Interview: BT Talks Music Tech and The Future of Rhythmic Programming

BT, arguably one of the most phenomenal composers, musicians & performers of our time, joined us to chat about his life in music, the tools he uses, plug-ins & his new album, A Song Across Wires.  

AskAudio: Tell us about your background. I understand you grew up on the East Coast, classical composers were a big influence for you and the sounds of crickets introduced you to micro-rhythms? 

BT: Absolutely. Growing up in a place outside of Washington DC, I was exposed to a lot of interesting, multi-cultural music from a very young age. Two of my best friends since I was 12 were Hamid Ghanadan and Ali Shirazinia (who is better known as Dubfire). So, I was exposed to amazing Iranian music, food and culture. In DC there’s an incredibly rich Ethiopian and South East Asian culture. All this had a pretty profound impact on my musical palette. 

I grew up studying classical music and took piano lessons with a teacher named Faye Bonner. She taught me using the Suzuki method, so I did a lot of learning by watching and listening, not by reading music, which was difficult when I started reading music at about 8 years old. 

I attended conservatory at the Washington Conservatory of Music. I studied with Sotireos Vlahopoulos, who is an amazing classical contemporary composer. He had long, slicked back, gray hair and glasses he always wore down at the end of his nose. He played me the most esoteric music you could possibly play for a child of 8! I was listening to Bartók, John Cage, Stravinsky. Very avant-garde composers! It interested me so much with the possibilities of what you could do with traditional ensembles and also what other sounds and timbral possibilities there were. I remember studying the Wagner piece where he’d taken a brass section and put it in the back of the Cathedral. As a late teenager I was thinking that was really the first use of Surround Sound. This idea of placement of the orchestra really inspired me to want to learn from a historical vantage point what had happened before I fell in love with music and then at the same time to explore the possibilities of what had yet to happen. 

I remember Sotireos saying to me as a child when I was 9 years old: Everything in music that could happen had already happened, and it was now a question of how to combine things that had already happened. That created a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance for me as a child, because he was such a brilliant teacher and man, but I knew there was a seed of non-truth in that. That single statement inspired so much study for me which eventually led to electronics. 


AskAudio: How did electronica find its way into your life at that point?

BT: A friend, Lisa Watson, from High School brought back mix tapes from traveling to England in the 80s. So, I discovered Captain Sensible and Depeche Mode and Cabaret Voltaire and New Order and Human League. For many English people that was mainstream, on Top of the Pops. For someone living in the rural suburbs of America, it was cooler than the coolest thing you could ever imagine! And there were many days for me walking around in combat boots, wearing all black with eyeliner listening to mix tapes on my Walkman, thanks to Lisa.

I fell in love with electronic music from English music and culture, especially new wave, and also from early breakdancing music as well. I realized immediately when I heard my first synth pop and esoteric records, like Tangerine Dream, that if my forefathers were alive today, that electronics would be what they’d be exploring. It’s an infinite sonic palette and so many of them had looked for timbres that fell outside of the orchestra which simply didn’t exist before the technologies that we have now. Even the ones that are alive, from John Cage to Stockhausen and Arvo Pärt, are experimenting with electronics. 

At Berklee College of Music in Boston, I studied jazz, harmony and tonality and advanced performance ear training. In our Performance Ear Training class, we had to transcribe both the root motion and what was happening harmonically in the lead of a Miles Davis song —and that nearly killed me! Berklee was really challenging, but there was nothing about electronics, so I studied it independently and taught other students about it in exchange for other instrument lessons. That was the beginning of it for me.


AskAudio: What hardware did you start using to create electronic music? Were you into modular synths?

BT: That’s a great question. I got into it after the modular stuff. First of all it was cost prohibitive: there was no way an eleven-year-old kid would be able to get their hands on that! Mind you, I had a lawn mowing business to buy all my first synths and drum machines. 

My first synth was a Juno-106. Then I had a JX-3P, a DX7, a D-50, a Yamaha drum machine. I bought one of the very first PCs with a monochrome monitor with 16K of RAM, which I built myself. My second computer was the one I did Ima and a good portion of ESCM on. It was a PS/2 model 70 lunchbox with an orange monochrome monitor and 32K RAM. I remixed Seal and I did Madonna mixes on that computer. I still have it with the Roland MPU-401 SMPTE FSK and MIDI breakout box that binds directly to the motherboard, and the timing on that computer is incredibly tight. So, when I migrated to a Macintosh in the early 90s (because I wanted to do audio editing in the days of Sound Tools and Turbosynth) I was shocked by the timing of the early Macs. That became the impetus for me to no longer use MIDI and start bouncing audio to disk. 

That was some of my first gear. I had a robust collection of drum machines. Later on I got an 808 and a 909, and I had one of the first Devilfish modifications done to it by this reclusive Australian guy, Robert Whittle I think is his name. I believe Josh Wink had the first one, which he famously did “Higher State of Consciousness” with. My first sampler was an AKAI S900 with a couple of thousand disk library as well and we were recording to DAT and MiniDisc.

Brian taking a well earned rest.

Brian taking a well-earned rest.


AskAudio: Do you still have your old gear?

BT: I have most of it. Some of the pieces I don’t have anymore I wish I still had. The thing is with synths and especially the subtractive variety is a plug-in will never sound like those things. It’s funny as people who are coming up now start out on an amazing program like FL Studio and they say ‘look, I’ve got Harmor or some other thing,’ and yes, they’re amazing - I use them too! That being said, you pull up a saw wave on a Pro One and you’ll never hear a sound like that anywhere on Earth. If you look at the waveforms, there’s so much stochastic information in them. It’s not a saw wave, it’s like a saw wave with hair. It’s got teeth on it and the inner cyclical modulation is so subtle, but over a period of time the saw wave is modulating. If you listen to a record by Depeche Mode or Human League, in part those synths are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but also they’d often built a sound from scratch and, sometimes, not being able to save it gave such life to the records.

There’s a couple of things I wish I still had. Some of these were stolen when I was in Los Angeles. One of those is the Hartmann Neuron and my first synth, the Juno-106 was also taken! The only one I’ve sold which I wish I had is the Memorymoog. It’s specifically a watery sound which is great for pads. 


AskAudio: Do you have a favorite synth?

BT: I use a lot of analogue synths all the time. My favorite analogue poly synth ever is the Prophet 5. That’s the sound I always wanted to make as a kid, but I could never afford one of those really expensive poly synths. I use it all the time. It’s all over my new record too. The Pro One I use a lot and I was a big early Sequential Circuits fan. Obviously some of the early drum machines are wonderful too. 


AskAudio: Do you feel software will evolve and improve in the future and add that extra “hair” to the sound?

BT: I have a background in programming, so I can speak to that authoritatively and honestly, I think the answer is absolutely! But I don’t think that’s software’s strengths.

If you look at something like Strobe by FXpansion, that’s modeled at audio rate. The ARP 2600 clone too. That’s why they’re such CPU hogs. So, they’re not at control rate and the modeling is very sophisticated. Will they ever be able to successfully model the hardware subtractive synths? Yes, period. However, it doesn’t matter. The reason why it doesn’t matter is it’s the limitations of those synths and a human being having to put their hands on the knobs that makes them as special as they were/are. It’s not just what they sound like that makes them so special. It’s experimenting, twiddling knobs and patching cables on modular synths that’s yielded such rich sounds.

People are still using these things. Some of the most exciting things happening are all on Eurorack modulars. My friend, Richard Devine is making these insane IDM records using Euroracks. What’s so amazing about that is you have all the analogue subtractive synthesis modules and routing and patching modules, but also the circuit bending guys have got into it now. It’s like using Max MSP but with patch cables.


AskAudio: What are you thoughts on the new Logic Pro X?

BT: It’s funny as I was having a big conversation with tyDi the other day about Logic Pro X. He was talking about how awesome it is with an Arpeggiator, MIDI FX and an accompaniment drum track. I get it’s awesome for him, but it’s just not made for me. I need to be able to do heavy level destructive audio processing and digital signal waveform processing in real time with 50-75 levels of destructive processing in two minutes while I’m writing. It’s part of my compositional process. I don’t need an Arpeggiator that stops at 32nd notes or an auto accompanying drummer. The thing I like in Logic Pro X is the Scripter plug-in which means you can create your own MIDI FX plug-ins. 

Quick destructive audio editing is what I need. Logic’s Bounce in Place doesn’t really suit my workflow. I often need to take a little section of audio and make it 8-bit, then the next little 8th note I’ll apply a flange or something, then the next note I'll apply something else in seconds. If you’re doing high-level DSP stuff destructively it doesn’t suit. And also, it’s not my way is the only way, it’s just the workflow I enjoy. Some people like working very open-ended with plug-ins so they can adjust them later. I like making commitments and then if something’s not working I throw it out completely and do something new. That’s just my personal workflow.

But, honestly, it wouldn’t be fair to not say it out loud, and it’s not bashing Apple either. But that program is not made for me or someone like me that is doing a compositional process that I’m doing. It’s made for someone that is moving from GarageBand to make their first record, and that’s fine. We need programs like that, it’s just not for me. I think Pros will continue using Logic X because they’ve been using it prior to this, but it’s a little bit frustrating for me. 


AskAudio: I know you’ve been using FL Studio a lot recently. Have you transitioned over to it as your main DAW?

BT: I’m using everything really. The thing about FL Studio is the workflow in it is so open ended. I love that people think of it like a toy. There are a bunch of professional producers that look at it as some kid’s toy, my first DAW. But, when you say to them, ‘Hey, have you ever seen this additive synth, Harmor?’ And they say, ‘Oh, I can do that in Massive.’ ‘Oh really?’ So I’ll show them drawing your own filters and spectral waiting of a phaser, mono gliding inside a monophonic chord, note data that’s not a note... It actually makes people that work in Logic and Ableton angry because you can do so much stuff in FL Studio that you can’t do in those two programs. It’s actually crazy!  For example, in FL Studio you can take a kick drum or LFO and modulate the master clock. I mean, why you would want to, I don’t know. It’s so open ended that it’s like working with a modular synthesizer but in DAW form. 

Honestly, in my humble opinion, FL Studio is the most open-ended, incredible DAW that has ever been made. I don’t know how you can top that. Those guys pay me nothing. In fact, I’m constantly giving them feature suggestions to tame it if you will. FL Studio is mind boggling awesome. I love what Image Line are doing and really believe in it!

I have a foot in each camp. I use Logic 9 on my Mac, but my main axe is that they never added fully destructive audio editing. I actually use Logic 6.4.3 on OS 9 because I can do all the destructive editing I want to. I use FL Studio 11 in Parallels on a dual i7 in the studio and Ableton Live for certain tasks and when performing live. 

The Harmor synth in FL Studio 11 that's making waves in the music making world.

The Harmor synth in FL Studio 11 that's making waves in the music making world.


AskAudio: With Image Line, it stuns me that they’re able to do what they do and offer lifetime updates for free!

BT: Yes, that’s another thing: they’re doing an incredible public service. They’ve exposed more people to music making than probably any other company or single individual on the entire planet, which is no small accomplishment. So, I really believe in what they’re doing. For people that will read this and say, ‘oh yeah they paid BT a pile of money...’ Well, they haven’t even given me a free copy of FL Studio. I paid for it!


AskAudio: So, your own plug-in, Stutter Edit, became a collaboration with iZotope. Can you tell us more about how this came about?

BT: I started a company called Sonik Architects - a bunch of 5 guys writing software in C++ and objective C and designing UIs and using OpenGL and the rest of it. We built three finished things. One of which, Stutter Edit has come out. The next of which, we reverse engineered from scratch to make it multi-platform and perform better. This will be coming out later this year and will be mind-boggling. I can’t even tell you!!

Basically, I sold my company and codebase to iZotope and remained on as the creative director for the software that we’ve committed to making together. It’s a really exciting thing. iZotope CEO, Mark Ethier, and I have been friends for 12 years and we started talking and he suggested buying the company so I could continue developing, and they’d build out the infrastructure in iZotope. I really wanted to have the reins creatively, and they guaranteed me that and they’ve really let me lead the development of the products - which is great. Stutter Edit, including the UI, was almost finished when we brought it to iZotope. They’ve been very instrumental in debugging, making it cross-platform compatible, and helping to generate the content. So, this has been hugely exciting for me to get messages from everyone, like Justin Bieber to the Black Eyed Peas to Avicii. It’s exciting to hear people creating their own patches and using it in totally different ways to how I designed it to be used. 

I’m really, really excited about the next thing we’ve got coming out...


AskAudio: Can you reveal anything at all about it?

BT: I can tell you this, which might sound like marketing BS or hype... But this thing is literally going to change rhythm programming. I’m not kidding at all. It’s going to blow the walls off what people think of as rhythm programming: where the line blurs between rhythm and melody, what you can do programming rhythms... Things that are nano and molecular rhythmic... Things that just function in surround and that blur the distinction between melody and rhythm. I believe this will re-write what people think of as what’s possible with rhythm programming. I’m serious when I say this, there’s no one this doesn’t appeal to. If you’re doing EDM, country, music for film: everyone is going to use this thing. It’s going to fan out and again people will use it in ways I’ve not imagined. It started out as a million eight hundred thousand lines of code when we brought it to iZotope. Now it’s a couple of million lines of code and we’re only in cycle 8 of a 12-14 cycle development period. I cannot wait for this thing to go out into the world, I really can’t! 


AskAudio: This isn’t fair Brian! I’m officially excited, too! 

BT: Honestly, I feel guilty using the prototype. It’s like having a time machine! I love the ability in blurring the lines between sound design and rhythmic programming... And it goes into all these great areas that haven’t been explored yet. And it’s not subtle, as in “Oh, am I hearing something new?” It’s more like “WTF! What is entering my ears right now?” It reminds me of when I heard Skrillex bass lines for the first time and thinking how is this being done. It’s not too long away. We’re hoping for early 2014. 


AskAudio: I’m very interested to know more about your creative process. I first came across your music when I listened to This Binary Universe. For me, it opened me up to glitch and made it very listenable.

BT: Thanks for saying that. That record was a proud moment for me. It opened up so much for me in terms of things that I’d wanted to experiment with, like asymmetrical metering and more extended jazz in my melodies Then also working with micro-rhythmic data and aggregating ideas into something that wasn’t overly academic, but was listenable and emotional. A lot of the stuff I like is very rich in terms of sound design and you feel like someone is shooting shards of metal at you - that’s what it sounds like! It’s so stimulating on an aural level, but in terms of emotion there’s nothing to substantiate that. So, really the impetus for wanting to make This Binary Universe was to make something that was fairly academic but felt emotional. 

BT's 9th studio album, A Song Across Wires (2013), is out now on iTunes, Amazon & Beatport.

BT's 9th studio album, A Song Across Wires (2013), is out now on iTunes, Amazon & Beatport.


AskAudio: I’m curious to know more about your new album A Song Across Wires. I understand you are fascinated by the interconnection between mathematics and the feeling side of music... How did you approach creating the new album?

BT: Every record has a birthing process, and each one is a thing unto itself — they’re all so unique. Over the last three years, a creatively informative event for me has been the inspiration derived from Bass music and all its subsidiary idioms. I think that’s the most disruptive thing that’s happened in music literally since Nirvana. I really mean that. Bass music has been that disruptive an event and people are paying attention to detail in EDM where they weren’t as much before. It’s the first time since Ima that I’ve wanted to make dance music and this album has got all my detail and hand-played instruments.

I realized something crazy from something a friend said to me. They told me they were listening to the song I wrote called “City Life”, which I wrote in Korean with Bada, an amazing Korean pop singer. I’m going to give it away a little bit here, but there’s tibetan bowls, my daughter’s harp, a glockenspiel, a dulcimer I played with small bows - so all these hand-played instruments. Then it’s got a big modern electro drop in it and a producer friend of mine innocently asked me what sample library I got the tibetan bowl sounds from - which I sat down with for hours on the floor to get the right phasing on my mics and the right mic pre’s and recording, mixing and engineering and destructive editing and time-correcting... You know, it was two or three days of my life just on this bell part. 




When he asked me that, I had a holy shit moment where I thought “Wow. A lot of young producers listen to my music and think that I just have some crazy sample libraries, and they don’t know which libraries my sounds are from!” But it’s like I actually play a lot of crazy instruments and spend thousands of hours making this stuff! My mind was blown thinking a lot of people are doing stuff with samples, and amazing stuff too. For me music that is meaningful often starts with human hands on an acoustic instrument. So, this album really is my production aesthetic, molecular nano glitchy stuff and hand-played instruments applied to the current state of dance music. It’s a lot of trance, progressive house, there’s some techno, a little bit of bass music... And is really inspired by modern EDM. And I’ve never wanted to do that since Ima, so I’m really excited because so many of my fans have wanted me to do that, and I’ve never had that altruistic drive to do it. So, my fan expectations that are going to dovetail with this record, and they don’t usually because I’m often so lost in experimentation that I’m exciting some people and disappointing others. 


AskAudio: So you don’t just see creation as sculpting sounds and programming, but the energy of the performance too? 

BT: Absolutely. This could get really tree-huggish really quickly... And I’ve had this affirmed for me by artists who’ve made records I loved when growing up, there’s this tremendous camaraderie and just people vibing in a studio together when these records were made. You can feel it and it’s almost as if that’s recorded in the music. 

That’s why I think the idea of creating everything inside a box is where something is being lost because there’s something about a bunch of people playing and recording instruments it’s like that person, what they were feeling, their humanity at that very moment in their life is imprinted on that recording. While the end user may not be able to perceive that sonically, they feel it.


AskAudio: Interesting! I’m not sure enough people listen to albums these days to necessarily pick up on this transference of energy.

BT: I grew up loving music that made me feel something... not in the current singles culture. I’d ride my bike up to the record store, put a deposit on a record, wait for a month for it. Then I’d sit with Hamid and Ali in my bedroom in my house while the sun was setting and we’d listen to the album 12 times, read the liner notes cover to cover and memorize them. We knew the assistant engineers names! We’d read all the lyrics and everything we could and focus on words we didn’t know and listen to the instruments. We were so interested in all of that stuff. Those records meant so much to me.

Now, you buy something on iTunes, listen to it on your phone once using earbuds and then you’re checking out the recommended songs other people bought and then you’re onto that. So, the experience of listening to music for many people now is not even lost, it’s unknown. I feel like a bit of my core mission statement is exposing people to the idea of listening to an hour and a half of music at once. And that an album’s tracks are supposed to mean something together and that many of the things were played by human hands with feeling. 

While a lot of things are lost now, I love so much of what has been happening. I’m not regressive, but there are things that are lost that mean something to me. Maybe I’m single-handedly trying to keep some of them alive. 


AskAudio: I agree. I used to pour over liner notes, but I find myself buying albums on iTunes instead!

BT: Me too. I get so excited when I get to go into Amoeba in LA and just peruse around and smell the records! Record buying is like a whole sensory experience.

"Music is an incredible vehicle for reaching people. Electronic music is a transformative experience for many people, so make your music and yourself about something." - BT


AskAudio: What tips would you share with up and coming musicians and producers? 

BT: You know I’m going to give a strange tip that I’ve never given before... Try to get the attention of someone who does music that you love and try to get to know them in any capacity that you can. The reason I say that is that people who are coming up now need much less guidance in so far as making music. You know you can have FL Studio and watch a couple hundred hours of tutorial videos and be a “pro” at it making amazing music without needing to know anything about music theory, lyric writing or mic placement. But, you can make awesome sounding music for sure. 

So, I’d say study the way people are studying now, and try to study things outside of it too. If possible try to find someone whose music you love and try and get to know them in any capacity. There’s a kind of age line in this industry. You have your 30+ producers and your 22 and under producers. There’s a lot of guys that have been doing it for a while that I think are doing it for the right reasons and really want to try help sculpt people that are coming up and help make what they’re doing about something.

You know, a lot of people now are very successful. And without naming names... It’s just all bottle service bullshit, girls and drugs. Kids are looking to that and thinking, ‘Oh, I want that.’ But what they might not realize is there’s the child actor model like the kid from Different Strokes, Gary Coleman... That story ends really poorly, not in a happy place. So, if the end goal is partying and chicks and playing festivals, then you might have a lot of fun for five years, but you’ve added nothing to music as a whole and at the end of it you’re lost. And you’ll be forgotten too because you have to burn a lot of bridges to get there. 

So, I think young people can do nothing better than trying to catch the ear and eye of someone established that’s been doing music for a long time and to try and get mentorship, even through social media or email, to help guide them in some way.

My final tip to young musicians and producers is to be about something. Making music is not good enough. Making great music, being a great performer is not enough. Have an actual mission statement where you’re trying to do something of substance that’ll add something to both music and humanity at large. Music is an incredible vehicle for reaching people. Electronic music is a transformative experience for many people, so make your music and yourself about something. 


AskAudio: Thanks Brian! I’m so thankful for your time and experience in this interview. Been great chatting.

BT: I really enjoyed this a lot man. Seriously, thank you for the awesome interview!


Web: http://www.btmusic.com

Discover A Song Across Wires here.

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More

Discussion

Muziksculp
Very interesting !

BT is a very talented, and very creative musician.

Too bad MPVideo does not have comprehensive FL11 video tutorials yet. I hope that's something you are working on.

Thanks,
Muziksculp
Magic Fingers
great interview!
Paul Bissell
Thanks for the interview Rounik! I use some of Emotional Technology as examples in one of my classes.

Not to be a fact-geek, but Giovanni Gabrielli's Sonata Pian e Forte is commonly referenced as the first "officially documented" antiphonal work being composed for the cross-shaped interior of the St Mark's cathedral. Two sets of players were at opposite ends of the galleries with the congregation in the middle. This would have been about 300 years before Wagner. Other works before 1580 or so suggest that they 'could' have been performed "in surround" but the Gabrielli has the evidence in writing :)
Rounik
Hi Muziksculp! Thanks & stay tuned for FL Studio video tutorials coming to macProVideo and AskVideo soon... ;-)
Muziksculp
Hi Rounik,

That would be great.

I look forward to watch the MPV FL Studio 11 Tutorials.

Thanks,
Muziksculp

Rounik
Hey Paul. Thanks!

That's really interesting to learn about Giovanni Gabrielli's Sonata Pian e Forte. So, in fact surround sound happened earlier that we thought.

I'd even hazard a guess that surround sound live events took place long before but were undocumented ;-)
CharlesEdward
BT is the man, and I bet he spooked a lot of you at the end there(Lol), but he is absolutely right. Humility,dedication, and drive will take you further than raw talent.
Mordichi
This is a great interview, I like BT and his work. But I don't understand when he said "Quick destructive audio editing is what I need. Logic’s Bounce in Place doesn’t really suit my workflow." What is destructive audio versus non destructive audio in Logic?
Rounik
Hi Adriane,

Thanks. So, BT's workflow involves making a change to a plugin or audio edit and then rendering/bouncing to a new audio file. He does maybe 50-70 of these to one segment of audio in a matter of minutes!!

If he was to do this in Logic Pro using 'Bounce in place' it would take a much longer time.

Basically, destructive audio editing writes the edits to the original file. Once done you've permanently changed the original audio file.

Non-destructive editing allow you to change elements/parameters without ever affecting the original audio file. In Logic (or any DAW) changing the controls on a plugin would be an example of non-destructive editing. In Logic, when you edit audio in the main window you're performing a non-destructive edit. (e.g. cutting the audio region/resizing, etc).

In the Audio Editor you can perform destructive edits, but in LPX you can't quickly apply the plugin settings destructively to the audio file.

Now, this isn't a big thing for most producers, but for someone like BT who has a unique workflow he prefers to use programs that can apply destructive edits/changes to the original audio very quickly.

Hope that helps!
R
Mordichi
Hey Rounik, yes, that helps. Thank you for your reply!

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