Talking Sound with Matt Bowdler, of The Unfinished

Matt Bowdler is a sound designer based in London, UK. He’s recently been working on creating sounds for composer Trevor Morris for the film Olympus has Fallen. We took a little time to bend his ear about his work, what inspires him, and any advice he may have for people interested in getting involved in sound design.

Why are you called ‘The Unfinished’?

My non-music past is littered with the ghosts of projects never completed. Because all things being equal I have tendency towards laziness. I drive myself very hard to stay focused, motivated and, most importantly, to keep working. So, when I decided to start taking music seriously, I figured I’d call myself ‘The Unfinished’ as a constant reminder that if I start something I should finish it! It seems to be working so far. Touch wood.

Tell us a bit about your background, about your musical history, and how you got into composition and sound design. Do you consider yourself a composer, a sound designer, or a bit of both? Wearer of many shirts?

I’ve always had an interest in music, but it’s taken me a long time to realise it is my main love in life (apart from the girlfriend, obviously!). I was bought a little, rubbish Yamaha keyboard for Christmas when I was eleven, that I bashed out many terrible, improvised songs on. Beyond that, I wrote a theatre soundtrack on an old Kurzweil workstation at university, did remixes of Star Wars tunes using a bit of software called Play 2000 on the Playstation and eventually actually bought some proper hardware in the form of a Yamaha RM1X groovebox about fifteen years ago.

But, it’s only really in the last three or so years that I’ve truly embraced music and sound. I’ve been a big fan of Hybrid, the Welsh dance duo, for years and they started working with a composer called Harry Gregson-Williams a few years back. I loved it and devoured every score Harry had done – being particularly impressed by Man On Fire and Spy Game. I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do with my life – be Harry Gregson-Williams! I haven’t become him, but I did get the chance to meet him earlier this year, which was great.

The sound design came about almost by accident. A good producer/composer friend of mine was designing EDM sounds for synths like Sylenth. He suggested I give it a go because he liked the synth sounds in my tracks… and about two years after (and following much badgering by him!) I finally relented last year and released a small set of free sounds for NI Massive. It was reasonably popular, so I released a full bank of commercial sounds for Massive and it all just kicked off from there really.

I still consider myself a composer first, even though I spend more time designing sounds right now. Essentially my projects are about designing sounds for myself to use, then I share them with everybody else.

…to think I could still be sat in my old office, doing my old job fills me with horror. There’s nothing more exciting than waking up in the morning and switching the studio on. If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed and be full of regrets. So… go for it….

Who do you look up to in the SD business? Do you have any heroes?

There are artists whose sound palettes I admire and who I find a constant inspiration. Needless to say Harry Gregson-Williams’s soundtracks are always full of inspiring sonics – the Hybrid guys still supply him with a lot of this, I believe, so they are heroes to me too. Also, in the world of electronica, I am continually amazed at the quality of sounds that the likes of Sasha and BT produce. I also like a lot of ambient music (my soundsets are usually awash with atmospheric pads and textures), so artists like Rhian Sheehan, Jon Hopkins and Sigur Ros are always on my playlist. Then there are the great ‘hybrid orchestral’ composers like Michael McCann, Cliff Martinez and Johan Soderqvist. I look up to all these guys.

You’ve just been working with composer Trevor Morris, helping create some of the sound atmosphere for the film Olympus has Fallen. Tell us a bit about that. Could you hear your sounds in the film?

I should start by mentioning that I was but one of a team of people helping him out, which included such talents as Mel Wesson and Steve Tavaglione. But to answer the question… I think so! With the cinema sound system punching the film audio squarely into my cerebral cortex, it was a little difficult to pick out individual sounds. Add to that the fact that I was enjoying watching the film. But there were a few places where I was able to say to myself “That’s one of mine!” It was pretty amazing sitting in the cinema and knowing that all the people there were hearing something I had contributed to. A very humbling moment and I have to thank Trevor for allowing me to be a part of it.

Let’s talk a bit about the technicalities of designing patches. When you approach a sound, how do you start? Do you think of a sound that you want, or are you just messing around and see what comes out?

Very much both approaches. At first it was more the ‘messing about’ angle. As I’ve learned more and more about synthesis and sound design, I am more confident exploring the sounds in my head and trying to transfer them to whichever platform I am using. But, even when I take this approach I still allow plenty of room for happy accidents. I frequently create ‘save point’ sounds, from which I know I can then take off in many different directions, but always return to the original sound that inspired me to take these imaginative leaps.

It is hugely important to have a ‘blueprint’ for how your collection will sound though. You have to have some idea of what the sonic raison d’etre of the collection is, otherwise you will end up wandering down endless sound cul-de-sacs that leave you with no usable presets and a three hour-long chasm in your studio time. I do still occasionally save completely ‘off-topic’ sounds that I really like, with the hope of using them in another soundset – but I’ve managed to minimise the likelihood of this happening now, thankfully.

What’s your favourite software to use when designing sound? Why?

At the moment, I absolutely love creating sounds for Spectrasonics Omnisphere. It’s a brilliant synth. The available soundsources are vast in their range, it’s hugely intuitive to use and the synth engine is pretty decent too – which often gets overlooked. I have a particular soft spot for the waveforms that have been sampled from classic Roland, Moog and Oberheim gear. It’s every bit as brilliant as a synth designed by Eric Persing (the king of synth sound design) should be!

I also have great affection for Native Instruments Massive. It’s the synth I essentially learned sound design on, so it has a special place in my heart. It’s also a hugely capable synth. Much maligned as being only for dubstep and bass noises, it’s quite capable of some wonderful and evocative synth pads and dense, dynamic soundscapes – which you’ll hear a lot of in my soundsets for Massive. I do like its aggressive tones too though. Some very punchy and gritty arps and synth sequences can be created. And, again, it really is very simple to use – complexity doesn’t need to be walled off in endless menu options and matrices.

Outside of synths, there are a number of plug-ins I use over and over again. Paulstretch is a work of genius, for instance – you can turn anything into a soundscape with it. I’m also a huge fan of plugs by Audio Damage, Camel Audio and Fxpansion. Plus, I must give a shout out to the genius that is Bootsie (Variety of Sound) who creates far and away the best free effects plug-ins that money can’t buy!

What three things would you recommend to our readers who are thinking about getting into composition and/or sound design as a career?

1) Enjoy it. You have to enjoy what you’re doing. I imagine a lot of people who want to work in this industry have an element of ‘desk job avoidance’ going on. Well, if you don’t relax and enjoy working in music, then essentially you might as well be doing any of those jobs that you hope to have avoided. So, don’t make yourself ill working to deadlines that are so tight they can only be described using mathematical formulae. And don’t take on so many projects that you can’t focus on the ones that are most important to you. Do go to sleep at a reasonable time, take regular exercise and remind yourself what daylight and fresh air are like.

2) Do not worry what everybody else is doing. It’s really important for your soul, your ego and your mental wellbeing that you try and ignore what everybody else is doing. You can very quickly become engrossed in how successful your contemporaries are being, and it’s madness. Because you never see your own successes in the same light as you see others – the grass is always greener. So, applaud them, admire them, support them, and move on. Equally, don’t get too wound up in what the most popular sounds and genres are. Everyone, but everyone is making epic trailer music these days. If you enjoy making that kind of music and are good at it, then all is well. But if you don’t, don’t waste time being an also ran. Keep working on your own sound, it’s time WILL come.

3) Practice practice practice. And practice. Well, hopefully this goes without saying. Always keep writing, always keep designing sounds. You will hone those skills as you go and, hopefully, have a nice backlog of usable work waiting when opportunity finally knocks.

What’s are some tips and tricks for a budding sound designer who’s looking to start?

A good way to get stuck into synth sound design is to pick one synth (one that has a nice clear GUI and is capable of a reasonably wide range of sounds) and learn it inside out. Learn it till you are able to recreate sounds you like with it from scratch. And only then move onto other synths. What you learn with that synth will stand you in good stead for understanding the architecture of most other synths – as long as you don’t pick something obscure, or something pant-wettingly complicated like FM8! Seriously, FM synthesis is evil. 🙂

There are a great deal of excellent tutorials and videos on the internet, especially on YouTube and Vimeo. Take a look at the work of great sound designers like John ‘Skippy’ Lehmkuhl and Diego Stocco. They are very generous with their knowledge and hugely talented.

Also, another useful trick is to buy soundsets for synths you’re familiar with (or check out the bundled presets) and ‘reverse engineer’ them. Look at what oscillators, waveforms, filters they use. See how they’re connected up. Look at how changing the available parameters very slightly changes the sound. Then use what you’ve learned working backwards in this way, to reproduce those sounds from scratch. What goes wrong? What goes right? Do you like how the sound is made? Can you do something different with it? Or even recreate the same sound but with different parameters?

What’s been the most important thing you’ve learnt over the last year?

Go for it. I quit my full-time job last year to pursue music professionally. I am lucky that, so far, it is working out. But, to think I could still be sat in my old office, doing my old job – and I had quite a nice job in a very beautiful setting – fills me with horror. There’s nothing more exciting than waking up in the morning and switching the studio on. If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed and be full of regrets. So… go for it.

What is the next year looking like for The Unfinished?

Lots of projects on the horizon. There are new soundsets either finished or under way for Massive, Zebra2, Absynth and Omnisphere. I have just purchased Diva, and also have plans for a project using both Alchemy and Absynth (sample-based synthesis drawing on my collection of ethnic instruments and drums). Plus I have a really exciting collaboration project with a very very talented composer which should be released pretty soon – but that’s all I can say at this stage!

I’m also looking at releasing some sample libraries. I’m already part way through a soundscapes library for Kontakt. And I’m also planning a multi-platform percussion loops collection.

Music-wise, I’m working with a few music libraries, producing a range of interesting tracks that are helping to remind that I do write music! Plus, I am trying to clear some space to write an album. I’ve wanted to do this for a while and am drawing up a list of vocalists and instrumentalists I want to work with on some tracks. Oh, and I also have a very cool game soundtrack project waiting in the wings.

And last, but not least, I’m planning a little shopping for hardware synths. Time for some shiny knobs, sliders and lights in the studio!

To have a look see what’s going on in Matt’s world at the moment, and to check out his sound packs, go to these websites:

The Unfinished
Matt’s Website