Junkie XL & The Art Of Scoring With Synthesizers

Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, is a multi-platinum producer and multi-instrumentalist. He hit #1 in a dozen countries with his remix of the Elvis Presley song A Little Less Conversation. He’s collaborated with Hans Zimmer on a series of high-profile scores, including Batman vs Superman, Man of Steel and Inception. And he has a wildly successful film scoring career, with credits like Mad Max Fury Road, Deadpool, Black Mass and Divergent.

Holkenborg has also been sharing a series of videos, Studio Time, on his YouTube channel that offer a masterclass in his approach to film scoring, The videos feature Holkenborg in his massively synthed-out studio, sharing his take on gear, talking about he decides on a sonic palette for a film, discussing the business realities of film scoring and more.

This interview is one in a series, produced in collaboration with Darwin Grosse of the Art + Music + Technology podcast. In this interview, Darwin talks with Tom Holkenborg about scoring with synths, making music with massive modulars and more. You can listen to the audio version of the interview below or on the A+M+T site:

Darwin Grosse: Hi, Tom, thanks a lot for taking the time. I know you’re super busy.

Tom Holkenborg: Thanks for being here, man.

Darwin Grosse: One of the things I always like to do is ask people how they got to be an artist in the first place.

Was it really interesting music lessons you took when you were a kid or did you have a teacher or a friend or a collaborator that really kicked things off with you?

What are the things that helped you become the artist that you’ve become?

Tom Holkenborg: It’s a little more complicated than that, but you’re touching on all the right subjects.

I was born into a musical family. My mom and dad both played instruments. There was always music in the house. My dad would listen to a lot of rock and roll, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, for instance, and my mom would listen primarily to classical music. She played violin and she played the recorder and she gave music lessons and we had a piano in the house.

When I was three, four, I started banging on the piano and that pretty soon meant I got a drum kit. I became a drummer when I was seven. Then, when I was 12, I started playing bass, and, at 14, I played guitar and keyboards and whatever was available.

When I was 17, I started working in a music store. That was around the same time period where the first Atari computer came out with MIDI and synthesizers became available. Almost on a two monthly basis, there was a new synthesizer out. In that music store, I got to learn all these synthesizers that were available.

I knew from that point on that (in addition to) what I knew as a musician – which was just being a good drummer, a good guitar player and bass player – I also needed to know a lot of this technology. And then the combination of that will shape my future.

In doing so, I was able to collect a lot of synthesizers myself with little or no money. People came to our store with all these beautiful synthesizers made in the ’70s and early ’80s and they wanted to get rid of them to buy a digital version.

I was able to collect so much stuff, for no money whatsoever. A good example is the Korg PS3200. That’s a machine I think I bought for 100 dollars, 125 dollars. That thing now is worth, if you can find it, close to 30,000 pounds, but I kept it always, I never sold.

Then, in my 20s, I started mixing and producing a lot of bands. I was also, in my teens, an engineer in a studio. I was assistant engineer first and then I became an engineer. Then, I became a producer to record bands from Holland and later from elsewhere.

By the time I was 23-24, I played in bands, I toured around the world, I was an engineer, a mixer, a producer. I played a bunch of different instruments. I had a huge synth collection by then and I had my own mixing desk and speakers at the studio.

That’s when I decided, “Now I want to put all that to use and just make my own records.” I quit the band that I was in, and that’s when I started Junkie XL.

At first, I just did some remixes. Then later, I recorded my first artist album in ’96. That became a big success worldwide. I was now touring all over the world and doing great shows.

Then, in the end of ’97, when I came back home the first Blade movie came out with Wesley Snipes. One of my tracks was licensed and used in the film.

I was so impressed by how it worked with the picture that I got really interested in film. Step-by-step, I started working on some films. I worked on Resident Evil. I worked on the Matrix movies – that didn’t get used for the movie, but it got used for the video game.

In 2002, after I had a worldwide number one hit with a remix I did for Elvis Presley, I decided to move to LA and to fully explore the possibilities of becoming a film composer. I was here for a year and I knew, “This is going to be a long road. This is not going to happen in a week.”

I assisted a lot of composers. I did some small things on my own.

For Holkenborg, 300: Rise of an Empire was his ‘first big break’ in film scoring.

Then, finally in 2013, I got my first big break and I was able to do 300: Rise of an Empire. From that point on, people wanted to work with me constantly.

It’s been an ongoing amazing trip actually. All these aspects have formed me into what I am today as a musician, producer, mixer and a sound maniac.

Darwin Grosse: Sound maniac indeed. I am actually really curious about something. You went from being a 17 year old guy that got hired in a music store to within a couple of years engineering and producing and all this stuff.

Was it all self-learning or did you take classes or did you have a good mentor? How did you get over the bridge of going from knowing some technology to being that skilled at it?

Tom Holkenborg: First of all, I have had multiple great mentors in my life, multiple.

When I was in high school, my music teacher saw the talent that I had and he nurtured it. He was motivating me and he gave me a lot of homework to push me more to getting good at what I wanted to do and what he saw as a talent.

Then, when I was 15-16, when I started working in a studio as an assistant. The engineer there saw the talent that I had for that as well. He taught me a lot and he motivated me. They allowed me in the night hours to work without charge in the studio, too, so I could experiment with my own projects.

Then I had my mom and my dad that, whatever the noise was that I was making on the guitar or bass or piano or a drum kit, they always allowed me to make as much noise as possible, just to get the creativity just going, never put a brake on it.

Then when I got into Junkie XL as an artist, I met a lot of people that were super friendly and guiding me, “Maybe you should try this or maybe you should try that.”

I had some great people at record companies that were true A&R. A&R stands for artists and relations. Really thinking with you what your career can become. I’ve had great managers that helped me out putting me on the right track.

The list of people that were so important for me is endless. The last important person on that list is Hans Zimmer,  whom I worked with in 2011-2012.

All these people were so important to me, to get me on the right track, and giving me all that information that I needed.

That is one of the reasons that sparked that whole YouTube channel that I started, to give everything that I know at this point back to the community for free.

It’s not like that I am a master film composer, because I’m not. I do what I do and I love it.

Holkenborg’s ‘Studio Time’ videos offer a free masterclass in his approach to film scoring.

I just want to share everything that I know, at least with the people out there, and hopefully there’s a bunch of stuff that young aspiring electronic musicians or synthesizer fanatics or young film composers find interesting to see and to watch.

Darwin Grosse: One of the interesting things about the YouTube videos is that you’re not shy to talk about how sometimes you get frustrated or literally show yourself getting a little frustrated, or sometimes just having fun too, which is pretty cool.

Tom Holkenborg: Yeah, because the life of a professional musician, composer, engineer, mix engineer, is primarily frustration. It is the way that you handle the frustration that is going to allow yourself to grow to a next level.

When you just start with something, and I remember that in the past, when I just started playing guitar, within three weeks I was playing in the school band and I was a very decent player within three weeks. Then, to get to the next level takes a year and then to the next level takes another two years and that’s where it gets frustrating. Practicing, practicing, practicing.

There’s that great book written about when you actually become really good at something, and there is the 10,000 hour mark. This researcher discovered that around 10,000 hours that you put into something with dedication, that’s when you start to really excel at something.

Part of those 10,000 hours is just pure frustration. It’s important. It’s an important emotion to have as a human being and how to deal with it.

Darwin Grosse: The first time I encountered your work was probably when Saturday Teenage Kick came on.

What I remember most about that album was the way that it literally seemed to jump out of the speakers. The sonic bombast was incredible and the sound just came barreling out of the speakers in a way that a lot of electronic musicians weren’t able to quite achieve.

You’re finding yourself doing music for cinematography, now, which really demands the same thing. It demands music that  explodes out of the back of the screen.

What is it in your brain that thinks of music in a way that it can accomplish that and what are some of the techniques or tricks that you might do that allows that to happen?

Tom Holkenborg: For starters, I always wanted music to have an immense amount of attitude. That’s what I always liked.

Now, I have to learn over the last five years or so, when a director says to me, “Tom, that’s great, but when the two fall in love we don’t need blaring drums. You can actually play a soft violin line and it’s cool too.”

I was like, “Okay, okay, okay!”

Naturally, I come from that world where everything has a really high energy and a very powerful sound. That’s what I liked.

I always liked that as a kid in albums that were produced that way. The same for classical music. If I would play something from Bruckner or Mahler, I would love it because it was so loud and blaring and I just loved it.

“I always wanted music to have an immense amount of attitude. That’s what I always liked.’

When I did Saturday Teenage Kick – if you look back on the stuff that I had to make that album with, it was almost nothing. It was a sampler, an Akai 3200. It was a small mixing desk and a four track digital recorder with a few effects. It did had a few compressors.

The compressors made the sound really loud. Every little sound was a little bit compressed one by one and then put into a group together with more compression on it. Then it would go to the master with more compression on it. That was the reason why that album sounded so loud and where it really got a blaring quality.

Nowadays, everybody that works on the sequencer or a laptop or a computer, we all now have multi-band compressors, limiters, so we can all now make stuff loud. Back in the day it was some sort of an art form to do that. It was interesting. I really liked it.

It also made every sound very definable and very identifiable that you could really pick it out. It’s like, “There’s something happening there, something happening,” where a lot of my colleagues who were making records, you would play them and it sounded a little mushy, not really defined and not necessarily powerful.

Then, later in life, I discovered that music can also be powerful when it’s not blaringly loud. But in those days I didn’t get it.

Darwin Grosse: You were a Mahler guy, not a Beethoven guy, right?

Tom Holkenborg: No, I was, but I liked the sections that were loud. I loved especially the ’50s and ’60s orchestral recordings, because the microphones were usually distorted or the records were distorted and I would really like that growling sound, especially from the movies from these days.

If you play The Good and the Bad and the Ugly, the way that movies were made and the way that they were mixed back in the day, it usually over-saturates the film. When you play the score from the film, when you play the film it’s so distorted and it’s just wonderful.

Holkenborg on synths: “These are my babies! You’re not going to sell off your kids. That’s what this really is for me.”

Darwin Grosse: That’s a great point. Just even as you were saying that my memory of it even has the distortion in it. It’s the sound of that era of movie.

I talked earlier a little bit about you having literally one of every synthesizer that anyone could care to have.  I’m a little curious about your selection of things.

You’re a guy who, if you want something you’ll go and pick it up because it’s going to be professionally useful to you.

What are the things that help you determine whether something is going to be useful? You’re doing so much work right now that time has to be a lot more valuable than the money at this point.

What is it about a synthesizer that would make you feel like it’s going to be worth your time getting to know it?

Tom Holkenborg: The thing is this: for starters, it’s that because I’ve been really involved with synthesizers from day one, when they started to become available for, “normal people.” They were still expensive in ’83, but it was doable. Before that it was just too much.

The architecture of how every synthesizer is set up…..there’s three or four different types of synthesizer setups. Every time when I see a new synth it’s like, I don’t even need to read the manual. You just go through it and it’s just fine, except for some of the very newer synths, when a lot of functionality is buried around digital menus. Even that, you just go through it once, just like, “Okay, I got it, I know where everything is.”

For me, to get a synthesizer is, there’s a couple of considerations. People would leave notes on my YouTube channel, saying, “You have all these synthesizers, but you don’t have this one, I don’t get it.”

A very simple answer to that is, when I buy a synthesizer, especially when it’s an older synthesizer, it needs to be dirt cheap. I’m not going to be the guy that’s going to pay $25,000 for a Yamaha CS80, which is a synthesizer I don’t own.

People say, “You’ve got the CS10, the 15, the 20 and the 30 and the 60. Why don’t you have the 80?”

The other synthesizers I bought for 150 bucks! Nobody wanted them!

The CS80 – there are only a few left that are in good condition. If you want them, you’ve got to pay 25,000 dollars. I’m not going to pay 25,000 dollars for a synth! No synth is worth that much, believe me.

It’s the same, why don’t I have a TB-303, the 303 classic bass line from Roland. It’s too expensive. By the time I was looking for one, they were already too expensive and I decided not to buy it and I still don’t have one. I don’t want to spend money on stuff that feels useless.

It’s really great to have these synths, and again, most of them I picked up at a time period where nobody wanted them.

The synths that I buy right now are synths that were released in the late ‘90s into the early 2000s. Those you can pick up for anywhere between 50 and 300 dollars. I don’t think these synthesizers will be worth that much in 20 years from now, but they’re interesting to play with. They give me inspiration.

And that’s the second determination whether I would buy a synthesizer or not: Does it give me inspiration or is it just another one to have?

If it’s just another one to have, I’m not going to buy it. But if it’s a synthesizer that’s going to give me goosebumps when I play with it, yes. I will potentially get it, if the price is right.

Darwin Grosse: You were in a lucky spot because you were able to pick up these classic synthesizers when they were relatively cheap, but you were already using them professionally when they started to bump up in price. So many of my friends bought them cheap, but then when all of a sudden the price doubled they were like, “I’m selling, I can make a pile of money.” But because you were using them professionally you were like, “I’m not giving them up.”

Tom Holkenborg: No – the price of some of these synths was actually already going up significantly before I even had success as an artist. I was still having trouble paying the rent and just making sure I could get by.

I did get the break after my first Junkie XL album, and that was ’97, but between ’92 and ’97 it was really hard to make money. I still had all these classic synths and they were starting to become very valuable. Not as valuable as now, but very valuable.

But, I still didn’t sell them. Because I just wanted to keep them to make music with them.

These are my babies! You’re not going to sell off your kids. That’s what this really is for me.

Darwin Grosse: Me and many other people have really bad stories about selling off our kids. I wouldn’t want to have to try and buy some of that stuff that I sold!

You talk about some of these new, right around the 2000s era, synths that you’re running into. I’m curious, what of those have you seen that actually did inspire you or did give you goosebumps. I’m curious because there are a couple in that timeframe that I really like. I’m just wondering what your feelings are.

Tom Holkenborg: I have a few. I’ll just name a few in a row and then we can talk about it.

One is the Oberheim Matrix 6R, which is a 19″ unit with a complete analog synth in it. One is the Oberheim Matrix 1000, which is a one unit analogue synth. One is the Yamaha TG77, which is a mix between an AWM synth and a DX synthesizer. One is the Yahama EX5R, which is also released way later. It’s also a combination of sampling, hard disk recording, analog modeling and also DX.

Some samplers from that time period, the Yamaha A4000 and 3000. Those are a few modules that were released in the late ’90s and into the early 2000s and you pick them up for 200 dollars on eBay in perfect condition. Especially those Yamaha synths are so great to program with. I use it a lot on some scores. Those are a little bit bitchy to program.

I forgot one, which is the Yamaha VL1, which was insanely expensive when it came out. It was 14,000 dollars or 12,000 dollars in ’94. I picked the module version of that up for I think 300 four months ago, five months ago.

That is a really interesting synthesizer, because it had this string as basic sound or blowing or double reeds. Then you could change all these parameters and you could make extremely interesting sounds. It’s really awesome.

Darwin Grosse: What’s interesting is when I look at this list that you just gave me, they all either have really interesting voicing structures or really interesting sound shapers. Because those Yamaha samplers, they have really interesting filters behind a pretty straightforward sampling system. The TG77, the sound engine of that is actually really complex. To the point that I think the average people just got scared by it.

Tom Holkenborg: That’s Yamaha right there. I even have their first sampler, the TX16W with the operating system from Hell.

I actually did demos back in the day for Yamaha for that thing, because nobody knew how this thing worked. When I was working in the store, I would load it up with samples and just make really cool sounds with it. I was actually able to sell a few because of that.

All these boxes give me something really unique that I like to play with. Every box has such a unique sound that you go to it for a special occasion. None of these boxes are very bread-and-butter keyboards like a Jupiter 8 was, for instance. There’s always something for a Jupiter 8 to do on each track, you know what I mean, whether it’s a pad or a bassline or a lead or something.

Whereas a lot of these other synthesizers are not.

For instance, I have the PPG Wave 2.2 with the Waveterm. That machine has such a metallic bright sound, it’s not for every track, but if you do need it it’s the best. The same with the DX synthesizers that Yamaha released. I’ve got the DX1. It has such a unique sound to it, proper FM synthesis, when you really go experimenting, it has that unmistakably immediately ’80s sound. If you need it it’s fantastic, but not suitable for every film or every project. It’s just really nice to play with them and make sounds with them.

For me sampling is very important. I rarely use keyboards as they are. Usually it gets sampled and then it gets mangled more before it ends into the final result. One of my tutorials actually is one of the more interesting ones, it’s later this season, [it’s] where I compare two software samplers in the computer with two hardware samplers. One is the S50, Roland, and the other one is the Mirage and Sonic.

The sound difference between the two, the hardware samplers and the software sampler is just striking, it’s incredibly striking. I’m very much looking forward for that one to come online because people always say, “Why don’t you even care with these hardware samplers? They sound shit and you might as well do it in Cubase because it’s so much easier.”

Yes, it is easier, but when you hear the sounds compared one on one it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

Darwin Grosse: Do you ever use any pad based systems like Akai MPCs or the old SP1200s or anything like that? Or do you play mostly with keys?

Tom Holkenborg: No, because I’m not a brilliant piano player, I can play good enough to go by.

I use the 1200 because of its sound. It has a great sound – by sampling stuff in an octave too high and then tuning it down so you get that really nice grit to it. The MPCs, Akai, I have used during my live performances in the ’90s and early 2000.

Then I actually got rid of them because I was now using Ableton on the laptop. I still do have my old MPC60, I still kept that one, but the later ones I sold off.

Darwin Grosse: Interesting. The other thing that anybody who even does a drive by on your studio will notice is that you have walls and walls of modulars. That really points to, again, this idea that you seem to be fascinated by really unique voice structures.

The cool thing with a modular system is you can pick out the voice structures you like and combine them into whatever system that you want. When you did you first start in modular[synth]s?

Tom Holkenborg: In 2008, I bought my first modular synth. That was Analogue Systems from England. I started expanding on that and getting other modules and other modules.

What I did at the time was I was like, I was working on a project and, “Let’s make a sound on the modular.” I pretty soon found out that that’s not working, because you don’t have the time, you don’t have the focus, because you need to finish your music for the film or whatever you’re working on.

“Sunday is modular day. On Sunday, I just get out of bed in my pajamas and then I walk into the studio with a cup of coffee and everything that I’m doing all day is just making sounds with the modular.”

Then, I started doing it different. Now, every Sunday is modular day.

On Sunday, I just get out of bed in my pajamas and then I walk into the studio with a cup of coffee. Then, everything that I’m doing, all day, is just making sounds with the modular.

Cubase is on record. I record everything that I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a drone, sometimes it’s a sequence, sometimes it’s a very complicated wave shaping patch, it can be anything.

I have two types of system. One is the 5U wall which is based off what the Moog standard is, and the other one is the Eurorack. The Eurorack is great for brutal experimentation. The modules that you can do crazy stuff with. It has nothing to do with analog per se. a lot of them are digital. A lot of them sound really harsh, but in the best possible way. There’s so much great stuff that you can do with it. There’s a lot of analog stuff too.

Then, the 5U primarily is proper analog and it’s way safer in setup, the way the things that you can do, it’s fairly safe. It’s great to imitate proper Moog style sounds. You can definitely experiment and take it a little further than you can do on the Moog, but nevertheless it stays always close in that warm, fuzzy deep sounding world.

Whatever I do on Sunday is going to get recorded in Cubase. Then at the end of the day, I just sort it quickly, these are bass sounds, that is drones, that is this, that is that.

When I work on a project, I have this weird tendency to remember every single sound that I did – even going back 25 years. But I can’t seem to figure out how the microwave works – my wife needs to help me with that. It’s just really weird how my brain is wired!

Then, when I need a certain sound, it’s like, “I did something a couple of months ago.” Then I go digging into the folders and I find it.  Then I use it in a track and then I need some percussion at a certain BPM. It’s like, “I did something last year. I remember that.”

I’m able to work really quick, but still use sounds that I’ve spent hours and hours crafting.

That would be my advice that I would give to any young composer, producer, whatever. When you have time, create your own presets on your plugins, create your own presets on your synths. Sample the things that you want to sample and make a library. Create sounds on modular synthesis or guitars or basses and store them for future uses.

That’s how I’m able to work really fast, but still have sounds that sound like, “He must have spent a day on this to make this.” I did, but not now – but weeks ago or a year ago or two years ago.

Darwin Grosse: That really helps me understand how you can come up with sounds on the modular, when you’re under extreme time constraints. That’s really smart.

Tom Holkenborg: The second thing to add to that is that I work with a super solid template in Cubase, where everything that I need for a specific project is loaded at all times.

I don’t need to create a track, insert a plugin, look for the sound, load the sound, route it to the right output, put an EQ on it, put a little bit of reverb on it. It’s already done. That’s important too.

Now, if I’m at warp speed, I can write anywhere between four to six minutes of finished music in a day. If it’s a simple dance track that might seem long, but if it’s complicated orchestration, you are really sweating to get to four or six minutes – but it’s still possible because you have a template to work with and you have so many presets and modular sounds and recordings that you’ve done in the past that you can pull from.

The key to working fast is to make decisions and stand by them. If you’re looking for a piece of music that revolves around four chords and you spend all day figuring out what chords you want to play, obviously the track is not going to get done at the end of the day.

If your instinct tells you, “I should do this,” it’s like, “Okay, ready, let’s decide on this and let’s move on.” That means that, automatically, you make mistakes and, automatically, that you, at the end of the day are like, “I’m not sure.” Then you do it again the next day.

I love to take really quick decisions and just live by them. Just make them better and make them work. That means that the more exercise you get at it, that your first instinct decisions…are going to be better ones, because you’ve done it so many times. You’re training your instinct.

There’s never such a thing as a master work. I don’t look at anything that I’ve done in the past as, “That was my masterwork.” It’s a Polaroid, it’s a snapshot of where I was in my development at that specific point in time.

I look at it and sometimes I think, “That was quite clever, what you were able to do with not many tools.” And, sometimes I think, “Tom, you’re an idiot. You could have done so much better. You made all the wrong choices.”

For that reason, it’s sometimes very interesting to play old music that you did. [You might] conclude “What I’m doing now has no soul. Look at what I did 10 years ago. It was so much better and so much interesting.” Or you might say, “Holy crap, is that where I was 10 years ago?”

It’s great to see your own development. Either way, it’s always good to every now and then play some old stuff that you’ve done.

Making decisions quickly is the way to learn. Because to truly get somewhere in life, it’s all about falling down and standing up and going at it again and falling down and getting up and going at it again. It’s that constant, it’s the revolving door of falling, getting up, falling, getting up. That’s how you learn.

Eventually you figure out that you’re not falling that much anymore.

Darwin Grosse: When you’re doing this ‘warp speed’ thing to get a soundtrack done, what kind of team do you have that’s helping you? Do you have a mixer that is doing the mixes? Do you have people helping set up the gear or are you really working solitary?

Tom Holkenborg: You can’t work solitary in the film industry. It’s a battle. It just doesn’t work.

Where films have landed nowadays in time, until they say, “We’ve got to stop because otherwise we’re not making the premiere,” they’re going to keep working on a film.

They’re going to cut scenes, take scenes out, put scenes back in. They’re changing sound effects, they’re changing special effects, they’re changing the music. Everything is changeable until the very, very end.

Whereas in the past, a movie would be done and then the movie was handed over to the composer and the movie was done. He had time to write his music. Then the music would go underneath it. Then eventually there was a premiere and the movie would come out.

That’s long not the case anymore. You work simultaneously. When they’re done shooting, the director works cutting the film with the picture editor. I start writing the music for the film and we just go back and forth. Feedback.

Then the studio gets involved and they have notes. You can’t do this alone, it’s just too much.

For instance, if you write a piece of music of four minutes in one day for a scene, that scene will come back to you 30 times where it’s recut. You now need to change the music 30 times to make it match again. You can’t do that on your own. That’s why I have assistants.

I have a tech assistant, whose sole purpose is to make sure that all the machines in the studio are running smooth. I have five studios in my house, with three assistants, and all the studios are 100% compatible. They all run the same software, the same plugins, the same touch screens, the same fader controls, the same monitors, everything is identical. One Cubase session can quickly be copied to another machine. You double click it and it’s running in a different room, sounding identical to how it sounds in my room, for instance.

I mix all the music myself. I usually work with a recording mixer, but because of my mixing/producing background, I just love to mix everything myself. That’s just the fun part.

For me, that’s decompressing. The movie is done, the music is approved and then it’s like, “Let’s spend now 14 hours a day mixing for the next 10 days.”

I love it, It’s super chill for me to decompress out of the score.

Darwin Grosse: I was actually curious about that because you also have a very unique mixing style. I feel like I hear the different works you do and I hear your fingerprint on it too. I was wondering how that would survive having a mixing engineer working with you. It makes a lot of sense that you have your hand in that.

Tom Holkenborg: How this interview started – when you noted that one of the things that’s important for me is how to use the studio as an instrument so to speak – that is very important to me.

To handover the mix to somebody else, that would shave off 20% of my identity on the total sound. It’s very important to me, how to use effects and EQs and what is important in a mix and what is not important.

Then lastly, to talk about my two other assistants that I have, they help me assist through them the movie process. If there’s enough time, I’m able to write every cue myself and then they will deal with the conforms, if the picture has changed.

If the time period is very short ,then we just divide up the movie in three. We’re just like, “You do this bit, I do this bit and you do that bit.” Sometimes you just have to do it because there’s not enough time to do it on your own. There are only 24 hours in a day. I didn’t come up with that system, but it is what it is.

Darwin Grosse: It wasn’t your choice.

Tom Holkenborg: It wasn’t my choice. The first who’s going to invent the 36 hour workday, that guy should get a Nobel Prize.

Darwin Grosse: The other thing I’m curious about is how you deal just with the logistics of composing and recording. You have a big studio – or you have five big studios – but, depending on what you’re doing, you might want to use the ASR10 with a certain sample disk. You have to pull that out and set it up somewhere.  You’re doing that, but then it’s like, “I want to use this one thing I patched up on Sunday.”

How can you even manage bringing stuff in and out in any kind of efficient manner?

Tom Holkenborg: It’s a great question.

At the beginning of a project, perfect example, I’m now in the process of starting on Tomb Raider. I start at Monday. This whole week is basically filled with trying to figure out in my head what the sound template needs to be for this film.

That will include – I’m not saying that is the case for this movie, because I don’t want to give anything away at this point – but hypothetically speaking, that could be like, “We need electric guitars for this. I want a bass guitar. I want those synthesizers. I want those samplers. I want these type of modular sounds and these type of old school effects boxes or whatever.”

Then, that whole week I’ll just make room in my studio for that. That means that some synthesizers need to go, means two guitar amplifiers are going to [be] put in, microphones on some of them, sound-checking them in Cubase. We’re going to get the effect pedals out that we need, the bass guitar. Make sure there are new strings on them. We’ve got the sampler boxes out that I want. We make sure that everything is hooked up, everything is tested. And then I start making music with all that stuff.

It could always be throughout the process of that, “Guys, I really think we should use this and this and this box.” Then we have a document that says where things are and where the disks are and where the sounds are. Then we just look on the document, it’s like, “That’s where the guitar box is.” Then we just open the right box and it’s like, “There it is.” A lot of it is making sure that stuff is properly archived and properly administered. Because otherwise you lose track.

Darwin Grosse: Tom, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to talk with me. This has been amazing. I am curious about one more thing, though, and then I’ll let you go.

You got to start literally playing physical drums and beating on a guitar and beating on a bass. How often do you go back to those elemental sound devices? Do you ever find yourself banging on a drum anymore or raking on a guitar?

Tom Holkenborg: A lot. I’m looking at the guitar right now with 15 different pedals. I don’t even use it at this point for what I’m working on, but, boy does it make the soul happy to hook that up and just in the late hours, just play for two hours – just for fun, when work is done.

With drums, it’s a little bit more of an issue, because I have two young kids. To set up a drum kit and start banging at 11:00 o’clock at night is not going to make a whole lot of people happy in my neighborhood. That’s the only instrument that I used to have always set up and just play every day a little bit, but since I have young kids that’s a little bit of an issue.

Yes. It’s very important. The last movie I used drums extensively on was last year, Batman v Superman.

Every year, year and a half, there’s something that’s completely percussion-driven. Then all these drum kits come out of storage and we put new skins on them and tune them. Then the recording goes.

Darwin Grosse: Tom,  it really makes me happy to hear somebody who is busy doing music every day still finding joy in doing music for themselves too. That’s hope for all of us.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Tom Holkenborg: Thank you so much for this feature. Thanks a lot.


darwin-grosseAbout Darwin Grosse:

Darwin Grosse is the host of the Art + Music + Technology podcast, a series of interviews with artists, musicians and developers working the world of electronic music.

Darwin is the Director of Education and Customer Services at Cycling ’74 and was involved in the development of Max and Max For Live. He also developed the ArdCore Arduino-based synth module as his Masters Project in 2011, helping to pioneer open source/open hardware development in modular synthesis.

Darwin also has an active music career as a performer, producer/engineer and installation artist.

Images: Dirk Kikstra.

5 thoughts on “Junkie XL & The Art Of Scoring With Synthesizers

  1. Great interview!

    I’ve been a fan of Junkie XL/Holkenborg since his big beat days, so I was excited to see this. Holkenborg seems like a great guy, and he’s giving a lot back to his fans with his video series.

    Nice to see a synth nerd living the dream!

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  2. Love this interview series and glad to see Holkenborg show up in it.

    The Distance Between Dreams soundtrack is a favorite. It seems like he got to cut loose a little more on it, since it wasn’t a big blockbuster. So it’s very rhythmic and electronic and textural.

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  3. Its really great that someone working at this level takes the time to share his experience with us. I swear every two or three videos I watch or interviews I read by him I get a real gem that changes the way I work in my own practice when I make music …

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