Dream Theater’s John Petrucci: Master of Time Signatures & Sonic Space

Could there be a band more suited to breaking through genre frontiers, creating complex song arrangements, and pursuing sonic excellence over multiple formats than the one that’s named Dream Theater? The always envelope-pushing five-man collective from Long Island, New York stretched the boundaries of progressive metal to their veritable limits with January 2016’s two-act magnum-opus concept album The Astonishing. Following that album’s successful reception and deeply exhaustive tour campaign, DT needed to take a deep breath to determine where they’d go next.

It’s no surprise the outcome of all that inner-mounted reflection found DT changing the trajectory of their career torque once again, ultimately deciding to decamp to a rustic recording locale called Yonderbarn Studios in upstate New York to make their next creative move. Said move resulted in an hour-long treatise dubbed Distance Over Time (InsideOut Music), which was released this past February (and, naturally, was followed by an extensive winter/spring tour). From the unrelenting vortex of the opening track “Untethered Angel” to the low-end lurch of “S2N” to the abject cosmic thrust of “Pale Blue Dot,” DT’s D/T (ahh, now you get what those dual abbreviations are!) is a testament to how well an established band can throw a creative curveball and still hit the sonic bullseye.

John Petrucci, DT’s longtime firebrand guitar slinger and ace producer, wholeheartedly agrees. “I think it was the perfect move to make, because we had to ask ourselves where are we looking to go in the future, where are we coming from, and what’s the right type of record to make at this point in time?” outlines Petrucci, second from right in the above DT band photo. “Everybody was just completely aligned and on the same page and really focused on making the type of record we needed to make, and the one that was important for us to make. It wasn’t an afterthought, it wasn’t willy-nilly, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s see how this goes’ — it was very deliberately, ‘This is what we feel we need to do right now.’ And that’s all part of the reason it’s become so successful for us.”

Petrucci, 51, and I got on the line while he was taking some time off at home to gear up for DT’s summer tour leg that gets underway this week in Europe to discuss why the band’s music is so well-suited for surround sound, how new ideas spring from having a band work together in the same room, and why physical packaging remains critical to their success. Signal to noise becomes the answer. . .

Mike Mettler: I really appreciate that you decided to do Distance Over Time in 5.1, John. We’ve got surround versions of Systematic Chaos [released June 2007] and the self-titled album [released September 2013], so I guess it’s something you have to do every six years. (both chuckle) Do you feel comfortable with how the new 5.1 mix came out? I actually think you should call this album The Astonishing, because that’s how the surround version comes across to me.
John Petrucci: Oh man, I couldn’t be happier with how that mix came out. A couple of things we did for the first time. One of them was using a pretty young guy whom we’ve known for about five years now named Jimmy T [James Meslin] to record and engineer the record. He’s such a talented kid, and he did such an amazing job capturing the record. But then we used Ben Grosse [Alter Bridge, Breaking Benjamin] for the first time as the mixing engineer — and Ben just took it to the next level. He did such a stellar, stellar job.

The two of them, with me as the producer using those guys, turned out to be a great combination. Jimmy T’s engineering and Ben’s mixing — I could not be happier with the way this new album sounds.

Mettler: For you as the producer, when the surround idea starts being discussed between you and your new label, did you already have the thought process started as, “Gee, I’d really like this to be the signature sound for this record”? It already has a different feel because of how you were working on it in the Yonderbarn to begin with, which lent a somewhat different interactive interplay vibe.
Petrucci: Yeah, and there are a couple of different things at work there. First of all, as far as my thoughts and vision on the way I wanted this record to sound is, I wanted it to reflect what Dream Theater truly sounds like as a band when we’re just together cranking up our instruments and playing. And having that captured in such a great room like there was there at the Yonderbarn — I wanted it to have that kind of organic, live, real instruments sound to it, and that’s what Jimmy T did, and what Ben did.

Mettler: I get the sense of you guys being in that barn together, looking at each other and playing off of each other, is that same kind of chemistry element we see when you’re together onstage. Like it is at three minutes into “Untethered Angel,” there’s that one sequence where you and Jordan [Rudess, DT keyboardist] have a moment together before it expands out even further. That feels like an instinctual play. Even if you’re written the music out beforehand, you really can’t do it that way until you’re in that moment.
Petrucci: Exactly — and I guess the telltale sign is, if you listen to the song “At Wit’s End,” which is the first song we wrote when we got together at the Yonderbarn, and it’s the first song that Ben mixed for us ever — and you can feel it. Once the song kicks in, you can hear the nature of the room, the live quality of the instruments, and the realness of it all.

Mettler: Also interesting is how you chose that long fadeout at the end of “At Wit’s End,” and then you have that little piano break and what I’ll call the fade-in coda. Did that come from tracking a rehearsal? It sounds like we’re listening in on you guys figuring something out at the end there.
Petrucci: That is a little Easter egg Jimmy T thought of. Basically, that’s us jamming on and writing the idea for the demo. All the demos we did for this record were live demos, and that one’s just taken from an extended jam from the live demo. We faded it back in just to give people a little fly on the wall moment. We put an effect on it to make it sound a little dreamy. It may have just been picked up by the room mikes. It’s just us in the room, jamming out the idea for one of the first times.

Mettler: That’s a great choice as a coda for a song that has a lot of weight to its lyrical content. Well, I hope you’re able to do more surround mixes in the future, either with new material or other stuff from the catalog.
Petrucci: We are talking about a bunch of different projects having to do with the catalog that we’ll announce soon — but surround may very well be a part of it.

Mettler: One can hope! Okay, back to the sonic side of things. I think “Fall Into the Light” is another masterful piece where you have a nice acoustical break in the middle to pull everything back a little bit.
Petrucci: Yeah, and with something like that, it’s a bit of an experimentation. A lot of that song comes from some heavier guitar riffs that I collected along the way and that the song is built on. When we were writing it, even though the song was moving along in an energetic style, the idea of taking a detour in the middle of the song where we do something a little bit different — it’s almost like a little spaghetti-westernish.

Mettler: I have it down in my notes as, “Scenes From an Imaginary Spaghetti Western.”
Petrucci: Exactly, there you go! In fact, for the original, I had it down as “Cowboy Idea,” or something like that. (chuckles) I had presented it to the guys right in the middle of writing that song as it was going along in that kind of heavy, riffy style, and they were like, “Uh, okay . . . are you sure you want to do that?” And I said, “Well, let’s just try it. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to use it.” I had this idea of breaking down the song by using this spaghetti-westernish vibe, and then bringing it back up. And it worked out. I think in a case like that, it makes the song more complete, because you don’t expect that to happen.

Mettler: I like that. All of the songs have certain added elements to the arrangements where we come into them knowing who you are as a band, but you’re always going to throw us a curveball — which is something I think any album should do.
Petrucci: Exactly, and that’s the beauty of calling yourself a progressive rock or metal band — it’s sort of understood, and expected, that you’re going to throw those curveballs in there. That’s half the fun of it. There are no rules, and you can do pretty much anything. And that song’s a good example of it. Why shouldn’t a song break down into a spaghetti western acoustic part? If you were to suggest that in a Taylor Swift writing session, however. . . (both laugh)

Mettler: Well, I would be interested to hear what “Taylor Swift produced by John Petrucci” would sound like, why not? You’d have two audiences coming together in a way they never did before.
Petrucci: Hah-hah — oh, that’s funny!

Mettler: “Blank Space” takes on a whole different meaning now — just by the title alone. Maybe that’s your next cover. You haven’t done that one yet.
Petrucci: That’s right! Who knows? (chuckles again)

Mettler: It should also be noted that you do take good care in putting together great vinyl packages as well.
Petrucci: Absolutely. Again, there are a couple of things at work there. One of them is knowing our audience. With all the streaming becoming a lot more popular for the way people consume music, with our band and style — and I think with rock and metal in general — I think the fans are still very much interested in the physical versions of music and holding that and looking at it, appreciating art the way fans of bands like Rush or Iron Maiden appreciate getting books or albums and things that really showcase the art.

The second part of that is being with a label who really understands that, and who understands the audience you’re playing to and appealing to. It’s the perfect presentation of the art — for art lovers and appreciators, for audiophiles and people who really get into things like surround and the way the vinyl is mastered as compared to the digital, and for the people who are interested in buying the deluxe collector’s edition box set that has posters and pens and different things. As fans ourselves, those are the things we like, we collect, and we appreciate. It really makes sense, and it’s a great thing when the label is 100 percent in tune with the band they are working with — and that’s what happened here.

Mettler: I agree with that. We were talking about vinyl before. Do you feel you have to mix differently for vinyl now than you do for the digital version or the hi-res surround?
Petrucci: I would say it’s probably more in the mastering. It’s definitely a different approach, yeah. There’s not as much leeway as far as volume goes.

Mettler: And for you especially, since sequencing is so important to every record you make, I’m sure you have to make some tough choices when it comes to side breaks.
Petrucci: For some reason, it works out pretty effortlessly. You would think we’d be pulling our hair out, but anytime we have to make those choices, for some reason, it works out pretty well — and I don’t know why! (chuckles)

Mettler: These days, you have the freedom to be able to stretch the album out over two physical discs instead of just one if you want. There’s a throughline of sorts with this album in going all the way back to [July 1992’s] Images and Words, as you’re essentially in the same place when you made that album, in terms of its length.
Petrucci: Looking back, if you define the record, comparison-wise, where it falls within the 60-minute mark, you do have to go all the way back to Images, which was our second release. [Images clocks at 57:04; D/T is 56:57.] There’s something to be said for changing things up and looking at what you’ve done already and where you just came from, and how to keep things interesting.

How we look forward for what we do as Dream Theater is also looking at it like our fans would, and as ourselves. The more invested and passionate we are about our own music and the more we believe in it, the more that’s going to be contagious and infectious to other people, I think. That part of it is really, really important.

Mettler: This is also the kind of record where, the more you go through it, the more you find different things to zero in on. Like the bass intro John [Myung] does for “S2N” [a.k.a. “Signal to Noise”] is just fantastic. I really like how that one comes across in the surround mix and how it takes hold of the front soundfield before the rest kicks in around you, and the effect on James [LaBrie’s] vocals that starts things out. I feel like that’s your Frank Zappa song, in a way.
Petrucci: Yeah, it’s funny, because that one is a combination of so many different things. You obviously have John, who came up with that bass riff that’s really great and exciting, plus the song that unfolds around it. And the way it was all captured by Jimmy T is the RIGHT way. I mean, Jimmy is a bass player, and he felt that this intro had to sound unbelievable — and he did that.

After listening to the band, he went, “I’m going to put on this really whacked-out vocal effect on where James comes in.” Everybody there is contributing something to the song that’s really unique and special. And you’re just smiling the whole time, because everybody is so excited to put their little spin on it.

And having you, as the listener, describing your listening experience to me — I mean, that’s exactly the type of thing we’re going for.

Mettler: Well done, then! Jimmy’s a great find, because hearing some of the other detail work, like where Mike [Mangini, DT drummer] is coming in with the cymbals and how clear they come across — it’s captured perfectly. Everything’s nice and crisp and you get to hear all the sibilance. It’s not buried, it’s not lost. Lo-res MP3s will not do any of these tracks justice, that’s for sure. I only want to hear them in hi-res.
Petrucci: That’s amazing. I wish that everybody had your approach to it. I think about all the time and detail we take to focus in on all these things you’re talking about — all the fine points of anybody’s instruments, and the way they play. And then just having it not really listened to ever in an environment that we’re hearing it be recorded in or mixed in — to think that nobody will get to experience that unless you do the kinds of hi-res things you’re talking about. It’s a shame that it’s such a small percentage of people who do that, and are into it.

I know some of those services cost more, and I know it’s much more convenient for people to pull up Pandora or Spotify or something, but, yeah, the music is definitely being compromised in the way that they’re experiencing it. It’s no different than watching a movie in a low-resolution kind of way.

Mettler: I often liken it to the audio equivalent of turning on the windshield wipers. That helps dial away the grit that’s there you need to get rid of to dial it in. And maybe the vinyl revival leads new-generation listeners to find something they’ve never really heard before, since they’ve mainly listened to compressed music on computer speakers.
Petrucci: Exactly! It’s a whole different type of experience, for sure. But it’s really revealing, and it’s reflective of — it’s as close as you can get to what the musicians were trying to have you hear when we’re making this music.

Mettler: To wrap things up, let me borrow a line from “Barstool Warrior” — the line about “someone not willing to change,” which is the exact opposite of what’s true here. You guys are always willing to turn the dial a little bit more each time out and challenge yourself as artists.
Petrucci: Absolutely! I think it’s so important. When you look back on the career of any artist or band, it’s important that the catalog really represents the diverse — and I hate to use this word, but — portfolio. (chuckles) Every record tells a different story, and it should be reflective of not only what is going on in the world at the time, but what was going on in the personal lives of the musicians, and them as songwriters and composers.

If that art is truly going to reflect us as people, then that means it’s going to constantly be changing. Having the opportunity to do that every two or three years is such a blessing. You get this blank slate, and another opportunity to try something new that gets you excited and piques your interest — and I love that. I love the endless possibilities of that.