The quest for perfection: an interview with Synth.nl (aka Michel van Osenbruggen)
Date: June 27 2011
Michel, as you may already know, there are lots of people who are impressed by your studio, the amount of quality gear housing it and the things you’ve achieved by now. At the same time they also wonder: how does he do it, time-wise, money-wise?
Yeah, I get that question a lot and I do realize that it is not a “normal” studio. I started my own internet company in 1995 together with my business partner Henk. That company is doing very well, so that is where the money for the studio is coming from.
Actually, that company used to be a hobby too, but it got a little out of control, just like the studio I guess..
The first ten years after starting the company I worked day and night, which eventually resulted in a major set-back. In 2005 I suffered a burn-out and was at home for over a year. In that period I started to compose my own music. During that time a lot of my operational tasks where taken over by other people. When I finally returned, everything ran smooth as ever and it still does, so there is no need for me to be there full time anymore. This enabled me to divide my time between work, music, sport and other hobbies. That’s also the lesson I learned from my burn-out: balancing your life is very important. But beside that I also don’t sleep that much. In general, I don’t need more than four or five hours of sleep a day. So that leaves a lot of time for other stuff…
I also heard your family plays a big, if not an essential role in the making of your concept albums and ongoing projects…
That is correct. I especially try to involve my two daughters as much as possible in
the themes I select for my albums. “AeroDynamics” for example had a lot to do with
race cars and airplanes, so we visited quite some race tracks together to watch the races next to several airshows. On each occasion, I took my mobile recording device with me and recorded the sounds, which I later used in the album’s music.
“AtmoSphere” on the other hand was done very close to home. During the creation of the album, we learned a lot about clouds and different weather phenomena. Most notably, most of the sounds for that album were recorded in our own backyard. “OceanoGraphy” relates about the Earth’s oceans and the large range of creatures living in it. We went on holiday on a boat and visited some marine parks to record the sounds of dolphins and whales. The kids also got to swim with dolphins and they loved that. But the most spectacular was a trip we made on a real submarine.
For the next album “Refuge en Verre” I collaborated with Ron Boots. It was actually
done on a families holiday with both our families in the Belgian Ardennes.
I’m currenty working on an album about the Apollo space missions, and I’ve build several space model kits together with the kids to get them acqainted with this theme. In addition, we soon will visit the Kennedy Space Center to see some life-size rockets and maybe even a launch.
For all albums, we also watched several educational documentaries on the topics, and I really hope the kids learned something from them. They also help me out on a regular basis while soldering stuff for the DIY modular synthesizer I’m building in my studio. Finally, there are the moments we make music together, as both my daughters are quite musically gifted, and we try to stimulate that as well.
Listening to your music makes it most clear you are almost a perfectionist when it comes to sound, its numerous possibilities and its magic…
Yes, indeed I am. I’m not easily satisfied and I can listen to a track a thousand times tweaking every bit of it until I’m 99.9% satisfied, I guess I’ll never get it 100% ok. I’m glad I learn new bits and pieces almost every day, I still can improve both my production skills and my playing skills. Both are and remain a challenge for me.
I don’t have any musical background, so I’m not bothered by any theoretical ballast. I
just learn everything by trial and error, which is actually how I prefer to learn things anyway. Fortunately, I also have some people around me that give me advice from time to time, like my friends Chris, Eugene and of course Ron Boots.
My biggest help though is my friend Hans Landman who has way better ears than me. He notices things I don’t hear myself. He’s also is quite hard on me and pushes me to the limit. He’s a real motivator and often comes up with some very good ideas when I’m stuck with a track.
Through the years, Hans has really become a co-producer on my music and we are working in the studio together on a regular basis, especially when an album is
getting in the final stages. On my upcoming album “Apollo” album he will also
do the remixing and mastering. He previously did the mastering on some single tracks for me, and I was very pleased with the outcome.
This hard and precise work in the studio, is this also the reason why you refused to play live until now, although you’re not afraid to jam with others?
Well, there are several reasons actually. First of all, I’m not someone who likes to be in the spotlight. I get very nervous when a more than average amount people are watching me. At my company, I occasionally have to give a presentation, but even after 15 years of experience and knowing the topics by heart, I’m still scared to death every time I do them. I think I’ll die of stress anyway on a stage when I even think about having to do a real concert and I don’t think that is nice for the audience to experience. Even when I’m at ease playing in my own studio, I stop playing when my wife or somebody else would show up. I don’t even like to play my own music to other people.
Secondly, I could not imagine how to play my music live, as I’m way too much a perfectionist for that. I’ll never be happy with a live performance I guess.
But the most important reason of all actually is I don’t like the idea to practice to play my own old music for such an occasion. I’d rather spend my time working on new music. So I’m afraid the chances of me ever playing live all on my own are almost none.
Only since last year I occasionally play together with other artists and I must confess I do like that kind of jamming. But even then I’d rather like to be the guy in the background. I guess producing music for movies or documentaries would be more up my alley, and the best way to get my music to be heard by a bigger audience.
I hope people can understand all this.
Michel, you were also the initiator of the 2011 concept album “Dutch Masters”. How did this project come alive?
Well, it all started when I was thinking about a new theme for my next solo album. In 2005, I compiled a long list of topics I could do an album on, and every time I pick one from that list.
One of the topics way down on that list was doing an album about paintings, as I guessed I’d never be able to achieve that.
Then the idea surfaced to do a compilation/project cd to further promote the Dutch EM scene. I got to know quite some Dutch artists that I like myself during several EM festivals, and I was amazed that there was so much quality to be found in our little country.
So eventually I took the idea to Ron Boots and asked if Groove Unlimited was interested in taking up this idea. Ron was very enthusiastic from the start and willing to jump in on the project from then on. At the time, he as actually looking
for a good follow-up to the “Analogy” series, so the idea landed just in the right moment. Ron asked me which artists I wanted to have on the album, so I gave him a list with my preferences, to which Ron later on added some as well. When all things were set and done, Ron started inviting them to join the project.
The response was overwhelming. It was quite amazing how quick we got the
first tracks back. Of course, in the final stages you always have to wait on some artists who didn’t make the agreed dead line by whatever reason, so the cd was released a bit later than originally envisioned.
Looking back on it, it still amazes me how quick this project came to life about from a concept to a finished product. I must also admit I like the whole album a lot. Usually, a sampler has only a few good tracks on them, the rest is filler material. But on this cd I actually like every track, so I’m very pleased with the stunning outcome along the nice visuals.
At “E-Day 2011” you were present with a stall where the public already could hear rough tracks of your upcoming release “Apollo”….
Yes, I thought it would be nice to get some initial reactions from people while I was working on it. Fortunately, they were all quite positive and that was really motivating to go on. It’s my experience things really turn into hard work at a certain point when finishing an album, the whole proces getting all bits and pieces right and fit together they way I want it can be tough from time to time. While I’m doing this interview, the album still isn’t finished. I have actually worked on the album for almost two years now, so I really hope people will like it when it is all done.
Regarding the first feedback I e.g. did receive some comments on the theme as not being not very original, and of course I’m aware of that.
I was born in 1969, the same year Neil Amstrong set foot on the Moon, so I always felt very connected to this event. This meant I just “had” to do an album about these Apollo space missions sometime. But I also knew it would be difficult to record sounds for myself, so I bought some cds with original recordings from radio shows back then. And yes, I did one track with the “famous” Apollo 11 samples that have been used over and over, but in addition I also used lots of material I guess no-one has ever heard before.
While composing, I tried to use the vocal samples as less a possible as well, but then again they really set the mood and tell the story. So it was not possible working without them. The full release will have 12 tracks, and it will be clock just over 70 minutes. Groove Unlimited will release it as usual, and it looks like that will happen somewhere in October this year. I wanted to have it done by now, but I had and am still having trouble with my studio PC that is slowing me down a lot.
I need to reinstall it, but I don’t want to do that in the middle of the production of a new album. This all means I just have to continue work in a slower pace, but rest assured: it all will be finished soon.
At the aformentioned occasion you also had some very tasty 2D and 3D visuals present to accompany the music. Please elaborate a bit on them..
This is actually a new hobby I started . 3D computer graphics have always fascinated me in the past, but after I saw the movie “Toy Story” for the first time I was totally hooked. I just “have” to watch every 3D animation film that comes out. In the same way as I once dreamed of producing my own synthesizer music one day some years ago, I decided to give this 3D stuff a go too and just start from scratch.
The first thing I had to do was selecting a software application and learn how to use it. Soon after that the idea surfaced to start making visuals to go along with my music. While doing so I discovered what I really wanted to do in a long time: compose music for films and documentaries. So from now on I guess I’ll be making my own visuals.
The first experiments I did were some logo animations. When Ron Boots decided to do an official introduction of the “Dutch Masters” album to the public on E-Day 2011, I offered to make a promotional video on it. For that movie I used both the images of the paintings and did some 2D and 3D text animations with sound effects. Eventually, it was so cool to see the outcome on a big screen during the festival.
Meanwhile, I’m also working on some visuals to go along with the music of my upcoming “Apollo” album. I had some of that Apollo 3D work running on the computer on E-Day 2011, and I had the impression people liked it.
By now I’ve produced much additional stuff to them, so hopefully I’ll be able to show it soon together with the finished music of “Apollo”.
All in all, I’m especially pleased about the fact I have been able to create visuals from scratch that nicely compliment my own music in the end.
Beside being an e-musician and succesful internet you also seem fascinated by technology, fast cars, electronics, game consoles…
Yes, I’m a real ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ or whatever you want to call me in that sense. I just love technology, and I’m a born engineer I guess, but I’m also a collector. When I start buying stuff, I’m infected by what my friend Hans calls the ‘Pokemon Syndrome’. I just have to get them all. That happened with my synthesizer collection, but I also have a soft spot for old computers and game consoles. Where my old studio used to be, there’s now something that looks like a computer museum I guess. I think I’ve collected all the game consoles that were ever sold in Europe and even some that never were seen here.
I also have a lot of retro computers like the Commodore Pet, VIC20, C16, C64. C128 and several Amiga’s, but also old Atari’s, Apples, Sinclairs, and more. If you’re interested, you can see my whole collection on the website www.gametoys.nl. It is not completely up-to-date though, as there are e.g. two life-size arcade cabinets in there that are not on the website yet.
I also got a very big home automation project going on in my home. Every light both inside and outside the house is computer controlled, which also applies to the sun screens, general heating, cooling, waterfall and fountain, alarm integration, video surveillance etc. Quite a project to the frustration of my wife, since it is not always working as planned. And I also have a passion for cars, especially the fast ones and those muscle engines that produce a lot of noise. I just can’t help it…
You previously mentioned you are also busy building and assembling your own modular synthesizer…
That in fact is a project I have been working on for several years now. I studied electronics when I was in school and it is fun to still be able to use that knowledge nowadays. Analog electronics don’t get used that much anymore in this digital age. I can say though that it is most rewarding when you build something yourself from scratch and eventually you get a sound from it. I’m not doing the designs myself by
the way, I use stuff that’s publicly available on the internet. There is a very large DIY community that is sharing their stuff online. That’s something that’s so cool about the Internet.
So I started by getting those online schemes and tried them out on a breadboard. After that I went to my old employer who runs an electronics company. There I etched the PCB’s, then soldered the stuff and finally bought material to manufacture a front panel to go with it.
The last step was testing and calibrating and making sounds, something very cool to do. The system I’m building is based on the 5U format that Moog used in the 70’s to build their famous big modulars that were used by bands like Tangerine Dream for example.
I’m already using this modular in my music even though it is not completely done yet. You can make amazing sounds with it that you just can’t get from a “regular” synthesizer. I guess it will take some more years to have it completely done.
Let’s look a bit into the future. Any other plans or projects you like to achieve one day?
Oh, there are lots of plans actually, I just hope life permits me to realize all of them. But to name a few: I did the music for two planetarium shows last year and that music will become a new solo album eventually I guess.
Next to that I’m still working on my “classical” project, something I started a very long time ago as a learning project. Even though I postponed this project already two times, I’m still determined to finish and release it some day.
I’m also working on some collaborations with other artists at the moment. In 2009, I did the “OceanoGraphy” project together with the WWF and I’m also talking to them about another project with the focus on endangered animal habitats.
So lots of things in the can, that’s for sure.
But what I really have in mind for the future is doing a BluRay release with my own visuals and music mixed in DTS surround sound. I guess that will really take some time before that will be finished. And as mentioned before, I love to do more music scores for a movies or documentaries some day. I’ll drop whatever I’m working on for a chance like that. So I guess you’ll be hearing more from me the fortcoming years for sure….
Any else you’d like to add to the above?
Well, I really like to thank my good friend Ron Boots for releasing my music on his Groove Unlimited label. I’m very happy and proud to be part of the Groove family. And now that Ron is continuing Groove on his own since the start of June 2011, I’m trying to help him out as much as possible on behalf of the technical and marketing side. I absolutely admire how much time, efforts and love he puts into this company, even though it is very hard to make money in this business at the moment at all.
So I really hope that who ever is reading this, will support him by doing what every EM fan should do: buy all or as much of the albums that are released by Groove Unlimited. I think most people have no clue how much work goes into composing, producing, mastering, releasing and promoting a single cd.
Over the years, Groove Unlimited has proven to release some real quality music and I’m sure Ron will continue doing that for the years to come. But to do so, he really needs every support he can get from you, me, and everyone else!
Finally, thank you Bert for asking some less obvious and interesting questions in this interview. I really enjoyed answering them.