Creating An Analog Dance Music Album, by BT
Electronica pioneer Brian Transeau made a record the way his heroes did—without a computer in sight
For Brian Transeau, computers are the ultimate musical instrument. The veteran electronic artist, active since 1993, is known for groundbreaking production techniques such as the stutter edit and breaktweaker. His brilliantly beautiful Grammy-nominated album These Hopeful Machines—among many other releases—pushed the limit of sound and composition through technology. Known in the music world simply as BT, the producer has teamed up with vocalist and musician Christian Burns for their All Hail the Silence project. There’s something special about their work: BT is going back to basics. He’s closing the laptop to create a completely analog album, using vintage analog instruments.
BT explains, in his own words:
As a kid, I grew up in love with music. One of my first memories is remembering just being fascinated with the fact that you could turn a box on, organized sound would come out of it and it would be something that would augment, amplify or change how you were feeling. That whole thing in a nutshell, the fascination of that is a driving thing for me.
My first recollection of technology, in terms of technology that’s applicable for sound, really are things like tape recorders. While I studied piano as a young kid—the Suzuki method, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart—my dad was an FBI field agent and he used to bring home these little microcassette recorders. I used to get in a lot of trouble for taking these cassette recorders that I assume now as an adult were devices for spying. I used to take them apart and figure out ways to starve the batteries so it would change the speed of the tape. I even went so far as to unspool tapes and spool them around a chair. So I made some of my first tape loops as a six or seven-year-old kid.
When the light really clicked on for me was as a young teenager, by getting my hands on my first analog synthesizers and drum machines. My first computer was an IBM 5150 that I built with my dad. I was super Anglophile listening to early new wave records: Human League, The The, all the early English bands. It clicked that all of my heroes we using these instruments. All the people that I was studying in classical music—were they to be alive—would be using these exact tools to experiment with timbre and tonality.
It’s so funny because throughout the 80s, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is so misunderstood,” for so long. Rock music was so dominant coming out of the 70s and carrying on through the 80s. The rock mentality of synthesizers was along the lines of: This is not music, this isn’t real music, this is autonomous music that writes itself, music for computers or robots. I remember as a child thinking, Wow, people that don’t do this, really don’t understand the power of it. From a very early age I was obsessed with using these things to push the envelope and explore new areas of sound typography.
I was the person that pushed so hard on Berklee College of Music—my alma mater—for years to accept the laptop as personal instrument. I believe that a computer can be one of the most expressive instruments available to use today. I truly believe that. That being said, I think that the pace with which all of us live today has kind of engendered this idea that you can reach some semblance of mastery in 18 months by watching YouTube clips. It’s just not true. You might be able to make something that sounds like every other something, but underneath that, there’s nothing of sustentative value. And also, I start thinking about the identity of the person. You see some 16, 17-year-old kid that’s out getting wasted. His manager is in their 50s and suddenly he has songs on the Beatport chart and is getting thrown on main stages at festivals. You think, Wow, his life is going to end really tragically. It really is. It’s like a child actor.
I really do believe that computers are one of the most powerful musical instruments.
I remember around 1996 that I was writing things for Movement in Still Life. During that time period, I was obsessed with the idea of doing a subtractive-type synthesis with a plugin. Literally obsessed, because it hadn’t been done. I became obsessed with writing a piece of music and only doing synthesis with the computer, not with physical hardware. That piece of music is “Dreaming.” To my knowledge, that is the first piece of completed music that only uses a computer for the entire syntheses and compositional process. Now people will say Milton Babbitt did. I’m not talking about academic electronic music, surely there were people that made the bleep-bloopy type and they’re heroes of mine, too. But this was a song made by using a computer, a CreamWare DSP card and an early days OS9 synth called Vibra 9000 by a company called Koblo.
It’s funny because now I’ve done a total 180. During that time period from the mid 90s to the early 00s, I spent 10 years of my life behind a computer, literally. Whether it was scoring music for films, writing my own albums, producing for people. Like I said, the computer is such an extraordinarily powerful instrument. It’s just that the aesthetic of sitting behind a computer, even the body mechanics of it, just feels wrong after a while.
I started to really miss the feeling of discovery that I had when I was a kid. There’s something about sitting at an analog instrument, or what we call instruments, which are basically these vintage instruments that are covered with knobs and sliders. They literally have personalities. One might have an electrolytic capacitor that’s kind of going bad, so you have to kick it every once and a while, or it overheats slightly. My Arp 2600, for instance, can be grumpy. You can turn it on and it’s like it’s giving you the middle finger, like, Nah, not today. You’re like, Okay, cool. I’ll come back tomorrow and see how you’re doing then. They have character; they’re like people. But that feeling of raw discovery? There’s only so much influence on the process of sitting in front of a computer.
I’ve always had a robust collection of analog instruments, but with I’ve become increasingly obsessed with collecting a bunch of stuff that either I wanted when I was a kid and would and use now or refurbishing things that already I have. During this period, my friend Christian Burns and I began writing some songs. Christian and I write together so effortlessly it’s crazy. We started writing a bunch of songs and we didn’t know if it was for my record or his record or someone else and suddenly we were like, Whoa, we have five songs. Whoa we have 10 songs. Whoa, there’s 13 songs here! We realized, I think we’re making an album.
There’s a friend of mine, Jeff, who has a place that he calls AnalogLand, but at the time never let anyone record there. It’s a brownstone up in rural Baltimore. This guy was a synth tech—he’s about 10 years older than us—at Washington Music Center, which was the store that I rode my bike to a couple times a week when I was a kid. People would bring their old vintage analog instruments and they would say, Okay, the second oscillator on the thing isn’t working and the filter is busted, and he would say, It’s going to be $1200. They would say Just throw it in the trash. Instead of doing that, they would let him keep the instrument, he would fix it and take it home. It was his. So over a period of 15 years or so, Jeff had — when I go in his basement, if you look facing one direction, there’s every synthesizer Nick Rhodes [of Duran Duran] ever had right there in that one little cubby. Then you look to your right and like, that’s every one of Vince Clarke [of Erasure’s] instruments right there.
Because Jeff is a tech, everything is in immaculate working condition; it’s all hooked up. So I begged and pleaded with Jeff, We’re writing this record and it sounds like music that we grew up listening to. He loves all that, the early synth pop, new wave stuff, too. He’s like, No, I don’t let people record here. He’s fixed my stuff for years and years, but he’s understandably paranoid. He’s got more equipment than I’ve seen in some of the best synthesizer museums in the world. I wore him down and Christian and I finally got to go up there.
It’s so crazy working in this room because all of these vintage instruments are so temperamental, you can only turn them on for a period of maybe 20 hours. When you turn them off, none of your sounds are saved. You have to record the thing to tape or it’s gone forever. I found myself with patch cables around my neck, literally sweating over top of a Chroma Polaris or an Elka Synthex making patches because the room was so hot from all of the analog gear being on. You could turn the air conditioner on full blast and it would still be 100 degrees in there. It was one of the most fun processes I’ve ever had in my entire life. We literally made a record the way our heroes did, with not a computer in sight.