You are here

Brian 'BT' Transeau

Emotional Impact
Published December 2001
By Richard Buskin

BT revitalised the sound of boy band N'Sync, composed some of the most radical soundtracks to appear in mainstream films, and has a good claim to have invented trance. And he still finds time to talk to SOS...

"Music is ultimately about communicating with other people," says Brian Transeau. "Emotional impact is really important."

Brian 'BT' Transeau at home 2001 in his 4 Box Studio.Brian 'BT' Transeau in his 4 Box Studio.And that, in a nutshell, is what Transeau has achieved during the past decade. A musician, composer, producer and remixer, BT (as he's popularly known) is a man with an extensive and varied musical pedigree. He initially forged a reputation as the creator of 'trance' (aka 'epic house'), the sweeping blend of pulsating house beats and classical harmonies which took the European — and then the US — dance scenes by storm in the mid-'90s. Since then he has capitalised on his reputation with a string of solo projects, as well as highly innovative film scores, productions for artists ranging from Peter Gabriel to N'Sync, and remixes for the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Madonna and Seal.

Private Player

Raised in Rockville, Maryland, Brian Transeau was just four years old when he began studying piano via the Suzuki method, and in the process he came into contact with the works of classical composers such as Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninov. As his hands weren't yet large enough to play the beautiful 19th-century Steinway grand he'd inherited from his grandmother, BT's parents bought him a toy keyboard on which he could try to reproduce the latest pop hits, and by the age of seven he was formally studying classical musical at the Washington Conservatory. There he learned about harmony, string writing and orchestration, before playing guitar, bass and even drums with a variety of bands during his high school years.

"Keyboards have always been my private thing," he explains. "As a kid growing up in Maryland I mowed lawns like a lunatic to save enough money to fill my bedroom with keyboards and drum machines, but that was just for the kind of electronic music that I played privately at home. In terms of the bands I taught myself how to play guitar and bass, and with one group I also played drums, although not very well — I played bass in a ska band, and guitar in a punk-type outfit, before there came a point where I dragged all of my electronic gear out of the closet and gave a performance with it. I played alone at a senior talent show during 10th grade [at the age of 15], kind of like Howard Jones. At that time my computer had 32K of memory and I thought I was the real deal, playing all of these sequencers much as I do now, and I actually ended up winning the senior talent show. After that I thought, 'Hey, this keyboard thing might work out!'"

While studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, BT became enamoured with house music as well as the minimalist work of artists such as John Cage. "I think a lot of people were intially reticent about appreciating the tonal complexities of early house music," he says. "Today, house music is much more complicated than it was, say, 15 years ago, but I got it straight away. I thought, 'This is really important music.' I'd be taking apart boxes and disassembling my keyboards, trying to make really obscure sounds, and I was sort of an outcast among the students at Berklee because of this, whereas the attitude of the people teaching the curriculum was 'You're crazy, but you might be onto something interesting.' "I remember buying all of these tattered old guitar pedals — they were so cheap about 12 years ago — and running keyboards through them. Everyone would be saying, 'You can't do that. Those are for guitars,' but I'd say, 'Listen to it. It sounds great.' Anyway, at least a lot of my teachers encouraged me while the traditional jazzers were freaking out. [The students] would be focussing on their playing ability while I'd be sitting around, reading how my heroes like Brian Eno were saying, 'I'd rather hold one note for an hour and modulate it so that it means something than play 3,000 notes in 15 seconds.' I'd repeat stuff like that to people and they'd say, 'That's just wrong.' I'd say, 'No, it's not. Music is supposed to be a catalyst for expressing emotion, and that's what I want to learn about.'"

Embracing The Future

While classical music provided BT with his initial grounding, it was the early electronica of bands such as Depeche Mode, New Order and Kraftwerk, in addition to the sounds of breakdance and Chicago house, that fuelled his interest in becoming a musician. "I can never forget hearing those records for the first time — hearing Depeche Mode and thinking, 'I don't have to write for strings, woodwind, brass and choir,'" he now says. "I thought, 'I can come up with sounds that no one's ever heard in their life!' I knew that's what I wanted to do."

4 Box Studio.4 Box Studio.Working within the framework of contemporary electronic and Detroit techno, BT started experimenting in his makeshift bedroom studio with extended tonality and harmonies, providing the repetitive dance sounds with far greater dynamics to take them beyond the context of traditional house music. Here was house with a logical structure and lush, classical overtones. Nevertheless, after leaving Berklee, home recordings in hand, for what he assumed would be the far more receptive surroundings of Los Angeles, Brian Transeau was once again greeted with confused expressions and cool attitudes, this time on the part of West Coast record-company honchos who were mostly on the lookout for new grunge outfits. BT's material didn't even feature heavy guitars, for chrissakes! Disappointed but undeterred, he returned to the family home in Maryland and, in 1990, began putting together tracks such as 'Blue Skies', 'Loving You More', 'The Moment Of Truth' and 'Embracing The Future', all of which would appear on his first album.

When a promo of 'Embracing The Future' reached the ears of Sasha, the British DJ's outright enthusiasm resulted in BT travelling to the UK, securing a record deal and, just as importantly, being exposed to the hypnotic electronic dance music that was already a feature of the English club scene. For the first time, and basically by chance, Transeau felt connected to a contemporary musical trend. "I didn't know how to do what everyone else was doing back then, and I still don't," he says. "I just did what felt natural, combining the elements that had an emotional impact on me from all of the different music that I love."

This, in short, amounted to what would soon come to be known as trance. Following the release of BT's 1995 album Ima, dance music was never the same — yet as trance quickly evolved into 145 beats per minute of homogenised overkill, the man himself moved on, producing the 1998 follow-up ESCM and, in 2000, Movement In Still Life, which boasted an eclectic array of alternate rock, pop and hip-hop sensibilities.

Fast & Furious Film Fun

At the same time, BT also turned his attention to film scoring, a form of work that is perfectly attuned to his tastes and talents. An initial assignment from director Doug Liman to compose and record rave-style music for Go led to other movie offers, and before long BT was making a one-way trip from Rockville, Maryland to Los Angeles, California, and employing a 60-piece orchestra for the Gene Hackman/Morgan Freeman thriller Under Suspicion.

"The movie work is so rewarding," he says with regard to a growing list of projects that now includes Gone In 60 Seconds, Driven, Tomb Raider and The Fast And The Furious. "For one thing, I get to use all of the classical stuff that I studied for. I mean, whether or not I'm recording for a major label, I can't afford to have a large orchestra play on one of my tracks, whereas when I'm writing for a movie I get to do that all the time." Indeed, The Fast And The Furious, a cops & robbers flick starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, features a score comprising a 70-piece ensemble together with clangorous, polyrhythmic tribal sounds as produced by a pair of orchestral percussionist friends applying their skills to a couple of car chassis. Wrecked during one of the movie's underground street-racing scenes, these were transported into the large live room at a facility named Sound Chamber.

"One of them was semi-intact, whereas the other one came in almost completely in bits," BT explains. "In fact, being so broken down was actually more helpful, because we were able to get at things more easily. Also, when I told them what I wanted to do, the guys brought in a ton of stuff that they had collected, including their own brake drums which we ended up using because it's hard to get the brake drums out. Otherwise, about 80 to 90 percent of what we used was from the two cars. The guys played around with the brake drums, the springs, the trunks, the carburettors, what have you, and I must have recorded five or six hours of that stuff in Pro Tools.

"I notated those rhythms the way you'd notate traditional orchestral percussion. I wrote for things such as orchestral bass drum, brush cymbals and various traditional instruments, and then, when we got hold of the cars, I would say, 'OK, here's the orchestral bass drum part. What the hell can you play that on?' and the percussionists would say, 'Let's try the trunk!' It was a very simple rhythm, so they'd kick the trunk and drop it, and I'd use that as the orchestral bass drum. Then we took the hubcaps off for the brush cymbal parts, suspended them from coat hangers and played them with hairbrushes, and it was so loud and cacophonous. Then again, despite these crazy metallic percussion sounds, it was all very subtle, because the idea was to make the audience subliminally think about cars and machinery in motion without going overboard.

"The fact that we experimented with the cars after I had written the parts, rather than the other way around, is really reflective of how I compose music. I mean, if I sit down to write a song at the piano or on acoustic guitar, it can end up as a house track with completely different instruments. I have a little ghetto cassette deck in the back of my studio, and I drag this thing around with me and sing, play guitar or piano into it. That's how all of my ideas originate, and after that I get right-brained and try to get into the process of making things sound interesting."

Punk Rock Classicism

By adhering to a formal structure during the writing phase, BT ensures that all of the instruments — be they part of an orchestra or a car chassis, providing breakbeats or romantic strings — blend in a manner that would be far more difficult to achieve if he experimented with the sounds first and then composed accordingly. Nevertheless, nothing comes easy.

"The piece was fairly structured, and I knew the sort of rhythm that I wanted to walk out of the session with, but it was still hard to make some of that stuff fit," he says. "I went plug-in crazy on a lot of those percussion parts to really make them work, and I also treated quite a few of the orchestral sounds — I used a lot of pitch-bender on those metallic percussion parts to help them mesh, and I treated some very fast string lines and dissonant brass parts.

"I keep eight-channel stems, and when I hand something in it is all mixed, so you can just push the faders up and spread it out into the surrounds. Well, I remember handing in one of my cues to the dub stage, and the guys there came back to me and said, 'Er, there's probably a sound problem. The brass is distorted.' I called them back and said, 'No, no, it's supposed to be like that. Try it, man. You're gonna love it!' What I did for the centre channel was take a brass line and run it through one of my guitar amplifiers and a couple of pedals back into Pro Tools, so the wide stereos were totally clean but the center was distorted. When the engineers first heard it they didn't get it at all, but then when they heard everything together they went, 'Oh, it's cool!'"

4 Box Studio - DJ deck, samplers and outboard rack.What BT brings to movie scoring is the real deal in terms of dance music, as opposed to Hollywood's idea of what is taking place on the current scene. After all, there is a long tradition of 'hip' films with anachronistic soundtracks, including late-'50s rock & roll flicks in which the 'young'uns' are jiving to some hybrid jazz sounds, and late-'60s psychedelic-era efforts in which discothequers prance around to twangy surf-guitar instrumentals. Not for nothing did directors begin to rely on contemporary chart hits.

"It's embarassing seeing a lot of what is going on out there," asserts Transeau. "If they want electronic music they should use guys who really do it. For example, Hans Zimmer is a great composer in his own right — Gladiator is just amazing — but that's his strength, and he shouldn't do something like Gone In 60 Seconds, trying to approximate the Chemical Brothers. Stick to Gladiator!

"My whole thing is this real sort of punk rock sensibility, where nothing is treated with reverence, although hopefully in a good way. Like the distorted brass — friends of mine who are more traditional film composers just look at me like I'm a complete lunatic. Still, it excites people, and they have a lot of fun doing it. Since I've been here, man, I've been really lucky to become friends with these A-grade classical musicians who play on film sessions, and they'll say, 'We've had so much fun doing your stuff today.' You see, they're used to doing more traditional sessions for whoever, whereas I'll say, 'OK, violins and violas, I want you both to play devisée and half-ponticello,' and they think I'm absolutely f•••ing insane, but they have fun doing it. I ask them to stretch the limits.

"There's an aleatoric cue that I did for Fast And Furious. To start with, I had the string players grab a random note, quarter-tone, whatever they wanted, within the range of a fifth that is the sweet spot of violins, violas, 'cellos and contra bass. I wanted them very, very piano. Then, no matter what note they picked, they should end up at an open fifth, As and Es. I had to notate to account for the conflict between the 'cellos and the contra basses, but basically the notation for this piece of music was 90 percent text and two notes! I wanted them to drift from this very soft but dissonant chord to an open fifth over a period of 30 seconds, for the part where the drivers are trying to jump traffic and get away from this train, and while this was pretty crazy it wasn't totally insane. However, the weird part was that when the musicians started out with this aleatoric chord I wanted them to begin whispering over the top, and to increase the volume of their whispering as this thing was portmanteauing up to the open fifth, so that it sounded like it was getting more dissonant. Then, when they reached the open fifth, they had to exhale.

"We did this cue one time, and there were executives at the studio shouting at my manager, 'Who does your composer think he is? We're not spending $100,000 to have this orchestra whispering!' Rob, the director, said, 'Look, let the guy do what he wants to do, because it could end up being really cool.' He was so supportive of me. Anyway, we did that first take, man, and nobody could speak afterwards. We were like, 'Holy shit! That was cool!' It was one of the first cues, and then after that it was like, 'Oh, OK, cool. You want to play with the back of the bows? Sure!' The musicians were really open to doing stuff. In fact, my film agent, Kathy, said she sees a lot of these players around the water-cooler on other sessions, and they're still talking about it.

"I could have got a choir to vocalise, but this actually ended up being cooler because those guys aren't asked to do that. It made it really interesting. I also love the aleatoric composers like Penderecki, who I've only become familiar with during the last four or five years, and so whenever I'm able to introduce randomisation into composition now I'm all for it. It's really awesome, especially with an orchestra."

Bending The Boy Bands

Equally awesome, in its own weird way, is the image of BT working with N'Sync. It's hard to imagine that taking place, but take place it did when he produced 'Pop', the first single off the group's new album, at 4 Box Studios, his home facility in the LA suburb of Studio City.

"Before I did this project I had the same preconceived notions that I think a lot of other people have about boy bands," he says. "Then JC [Chasez] came to one of my live shows in Orlando, Florida, and my tour manager said, 'Hey man, a member of a boy band is here to see you.' I was like, 'What the f••k are you talking about?' There I was, playing this insane rave with a six-piece band, with everybody instrument-hopping, and now somebody from a boy band was here to see us? However, I met JC that night and I really liked him a lot. He was very clued-up. He knew about a lot of really cool music, whereas the only N'Sync song that I knew was what I considered to be middle-of-the-road radio fodder.

"Anyway, those guys were really persistent with me, and I'm glad that they were, because we all ended up becoming friends. That first time I met JC he asked me to produce one of their tracks, and I said, 'But you're a boy band and I make these underground electronic records. I'm gonna piss off all three of my fans and you're gonna piss off your 20 million. We can't do that, man!' For the longest time we all just hung out, but I started to hear them sing and I was really knocked out by their voices. Still, nothing happened until one night Justin [Timberlake] called me and said, 'We'd like to do something like "Hip-Hop Phenomenon",' which is this crazy sort of crackle-edited breaking track. I said, 'Well, if you guys want to do something experimental, I'll think about it,' but then later on I spoke to Sasha on the phone and he was like, 'Dude, are you out of your mind? What could be more punk rock than making a boy band sound cool?' I said, 'Yeah, you're right! F••k it, I'll do it!'

"So, I did it and it was a real challenge for me, because I had to work within the confines of pop music while at the same time trying to do something cool. Listening to Justin sing, I think he sounds so much like Michael Jackson did when he was a kid, but no one had really played up on that. So, I started out by saying, 'Dude, you know, sing this like Michael. I want to hear every pop, sibilance, and everything really rhythmic in terms of your breathing.' But then it finally got the point where I was sick of telling him, and so I'd just press the talkback button and say, 'Michael!' He'd say, 'All right, sorry dude.' I really wanted him to play up that aspect, because given how rhythmic we eventually got the vocal, it was a lot of fun to edit.

"I did some crazy things on that track. I programmed 17 or 18 pages of code in Kyma and did 40 different vocal treatments, and there's a couple of thousand vocal edits in that song. If you listened to it a capella it would completely freak you out. There's tons of real-time spectral morphing, phase vocoding, granular synthesis, traditional vocoding — anything you can think of I did to the vocals. I just tried to make something mental and I had a lot of fun doing it."

Music Dad

Not that BT always takes a radical approach towards the vocals. In fact, in some cases his technique is the polar opposite, as evidenced when he worked with Peter Gabriel both on the year 2000 celebratory music at London's Millennium Dome and on a track off BT's new album.

"Peter sings so perfectly and with so much emotion that you don't want him doing more than a couple of takes," Transeau explains. "Otherwise it's too confusing to do a vocal comp. You just go out to dinner, have a bottle of red wine, do two vocal takes, and you're done. With the N'Sync record, on the other hand, I really wanted it to sound cut-and-paste, like a collage, as if you were shaking them by the backs of their heads while they were singing. I admit that does suck the live performance thing right out of them, but it's not like those guys can't sing. In fact, it's hard to do their vocal comps, because they're so trained at singing that they'll do the same line identically over and over again, and it's difficult to differentiate between the takes. They're really good at what they do."

So, according to BT, is Gabriel, whose new album he has been contributing to at the latter's elaborate Real World facility in Bath, England. "I call him my 'music dad', because I can call him whenever I need advice," states Transeau. "He's made such fantastic creative strides and his heart's really in the right place, so he's a great person to bounce ideas off. What I love about working with him is he's a very conceptual thinker. He's a conceptual creative person, which is kind of how I think; like with the car parts, I had that idea before I even started writing. So, Peter and I will sit around for a week and talk about concepts and what we're trying to say emotionally, and then in two days we'll record four tracks.

"In my entire life I've never seen anyone who writes more music. When I was there last Christmas he was up to 180 songs, and I was like, 'Dude, you've got the next 15 records finished.' In fact, when I go [to Real World] I'm often sorting through things more than I'm actually writing. A track will have 10,000 bits on it, and so basically you have to search through it for the part you want. I've never seen someone use more folders in Logic Audio!"

October 23 sees the release of BT's R & R (Rare & Remix), a double CD of rare old material and new remixes by Transeau and others, closely followed by a two-CD set of BT samples entitled Breakz From The Nu Skool/Twisted Texture. Evidently, he has no intention of making the boy-band thing a habit.

"People hear something like 'Pop', and suddenly I have the likes of Cher and Savage Garden calling me to produce their albums," he says. "I'm like, 'No, you guys, I'm not turning into one of those Swedish producers. I mean, no offence, but that was kind of a one-off and I'm going to stick to my thing!'"

Which, in terms of BT's own new album, means continuing to push the envelope sound-wise, combining different styles, and realising a long-standing ambition to create a hybrid out of house music and breakbeat. "An interesting bastardisation" is how he describes it.

The new album is scheduled for release sometime in 2002.

4 Box Studio

4 Box Studio 'workstations'.Although BT records drums and orchestral parts at a variety of commercal facilities, he routines material and records vocals, guitars and bass at his own 4 Box Studio. "If I'm going to record strings or whatever, I really enjoy going to a place that has loads and loads of gear that I don't have," he says. "Old valve gear like compressors, EQs, mic preamps — stuff that sounds really warm and colourful. My studio is completely digital, with no vintage tube gear, and that's because I now like working totally inside the computer.

"It started when I began work on my second album [1998's ESCM], and I got my first little Pro Tools card. I noted how bad the timing was with MIDI, how it would be disproportionately skewed, and so I got hooked on the thing that I'm still hooked on, and the result is that whether my audio is for orchestra or for keyboards, everything is frame-accurate. That's why I really enjoy working within the computer environment."

Among 4 Box Studio's most heavily used equipment is:

  • Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation with various modifications.
  • Apple Mac G4 876MHz and G4 Dual 800MHz computers running two Pro Tools Mix Plus systems.
  • Apple Titanium laptop.
  • ARP Odyssey and 2600 synths.
  • Clavia Nord Modular 2 synth.
  • Digidesign Pro Control control surface for Pro Tools.
  • Focusrite Red 7 and Avalon 737 mic preamps.
  • Korg MS2000 and Triton synths.
  • Kyma synthesizer with six DSP cards.
  • Neumann U87 mics.
  • Roland JP8080, JP8000, Jupiter 4, Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and TB303 (with Devilfish mod) synths, VP330 vocoder, and various Compurythm drum machines.
  • Windows PC running Gigasampler and Acid.
Published December 2001