There are few musicians who are as skilled with technology and as articulate about it as BT. For his latest project, a band called All Hail The Silence, BT and Christian Burns produced an album as if it was a synthpop record from the early 80’s, populating it with the sounds of vintage synths, drum machines, outboard gear and step sequencers, all recorded to tape. We had a chance to sit down with BT and talk about the album and lots more at the recent A3E conference in Boston.
During your conference keynote appearance, you talked about finding and using vintage equipment such as an old Fairlight system and a pre OS X Mac with SampleCell in it. What made you get into the old stuff?
It’s twofold. I have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for these things that I’ve had over the years, and have worked with, growing up. And probably the most important component is this sort of “forced workflow.” I love that. In my own personal compositional process, the more constriction that I place on myself in terms of what’s allowed, what I use, the time, and all these kind of parameters for composing something, the better it is. And so, something that may be little known about me, is that some of these systems, I’m just kind of refurbishing, I’ve had them for years. Like an OS 9 computer. I work on an OS 9 computer every day. All the time. I work on a 16-bit Pro Tools rig in Logic 6.43. Similar to analog synths, which really reached their peak about '83. Computing really reached its peak in terms of sound design in the mid to late '90s. In the time that all of this sort of rompler culture, Sonic Foundry Acid, and then eventually [Ableton] Live hit, there became this perservation [fixation] on “How big is your sound library?” “How many gigs is your piano?” "How many libraries of strings do you have?” Blah blah blah, give me more more more, until people were drowning in stuff, right? Whereas just at the cusp of the handover to that idea, you had people making applications that were doing chunkmungering, these insane sorts of granular synthesis techniques. Curtis Roads making asynchronous granular applications, and all of these things work in OS 9. None of them made it to OS X. Quite literally thousands of programs.
Why do you think that is?
Because Apple has a history of killing small developers.
What is it about the older products that you like so much, the functionality, the sound?
It’s the sound of them. Oh God. Somebody thinks, “Oh yeah, I got the Kontakt Fairlight library.” That’s totally missing the point. I saw some guy on a Facebook post who said “There’s a $50 iPad [Fairlight] application.” And you just go, “OK, cool, go ahead and get the iPad application. [That] totally misses the beauty of a glowing monochrome monitor and sitting there in the middle of the night with an instrument that you put your hands on, and using a light pen. Can you tell me another sampler that you can edit sounds on the Z axis? It’s 30 years old. You can do things on this instrument that you can’t do on anything now. And that really is the draw to me, is that there are these instruments that are forgotten that can do things that people actually want to do now, didn’t have a use for compositionally 30 years ago, but do now. But they forgot, ”Ah, I got to get the newest, latest, greatest, and I’ve got 30 new plug-ins." No, just leave me with my stack of vintage drum machines and I’m good.
Speaking of the iPad, are you doing much in the way of idea creation or any kind of music production on an iPad?
Not particularly, honestly. I love the iPad, I think it’s just a wonderful device. But what feels good tor me to use an iPad for is taking an air break and watching a movie on a plane. That’s the truth. A laptop to me is much more of a compositional tool. However, I do have an iPad in the studio, with one of those fancy Alesis things, and I’ve yet to use it in a composition, but I’m very open to the idea. I think Dr. B’s csSpectral thing [Boulanger Labs csSpectral Csound-based multi effects processor app] is awesome. I’ll probably end up using that for something, honestly. But an iPad as a compositional tool or performance tool is not really so much for me. It’s light, and it’s the kind of thing you could drop easily. But I could see using it in the studio.
So this new album incorporates a lot of vintage gear?
It’s all vintage: 100 percent. There’s nothing that you could buy in a music shop now on the record. Not a single thing. There’s everything from Elka Synthexs, CS80s, CS70s, vintage outboard compression, EQ, Lexicon 200, 240s, and 480s. Like it’s all old gear. And every single one of those songs had to be printed by the end of the work period. So if we had to work 22 hours to print it, we worked 22 hours. Because when you shut down the studio, all the monosynths lose their patches. And they’re moody. You go back to a Moog Rogue and are like, “Wait, but the sliders are all still the same, ” but it does sound different the next day. And myself, Christian my band mate, and my friend Jeff who owns the studio. We didn’t have automation, it wasn’t a console with automation, we were printing to tape. If a reverb needed to be thrown, we had six hands between us. So I’m playing the envelopes on synths, I’m playing the filters. Everything is performed to tape, and that’s how you hear it on the record.
Did you record it to a multitrack?
Yes, so we could tweak the mix later, but all of the synths are actually performed the way that they were when records of that time were made — to tape. And so, there’s no sort of automation after the fact, no lovingly sculpting your controller curves and stuff. It was like literally, sweat dripping from my brow, because all of the synths are so hot. Retuning the oscillators right before printing to tape; and then sitting there with my foot on an SH-09, doing the filter slider, while I have my hands on two Oberheim SEMs and rack Mini Moog and performing that to tape. And you have to get it right, we had to go through nine takes of it to get it right.
It’s like mixing on a console without automation.
Yeah, speaking about the kind of “imposed workflow” thing. It just opened me up in a way that I can’t even express. It’s like just living in a house as opposed to building it with your own hands. It’s just a totally different feeling, qualitatively.
Does the imposed work thing appeal to you because there are so many possibilities out there that if you don’t have some sort of limitation, there’s too much to choose from?
You’ve answered your own question. Out of my peer group, I have 50 friends that I’ll talk to regularly, we’re on Skype. “Hey man, what are you working on?” “Oh I’ve had this track, but I just got 10 new plug-ins” And then you look at people’s projects and idea folders, and there are thousands of things. So they think, “Oh, I can take this new thing, and I can use it on that.” And that makes it somehow better. The English have a great expression, “Polishing a turd.” I love that expression. It’s a difficult skill to acquire, and not by any stretch of the imagination do I have some form of mastery over it, but I’d like to think that one of the things I’m at least decent at is knowing when there’s that substantive spark of an idea that means something, and then taking it and finishing it. And in my own process, if I have too many things, I’m distracted and I can’t finish. That’s just me.
This has been a conference where everyone is talking about future technology, and the subject of gear with artificial intelligence has come up a lot. Since you’re a real visionary with electronic instruments, what would be your dream instrument that incorporates AI?
That’s an interesting question, and I’m a huge Ray Kurzweil, Max Matthews fan, too, and I love the idea of autonomous generation of music, but I feel instinctively that anything that does that will always have to be curated by human ears. I strongly believe that. You can teach a computer some incredible things, but the ability to compose something that’s emotional and is an evocoative experience for an end user, I would reserve the possibility that that’s possible, but I can’t imagine it.