An Interview with U.K. Retro/Synth Artist Opus Science Collective
Opus Science Collective is a musical creator based in the U.K. He's a trained jazz pianist and a sound engineer with a passion for all things from the '80s and early '90s, including the musical sounds of those eras. He's combined all of these influences to create music with a sound all its own. In an email, he shared with me the roots of his love for music, his creative process and the plans he's got for the future.
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music generally?
Opus Science Collective: As long as I can remember I've always been interested in music. As a little kid, as young as five or six I was fascinated by things such as Beach Boys records and how the different voices sang in harmony to form uplifting, tense or melancholy chords and emotions. Of course, as a six year old, I wasn't thinking of musical terminology, just making my own sense of it.
With that in mind, there was a piano in the house and I'd always be picking out tunes on it and starting to make sense of harmonic relation. What notes work well together, what sounds happy, what sounds sad and so on, learning by ear for a while. Eventually I took piano lessons in my teens and as soon as I started understanding basic musical structures, themes and ideas, I started making up my own melodies and chord progressions. It's been a pretty all-consuming obsession ever since. Whether it's writing at the piano or sitting in front of the computer and programming music, I've consistently been doing it since I was about 14 years old.
KM: How did you become interested in synthwave music?
OSC: Back in 2014 I was really bingeing on old/early electronic music such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk and so on. I was also very much into '80s music generally. A friend pointed me the way of Mitch Murder and I was hooked instantly. He's a super musician and his production style is unrivalled in terms of authenticity and era-appropriate atmosphere. I really immersed myself in his back catalogue and continue to do so to this day. I started looking into this "synthwave" thing and discovered there was a massive scene, all neon pink and laser beams, embossed chrome artwork and Tron-esque grids everywhere. I felt five years old again, like I was watching Mask on Saturday morning TV. I wanted a slice of this nostalgia and started experimenting with a more synthwave sound palette.
That said, it's interesting that you've singled me out for an interview as a "synthwave" artist, because just as I was discovering synthwave the scene was undergoing a bit of a transformation. It was growing at a very rapid rate and things were getting heavier and heavier. I believe that what people call synthwave today is closer to what was categorised as darkwave four years ago. Heavy, loud, almost like heavy metal done on synthesisers. I think of myself as being a bit more niche, like retro-electro, synthwave, synthpop and electrofunk all mashed together. I imagine there are people who'd contest that I'm synthwave at all, but I don't mind what people want to categorise me as. I just make music and I'm super thankful that some people enjoy it and keep encouraging me to make more.
KM: I also noticed that you've done quite a few video game covers. Tell me more about why video game music interests you!
OSC: I played a lot of games as a child and as mentioned above, my ears sort of switched on to music at a very early age. Therefore, video game music resonated very strongly with me, and in the late '80s and early '90s, you couldn't buy video game music or hear it anywhere other than the game itself. With the dawn of the Internet, it was all readily available to listen to and like a kid in a candy store, I was trawling through YoutTube playlists and so on, really enjoying the nostalgia, rediscovering these awesome works of music.
Back in 2013/2014 a desire to improve my music production chops combined with the feeling that old video game music composers were unappreciated legends lost to time, I started dabbling in my own versions of classic game songs. I stuck them online and they got attention from the video game remix community (something I didn't even know existed) and so I just kept going with it for a bit. It was a lot of fun. Also, these productions were a great proofing ground that allowed me to explore my own creativity and sound prior to refining my style and stepping out with my own, original works more often.
I don't recommend it, but if you were to listen to all of my video game remixes chronologically, you'll hear that the early stuff is all over the place. Productions are cluttered, noisy, not well mixed and there's no coherent style as I jump from genre to genre in search of a style that feels right for me. By the time I settled down to do Zoned (a Sonic The Hedgehog remix album), I was cementing my retrowave and synthfunk style that would form the basis of Girls On Bikes.
To date, the most played music on my SoundCloud and YouTube sites are video game remixes and I owe much of my fanbase to the video game remix community. They know who they are they are all legends, always liking and sharing my social media posts, buying my original releases, donating money on my free downloads and so on. They've been with me the longest of any of my fans and I've gotten to know many of them and can call them friends.
KM: Who are some of the musical artists that you find inspirational and why? (this can be in any genre/style)
OSC: Where to start?! There are classic artists and bands who I will always return to such Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Michael Jakson, Parliament, Chromeo, Fleetwood Mac, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Toto, Bruce Hornsby, anything Quincy Jones has produced and so on. There's just a quality, whether it's in the song writing, the studio production, the live performance or their overall artistic style and brand image. A sophisticated understanding of arrangement and expression, tone and dynamics.
When writing or producing, I regularly ask myself, "What would Quincy do?" or What would Toto do?" or "What would Chromeo do?" etc. These musicians grafted for decades to form their own distinctive means of expression and there's a lot to be learned from how they do things. That's not to say you copy them, just that you consider different ways in which your own ideas can be channeled and find the one that feels right in that moment.
KM: Walk me through the process(es) you use when creating new music.
OSC: Wow! Not easy. I don't always start the same way. Sometimes I start with a mood in mind, or an atmosphere. Sometimes I start with a colour, like what does purple sound like? Or a particular word or song title that I have in mind as I'm often keeping an ear out for words, expressions, or turn of phrase that would make good song titles and then try and turn those words into a feeling that can be expressed musically.
Depending on the song, I might start with a basic beat and start developing the bass line, flesh that out with chords, melodies and harmonies. Other times I may start with a chord progression and/or melody, and then retrospectively program drums to it. My method varies a lot.
I do synth sound design as I'm composing. I use Native Instruments Battery for my drums, but everything else is done with hardware, no software instruments. Therefore, I come up with a melodic or harmonic part, play or program the MIDI and then send that to the synth of choice on repeat while I fiddle with the synth until I've got the sound I want, then record the audio. Whilst this method's slightly old fashioned and how things would have been done two or more decades ago, it forces me not to procrastinate. I design a sound and then commit to it. I've learned over time to get the best from my synths and now this process is a lot quicker than it sounds, and once a part is tracked, it's tracked. Whereas if I was using software instruments, I might be tempted to constantly go back and make tonal adjustments for the sake of it. I'm therefore quite quick in building up tunes.
Once I've got all the parts in, things are usually super busy and cluttered, but at least it's all there to start marking sense of. The next step is a massive exercise in culling or shedding weight. Where ever the mix gets a little bloated or overly layered, I cut parts. For example, I cut parts out where ever other instruments do embellishments, such as if there's a little poly synth chord stab, I might cut half of the tracks out for one beat or even half a beat, while the poly synth does its thing. It's not overly noticeable when listening retrospectively, but it focuses the ear on whatever you want the listener to notice at that point as everything is momentarily gone.
I've found that I do this in favour of trying to make things fit with mixing. It sounds lazy from a mixing point of view (and it probably is), but I find cutting anything that's crowding another part the most effective way to maintaining clarity in a mix. I guess whilst it's lazy mixing, it's more intensive on the editing front. I think this approach has also helped inform and develop my sound. I've become very staccato and punctuated in style over the last two years, but the overall production value of my work has also improved in this time as a result of this approach.
Once the track's feeling like it's done. I run it past one or more of three producer friends of mine who will offer their thoughts and interpretations of the music. I consider them my quality assurance. They're legends and are always truthful in a supportive way.
For the nerdy producer types out there who might be interested, the stuff I use for making music is as follows:
- Logic Pro (with 3rd party plug-ins by iZotope, Melda, Native Instruments (Battery 3.1 - old, but does the job!), TAL, Valhalla & Waves)
Synths & Keyboards:
- Arcano MIDI NES Chiptune Synth
- Commodore 64 (running Mssiah64 & Modified for MIDI input)
- Fatar Studio Logic - Weighted 88-Key MIDI Controller (repainted neon pink for extra Synthwave points)
- Nord Electro 2
- Novation UltraNova
- Roland Jupiter 50
- Roland JV1080
- Yamaha DX21 (Modified with green mod/pitch wheels, green fader tops & illuminated LCD - it was missing the fader tops, the mod wheel was damaged and the LCD was broken when I got it)
- Fender Telecaster (60s Reissue - Modified with brass saddle & additional P90 Humbucker between the neck and bridge pickups)
- Taylor 410
- Boss GT-001 Effects Processor
KM:Tell me more about Him/Her and how those albums came about?
OSC: Some of those songs were written over a decade ago, in my early 20s, before I ever thought about doing electronic music. They were mostly written as R'n'B/Motown type songs or soft-rock/pop-rock songs. This is why you'll hear other things going on in these releases, not just synths and drum machines. In places throughout these EPs there are acoustic guitars, real upright pianos, real electric bass, real percussion, even a harmonica.
I recorded the male vocal songs with Jack in 2014, by which time they'd been reworked as sort of synthpop things, although still very different to how they ended up being on release. I then got distracted with other projects and they were shelved. After Zoned in 2016, I decided to blow the dust off these songs and see if they could be worked up into a synthpop EP, however I also had several songs I'd written intended for female vocals. Talking this through with a friend, he put me onto Caterina who amazingly agreed to come to the UK (from Italy) and do a couple of days in the studio with me. We recorded four songs but then I had to get on and finish Girls On Bikes and these two EP's worth of songs remained on the back burner.
Girls On Bikes blew up (which I never expected) and went to number one on BandCamp and I thought I ought to follow up with something a bit more meaningful than a couple of four track EPs. I therefore worked on developing up the songs I'd recorded with Jack and Cat to share tonal atmosphere and mood, wrote some instrumental pieces to flesh out the EPs and instrumentally tie the songs together as more of a story. The end game was that they'd worked as two sides to the same coin so to speak. I wanted the listener to think "Him" was about Her and "Her" was about Him.
Having met and chatted with the Laserdiscs Records guys at the first Retrofest live event in 2017, we were on each others' radar and once they heard me tease the Him and Her releases last Christmas, they liked what they heard and we signed. Honestly, I wasn't sure what people would make of them as they were a bit of a departure from my previous work and a lot of what's on those EPs is not synthwave. However, I've had really positive feedback from them.
It's credit to Darren and Johann at Laserdiscs who had the boldness and vision to put something that is not really synthwave out on their synthwave label. I was going to quietly put them out on my own BandCamp and move on to the next project, however with the help of Lazerdiscs Records, these EPs have done way more in terms of plays and sales and reached way more people than I could have managed on my own. Just today for example, "Cold Heart" from Him is being played on BBC Radio. To think that synthwave, or more broadly speaking, retrowave is being played on the BBC is pretty amazing, but to know it's my retrowave is super cool!
KM: What's your view of the UK synthwave scene?
OSC: The UK has some seriously strong and interesting artists. People like 24/7, Data Stream and Format 440 to name a few are really pushing the genre into musically rich areas whilst staying true to the core 80s sound-design aesthetic. They're just some personal favourites of mine though and there are loads more acts that are really big in the scene and pull in a lot of new listeners all the time, which is super encouraging for the whole retro music scene; Retrowave, synthwave, vaporwave, dreamwave... all the waves!
The Retrofest gigs also look to be going very well and I hope (and am confident) they will continue to grow. Live music is where it's at and nothing compares to it. In all, I think the UK has some of the best Synthwave producers in the world and the live scene looks to be doing well too. The next logical step, would be that as the scene continues to grow and cross more into the mainstream, we see more groups and less solo acts performing retro music live.
As a trained jazz pianist with a live performance background, (and this is where I really show my age) I feel one person on stage with a laptop could really be enhanced and improved if it were three or more people playing the song's various instrumental parts live and relying less on backing tracks triggering things from Ableton.
KM: Tell me about where you see OSC going in the future?
OSC: Well, Halloween is almost upon us and to follow up on last year's fun little Halloween release, I'll be releasing another EP of spooky funk inspired by the music of the GhostBusters movie and cartoon music. For 2019, I've got two releases planned. The first will be an EP that spiritually follows up on Girls On Bikes. It will also be the farewell swan-song of my current, tried and tested sound palette. It will bring to a close a long spell using a particular sound palette (as I've been using largely the same drum sample set and small selection of FM bass sounds since Zoned).
Following this EP will be an album later in the year. The album will mark a conscious step into a new direction. It's only natural that musicians grow and develop and I owe it to myself to take that step, as I've been on the Zoned/Girls On Bikes sound palette for some time now. Expect to hear a deeper more sophisticated approach to song writing and sound design. It'll still be familiar OSC but feel a little more funk (and by virtue modern futurefunk) and Japanese city-pop with a broader array of instrumentation, softer, warmer sound design overall and even a sprinkling of some complex jazzy stuff in places too.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
OSC: Without sounding too coldhearted, I approaching creativity in a very functional and "no-fuss" manner; I just get on with it. I have times in the day when I have the time to write/produce music, so I just get on and writing and producing in that time. Of course some of it's rubbish and it never sees the light of day, but I don't mind, it's all part of the bigger picture. Not everything I make gets released. Some is chalked down as experimentation, or parts of it will get used in future projects that do get released.
I think about the Tin Pan Alley writers of the 1940s-1970s, cooped up in a small office with a piano and a notepad from 9-5 just writing music, all day every day. I figure, if other people can just write music on demand, without needing to get all heavy about needing inspiration etc, then I can do the same. It's something I've made myself do since my teens; make creativity a daily habit as opposed to waiting for inspiration to strike.
So I guess, in a way, I don't ever recharge my creative batteries in that respect as I don't operate in such a way as to use them up requiring a recharge. However, when I'm not making music, it'll be no surprise to people that I like to play video games! I recently got a Nintendo Switch and have been pouring hours into Mario Odyssey, that game's incredible. I also have quite an assortment of old and new consoles, so they keep me busy and out of trouble.
I also watch films and read books; I have a soft spot for sci-fi and anything a bit dystopian. I like tinkering and fixing things, especially electrical stuff. I'm into cars (mainly 80s and 90s Japanese cars), enjoy driving (I've got an old Honda that makes loud noises), following the F1 and other motorsports, supporting Coventry City Football Club and going for days out with the family.