BT (real name Brian Transeau) is set to release the 14-song full-length feature, The Lost Art Of Longing, on August 14, 2020, courtesy of Black Hole Recordings.
Brian was kind enough to describe in detail each song on the new record – from the inspiration behind each track to the production methods used to create it – and some personal stories along the way.
This isn’t a quick read, so sit back, relax, and enjoy what Brian has written as we explore this soon-to- be acclaimed recording:
Why the name? What does it mean? What inspired it?
Simply put, I realized there are many things that have a deep personal significance and meaning (and many other people for that matter) that are slowly (and/or rapidly) becoming archaic, antiquated, even extinct.
The handwritten love letter, a rotary telephone, a book, early computers, vintage synthesizers, telephone wires, typewriters…all in sheds or garages, landfills and other places…slowly decaying and being forgotten. There are love stories in there, stories of war and triumph, and courage and tragedy. People’s stories. I think these things should be remembered. Not only the stories themselves, but also the way they were created.
One of the things nearing extinction; is the art of longing. As in, wanting of something you cannot immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world collectively finds itself in, it is my great hope – Longing, imagination and relational connection are swapped out for speed, instant gratification and over-stimulation. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future – is becoming obsolete. Longing has been replaced with instant gratification.
But longing isn’t replaceable in equal measure. As human beings we are hardwired to yearn. In fact, that yearning is responsible for some of the greatest inventions and works mankind has to offer. We not only need longing to create, we need it to be fully alive. My hope is that this record reacquaints my audience with the lost art of longing. That they will take pause, get quiet, daydream and connect to their own place of longing. Because that, I believe, is where the magic is.
This song started life as one big, hour-long Eurorack jam. Kind of Manuel Gottsching meets Tangerine Dream. My modular system (both vintage and modern) has a palpable soul to it and sometimes it’s in the exact right mood (I suppose I am too) to coax something beautiful out of it. On this day, I happened to be playing around with some step sequences using two vintage Oberheim 2 voices, a System-100a and an Arp 2600 that used to belong to Pink Floyd. All the ostinatos began there.
As a side note, when I finished this piece, the paint was literally drying in my beautiful new studio (a 4-year project). One of the most exciting things about this new room is it’s the first time I have had access to all the synths I’ve been collecting since I was a 14-year-old kid in Rockville, Maryland mowing lawns to buy those first synths. They’ve never all been in one room and available to me at one time. It’s like a menagerie of extinct and rare animals all set up and working like (some better than) the day they were made. It’s a man cave to top all man caves, filled with instruments I’ve poured love, attention, perspiration, solder, plenty of re-caping, power supplies and MIDI mods into. I know the insides of all this gear (from benching, modifying and fixing it myself) as well as I do the outside. Of the hundreds of instruments in there, none is for show, or because I think I “may need it someday”. It’s filled with instruments I love, that I’ve repaired, maintained and found part of my creative voice in. There is a magical thing happening in this space between me and these instruments, and from that space this first song was born.
The next step was layering in the root motion and chord progression. As this piece started to congeal, what I imagined was the wet city streets in LA circa 1983. I wanted to capture that kind of sound. Music is an incredibly visual experience for me. In fact, I’m pretty positive I’m synesthetic. So often a melody, rhythm or a chord progression will conjure an image that I am then scrambling to capture in composition.
For this piece, it was that early 80’s Bruckheimer: slick blue and orange futurism. I turned to one of my favorite synthesizers of all time….the Oberheim OBXa. Mine sadly needs some re-capping work now but for this piece it was a turning point. I wrote that IV-I chord progression and begin to layer in the Fairlight CMI III (yes, a real one – in fact the one used on the film Tron with a monitor from Stewart Copeland from The Police) and the DX7 (TX816 in this case) stacked YMO’ish bells. It all came together in a flash and I mixed it live using some dub style mixing techniques with a vintage Echoplex and spring reverbs. I was able to capture exactly what was in my head (which is as rare as it is thrilling).
This track has a wild history. I wrote this piece of music years ago now. Live acoustic guitars, piano and very detailed glitch/data bent programing. When my new studio was finished, I began looking through some old tracks and this came up and I was like “Wow, this one needs to be finished”. I worked with Brenna remote (what an amazing singer and songwriter she is) on the lyrics. It’s a song about hope and longing (a recurrent theme in much of my work). We had a wonderful time writing together – she is such a talent.
As the vocal gradually coalesced, I began work on the track and used all the original live elements from the demo. If memory serves, the main guitar is my Gibson 335 through an AC-30. The piano was recorded live at Omega studios in Rockville, MD. I also used these really cool instruments called Boomwhackers and an acoustic metalaphone. The instrument palette reminds me some of the song I wrote for Morgan Page called “In the Air”.
Anyway, to give life and shape to this piece of music I began feathering in the original instrumentation with all the new abilities of this crazy new dream studio. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I landed on a kind of Adam K/Deadmau5 type side-chained 8th note, big poly pluck type thing using the Jupiter 8 through an EAR compressor into the Lynx Aurora-n’s layered with Serum. This became the spine of the song.
Using the vocal as inspiration, I began recording all kinds of noises related to fire. You can hear if you listen closely all throughout the piece (as transitions and even part of the micro-rhythmic figures in the breakdown) the sounds of our home fireplace, fireworks, sparklers, a hot air balloon flame and other field recordings I made. Textural sounds like these absolutely make a piece of music for me. The sound design lives coterminous with and apart of the lyrical meaning. Fire is both destructive and a conduit for growth. It dramatically increases nitrogen in soil. It’s like Shiva – the Indian God of destruction and creation. I love this as a metaphor and wanted it to be represented in everything from the vocal down to the sound design. This one was a lot of work in the end, but I think super worth it.
Walk into the Water
It’s hard to pick favorites on this album as I am so proud of the entire thing, but this is way up there for me. There is so much special stuff happening in this song it’s hard to pick it all apart.
So, this began in my Cubase autoload as a score cue. The layered felt pianos, small ensemble string crescendos etc. began more like a massive score cue than a piece of dance music. However, it was at the exact right tempo to wrap it into a massive piece of electronic music, so I set about the task. I sent this, in this form, to new singer Kristi Krings and a young producer whose work I love – Matt Fax. Matt did some fantastic bass and drum programing and Kristi wrote this absolutely jaw dropping vocal.
Let’s start with the vocal. Kristi’s vocal was recorded through Dolby-A processing and it gives it unbelievable almost like HDR presence and sheen. I’d used this technique before only one other time (and actually learned about it) from Steve Perry from Journey. It’s basically repurposing something that is intended to de-noise a signal to make this incredibly airy top end. It’s a remarkable sound. You run it in parallel with the dry signal. Aric Johnson, Kristi’s husband, recorded and processed every track of this vocal (backgrounds as well). It sounded absolutely incredible.
There was, however, an issue in that it was way too bright and created lots of amplified (not in a good way) breath and glottal noises. I spend about 3 days in iZotope RX working with every track of this vocal at a spectral/FFT level to remove lip and mouth noise and breaths. It was a massive project but super worth it in the end. I also created some new techniques and tricks working on this vocal that I can never not (to use a double negative) do. In fact, when Howard Jones heard this song the first thing he said was “What the hell have you done to that vocal and can you do it to me?” – which I did on the songs I produced on his current album. You can really hear this effect on the track, “The One to Love You”.
I hear from fans all the time, “Please make some epic 10-minute long voyages with the soundscape of IMA and ESCM”. Those early ideas served as inspiration on this and many of the tracks on this album. It began by carving up a behemoth of an arrangement and session out of no less than a hundred other sessions.
There are some really unexpected twists in here that (even for me) super keep my attention during this long form compositional style. Insofar as instrumentation – There is the massive Cubase autoload score cue session and stems, a Logic session with about 200 tracks of mellotron all stacked, panned, compressed and EQ’d in weird and wonderful ways and I also took stems of this and printed it to a physical 4 track cassette tape and back. The dance music “drive” sections are a mix of Matt Fax drum and bass programing and my own. Lots of software and hardware synths in here and a lot of outboard compression on this one.
Some important synthesizers utilized are the soft-synths Diva and Serum for bass and stabby bass plucks, both through Summit Audio and EAR compression. There is the Jupiter 8 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and also Roland SH-09. Something playing a super important role in the dance music sections is my beloved Kurzweil K2500 sampler. Back in the day this was my go-to box for (not sampling but believe it or not) kind of wavetable distortion – what I like to call “melodic acid” lines. Inspired by the 303’s, you know, those really bitey filters but instead of playing a kind of “Higher State of Consciousness” repetitive ostinato, playing very melodic lines that change with the chord progression. This was a signature part of my IMA/ESCM era records. (Think “Loving You More”, “Divinity”, “Embrace the Future” and my remix of Grace “Not Over Yet”).
*Side note: Someone said to me on social media a couple weeks ago “Hey BT, why does your new song (Atari’s Lantern) have vocal chops in it? I feel like everyone is doing that”. It was fun to lovingly tell him I invented that and please check out Grace – “Not Over Yet”. Skrillex told me one time – he had gotten this idea from my records, which felt great to hear. So yeah, vocal chops (I never named them that btw).
Anyway, these “melodic acid” sounds I designed using the K2500 (which it was never ever meant to be used for). I’m using its synth engine instead of sampling capabilities as I mentioned before. I can’t make sounds like it on unlike anything else. I wanted it to have the authentic feeling and flavor of those records so it’s throughout the whole track, percolating and undulating along. It’s used all over this album actually.
Another exciting thing about this song is the breakdown, which is the biggest left turn in the whole piece. I wanted to write something really unexpected that grabbed the listener in an almost jarring and unsafe way. Most music is so predictable now (even the great stuff) – because it’s catering to Spotify algorithms. We don’t need to wonder what AI making music would sound like, we are doing that for it currently. Erk!
So, I wanted this breakdown to be really shocking. What better place for a brass chorale than a banging piece of electronic music? (Said no one ever). This one I wrote out on staff paper and orchestrated for a small brass ensemble. Recorded at Abby and doubled with samples. It’s maybe my favorite surprise on the album.
Finally, the sound design is (again) from field recordings gathered in travel. I use a Sony PCM D-100 portable digital field recorder with the stock mic’s and edit everything on a molecular level in iZotope RX. This song, being themed around water, contains field recordings of everything from scuba diving (on a GoPro), to a beach with smooth 2” stones and big waves in Iceland (heard in the beginning). There are moments where I’m using low pass filtering to simulate the auditory experience of transitioning from air to water (like slowly wading into the water when you swim). Finding this simple but effective transitional effect on the sound design made this a remarkably visual piece for me. I love listening to this one with my eyes closed. Every time that happens, I feel like I am wading into the sea and going beneath the waves.
I could write a thesis on the Csound part of this piece, but this is more than enough. This song took about 2 months to finish.
1 AM in Paris
This one is a collaboration with Matt Fax. We wrote this quickly kicking ideas back and forth via Skype and email. Collaborating in this way is one of the super exciting things about being alive now!
I sent Matt a bunch of melodic figures (first drop) using my Prophet-5, Jupiter 8 (rev one) and 78’ Moog Model D. The DX-7 top bell chimes as well too. We bounced back and forth these ideas and once we decided on the melodies and progressions began to wrap the track and arrangement around it.
of the other songs from the record, I pulled this up on my console and mixed it live to disk (like mixing live to tape back in the day). There is a feeling that comes from this, when you get it right, that is like no other feeling in music making.
I’m throwing sounds into tape delays and reverbs, feeding the console back on itself using a looped aux input and many other things (including volume automation live) you can only do on a console. We owe so much to the dub music pioneers like King Tubby and later pioneers (a real inspiration to me) like Adrian Sherwood from Tackhead Sound System and Coldcut. I use these techniques of live mixing all the time. There is (sadly) and entire generation of producers and engineers, that will never know the joy of happy accidents that come from console mixing. It’s a tragedy being relegated to interfacing with a song via a mouse!
Speaking of lost and antiquated technologies, this is a perfect example: It’s a pain in the ass to do, a lot more work and like 10x the magic. Totally worth it. So much fun.
At any rate, this piece ended in a place of deep, hopeful, driving on a country road type feeling. Another personal favorite.
The Light is Always On
I wrote this song with an artist called Mangal Suvarnan. He’s an phenomenal singer and bansuri player (one of my 2 favorite wind instruments). We wanted to write something about depression and anxiety as it’s something both of us have experienced and there are so many people struggling with these days. Thankfully there is a growing awareness and compassion around these issues and a climate of diminishing shame for people experience it.
The lyric was an important focal point for this one for sure. That took quite a bit of time to really crack. Writing in metaphor without being constantly on the nose can be hard, so I’m always digging in a stack of Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath and other poets works for inspiration. Lyric writing is challenging, even on a good day. Listening to country music blows my mind as well. Talk about inspiration, those are the greatest living lyricists.
Once the structure and vibe of this really began to coalesce, I sent it over to Au5 who promptly flipped out and sent me back stems for what is now the bulk of the big breaks drop. We had a blast trying to out-sound design one another on the insane Neuro figures that dominate that section.
I did the orchestral mock-up at the beginning (hundreds of tracks in my Cubase autoload) and assembled the entire thing into a final mix. This piece features pretty heavily some of my new software that is not yet available, but we are currently entering beta on! Whoot!
This is another personal favorite. This song started life as a super rough, piano and vocal demo from Irina Mancini and Paul Harris from Dirty Vegas.
There is so much going on in here it’s hard to figure out where to start. This is one of the most complicated pieces (sound design, musically and arrangement) on the whole album.
It’s unusual for me to gravitate to a nearly finished vocal (like a top line) as I’m usually all in from the jump on a song. This one just struck me though, and I felt incredibly connected to it from the beginning. We did some tweaks, but that lyric was already nearly fully baked.
The first self-imposed marching order was: How do I make this go from something that sounds like a full live band to angular/esoteric glitch to trap to drum and bass and back?
That’s what I want to do! Ugh, why do I come up with these “big” ideas that can’t be unthunk?
So, there it was – I divided the song into distinct versions 1. Live band 2. Trap/bass 3. Drum and Bass and 4. IDM. I pretty much did 4 fully formed versions of the song (and a big intro/sound design piece) and shoehorned all these into a final working version of the song.
Here’s a pretty funny anecdotal story about this song. I was in therapy and was frantically telling some story and mentioned my daughter has ADHD whereby my therapist promptly interrupted me and said, “Has anyone ever tested you for ADHD?”
After a long uncomfortable silence, he said “Because you so have ADHD”.
So, the breakdown in this song that has like a bajillion of these fractal Stutter Edits and micro-rhythmic glitchy cuts has become a family joke. Whenever we listen to this, at that part – everyone looks at me and says, “Has anyone ever tested you for ADHD”? At which point everyone dies of laughter. Yeah well, okay, team #hyperfocus. Noted.
I recorded live drums (Chris Comption), live guitars (me), and the programing on this one is a cluster cuss. A thesis could be written about it. Some notable standouts are Nexus (you read that right) and the underrated Roland JX-8P (Kiwi modified, of course). The aforementioned glitch explosion features a lot of unreleased plugins, CDP and cSound.
So, first of all, the name. I’m of German, French and Norwegian descent. I’m also fascinated by linguistics, paleo linguistic anthropology, word etymology and
in general any words, phrases or sayings that exist in other languages, but for which there is no English equivalent.
If you look this word up on Google translate it will give you a very different meaning from a German person. Google will tell you “A particular philosophy or view of life; the worldview of an individual or group” whereas someone German speaking will make the distinction this is accrued over a vector of time and is more akin to a kind of “community think”.
I love this, and it factors into the album title as well, so I apologize it’s unpronounceable (unless you’re German) but I just adore this word.
This one began as both a thought experiment and a chord progression. The first thing I had in my head for a couple days was that post drop melody and chord progression with the V minor, kind of Anjuna thing. I was traveling at the time and unable to record it so I’m really glad I remembered it for a couple days.
The thought experiment segment was “What if someone made trance in the 80’s?”. What a weird thought! Again, one of my complex, can’t-be-unthunk thoughts. It’s the cross I bear.
So, I set out to make this melody and progression in a style using all these vintage analog synths and drum machines from my favorite era of music, wrapped into a modern context and style. It was an absolute blast to do.
Featured instruments of significance are (drum machines) – a trusty Linn Drum LM2, Oberheim DMX, Sequential Circuits DrumTracks and Roland 808, CR-8000 and importantly CR-78 (really hear this in the breakdown areas).
Next on to effects – I’m emulating the effect from Eddie Grant “Electric Avenue” or lots of George Clinton/P-Funk stuff “Atomic Dog” in particular; using the MXR Pitch Transposer (a box from the late 70’s and used a lot in the early 80’s stuff). I actually built a breakout panel in my Eurorack area so I can send +5v control signal gates and state change this box using a step sequencer – in time. It’s an incredible effect. You hear it all thought-it the track.
It’s the short almost comb-filter, pitch bending delay line on the percussion. I am making it force feedback or self-oscillate in parts and cutting to a completely dry signal after printing the part. I absolutely love this effect and for sure will do this on something else in the future.
On to the synths! As usual there is a lot going on here. The main bass is a combination of 3 elements – a Waldorf Wave, 2 Moog Model D’s (one vintage and one new) and a stack of DX7’s (again the TX816). The main synth sounds are a Yamaha CS-15 (the 16th note percolating ostinato figure), then a huge stack (the big reverb 80’s stack) that is a Roland JX-8P, Sequential Circuits T-8, Prophet 600, Kawai SX-210, Roland Jupiter 6 and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember through a Lexicon 224XL and Lexicon 200.
Somehow, I remember when making this sound it got so big and so good so quickly, I was like “I have to print this now”. In the breakdown there are some Spitfire Audio felt pianos, a Yamaha CP-70 (real one, in my shop), and the massive Yamaha CS-80 filtering up through the breakdown. The Solina string ensemble BBD sound is actually the Kawai SX-210 (a wonderful and underrated synth) way better than the very famous Juno-106 to my ears.
Last but not least – those massive Miami Vice sounding tom fills are an actual Simmons SDSV I was lucky enough to find a couple years ago on Craig’s List on a road trip through North Carolina. I’ve wanted one of those since I first heard, “She Blinded me with Science” and they’ve always eluded me. I use it obsessively since finding this one. Proud I did my own midi install on it too!
All added up, this is my version of what trance would have sounded like, if it happened in about 1981-1983. Real life Mandela effect. Boom!
I Will Be Yours
This is a song I wrote together with a Danish songwriter named Daniel Nitt. This track is one of two of the albums songs I am singing on (which suits me perfectly). Singing on tracks is rewarding and I am first and foremost a composer, engineer, producer. Singing is a blast on an appropriate piece and can feel pretty high pressure to me, so I do it sporadically and only when appropriate (I get asked to guest vocal a lot ever since way back writing and singing Tiesto’s “Love Comes Again”). This being more than anything a song about a profession of romantic love, singing it felt appropriate.
Speaking of vocals – there are some really crazy and wonderful treatments going on here. Notably the Dolby-A trick I mentioned on “Walk into the Water” and a combination of the Roland VP-330, iZotope Vocal Synth 2 and Sound Toys Little Altar Boy. As usual a big combination of hardware and software. That vocal comp session is like 80 tracks wide of treatments. That alone was a huge project to get this half human – half robotic but natural vocal treatment. This was a lot of fun to design. Also, notably, is my good friend Christian Burns’ epic high Bee Gees’ like BV’s.
Some other notable things on “I Will Be Yours” are the live Fender 89’ P-Bass. This was a fun part to both write and play and gives it a hybrid feeling somewhere squarely between house and a live band. I love this sound. Live hi-hats or live bass in dance music reminds me of mid 80’s Madonna records (some of my favorite produced records ever – think “Borderline” era).
The live guitars are all played by my friend and amazing guitarist (and producer) Jonny Radford (of the band Radford). He and I have become friends over the last 5 years and in the mid-90’s shared the same horrific manager. We always have lots to talk about and plenty in common (both in-terms of life experience) and esthetic preference. We could talk about the Smiths and vintage AC-30’s for about a thousand years I think.
The “Boys of Summer”esque guitar part on this is actually a re-amped acoustic guitar with overdrive. I love this part so much. It gets stuck in my head every time I hear this song.
Synth wise this is my “holy trinity” stack of synths again (mainly); The Prophet 5 (rev 3.3 btw), Roland Jupiter 8 and a vintage Mini-Moog Model-D. These three subtractive synths together are the things dreams (mine anyway) are literally made of (Human League pun intended – #synthnerdsunite). The synths are mainly these three. There are also some small hand played instruments like a dulcimer I like to use with a bow, chimes and kalimba recorded in my live room.
Finally, one of my favorite parts of this track is the half-time live band breakdown into the Prince circa “DMSR” referenced LINN programing. What may sound like samples are me literally pulling old copies of Keyboard Magazine reading about processing techniques they were doing on the Linn drum during that time and recreating these sounds from scratch. This was so much fun to do. Also, that’s me playing slap bass on the breakdown and the “funk” (ie The Time, The Family, Wendy and Lisa) stack in the breakdown is the Oberheim OB-6 with the OBXa and Minimoog + slap bass I mentioned.
All and all, it adds up to be one of my favorite pop/electronic focused songs I’ve ever recorded.
If I Can Love You Right
This is one I wrote with Tydi and the singer Lola Rhodes. Tyson and I have a long friendship and relationship outside of music. I love his “Wish I Was” project and told him when we talked about collaborating – let’s do something that’s a mix of that sound and my downtempo stuff. This was a blast to just brainstorm and when we set notes to the page (relatively speaking) came together really quickly.
I programed that main electro-pluck riff as a stack of Nexus, Sylenth and the Jupiter 8 (super hi-pass filtered but to give it an organic sound). As a side note – I’ll often do this, layer soft synths with subtractive analog synths to give a symmetrical attack (soft synth) with an organic, more aperiodic, stochastic top “warmth” (the analog synth). It’s a magical combination of old and new. Pushing all of them through outboard compression glues it together beautifully.
The vocal hook was an adlib that I cut and looped to make the chorus out of. I’d not done that in a while and it was fun to find and use that part of Lola’s vocal.
The main synths are a Prophet T-8, Prophet VS, Jupiter 8, Oberheim OB-6 and lots of my plugin BreakTweaker (with iZotope) in this one – most noticeably in verse 2. Also in verse two there is a similar vocal treatment to “I Will Be Yours”. Combining the vintage Roland VP-330 with iZotope Vocal Synth 2. It gives both bite and stereo width and warmth to that second verse. I use it in the choruses from then out as well.
Finally, I’m using this weird, like, $50 TOA delay to widen the chorus vocal. It’s this strange three delay line BBD with and LFO and they can be found on e-bay for like $50-75. It’s better than any plugin I’ve ever heard to do this kind of widening and sort of Haas/Chorus. I have a feeling a lot of the magic of the sound being in the analog companding.
Never Odd or Even
If you didn’t catch it – this name is a palindrome; another thing I am obsessed with (audio, visual, words you name it). Bi-directional loops. Love this as both concept and metaphor.
There is an Easter egg here I don’t want to give away around the concept of palindromes that some of my (brilliant) programmer/physician/cryptologist type fans search for obsessively in my records so I’ll let them find it. As a final side note about this intro (and outro) I used a Google Project Magenta tool to generate random phonemic, kind of “pseudo-speech”. That may be too many hints.
As per usual, there’s so much going on here. Let’s start with the guitars.
I wrote and recorded all the guitars for this song first upstairs in our house (I call it my live room but it’s actually a living room I keep lots of acoustic instruments in). Main guitars used are the Gibson 335 (late 50’s) a Telecaster from the 80’s and a Roland JC-120 and 60’s AC30 amp. Lots of time and meticulous detail went into writing and recording these parts and a large dose of OCD and time correction.
Synth wise, I made a point of doing everything but the top line using only my Minimoog Model-D. On “These Hopeful Machines”, I did this on several tracks using the Sequential Circuits Pro-1. I love limiting my tools for a song and seeing what can be squeezed out of a single instrument. The top line in the chorus is the Jupiter 8.
The glitch style percussion was created in the Mac OS terminal using solely programing in script in a programing language called CDP (created by the brilliant and trail blazing, Trevor Wishart) I use CDP, cSound and SuperCollider (all programing languages written in script) and Max/MSP + Pure Data (object oriented languages) regularly for high level sound design operations that can’t be accomplished in normal commercially available music software. I routinely use cSound to prototype ideas that have later become released software of mine.
The final and coolest thing about this track is lots of it is programmed and recorded in a real life Fairlight CMI III. This instrument is something I wanted since childhood. I was so deeply inspired by Trevor Horns productions – The Art of Noise, Propaganda, Act, Grace Jones and The Pet Shop Boys, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush etc. I wanted to be able to make those kinds of sounds so bad as a kid. The Fairlight then cost more than a single-family home and were as rare as unicorn tears. These days they are even more rare but much less coveted as you can do similar (but nowhere nearly as good sounding or inspiring to program things) using a computer.
Anyway, about 6 years ago I found one in Australia from a gentleman named Peter that used to work for Fairlight in its heyday. He was selling a full system for a reasonable price, so I jumped at the chance (there are about 20 left in working condition in all the world).
Long story short, when it arrived, the parcel service literally threw it in the driveway. I’ve got the pictures to prove it. It was completely destroyed. Monitor smashed, cards in the mainframe broken and keyboard cracked.
So, what did I do? What any upstanding synth fanatic that coveted a Fairlight as a child would do: I spent 4 years refurbishing it to the metal. Installed new quiet fans (it’s louder than a hair dryer) hand wood spackled and laser color paint matched the keyboard (had it repainted at an auto body shop), retro-brighted the keys (this alone was a 6 month process of removing every single key, mixing and painting them with a goo compound and putting them under ultraviolet light in our bathtub, which looked like a meth lab out of Breaking Bad). What else? Oh yeah a full recapping, swapped the old hard drives for SD and CF card drives and then with my friends Andrei from Intel and Garth from Chicken Systems (and the help of original creators Peter Vogel and Steve Rance) went about reverse engineering the sample format and file header metadata information so we can now port Kontakt banks to the Fairlight and back and forth. It’s insane. One of the coolest things I’ve ever had.
Now the big question: why the hell would you go to all this trouble? Well two reasons: first, I knew by the music made on them, think “Moments in Love” or “Biko” or “Owner of a Lonely Heart” that they were profoundly special machines (as were the people using them). I was right about this by the way! They force a workflow so powerful you can’t help but create magical stuff with them.
Secondly: OMG the sound. People now think of sampling as like “I need a hi-hat, grab Kontakt or EXS”. We have collectively forgotten the joy and art of sampling (and constraints too for that matter that are a large part of the inspiration). If you sample a simple string sound or a saw wave out of a subtractive synth in the Fairlight and play it back, it’s like the heavens have opened and angels crying. No hyperbole, no cap. It’s that remarkable. There are a lot of reasons for this; discrete circuitry for every voice, no word clock so things are always slightly out of tune, panned slightly randomly and sample rate is slightly off (making things sound huge) and a lot of other contributing factors. At any rate it’s just pure, unadulterated magic.
All the choir and vocal stabs and a lot of the sequencing were done on this glorious and inspirational instrument. Someone on a forum thread said “Dude you can get a 2.99$ iPad app that does the same thing”. Sadly, this is the furthest thing from the truth. The Fairlight, just as I suspected as a 13 year old, is like some kind of magic amulet or the arc of the covenant or something. It’s that amazing.
This is another of my absolute favorites on the album. Essentially a great pop song dressed in a modern electronic soundscape. When I wrote this chord progression I was so excited about it, I had no less than 4 people top line it before finding a direction I was in love with. This again, brought me outside my normal workflow and comfort zone and was a really positive experience, one I’m sure to revisit.
I have a post it note on a pinboard in my shop that says “Run towards uncertainty”. That about sums up finding this vocal.
The singer April Bender and I met through mutual friends. She just killed it. I didn’t have anything to do with this vocal at all, other than finding her.
Notable moments in this one are the use of again stacked and layered analog and soft synths. I did a big record session on this one with just using the Yamaha CS-80. That synth is arguably the greatest polyphonic analog synthesizer ever made. That said, it’s a beast to work on (I’d never do this myself – she makes a road trip thousands of miles to Switched On in Austin Texas for tuning and repair every couple years.) It’s an insane project just keeping it running, but when you need it for a par, there is nothing on earth like it. It’s so big sounding, you can usually only use one or two instances in a track without swallowing the whole thing.
The polyphonic electropluck sound in this song is Serum and the CS-80 playing the same part in tandem. I’m manually opening the filters, adjusting the resonance and instantiating the chorus and tremolo, adjusting their speeds, tweaking the envelope parameters and much more all recorded live. Was really tough to get this part right but was worth it for the song.
Another noteworthy thing in this piece is I took a short section of the vocal and did a phase-vocoder time stretch that lasts for the duration of the entire piece. With a bit of outboard Eventide H-3000 Layered Shift, some dreamy Lexicon 224 wall of sound reverb and side-chaining, it super helped to glue this track together.
Finally I love the counter-melody arpeggio in the second verse. Took me a long time to get this right. That’s the Chroma Polaris playing that part. I can’t wait to get some killer remixes of this one.
This song is one I wrote with Christian Burns and Jonny Radford. I feel like if we had the time we could start an amazing band. Maybe that will be a future side project.
Funny story about this song; I was really struggling with the mix of this song as it’s a dense mix of mid-80’s referencing guitars (think Jonny Marr) and big analog synths + vocals, live bass and drum overheads. Serious balancing act. Was really struggling with the final mix of this.
Anyway, I sent it to Alan Meyerson (Hans Zimmer’s main engineer) asking for feedback and he was like “Dude this mix is amazing. It’s done – walk away from it. The song is fantastic too.” I read his email and honestly was like – idk I still think it could be better. My ears were fried from like 2 weeks straight of EQ’ing and de-essing drum overheads.
It was subsequently sent to Flood (an absolute hero of mine) asking if he’d do a mix of it. He wrote back nearly the same thing “I’d love to do a song with you but this is both fantastic and finished”. That’s how I decided I was done – Alan and Flood letting me know I was done, lol. It sometimes really helps to have the perspective of people who’s work you love and you know will tell you when you suck. I’m really appreciative of their feedback.
On to the music! The guitars and live bass are on full display here. Jonny played these unbelievable Smiths’esque parts. He’d have to talk about his record chains as they are very specific. I did very little to them other than print some to physical tape and I did re-mike one of the direct signals on one part through my 80’s JC-120 amp (man is that thing ever loud).
I played live bass on this (again my favorite Fender P-Bass) and my friend Chris Compton played all the live drums. We recorded those at Omega studios and printed them really hot (like +15) to 1/4” tape running at 15ips. I time corrected them and combined them with some Linn Drum and bespoke drum samples and the obvious massive Jan Hammer Simmons tom fills again. There is also some tricky micro-rhythmic programing in my application BreakTweaker that is particularly audible in the verses and some of my software that is yet to be released doing some subtle but seriously cool stuff in the verses as well.
The synths are primarily the Jupiter 8, a JX-10 and the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS (the greatest, warmest most alive sounding wavetable synth ever made imho). Dave Smith is both a friend, and inspiration and a hero of mine. He’s changed music forever. Rant ended. Love that guy. What an inspiration.
Anyway, I’m doing a lot of layering using those three synths and I remember using Serum, Diva and Nexus in the layers. I’m going to demonstrate how to do this in my masterclass as it’s too good to keep to myself. Layering soft synths with analog hardware and busing through physical compressors and EQ is where it’s at to my ears. It’s an incredible modern but warm sound.
An important part of this is for example with the Jupiter 8. I almost always double and or triple track it; putting one copy panned hard right, one hard left and one up the middle. Then I’ll stack it with a soft synth and bus to external compression and EQ. It’s incredible sounding. I remember on the main poly stack on this one playing the speed of the pulse width modulation differently on each side of the multi-bounce of the Jupiter. It gave it some real extra life and dimension. I’m glad I just remembered that, I’ve got to do that again.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christians incredible and inspired vocal. I love what this song is about, the feeling of being stuck and getting unstuck and what that means. Being thankful for our obstacles and what we can learn from them is a hard lesson to assimilate and that’s what this song is about.
No Warning Lights
This one opens up with a field recording of my favorite train station in Amsterdam. I was there on a beautiful nigh-time, summer bike ride when I recorded this. To me, this song opens with the sound of departure.
I wrote this song with Emma Hewitt and her brother Antony. It was a blast writing this with them and really began as a kind of duet over another, Cubase autoload, orchestral score cue. Ultimately, Like Walk into the Water this is a big IMA era voyage of a song, but wrapped in my current skill set. Some things I am very proud of in this piece is the tremendous (what I call) “state or set changes”. Segueing and transitioning between this kind of Trance 2.0 electronic music, orchestral writing, heavy granular and spectral sound design is no easy task. This was one of the hardest songs for the album to finish (and get right).
Featuring very prominently in this one is the Fairlight again. There is an ostinato that joins together sections that is made of 5 instruments (a bell, marimba, metalaphone) and several other percussive melodic instruments (all monophonic) sequenced in page-R on the Fairlight.
The second verse is an entirely different sound pallet, live hi-hats, drums programed in the Fairlight, this big Anjuna’ish detuned portamento stack of the Oberheim OB-6 and a Korg MonoPoly (those SSM filters are magical for bass).
There are sound design moments in this piece that took hours that only occur once and for sometimes 3-5 seconds. The transitions, rises and booms are all hand made and layered to death. That one session had close to 400 tracks in it.
In the drop I’m using a big stack of soft and hard synths. Notably Serum, Sylenth, The Oberheim Matrix-12 (insane for big trance stuff) and the Jupiter 8. All of that is printed as a stack and on beat 4 of every other bar in the drop, I’m cutting from that stack to a reverb that last the last quarter note of the bar. It’s often flanged, phased or other spacial effect for just one note.
A tremendous attention to detail went into the vocal comp on this one as I really wanted to use both Emma and my vocal in equal measure. Timing was tough to get spot on but my dear friend and long-time vocal comping buddy, Mike DiMattia killed it.
Finally, the orchestral sections and breakdowns are completely unrelated sessions. The former being from my Cubase and VEPro autoload and the latter in Logic Audio and Ableton with soft-synths and hardware synths galore. This is the only song on the album that has by OSCar (on bass) before he went to the shop for repairs. Miss that synth a lot actually.
All and all, I think this is a great reflection of how much diligent study and work I’ve put in over the last 10 years. This is the peak of my orchestral writing combined with the best of my dance music writing in a single composition.
This last song is one I wrote with Christian and Jonny as well. It too started as a score cue and we all converged on the original demo and wrote this beautiful song around it.
It’s got a Steve Reich / Philip Glass type orchestration to it with lots of isorhythmic, melodic percussion figures and short pizzicato and Bartok pizzicato and Col Legno string figures. I love the orchestration on this song and it’s rare to get to wrap this kind of writing into anything other than a score, so it was thrilling to create.
Christians vocal is as usual just stunning. This song has perfect blend of hope, sorrow and longing that perfectly encapsulates what I set out to make in this record. It closes the record out beautifully, imho.
My favorite thing in this piece aside from the song is the brass counterpoint. I wrote out all those parts on staff paper because looking at them in that way, I can imagine more what it will sound like before recording, than mocking them up.
That’s the album (and me writing about the pieces with great restraint!). I could easily write a book about it.