Emotional Technology: As BT Tours Behind Album No. 9, We Find That He’s Still Embracing the Future
Las Vegas – Brian Transeau stands before 2,000 fans at DEF CON 21 in the Rio Hotel and Casino this past summer. He wears a T-shirt, gives the crowd a wave and says how good it feels to be at the world’s largest and longest-running convention for computer hackers. The cacophony, from programmers and tinkerers alike, is deafening. Why? Not only does Transeau help provide their soundtrack, but he’s also one of them. “I’m a nerd,” he confesses and the conference hall cheers again, even though few of them probably know just how truthful Transeau’s words actually are.
In fact, he spent his nights with a soldering pen in hand while attending the Berklee College of Music at the age of 15. On that period, he remarks, “I was a bit of an outcast.” But, of course, things did begin to work out for him—artistically and professionally.
By the mid-1990s, he began to make soaring, melodic club music that resonated with global dancefloors and the culture’s biggest DJs—tastemakers like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha. Now known as BT, he released singles like “Nocturnal Transmission,” “Blue Skies” (with Tori Amos) and “Flaming June” and full-lengths like Ima and ESCM that put his name front and center as a major producer. It’s a spot he’s retained for the past two decades.
Over those years, he’s has also composed film soundtracks (“The Fast and Furious” and the Oscar-winning “Monster”), scored video games and collaborated with artists like Peter Gabriel and Sting. In 2009, he founded the software company, Sonik Architects. A Sonik iZotope partnership resulted in making available exciting technology like the Stutter Edit, BreakTweaker and Sonifi.
These days, BT continues to defy the role of conventional DJ/producer. Technology-wise, his live approach remains cutting-edge and his studio talents have always bordered on nonpareil. But he still retains the ability to rock a party. In fact, just a week prior to DEF CON—at Create, an unmarked Hollywood nightclub—BT was joined by a live backdrop of J. Howard Miller-inspired “Rosie The Riveter” girls. Only these gals weren’t flexing their muscles in iconic “We-Can-Do-It!” fashion. No, they were doing the robot, while BT dropped a hypnotic, three-hour set.
Since appearing at August’s DEF CON event, BT has been touring almost non-stop in support of his ninth studio album, A Song Across Wires (Armada). The collaboration-heavy full-length includes four Beatport No. 1 trance singles: “Tomahawk” with Adam K; “Must Be the Love” with Arty and Nadia Ali; “Skylarking”; and “Surrounded” with Au5 and Aqualung.
So, as BT continues to play a different venue nearly every weekend, we present our tech talk with one of dance-music’s greatest talents.
DJ Times: What inspired such a dance album?
BT: I was just generally inspired by dance music over the last three to four years. Dance music has never really inspired me. There hasn’t been stuff—even though I’ve participated in this culture for so long, my music certainly—and it’s not a slight to my peers, but it has never been informed by my peer group. My inspiration has come from film music and composition, developing new technologies and technological modalities in my own compositional work. From indie rock to circuit-bending, my inspiration has never come from four-on-the-floor kick-drum music—it just hasn’t.
DJ Times: What changed?
BT: Over the past three or four years, bass music has been such an incredibly intelligent, disruptive innovation within music, and I feel more kinship to a lot of young producers that are coming up now than I ever have, compared to what would be considered my generational peer group. Some of the people coming up now are using new methods and techniques so irreverently, in such new powerful new ways I find very inspiring.
DJ Times: You’ve worked with analog instrumentation in the past, how much of A Song Across Wires is live?
BT: Whether I’m working with a synthesizer or a glockenspiel, I’m playing the instruments. I’m not one who step-enters things into a computer—unless I’m using step sequencers and modules. A large portion is acoustic instruments. Something like “City Life” I played my daughter’s harp, a recorder I got when I was in Peru. There are all kinds of interesting instruments. And a lot of the synthesizers used on the album are analog. There are definitely things that happen in the box as well. Same as always with me, it’s a mixture of the most evocative and interesting things I can put my hands on.
DJ Times: Any chance there’ll be a vinyl pressing of A Song Across Wires?
BT: Yeah, I hope so—we should. I would definitely like to do that. Vinyl sounds wonderful and open, in a way that digital recordings just don’t. And that’s not the audiophile in me talking. Anyone can tell the difference between them. I love that more people are starting discover that.
DJ Times: What are you using for live tech these days?
BT: For live, I’m using Ableton, a bunch of proprietary builds of software I’m working on, Stutter Edit, and then some horrible UI beta and alpha builds. I’m also using two Korg Nanos, Livid, and a EuroRack.
DJ Times: I hear you are working with Leap Motion?
BT: I’ve had the Leap Motion [a computer hardware sensor device that, like a mouse, supports hand and finger motions, but requires no hand contact] for a couple weeks, and we’ve got something really close to being built. That’s just insane, honestly, it’s crazy.
DJ Times: Tell me about Leap.
BT: The thing that excites me about Leap Motion as a gestural control for music is the degree of accuracy and tolerance. And that’s the thing that’s exciting. I’ve used Wiimotes [controllers for Nintendo’s Wii console], written script for them, and I’ve used junXion [Mac OS X data routing app] and Kinect [Microsoft motion-sensing input device for Xbox 360 and PC apps]. I mean, I’ve tried everything—I’ve even used the Nintendo Power Glove [an oft-criticized game-controller accessory from 1989]. I’ve used every permutation possible you could think of—of different types of gestural controllers. I’ve even tried tracking a colored ring with a web cam—so many things. A mouse pad is X-Y input axis. With all of these things, the tolerance is horrific. Is the object here or there? And the speed, the latency is horrific. And with Leap Motion, they’ve really built something brilliant. It’s XYZ access, tracking yaw, fingers closed, fingers opened…
DJ Times: It’s all about control, then.
BT: I need a lot of controls—not one, not two. I don’t want to have to use macro controls to kind of hack together a thing to approximate what I’m trying to do. I want to have access to, realistically, eight or nine real-time perimeters that are very fluid and irritative. Also, in this kind of performance environment, you have to deal with lighting conditions. In the very early days of Stutter Edit, I used D-Beam [Roland’s interface that controls sounds and effects via hand movements interacting with an infrared light beam]. D-Beams are amazing, but they track blue light.
DJ Times: So a strobe light could mess up everything?
BT: Yes, suddenly the whole track is going crazy. But, what’s great about these [Leap Motion controllers] is that is they’re infrared, not visible-spectrum-light-sensitive. That was the first thing I noticed about it. When we got it, my daughter and I were sitting at the kitchen table and I was like, “Shine the flashlight at it while I’m trying the controls.” It handles stuff like an absolute boss.
DJ Times: And you are a part of the programing team as well?
BT: Yeah, I’m in the developer program with iZotope. I’m actually building something outside my partnership with iZotope as well. There is a lot I want to do for this thing.
DJ Times: How long before others will be able to get their hands on this technology?
BT: These things take a while to bake and to make right. And the thing is, you can have a great idea, and as you start to build it, it changes, the way you want to interact with it. I’m like, this is amazing—what if? So I have to rope myself in on some of that stuff. But functionally, this idea is something I’ve wanted for years and years. This is the first time I’ve seen a device that can handle that sort of input. It’s a dream device for people. It truly is, especially for the academic world. It’s revolutionary.
DJ Times: What can we expect to hear when people have this program?
BT: With people using laptops as a kind of medium for disseminating this sort of media live, it’s changed what you can do. DJing is an art form. It’s amazing when you see people that are intuitive, or great with working in the medium, they may not be a musician, but they have this understanding of mixing harmonically, seamlessly mixing two records. It’s amazing to watch. That being said, there is so much more you can do now, than play two songs. We’re on the cusp of things I never thought I would see. To use Melodyne, the polyphonic mode—it’s been around for a while—but when someone figured out how to do a real-time transform analysis of something and split it into its constituent parts… I mean, to guess what the voices are in a stereo master, my first thought was, “Holy shit!”
DJ Times: That’s a lot of data.
BT: Absolutely. And people are going to be debundling stems from stereo masters. We’re right near that. The things that you can do live, now, with a laptop… It’s funny, I’ve been using a laptop for live performance for over 10 years. I used an alpha copy of Ableton Live. I was one of the first to use it live. It’s crazy, because it’s called Live, but [Ableton], I think, initially, intended it to be a live-in-the-studio tool, where you’re aggregating all these loops and playing around, or whatever, a different way of dealing with audio information.
DJ Times: Not live live…
BT: Yes, exactly. And so when my friends first starting seeing me do that—vinyl DJs, amazing vinyl DJs—they were like, “This isn’t DJing! You’re not beat-mixing anything. It doesn’t make sense. What the fuck is this?” It’s funny, a lot of those guys now are very sophisticated and using all this stuff and call me for technical support. A lot of them just could not wrap their heads around it. But the generation coming up now, they just can’t even figure out why anyone would ever think other than using that.
DJ Times: Like a world without Google?
DJ Times: So you’re still very much interested in pushing the boundaries of what can be done live.
BT: Most definitely. And interestingly, Leap Motion is a means for controlling these things. It’s an addendum, the potatoes to the meat—ha-ha, food analogies, like peanut butter and jelly. It’s really two things that are good on their own, but together are awesome. When I first saw it, it’s like “Minority Report.” And you could do that, but it’s not practical. Your arms are up in the air the whole time. But it could be used in a lab, that kind of thing. I can’t imagine replacing a mouse. How I imagine it, it’s like you can reach into the computer now.
DJ Times: For example, you’re looking at a WAV file, but you can use your hands to get in there and just pick out whatever you want, any snippet of information…
BT: Yeah, ha-ha, yeah, exactly!
DJ Times: So what about DJs like Daft Punk, they’ve blurred the lines between live musician and DJ. After all the pre-release hype, what do you think of their album?
BT: I think it’s brilliant and brave—it’s fantastic. And more than anything, I love to hear musicianship in dance music. Although it might sound oxymoronic, it’s really not. I fell in love with dance music and its culture not only from things like Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix, but also Lakeside and George Clinton—very musical music. So it’s so awesome to hear people playing instruments, living harmoniously with electronic. Daft Punk are fantastic.
DJ Times: Since you are also a live performer, do you like touring with the live band more than DJ?
BT: The last live tour—a bus tour—we did was for This Binary Universe [in 2006]. We did the entire shows in 5.1 Surround. I had a very early alpha build of Stutter Edit and it also functioned in Surround. I played piano and bass and, over the course of the evening, seven instruments. I was doing things with a Vocoder and singing. We did a cover of “Mad World” by Tears for Fears.
DJ Times: Nice. I have that one on vinyl.
BT: Ha-ha. Me, too, man. We’d be on the bus, all of us with laptops out writing software to use for the next show.
DJ Times: Why not do live all the time? What draws you to DJing?
BT: Honest answer—it’s cost-prohibited. I’ve studied classical music all my life and the only time I can really utilize my classical skills—to an extent, I use harmony and theory, etc., when I’m writing—but the only time I really utilize it is when I’m conducting and writing for an orchestra. And the reason why is because that’s $250,000-an-hour or something, but I can’t pay for that. It’s very expensive because there are so many people, flying a lot of people, a ton of equipment. But it’s also a different thing. I enjoy both.
DJ Times: So you’ll do more in the future?
BT: Sure, we are going to do live shows. I’m very passionate about it. But the thing now, with computers, you still have that feeling that in any moment, that things can become brilliant or completely fall apart. It’s the same with a live band, teetering on brilliance and chaos. You can do that on a computer as a single person. It’s a refreshing challenge, being there alone. I love both.
DJ Times: With that in mind, is it at all frustrating being a DJ, when people think all you have is a computer vs. when they see you playing with a live band?
BT: I’m gonna answer that from the vantage point of my mother who is psychiatrist: If I was wrapped up in perception of me, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. These guys who are playing tonight, Au5 and Fractal, I’ve been mentoring for a couple years now. One of the things we talk about is living a fulfilling life as an artist. What is the end goal? What are you trying to contribute?
DJ Times: But have seen frustration in that world?
BT: Oh God, yes, for sure. It depends on if you’re paying attention to that or not.
DJ Times: So that kind of talk is unimportant to you?
BT: It really, truthfully is not. I’m just trying to do something that’s substantive. I remember hearing people say, not necessarily about me, but things [about DJs] like, “Are they checking e-mail?” If your identity is wrapped up in people’s perception of you, there’s no forward motion in that. Some close friends of mine ask me how I keep doing new things, and I tell them it’s because I’m not scared to fail. I’m just trying to do something meaningful.
DJ Times: So is pushing the boundaries of tech your driving force?
BT: It’s the other side of my brain goal, the academic. But the real humanist goal I have is to reach people emotionally. Music is powerful, the universal language. You can speak to people that don’t speak your native tongue. You can reach through cultural differences because you can reach them through music. If you reach people for just five minutes, and they leave feeling even a little bit better than they did when they come in, then you’ve done something of value. It’s a chain of events—the Lorenz Theory. That’s why I started doing this and why I do it today.
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