Tom Holkenborg—a.k.a. Junkie XL—is a consummate studio professional who constantly tweaks and fine tunes his sounds to perfection. But those who have seen the Dutch musician perform live—he doesn’t DJ—can attest to his love of showmanship. Holkenborg works his audience like a conductor, smoothing over brash sonic beat downs with crowd-pleasing flourishes—sometimes even sacrificing a Korg MS-20 or two to the synth gods. On Booming Back At You [Nettwerk], his fifth studio album, Holkenborg successfully channels that live energy into the cozy confines of his studio workspace.
“Many fans wrote me saying, ‘Tom, you should make a record that sounds like your live show,’” says Holkenborg. “And that’s really what this record is—nothing more, nothing less. I’ve test driven these tracks for the last six months, so all of them are 100 percent club-proof, and they were a lot of fun to make on the production end—just messing around with the sounds to make them weird, heavy, and pumping.”
Holkenborg relocated to the United States in 2002, and, although an admitted gear freak, the main room in his personal studio is surprisingly clutter-free. Pro Tools HD and Logic Pro 8 run separately on two of three Mac G5s, and everything is beautifully visualized on two 30-inch Apple Cinema display screens. Four PCs run GigaStudio, Kontakt 2, and all of Holkenborg’s orchestral libraries, and the third G5 is the go-between to a server hosting over eight terabytes of Junkie XL archive material. Samplers and VST instruments are triggered with an M-Audio Keystation Pro 88, and the sound is piped in courtesy of two separate surround systems: an M-Audio Studiophile LX4, and a $26,000 Dynaudio AIR 25 package. Two Empirical Labs Distressors and one Fatso Jr—both used extensively on the new record—are the black boxes currently “in rotation,” and a few top-secret weapons sit on a record shelf near the back wall.
Other go-to pieces include a Fender Strat, an Ibanez bass, a “cheap” acoustic, and his M-Audio Solaris mic. Suffice to say, this is only the tip of the iceberg. His old Amsterdam-based studio still houses the majority of his synth collection, but any sound that isn’t readily stored in his archive is just an email away.
“Years ago, I sat down and spent months jamming out little sounds, riffs, and bass patterns that all live in my samplers in Logic,” Holkenborg explains. “So if I need anything, I send MIDI files to my friend in Holland, who is taking care of my synths. Then, he’ll redo the part, and send it back to me.”
Holkenborg uses the EXS24 in Logic for most of his sample playback, and Native Instruments’ Battery and Kontakt are used for minor sound alteration such as bit reduction, time stretching, and distortion. The majority of Holkenborg’s complex audio design occurs within Kyma, SoundHack, and MetaSynth. Sounds that are (mis)treated in those programs are then refined in Pro Tools through plug-ins like the Waves’ SSL 4000 collection. These sounds are then sent back to EXS24, where they are re-sequenced, spit out, and potentially tweaked again in Pro Tools. “Sometimes, samples are treated five or six times,” says Holkenborg. “I love destroying sounds to the bone, but then I want to mix them properly.”
With heavyweight pieces like his Fairchild compressors, Klein + Hummel monitors, and DDA console still overseas, Holkenborg leans heavily on his domestic outboard collection of Empirical Labs and Manley gear to get the job done.
“The cool thing about those Empirical Labs models is that you can use them as an old-school engineer and mixer would, and just tweak the sound a little bit, or you can use them as you would a plug-in, and crank the crap out of them,” says Holkenborg. “You can’t really do that with the Manley stuff. If you compress a bass line through the Variable Mu, or live strings through the ELOP, it gives the sound a real touch of class—but those boxes aren’t good for distorting stuff. I need to do both.”
The duality between fine tones and distorted sounds is what makes a Junkie XL track so recognizable—whether it’s the clean, Peter Hook-style bass riff on his Big Room Remix of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around,” or the percolating, distorted breakbeat on Britney Spear’s “Gimme More” remix. Sometimes finding that perfect mix of attitude and fidelity can be a tricky process. The new album’s first single, “More”—as well as the Steve Aoki collaboration “1967 Poem”—aren’t as technically perfect as Holkenborg would like, but the glossed-up versions didn’t have the same bite as their rougher originals.
“When I grew up,” remembers Holkenborg, “I couldn’t play a record if the kick drum sounded horrible. That’s how bad it was for me at a certain point, and it had nothing to do with the music. I’m a sound freak, so I try and make it as best sounding as possible without losing that edge. But the thing about new hip-hop or electro punk producers is that the way they produce is not based on whether it sounds good or not. It’s based on attitude—which is a completely different approach than the old school producers.”
One of the most fruitful collaborations on Booming Back At You occurred with Electrocute’s Nicole Morier, who co-wrote three songs on the album, including the cat-and-mouse escapade “Mad Pursuit.” Along with Morier, musicians Gus Seyffert, John Kirby, and Bram Inscore—who double as Electrocute’s live band—used their collection of obscure synth gear to add character to nearly-completed Junkie XL tracks. As he does with his partner in Holland, Holkenborg would shuffle ideas over to Morier and company, and have them replay or embellish particular passages on the track using vintage pieces such as a Kawai SX-240, a Minimoog Model D, an Oberheim OB-8, a Vox Jaguar, a Suzuki Omnichords, and a Yamaha CS-01. Most of the material was recorded through Seyffert’s Auditronics Grandson console, with the signals being warmed up by his Yamaha PM-1000 preamps. Some of the bass sounds were then re-amped through an old Ampeg B-15 miked with an Electro-Voice RE20, and then compressed heavily with a Purple Audio MC77. For additional reverb options, Seyffert and his group sent the signals through some old Fender Twin Reverbs, an old Fostex stereo spring reverb, and an Echoplex.
“The stuff they come up with isn’t made in plug-in land or VST land,” explains Holkenborg. “These are guys who sit down behind their Minimoog and turn knobs until they get the sound they want. They delivered so many little sounds, and I think I ended up using between 40 and 60 percent of what they gave me. They came up with the most insane stuff ever.”
Junkie XL on his Secret Weapons
“This is one of those boxes I found at a flea market for $25—the seller had no idea what he was selling. It’s one of those really rare ’80s synths, and it has this touch keyboard that’s velocity sensitive. It only has a couple of faders, one oscillator, a couple of filters, and an envelope, but its sound is incredibly unique. If you run it through an amplifier or straight into your sequencer, it sounds so big.” Used on: “Booming Right At You,” “Mad Pursuit”
“In the mid ’90s, there were a huge amount of companies that made 808 and 909 clones, and the JoMoX was one of the boxes that had a unique character. Every kick drum on the album consists of three to five samples, and one of them is always the JoMoX. I tune the sub kick drum to the key of whatever song I’m working on.” Used on: Everything
Circuit-Bent Nintendo Gameboy
“It’s a really cool box done by this German company called Nanoloop. They put a little sequencer inside the Gameboy so you can program your own riffs with the sounds that came with the Nintendo. Then, you just take the output, run it into your interface, and edit in your DAW.” Used on: “Stratosphere,” “No Way"
“I’ve got all the synths made by Korg. They have a unique character—cold- and warm-sounding at the same time. The MS-20 has amazing distortion, and the resonance filters sound amazing. Actually, if you go a little overboard with the resonance, it starts feeding back internally. It’s all over the album, whether sounds were generated with it, or audio signals were run through it to use the filters.” Used on: Everything
3 Ways to Get Big Sounds on a Small Budget
Layer Your Reverb
“You can use multiple reverbs at the same time that will build something that sounds as big as a really expensive reverb,” says Holkenborg. “Just insert one that’s fairly short with a lot of early reflection. Then, on top of that, insert a larger room, and, on top of that, insert a small hall.”
Compress With What You Have
“The compressors that come with Pro Tools, Logic, or Cubase aren’t the best on the planet, but they’re not that terrible either. In fact, they’re great for f**king up sounds, and doing something drastic to them. When it comes to proper mixing, however, you should be a little careful with those compressors, because some tend to impart a popping sound at aggressive settings.”
“You can spend a small amount of money on a bundle that’ll give you one or two cool plug-ins, but you can also look for cheap guitar pedals. Just run a couple of channels outside of your sequencer, and go into some chorus, flange, and/or delay stompboxes that will add character to the mix.”