It's about time that Tom Holkenborg gets recognition for making music on his own terms.
Holkenborg is best known as the man behind the remix of Elvis' “A Little Less Conversation,” a track that caused an international craze. This artist, however, is no one-hit-wonder. A look over Holkenborg's resume will reveal a multifaceted producer who's worked with metal artists such as Sepultura and Fear Factory and contributed to scores for Hollywood feature films (The Matrix, Team America and Kingdom of Heaven) and video games (Destroy All Humans and Forza Motorsport). It is through his own Junkie XL moniker, however, that Holkenborg gets to make music exactly the way he wants to.
Junkie XL's new record Today (Ultra, 2006) is in many ways the exact opposite of his last record, 2004's Radio JXL: A Broadcast from the Computer Hell Cabin (Koch). Conceived around the idea of a pirate radio station, the CD encompassed two discs and featured collaborators including Solomon Burke, Chuck D, Dave Gahan and Robert Smith, among others. Today is much smaller in scale in just about every way. There are no big-name collaborators on this record (just the voice of newbie Nathan Bader), and the production is cohesive and focused more around a prog-rock base. The only thing that never seems to change about Holkenborg is his love and understanding of production techniques and top-notch gear. When Holkenborg speaks about recording, you better get out a pen and paper because it's time for production 101 with Junkie XL.
What's your normal working process for creating a film score?
A score is different than an artist album, a remix or music that you make for other artists. It's not like you can just take a bunch of tracks and slap them underneath the picture. So, what I do as a start is watch the movie a bunch of times to get a feel for what's going on. There's always a temporary score in place, which is usually music from movies that are already out or whatever the music editor feels works with the picture. A movie is really the baby of the director. It's his thing, his movie and his creative process. Of course, I get approached as a composer because I have a specific style. I'm not going to be asked to compose for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason or a comedy because that's not my style of music. On Domino, I worked with Harry Gregson-Williams, who is a classical composer in Hollywood. I worked with him for four to six months on that movie, and there were lots of talks with director Tony Scott on what direction the music should take. On Dead or Alive, I made a sound palette first, which in that case were two tracks that I thought were the sound of the movie. I played the two tracks to the director and the producers, and they all loved them. From that point on you take it further. So, my general way of working on a score is to first establish the sound of the movie and then move on to details.
How has the evolution of production gear altered the way you make music, from your first recordSaturday Teenage Kickto your new record?
Back when I began, it was easier to stick out because electronic artists had mixing skills and traditional recording skills. That's also why some of the albums from those days sounded incredible — whether it was Chemical Brothers or Leftfield — because the artists worked with a proper mixer. For the creation of Saturday Teenage Kick, I had an Atari computer still running a 1995 version of Steinberg Cubase, and I had two synthesizers and two Akai samplers — that's it. I programmed everything in those boxes, and then I brought them out on the Yamaha O2R Digital Console, which was just released at the time. Nowadays, in Pro Tools you have an unlimited amount of tracks and plug-ins.
It was completely different to make music back in the day because you were so limited, and the choices you made had to be so over-thought, or you would mess up the production. Back then, I recorded bands on 24-track analog, and if we wanted to do a big production, I had to mix certain tracks down to a stereo track to make more tracks available for more recording. So, you learn how to make certain choices. Nowadays, you can have a full-on Pro Tools session with no bounces at all. Everything is still in there, all the plug-in settings, everything. Every day that I work on a big session, I'm surprised we are able to do what we do.
Why do dance-music artist albums usually suck? Were there any clichés or traps you didn't want to fall into on your new album?
Above all, I think in general most of the DJs who release albums are not musicians, so they have to rely on programmers that they steer in certain directions. Second, I think a lot of DJs who make records make them purely for the audiences who see them at their DJ performances. That means that albums are usually a combination of club records. It's not necessarily a great album to listen to; it can be great tracks but not as a whole. I thought that the tracks on the first Daft Punk were brilliant individually, but as an album, it was just a bunch of club tracks in random order. Third, I tried to avoid using standard instrumentation that is hip at this moment. I know the '80s thing is big now, but I also feel you can achieve the '80s sound through other means and not necessarily by sampling some famous '80s record or using the typical Donna Summer bass line. If you listen to early U2, Depeche Mode, The Cure and Gary Numan, they all had a really moody undertone. That's something I really like and used on this album, but not necessarily by sampling certain hip sounds from that time period.
There are so many atmospheric guitar tones on this record. What gear most lends to producing such delicate music?
Even though the sound ended up different for this record than past records, the process was still very similar. For this album, the most important part is guitar and bass. I definitely used a lot of old pedals that I collected over the years — Electro-Harmonix, Boss and Ibanez pedals — and they all have specific sounds and a certain quality. An effects unit that I discovered recently is the M-Audio Black Box. I basically ran the guitars and bass through the Black Box and recorded multiple sessions through Pro Tools as my recording and mixing device. Once I'm happy with the guitar recordings, I start bouncing out sound clips, and then all of that is transferred into Logic and Cubase. Then, I build two or three sample libraries and work in sound-design programs like Kyma or MetaSynth, which is a sound program where you can do amazing things with envelopes and grain synthesis. Once I build the sample library, I then go into Logic or Cubase and build sequences and start programming synthesizer or drum stuff. When I'm happy with the rough structure of the sound, I bounce everything out and import everything back into Pro Tools.
What did you do to stretch Nathan Mader's voice on the track “Even in This Moment?”
The main thing is definitely proper recording. One vocal basically ends, and then we kept recording new vocals that come in and come out. I also used Kyma, which is a program that was written in the '80s. This is a completely open platform, and you can build whatever you want on it. Things like time stretching and grain synthesis are just unbelievable with this system. It's pretty expensive, but these are the systems being used by companies like Skywalker Studios to design sounds from nothing. If I have to compare it, it's comparable to Native Instruments Reaktor 5, but this is 100,000 times more detailed, flexible and better sounding. But then again, Reaktor 5 sells for $400.
Todayis packed with some really fat drum sounds. What did you do to achieve that?
The key is to layer certain sounds as you go. I usually layer a couple of kick drums to get a really fat sound. You can take a short 808 or 909 kick drum that just moves the air in the very low end — a sound that makes you feel your stomach in the club. On top of that, I always pick another kick drum that has more body — between 200 and 400 Hz — and then two kick drums, one that has a really mid-sounding kick and one that has a high-sounding kick. Finding the balance between those sounds will allow you to make a fat kick drum. I do the same layering process with snares until I find a really nice balance. The cool thing is whether you use Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic Express or Cubase, you can make a fat sound.
Did you try any weird recording experiments on this record?
I'm building certain environments in Pro Tools where I have a very complicated structure of auxiliary channels with shitloads of plug-ins. I route stuff back and forth to different channels, and I use a full session just to create one sound. I use beats and other rhythmic information to trigger certain elements in that whole chain. I don't know anybody who is doing that in Pro Tools!
How much did you get involved with the mixdown? What are your strengths and weaknesses in the mixing process?
For me, the mixing process is always the most exciting process and the most disappointing process. I'm both the smart producer who knows what needs to be done and the dumb guitarist who always wants his guitar to be the loudest in the mix. It's really exciting when you get it to sound great, but it's also disappointing because for some reason when its getting mixed, you feel that you are missing some of the excitement that you had when you were writing the track. I got better at mixing over the years; there are elements that I'm good at and some that I find very difficult to figure out. One of the things that I've gotten good at is how to gel organic instruments with electronic instruments so that it doesn't feel forced. I think it's also important to work with lots of different reverbs, chorus and delay programs. It's really good to have four to eight different reverbs, which isn't costly anymore thanks to all the different plug-ins. When you talk about the vocals, it's really important that you have certain effects that are unique to the vocals so that they don't get shared with anything else in the mix. On top of the vocal, I will typically add a couple of effects that are being shared by some of the other elements in the mix. I use a typical kind of compression that makes the vocal gel more with some of the other instruments, especially the guitars. What really works well is the principle of “ducking” certain instruments slightly when the vocals are singing. It's a principle where you have a compressor on a subgroup — let's say synthesizers and guitars — and that compressor will work only on that subgroup if there are vocals. You can achieve that by making an auxiliary send on all the vocal channels and sending it out to a certain bus. The compressor on the subgroup — the thresholds — will listen to only that bus input, which is called key input compression.
There's a lot of monotony in dance music. What production techniques lend to fresh songwriting?
I think it's a long process. I would advise every producer to not stick with presets. Try to explore the software plug-ins and try all the parameters to make something else out of it. Even if you stick to the presets — if you aren't into programming synths — stick a lot of different plug-ins on top of it, and see what happens. Re-sample it. With re-sampling, I mean, put like three or four distortions on it with delays and filters and then bounce it out, import it again and mix it with the original preset that you had. Just do it a couple of times over and over again and that's how you create a sound that nobody else has. When you first start doing that, you might be going all over the place, but in time you'll find your own way of working that you really like.
You are one of the most knowledgeable producers today. What bit of advice do you have for the next in line?
It's just so important for a young producer to get a cheap speaker system that sounds amazing. I've got two studio speakers that I'm totally married to and are amazing. The Dynaudio Acoustics Air 25 is a top-notch speaker set with a subwoofer the size of a small fridge and a huge price tag. The other system I'm in love with is the M-Audio LX4, which is the best system at an affordable price range. That is something I would recommend buying for any young producer out there. On the equipment front, I think M-Audio is the way to go. They have amazing products like Ableton Live and cheap virtual synths that allow you to create an awesome studio on your computer. If you have a little bit more money, I would consider Pro Tools LE with a controller. For people who are more into experimenting, I would definitely recommend Reaktor 5 because it's so cheap, and that's the tool to make really original sounds on a poor-man's budget. Finally, when it comes to sounds, it's not bad to admit your weaknesses. I know kids who can program amazing beats, but their synth lines are horrible. If you find that there is something you aren't good at, don't be afraid to look into a sample CD. BT just released a great breakbeat sample CD, and if you aren't good at making certain sounds, don't be afraid to use a CD like this. There are just so many tools out there.
Apple Mac G5 dual 2.7 GHz with 4 GB RAM running Digidesign Pro Tools 6.9
Digidesign 192 I/O (3), Extension chassis with seven farm cards
Apple Mac G5 dual 2.7 GHz with 4 GB RAM running Apple Logic 7.1, Steinberg Cubase SX
M-Audio FireWire 1814 interface
Midisport 8×8 MIDI interface (3)
Important plug-in: SoundSpectrum G-Force
TC Electronic PowerCore PCI mkII card with all plug-ins
Apple Mac G5 dual 2.7 GHz, 4 GB RAM running Symbolic Sound Kyma, U&I Software MetaSynth and Native Instruments Reaktor 5
M-Audio FireWire 1814 interface
Apple Mac G4 dual 1.2 GHz, 1 GB RAM running OS 9.2 and Pro Tools TDM for sound design, extension chassis with five farm cards
Alesis ADAT bridge
Digidesign 888|24 I/O (3)
Emagic Unitor8 MIDI interface
HP 3.2 GHz, 4 GB RAM PCs (4), all running Native Instruments Kontakt 2 for classical libraries
M-Audio FireWire 1814 interface and Midisport 4×4 MIDI interfaces
Guitars, basses, synths, drum machines
Fender Jazzmaster, Stratocaster guitars
Gibson Les Paul guitar
Ibanez 7-string guitar, acoustic guitar, bass
Jomox XBass 09 drum machine
Korg MS-10, MS-20, MS-50, PS-3100 synths
Oberheim 4 Voice synth
Roland JP-8080 synth
Yamaha DX-7, VL-1 synths
Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, Micro Synthesizer, Q-Tron pedals
Ibanez Tube Screamer, Compressor, Chorus pedals
Line 6 Pod effects unit
M-Audio Black Box effects unit
Native Instruments Guitar Rig plug-in
Lexicon M480L effects processor
Manley Elop limiter, Massive Passive EQ
TC Electronic Finalizer, FireworX, M2000 effects processors
Variable Mu limiter/compressor
Turntables, mixer, misc.
Allen & Heath Xone:464 DJ mixer
Technics SL-1200 turntables
Yamaha AW4416 audio workstation
5,000 vinyl records
M-Audio Solaris mic, Tampa preamp
Dynaudio Acoustics Air 25 surround, Air Base 2 subwoofer
M-Audio BX8 surround and subwoofer, LX4 surround and subwoofer