BT - sonic passion and BreakTweaker
We had an amazing chat with BT at NAMM where he was presenting the TEC Awards and launching new software BreakTweaker, with iZotope, as well as performing an intimate set at the launch event. He reached deep into his past to explain why he is so passionate about developing the software, and told us just how hands on he was in building it.
The reason I wanted to do this is because I at a very early age fell in love with the idea of non-linearity in music. My compositional teacher when I was about eight, at the Washington Conservatory of Music, introduced me to the music of people like John Cage and also to Marcel Duchamp.
I was fascinated with this idea that music could follow some sort of non-linearity, that you could jump from what would be for all intents and purposes the end of the piece of the music to the middle to the front in a very quick period of time. So my first experiments with this idea in micro-rhythms were in editing physical tape - at age 13 years old I used to sit with a razor blade and a grease pencil.
Cutting tape and changing feelings
I was a tape op and a tea boy, you would call it, in a studio, and I would sit at night time and I would take and record say a four bar phrase on reel to reel at 15 amps a quarter inch. I would find the downbeat, cut it out, right, spool out, find the next down beat, cut it out, and then I’d lay the tape on the floor and I would measure and fold it in half and that’s half notes and fold it in quarters and that’s quarter notes, and those were my very first experiments in this idea of non-linearity in music. I call it set changes, where you change from one feeling or idea to this other feeling or idea really quickly.
And I love the idea in composition of trying to change between these different feelings or ideas quickly. It’s amazing what you can make a listener feel, it’s like a new kind of technique. As opposed to just like, oh we’re feeling sorrow here and oh we’re feeling elation here, it’s like, what happens when we jump back and forth between sorrow and elation, what does that give me? So it’s working with the kind of vernacular that we have now, in a new way.
Programming and prototypes
So what was his main role in developing BreakTweaker, which has been 12 years in the making? A more hands-on one than you might think!
I built it. I actually sat with XCode open and three other guys and built it. So that’s why it’s taken so long. You know I have a background in programming, I learned to programme in Basic A and Cobalt, Pascal, Fortran, early languages, and got introduced to Csound and SuperCollider, some of those shorthand music languages and then finally just bit the bullet and learned some C++ and Objective C and all that kind of stuff.
I’m kind of a hack, I’m slow with it but you know I built a lot of prototypes in Csound and Max MSP and those kind of things and then we actually built this in the very early days for OS 9 and so we had a working code base.
BT pioneered the stutter edit technique of repeating fragments of sound in a rhythmic way. He developed it into the Stutter Edit software plugin with iZotope which allows you to play effects like an instrument. The live audio remixing tool has been used by artists from Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber and Skrillex.
When I signed my partnership with iZotope, I pretty much handed in Stutter Edit as a finished product, UI and all.
And of course they are geniuses at everything they do, they added some additional digital superprocessing algorithms and ported it for all the different frameworks for the PC for the Mac for all the plug in formats. I couldn’t do that I didn’t have the infrastructure to do that.
I actually, live, breathe, sleep this stuff, you know. I mean literally right now if I have an idea that I can’t do with commercially available software I open XCode so I find a solution.
This thing is like having superpowers
Subdividing notes and other ground-breaking features
The BreakTweaker software has a series of firsts in it. BT says there are seven things it can do that have never been possible before. He describes BreakTweaker as an instrument that’s drum centric, that blurs the line between what you think of as rhythm and melody, and is very different from old style drum machines.
BreakTweaker features micro editing where you can stretch out and sub divide notes at a micro level. You can subdivide by pitch and are not bound to 4/4 as a meter says BT. It also has a 16-step sequencer, one shot sample loader with a valuable sound library, and synths.
He says that you can make isorhythms - arrange a fixed pattern of pitches with a repeating rhythmic pattern - for example on a backbeat 4/4.
Another feature is that you can do triplets and quintuplets, and it also gives you accelerandos (a gradual quickening in time) and decelerandos which has never been possible before, and you can switch pitch so that it becomes tonal.
BT’s favourite feature
It may be a hard thing to choose, but does BT have a favourite feature?
My favourite feature if I had to pick one is really the basic basic thing it does. It’s so complicated, this basic thing, which is being able to subdivide a note smaller than a 16th note and to stretch that into a gesture that lasts maybe a dotted quarter note, and then subdivide that into a thousand times. And then slope those subdivisions. It’s cool, I’ve wanted that. I mean I’ve had it for a long time now but to see it in a beautiful UI is even more exciting. It sounds better now that it looks better. My prototypes are horrific to look at!
BT ran through some of the key features, including micro-rhythmic editing, at NAMM. Here’s a little clip.
“I have a tip that is really cool to do”
As the person who knows BreakTweaker inside out - what is his top tip for anyone working with it?
I do have a tip that is really cool to do - use the LFO, don’t just think of the LFO as the way that you think of an LFO.
I literally sat and made 2048 sample tables by hand. Every single one of those wave tables for the LFO. So don’t just think about that as an LFO - this thing goes up into pitch rate.
So think of it as this way of sideband tuning things that weren’t tuneable before. That one thing, there’s a wormhole of stuff to study in there. So you know you’re making a beat that’s in E flat and want to tune some of your percussion but not actually tune the root note, tune the harmonics. And you can do that by using the LFO at audio rate instead of LFO rate.
It’s exciting to hear people use BreakTweaker their way
We asked artists we have featured on Kitmonsters about using BT’s software and samples, and found a huge range of musicians working with them. BT himself loves music from a wide range of genres - he studied classical music from a young age, has played in punk bands, and told us he also loves artists like the industrial icons Test Department.
So what does he make of diverse artists using his technology?
I love it. One of the coolest things about making a tool as opposed to making a piece of media is that you’re sharing something, and you don’t know how people are going to use it. You know, you can make a shovel and some person’s going to figure out how to hook up contact microphones to that and make it a resonating device. You made it so I can dig a hole in the ground, you know.
So it’s so exciting for me, even if it’s not an area of music that I’m interested in or know anything about, to hear people using it in their way. It’s the coolest thing ever. It’s like some big black metal guy from Norway and he’s like, you’re going to freak, I’m going to change metal with this thing, and I’m like YEAH, DO IT!
“This thing is like having super powers”
BT says that using his software doesn’t mean people are going to be making music that sounds like his. It’s a creative tool, and things that other people make with it are always surprising him, including with BreakTweaker.
The thing that’s blown me away is getting back patches, from people that did patches for the factory library, I’m like holy shit, who did this one, this is incredible, what is this? It’s totally unrelated to something I would do.
It’s just giving you new abilities. This thing is like having super powers. I’m not kidding, it’s like I was standing there and I was like, it’s so weird talking about this and not talking about it with a ridiculous amount of enthusiasm. To actually know, and not in some self righteous kind of way, that we’re giving people something that they actually don’t have. You know what I mean? A lot of things now are like repackaged versions of ideas that have already happened. This has, I’d say, seven things in it that are actually new ideas so, you know, God I’m pumped, I can’t wait to see what people do with it, I can’t wait!
He’s a strong believer in what you might call the democratisation of technology, and letting people really get a good sense of his software before they commit to it.
I love that, you know I want to encourage people to check it out and said, guys, come on, let’s get these people a long demo, a fully functioning thing where they can actually use it in their music, and then if they want to buy it they can. I love the idea of giving people tools to use that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to them otherwise. We’re seeing incredible music being made just for that one reason, nothing to do with us right now, so it’s important.
BT has a ton of music-making projects on the go, as well as more technology.
I just wrapped my first season of television, I did 13 episodes of an ABC show called Betrayal which was a crazy and amazing experience. I’m scoring a film right now with Anthony Hopkins and I’m working on a variety of other software projects at the same time.
The new Muse app for the Leap Motion controller is another innovation. You can create and perform ambient music, and layer complex chord sets, intricate drum grooves, atmospheric sounds, and more using an intuitive cubic interface to transpose in any key. BT developed it with Dr. Richard Boulanger of the Berklee College of Music
The Leap Motion is three dimensional, you use your hands in 3D space, you can control controls using just your fingertips and it tracks your fingers within 1/1000th of a millimetre of tolerance, at the speed of light. It’s a crazy controller.
- BT has a host of new and vintage gear, from guitars and glockenspiel to synths and software, and also circuit bent instruments. Check the kit list for some of the things he uses.