Learn Composing | Junkie XL, Gaming the System

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Junkie XL

Let''s say it right up front: Even if you''re an established artist with a string of albums under your belt, there''s no easy way to break into the film and videogame market. But there are a few steps you can take—and a few harsh truths you''ll have to accept—to optimize your chances. Just ask Tom Holkenborg, whose edgy work as Junkie XL has rocked basements, clubs, and stadiums worldwide since 1995. Now based in Los Angeles, he''s built himself a tidy second career as a score composer; his first game was Microsoft''s Quantum Redshift, and his work has been in films from Blade to The Matrix franchise to Inception (the latter with composer Hans Zimmer).

“It took me ten years of living here to figure out how the hell this industry works,” he jokes. “And unless you''re extremely talented, you won''t get a call from someone like EA Games after you send them a demo. The work pressure on a project is so insane, they need to know that you can deliver. Sometimes we''re talking about 90 or 100 minutes of music that needs to be done in four weeks. It''s very hard to trust an upcoming composer with a workload like that.”

Even so, it''s still crucial to have a pre-existing catalog of music out there [as I alluded to in last issue''s column on music licensing], whether it''s in the form of label-released albums, a content-rich and regularly updated website, a well-curated social media presence (YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.), or a combination of all three. As Holkenborg concedes, he had the good fortune of putting out a hit album (1997''s Saturday Teenage Kick) that drew the attention of several directors and game developers. Once his foot was in the door, his first challenge was to adapt to a whole new way of making music.

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Scores for movies like Inception fuse music and sound design.

“The discipline that comes with films, videogames, and commercials is completely different than being an artist,” he explains. “You''re working with a team. It''s not just you who determines what the outcome is gonna be. That''s a difficulty with many artists, because they can''t deal with the criticism, the work stress, or the fact that when you work on a film, sometimes you have up to 30 or 40 picture revisions, and you have to rework your music completely.”

Holkenborg teaches a university course on the subject; by and large, his students are less interested in pursuing a career as a recording artist or producer, and are more focused on becoming film or videogame composers almost exclusively. That route presents its own set of challenges, but with the right skillset (and mindset, when it comes to your level of enthusiasm and commitment), you can create some opportunities.

“Obviously you need to be talented, and you''ve gotta know your stuff when it comes to software and plug-ins,” Holkenborg says. “And it sounds pretty basic and intuitive, but one thing you can do is to look for a job within a videogame company. You can start as an in-house sound designer or composer, and build your career from there. It''s exactly the same with films. Look for an assistant''s job with an established composer; after three to five years, you''ll learn how everything works, and people in the industry will get to know you, so eventually you can get work on your own.”

Take the initiative with your research. Most of the major game developers—Activision, Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games, Ubisoft, et al—post job openings online, while film composers are almost always reachable through their personal websites or management reps. But perhaps most importantly, keep yourself informed about all the latest changes in music production and sound design technology; Holkenborg predicts that the two areas will continue to overlap more intimately and often as computer processing power increases and creative tools become more sophisticated.

“When you listen to new movies like Inception, there''s a real blending of the sound design and the music,” he observes. “But there''s still not a box out there that can live morph a drum kit with a vocal, or a real live orchestra with a bass guitar. Kyma is capable of doing a lot of that in real time, but I''m talking about something with a hundred thousand times more processing power. If you look at what we can do right now—live time-stretching and tempo changing, and all the things you can do on the fly in programs like Ableton Live—all that was impossible ten years ago, so imagine where we''ll be 15 years from now. It''s gonna be insane.”

Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) on Music Licensing and Composing for Film, Videogames

I know you''ve been doing music for videogames and film for quite a while now. Can you give me a quick history?
For video games, it was somewhere in the mid-''90s, so that''s almost 20 years ago. People started licensing stuff from albums that I was releasing at the time, so I got sparked by that idea. At the time, the score of a video game—let alone licensed music, because that only started in ''94 or ''95—but just composing music for video games was usually done by somebody who worked at the game developer, who was like, “Oh, I''ve got a keyboard at home, I''ll make something.” And funny enough, some brilliant pieces came out of that. You only have to mention Pac Man and Space Invaders and some of the old games like that. There was brilliant music being made, but also a lot of rubbish.

So videogame developers were looking into artists that were willing to license music, and that area was very new back then. Nobody really knew what was gonna happen with the game industry, or even what kind of fee to ask for that. I''ve always been into all kinds of media to distribute my music in general, whether it''s film, video games, commercials or websites or whatever, so I was very interested from the start when my first tracks got licensed. I was like, “Man, I want to talk to these guys and see if I can do music especially for the games, instead of just licensed music.”

In that respect, the first game that I did was in 1998 for Microsoft, which was Quantum Redshift. I think it came out a year or two after that, and it basically sparked all my videogame scoring work. Since then, I''ve worked on god knows how many titles. That''s the video game part.

The film part started when I released my first Junkie XL record, which I think was some time in ''96 in Europe and ''97 in the US. I got asked to help out with certain scenes for certain movies because they liked my sound or they wanted something similar that was on my record. So I worked on the first Blade movie with Wesley Snipes, and straight after that I worked on Resident Evil, so that sparked the whole film industry thing for me.

Commercials started with the Nike Olympics spot I did some time in 2000. But for me, the work has always happened when I released a CD, and then people noticed the music or the remix or something connected to the record, and they would ask me to work on this or that project. But then afterwards, you learn the discipline that comes with films and video games and commercials, which is completely different than being an artist.

What are some of the differences you have to deal with?
Well, in the beginning, for me that was kind of tough. As a musician, you can just do whatever you feel like. Maybe you get some criticism from your record company or your A&R guy about what should be the single or the song sequence, but that''s pretty much it. With a video game or a film, you''re working with a team. It''s not just you who determines what the outcome is gonna be. That''s a difficulty with many artists, because they can''t deal with the criticism, the work stress, or the fact that when you work on a film, sometimes you have up to 30 or 40 picture revisions, and you have to rework your music completely. Some artists get annoyed by that, so this industry is not for everybody—that''s for sure.

When you''re scoring music for a videogame, what''s the basic team of people involved? Who do you have to deal with directly, and when do you have to switch out of creative mode and into collaborative or diplomatic mode?
What you just said, all that is true—you have all these different modes you have to work in. I''ll tell you how it starts. A video game developer has a couple of people that are responsible for the game. They''re producers, similar in a way to the film industry—the people who come up with the money to develop the game. Then you have the creative team, which sometimes is just one person or it could be a group of ten.

Apart from that, there''s usually someone that''s responsible for all the audio that is involved with the video game—it doesn''t matter whether it''s music or sound effects or dialogue. That person is called the audio lead, but it depends on which company you work with [as to] how powerful the audio lead is. If you work with EA Games, the power structure is different than Activision or Microsoft or Sony. I''ve worked a lot with EA Games, so we can focus on them. The music department there helps them sort out the composer, the licensed music and stuff like that. The head of that department is Steve Schnurr.

So when there''s a game being developed for EA Games—let''s say Need For Speed—the creative team or the audio lead will ask Steve, “Hey, we''re thinking about this vibe for the game—who would you recommend as a composer, or do you want to use licensed music?” They might ask him to compile a list of tracks that could be used, along with a list of composers. For me, usually what happens is Steve just calls me and asks me if I want to score a game, and I''m always interested. Then I might have a conference call or actually meet the creative team. You talk with five to ten people about the game. Sometimes they have drawings or they''re already pretty far ahead with the development of the game, and they can show you Quicktime movies or a beta version of the game that you can actually play.

That gives you a feel for what the game is gonna be, and then obviously you talk about music. What style or what sound—I''m pretty diverse in the things that I can do. Sometimes they ask for an electronic score, sometimes it''s rock or classical, sometimes it''s gear to sound design and the action in the game. You just talk with them and throw around different ideas about what the score could be like, and then when everybody is kind of settled on that, I make demos. I don''t want to take on the job when people are not 100 percent convinced about what they''re getting.

This always pays off for me, and I know that''s another thing that artists sometimes find very hard—that they have to demo a lot of things on spec. But I do it all the time, and it always works out for me. Once you spend a week on making a demo of three or four minutes, and they call you and say, “We love this!” then you know it''s easy because you''ve convinced them of the creative direction.

Then we work with milestones according to the contract. For instance, the contract might say, “In two weeks we need a demo of every level for every part of the game.” And then after a month, they might want two or three things done and mixed, and then two weeks after that they want all the interactive layers and all that. So there''s a milestone plan of let''s say six to eight weeks, and you''ll be talking pretty much constantly with the audio lead only, who will compile feedback from the creative team and the production team. Usually I talk to the audio lead on a daily basis—sometimes twice a day, depending on how intense the game is and how much music needs to be delivered.

Just to dial it back a little bit, in your case it''s clear that these developers and producers reached out to you first because of an awareness of your music. But if someone wanted to get their music in front of someone like Steve Schnurr, what steps could they take to do that?
Well, there are a couple of things. Just for instance, I have a four-year university course in Holland, similar to the Berklee course, where I teach film and video game composing, and electronic production in general. And a lot of students there want to be a video game composer. They don''t fancy an artist''s career at all.

First off, obviously you need to be talented, and you''ve gotta know your stuff when it comes to software and plug-ins and all that. And maybe you''re not an electronic musician per se; maybe you compose classical orchestral action music with all the plug-ins and sample libraries out there. It doesn''t really matter. There are a couple of sensible ways of getting into this industry, but it''s very tough to break in on your own. Unless you''re extremely talented, you won''t get a call from EA Games after you send them a demo—mostly because the work pressure [on a project] is so insane, they need to know that you can deliver. Sometimes we''re talking about 90 or 100 minutes of music that needs to be done in four weeks. It''s very hard to trust a young kid or an upcoming composer with a workload like that.

It sounds pretty basic and intuitive, but one thing you can do is to look for a job within a company like EA Games. You can start as an in-house sound designer or composer, and you build your career from there. All those companies have openings every now and then. They''re looking for young and talented people who are ready to work within the framework of the company. Eventually you learn everything about what is required to do a score, and you learn and go from there.

Another way to break in is exactly the same with films—you look for an assistant job with an established composer. By being an assistant for three to five years, you''ll learn how everything works, you''ll learn how to deal with the pressure, and when you have meetings—with EA Games, for instance—they''ll get to know you. I have a couple of assistants, two to four depending on how busy it is, and the people I work with know my assistants. So if one of my guys leaves in three or four years, they have a track record in the industry that can get them work on their own.

So much of what you''re talking about makes this sound like a people business first.
It''s totally networking. It''s also about being liked by certain people. I''ve lived in LA for nine years now, and I''ve always been busy here on various different projects, but I''ve also noticed that I''ve come to a point where people really want to give me their work. It might be, “Oh, he''s a nice guy, and he''s been here for nine years already, and we''re pumped to work with him,” you know what I mean? It''s really important that you''re constantly around and you meet people on a constant basis. That''s just how the industry works.

I want to switch gears to the film side of things, again from a historical standpoint for you. What was the first film you worked on, or had music placed in?
Actually that was kind of different. It was a Dutch film called Siberia, and the director threw in four or five tracks off my first record, and he wanted to license them. And because it was a very successful record, and the quotes for those tracks were so high, the director was like, “Fuck this, I''m gonna call him myself.” So instead of licensing tracks for the film, they ended up hiring me as a composer. This was immediately the first film that I did, back in ''95 or ''96.

Fast-forwarding a little bit, how did you connect with Jason Bentley [from KCRW] to get into the Matrix films?
He approached me in 2000 or so to ask me if I wanted to work on that. I was still living in Amsterdam, and I did a couple of things for the second and third films that didn''t get used, but they made it into the video game [Path of Neo] and into Animatrix. And then separately I did a remix that was called “Blue Pill Red Pill.” That was quite a success, that track.

And this was the point where me and my manager started flying out to LA and connecting to Jason, who''s an amazing and talented guy, but he also became a friend. So we met him a couple of times, and he basically tricked me into moving to LA, which was a very weird idea for me back in 2000, but eventually we decided to do it, and it''s turned out to be one of the best career decisions I ever made.

When I got here, I had so many meetings with so many different people, but I ran into the same issue that I mentioned before when you want to break into this industry. Everybody was really excited that I was in town, and they all want to talk to you and they want to meet you. Here and there I got little things to try, and they test you—you know, can you deliver on time, is it quality, can you deal with the criticism and feedback and picture changes and so forth. And then basically I got my first break. Harry Gregson-Williams knew that I had moved here, and I met up with him and started working with him on a couple of films, in the same way that I just described—as an assistant to a well-known composer.

That''s when I learned all the tricks. I saw how Harry worked, I learned how to deal with directors and all that. Then I got another break. The Catwoman film with Halle Berry needed 15 to 20 minutes of score, and that''s when I met Hans Zimmer. I''ve been working with him basically since then, on various different films—especially in the last year. It''s been very intense, and I pretty much worked on every film he did. And because of that, I started doing more and more film scores on my own—not only Hollywood films, but also European alternative films. But I would say my film scoring is still the one thing in my career that has the most room to develop, you know?

What are some of the things that you''ve picked up from Hans in working with him?
Well, first I would say Hans is one of the most remarkable guys I''ve ever met in my life. It''s not only his sense of taste, but he also wants to reinvent himself with almost every movie that he starts working on. And sometimes he wants to push the music way further than it actually ends up being in the film, because like I said before, it''s teamwork. It''s not only Hans who can determine what the score is gonna be like—you''ve got to work with directors and producers. But Hans also has an extreme talent for picking the right people to work with when it comes to a certain film. For the electronic aspect of the film score, he usually calls me and asks my opinion. And I found it mind-baffling to work with him—just how sharp he is, and how on the ball he is, and how he deals with the stress and pressure. After weeks of no sleep, he''s still able to think clearly about what needs to be done. So it''s quite remarkable to see him work.

I spoke with Amon Tobin recently about his new album, and one thing he kept coming back to was this idea of blurring the lines between pure sound design and music. Given how far sound design has come in just the last few years, what''s your take on that idea?
Well, sound design is a very important tool in my music, at least. In the early days, you would program your synths and make music, and then later when the plug-ins started coming in, you could do some weird things with those. But it got really interesting around the late ''90s and early ''00s, when programs like Metasynth came out, and SoundHack, which was developed by a university. C Sounds was widely available, Max MSP was available, and a little later the program Kyma with the Capybara hardware came out—and I have all those.

That''s when it basically went off the deep end, because you could convolve a guitar with a vocal and do the weirdest stuff in there. You can create sounds that, when you listen to them, it''s like, “What the hell am I listening to?” [laughs] But it''s music. When you translate that to film and video game scoring, it sometimes completely overlaps. You come up with musical cues and sometimes you have to ask yourself, isn''t this a job that the sound designer should do? The sound designer will always have a different take on what needs to be done in a scene for a film or a video game, and what''s really funny is when you combine the sound-design-slash-music that I do with the work that the sound designer does, you get these really interesting clashes.

It''s very interesting, and these days it''s constantly changing. When you look at sci-fi movies from the late ''70s and ''80s, you hear the traditional orchestra and then you hear the sound design, and it marries together pretty nicely. But when you listen to new movies—for instance, like Inception, which I worked on with Hans—there''s a real blending of the sound design and the music. It''s a very interesting area, and it''s still not completely developed. We''re still trying to make plug-ins and make machines that can actually perform certain aspects that they already figured out in the ''50s, you know? Like the term “morphing” and “cross-convolving” and “FFT analysis” and all that stuff—these were all developed in ''40s, ''50s, early ''60s. But there''s still not a box out there that could live morph a drum kit with a vocal, or a real live orchestra with a bass guitar. Kyma is capable of doing a lot of that in real-time, but I''m talking about something that has a hundred thousand times that processing power. Those guys are working on it, and other guys are working on it. I mean, if you look at what we can do right now—live time-stretching and tempo changing, and all the things you can do on the fly in programs like Ableton Live—all that was impossible ten years ago, so imagine where we''ll be 15 years from now. It''s gonna be insane.

What are some of the projects that you''re working on now?
Right now I''m working on a very extensive game that''s due some time later this year, September or October. I also just wrapped up working with Hans on Kung Fu Panda 2, which I think is coming out soon. And just last week, the score for Dark Spore got released on iTunes, and I think the game is out in a couple of weeks. The first one was done by Brian Eno, so it was important for me to deliver something good for this one [laughs]. But I''m really happy with it. It''s like Blade Runner—a very sci-fi, synthesized electronic score. And then I''m working on a lot of new material for what will hopefully be a new Junkie XL record later this year.

Any final words of advice for all the young composers out there?
You know, it took me ten years to figure out how the hell this industry works. All those games and films come out, and it''s all very exciting, but it''s very hard to break in. Again, for the young kids, I think the best place to start is by looking for a talented composer that you want to work for. Hans Zimmer is at the top, but there are thousands of composers in between, and all of them are making a career out of it. Only in LA!