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.

(Im)Perfect Congruence: On Dancing To Music

There’s a funny and almost disturbing video on YouTube that shows a couple apparently dancing to the angular beats of Autechre. The video is funny and strangely compelling because of its unlikely pairing. On the one hand, the video looks to be from the 1970s or 80s–some kind of European (Greek?) television program featuring a couple demonstrating basic “disco” dance moves. The couple glide in easy unison around the stage, even going into slow-motion at times (1:02), and are eventually joined by a bunch of other dancers near the end of the three-minute clip. The music, on the other hand, is of more recent vintage: specifically, it’s the track “Cfern” from Autechre’s album Confield (2001). So of course, the couple never actually heard Autechre and certainly weren’t dancing to it. Yet somehow the dancing and the music work well together. Who ever thought about assembling such a video?  (Oh the weird intelligences YouTube catches in its net . . .)

The YouTube viewer comments include this one: “movements are perfectly congruent to the music, AE themselves couldn’t dance better to their own stuff. Just psychedelic trance disco.”

***

What we’re laughing at, I think, is the same thing as what keeps us watching. First, there’s the odd contrast between the dated video and the cold, digital sounds. Notice too the moving gaze of the camera (focusing on the woman’s face at 2:45 and the man’s feet at 2:56) that makes us feel like voyeurs, the close-ups and the music working to reveal what feels like the inner lives of the dancers. Next, there’s all those smooth synchronies where footwork glides perfectly into marked beats: it looks like so much fun! Finally, but equally important, are the strange ruptures between the dance moves and the music. The ruptures are those spaces where body and sound don’t quite match up–those points where you wonder “How did they come up with that move to this sound?” And this is precisely what gets you thinking about how strangely dance and music mutually reinforce one another: one a visible trajectory in space that requires a soundtrack to add emotion to its narrative, the other a presence heard but always in need of bodily representation.

Sometimes audio-video remixes allow us to glimpse juxtapositions that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience. And if we let them, pastiche videos like this one spur us to imagine alternative–and yet unrealized–worlds where the collision of music and body sensibilities make for new ways of dancing free and strange.

On Imitation, Oral Tradition And Pleasure: Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass Travels

That self-organizing living force is what we’re having to ride. What we’re doing with the web is making a very large-scale global organism that in a few decades or so we will be able to identify as an organism in every sense of the word.
– Kevin Kelly on the Technium

One of the most watched videos on YouTube right now is that of an eight-year old English girl named Sophia Grace Brownlee doing a musical impression of the song “Super Bass” by Trinidadian-American rapper and singer Nicki Minaj. Here is Minaj’s video for “Super Bass” (which has been viewed an astonishing 183 million times):

It’s understandable that Minaj’s video has been watched by so many people. The song hits all the right pop notes–musical and otherwise: infectious rapping alternating with sung melodic hook, an upbeat, 120-126 bpm tempo, a beat that switches from a half time feel on the verses to a full-steam ahead, four-on-the-floor feel on the choruses (making the song perfect for remixing), a simple four chord harmonic structure, and a video that telegraphs desire through its depiction of lots of pretty bodies.

Now here is Brownlee’s version (viewed an impressive 20 million times):

Brownlee’s clip has been watched so much because she’s such an exuberant and charismatic performer who uncannily gets the details of Minaj’s lyrics and phrasing just right.

But what I find fascinating about Brownlee’s take on “Super Bass”, though, is how well it demonstrates the ability of music to spread virus-like from one host to another, transcending differences of place, age and ethnicity to keep reproducing itself through oral tradition. Indeed, Brownlee performs Minaj’s song as if in an exuberant trance–like she can’t help the fact that she’s the new host for this musical virus.

And while music scholars today agree that music is neither a language nor a universal language that transcends boundaries of culture, the online ecosystem and global culture repository that is YouTube suggests that it is nevertheless still a powerful contagion of pleasure.

Digital Diets, Attention Spans and The Rhythms Of Learning

Is the Internet and all manner of digital media really doing something substantial to our consciousness, to how we think?  Is my attention span not getting worse exactly but maybe becoming fractured?  This is the subject of at least a few articles I’ve read lately, including this one in the Times which is part of a series called “Your Brain On Computers.” My guess is that it’s going to be a while before we have overwhelming evidence that our minds are being ruined by our technology.  But it’s undeniable that computers have changed the rhythms of learning.

Here’s an interesting take on the matter from visual artist Keegan McHargue.  In the Nov/Dec. issue of The Believer, McHargue discusses his blog, Mauve Deep, which seems to be a kind off the cuff repository of images the artist finds compelling.  When asked if he “curates” his blog in any way, McHargue made some interesting observations about the effect of the Internet on how we absorb information:

“I like that the Internet allows information to pour to me indiscriminately.  From high fashion to design to obscure music, sites about art history and theory to blogs about cakes and pastries.  It just comes to me now. I’m not looking at visual information with specific intent anymore. I’m taking it in as a steady stream.  That’s how information currently feels.  It’s certainly very different from seeking things out as we used to have to…It’s funny that people try to fight it, because it feels easier than ever before to learn and grow.

How did I not see the world this way before? I’m an information fiend…It’s too much work to have an opinion of own’s own, and with the steady flow of information coming at us now–maybe we’ll transcend the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness as a whole” (p.84).

What I find interesting here is how McHargue articulates the dynamics of idea discovery on the Internet: the idea of that we can tap into a “steady stream” of pure information, including text, images, sounds on every topic under the sun (including cakes and pastries).  And while it’s easy to dismiss McHargue’s not bothering “to have an opinion of [his] own”, we understand where he’s coming from as an artist: he’s just swimming in a sea of data.

What does all this have to do with musical experience?  Well, I’m thinking about how it feels to explore YouTube: you begin with the goal of “finding” a particular clip on this or that music and soon enough you’re on an adventure in places you never expected to be.  Maybe this is what McHargue is referring to when he speaks of transcending “the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness…”  That is certainly what it can feel like when your YouTube search leads you astray and into something unexpected and interesting that may have little to do with what you wanted.