30 Minutes With T Bone Burnett

You want a Renaissance man? Look no further than T Bone Burnett, the producer behind the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line. Now, after a 14-year break, Burnett re-dons his singer/songwriter and recording-artist hat to drop a gritty new album, The True False Identity (DMZ/Columbia, also available on DualDisc). And he gets feted with Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (DMZ/Legacy), a tasty, two-CD, career-spanning collection of 40 tracks both rare and well done.

Some of the words I jotted down while listening to the new album were "rumble" and "shuffle." I wanted to explore the low end on this record. I told my three drummers, Carla Azar, Jim Keltner, and Jay Bellarose, "We've already heard every beat, so let's not have any beats. Let's just rumble." That's the music I like best - the kind where the river meets the ocean, that brackish water where the salt water and the fresh water are all mixed up.

Recently, I went to a John Adams symphony at Disney Concert Hall [in Los Angeles], and it was interesting to hear the way he composed the tone. The high end was handled by xylophones and small instruments way in the back of the orchestra. They were very low in volume, but there's the phenomenon that if you sit at the top of a football stadium while a marching band's playing, the only thing you hear is the triangle, because those high tones travel much faster than the low tones.

Since I wanted to feel the pocket of the low end, I put that first, and everything else, all the higher stuff, comes later. Given the technology we have now, we're able to do that - we're able to compose an incredibly complex bottom end and still have it be distinct.

When I'm recording in analog, I make sure all the transients are there - the reverb, the sense of the room or the space. In digital, you lose that sense. When we edit tracks in digital, we add a lot of noise in - clicks and buzz and machines - and there's a tremendous amount of information behind the sound that you never hear out of the speakers. With tape and hiss and vinyl records and surface noise, you always had some kind of irritant behind the sound that was pushing it out at you. Your ear was focused more on the sound.

So you prefer analog to digital then? Analog is to digital as film is to video. There's an infinite spectrum of colors you can store on film. With video, there may only be a few million colors. When you watch TV, your eye is constantly working to integrate different pieces of the image into one another. And it's the same with digital music. You're only getting pieces of each wave.

I think CDs are fairly difficult to listen to. Because they're sampling, your ear has to fill in the blanks, so to speak. It's taxing. It's stressful, actually. To me, vinyl sounds the best.

How come? First of all, vocal cords vibrate back and forth. So do the diaphragm on a microphone, the strings on a guitar, the skins on a drum, and the needle in the groove. Music stored on analog tape is all following the same wave. When you get into the world of digital, it's all, "on off, on off." It's a different language.