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If Carmen Rizzo were in a circus, he’d be its best juggler. It’s amazing how this Hollywood-based producer, composer, and remixer keeps artists, songs, technologies, concerts, films, studios, continents, and even trustees aloft. Appropriately, one of his remixes appears this year on Cirque du Soleil’s 20th Anniversary CD.

Carmen Rizzo in the Studio
Two rare moments at once: Carmen Rizzo, separated from his laptop and adjusting hardware synthesizers.

Sinead O’Connor, Billy Corgin, Alanis Morrisette, Paul Oakenfold, Perry Farrell, and Pete Townshend have all put Rizzo’s talents to good use on both sides of the studio glass, and he’s worked with a number of lesser-known critical favorites as well, including Ekova, Delerium, Grant Lee Phillips, and Niyaz, a new Persian band in Paris. And two hits Rizzo co-wrote with Seal, "Bring It On" and "I'm Alive," will appear on Seal's Christmas 2004 greatest hits disc.

Rizzo also drove the creation of the new “Best Electronic Album” category for the Grammy Awards through his tireless work with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Expect to see him at the podium in March 2005 with whoever wins this long-needed new Grammy.

But today, speaking from his cozy “Suite 775” studio space within view of the Hollywood-and-Vine sign, Rizzo is mired in a technical problem. He’s doing the radio and surround mixes for BT’s remix of The Doors’ “Break On Through” for an upcoming Warner Brothers project. And instead of breaking through, he’s experiencing a computer breakdown.

Carmen Rizzo in Hollywood
Carmen Rizzo aglow between studio sessions at Suite 775.

What caused your technological train wreck?

I’m trying to rig my studio for surround mixing for the first time and having problems with the wiring for my recording card. I’ve been on my hands and knees trying to figure it out, so this is a good time to take a break. I borrowed a card from a friend and will be back up and running soon, but it’s frustrating when technology stops a session.

The worst part [about technology] is that we dive in a little too deep and get consumed with what something can do versus what we personally can accomplish with it. The result is we don’t really get that much music done. Sometimes I actually produce more music when I give myself less equipment to work with.

I always say to people I work with, “Use what you know best.” Often someone will say, “Oh man, have you seen the new Pro Tools?” Or “Isn’t it amazing what Logic can do now?” Yet, there are just as many, if not more, boys and girls producing entire albums with just an MPC3000 [sampling drum machine] and a keyboard or using just an iBook with one or two software programs. All that really matters is that we’re using the tools we know best.

Do you approach your personal compositions subtractively as well?

Oh, sure. For instance, I was in Paris recently and I only had a laptop and an Oxygen [MIDI controller] keyboard to play my Native Instruments soft synths. I found myself actually producing more music and getting more done because that’s all I had. It was a constant reminder that I was getting so much done with so little technology around me. There’s a lot to be said for being inspired by, and challenged by, handicap. I know Prince, and have recorded a lot with his camp, and that’s how they work, too. Prince will get a new piece of gear and issue a personal challenge for them all to use only that one tool to create a song.

Do system crashes like today’s happen often enough to hamper your ability to make your deadlines?

No; this is not the norm at all, and in an hour or two, I’ll have it taken care of and actually be able to do even more with my setup than yesterday. Today is an oddity. Anyone working with a computer, which is most everybody these days, is vulnerable to the downtime of computer problems no matter how simple their commitment to technology.

Carmen Rizzo Moods
Carmen Rizzo plots his next hit song.

What’s the best thing about music technology?

For me, it’s speed and choices. People use software plug-ins versus hardware gear, or soft synths versus keyboards, because the response is instant. In a single click, you are right back to where you left off the night before.

And if you want to go through five zillion sounds, it’s right there at your fingertips. On a creative level, you can really paint your own landscape. Another thing that is very important to me about technology is portability. Whether it’s transporting files over the internet or showing up in person with my laptop, I’m ready to work as soon as I open my laptop. That’s very important.

What was your portability like back in ’94 when you worked with producer Trevor Horn on Seal’s big second album?

I remember flying to London for that record. I was using an old MPC and keyboards and programming Trevor’s huge Synclavier [sampling workstation]. I think they spent $5,000 just for my cartage bill for all the racks of gear I was carrying around! Today, I just show up and open my laptop. Even at today’s inflation, that $5,000 could buy a great laptop, Pro Tools, all the software synths, an interface box—and I could fly first class this time! [Laughs.] Simply put, I just can’t work without the portability of today’s technology.

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What’s in your traveling music rig?

The Oxygen8, a La Cie FireWire drive, a 1.5GHz Apple Titanium laptop, a backpack, and a good pair of headphones. I’m using the latest Panther OS and Pro Tools 6.3.1. Or, if I’m working in [Ableton] Live and not running it with Pro Tools at the same time via ReWire, then I take my little M-Audio 410 Firewire [audio] interface box. [ReWire is Propellerhead Software’s free utility for streaming audio and MIDI controller data between programs.]

[For software], it’s all the Native Instruments stuff, Live, and Pro Tools—that’s my main sound design and sequencing package. I was fortunate to be able to beta test Native’s Battery 2, which isn’t out yet, and I love their Reaktor synths and the FM7 [synthesizer].

I’ve been a longtime user of Live as well. Live 4 is amazing because you can now sequence with it and use MIDI and access VST [effect] plug-ins and VST keyboards and drum machines, whereas before you could only access [effect] plug-ins. So it’s a whole new game and a lot deeper.

But going back to the subtractive aesthetic, isn’t that a lot of new technology to take on and learn?

Yes, but this is a good example of some new technology that I’m more than willing to sit down and learn. Live 4, or any big technological step with music software and hardware for that matter, is a whole new level that’s well worth my time to learn.

You travel extensively with your portable rig. What’s the weirdest place you’ve worked on music?

I’ve worked in Italian villas in the country, apartments in Paris, hotels in London, and on the Eurostar going through the Chunnel. I take that Paris-to-London trip under the channel a bunch and always work down there. I’ve worked on headphones in trains and airplanes, but I try to stay away from working in Metro trains or New York subways! I’ve never been mugged, but carrying expensive gear, man, you’re taking a chance pulling out a laptop and keyboard and [Digidesign] Mbox [audio/MIDI interface] in those kinds of places.

How does the setting affect you artistically?

It’s inspiring. Rural settings, trains, planes, or in the middle of city life.... I prefer the latter because when I take a break I get to walk out onto a city street, and I’m instantly renewed creatively. I’m also inspired by chaos and being in the middle of lots of people and the changing landscapes of a city. My studio here is right on Hollywood Boulevard, so when I walk out to get a coffee or food, I’m in the heartbeat of this wild city.

It is people that inspire me, be it in Hollywood or Paris or London or Rome. I’m very fortunate that I’m still able to travel to record and work with artists all over the world. That’s my lifestyle, and that’s been and continues to be an important accomplishment for me.

Carmen Rizzo at the Hollywood Bowl
Carmen Rizzo during a sound check for Paul Oakenfold at the 2003 World Beat concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

Creating the new “Best Electronic Album” Grammy category was no small feat.

Thanks; it was a labor of love. I was very fortunate to have a great team working with me, including BT and Jason Bentley and Junkie XL and Crystal Method and everyone. It was sort of my brainchild and I spearheaded the whole thing, but en route, I got them on board to help carry the fire. Hopefully, it’s going to change a lot of people’s lives in the future.

What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome with NARAS in establishing that Grammy Award?

Old versus new. With all due respect to NARAS, change is hard. They were very supportive in theory, but to make it a reality took an awful lot of work. [I was] speaking and spreading the love at many seminars and conventions and panels around the U.S.—Winter Music Conference, SxSW, the Billboard Dance Summit—and then authoring and proofing a bulletproof proposal putting forth how electronic music has positively affected popular music. Think Cher and Sting and Madonna embracing electronic music in their biggest hits lately.

I was also fortunate enough at that time to be a NARAS Trustee and speaking in front of all the other Trustees and Governors about this new category, which counts about 40 people. It took two years of standing in front of them and all the hard work on everyone’s part to accomplish the new award.

Visit carmenrizzo.com for more of Rizzo’s music and photos, and a studio walkthrough movie.

Carmen Rizzo: Music Examples

Paul Aiden: The Underdog (MP3/2.9MB)

Delirium: Truly WB (MP3/1.9MB)

Dido: White Flag (MP3/1.9MB)

Niyaz: Dunya (MP3/3.1MB)

Southern Sun (MP3/2.4MB)

Carmen’s QuickTip #1: Samples in Your Palm

“I always have my [PalmOne] Tungsten T2 handy in my travels,” Rizzo says. “I constantly use it to record my own voice with ideas [using the bundled Voice Recorder application], but it’s even handier for recording a great subway musician, a colorful seller in a street market, or P.A. announcements in an airport or train depot. There is tons of recording time available with my T2, so I always have it nearby.”

Tungsten to Titanium. Rizzo transfers his roaming recordings to his computer whenever he synchronizes his T2 with his Macintosh PowerBook. The process automatically converts the audio files into QuickTime files on his desktop.

“Once you’re in QuickTime, you’re just laughing at how easy it is,” he says. “You can do whatever you want with it [then]. I always have my Palm Pilot with me and I’ve made, honestly, some really great samples just using it. It’s a wonderful little personal recorder. It’s a good way to create sound design and samples. A great voice of someone selling cheese in a market...all the great sounds you hear on the road. I just pretend I’m writing on my Palm Pilot while I’m actually recording them! It might not be as good a quality as using a [external] microphone, but often that’s exactly what I’m going for in those types of sounds on my records.”

Carmen’s QuickTip #2: Time-Stretching the Truth

“When you go into the waveform [editing window] of a sample in [Ableton] Live, try doubling the tempo,” Rizzo suggests. “Or adjust the tempo incrementally up or down by hand. Either way, you instantly can get some wonderful time-stretching effects. It’s an amazing sound that’s super easy to create for drum loops or vocal samples. It can get a sort of ’stepped’ sound when you’ve gone too far, but it’s a sound that is still in time. I generally do it on the slower side, asse opposed to speeding things up.”

Ableton Live Example

The highlighted field shows the tempo Ableton Live determined for the selected audio file in beats per minute (BPM). Clicking the “:2” or “*2” buttons below it will cause the program to double or halve the file’s duration without changing its pitch. That can produce interesting sonic effects.