get; the better Iget at coding, the more interesting the soundscapes become.

When you use the wordsoundscape, are you alsotalking about the ambiences that you include in your music?

Definitely. There's so much attention to detail put into building aspace in these tracks. Take, for example, a song like“Paris”: that track has the sound of me scuba diving— which I've time-corrected in unreal note values above 64thnotes (128th notes, 256th notes, 512th notes) — which is atechnique I call nano correcting. I developed it while doingthis record. So I time-corrected the sound of my scuba regulator.

Is there a simple way to explain nano correcting?

I just finished outlining a book I'm writing on time correcting andstutter editing. There will be a chapter on nano correcting. There'sgoing to be a chapter on frequency-specific swing and on gravitationalswing and swing templates — it's really complicated. It's funny,because I sat down to try to explain it to myself as if I were going toarticulate to another person how to do it from step one, and it's notsimple. [Laughs.] Basically, nano correction is correctingunreal note values. So anything above 64th notes.

So what does the listener hear when you nano-correct a piece ofaudio?

I think what happens when you're correcting into unreal note values,or when you're correcting things too small to be perceived as notes, isthat your brain is drawn to the symmetry, because symmetry is areoccurring, aesthetically pleasing thing all throughout nature. Whatyour brain attaches to is the symmetry in the event, rather thansomething being rhythmic.

INSIDE BT'SSTUDIOCOMPUTERS

Apple PowerMacintosh dual G4/1 GHz (OS 9)

Apple PowerMacintosh dual G4/1.42 GHz (OS X)

Apple PowerMacintosh dual G5/2 GHz (OS X)

Customized PC(Windows XP)

Symbolic SoundCapybara 320 Sound Computation Engine (for the Kyma system)

Expansion chassisfor Pro Tools system (contains two Mix Core and six DSP farmcards)

DJSETUP

Pioneer CDJ-1000(CD turntable)

Pioneer DJM-600(mixer)

TechnicsSL-1210Mk2 Quartz turntables (2)

KEYBOARDS

Access Indigo2Hartman Neuron synthM-Audio Radium MIDI controllerM-Audio Oxygen8 MIDIcontroller

RolandJP-8000

MIXERS

CM LabsMotorMix (used for Kyma)

Rolls RM203stereo line mixer (used as a volume knob)

RACK

Digidesign1622 audio interfaces for Pro Tools (2)Digidesign 24-Bit ADAT Bridgeinterface for Pro ToolsDigidesign 888 audio interfaces for Pro Tools(2)Digidesign Universal Slave Driver sync box for Pro ToolsEmagicUnitor8 MIDI patch bayEsoteric Audio Research Limiting Amplifier660Focusrite Red 7 mic preamp/dynamics processorFurman PL-8 powerconditionerGlyph dual SCSI removable hard-drive bay (with 2 Cheetahdrives)Glyph single SCSI removable hard-drive bay (with Cheetahdrive)Hafler Trans-nova power amplifierJVC 3/4-inch tape deckKorg 03R/Wrack synth (instrument)Kurzweil K2500RS sampler (instrument)LucidGENx6-96 Word/Super Clock GeneratorNeve vintage 1073 preampRolandGP-100 guitar preamp/processorTripp Lite Power ProtectionVideoreference clock (black burst generator)

Z-SystemsZ-8.8r Digital Detangler Pro patch bay

SOFTWAREAPPLICATIONS

AbletonLive 2.0Digidesign Pro Tools 5.2 (OS 9 Mix Core system withDAE/AudioSuite/RTAS)Emagic Logic Platinum 6.1.1 (OS 9 uses Pro Toolshardware)Emagic Logic Platinum 6.3.1 (OS X)KymaPropellerhead Reason2.5Sony Digital Pictures Acid 4.0Steinberg V-Stack

TascamGigaStudio 2.

SURROUNDSPEAKER SETUP

M-AudioStudiophile SP-5B (5)

M-AudioStudiophile SP-8S subwoofer

VIDEOMONITORS

AppleCinema Displays (3): 23-, 22-, and 21-inch models

Beyond sound design, you've said that you also use timecorrection to tighten up and alter all the instrument tracks in yourmusic?

There are literally 50 different approaches to time correcting,depending on the source material. I'll use a different time-stretchalgorithm for fuzz guitar, for repetitive wave cycles, as opposed toones that have a lot of upper and harmonic content. I'll cut thingsthat have a lot of subharmonic activity in them off-axis, and conjointhings off-axis instead of doing fade-ins and fade-outs. It's such acrazy technique.

So the time-correction process — which you've said caninclude cutting up audio, EQing it, compressing it, time-stretching it,and correcting to a particular note value — opens up an entireother world of control for you.

It's infinite, man. And I feel a big sense of responsibility havingthe kind of tools to be able to do stuff like this. I think of myheroes who I know would have wanted them. A guy like Stravinsky. I havea responsibility to do something interesting with these tools.

After you record live instrument tracks, do you time-correctthem, too?

I do it all the time.

So you alter them pretty radically?

Radically. You see the thing is, I love completely live music. Ilove it. Jazz, classical music, I love that. In terms of theperformance aesthetic of that sort of music, I absolutely love it. It'snot the kind of music I'm trying to make. If I'm doing something that'swith a live band, I'm always going to be gelling it with programming. Ican make it sound like it's live, but I'm always going to want to havepercolating Acid lines or cool granular synthesis or a breakbeataugmenting the live drums. The only way that I've found that you cansort of sell it to your ears — that this acoustic performance ishappening in tandem with programming — is time correcting. Theygel together like they were meant to go together. Otherwise it's alwayslike flamming snares, and hi-hats from the loop are flamming againstthis, that, and the other thing, and the live drums, and it just soundsunnatural.

How long does it take you to time-correct an entire song?

It can take two months.

So time correcting is more of a time drain than mixing?

Absolutely. The funny thing is, though, that when you time-correctsomething, you wouldn't believe how much your mix issues resolvethemselves.

Because in the process you also get rid of the rhythmic slop andunnecessary frequency information?

All the stuff that you're always trying to EQ out or compress isgone — oftentimes — when you time-correct somethingwell.

I noticed some pretty unusual vocal treatments onEmotional Technology.

In my compositions, if the vocals don't sound like some sort offractal collage, I'm bored witless. Vocals are the one thing on whichradical effects treatments really stand out. That's why I like doing itto them.

Because they're so up-front in the mix?

Exactly. You really, really hear it. On “Somnambulist,”the lead vocal had 6,178 edits to it. It's going in the new GuinnessBook of World Records as the most edits in a piece of music. It's afun thing to do on vocals because they're usually front and center andyou realize, “Oh my God, it sounds like this person is in ablender in time.”

You use a lot of distortion and other effects on your vocals.What effects in particular do you like to use on them?

Literally — and this is not to hoard secrets, because you cansee how open I am to talking about it — thousands of plug-ins:everything from standalone applications like SoundHack, to Yowstar Girlfor granular synthesis, right through to Wave Mechanics Pitch-Blenderand FilterFreak, or an Arboretum plug-in, or things coded in Kyma.Literally thousands, right down through running it through a $125 Z.VexWoolly Mammoth guitar pedal and out the amp, and miking it and backin.

Let's take your creative process from point A to point B. Do yourcompositions always start with just a musical idea?

Absolutely. That's how it always starts for me. It never starts forme sitting at the computer, ever. It has started for me sitting at aguitar or sitting at the piano and noodling. I won't allow it to startat the computer. I want to impose my will on the technology, I don'twant to have it impose its will on my artistic sensibilities. I refuseto be defined by machinery.

But isn't it difficult to avoid having the parameters andlimitations of the technology shape your music?

The tools have to be an extension of your fingertips in the same waya guitar is supposed to be, or in the same way that a pencil and staffpaper are supposed to be. I'll give you a perfect example: if you lookat modern electronic music, the way that computer-based sequencing isset up has totally defined what electronic music sounds like. Onehundred percent defined it, down to the not-so-subtle things like youload it up and the default setting is in 4/4 at 120 beats perminute.

So how do you keep it from influencing you?

You've got to constantly hold [your work] up to the light and say,“Did I make this sound like this because I was usingReason?” If so, I'm not going to use Reason for a couple ofmonths. I'm gonna build it from scratch. As opposed to being handed asand castle and then finding a nice piece of beach to plant it on, Iwant to build the thing grain by grain, and I want it to be my own.

Let's get back to your creative process. Generally do you get anidea for a melody first?

Usually a melody, or a harmonic idea like for a progression. AndI'll be working it out in my head, thinking, “What inversion isthat chord in?” And, “Damn, I tried to forget myperformance ear-training classes and now I wish I rememberedthem.” You know, that kind of stuff. I'll start making myself alittle chord chart with a melody line if I'm not near an instrument. OrI'll sing an idea into my cell phone. And then I'll sit at aninstrument and write a song, and then I'll sit at the computer and makeit happen, make it interesting.

What's your main sequencer?

Logic Audio.

Do you have much hardware-based sound gear — synths,modules, samplers — anymore, or is it all software based?

Hardly anything. It's so funny because on my last record,Movement in Still Life [Nettwerk Productions, 2000], I made apoint on the track “Dreaming” — I said that thisentire sound was composed using soft synths. And people freaked out.They're like, “That's not possible, blah blah blah.”

When were you producing that album?

In '98. And so people were just completely thrown by that. Nowpeople come to my studio, and all my old beautiful vintage synthesizers— EMS VCS3 “Putneys,” ARP 2600s — are instorage. I don't use any of that stuff [anymore]. I got a bay ofcomputers and each one functions as a synthesizer. I run OS X on one soI've got all my AU plug-ins on that. I've got a PC that I run TascamGigaStudio and Native Instruments Reaktor on. I have another Mac that Irun OS 9 plugs on, and then I have my main computer.

Are they all connected by MIDI?

They're all connected by several things. They're all on an intranetat my home, so they can all use shared drives and stuff like that.

Do you have any particular soft instruments that are yourfavorites?

I have literally thousands of soft synthesizers. That's not anexaggeration. Just in Steinberg V-Stack on the PC — I detest PCs,but they're kind of a necessary evil — I have at least 1,200Synth Edit synths, and I use all of them. And then the AU — Iprobably have 200 AU plug-ins, and 500 to 600 OS 9 ones. Some of myfavorites — just to throw some out there, because I'm one to talkabout anything I use — I love Big Tick Rhino for the PC. I loveIstvan Kaldor's Rotopuker — it's amazing [see Fig. 3]. ForOS 9 I love Native Instruments Absynth and Absynth 2. Synapse Scorpionis an amazing one; Synapse Junglist [now called Hydra] is amazing. TheEmagic EXS24 [see Fig. 4] is my favorite sampler ever made. Ilove that thing so much. I like Atmosphere a lot; it's really useful.My main sound-design box is Kyma, the Capybara system [see Fig.5].

I've heard that it's amazing.

It's the wormhole. It's the sort of door you open, and on the otherside are infinite possibilities in sound.

I gather that you prefer Macs to PCs?

Let's start at the beginning. I prefer Macs to PCs just because ofthe whole design ethos. Apple is a company of forward-thinking peopletrying to do exciting and interesting stuff, and executing that with agroundbreaking and pioneering team of creative, non-suit-wearing hippietypes. That's totally my vibe. Second, aesthetically, nothing holds theappeal of a Macintosh. There's not a computer you can show me in theworld that's sexier than a Mac. Third, and most important, the Macoperating system lets me be creative; the architecture of the machineand the system that I'm working on become totally secondary to mycreative process. I'm never going, “Goddammit, I want to ejectthis CD!” Everything is fluid and easy to work. I love that. Itmakes working on a computer so much fun. I don't want to think aboutusing a computer while I'm composing. I want it to be like having aguitar in my hand. Using a Macintosh is like that.

One of the great things about Logic is how much you can customizeit. I imagine you do a lot of customizing.

It's just obnoxious how customized my Autoload is. The equivalentwould be the most pimped-out, dropped-suspension, rice-rocket carpossible. With a booming 5.1 system and dual 15 subs in the trunk.That's my Logic Autoload.

So somebody used to the stock Logic setup wouldn't recognizeit?

They'd say, “What the hell is this?” The cool thing is alot of my friends who use Logic — we have discussions aboutimplementing new key commands. We're all on the same set of keycommands. So there's a group of about 15 of us — the Real Worldguys at Peter Gabriel's place are on my key commands, Sasha's on my keycommands, we're all on the same key commands. So when we go to work onone another's computers, we can work. We don't have to swap. We havethis consortium, this think tank for deciding on key commands.

You compose, record, and edit at your home studio, but do you mixsomeplace else?

No, I mix at home.

Do you mix mostly in the computer with a control surface?

No control surface; I'm a mouse mixer.

And you do all your mixes that way? You don't have a bigconsole?

No. A lot of my mixes are committed [with the effects and EQ on thetracks before mixdown]. I'm a huge AudioSuite fan, and it's one reasonwhy right now I could never move off of Pro Tools hardware. Because I'mall about committing those processes to the audio. If I like acompression, why have it on a fader? I'm not going to change it. If thedynamic of the track starts being affected by how dramatic acompression is, I'll trim back other elements. I'd rather hard-processthings — that's part of what helps me finish tracks, too. I'drather make a commitment.

But if you're writing something, and building it up one track ata time, might not the stuff that comes later affect how much of thatcompression, or any other effect, you want to use?

Never. You build it around it. As an engineer friend of mine put it,“The way that you write is the way that we were taught to doshelving. You pick sounds that are in specific frequency ranges, andthen they all end up fanning together and fitting.” It'ssomething that I realized I do subconsciously.

So writing, arranging, editing, and mixing are an integratedprocess for you. You don't say, “Okay, all my tracks are done;now I'm going to mix.”

Never. By the time the song is written, it's also mixed andtime-corrected. It's a weird way of working.

So the main thing in your mixes is getting levels right, but nota lot of equalizing?

No, there's not a lot of post stuff. There are insanely intricatethings going on, but they're done during the writing process. Thethings that I will always use live [during the mix] are reverbs anddelays, because those I change. But compressions, no; filters, maybe.If I'm sweeping something, I'll leave that on a fader. But for the mostpart, it's reverbs and delays — wet effects. It's never the crux,the core component of how that sound is sounding.

What in your music really grabs the listener's ear?

One thing that stylistically I do a lot, that I think resonates witha lot of the people who like technologically based music or maketechnologically based music themselves, is insane — and I pickedthat word carefully — insane attention to detail. That's one ofthe things that people pick up on in what I do. It's the real care andattention to detail. Nothing is in there by accident. There's not anextraneous reverb tail in my music, there's not a single ringingfrequency below 150 Hz on a single hi-hat on any one of my last threealbums. There's a psychotic attention to detail. There's also a lot ofear candy because of that attention to detail.

Can you give an example of what you mean by ear candy?

I like having these dramatic transitions in my songs; anextraordinary amount of detail to facilitate huge set changes. I mightcome out of a section with a live band playing: live guitar, live bass,live drums. Then maybe one or two synth lines and go into a breakbeatfrom Kyma and Reaktor and distort the vocals. I like to changedramatically like that. There needs to be all kinds of intricatespills, reversing noises, rising sounds, reverb tails across a conjoin— just crazy stuff to join those areas together. So I like tothink that the attention to detail in what I do resonates withpeople.

Do you ever worry that you're going to overdo it and mess up thegroove?

Yeah, definitely. But once the composition is there, everything istime-corrected, the beats are right, the bass is hitting right, you'vewritten a great melody, the lyrics are strong, you've got interestingharmonic things happening — at that point it's just a wide-opencanvas. I don't think you can overthink it at that point. For me,making music is a two-stage process. There's the initial cathartic,creative blah, in which you get out the feeling, the emotion, the idea.In that phase, you can't overthink anything. That's a 5- to 15-minutething, writing a song. But then after I make a commitment to that idea,the lab-coat part of me takes over and I get nano-technology on it. Atthat point I don't think there is such a thing as overthinking it.

With all these possibilities at your fingertips, how do you knowwhen to stop?

You know, I must have an enzyme in me that tells me when a piece ofmusic is complete. It's really strange. I'll be noodling until the cowscome home, but there's just a switch in me. People ask me that questionall the time. And I tell them, “The song tells me ‘you'redone,’” and then I'm done.

Have you done a lot of surround work?

I will never mix in stereo ever again, ever.

What aboutEmotional Technology? That wasstereo.

It's my last thing ever in stereo. I mean ever. I recently juststarted mixing in surround, and there's absolutely no going back forme. I cannot.

Have you put out anything yet that's mixed in surround?

I just wrote the score to Monster in surround sound, and it'sa completely different experience.

So is it boring to you when you do a stereo mix now?

I can't do it anymore. I'm not even joking.

What are you going to do on future records?

I'll never do stereo mixes anymore. I can't, man. After sitting inthe middle of this immersive environment and being a part of it,instead of being a listener.

So you think eventually everything will be multichannel?

Absolutely.

Is 5.1 okay for you, or do you need more, like 7.1?

No, 5.1 is great. One of the key things I've discovered alreadyabout 5.1, the format, is to forget about the center channel. That'sbecause it kills the stereo imaging in the front. If you're going touse the center channel, use it creatively. Don't ever use it glommedwith the left and right channel. It just kills the stereo imaging. ButI've done weird things like having a bell in the center channel andthen throwing a reverb with different predelays in the back speakers. Ilove 5.1, it's so much fun. Beware — if you set up a 5.1 system,you're screwed. I swear to God. [Laughs.]

Many of the surround mixes that I've heard don't take a lot ofchances. They seem so conventional.

They're terrible. They're horrible.

Why are so many engineers scared to take surround mixesout?

Most of the people who have access to surround mixing right now arefilm guys. And most film guys are just nine-to-fivers: “Send thesame 20 kHz spike to the subchannel. It's my lunch break.” I'mintimidating to a bunch of people like that, because I walk in and Isay, “Let's f — k this up, let's do something interesting.Put the kick drum in the back channels. I want to run the brass partsthrough a Marshall amp coming out through the center channel.”And they're like, “Wait a minute dude, my lunch is in 15minutes.” So now I've taken to mixing the stuff at my house anddelivering 5.1 sound.”

Have you done the mixes for the movies that you scored?

Monster is the first one that I've done.

Is creating a film score different for you musically than workingon your records?

It is, but in a good way. Because I studied so much orchestratingand counterpoint and theory and stuff.

What did you major in at Berklee?

I didn't graduate, which is a funny thing because when I go backthere now, they call me a graduate. But I studied this stuff startingreal young. I studied string writing and fine orchestration and harmonytheory.

So you were learning classical back then.

Yeah, a classical kid, big time. So all that stuff I learned as akid, I haven't been able to implement into my records because it'scost-prohibitive. I can't hire an A-list string section for threehours, because it costs $200,000 to get the best players. But I get touse them on a film, because the studio pays for it. It's great. I standthere with a baton and conduct it.

Since you're writing these things for orchestras and livemusicians, I assume you can't get into all the manipulation of audiolike you do on your records?

Oh, I do. I time-correct all that stuff.

How has the response been to yourMonsterscore?

Really positive, man. One of the coolest things about the responseto the Monster score is that everyone keeps telling me theycan't believe it's me. And I love hearing that. I know I've donesomething good when everybody says, “I can't believe youdid that.” I don't know if that's an insult or a compliment; I'mtaking it as a compliment, though, because that says to me it's sooff-the-beaten-path for what I'm known for, that I'm makingprogress.

Can you offer any advice to our readers that will help them withtheir composition and production?

The first thing I'd say is to get a copy of The Artist's Way,by Julia Cameron (J.P. Tarcher, 2002). Read it, and practice it. It'sthe greatest book ever written for creative people. If you haven't readit, if you haven't done the exercises, it's a must-do for anyonecreative. The second thing, whatever your chosen field of music, is tomake sure to study other fields of music, because they will inspire andinfluence your work in a way that you can't yet imagine. If you'relooking to be a DJ, study jazz; you might not want to just be a DJ. Theother thing is to pick an instrument and learn to play it. It's cool tobe a computer jockey, but it helps immensely to have a fundamentalunderstanding of an instrument. Keyboard is always the best one,because you end up studying melody and harmony at the same time.

You attended the recent Winter NAMM show. What were some of thecool things you saw?