BT This Binary Universe

BT might have made a name for himself in the ’90s as a purveyor of dancefloor anthems, and in recent years for his film scores… but now it’s his own line of sound mangling ‘custom gadgets’ that’s ringing BT’s bells the most.


10 April 2006

Text: Gomez

Brian Transeau, aka BT, has got the world exactly where he wants it. Over 10 years ago he took on the superclubs of the world with a string of thumping dancefloor anthems. BT is also an accomplished muso, so he laces his records with his own guitar, piano, glockenspiel (and whatever else he can lay his hands on) performances. He doesn’t class himself as a singer, but after being convinced to keep some vocal performances on his albums, many would disagree. BT, likes the movies, so he’s now a sought after sound track producer. BT likes having a chat… so he’s courted by many a music/audio conference to discuss his take on the latest in music technology. BT enjoys computers, so he designs his own sound-generating devices – a couple of which you and I will be able to buy pretty soon (much more on this later). In short, BT is what Australians would lovingly call a ‘smart arse’. But it’s rare to find a 24-carat audio geek that’s so charismatic, and so insightful. So I jumped at the chance to track down this passionate aficionado of all things musical to his home studio in LA for a chat while he was stopping for a rare breather.

Gomez: One of the two studio albums you’ve recently been working on fascinates me. It’s in 5.1, and there are rumours that it’s more computer code than instrumentation. Spill the beans!

BT: Sure thing. The one you’re talking about is called This Binary Universe. It started out as a compositional idea, and I dabbled on the edges of it with some of my score work. It’s based on three main thoughts. Thought ‘A’ is: I wanted to take the classical music I’ve studied and write a piece of music that has an overt classical influence. Thought ‘B’ is that I wanted to write a bunch of classical music in the style of the jazz music I’ve studied, which involves a lot of asymmetrical meter and iso-rhythms, and things outside the realm of 4/4. Thought ‘C’ is I’m building these instruments that are capable of making unbelievable sounds that people have literally never heard before and I wanted a stage to put them on.

Gomez: That’s some fairly out-there criteria to start a composition. What next?

BT: The first piece I wrote for the album is called Dynamic Symmetry, and after listening back to it I was thinking that it was the strangest thing I’d written in my whole life – I didn’t know if it would make sense to anyone, but I loved it. I loved it so much, I couldn’t sleep – and that hasn’t happened to me for a long time. I played it to my friend Patty [Jenkins, who directed the film Monster] and she said, “You have to make this into a record Brian, it’s brilliant. You have to write more of this music, even it it’s just for me to write to.”

So I moved on and wrote the second piece and the third piece, and before I knew it I was obsessively focused on finishing this record. And what’s so cool about this album, is it’s actually not an album, it’s seven full-on compositions [the shortest of which is 11 minutes]. There are two pieces that have a 110-piece orchestra on them; there’s a piece written entirely in code; in one movement of another piece, I’m playing mandolin, glockenspiel, concertina, cello, and acoustic guitar with forks… and the whole thing alternates between 7/8, 5/4 and 6/4, and it doesn’t sound like a wanky Frank Zappa record. It’s insanely evocative, with a ton of emotion in it. One of the most exciting things, however, is each piece on this album is being turned into a film. So friends of mine who are videographers and animators, have taken each piece and are making them into a short film.

Gomez: So this isn’t your average DVD audio disc, it’s a full-on film DVD. What a huge project! No wonder you’re so proud of it.

BT: Sure. And one of the most exciting things for me was to play this record to friends of mine who are pro musicians, and for them to turn to me 10 times or more during the listen and go ‘what the hell was that noise!?’, and to literally have no clue what it was or what instrument it came from. Ali from Deep Dish turned to me a dozen times and was like, ‘that’s spectacular, I have no idea what that sound is’. I love that!

Gomez: It’s always good to have friends who can offer honest opinions and I’m thinking that would have been especially valuable to you on such an unusual project.

BT: That’s a really good point. It’s awesome playing music for your musician friends because they can appreciate it and understand the work that’s gone into it. Saying that, I also love playing music for my friends who aren’t musicians because the response you evoke is entirely emotional and nothing to do with understanding the technical proficiency or knob twiddling… and as a musician that’s beautiful to witness, and I think, ultimately, more valuable.

Gomez: And you’re taking This Binary Universe out live?

BT: I am. We’re taking it on the road later this year, and performing it in 5.1. And instead of performing in 5000-people halls and at venues for dance parties, we’re choosing sit-down venues, with surround sound and surround projection. I’m going to encourage people to either sit or lay on the floor and I’m going to be sitting down for the whole performance playing all my custom gadgets and instruments. It’s going to be myself, Ben Grossman that played Ville â Roue (or Hurdy-Gurdy) – a 5th-century string instrument on the Monster soundtrack, and lots of other guest musicians. I’m really excited about taking this on the road and showing it to people.

I’m building these instruments that are capable of making unbelievable sounds that people have literally never heard before


Gomez: Can you tell me more about the electronic sound sources for This Binary Universe?

BT: A lot of the instruments begin in C-Sound Ensemble. C-Sound is a computer programming language for dealing with sound and I’ve started leaking some of my C-Sound codes in my blogs online ‘cause one of the pieces in This Binary Universe is written entirely in code. Actually, it’s written and mixed entirely in C-Sound code, which is cool I think.

Gomez: The word is you’ve set up a company called Sonik Architects to develop and market your own ‘custom gadgets’. At what point did you realise that your own music needed your own software devices?

BT: It happened about 10 years ago, but it’s taken me that long to get pissed off enough to get off my arse, and say ‘you know what…? I’m going to stop complaining, and make some things that are really useful’. The development process actually started happening about two years ago and that’s when I was formally introduced to the program C-Sound, and I started to spend some time with it and learnt how to code in it. After being exposed to that and really getting my head around it I realised, wow, I can prototype my own instruments. I grew up coding as a kid in Basic A, Cobalt and eventually Pascal, so what I’ve been doing is prototyping all my own instruments in C-Sound and then with my team building them in Command Line and XCode. All through the summer we hunkered down and wrote around 500,000 lines of code together. I was making noise wavetables, impulse spikes through all my favourite guitar pedals, and on and on and on. Another thing to mention that’s important is every beat programmed on This Binary Universe is done with my own software.

Gomez: So what do you call these instruments?

BT: Break Tweaker and Stutter Edit.

Gomez: Even the names have attitude! What do they do?

BT: Okay, Break Tweaker is an extraordinarily special instrument. Primarily it’s a studio application. Stutter Edit is an extension, and by extension I mean an extreme extension of my stutter edit technique [something BT’s records are renowned for] and it’s meant to be used by performing electronic musicians. I’m finding that there are holes in what’s being made for studio technology for making sound, so I’m making a line of instruments to do things that I like and want to see happen in music and that I know are unique and cutting edge… and that excites me a lot. I’m also making a line of plug-ins for performing electronic musicians because I’m out there playing with a laptop and have been for seven years. So I want to see more tools put into people’s hands, giving them the ability to do true live remixing. Stutter Edit is the first, and is going to blow people away.

Gomez: What platforms are these going to be available on?

BT: We’re using XCode for the Mac, and we’re porting both to VST for the PC. I am also seriously thinking about making hardware versions of these – I’ve been talking to people about that, so we’ll see. The software releases will be out around Christmas.

Gomez: For those of us, including me, who want to hear something new from the BT Studios now, can you throw a track our way in Australia for readers to download?

BT: Sure man. How about I give you a track from the film Surveillance that I’m sound-tracking at the moment?

Gomez: Ah, I’ve heard about this one. It’s a film shot entirely on surveillance cameras isn’t it?

BT: Absolutely, and I’m working on this one purely for passion and no monetary gain. It’s an awesome project to be involved in. It’s really special. There’s one point where I’ve got an ice machine used as a drone instrument that I’m singing against. Then for percussion, I’ve used a dot matrix printer, barcode scanner, and an ATM machine… and that’s the whole piece. It’s crazy shit and really, really outside the box… and a wicked movie.


Head to: audiotechnology.com.au/BT for an exclusive BT track from the film Surveillance.
BT: www.btmusic.com
Check out Issue 9 of AT for an earlier interview with BT


BT’s other imminent studio album is decidedly more mainstream than This Binary Universe and has a real Australian whiff about it.

BT: I was in Australia last September touring, and while we were in South Australia we stayed in a small town outside Normanville and made such good friends there. We rented a little house, set up a couple of rigs and I wrote 17 songs there! I can’t remember the name of the place but the place was that small we knew everybody in the first three days. It was cool. That album is definitely for the dancefloor and I had fun doing it as it’s been a while since I’ve done one of those.


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