Computer Hardware & Software: They Might Be Giants

Performing Songwriter, March 2003
by Heather Johnson

With their self-titled debut released in 1986, They Might Be Giants established themselves as cult indie gods/college radio darlings, bringing the attention of major labels, MTV and modern rock radio all the while retaining their laid-back eclecticism and far-out aesthetic. John Linnell and John Flansburgh recently celebrated 20 years of making music together with the release of the quirky and entertaining children's album, No!

"Every song we write starts with a demo on Digital Performer," says John Flansburgh, one of the "two Johns" who make up They Might Be Giants. The quirky college rock duo became fans of Mark of the Unicorn's (MOTU) popular Macintosh-based MIDI sequencing program in its first year of production. "We made our first album with Performer in 1985," Flansburgh says. "We used it mostly to control the drum machines."

Nearly 20 years, more than a dozen albums and several soundtracks later, Flansburgh and musical partner John Linnell continue to use MOTU products to create their left-of-center pop songs, television themes and advertising jingles. Flansburgh's project studio houses Digital Performer 3, powered by a Macintosh G3 laptop and a Mackie SR32-4 mixing console. Linnell's Macintosh Powerbook G3 runs Digital Performer 2.7, but he confides, "I'm getting a new computer and installing DP3 momentarily, I swear." Linnell pairs his Performer with a Mackie SR24-4 mixing console and a Tascam US-428 MIDI interface and control surface.

Both musicians enjoy the opportunities for experimentation offered by Performer. Users can record unlimited MIDI and audio and simultaneously record and play back multiple tracks of data. "You can do an unbelievable amount of fiddling around," Linnell says. With a hint of good-natured sarcasm, he adds, "It's really great for putting stuff together, cutting it up and putting it together again. That's what we spend our time doing."

Digital Performer also includes an ample number of real-time DSP effects, including two-, four- and eight-band EQ, distortion, reverb, echo and more. "There's one format-changing device similar to a pitch shift effect, but instead of making your voice sound like Godzilla or The Chipmunks, you can actually change the shape of the tone," Flansburgh explains. "You can change the gender of your voice or gain 100 pounds instantly. It's a very strange, sort of startling effect, but it can sound quite natural."

"You can get your idea down to zeros and ones in a matter of minutes," Flansburgh says of Performer. "It keeps the inspiration alive. A lot of times we hold on to [original ideas] all the way to the end. It's very easy to fall in love with an inspired demo."

The band's first children's album, No!, recorded between sessions for T.V. show Malcolm in the Middle, contains a few of these off-the-cuff demo tracks. "I recorded a vocal walking from my house to the studio," Flansburgh says, referring to the melody for "Wake Up Call." "I sampled every note individually and fed it into the computer. Then we re-rigged it so it was being played electronically as if it were a sampler, which gives it this very otherworldly quality."

Sending files through the Internet provides another convenient means of exchange. "Now we can send out demos and MP3's directly to a client online, rather than FedEx a CD," Linnell says. "On one level, it makes life easier, but because we can send it back so quickly, they can actually get in a few extra revisions because we're working so fast."

When it comes to recording, Flansburgh still prefers to track at a commercial studio. "Having recorded songs every imaginable way, I think recording with a band is the most efficient way to work," he says. "It's incredibly fast and always sounds original."

"It's a thrilling process," Flansburgh says of Performer. "To realize a song within minutes of having an idea, and to hear it come back sounding a little bit more like The Beatles and less like you singing in the shower-it's a very satisfying thing to have in your life."