• Interview with Robin Hunt

    I first heard about Robin Hunt when he appeared in a making-of video of ‘Hylas’, performed by Thomas Azier. In this video, synthesisers were re-amped in huge factory halls. This way of recording, resulted in a natural reverb throughout the recorded tracks. The process inspired me, and I wanted to ask him a few questions about it ever since. What struck me was the way he used the music production as a tool for the composition. I’ve included the video at the bottom of the article, and highly recommend checking it out!

    Robin welcomes me in his studio, located in the eastern part of Berlin. It’s a unique place that used to be a factory. After a few coffees, he shows me around in the building. In the common room there is a timeline – with pictures drawn on the wall. It shows a timescale from 2010 until now, the period that, together with approximately twenty other people, Robin renovated the factory into a creative workspace. There are many trails left of abandoned engines and generators, many of them still working; trails of what the place used to be. I notice a lot of work was done to make the place what it is today.

    On the way to his studio, we pass along a sewing atelier and a printing workspace. These rooms used to be empty, and Robin used the acoustic of the space to record some of his sounds. One of the industrial elevators is still in use. The sound of the mechanism, emergences deep from within the building. It is the exact sound that is heard the first twenty seconds of Thomas Azier’s ‘Shadows of the Sun’, which was also recorded in this place. His studio is a small tight-sounding room on the first floor. What started with a few questions about his workaround, turned into an amazingly inspiring afternoon. Until mid- afternoon we talked about sounds, song writing, mixing, synths, production and a lot more.

    From Berlin to Paris
    After studying ‘Academie voor Popcultuur’ in Leeuwarden – The Netherlands, Robin moved to Berlin. The decision was huge, but in Leeuwarden nothing really happened for him; the music he made at that time was too extreme. He used to visit Berlin regularly, and bit by bit he discovered the exciting vibe of the city. After nine months he made the decision to move there permanently.

    ‘And at that moment everything happened instantly. I started to make different things, met different people… Thomas already lived here a few years, and he asked me to make a kick for ‘Shadows of the Sun’. That was quite hard to make with a TR-909. The bass tone is always a G#, but the bass needed to be Bb and F. It’s not going to work to pitch the bass because you will lose a lot of overtones, besides you’ll miss the punch. So what I did; I recorded the 909, cut the punch off the tail and only pitched the tail. The new tail I routed to the same effect chain as the punch had.’

    After that recording, Thomas and Robin started working together more. When
    Hylas 002 was made, they got a lot of reactions and started to work on the full album in 2011. But before he was able to work on it, he had to build his studio first. In this period, he had to work ten hours a day for six days a week to finish it. All the sound reflections had to be tight. Every space has its resonation frequency. Some frequencies might resonate longer, and that’s not what you want to. The most important reason for him to get this right was mainly for the mixing process. Because the mixing room needs to sound as neutral as possible. ‘If you want to mix properly, these things need to be done.’ It was through the label of Thomas that he applied as engineer and technician in the Paris based Ferber studio: a studio with lots of history.

    ‘It was a new huge step for me to go to Paris. New city, new culture, different vibe. For me it feels more intense than when I left for Berlin … The level gets higher every time, and that is where I want to be. I had the chance to grow in Berlin. It is always on your best or nothing. You don’t go for okay, you go for the best, that is an ambition essential for success. But these choices also keep you alert. When you are in a safe environment you don’t have to do things and you don’t grow. I want to do things that excite me, but that’s a choice you have to make on your own.’

    Then, Robin opened a few of the music projects he was working on. First we checked out an amazing remix with a solid pulse. The percussive synths sounded crystal clear and the song had a nice build-up. Some of the plugins he uses feature plugins from UVI, Chromaphone and Komplete. He explains that he likes to work with UVI because, even though it is sample based, its sound editing is still very flexible. I ask Robin if all the instruments in the remix were made by plugins, as a well known struggle for all composers and producers is the demo phase. Sometimes whenever you’re in the process of a song, the demo groove sounds so great already. Lots of producers want to record it with real microphones or synths, because ‘it is better’. Whenever the demo is finished and they start to record some of the instruments ‘for real’, they notice that the whole groove is not there anymore.

    ‘I will never get the groove as good as this anymore. And if I wanted it, I should have done it immediately in the process. You should make an agreement with yourself: record it immediately, or mute the tracks and really go for it later on. You shouldn’t continue and think ‘I’ll do it later’. Do it straight away! That’s the hard thing. When I was making this remix, I knew from the start that I would be using plugins. Where would I get such a great Kit in an Abbey Road room?

    Recording with real microphones will give you another vibe, but it’s not necessarily the good one. For a long time I thought; I have a nice TR-808. So I should replace the digital drum sample with the ‘real’ thing. It is possible but it doesn’t get better necessarily. Sometimes a digital sample fits perfectly, in that case I don’t need to use the TR-808. If it feels right, it is right because only you know it. If you can’t live with it you should record it with real microphones. The important thing is: ‘what is better?’ Sound should be functional first. Nobody will care about the quality if it isn’t functional. Form follows function.’

    Traveling with a studio
    Another reason for Robin to use more plugins, is because he’s on the road many times. For more than a year now, he travels frequently between his studio in Berlin and the Ferber studio in Paris. He explains that many hours of work are done travelling or in his bedroom, using nothing more than his laptop and earphones. He explains that most of the sounds that are made ‘in-the-box’ can sound terrific. Whenever sounds need to be adjusted, he can change it any time, right away.

    ‘Whenever I need to change something, it is still possible. But this is different for every project … in my workflow now it’s not working when I have a synthesiser in Berlin.’

    On the other side, working with real hardware like synthesisers and amplifiers, can give you inspiration.

    ‘The fact that you’re working with amplifiers; you walk towards it, turn it on, place a microphone in front of it… You really put an effort in making the sound. You are physically putting energy in the process instead of clicking around. And this gives a totally different emotional vibe to the process. It is not necessary, but it gives a different meaning to the sound, because you know where it comes from. The Jupiter 8 sounds the same as the plugin. Nobody hears the difference. But you work differently on a real synth. Turning around knobs… it’s a different interface.’

    In his studio there is still plenty of hardware, though. Some of the classic synths are placed above each other in a rack: Roland JX3P, Akai AX73, Virus TI and in close range the legendary TR-808 and TR-909. Even some nice effect processors are put on top of each other including the Sherman Filterbank and a Dynacord tape delay. Even though he sold the Korg EX-800, and the Yamaha TX7 recently, he will not get rid of the TR’s and the effect processors, because that is ‘the real shit’. But why are those TR’s so legendary?

    ‘Because it sounds extremely well, and it is intuitive. You can play with it, and every clap sounds a bit different, what makes it alive. This can almost not be done digitally. It has a certain groove. The feel will change completely whenever I turn this knob only the slightest bit.’

    The echo chamber
    In the end, Robin opened another music project where he is working on; a new song of Stefany June. He showed me around in the Live project, and had some amazing music production tricks. The lead sound that was dominating the bridge part of the song sounded like a fat synth, but it had the vibe of an acoustic string instrument. After a strip-down of all the effects, it appeared to be only his voice, humming a melody he made up! The simple humming was combined by a trombone that played the same line accompanied by a compressor, tuner and octaver. Even though the production is still work in progress, the basic beat had such a groove! Because the core of the song is the most important part, he explains.

    ‘The first question you ask yourself is: what is the core of the track? The drums were really important. They gave me a basic track, and I had to make lots of those sounds over again. When I finished the drums, I was able to continue with the chorus and strings. I’m not a decent guitar player, but I felt something else was needed in the chorus. So I cut out the notes, automated it and brought everything to the same level. Same with the claps; I recorded it four times, and panned it left and right. Some of them are reversed, a bit sloppy and with spring reverb. By recording it yourself, it gives the song a live vibe!’

    The live vibe is also heard in the smaller percussion, hi-hats and cymbals. Lots of them are virtual instruments (Komplete) played on the keyboard and by purpose not quantised. The shaker is one of the instruments that was recorded live. The afternoon ended with an example of the use of the ‘reverb chamber’. The concrete industrial halls of the factory are very long. Every sound that echoes through, has an unique long decay. Lots of synths heard on ‘Hylas’ came through an amplifier to be recorded at the other side of the room by a microphone. This technique adds a bit of dirtiness to the synthesiser. Additional, instead of using plugins as reverb, the concrete halls of the factory add their own reverb to the sound, in a similar way Phil Spector did with his echo chamber back in the early 60’s. Robin showed how he made one of the kicks of the Stefany June record by hitting the floor with his shoe. The sound had a nice low dry impact. But whenever he opened the door, and hit the floor again, an amazing reverb echoed through the halls of the factory. A reverb that will give another emotional vibe to the sound than going through different pre-sets…

  • Temptracking

    People often ask: ‘how do you start with a film composition?’. A question can understand too well, as I asked it myself over again before I started writing for film. Most of the time a project starts with spotting. Just to find out which of the scenes are in need of music. Whenever these places are established, the editor and composer sometimes work with a temporary as a guideline for the score that has to be written.

    A temptrack is an existing music track that is temporary synced with the film for guideline purpose only.

    Easy right? Yes, but no. The first major pitfall is copying. During the editing, directors sometimes hear the temptrack so many times, it is almost impossible for them to adapt to anything the composer comes up with. They reject the original score, in search for something else, but what they want they are really looking for is actually the temptrack itself. This is a dangerous situation for composers as they are not really composing anymore. You can’t blame the director for this, as they have to watch the edit a thousand times. No wonder the temptrack gets stuck in their head. A demo [quickly composed piece mostly in low productional quality] is often used to prevent this appearance. It takes more time to create, but it might save you time that would otherwise have been spent copying. Clearly it is more fruitful to work on the basis of an idea, then of an existing piece. On the other hand, it is always fun having a temptrack in a style that is way out of your comfort zone. By doing a style research, it gives you the possibility master a certain style. It gives you the opportunity to go way out of your comfort zone.
    I’d advise both director as composer to work as soon as possible with a composed demo, and leave the temptrack out in an early stage already.

    So how close do the final music score sound like the temptrack? In this video you can see clear examples of what might have been the temptrack of a view blockbusters. Unfortunately some of them are almost identically. Is this a wrong way of film scoring? The creators of this video essay say it is the cause that nobody remembers a theme of any ‘Marvel’-movie these days.
    I think the key is to get as close to the feeling as possible by:

    1.) Listen the temptrack maybe once or twice.
    2.) In an early phase, switch the temptrack with your own demos
    3.) Don’t get used to the temptracks.

    This month I produced the music for a commercial, where the director and the editor asked if I had any temptracks in mind. For a long time I wanted to write a mandolin/banjo/ukelele track, and this video gave me the cause to do so! In my temptrack library I saved the ‘Casual Soundtrack’ written by mateo Messina and Rolfe Kent, and delivered it as temp. The result is comparable in the final video, and the temptrack (‘Casual’ starting at 2:00).

  • Composing for deadlines

    Deadlines in the film industry. Working together in a crew makes deadlines inescapable. For the two commercials  at the bottom of this page, there was one week to compose, produce and record the scores. I was able to finish the job with these goals:

    1.) Set your goals, but don’t set them long-term!

    Before and in the edit-phase, things can change fast. The ideas of directors often changes a lot. When time is of the essence, it is not fruitful to write full scores, just to find out that the director is skipping the scene in the next edit anyway. Work with temp tracks (already composed music, that will work as guide in the edit), or write demo’s! Contact your crew!

    2.) Find out what works for you.

    Composing music is a sport. You have to be fit to do the job. You can’t spend your weekend in the club, only to find out the next day that your deadline is due the day after tomorrow. You should get enough sleep to keep your brain creative. Of course an 8-hour sleep and an early wake-up to start your day writing sounds ideal, but might not always be the right thing to do. It is also possible to change shift and work through the night, to stay in the flow. These shifts work for me, but find out what works for you!

    3.) Be honest.

    Some things might not work. Whenever the director picks Bernard Herman as temptrack, you might need more budget or time to get the job done. Tell the producers about it, be honest, and come up with alternatives.

    If you stay true to these goals, it might save you some tears.



  • The Origin of Trouble

    Over the last two years I was asked to compose music for some amazing projects. One of them however, stood out amongst others for its emotional story. The Origin of Trouble tells the story of a broken family; director Tessa Pope looks for answers to find out why the relationship with her father has been so troubled.
    Late August 2015 I was asked to compose the music for this project. Straight away, the teaser of the movie was shot. The director gave notes that it should be quick, light and most of all funny. I choose to write for a small chamber orchestra, produced with ‘bad’ samples and a few accents played on small percussion instruments. It appeared that it worked out very well and it gave exactely the mood that it needed. Even though it was different from the strategy I used later on in the movie, this theme was recycled and made it to the screen eventually.
    Like every other movie, the score starts with a plan. A good plan is half of all the work there is to be done. Really, this sounds cliche but its so true. So before filming, I started to plan my strategy. The director explained the feeling she wanted to create, and I instantly felt it. As I knew by reading the synopsis and the history of her family, I knew that things could get emotional. On the other side, by knowing the happy and light style the whole picture would get (titles, shots, quick editing ect.), I suspected that I needed to write music that would touch the space between those two contradicted emotions. I never had to change this strategy but I had to change the orchestration though.

    The orchestral score, that wasn’t able to touch the emotional side of the story, made space for guitars. Choosing guitars gave the freedom to cover all the emotions I wanted to give to the story. I don’t know exactly how I started to pick guitars but I know that it was inspired by Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith and Bon Iver. They all give their music a sort of oblivious and eternal feeling. Their sound is sober, but the emotional weight their songs bring is huge.

    I threw overboard the orchestral part, and started writing interludes for the 8mm footage inspired on Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Should Have Known Better’. Silvan de Smit played the classical guitar, and I played the Ukelele during the studio session. Because the story gets darker, I wrote the second and third theme in a lower key, and left out some instruments to make it more sober. Mind the synthesizer (korg 800ex) giving the pad sound and adding to this ‘longing back to those days’ feeling. Luckily It wasn’t removed in the mix (director joked: what does this sound tell us? an incoming alien invasion?).
    I was able to buy a second hand bad tuned mandolin of ebay, bought a Höfner Ukelele and wrote ‘You and Me’, to enforce the romantic line in the beginning of the movie. This mandolin was also used in the main title called ‘Our Home’. Because sudden changes in the production, the movie got on hold during the second week of the editing process. Because the studio was already booked, I was still writing the theme for a movie that wasn’t edited yet, the night before recording! Luckily this worked out well (fix it in the mix), and I was able to record the title song on a resonator guitar in open E. Mind that the credit theme at the end of the movie is also the same theme used in the opening sequence. This is part of the same strategy; to connect the beginning and the ending. The extended theme of the Origin of Trouble – ‘Our Home’, that I recorded with Selle Sellink (artwork by Roel Meijering) is now on Spotify and iTunes!