Electronic music doesn’t have to be the most insanely complicated thing in the world to create—BT just insists on making it that way. Listening to his latest album, These Hopeful Machines (released in early February on Nettwerk), you’ll hear dance-pop, trance, house, breaks, cinematic soundscapes, and orchestral interludes, and you might notice some stutter edits here and some granular synthesis there. But unless you really know what BT gets himself into in the studio, you wouldn’t be able to guess just how involved his process can be.
It might help to know that BT (aka Brian Transeau) was playing piano by age 2, studying composition and counterpoint at the Washington Conservatory of Music by age 7, and going to Berklee School of Music by 15. And throughout his music career (his debut, Ima, was released in 1994), BT has studied, experimented, and discovered new ways to make his music in even more complex ways. Below, he discusses some of his mad-scientist methods, from time correcting granular synthesis at 2,048th notes, to his inventive trials with “metric convolution.”
And for those who would love to see photos of BT’s studio, well, so would we at EQ. But if you had your entire collection of studio gear stolen a few years ago like BT did, you probably wouldn’t much feel like sharing photos of your new treasure. Fortunately, BT is much less afraid of people stealing his techniques than his gear. Here, he gives an uninhibited glimpse of his production process for These Hopeful Machines.
Can you pick a song on These Hopeful Machines and explain the step-by-step process of creating it, from writing to recording to mixing?
This is a really difficult question. We could literally sit for three or four hours to talk through a single composition. If we do this at some point, the one I’d like to do is “Every Other Way.” The song took two months working seven days a week, between 14 and 20 hours every day, from the point of writing the song to recording it. There are over 170 sessions that comprise this song. Some are just sessions where I’m time correcting granular synthesis on Jes’ vocal at 2,048th notes. In fact, there’s 11 or 12 sessions just based around the last 30 seconds of the composition, so there’s not really a way to answer a question like this, unfortunately, without sitting and going through it in person, because much of it I don’t remember.
On These Hopeful Machines, I would say there’s not a single song on the record that has less than 100 sessions for it. There are some tracks where there are three drummers playing on them—all of them had been time corrected. It’s real drums and side-band compression added to sort of force-fit the programmed rhythms with live drumming. The drums on this album on their own are a pretty miraculous feat in many ways.
“Every Other Way” has some interesting vocal effects on her voice at one point early in the song. It’s almost disintegrating. What did you do?
That’s a technique called granular synthesis, and it’s mixed in in parts with my stutter edit technique. I’m using exponential logarithmic and Hamming curves applied to the gestural note values in that. So some of the things in there I’ve corrected 1,024th and 2,048th notes. And I’m doing things like applying a Hamming curve from 2,048th notes down to 8th-note triplets and up 1,024th notes. So there’s just a molecular level of detail to the vocal edit in Jes’ vocal in that song. And it was such a fun thing to do because it’s a very simple sort of Appalachian type of country song. She and I wrote it upstairs singing, the two of us, with me playing a little gut-string Yamaha acoustic guitar. We all sat around and drank tea, and my mom and my little girl and a bunch of our friends were over. And it was a summer night. And we just wrote that song in probably 20 minutes and sang it all night. And then it took me two months to make it what it is now. It’s all this hand editing and a heavy dose of my AU Stutter Edit plug-in.
How did you record the guitar in that song?
The acoustic guitars were recorded with sE valve microphones. I don’t remember the exact model number, but it’s sort of a fat tube. It looks kind of a 67. They’re just beautiful microphones. They’re a teeny bit noisy. It was recorded in a cross-mic pattern in stereo. I like recording just about everything in stereo. I think it’s four or five tracks of Yamaha six-string classical guitar, live glockenspiel, and a Wave drum, which is a type of frame drum with beads in it that makes kind of a tambourine-esque sound. It’s very hi-pass filtered. And also, too, I’ve run it through some TDM plug-ins to give it a sort of root note that it didn’t have.
When you mix organic sounds with the electronic, how do you get them to jell together?
So the essential thing for me about making acoustic instruments jell with electronic instruments is the proprietary time-correction modality that I’ve come up with over the period of 20 years, quite honestly. So it’s a thing that I’ve done many lectures on at different universities. It’s a very complicated technique and complicated in that there are many different types of time stretching that I like to use, from phase vocoding to granular to wave width, to something that I call wave-cycle repetition—on things like analog synthesizers where you take a single bi-polar, uni-polar wave and repeat it.
And then of course it’s picking appropriate attack transients. I always time correct post-compression because compression dramatically alters attack-transients. So it really is down to very hyper-specific time correcting to make the attack transients and the placements of acoustic instruments fall properly with the attack transients and the placements of electronic instruments. Now, for someone like me who works on this very nano- or micro-rhythmic level, it’s a lot more complicated than correcting things to 16th notes. [Laughs.] I remember those days. That was sort of 25 years ago when I was in my parents’ bedroom. Once I started discovering the area of rhythm or sound between 8 Hz and 20 Hz, I entered an entire new universe of what it possible rhythmically. And so it’s a lot more work, but it yields really beautiful results, so it’s work I’m happy to do.
Did you try any recording experiments on the album, and how do you keep pushing yourself into new territory?
The answer is yes, and every single composition on this album has innumerable experiments. On “Le Nocturne De Lumiere,” I wrote a 30-page thesis on a new technique before I even began that composition, and the idea was based on Elliott Carter’s work and his idea of metric modulation. I thought that was a very interesting idea, and it’s very evocative when he came up with it. And my idea was to take and apply the principles of something that we call convolution or spectral convolution to rhythm. I thought, “What happens if you superimpose the characteristics of one meter over another meter across a period of time? So I came up with this idea of metric convolution.
As I said, I wrote a short thesis on it before I began “Le Nocturne De Lumiere,” which is really a proof of concept that this idea of in position or morphing of meter is not only something evocative and cool sounding—it morphs in the song from 4/4 to 6/8 in the second movement—but also, it’s actually something new. There’s a new area of rhythm between meters. I could say, “What’s between 4/4 and 5/4,” and you’d say, “Well, 9/8.” And yeah, 9/8 is between 4/4 and 5/4, but what’s between 4/4 and 9/8 or 9/8 and 5/4, and what if we’re interpolating between 4/4 and 5/4 over a period of time, and what if that interpolation is non-linear?
I discovered a new area there that is basically the next five years of research for me, and I’ll be building things—probably the next permutation of [my software] BreakTweaker will have something—to aid in that process. Because to do that 4/4 to 6/8 morph took me almost a week of doing it by hand, where the triplet figure is being eaten by duples and so on and so forth.
At any rate, all of these compositions feature an incredible amount of experimentation. I took daughter’s Dora the Explorer tape recorder that has “echo” and circuit bent it. And I sang through that for “Forget Me,” the first song on the last side [of the double album]. And there’s an innumerable amount of experimentation on this album, as there is on all my work. It starts with this initial humanist, cathartic burst of emotion that translates into a song. And then I put on my lab coat and get really analytical and try to express that in a way that is meaningful, yet new.
What pieces of gear you could you not live without?
1. I have to put myself on the list [laughs] because the number one piece of gear I couldn’t live without is me. And trust me, on a kind of William-Gibson-put-my-brain-in-a-jar-and-give-me-an-eSATA-connection [level] , I’m down with that. But I need my body. My body is my most important piece of gear or instrument. And I really mean that, too, because although I love electronics, and I love the ability of electronics to manipulate and to manipulate acoustic performances and create new and evocative things, the human instrument is the greatest instrument we’ve had since the beginning of time, and it’s still the greatest instrument we have now.
2. I love my Hagstrom semi-hollow body guitar. I play it all the time. It’s an absolutely beautiful instrument. I find it really inspiring to play it through a British 1960s [Vox] AC-30 with vintage tubes in it. That’s one of my favorite sets of instruments.
3. Another would be my modified ARP 2600. It has band-pass filters in it, 17-inch spring reverb. It’s just absolutely a glorious instrument. It’s super-moody. When you turn her on sometimes, she’s like, “Ah, I don’t want to do that today.” Other times it’s like the best thing ever. You turn it off and back on, and it’s all gone. It’s a very moody and spectacular instrument.
4. Another would be my Oberheim 4-Voice. Anything you have to make sounds from scratch or by hand and using patch cables, and then you come back to it and it’s gone is really appealing to me. It’s a fleeting moment that you capture with one of those instruments.
5. All my hand-built circuit-bent instruments are just amazing to play with and I come up with some fantastic sounds using them, too.
6. And my glockenspiel would be another one of my favorite instruments. I play it all the time. There’s just something so profoundly simple about its abrupt attack and very simple oscillation of sine waves that is childlike and at the same time very, very evocative and beautiful.