BOSS Users Group magazine Vol. 5, No. 1 Summer 2001

The day starts like any other in the remote hills above L.A. The cloudless morning sky radiates an aura of calm over the expanse of the San Fernando Valley on one side and Hollywood on the other. The distant rumble of a freeway can be heard, but from the hill the stillness is broken only by the gentle flickering of leaves in a faint breeze. A woman emerges from an isolated house. She appears confident but looks back at the house a number of times as she walks quickly to a red car parked on the roadside. As she nears the car she drops her keys and, bending to pick them up, her purse slips from her shoulder and a small card wallet falls unnoticed into a dip at the edge of the road where the rough tarmac meets some dry shrubbery. At that same moment a loud pick-up truck rounds the bend and the woman rises quickly, startled, then turns back towards the car, unlocks the door, places her bag behind the seat and hurriedly gets in. She hesitates for a moment, glances one last time back at the house, and as the truck disappears from view we see the woman’s car pull away up the steep hill and turn a sharp left out of sight.

Cut to: The same car parked facing downhill across from an imposing gray stucco house with a rusted metal, angled roof. The light is identical, the same gentle breeze blows. It’s less than an hour later. The grayness of the house is a sharp contrast to the bright daylight. Its industrial design contrasts with the neighboring homey Spanish-style houses. We see the woman ascending the steep steps to the heavy gray door of the house. A rivulet of ants winds its way from the corner of the door, across the smooth concrete top step and into the dusty earth at the edge of the step. She deliberately places her feet to avoid the marching ants and presses a button on the intercom. As she leans towards the speaker, it bleeps.

“Hello this is Rita. I’m here to interview David and John.”

Seconds later a casually dressed man comes to the door. He shakes her hand warmly and leads her inside. The door closes.

Cut to: The interior of a large recording studio/screening room. A projection booth is at one end and a white cinema-sized screen at the other. Rows of raised seating fill the space between the projection room and a bay of rack gear which takes up almost the entire width of the room. A large state-of-the-art Euphonix mixing console surrounded by a pair of computer monitors faces a spacious floor area which is scattered with 10 or 15 neatly arranged guitars and various rows of multi-colored BOSS effects pedals.

A Fender Rhodes sits in one corner, facing a glass-walled soundproofed drum enclosure. A man speaks.

“Recently we made a new picture, which we premiered in Cannes a couple of weeks ago. David got 'Best Director.' We’re just gearing back up for music right now.”

The man is John Neff, former session guitarist and studio engineer for Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. Neff was lured away from his studio design business four years ago by the film director-writer David Lynch to set up, and ultimately run, Asymmetrical Studio here at the director’s house in the Hollywood Hills. He continues: “We record music, we mix music, we can record ADR [dialogue replacement for video and film], we generate sound effects–we set up all kinds of crazy things and make our own effects in here.

We mix to film and video, we make commercials, we’ve mixed records for people, and we’ve just made our own record here. This one room has to do all of that.”

Anyone familiar with David Lynch’s films will already know that sound and particularly music are extremely powerful forces in the wayward director’s art, to the point of often receiving equal billing with the visuals. It’s as if the abstract nature of music reinforces Lynch’s deliberately ambiguous storytelling approach; yet the music’s rhythms and phrases seem to precisely prescribe the mood he’s aiming for. Who can forget the haunting Twin Peaks theme that was almost as central to the series as the mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer” itself? Or not be chilled by the creepy expressionistic soundscape of his noirish mystery-thriller Blue Velvet, or the disturbing sound design of his feature debut Eraserhead? Or fail to notice the recurrence of music-related central characters in Lynch’s movies: Lost Highway’s jazz saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman), Wild At Heart’s Elvis-fixated Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), or Blue Velvet’s lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).

Lynch works closely with film composer Angelo Badalamenti, a constant collaborator since 1986 when the pair first worked together on Blue Velvet. On most films, including his latest picture Mullholland Drive (Lynch’s recent win at Cannes that tells the story of two women lost in Hollywood–an amnesiac car-crash victim and a wide-eyed fame-seeker–which the director has described as “a love story in the city of dreams”), the two men come up with the majority of the score up front. Lynch likes to replay the music during filming, instilling both the crew and the actors with a sense of the rhythm and atmosphere of each scene. It’s an unconventional method of filming, but one that’s central to Lynch’s unique creative ideology.

“Sometimes during shooting he’ll play music not necessarily for that picture, just something that inspires a mood,” reveals Neff. “During Lost Highway it was Rammstein. Some guys in the crew brought CDs to the set and they started using it in playback more and more to the point where it actually ended up in the film.”

Badalamenti, Lynch and Neff work together on recording and producing the soundtrack here at Lynch’s residential studio, bringing in extra musicians where needed. The room is big enough to accommodate a small orchestra, such as the one they recorded for last year’s Straight Story, Lynch and Neff at the console and Badalamenti conducting the musicians.

In such circumstances they usually record directly into the computer. It’s uncommon for a film director to own such a state-of-the-art recording studio as this, emphasizes Neff, let alone one that doubles up as a full dubbing theater with 7,300 watts of power, three-way cinema sound, 35mm as well as all the video sources... all built to the THX spec. For Lynch it was a case of necessity, in order to allow him the full and unlimited involvement in the soundtrack’s evolution that he likes. “It’s not an inexpensive proposition. Many directors have a digital audio recorder, a small console, a video projector and a screen, and they’ll work at home or have a small project room. Here we can do everything. It really is a monster,” confirms Neff.

As engineer and producer respectively (although the roles are sometimes blurred), Neff and Lynch work alone on sound effects and non-acoustic musical passages, more often than not using amplified guitars and the many effects boxes they’ve amassed over the years to come up with those distinctive Lynchian soundscapes. Fixing his eyes on the rows of BOSS pedals, Neff begins to explain their importance in the overall creative process.

“Obviously we use them as they’re intended for guitars, but we also set up great big chains of 12 or 15 pedals which we’ll use on prerecorded tracks or on vocals as we’re recording,” he says. “We’ll be moving the controls, processing tracks and doing all sorts of weird things in real time, basically taking beautiful clean sound and destroying it. Sometimes it gets absolutely unrecognizable and just becomes textures. Then those textures imply a certain mood and end up on a project.

“Stompboxes have a sound that no digital device has,” he continues. “David likes a real organic, earthy kind of feel and sound to everything that he does, and these do a job that digital goodies don’t. Especially for the guitars, we like these. I’ve found the BOSS pedals to have been the most innovative over the years. You can do anything you want with them.”

One of Neff’s favorites is the BOSS OD-2 Overdrive pedal, which he uses for an overdriven tube amp simulation effect. “It’s predictable,” he explains. “I can run it in an amp that’s set clean and not too loud so it doesn’t kill us in the studio. I use a nice predictable setting on the overdrive, but then when you kick it into turbo it really cooks.”

Another favorite is the OC-2 Octave, which they deliberately try to confuse with dirty tones so that it struggles to grab the note, which results in what Neff describes as a “broken up, jarring effect.” An older BF-2 Flanger is regularly roped into duties on bass, guitar and vocals, which is sometimes combined with the OC-2 Octave, the FT-2 Dynamic Filter and the AW-2 Auto Wah on bass lines. Lynch will often then twist the controls wildly to come up with unique, otherworldly sounds.

“We also use BOSS tuners. We’ve got about half a dozen TU-12Hs,” says Neff, recalling a particularly memorable use of the high-range chromatic tuners when they made the album Lux Vivens with English classical/folk artist Jocelyn Montgomery. Released on Mammoth Records in ‘98, the medieval-music crossover was produced by Lynch and engineered by Neff, both men playing multiple instruments to come up with the deeply evocative musical backing. “I remember Jocelyn took a glass bowl and made a ringing sound going round the rim with a wetted finger, which we then recorded onto the 24-track and vari-speeded to make these really eerie chords. I printed many tracks of the bowl at various different pitches, and by moving faders on the console I could change the chord, a little bit like drawbars on an organ. The way we were able to accurately tune it was with the BOSS tuner.”

These and other extra-curricular musical projects form the backbone of the studio in the times when there’s no film in production. Since the completion of Mullholland Drive, tentatively slated for a U.S. release in the fall, Lynch and Neff have been hard at work creating unique content for the soon-to-debut, as well as recording an album under the moniker Blue Bob. The latter, described as a combination of heavy metal and 1956-era rock ‘n’ roll, will only be available through the website, which will offer other original content such as made-for-the-web film sequences and an adult cartoon series.

“The BOSS VT-1 Voice Transformer has been a lifesaver for the cartoon,” says Neff of the most often-used piece of gear in the studio. “We’ve tried many many things to manipulate voices, and nothing has had the immediacy of this little box. All the devices we tried, some of them very expensive, don’t let you do it in real time. You either have to process your voice or there’s a time lag which screws you up. This thing is immediate–I can just grab the sliders and change it on the fly.

“David does all the voices, sitting in a chair with headphones on in front of a microphone listening only to the effected voice. We’ve stored presets in it for some of the characters, and if he’s got a new character it takes seconds to come up with a new voice and blammo, off we go. You can change a voice in ways you wouldn’t believe.”

As if on cue, the door to the studio opens and an attractive middle-aged man enters the room carefully balancing a cigarette to prevent its long pillar of ash from falling. His commanding presence is immediately apparent, though it contrasts sharply with his gentle, introspective demeanor. Dressed in a white shirt and khaki slacks, his thick fair hair forming a natural coif on the top of his head, he pulls up a chair next to his guitar rig, placing his Parker Fly guitar across his lap.

“I’m not one bit a guitar player. I’ve been called a guitar god, but that is really not one bit true,” he says obliquely. “I taught myself and I play upside down and backwards, like a lap guitar. I’m interested in making the guitar talk. It’s somewhat musical, but then again, it’s not.”

David Lynch couldn’t look or sound less like a rock guitarist if he tried. Yet he sits there surrounded by all the paraphernalia–robust amps, sleek custom-made guitars, and a neat little stack of BOSS effects pedals (which he describes as “beautiful”). His own personal musical statement, the Blue Bob material, is as extreme as anything you’ll hear on an OzzFest tour.
“John programs in many different things, then I can go from one sound to another with the pedals. That’s how we start the experiment. A little while later a song emerges,” he says of an individualistic approach to composition that seems more rooted in artistic whim than music theory or instrumental technique. “It’s the initial sound that dictates what follows. So we start with a sound, it just starts talking to you and a thing will emerge that’s quite different. And it goes on like that.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that Lynch is also a painter (he claims he came to Los Angeles not for the glitz and glamour, or to be close to the film studios, but simply for the incredible light) and it’s a discipline that obviously influences his music-making, where individual sounds are treated like colors, blended and layered accordingly.

“There’s a beautiful place where sound effects start changing into music, and I love that area. These pedals can do things that bridge the gap,” he says, gesturing towards a row of BOSS stompboxes that includes an LM-2 Limiter, an OC-2 Octave, an NS-2 Noise Suppressor and an OD-2 Overdrive. “Each one will give you a different sound, but in combination there’s so many different variations. Sometimes we just stick with what has been working in the past, or we’ll just start dialing in some random brand new thing and see what it does. It’s all a process of experimentation, and the whole idea is to find the kind of sound that will lead you somewhere, but you never know quite where before you start.”

Lynch’s deep involvement in the sounds, musical and otherwise, is something he’s always held firm. It’s an area of his filmmaking that he describes as a process of action and reaction. The sounds are firewood, he claims, like fuel that feeds the final outcome. Therefore, anything that allows manipulation of the raw material, and gives life the different hues of sound, is imperative to the process. And so it is that he announces that there’s none of his BOSS gear he could be without, reserving a particular fondness for the VT-1 Voice Transformer.

“That’s just a beautiful little box, and it’s very affordable. I’m using it for all the voices in my cartoon series and it’s been completely invaluable,” he notes, taking a pause before adding “I need all these pieces because I love experimenting, and they open up a whole other world of experimentation.”

As the interview draws to a close, Lynch becomes visibly more relaxed, as if relieved to be out of the spotlight. He replaces his guitar on the stand and moves over to the mixing desk where John Neff is sitting. The woman follows, slipping her tape recorder into a purse on the bench. Neff hands her a Blue Bob CD case and all three face the huge speakers as the silence of the room is replaced with a cacophony of thunderous sustained guitar chords, hard gothic beats and thick menacing half-sung/half-spoken vocals. The music continues for a minute or so, becoming increasingly distorted and dynamically forceful as it gradually builds.

Cut to: The red car racing up a hill. It reaches the top and without stopping it veers around the corner, turning left onto Mullholland Drive.

Cut to: The interior of the car. The woman looks in her rear-view mirror and we see in the reflection an empty winding road disappearing fast. She lets out a small gasp, and reaches frantically behind her seat. She leans further, feeling around for something that isn’t there. She makes one last attempt, leaning over hard and reaching to the empty floor. The car bumps, a screech is heard, and a series of increasingly violent bumps. Everything is blurred and all that’s heard is a mass of crushing metal and undergrowth. We see one last bump and a fleeting upside down view before everything turns black. A branch cracks, and then nothing is heard except slow deep breathing.

Epilogue: Boss Users Group would like to thank David Lynch and John Neff for sending us the tape of this interview. The journalist, who introduced herself only as Rita, left her purse at their studio and mystifyingly never returned for it. No identification was found in the purse and other than the tape and the recorder, it contained only some Polaroids of the empty interior of a house. If anyone knows the identity or whereabouts of Rita, or if she’s reading this, please contact us.

John’s #1 Guitar Chain: PSM-5 Power Supply, TU-12H Chromatic Tuner, RV-2 Digital Reverb/Delay,
CE-3 Chorus Ensemble, DM-2 Analog Delay, GE-6 Equalizer, OD-2 Overdrive
John’s #2 Guitar Chain: PSM-5 Power Supply, OC-2 Octave, CS-3 Compression Sustainer,
FT-2 Dynamic Filter, AW-2 Auto Wah
John’s Bass Chain: OC-2 Octave, CS-3 Compression Sustainer, FT-2 Dynamic Filter, BF-2 Flanger
Dave’s #1 Guitar Chain: VG-8 V-Guitar System, GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer
Dave’s #2 Guitar Chain: LM-2 Limiter, NS-2 Noise Suppressor, OC-2 Octave, OD-2 Overdrive

Back to the David Lynch articles page.

© 2002 Bug Magazine