"Fury Road" Composer Junkie XL on How to Get Started with Synths and Production | Making Music for Films & TV

Tom Holkenborg got his start in music in his native Netherlands, learning piano, drums, and guitar as a child, then playing in rock bands and industrial metal groups like Nerve in the late '80s and early '90s. After adopting the moniker Junkie XL, he found international acclaim for his electronica music—both with his original productions and remixes of artists ranging from Fear Factory to Elvis (his "A Little Less Conversation" dance remix was a huge global hit in 2002).

Since that time, the multi-instrumentalist and composer has continued to record and release his own music, in addition to becoming an acclaimed film and video game composer. Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, Tomb Raider, and FIFA 2018 are just a few of the major projects he's helmed in recent years. In addition to being an in-demand composer and producer, Holkenborg also finds time to impart much of his vast knowledge about synthesizers, composition, and production through his popular Junkie XL YouTube channel.

Tom Holkenborg (Photos by Dirk Kikstra)

Reverb's Justin DeLay recently had an opportunity to speak with Holkenborg about a range of topics: how he chooses from his enormous gear collection the right pieces for any given project, the differences between scoring for films and video games, and why the proliferation of music software has opened up the door to any musician looking to get into production.

In the conversation below, you'll get a sense of Holkenborg's curiosity, his open-mindedness to all forms of music-making, and how even novices can begin to navigate the sometimes esoteric worlds of 5U modular synths and vintage equipment. For more insight and expert knowledge, be sure to check out his YouTube channel here.

What's some of the gear in your personal collection that you find are go-to, bread-and-butter, use-it-all-the-time pieces? And what are the pieces that maybe you don't use often but are really useful for special occasions?

My go-to stuff is primarily my 5U modular system and my Eurorack modular system. On both of those I'm able to get tones and sounds for almost every movie, that's totally what that is. All of the other pieces of gear that I have, it totally depends on what the project is. For instance on Tomb Raider, I actually used a lot the Korg—it's like a half-modular system—the PS-3200 and the PS-3300. I have them retrofitted with Kenton, so I can access them by MIDI.

Then I did this other project last year which was a documentary for Red Bull. It's called Distance Between Dreams with Ian Walsh, the star surfer. That was a very soft, ambient electronic score. I did everything live with MIDI and just mixed it on the board and that was the end result. I used the Jupiter-8 for that, the Jupiter-6, the Juno-6 with the sequencer, the MSQ, the Roland 60, the 106, also the GB4, Roland VP-03, the vocoder. I used a Roland S-770 sampler, which has a really great tone to it. A couple of Yamaha synthesizers, the CS-60, the CS-70M—all pretty rare machines to have. But for that kind of stuff they sound so fantastic.

Then, I have a massive collection of samplers going back to one of the very first ones that came out, which was the Mirage. I'm working now on a movie with Peter Jackson—I can't tell anything about the movie at this point—but I'm using a lot of these older samplers because they give me a lot of quality. I'm using the ASR-10, Ensoniq, the Mirage. I'm using the Emulator II. It's all really good for that stuff.

Junkie XL - Studio #1 Tour

How do you approach a music project versus a composition project or scoring project? How are they the same, how do they end up being different, and how does that ultimately influence the gear choices that you make?

A couple things are very important. When you make a track, you just basically make a track. You can start anywhere and you can stop anywhere. You can pick any tempo that you want, and you can really make it the way that you want to do it. Now, with film scoring, you have a story. You have actors and they have dialogue and they have action moments or a love scene or somebody's dying... There's all these story elements that will tell you, "OK, this is potentially not going to work," or, "This is potentially going to work there."

The thing with electronic instruments is that there's not room in a film score all the time to be super direct and super in-your-face. Usually electronic instruments need to be treated with sound design or treated with effects so they get more of a 3D element to them and it feels more like the music is sitting as a blanket around the audience while they're watching the picture. So you have to be very careful how you use electronic instruments—or these synthesizers, or all my basses and guitars and all the pedals that I have, and the drum kits that I have, I mean, I've got so many instruments—how to use them in a film score to make sure that at the right moment you can come out.

Junkie XL - "Brothers In Arms" from Mad Max: Fury Road

For instance on Mad Max when there's a crazy chase going on, yeah, you can be completely full force, front, left, and center—just very aggressive with your electronic instruments. It's great to use basses with distortion through a modular and then treat them to make them even more aggressive—that's great. But when you take a movie like Black Mass, which is a very serious drama, you have to be very careful how you use your electronic instruments. Usually they're more floaty in nature and covered in reverb and effects so they don't really stand out like, Oh, what was that? It doesn't take away from the story and the dialogue.

It seems there's potentially maybe more constraints around soundtrack work, but then embracing those constraints really facilitates fresh ideas. What about in video games, which are much more open-ended? How do you compose for something where you don't have full control over the narrative or over the experience?

The most interesting part obviously is to write music for a game where the music is interactive, which means that depending on the player the music is going to change, depending what he does. I can break this down for you very simply.

Let's say you have a game like Need For Speed, which I scored in 2009 or 2008. Let's say you're driving a car and you're going to start the race. What's going to happen is that in that first lap you're going to drive, and I'm simplifying this, but let's say five things can potentially happen in that lap. For instance, you have a great start. You have a great first corner, but then in the third corner somebody is bumping you from the back and you're going off the grid and you're spinning around and you're trying to get back onto the track. Let's say you get onto the track and you keep driving, but now you found out you have a flat tire and you're slowly crawling toward the pit stop to get your tire changed, right?

Junkie XL - "Decalomania" from Need For Speed: Prostreet

A very simple explanation—what potentially can happen in that lap? So you have now five beat markers and what you do as a composer, you write music for those beat markers. You have a great start. You have [makes regal horn noises]—it's all going great. The first corner was great so even more [regal horn noises]. And then the third corner you get bumped in the back and it's like [sad trombone-like noises]. I'm just oversimplifying things, but that's the idea behind it.

So you compose all these different pieces of music and then you work together with a person that is usually called the audio lead. The audio lead is a person that is responsible for that game to make sure that all the music is running smooth and all the sound effects are running smooth. All game companies work with their own audio engine. There are a few audio engines out there that are popular that are used by multiple companies. In that audio engine, that's the heart of controlling the music depending on how the player is playing.

The game computer already knows a split-second before a move that you're going to crash. When that happens it starts, for instance, playing a transition piece of music of just two seconds, and then it goes into the [sad trombone noise] piece of music because you're now off the track. Now let's say you are able to get back on the track—the computer knows that. And it comes to another transition file, like, No, no, no, this is not over, he's going to start again, and when you're back on track another piece of music is going to start that then underscores that moment.

Tom Holkenborg (Photos by Dirk Kikstra)

But the big magic moment needs to be when somebody is playing the race—I just explained five big markers, but any race track can have over 100 to 150 beat markers for what could happen and you need to write pieces of music for all these little things. When you then do a race track, it should still feel like a natural piece of music that was composed like that. That's the trick with video game scoring. And that's why it takes a lot of trial and error to find the right transition files to write the right pieces of music to make that work.

There are things that you can make yourself a little easier—for instance staying in the same tempo, relatively in the same key, staying relatively in the same soundscape. These are things that can help you to make it sound more natural. It's a lot of puzzling and it's a completely different approach and experience than, let's say, scoring a movie.

Obviously you're composing music in little melodic or harmonic moments, but are you also tasked with pure sound design? Are you also synthesizing explosion sounds and wind rustling? Is that part of your job as well?

No. Sound design follows into three different categories, I would say. One is what they usually call Foley—you're covering everything that naturally would sound when you see that scene happening. You take all the other sound design away and you take all the music away and the dialogue away and you hear people walking on the street and then there's a car coming and the car spins out of control and it hits a wall and it explodes and bricks are coming down and people start screaming, blah, blah, blah... That's all called Foley. There's a separate department on a film that just deals with that.

The second category is conceptual sound design. Conceptual sound design is like, what does the Batmobile sound like? What do the lasers sound like when Luke and Darth Vader are facing off at the end of the first Star Wars? Or, how does Godzilla sound? How do the animals sound in Jurassic Park? That's all conceptual sound design. That's a group of sound designers that just sit together and just create the most crazy sounds to make that sound great or natural.

Sometimes you will be surprised where it all comes from. They record, I don't know, like a Formula One car and they would pitch shift it down by four octaves and then they would morph it with a meowing cat. Before you know it, something like Godzilla comes out of it. These guys are super creative.

The third category is musical sound design. Musical sound design is sometimes also done by the sound design department, but musical sound design is especially done by composers like myself. When you finish the movie you've basically got to sit down with the sound design guy. You're going to say, "What have you guys done? What have I done?" You just compare it together and then the director usually decides, "Oh, I like this better, I like that better. Can we do this? Can we do that?" That's usually in practice how it goes.

You mentioned modular as one of your primary instruments and source for inspiration. For the sake of the modular nerds on Reverb, starting with the 5U system, which, god, it's so impressive. Are there favorite manufacturers, modules, new stuff you've seen that's really exciting?

There's so many great module makers for 5U, but they're very limited. There's not like the Eurorack, where we're now talking about 200 brands or something that consistently release stuff for Eurorack. With 5U it goes way slower, because it's a way smaller community. It's also pretty big in format. If you really start expanding you need, like, a proper garage to do that, and with Euro you can keep it very small and contained and you can still take it with you somewhere else. Not so much in the 5U world.

I just want to focus on a few brands. There's so many, but the five or six I want to point out are Club of the Knobs, Moon, synthesizers.com, Corsynth, Krisp, and Analog Craftsman. There's a bunch more but I just wanted to point these ones out.

Junkie XL - Studio Time, Season 2: "Modular Wall Performance"

The cool thing with synthesizers.com is that it's a great starting point for anybody who wants to get their feet wet in 5U modular, to get a system that's affordable. Once you get really enthusiastic with that you can then start expanding with modules from other companies that usually are more expensive. They use different parts, more unique design, and the synthesizers.com [synths] are very much based on what [Bob] Moog intended with his modular system. Some of the other modules, they make it a little bit more original. They add Russian EVOC filters in there, or they use different circuitry to get a certain effect. The combination of all these modules makes it really interesting to make sounds with them.

I will tell you, the 5U world in my humble opinion is a safer way to go when it comes to creating sounds on a modular system. You can get pretty experimental with it but nowhere as experimental as you can with a Eurorack modular and the modules that are available for that. Nevertheless, I love the 5U modular. It's a really physical experience by putting these cables in—you really have to do some workout. On my YouTube channel there is actually a video with a 5U modular performance where you actually see that whole thing being wired up with hundreds of cables and I'm just making music with it.

Let's talk Eurorack for a second. What are you digging?

Oh, man. Everything. I'm this hoarder. I'd like to point out—I think it's nice to mention how I got this stuff in the first place. In the early '80s in 1982, '83, I worked in a music store and I was 16 years old at the time. We started selling synthesizers. We were starting to sell the newer synthesizers like the DX7 and the Juno-106, the D-50 and then the Korg M1 came out—all these digital synths came out. People came to the store with all that old stuff like that Jupiter-8, the Jupiter-6, the Jupiter-4, the PS-3300, the 3100, the Korg MS-10, MS-20, MS-50. You name it, they came to the store and wanted to trade that in for a new digital synth.

Tom Holkenborg (Photos by Dirk Kikstra)

At that point the market for that analog stuff had completely nose-dived and completely crashed. You couldn't even give it away to people. They did not want to have it. They wanted the digital synths. So the trading value of all that stuff was so incredibly, stupidly low that I made a deal back then with the store owner: If that stuff comes in, let me buy it, and I'll take it. You can take it off my paycheck.

The money was so little that we gave to them, like, the first PS-3300, we gave them I think like 50 bucks or 75 bucks as a trade in. This is like 1984, '85. This person would add 2,000 to 3,000 dollars to that and walk out of the store with a brand-new DX7. He was happy, I was happy, and my store owner was happy because he didn't have to worry about selling all that analog gear and making sure it was working and blah, blah, blah... I bought so much shit in that time period. And I always kept it—I stored it.

And in the '90s, when a whole new generation of synths came out I started buying all the stuff that came out in the '80s. I started buying a DX7 for 25 bucks. I started buying a D-50 for like 150 bucks. It went on and on and on. In the 2000s I started buying all the stuff that came out in the '90s and now I'm ordering synths that were released between 2002 and 2008 for absolutely nothing. You can buy an Emulator IV with maximum memory or the E6400 or the 6400XL, I believe. It's like this 19-inch, 4-unit-high, insane emulator sampler that E-Mu released in the early 2000s. You can buy them now for 100 bucks. And they're already retrofitted with USB. That's how you need to buy stuff, you know?

Junkie XL - Studio #2 Tour

One generation behind, right?

Well, two. Two generations behind—that's when you find beauty. Unfortunately, all that analog stuff has become so hip again. I did buy a couple things actually on Reverb. I think I bought my PPG on Reverb, the Wave 2.2. But if you want that synth right now it's $8,000, $9,000. It's a lot of money. At this point I'm making some money with the music that I make, so every now and then I can afford myself to do something like that.

But now we get to the Eurorack. It's the same thing—I pretty much order everything that comes out. I have it all sitting in boxes and then every half-a-year I'm going to change my whole setup around and take modules out and put new modules in and play with them. That's how I basically do it. And I'm part of a lot of Kickstarter projects where modules that you cannot even buy through commercial outlets at this point but you become an early-on investor.

I just actually got one. This thing is called the Percussa Super Signal Processor. It's built by Bert Schiettecatte. It's an amazing box. This thing just came in two days ago, and I'm already getting system firmware updates and stuff like that. This is one of the first things I'm going to try when I'm going to reshuffle my rack again. But I've got to get these two movies out of the way first that I'm working on right now and then I'll get to it.

I wrote a couple of brands down that have a lot of products and everybody can find something great there. One is Intellijel, the second one is Make Noise, the third one is Vermona, the fourth one—which, this one is a little on the lower side of money but they really make good stuff, so it's great for people to try and start—is Blue Lantern. For people that want to start in Eurorack and they buy some modules from Pittsburgh or some Doepfer stuff, and with Blue Lantern, for pretty low budgets you could part something really interesting together.

Then, if you want to get really sexy with your sounds and really get out there then there's some more expensive modules like WMD, Mutable, Harvestman—then you get really into high-quality stuff. The same as Intellijel, Make Noise—it's super high-quality stuff. It's a little bit more expensive, but it's just great what you can do with all these modules and what you can get out of it. It's fascinating.

I think it can be intimidating at times to see your collection and the huge wall of Eurorack or the huge rack of 5U and think, "How do I get started?" What advice would you give to a musician who maybe comes from a guitar or a drums background and is wanting to get into synths and sound design? Where would you point him first?

The cool thing is that everybody nowadays has a laptop or an iPad device or an iPhone device or anything like that, right? I got into guitar and I got into bass and collecting guitars over the years with the same philosophy as I did with my synths. What's really great about this time is that the only money potentially that you need to invest is to get a software program that is going to give you the tools what you need.

Junkie XL - "Becoming the Tomb Raider" from Tomb Raider

For instance, if you have a Mac, it comes with GarageBand, so you can already start making music in a very simple way. You can decide to buy Logic or you can decide to buy Cubase, which is, at this point, the program that I favor, or you could go to Pro Tools, which is more audio-oriented if you're really more like a recordist. And just start recording your own stuff—your own bass guitar, your own guitar, multiple layers. Then you start, Oh, I need different instrument. Look, I'm not a drummer, but look, here's a great drum kit that came with Logic or came with Cubase, and let's program some great rhythms, and, oh, let's add an Hammond organ to it. Let's do this, let's do that. If you're more traditional.

Maybe you want to play around with a lot of these more electronic sounds. All these software programs come standard with a huge amount of synthesizers with presets that are jaw-dropping. And then if you like that and you want to invest some more money in that, then you can, for instance, buy a bundle of Arturia—in that you get all the classic synths ever made. I have that bundle, it's ridiculously fantastic. Or you can, for instance, buy the complete bundle of UVI, which is also fantastic, with a whole lot of different classic samplers and synths, or you buy the Native Instruments Komplete. These are all investments that are doable.

For basically anywhere between $300 and $600, you have everything that they have to offer and it's a lot, you know? It's not like in the early days when you spent $500 on a plugin and you just have one thing. Now you've spent $500 and it comes with all kinds of libraries. It comes with drum libraries with all kinds of African instruments. You name it. It's insane what it comes with. That's the beauty that we live at this point.

Technically for any drummer, guitar player, bass player, it hasn't ever been so simple to get into production of music and get your feet wet in electronic music, get your feet wet in recording your own stuff, and mix it and master it and produce it. It's a remarkable time period. When I started you had to buy a 16-track recorder or a 24-track recorder. You had to buy an analog desk—the cheapest ones were like 10, 15 grand. If you wanted something snazzy, you would spend half-a-million dollars, you know? Speaker systems—you name it. Everything was expensive in those days. Now you just buy one software program and you can do everything.

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