Modal Electronics Backstage: Tim Wright, Part Two
Did you miss Part One of Tim’s Backstage Interview? No worries, we have a shortcut for you.
In Part Two of our latest installment of Modal Electronics Backstage, we catch up with Sound designer and composer Tim Wright / CoLD SToRAGE. Looking at everything from happy accidents, to studying real-world sound for synthesised emulation – not to mention some insightful tips on entering this industry – this no-holds-barred interview is a must for any aspiring sound designer!
You know what you’re doing when it comes to synthesisers and how to get the sound you’re looking for. However, I also get the sense that you’re open to happy accidents too?
Oh, even more so than Bob Ross! You can go in wanting one thing and end up with something totally different.
Let’s say I want a gong sound. I know what the volume envelope is for that. That’s a given. Then I need the harmonics a gong would give off. So, that level of knowledge is there too. Then I’ll go hunting through the waveforms finding what’ll be good. Then you’ll get something that sounds a bit like a gong. You’ve got a solid foundation. Then it’s 50% having the ground-work and knowing where you want to start from, and 50% tweaking and thinking “if I modulate the pitch on this, because of the way that’s tied into oscillator 1, it’s going to produce the metal wobble I need to sound like a gong”.
Then there’s the random approach. Start off with a square wave and hit a note on the keyboard. Then start playing with the filter, then the resonance, and then kind of drift off into some kind of alpha-state, and you don’t even know what you’re doing. You’re just kind of along for the ride. Then you drop the second oscillator down an octave. Then accidentally set the modulation on an unintended parameter. Suddenly you have a totally different sound – nothing you planned. So you think, “…that’s my direction now, I like it but it needs more bass. How can I make it more bassy?”
Fast forward an hour, and that sound has morphed completely, from a bass sound into a really convincing snare drum, and you’re thinking “How the heck did I end up here?”.
Do you find you come back to previous noodles, previous experiments and happy accidents which weren’t great for the snare drum you wanted but fit for some other sound?
I would say rarely. I think it’s because I kinda get in the zone when I’m working on any one particular project and I only save the final sound. But that said, yeah it has happened in the past. Certainly, back in the Amiga days, when I sampled anything I could get hold of – I’d keep all the samples just in case. I might be working on a project that needed a particular sound effect, and I’d remember sampling two cups banged together, and I’d think “Oh yeah…that cup sample. If I pitch bend that down an octave, that could work here”.
Do you still sample sounds now or is it pretty much purely synthesized?
Oh, for sure. The Bandcamp page for my CoLD SToRAGE music includes some experiments like that. There’s one where there’s just two rubber bands. I was sitting there one day wondering what I could create.
I wanted to write some music, but wasn’t sure what, and the postman had just been, and there was a stack of post with a big thick yellow rubber band and another pile with a little red rubber band. I picked one up and was absent mindedly twanging it. I rolled it between my fingers and twisted it, and then I let go – and it sounded like some kind of percussion, like a hi-hat.
That was the moment when a spark of inspiration hit me. So I set up a microphone and sampled all the sounds I could get out of these rubber bands. This led to me creating a track called Rubber Band Boogie Woogie, which is kind of reminiscent of Amiga music, because it’s got all these small limited sounds, but it goes through some chorus and reverbs to make it sound more interesting.
If you really want to delve deeply into my whole sampling shtick, I’ve got an album called Project Moonbounce 2009, that was an insane idea. I’m going to bounce music off the moon. But, I’m going to use the moon as an echo box. It’s going to take some seconds to come back and because I’m a radio ham, I wanted to find somebody in the community that’s got a stupidly big dish in their garden. We can bounce it off, collect it in another way.
You literally bounced sounds off the moon?
Well, yeah… I was originally going to use the moon as a giant echo box – bounce sounds off there and get some nice delays. But then I realised, that’s not going to work because the moon moves. I was going to do it live as well, as it was a bit dramatic, like those big open air Jean-Michel Jarre concerts, but I’d be bouncing my music off the moon!
In the end, I had various sounds of me saying “CoLD SToRAGE”, some synthesised speech, morse code, anything I could think of and I simply bounced those sounds off the moon and recorded them coming back to Earth.
I found this guy in Derby with a huge satellite dish. And he was totally up for doing it. The sounds got fired up to the moon, and they came flying back. There’s a place in the Netherlands, Dwingeloo Radio Observatory, that has a massive dish, and they agreed to receive the reflected signals for us. The thing that occurred to me later, was that not all of the radio signal we fired out would have hit the moon… some of it would have gone off into space, which is kinda cool.
That was the seed of the album. I think there were two or three tracks on there that use those moon-bounced sounds. I thought ‘right, I want something else on this album now’. So I got one of those 200-in-1 electronic kits from a charity shop, and I went through and built every single one of the circuits that made any kind of noise and recorded it. There’s a track written with that.
One day I was putting water into my dog’s water bowl, and I accidentally hit the bowl against the water tap. It made this lovely “dwooop” sound. I sampled clanging, hitting, and even got some thread around it and lifted it up, filled it with water, wet the thread, and played it a bit like a violin. That track is one of my favourites actually.
On another track on that album I use some really cheesy home organ samples. My son was given one of those Bontempi style home organs. Some guy died and his wife didn’t know what to do with it. It was kind of rudimentary sound wise, but it had really old school electronic drums and some quirky sounds. So I sampled it to death, and made a song out of that. The whole album has got weird and wacky samples to be honest.
Thank you for sharing that. I really wanted to talk about your wind and ocean sounds on the COBALT8, because I’ve never heard a synthesized ocean or wind preset or patch on a synthesizer like it. It’s not just realistic in terms of the sound but realistic in terms of the movement, the randomness. It blew my mind when I heard it. So maybe you could tell us how you made it?
I started out trying to make a crash cymbal. That’s how the water thing started. I got the delay and the filter going for a cymbal, but then I modulated it by accident. I got the wave movement whoosh sound, as you would expect, totally by accident to begin with – and that triggered an idea. I looked out at the pond in the garden, mulled it over, and one thing sort of led to another.
At that point I wondered if the COBALT8 could actually do convincing sounding waves? It’s got two oscillators, and if I could get them going at different speeds and introduce a kind of low speed random wave too (because the LFOs have got random settings) – I must’ve spent three hours or more getting that ocean lapping at the shore.
Then gradually as I was tweaking it, I had all kinds of intermodulation going on, and that’s one of the reasons it sounds realistic, because of the randomness. But it’s subtle, because there’s an overall, gentle, really solid filter sweep emulating the wave crashing, but it’s different every time. So that again, adds to the sort of realism. Then it got to a point where I closed my eyes, and in my mind, I was in Aberystwyth in Wales at a particular point, looking down at the sea and holding this note down and just tweaking the synth with my eyes closed imagining I was there. It was definitely working!
It can’t be too random because if you’ve got the forward wash then the smaller wash going behind it, you want some regularity about it. It is quite hypnotic. Just close your eyes and I would imagine your blood pressure will go down!
Probably! Yes. I could imagine just pressing one key and keeping that pressed down and that can literally be an ambient track.
It’s not something you’d necessarily expect to get on a COBALT8. It had gotten to the point where this synth became both my canvas and the paint brushes.
As for the wind sound, well… maybe a week or two later, again, visual cues were around me.. the trees were being blown sideways, which doesn’t happen very often in Switzerland, with average wind speeds of five miles per hour! But there was clearly a storm coming.
Then I thought, I’ve done the sea so surely I can create a wind patch? There’s low end noise and high end noise with the wind. And you’re basically looking for pink noise too. I started working on that as well. Then you get to the stage where you’re sort of just closing your eyes and thinking it’s got to sound like I’m on a hill, and there’s trees around me. So you need to be able to hear that whistle through the trees and the rustle of the leaves. That was tricky to build into it with the resonance, but also changing the waveform subtly.
So, as the volume increases the resonance increases, but you need certain aspects of oscillator 2 to peak as well. So you would get that realistic whooshing vibe. But again, with a bit of pseudo random. It’s kind of stereo too, because there is a sneaky trick going on there. The sound goes through the reverb, and the way the stereo voice allocation works on the COBALT8 is left right, left right, left right. But when you pass that through a thick reverb, it very quickly blends, and you get this lovely stereo wash, which adds to the wind realism.
Amazing. Thanks so much! Do you have any technical and creative tips you could give those entering the industry?
I’ve amassed a small fan-base, many of whom are aspiring pro musicians. The one thing I’ve always said to people is don’t write music to sound like somebody else. Even if people tell you your music is rubbish, it doesn’t matter. Stick to who you are. I mean, when you begin, you naturally emulate others. Some people like to remix and take existing music and use that as a stepping stone.
But there’s still an aspect of bringing your own character, your own passion, into the creation process, right?
Right. And, if you get into it full-time, you may have to do work that is derivative, or people will ask for music that sounds like someone else. Even when you’re in that position where someone has said they want this to sound like The Weekend or Chemical Brothers, Brahms, that’s fine. Go in that direction but always add your own formula to it. And so long as you’re within the guidelines that’s fine.
That’s one thing that I was conscious of when I got the WipEout gig. I felt that maybe it was expected of me to create music “in the style of” The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and so on – just some kind of diluted facsimile. That produced a lot of nervous energy, but I used that energy to not only go forward and create something that was going to please the development team… but also inject something of myself into it.
Then, as you get more work and become more confident, you can retain more of your own style… to the point where people will eventually ask you to write a track for a game, film or TV programme, with no caveat that it has to sound like Phillip Glass, John Williams or whoever.
Also, bear in mind things can be tough, or even brutal. When you’re in a creative industry there are egos. People can be blunt. People might get angry easily. There can be a lot of explosive emotion. Don’t let it put you off. Don’t let it be the end of your artistic endeavours.
Be yourself, follow your direction and hopefully you’ll get to a stage where people value you from a creative perspective and will want your particular style, rather than just someone to do a job.
Any tips from a business perspective?
From a business perspective people will try to get you to do stuff without payment, rather in exchange for so called exposure. Don’t do it. It’s really not worth it. Move on and look for someone who is going to value your work, that’s if you’re serious about making a living from music.
Instead, approach it as maybe they don’t give you any money up front, but if they make some money, then have a little deal that you get a percentage of that. There’s always sort of some way around it – a fair share of the proceeds.
Be yourself, follow your direction and hopefully you’ll get to a stage where people value you from a creative perspective…
What about tips on breaking into the industry, approaching publishing houses, record labels, etc?
The industry has changed so much that the whole concept of being a famous musician on a label is few and far between. The days of A&R scouts in clubs seems like a distant memory.
A few people these days get a taste of fame through shows like Britain’s Got Talent, and Pop Idol. They get insta-fame but sadly, mostly they insta-disappear.
In terms of getting ahead in games music, that’s tricky. The record labels make it really easy for computer games companies to simply licence existing music into a game these days.
Where bespoke music is needed, like orchestral backing, there are so many great suppliers too.
You need some way to break the ice with a game developer. If you know someone who works at a company, that’s a great in-road. As the old adage goes, “It’s who you know, not what you know”, and that can be quite true in this case.
But, let’s say you’re trying to get a foot in the door and you don’t know anyone, then you could always drop a USB stick or a CD in the post or through their post box. Don’t send an email, as that’s likely to be ignored.
Also, you could go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and target indie developers. There’s lots of indies on Reddit. Go on these social platforms and ingratiate yourself with games developers. But don’t dive right in with “I write music, can I supply some for your game?” as that could turn people off as too much of a hard-sell. Firstly, try contributing your thoughts and what you think of the games before you mention that you’re writing music for games.
The demo scene is an interesting place to get into too. There’s lots of stiff competition, even though there’s no monetary return. But again, some of these guys that work in the demo scene… their day job is programming at E.A. or Blizzard or wherever – so if they like your work, you might get in the door there.
It’s all about legwork. It really is. Even sending in random demos to a record company, who knows what’ll happen? I would do everything to be honest, because, I mean, what have you got to lose? Spend some time writing some music and then just send you stuff everywhere on a regular basis, even on a cyclical basis, and then refresh it as you write better music.
Are there places you would advise against sending music to?
There are certain people you shouldn’t send your music to, like in-house musicians in software houses. I actually got that when I worked at Psygnosis. I’d get demo tapes and stuff, and I’d be kind enough to reply and say, “Sure… this time I’ll pass these on, but most people wouldn’t, so don’t do this again – it mostly going to be a waste of time for you!”
It’s like looking for your own replacement!
Here’s one I’ve learned the hard way through a million pounds worth of bad debt. What you should do if you’re quoting for work is this. Let’s say you want £1,500 in total? So you should quote £3000 and say you want half up front. Why? Well, you get your £1,500 up front, you write your piece of music, you deliver it. Maybe they want some changes and are happy with it. You’ve made the money you wanted and needed.
And then you ask for your other half, and you might get some people that will refuse and try to pull a fast one, but you won’t care because you got the money you wanted.
Or you may get somebody honest that says yes and pays the second half? Now you’ve essentially got double what you wanted – a bonus. Now set this as a mind goal and always insist on at least some of the money upfront. Just say, this is how much it’s going to be, but I want half of it up front, so that’s half the risk one way, and then I’ll provide demos and then I’ll wait for the other half. So of course, I’m not going to mess you around. I’m going to deliver the music and get all of the money ideally.
That’s great advice. Thank you.
Wait! There’s something super crucial to add. Always retain full copyright of all your music. You should license your music for use within the game or within the product or within a film or TV show.
Register with PRS (UK), or whichever collection agency you have in your country. If your music gets played on radio, Spotify or wherever you’ll receive royalty payments. But you must state this very clearly in any contract with any company. That you own the music, and you can do what you want with it.
Sometimes there will be caveats where they’ll say, OK, yeah, you can keep the copyright and you can release this as an album or do what you want with it, but not for six months. Let us have it in the game first for six months exclusively, and then do what you like with it. But you can also add, that you will never put these tunes in another game or another product – that generally goes down well, and let’s be honest, it works well for the musician too, that a piece of music is only associated with one game.
It has to be said that music royalties are vital. A one-off payment from a games company is great. Selling your music digitally, on CD or vinyl is great too. But for regular money, streaming services can really help. I make more money from streaming services than I do from selling physical copies of my music just now.
Interesting. Thank you, Tim. That’s fantastic advice. We wish you well in your journey with music and sound!
COLD STORAGE Signature Sound PackS
Messij for COBALT8
Prepare Yourself! This is an epic artist library from the man himself, giving you some insight into his unique approach to sound design – everything you could dream of is included in here from hyper-realistic FX to expansive pads and everything in between.