Keith Hillebrandt:
Blessed with the Gift of Sonic Intuition

By Stephanie Jorgl

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Keith Hillebrandt
I’ve always liked the sound of transistor radios, and I’ve always really liked droning sounds,” says sound designer-remixer-programmer Keith Hillebrandt. “I think that comes from watching scary movies as a kid. I always liked how they could create a mood with a sound. If somebody is walking down a hall, it’s not too exciting. But if somebody is walking down a hall — and you’ve got this eerie drone going on — all of the sudden, it turns it into something substantial.”

As one of the best sound and soundscape designers in the world, Hillebrandt can create a sound texture that can make a musical piece evoke a desired emotion. His work is often so subtle that you can’t even tell what what he added — until you take it away.

This natural intuitive talent of his — combined with years of hands-on experience playing with sound — led him from a testing position at Opcode, to producing sounds for the renowned “Poke In The Ear” sound series, to his very own “Diffusion of Useful Noise” sample CD, which landed him a job working for Trent Reznor’s Nothing Studios, designing most of the sounds for Nine Inch Nails’ epic “The Fragile” album.

Hillebrandt recently left New Orleans and Nothing Studios to launch his own sound design company, Useful Noise. He just produced and released a CD collection of his own sounds, “Useful Noise V2.”

Noise Knowhow
The start of Hillebrandt’s adventures in sound tweaking began soon after his parents decided to buy a Kimball organ, when he was nine years old. “They did it to be cool,” he explains. “Everybody else in the neighborhood had pianos, but my parents decided to get something electronic instead.”

“All of the sudden, here was something where I could make anything sound completely twisted… completely out of this world, ” reflects Hillebrandt.

When Hillebrandt and his siblings started taking lessons, he took to the keys instantly and found he could play by ear. “At the same time, I realized my interest in noise was there,” he says. “I used to take my forearm, put it down on as many keys as I could, and then use the Tremolo to make it sound like a train coming. And then when it went through ‘the tunnel,’ I’d kick in the Leslie. “That moved on into trying to play guitar, not being able to play guitar, realizing you could make a lot of weird sounds on a guitar without actually having to play it, but that didn’t get you in the band,” says Hillebrandt.

Bands and Beyond
“So, I ended up buying keyboards and playing in bands,” he says. Eventually, he got tired of playing in bands and dealing with band members. Then he got his first Mac and started using Performer. “After that I was hooked,” he exclaims.

“That led to a lot of noodling around, learning how to write songs again in a different context, because all of the sudden, you didn’t have a drummer who knew what to play, you were basically gonna play whatever was coming out of your non-drummer head,” he explains. “So, it made me come up with a lot of interesting rhythms that I probably shouldn’t have.”

When Digidesign came out with SoundTools and TurboSynth, Hillebrandt got super-sonically inspired. “All of the sudden, here was something there I could make anything sound completely twisted… completely out of this world — especially in those days. TurboSynth was so far ahead of its time, as far as sonic destruction,” he says.

Next page: Father of the Drone

Keith Hillebrandt

1. Blessed with the Gift of Sonic Intuition
2. Father of the Drone
3. Maker of Useful Noise

Nothing Discovers Keith

“I sent a copy of my first “Useful Noise ” CD down to Nothing Studios, and Trent (Reznor) eventually heard the sounds, liked what he heard and said he wanted to buy the whole library. But he couldn’t because Rarefaction had started up and they were going to release the CD,” explains Hillebrandt.

Reznor trusted Hillebrandt’s talent and hired him to design a gigabyte worth of sounds to be used for Reznor’s next album, which would become “The Fragile.” “I spent about six months or so doing that. Eventually, I got to meet with Trent, and we hit it off, so he asked me to move to New Orleans and work with him,” he says.

“So, I ended up being one of Trent’s main programmers for the five years I was there, doing sound design as well, but usually programming bits of music here and there,” says Hillebrandt. “But when you’re working with Trent, he’s a musical genius, so it’s rare that you’re going to think of something better than he will, when it comes to adding a little fairy dust to the music.”

Useful Links

Useful Noise
Usefulnoise V.2
Jerome Dillon

DAW Software
Emagic Logic Audio

Virtual Effects & Instruments Software
Cycling ‘74 Max/MSP
Cycling ‘74 Pluggo
Emagic EXS-24
Native Instruments Absynth, Battery and Reaktor

Synths and Other Effects Processors
Nord Rack 2
Nord Modular
Electro Harmonix
Roland Jupiter 6
Roland Super Jupiter

Audio Hardware
MOTU 2408

Tannoy Reveal Monitors

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