Nate Brenholdt is a Sound Designer/Composer/Audio Engineer who probably owns more hardware synthesizers than you do. His passion for synths is infectious. The first time I met Nate five years ago, he showed me some sound effects he was creating with his new Serge Modular synth (whilst surrounded by others synths) and then showed me pictures of a wall of synths at his home studio. I had never seen such a variety of synthesizers. Nate has worked on games ranging from Syphon Filter and SOCOM to Flower and VeggieTales to God of War and Uncharted. His most recent project was Mass Effect Andromeda.
How did you start exploring the world of analog synths?
My first analog was a Korg Poly-Six. I first became excited by synthesizers when visiting a music store as a child, to pick up some trumpet sheet music for band. I heard amazing sounds coming from the back of the store, both musical and sound effects, and I just had to know what it was!
Can you briefly describe your studio layout?
My studio is centered around a Mac running Logic Pro, along with a PC for additional development and sound design tools. I am set up for stereo and 5.1 surround sound design, mixing, mastering, post-production, and up to 16-microphone field recording. The hardware synthesizers wrap all around the room, and are both great tools for sound design and composing, as well as acting as acoustic diffusers. There are well over 100 synthesizers of all types: polysynths, monosynths, vintage and new, analog, digital, subtractive, FM, wavetable, modular, drum machines, custom-built modules, vocoders and other processors. They are all hooked up for MIDI control using MIDI interfaces or MIDI-to-CV converters. They can also be triggered by analog sequencers using CV/Gate.
I love them all for different reasons. They sound different. They have different functionality. They have different methods for control. The user interface is different, and steers you towards a certain workflow. Some of them, like the Minimoog, are more musical than others. While the Serge modular can do all sorts of things, though it could never make a Minimoog bass sound, nor be played like one.
The past 5-10 years have seen a huge resurgence in analog synths from the rise of DIY Eurorack modules to the rebirth of synths from early visionaries like Moog, Dave Smith, and others. What do you attribute this renaissance of hardware synths to?
It’s a great time! We are finally back to the cool vintage sounds and control, combined with newer technologies. The demand for good analog was just too great! Vintage synth prices were out of control. They can never be replaced. They will always be the very first of their kind. But at least now more people can access these old (and new) technologies and sounds at more reasonable prices. And one of the best things is that the original designers are often still involved! The only downside is that newer technologies are generally more difficult to service on a component level.
What are your favorite uses of hardware synths in sound design?
I use them for all kinds of sounds: magic and sci-fi, electricity, weapons, wind and other ambient sounds, UI sounds, robots and machines, sweeteners, etc. They work very well on their own, or for creating source material for further processing in the computer. And for musical sound design, they all have their own character; each has its strengths and weaknesses. As I said, some are better for basses, some for leads, some for sequences, some for dynamically changing sounds.
What is your favorite sound you’ve designed using hardware?
That’s a tough question. I love the challenge of recreating real-world sounds using synthesis. It opens up a lot of opportunities for quickly and inexpensively creating more material or variations. And the sounds can be cleaner or have more impact than field recordings. An example of this would be bullet ricochets. It’s also fun recreating classic sounds, like certain sci-fi robot sounds. And musically, I’ve created some amazingly cool grooves, loops, basses, pads, and other sounds.
Can you describe your process when doing sound design with synths? What things are different and what things are similar when doing completely creative synth sound vs trying to recreate a real world sound?
It’s different each time. Sometimes it starts as playing around, creating a patch that sounds cool or familiar. Other times, I will analyze the physics and acoustics of a real-world sound, and try to recreate those phenomena with synthesis.
How do make your choice amongst the sea of synths to know which one to pick?
Specs are important, but you really have to at least hear it, if not play with it. Some synths are so deep that you won’t really know how useful it is until you have it around for a while. Or it could be fairly simple, but it just has a sound that works.
Given the choice between a classic 70s – 80s synth and a more modern take, which do you prefer and why?
There are trade-offs. Vintage gear can generally be more-easily repaired on a component level. But newer gear can offer a similar sound with newer features, cleaner potentiometers without any scratchy sound, and sometimes better calibration. It really depends on the synth, how long you expect it to last, and what you want to do with it.
Do you mostly buy synths and try to make them fit in a project or do you buy them after defining that you need them for a specific project?
What’s your favorite piece of hardware?
That question is too tough. I have often thought what I would keep if I had to get rid of a lot of it, or if I could only pick my favorite 5 or 10 synths. It really depends on what project I am working on. Sometimes playing a synth or hooking it up differently after a long period of time can make it a favorite again. I would definitely have my Minimoog, ARP 2600, Oberheim SEM-based synth, modified Crumar Spirit, Serge modular, other modulars, a few polysynths, and a few other monosynths. . . plus the sequencers and vocoders! I enjoy all of them. It’s probably easier to list synths I come back to less often. Some work better for certain applications or musical styles than others. Even though they are all synthesizers, they are a bit like instruments in an orchestra. Each synth has a unique character or personality, and a range of useful sounds.
What advantages do you see in using hardware synths (vs. software)?
I love both hardware and software. I find the hardware to still have a certain sound, a certain characteristic. But the software is very good now. They can sound very close during emulation, but at the same time, the software is sometimes still missing things when compared to the hardware. Usually it’s now mostly to do with the user interface, or the physical connections and control methods. On the other hand, the software often gives you a lot of new features and functionality. The problem here is that when trying to emulate original hardware, you no longer know how to use the synth as it was originally designed. You don’t have to worry about any shortcomings or polyphony restrictions with software, because now it can do most anything. But that’s not always a good thing. The best things about hardware are the immediacy, the tactile feel, the user interface, the different methods of control, not having to wait for a computer to boot or load, not having to update, and not having to worry about it being made obsolete by a company going out of business, or some long chain of computer/OS/DAW/plug-in updates. Plus they are more fun to look at, touch, and collect than a computer screen full of windows!
Are there any areas where you prefer software? Why?
Software is just another tool. 15 years ago, it wasn’t even a realistic choice. But now that computers are powerful enough, it stands on its own. It’s great for all kinds of things, from source material to processing to final production. Recall is nice, especially when creating and combining complex sounds and effects. There is a lot of software that really doesn’t have a hardware equivalent, so there’s no choice in that case. Software now offers a lot of power, and will only continue to get more powerful. So where polyphony or computation is important, software is the way to go. And sometimes a computer screen is actually the best user interface for certain tools.
What was your role on Mass Effect: Andromeda?
I provided additional musical sound design and synthesizer production. I was able to use many of the synthesizers in the studio to create new sounds, and sweeten existing sounds and performances from the composer. Also creating or enhancing a lot of arpeggios, sequences, and string sounds. Synthesizers used include ARP 2600, Odyssey, Arturia Minibrute SE, Crumar Spirit, Korg MS-20, Memorymoog Plus, Minimoog, Oberheim 4-Voice, OB-8, Roland Jupiter-6, Jupiter-8, MKS-70, MKS-80, TB-303, System-100m, Sequential Pro-One, Prophet-5, Serge modular, Waldorf XTk, and of course an Alesis Andromeda A6!
What do you feel the synths and sounds you curated for ME:Andromeda brought to the score?
Dynamics, depth, liveliness, new sounds, and an expanded amount of musical material for the score.
Are there any unwanted effects/sounds from your synths that you love to exploit?
I am pretty good at fixing and calibrating analog synths, so generally no. Though I have a friend who had an offset in the oscillator shape of his EMS Synthi. When I asked him if he wanted me to fix that for him, he said, “NO! I use that all the time!” It made it impossible to get a smooth symmetrical triangle LFO shape, but he had found a use for the miscalibration.
What do you foresee as the future of hardware sound devices going forward for both music and sound design?
I think software will become hardware, and hardware will become software. As computers get smaller and cheaper, they will find their way into all kinds of hardware. And I think some of the classic analog electronics will remain in hardware, or be reinvented in new ways.
Like everything else in the studio, the hardware is just another useful tool. It works on its own, or it can enhance other sounds, or can be combined with software, field recordings, and Foley to create new possibilities. It’s a good time!
Editors note: I’d like to thank Wilfried Nass for sharing additional questions for this interview.