Catching Signals: Notes On Junkie XL’s Film Scoring Videos

“Hello! This is Tom—Junkie XL—and welcome to Studio Time with Junkie XL, who else?”

-Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL

Even as YouTube has become a vibrant, open-to-all marketplace for amateur music producers to show off their production workflows (a topic I have been writing about in some forthcoming essay collections), it’s not as often that professionals use the space to share their techniques. Maybe they’re too busy? One delightful exception to this rule is “Studio Time”, the channel of Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, a Dutch electronic musician (a drummer originally), DJ, producer, and now, a film music composer. While originally known for his trance music, Holkenborg has over the past few years become a sought-after composer for Hollywood movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, and Tomb Raider. The “Studio Time” videos, which are self-produced (without sponsors), show Holkenborg to be an affable presence with a no-nonsense yet rather obsessive focus on all things music and sound. This evenhanded enthusiasm makes him a wonderful teacher. His educational agenda could be summed up thusly: Hi, this is how I work.

If you’re into music composition, let alone advanced electronic music production techniques, “Studio Time” videos are fascinating and engaging for a number of geeky and philosophical reasons. First off, Holkenborg’s techno-musical system is vast. As he shows us in one of his early videos in the series, he uses Steinberg’s Cubase music software. Cubase is a digital audio workstation program that is popular with Hollywood composers, some of whom claim that it “colors” the sound less than other software. Holkenborg’s Cubase is set up with a composing template that has hundreds of MIDI tracks pre-loaded with high-quality orchestral sound sample libraries ready to go. You want soft strings? Epic brass? Medieval woodwinds? Choirs? Thunder percussion? It’s all here. But Cubase is just the brain of the system. The software is powered by several PC computer servers humming away in another room. Also, inside Cubase there are dozens of virtual sampling, synthesizer, and sound design plug-ins. If that weren’t enough, Holkenborg’s studio is packed with many of the major (and minor) analog and digital synthesizers from the 1960s to the present. There are Rolands, Korgs, Yamahas, Emulators, Oberheims, drum machines, samplers, sequencers, vocoders, guitar pedals, and taking up the entirety of the back wall, Holkenborg’s gargantuan “Wall of Sound” modular synthesizer (not to be confused with Phil Spector’s thick-textured “wall of sound” production aesthetic in the 1960s). Amazingly, all of this gear is hooked into the Cubase-driven system to form a vast assemblage of tools, ready for when Holkenborg wants to record anything he can imagine.

A second striking aspect of the “Studio Time” videos is they reveal the labor required to put together a single film score cue. A five-minute scene has music that is calibrated and synced to the film action down to the second, which requires a watchmaker’s precision to devise meticulous tempo mapping and time signature changes. As organized within Holkbenborg’s Cubase template, the music for a cue can have dozens or even hundreds of MIDI tracks playing here and there, each track triggering a different orchestral sample, synthesizer, or piece of audio sound design. It’s one thing to set up a software-based techno-musical system that can handle all of this information. But it’s another to have the know-how to incorporate so many sound elements seamlessly into a soundtrack. Prior to watching some of these videos, I didn’t know that a piece of music could have so many tracks, so many micro-layers—layers that make the music lush with immersive, suggestive details that nudge your feelings in omnidirectional ways. Note too that Holkenborg’s compositional work doesn’t end with sequencing electronic tracks. As he explains in detail in one video, later on in the process groups of tracks (or “stems”) are bounced down, and the MIDI information for the orchestral instrument parts is exported and converted (by orchestrators) into notation to be played by real string, brass, woodwind, and percussion players. These recordings are then folded back into the soundtrack’s final mix. Transforming Holkbenborg’s eloborate MIDI sketches into a full-blown film score soundtrack is a process with many, many steps.

The “Studio Time” videos also show the extent to which every sound in a contemporary film score can be, and often is, processed. Electronic musicians have long been experts in this domain because they understand the importance of sound design for transforming a music’s affect, for giving it power. Think about the grand rhythmic filter sweeps or drum rolls in EDM that set up climactic moments, or the giant reverb tails that saturate ambient music. In one section of a video about composing a cue for the film Tomb Raider, Holkenborg shows us how a synth bass line consists of two slightly different sounds mixed together, each of which is processed differently. Even acoustic sounds are never left untouched: every track receives some kind of sound processing, be it reverb or delay,  EQ, or more obscure- and zanier-sounding effects. Why you ask? A sound is processed to make it brighter, darker, more resonant, more edgy, softer, fatter, more huge, more brittle, to stretch or compress or syncopate it, and on and on. The important thing is that processing changes the sound’s feel—something I hadn’t thought much about prior to watching these videos. That composite synth bass line from Tomb Raider, by the way, was processed using different reverb settings and delay timings for both its front and surround outputs. (Film music is mixed in multi-channel surround sound.) In sum, while the scale on which Holkenborg works might be beyond the reach of amateur music producers, his workflow offers solid composing lessons. Here are a few of them: a brief composition can have many, many tracks; you can, and should, design your own sounds; layered sounds are new composite timbres (i.e. two bass sounds become a sonic sum more than its parts); every sound can be processed to make it more interesting and better-sounding in its context; reverbs and delays create space and depth; a piece of music can begin anywhere; and most important, stay organized. I’ve learned a lot from these videos!

Perhaps the most interesting philosophical quality of “Studio Time” is that the videos are a masterclass in how a musician listens. Casual music listeners—which we all are when watching a movie or listening to a song— can sometimes identify the different sounds of the orchestra’s instruments, or maybe even notice the tone of a synthesizer pad or hear a Roland TR-808 kick drum sound. Our experience with listening to music is endlessly cumulative, as we build upon what we have already heard with sounds newly encountered. (We notice, for instance, that 808 kick drums persist all over popular music.) The difference with accomplished musicians and composers is that their experience allows them turn up listening’s intensity dial. Put simply, they notice minutiae of minutiae. Watching Holkenborg play through his cues and explain his workflow we get a sense of how his advanced listening skills as an electronic music producer have carried him over into film scoring: being a one-person production unit who combines composing (beautiful melodies, by the way) with mixing and engineering has earned him an extensive creative toolkit. We get a sense of how he remembers and understands the dizzying sound nuances in all his gear—from that hundred-dollar guitar fuzz box he bought when he was a teenager to the high-end Waves reverb plug-in tucked away in his software’s drop-down menu. We get a sense of how he understands the possibilities for layering sounds and effects, but not only that: he remembers these sound and effects layers and has a sense of how they can be mobilized again, maybe in a new permutation, to support the action and psychological undertones of a film. In short, watching “Studio Time” gives us a sense of how the composer is like an antenna catching signals, making the leap from sound to meaning by hearing music and sound design suggesting and paralleling moods, feelings, and stories.

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