GTPS caught up with UK composer and sound designer Matt Bowdler, aka The Unfinished, to delve into the methods and secrets of a top-level synth programmer and sound designer. Read on to find out much more about his sound design philosophy, his thoughts on the current analogue synth sound revolution, avoiding creative blocks, and many nuggets of wisdom that we can all apply to get the most out of our favourite soft synth plugins…
Even if the mysterious name The Unfinished is not yet familiar to you, if you’re a film music fan or player of big-budget video games, you’ll most likely have heard the work of the man behind it. Matt’s synth programming skills are celebrated and used by many other top producers and composers (Jason Graves, Tangerine Dream’s Paul Haslinger) in various high-profile projects, with Unfinished sounds featured regularly in a host of Hollywood movies, TV shows and AAA video game scores.
As well as this, Matt has contributed sounds and synth programming to the factory libraries of several top software instruments, including Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 and projects for Spitfire Audio and Wide Blue Sound, as well as for hardware synth-makers Access.
But perhaps most intriguingly for GTPS readers, Matt also releases commercial soundsets under The Unfinished moniker for a number of the best soft synths available, including u-he’s Diva, Bazille and Zebra 2, Omnisphere 2, Massive, Absynth and FM8. These synth patches are crafted with the same care and attention to detail as Matt’s bespoke projects – in fact, they’re sometimes quite literally based around material developed from previous high-profile projects.
Whether you’re looking to use these sounds straight out of the box or for inspiration and reverse engineering to find out just what your favourite synths are capable of and how it’s done, The Unfinished soundsets are some of the very best synth programming resources available. And now you can take advantage of a GTPS exclusive 20% discount on all The Unfinished soundsets until the end of August – just use the code GTPS2016!
Hi Matt, thanks so much for sitting down to discuss your work with us. Let’s start by recapping how you first got into programming synths: What was your first introduction to synthesizers? Were there any eureka moments or principles learned in your early career where everything clicked and you realised that creating evocative and unique sounds was a particular strength?
I was as much a “preset tweaker” as most people up until comparatively recently. I got back into music (and computer music) quite late in life, in my 30s, and was essentially mucking about making tracks, and more and more found I didn’t have the sounds I wanted. So I set about trying to make them myself.
In those days I pretty much only had NI synths (having bought, I think, Komplete 5) and so I focused on using Massive. To me it seemed relatively straightforward to use and I liked what it did. So I taught myself all the functions, reverse engineered sounds I liked. Sometimes I even hit the randomise button to make it do crazy things, just to learn what had happened… almost always sounded like shite though!
For me, it was a good idea to stick to one synth like this, so I could understand how oscillators, envelopes and filters interacted, and then apply these rules to other synths I had.
In some ways the turning point for me was releasing my first commercial soundset, Massive Darkscore II. My good friend Geoff (also known as Bluffmunkey) had been trying to get me to make a commercial soundset for ages – and I mean ages! – but I guess nervousness about how it might turn out held me back. But when I finally released something it went pretty well. It made me some nice pocket money but, more importantly, a couple of well know composers purchased it, which gave me confidence. And one of them, Sascha Dikiciyan, asked me to make some sounds for him. So, that’s where I felt something was clicking together.
Your work no doubt involves being something of a musical magpie, soaking up inspiration from a wide range of sources as the nature of each project demands. But what are your musical formulative influences, that you perhaps return to repeatedly for inspiration?
There are always some stalwarts that I return to time and again. Harry Gregson-Williams (Total Recall, the Metal Gear Solid games, Kingdom of Heaven) is certainly one. It was listening to his music that got me interested in writing cinematic music and sound design. Also, Cliff Martinez (Solaris, Drive, The Neon Demon) is constantly inspiring, as is the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Then there are more recent favourites such as Olafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ben Frost and Jon Hopkins.
I discovered Harry Gregson-Williams’s name from his involvement in the third album of one of my favourite bands, Hybrid. It turned out Hybrid had worked with Harry on Man on Fire – which is an incredible soundtrack. It’s so technical, because of Tony Scott’s frenetic editing and camerawork, and yet had this grace that felt like it was floating in and out of the picture. There’s something about his string writing that really strikes a chord (if you’ll excuse the pun) with me. His and Hybrid’s sound design is a constant influence on what I do. For me, it’s a step above. I listened to a number of his soundtracks and really loved the blend of orchestra and electronica. It really impressed me. It felt like I was hearing the music I’d been wanting to make for years. So, I kicked in and started making my own tracks, inspired by it all.
But, the best thing about working in this business is that half my job is listening to music. Picking up new ideas, picking up trends, simply inspiring myself by enjoying the amazing music being made out there every day. I buy a lot of music… a lot! And the great thing is, it’s all useful, even if it’s genres that I don’t really focus on making sounds for. Everything is an influence. And not just music. All the stuff you do, that you see, it all creates a feeling inside of you and ultimately that’s what sounds are, they’re sonic interpretations of feelings.
How is designing a synth patch for a film score project typically different to designing a sound for a standalone piece of music?
Well, the main difference is that the latter has a very specific purpose, to fit within a specific idea. But, in all honesty, it’s pretty rare that I do that. I’m predominantly creating sounds for concepts; whether that’s for a film score, a game score, an album, or a commerical soundset. The idea behind the sounds is wider, is more about vibe and emotions than fitting into a specific mix, for example.
When designing sounds for particular films or games, where genre conventions set the framework to varying degrees, what’s your process for developing sounds that at once evoke genre conventions but also bring something new, fresh or surprising?
I don’t set out to turn things on their head or be subversive, I just interpret things the way that works for me. [But] I’m also not interested in emulation. On a subconscious level, I’m probably bringing my love for other genres/styles into each project. So, if I’m asked to do hybrid cinematic sounds, there’ll be a little bit of classic analogue or dark organic stuff creeping in. But it’s not a deliberate tactic, it’s just about working honestly and sticking to your own principles… whatever they might be, because they probably change as time goes by anyway!
It’s a lot about translating quite abstract things, moods and emotions, into synth sounds?
Yes, when someone asks me for sounds in a particular style, they’re getting my interpretation of that style. I’m never interested in copying what other people do. I pretty much always turn down jobs where I’m asked to recreate existing sounds. We all interpret different moods and colours our own way. That’s what makes us unique. Essentially, what I’m doing is making sounds that I like and that appeal to me. And if that also works for others, then… hooray! I won’t go trying to make things that don’t appeal to me, just for commercial reasons.
Do you have a standard programming process when designing your soundsets, or do you adapt and change your process for each different synth, depending on it’s own ideosyncrasies? How much do you let the synth impose it’s own character on your patches, as opposed to you telling it what you want to do – how do you decide on that balance?
The day to day detail changes, because every synth works a little differently. Feeding back from the earlier question, the starting point for every job is listening to music, whether it’s for a bespoke or commercial process. With bespoke work, the composer I’m creating sounds for often has some existing music (of their own or of another composer) for me to listen to, to get the vibe they’re working towards.
With commercial soundsets, for example Omnisphere Colossus, I will listen to the music that’s intended to inspire it, in that case it was Harry Gregson-Williams and James Newton Howard. So, I spent several days just listening to my favourite scores of theirs, making copious notes on types of sounds that kept cropping up, ways that sounds worked/moved, that sort of thing. All the while, in my head, part of my brain is thinking “Omnisphere could make that sound by using this soundsource, with those effects and these parameters, etc.”.
Each synth has their own character though and that feeds into what you’re doing. For example, if I have a particular composer in mind when creating a soundset, I’ll know which synth is going to do the best job to create the right kind of sound. But equally, if I were to make a Cliff Martinez style soundset with Diva AND Absynth, they would be different by the very nature of how those two synths work and sound, whilst (hopefully) also retaining the essence of Martinez’s sound. And yes, sometimes you have to go with the flow with a synth and not fight it, if it does things a certain way, you use that to your advantage, rather than working against and creating a less engaging sound.
What’s your take on the continuing resurgence of analogue and vintage-style sounds, that are now starting to make their way more obviously into the mainstream with scores for the likes of It Follows and Netflix’s new 80s-set series Stranger Things? What is it about these sounds specifically that people love so much?
As you know, I’ve just released a soundset for Diva with Danish sound designer Luftrum [Diva Synthwave]. We’re both big fans of classic synth sounds. I grew up in the 80s and my brother was a big synth pop fan, so I was exposed to bands like OMD, Ultravox and Human League from an early age.
I’ve had the very great pleasure of working with Paul Haslinger, who used to be in Tangerine Dream. In fact, he asked me to make him some 80s sounds for a TV series called Halt & Catch Fire! There are also a couple of The Unfinished customers who are absolute 80s synth legends.
Stranger Things is on my radar, though I haven’t seen it yet. But many people have asked me if I’ve heard the theme music and if I’ll do some sounds like that.
I think the appeal is mainly one of nostalgia. For a lot of us, those classic analogue sounds remind us of watching things like Miami Vice and Knight Rider, of simpler, slightly more stupid times! That and the fact that they just sound damn great.
It seems that it’s taken a while for software synths to catch up to the hardware classics that generated those sounds of yesteryear, in terms of pure audio quality and character – and now as synth plugin instruments catch up in those terms, we’re seeing producers taking advantage and putting the emphasis back on expressiveness, dynamics, and the details of sonic character, now that we’re able to better achieve these things with software.
It’s certainly taken soft synths a long time to get close to the analogue sound of hardware. I don’t think it’ll ever quite get there, because there’s this three dimensional quality to proper analogue circuits that software can’t quite get near to. But, you have to be particularly impressed with the work of Urs and the team at u-he in trying to bridge that gap.
Firing up a few instances of Diva is certainly a hell of a lot easier than tracking your Juno 106 several times! The number of instances of soft synths you can have is always going to be a bonus.
What are your favourite features or quirks of particular synths that you take advantage of when programming your sounds?
Ooh, good question! I really like the effects in Omnisphere. you can do an insane amount with them. In fact, sometimes, it’s completely irrelevant what you do with the oscillators and filters, because it’s the effects that truly sculpt the sound.
With Zebra, I’m currently a fan of the Comb filters. You can do some gorgeous, snappy, percussive stuff with them that really sounds organic and not synthy at all.
Diva’s simplicity is it’s best quality. One thing I always have fun with is the Cross Mod on the Dual VCO oscillator. You can get some really gnarly, detuned nonsense going on with that, which is great.
On any synth, and this references the last question about classic analogue sounds, I always enjoy controlling the pitch very subtly with LFOs to get that old skool ‘drift’ vibe.
Let’s talk a bit about the reality of a daily work schedule of a professional synth sound designer. It’s easy to imagine an idealised version where you’re simply sitting programming cool sounds all day, every day, but there must be challenges and stresses as well: time pressure to come up with a lot of material quickly etc.? Do you ever get creative block, and how do you overcome those times when you’re not feeling inspired?
The biggest obstacle these days is my baby daughter! It can be difficult to schedule around her sometimes, because she’s impervious to the concept of time! But essentially I try to keep to a simple 9 to 5 day if I can (well, it’s more like 9:30 to 5:30) as it’s important to know when you’re going to be working, and also what you’re going to be working on. If I don’t plan exactly what I’ll be doing on a given day, it’s very easy for that day to slip by without much having been achieved.
I aim to avoid time pressures by being well ahead of schedule. So, if I plan to release a soundset in October, I will aim to have completed creating it around June/July. That way, if anything else gets in the way, be it work or just normal everyday life, I don’t have to panic about my next release. This process also allows me to find the time to do interesting bespoke work too. And that’s what’s important about a bespoke job to me. I’m not looking to do the biggest, most famous projects, I’m more interested in working with good people on quirky and interesting ideas.
And the bespoke stuff also helps with keeping ahead of the game, as often those projects will feed into commercial releases later down the line. That’s where not trying to be copying the latest trends comes in handy, because if I’m doing that and it doesn’t get released for a year, it’s no longer on trend!
I think the closest I get to “writer’s block” is worrying about whether I’m going over the same ground too much. One way of combatting this is to work with a synth I haven’t touched for a while, or just simply stopping and going away to listen to some music that has nothing to do with what I’m trying to create. But the synths I work with are so amazingly designed, it’s difficult to be lost for ideas!
When you do start getting to grips with a new synth, how do you go about getting under its skin to discover its essence, what makes it distinctive and different to other synths? Are you someone who will read a manual from cover to cover or do you take a more intuitive and exploratory approach?
I never read manuals. Which is probably to my own detriment if I’m honest. There are probably lots of tips and tweaks I’m missing out on because I just like getting “hands on” with a synth. I’m impatient basically! And that means that if I don’t immediately get on with a synth, I’m disinclined to go back to it, no matter how much friends and colleagues may sing its praises.
The most obvious thing to do with a new synth is to take a sound I’m very fond of from another synth and try and recreate it. This could mean either simply using the same parameters to see in what ways it might sound different, or simply trying to get as close to the original sound as possible, which is not always by the exact same means.
I’ll always return to that old stalwart process of reverse engineering a preset I really like or, on rare occasions, one that I can’t fathom how it works!
Whichever approach is the most fun. This business has to be fun. You’d have to be quite mentally ill to create thousands of synth patches each year if you didn’t enjoy it. That’s the main bit of advice I give when asked about how to go about programming synths; ask yourself, “Do you REALLY want to?”
Haha, so assuming they’re crazy enough to dive in, what other advice might you give to budding sound designers who are looking to develop their own particular take on famous sounds or create their own unique synth style?
As I say, enjoy it, enjoy it, enjoy it. Find a method that inspires you and stick to it. You have to have a bloody good reason to come back to a synth day after day, without going mad.
I do think that learning on just one synth is a good way to begin. I chose Massive but you can use anything really. I’d probably recommend Diva these days, as it’s GUI mimics real synths in a way that’s very intuitive and not overwhelming. And it’s tough to make a bad sound with it, so you won’t get put off too easily.
But, most important of all, and this is becoming a recurring theme for me in these answers: listen. Listen to lots of music, lots of sounds, listen to how they interact with each other, listen to the silence in between them. Never stop listening.
You can’t really “create” your own style, it’s something that has to naturally come out of you and you can never be entirely sure how long it might take for that to happen. For some it’s an instant process, for others, it may take years.
Do you believe you can ever fully explore a given synth to the point where you completely know it inside-out, or is there always more to be discovered? Is this perhaps what sets apart and elevates some synths to iconic status?
Oh yes, I think so. There are many great synths with a very simple architecture, that’s often part of their appeal. But equally, there are many you can never fully “conquer”, as it were. Something like Zebra, which I use ALL the time, there are still many aspects of that I haven’t uncovered, I’m sure. There’s even stuff I know I haven’t done with it but want to. You don’t always have the time.
I don’t think a synth needs to be complicated to be iconic or even good. A synth lives and dies by its usability and, most importantly, its sound. If it sounds great, you’ll use it, no matter how simple or complex. For me, a steep learning curve is just bad design. And just because something can be complex doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be difficult to use.
Your fantastic soundset Omnisphere Ferox draws inspiration from the brooding work of cutting edge cinema composers, particularly Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), and Dennis Villeneuve’s regular soundtrack collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, Sicario and the upcoming Arrival). Can you break down some of the aspects of the process that went into creating this set, such as how you begin listening to and dissecting their work, and how you then strategise how you’re going to build a collection of sounds in a similar vein?
As mentioned above, the starting point is always just listening to the music. I’ll usually listen to it in two passes as well. The first, I’m just absorbing the music, enjoying it for what it is, getting a “feel” for what it’s about and what it’s composed of. Then, afterwards, I’ll listen again with a more forensic head on, making notes etc.
I actually did something a little different with Ferox, in that I created sounds after listening to individual cues, rather than after a larger listening session of multiple tracks. For some reason, I don’t know exactly why, this approach seemed suited to this project.
So, I would listen to a cue from, say, Gone Girl and I’d pick out what sort of sounds were in it: lush analogue pads, grimey pitchy basses, swirling modular soundscapes, acoustic drum sequences, whatever. Then I’d sit down with Omnisphere and play with those ideas.
With Omnisphere 2, as I had been a beta tester and also made some factory sounds for it, I felt pretty well versed in what soundsources were available to me – even though there are literally thousands of them! Indeed, I set about the whole Ferox project BECAUSE I knew that many of the new soundsources within it were absolutely suited to the Reznor/Ross sound.
It’s a little difficult to get into the absolute specifics of patch creation because it needs to be a fairly intuitive process. I don’t really want to be problem solving at this stage in the process (although, of course, it does happen), I want to be drawing on my existing experience and knowledge, so that there isn’t a disconnect between what I’m hearing and what I’m creating. This is, I guess, only something that can come with practice. I’d have never tried to take on a project like Ferox when I started out, and maybe not even before the time I did do it.
How do you hope people will use your soundsets in their own projects?
Any way they like, as long as they’ve bloody well paid for it! A vain part of my ego likes to think people drop the sounds “as is” into their projects, and indeed I hear this happening when I listen to new music. On that tangent, I had an experience where a composer asked me if I could create sounds like those in a particular game score and my response was, “I already did. Those are my synth sounds that composer’s using!”
But, seriously, I don’t mind how people use them. Tweak them, turn them on their head; as long as they’re enjoying using my sounds, I’m happy. I am ALWAYS interested to hear about people using my synth patches in their music, whatever the project may be. It’s fascinating to me, it really is.
How do you see soft synths evolving over the next few years? What would you like to see?I don’t have a crystal ball, and am certainly not au fait with all the latest software developments, but I think we might see a focus on synths that do specific things very well. Not sure there’s much room in the market for new synths that do a bit of everything. It would take something quite special for me to feel a need to buy a new synth at the moment. In my own music, I rarely reach beyond Zebra, Diva and Omnisphere. I’m looking at various softsynths I haven’t released a soundset for and wondering what it is that’ll inspire me to sit down and make 100+ sounds for them!
I think spectral and granular synthesis (and to some extent physical modelling) are interesting areas to play with. Digging down into a sound/sample and splitting it apart to make quite molecular level edits does seem to me to be something worth investigating more. I have things like Padshop Pro and the old version of Alchemy, but think there’s definitely room in the market for something really user friendly that nails this approach.
What are you focusing on now, and what are your plans for forthcoming Unfinished soundsets and/or bespoke projects?
Recently I’ve been working on a few bespoke synth programming projects (probably too many, if you ask my wife!). But they’ll feed into my release schedule eventually, so you can expect plenty of Zebra sounds and also some Diva stuff. I’m working on Colossus II for Omnisphere, but I’m not sure when that’ll come out. If it’s anything like the original Colossus, I’ll keep delaying the release as I make more and more sounds for it!
I’d also like to do some sample work. I’ve had a few ideas on the backburner for a while, waiting for a large enough gap to knuckle down on them. Hopefully I’ll get the time soon. The main idea is creating a larger, more detailed version of my Drumstruck series of loop libraries. That’s something I’d love to do as I really enjoy percussion programming, both the sounds and the rhythms.
Other than that, I’m constantly working on new synth soundset ideas. There’s one or two synths I’ve not released anything for that I’d like to. Plus, there’s the old favourites too, that still serve me (and my customers and clients!) well.
Finally, where does the name The Unfinished come from?
My life used to be a wasteland littered with projects that never saw the light of day. When I finally took music seriously, I decided to call myself The Unfinished as a constant reminder that I needed to damn well finish things I started.
So far, it seems to be working. So far.
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