Interview: Matt Bowdler of the The Unfinished – January 2022
Mention synth presets to any media composer and one name that will always come up is The Unfinished. For the past ten years, he has created a global reputation for making modern cinematic sounds for a select bunch of softsynths, notably most of the u-he collection, Omnisphere, and more lately, Serum. As he freely admits himself, it’s a very niche and strange kind of vocation, but one that has led to creating thousands of presets for commercially available soundsets and to collaborating with top-notch film, TV, and game composers on bespoke synth programming for their projects.
Here at Sample Library Review, we are interested in not just great tools for composers and producers, but the creative people behind them. Most of what we have heard from the man behind The Unfinished, Matt Bowdler, has been from his witty and informative walkthroughs. So we thought, after working on two of the biggest Hollywood films of the year, it was high time we dug a little deeper to discover what makes him tick! Matt kindly sat down with us and gave us his characteristically honest, insightful, and amusing answers to our burning questions.
SB: How did you become interested in sound design? Did your work as a composer lead to a love of sound design or vice-versa?
MB: I started out, like anyone else, as something of a preset junkie. So, yes, I was writing music before I got into sound design. I think, essentially, I started making my own patches solely because I couldn’t find (or indeed, sometimes afford!) the sounds I had in my head and wanted to use in my tracks.
After putting a few tracks out for feedback on KVR Audio, I had some people asking me about the synths and sounds I was using. My friend Geoff suggested I think about making commercially released synth presets. It took me a long time to actually agree with him and do it but, the rest, as they say, is history.
SB: Did you have any formal training in music or sound design?
MB: Absolutely none; all self-taught. Listening is my training, I guess. I didn’t get into any of it (the writing, the programming) until I was in my 30s.
SB: How do you start a synth patch? Is it always from an initialized patch, or do you have a base ‘sauce’ that you work from for each sound type?
MB: It depends sometimes on what the end result I’m trying to achieve is and sometimes on what sort of mood I’m in. Do I want to be challenged? Am I feeling tired? Do I want to open up the opportunity for happy accidents? Do I have something I’ve already worked on that fits the bill?
I do have a number of what I call “crossroads” patches designed for my favourite synths. These patches have certain characteristics that I use frequently or that contain a complexity that would take a while to keep making from scratch, and they provide a neat jumping-off point when I’m looking to avoid starting from an init patch.\
You recently worked on No Time to Die and Dune with Hans Zimmer. Did he ever ask for revisions on your custom presets?
SB: How long does it take to make a preset?
MB: This is a very “how long is a piece of string?” question. I couldn’t answer it. I’m aware that sometimes I probably make a patch in a few minutes and sometimes it’ll take days. Funnily enough, I pay very little attention to how long it’s taking (there’s no clock in my studio for one thing!) as I’m too busy making the sounds.
SB: You recently worked on No Time to Die and Dune with Hans Zimmer. Did he ever ask for revisions on your custom presets?
MB: Not really. But that’s not necessarily because my sounds were perfectly formed! The approach didn’t really encourage it, to be honest. I was part of a team, making sounds and they kinda either got used or didn’t!
The way of working with Hans also meant that, as well as designing original synth patches for the project, we were also being sent cues to work on and implement those sounds in. So, we were “selling” the sounds musically, rather than just firing them off into the ether. You knew a sound worked if you got a fresh cue and could see your sounds already being used in it by Hans and his team.
SB: Can synths be as emotional as a cello/piano/guitar/voice?
MB: Voice? No. Other instruments, yes. I think where synths sometimes fall behind “real” instruments is the lack of connection between the player and instrument/synth. There’s an emotional level missing, little details, flourishes, and flaws that make things human and emotive. Having said that, there are great developments in the world of synthesis, such as MPE and more sophisticated/natural controllers that are bringing some of the human performance into it.
But so many of us are moved by synthetic music that it would be silly to suggest that synths can’t connect with us on a personal and emotional level. It’s more the performer/instrument relationship that’s missing… and that is certainly not expressed by twiddly 20 minute synth solos that some seem to hold in great regard!
SB: What is it about u-he synths that you find so appealing?
MB: It’s that blend of usability, flexibility, detail, good GUI design, and a devotion to sound quality. You can smell the care they put into their synths. You can feel how much synthesizers and synthesis means to them. It’s such a passion. They don’t just make synths, they use them, and they take that great skill in using synths and make it the core of their approach to designing them.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re an absolutely great company as well. Truly lovely guys and girls.
They sound so great – how could you not love their synths?
SB: How viable is it for someone to make a living purely from synth programming?
MB: How viable is it? I’m not sure I can answer that. Can you make a living from it? Yes, for sure, because I literally do.
In some ways I was lucky. When I started out, there was a gap in the market. There genuinely weren’t very many people designing synth sounds with cinematic/media music in mind. There were tons for dance music, of course, endless amounts. But when I made my first Omnisphere soundset, it felt like I’d done something new and it got noticed because of that. I’m sure it’s much harder to start out now, as there are many more great sound designers making presets now (and some muddying the water by adding the word “cinematic” to things that blatantly aren’t, which is a mildly dubious approach in my opinion).
I think the most important aspect of doing it successfully is having a kind of intellectual and emotional honesty in your work. Make the sounds that you like, that you would use, that mean something to you. If you chase after trends or copy what others are doing, eventually, customers are going to see right through it and it’s going to show in the quality of your work. Making synth sounds for a living is such an odd thing to do, you have to really mean it, to enjoy it, and for it to work for you.
SB: What are your top 5 plugins for sound design?
MB: Well, since I’m more a synth programmer than a sound designer, my answers are essentially going to be my top five softsynths. And they would be… drumroll… Zebra2/HZ, RePro, Serum, Omnisphere, and Diva. Generally, I would say that I can make any sound I could possibly want to with those five. There are sometimes others knocking on the top five. For example, Serum is a relatively new contender for the top of the list.
I have the vast majority of the most popular softsynths, plus many of the more obscure ones, so it takes a lot for one to really grab my attention and replace my usual favourites. But it can happen!
SB: When can we expect an Unfinished soft synth of your own?
MB: Perhaps, if I were to be kicked in the head by a horse and suffer a terrible brain injury? Otherwise, never. And even if I did, I suspect after years of development and blood, sweat and tears, I will have just made a slightly different looking version of Zebra!
SB: What is your desert island synth? Software AND hardware, please!
MB: Well, software’s probably going to be obvious: Zebra. It’s easy to use, it sounds fantastic and it can create a VERY wide range of sounds. Hardware is trickier. I have some favourites that are more emotional, irrational choices such as the Juno 106 and Pro One. If I were to be stuck on the desert island for a long time, I might need a bit more flexibility (and polyphony!). Maybe my UDO Super 6? Even when I wasn’t using it, I could gaze at it lovingly, because it’s just the most beautiful looking synth.
SB: If an angry filter, a crazy sawtooth wave, a cocky ADSR, and a violent LFO got into a fight, who would win?
MB: Definitely the LFO. It can fuck the others up in ways they can only dream of! Haha!