Wednesday, July 01, 2015

LA History: Ian Berky and Beta


Ian Berky was the boyfriend of my girlfriend's best friend. Lean, compact, and handsome, he looked like a lead singer and dressed and partied like the proverbial rock star. He was also a super-nice guy, and a real friend to me at a time when it didn't feel like I had too many.

When I met him he was fronting a hard alternative rock band originally called something I can't recall, before changing their name to "Purj". Purj was a loud, aggressive band in the then-fashionable mold of Rage Against The Machine, but with stronger melodic sense and less political outrage. Ian and his co-writer (and guitar player) were both from French-speaking Canada. I didn't love their band, but they had a few good songs, always played like it was their last show ever, and would often frequently close their show with a non-ironic, blazing version of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again", which instantly endeared them to me.


In 1998 I was hired to do some music (source cues) for movies by Roger Corman's studio Concorde/New Horizons.

Often, the low-budget movie industry will ask for people to do something that "sounds like" another track they wanted but could not afford, or didn't want to even try to negotiate for.

In this case, it was "Breathe" by The Prodigy. Because this was one of my, if not the, first film music gigs I had, I really wanted to do a great job.

I listened to the track, identified what I thought were the key elements or signifiers, and started building my own version. At the time, I was really into the first two Underworld records, as well as other electronic acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Crystal Method, Orbital...all those bands that broke big at the end of the millennium. The track sounded solid.

But I needed a singer, and I wanted someone who could be convincingly aggressive like the guy from The Prodigy. Ian was the obvious and first choice -- he was friendly, around, and I knew he could deliver convincingly and distinctively.

He came over to the studio one afternoon and wrote the lyrics and melody more or less on the spot.

It turned out I was TOO good at copying the song, and the studio decided not to use it because they felt it was too close to the original.

We did a second track, too. ("Wings"). Listening back to these tracks now, it's clear we should have finished a full album. While the songs are definitely rough, and the melodies and chord structures a little flatter or monotonous that I would normally go for, there's something about the aggression plus late-90s electronics that still sounds fresh to me.

Can't Run

This is perhaps the pinnacle of my L.A. production work, in terms of complexity, elements, effort I put in, and happiness with the final result.

In 1998, Ian came in and played a short acoustic guitar song, not much more than a couple of chords, and put down a basic vocal. It was pretty simple, and took him just a few minutes.

A few days later, I presented him with a nearly-completed version of this piece. I added synths and drum loops. I went back to my classical roots and wrote some fancy string section bits and tried to orchestrate them decently. I added some electric guitar, including a solo that was typical of my lead playing at the time, all Edge-meets-Robert-Smith with other new wave influences in there. Chris Fudurich provided some invaluable mixing help and suggestions (as always).

I had him add some more vocals and we made a few other changes. Is it a bit overblown or grandiose? Too long? Maybe, but I also think it's epic and magnificent. I love the drama. This was one of the first times I really threw everything into a piece, and felt like the ideas all worked.

Ian and I did one more track together, but between our various personal lives and band machinations, anything beyond that was out of the question.

Recording Details

At this time, my studio work process would involve using the computer just for MIDI sequencing. The sequencer would generate SMPTE timecode, which I would use to synchronize the DA-88 digital multitrack tape machine. I would record all the vocals to DA-88 digital tape, along with any guitars or bass. All the synthesizers would be run "live" into the mixing board, along with the tracks coming off of the DA-88.

When it was time for mixdown, I would then run the mix "live" -- the synthesizers running live off the computer, the vocals and guitars coming off of digital tape, all going through the mixing board with effects. The 2 track output of that would go down on a DAT. And sometimes I would use the DA-88 to do a back-up 2-channel mix if available.

Perhaps a little complicated, but the computer wasn't powerful enough to handle a lot of audio, and I felt that running the synths "live" made them sound better.


Ian left L.A. around the same time I did. For the last several years, he's been running a successful business customizing vintage cars.

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