Surviving Synthesiser Bootcamp With Benji Colbourne

Dec 10, 2019

For the synthesiser lover, Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS) is heaven. Part historical collection, part working studio space, and part electronic music school, Music Production student Benji Colbourne knew MESS was a valuable resource to develop his sound. But when he started visiting every week thanks to his discounted Collarts session rate, he didn't expect to befriend the facilitators or discover Red Bull's week-long synthesis masterclass.

We sat down with Benji to find out how he survived the selective bootcamp, his love for music production's boundless potential, and how his Collarts journey has helped him get to where he is now.

Hey Benji! Could you start off by explaining what the MESS x Red Bull masterclass entailed?
Sure. We were designated into groups of five with five days to write, collaborate and perform a piece as part of the Red Bull Music Festival Melbourne. It was literally a boot camp. There were 30 people involved nationwide, including musicians, synthesiser-heads, sound designers, and engineers.

On the first day, everyone met and chose their synthesisers. Within that room there were some incredibly rare synthesisers, like an original Buchla and a Juno-6, which is my dream. We also had an interview with Peter Vogel, the Fairlight CMI creator, which is an Australian pioneer synthesiser for sampling, followed by a talk from Suzanne Ciani, one of the first people to use the Buchla in an informative way. The rest of the four days was all practicing, writing, and performance. 

Benji MESS-3

What’s something you learned from the experience that you didn’t think you’d learn?
What I didn't know I was going to learn was that as an electronic musician, you can work in a group and electronic music doesn't have to be this solo endeavour of solitude and locking yourself in a room with a synth for weeks on end. You can be a band or you can collaborate, which I think everyone in electronic music needs to learn.

That’s definitely a big misconception in the electronic scene. How did you find that collaboration process?
Failure was actually the thing that really helped my group bond. On the fourth day, we had a horrendous rehearsal performance. We became lost in our own sounds. The next morning — which was the morning of the performance mind you — we went to a cafe and started completely fresh. We wrote down a 20 minute timeline, the movements of music, and our main key, chord, and tempo. We wrote a song in three hours and performed it. It was awesome. We killed it.

That’s amazing! Was there anything you’ve learned from your Music Production course that you carried into these MESS workshops?
Oh yeah, completely. Even just the knowledge of synthesisers. If I hadn’t learned about subtractive synthesis and resonance, I wouldn't have my sound in general. I wouldn't have even known where to, or how to create an acid house base without coming to Collarts and learning about synthesis through David Jacob (Music Production Coordinator). It played a significant role in my contribution to the Red Bull Music Academy.




Speaking of, what attracted you to music production?
I've been producing electronically for about 11 years. I used to be in metal and hardcore bands, and as much as I loved that environment, especially the camaraderie of a band, I wanted the control of my sound. I've also always been fascinated with electronics. Since I was a kid, I was fascinated by electronics and playing around with sound. Then when I found out I can make all the music for an entire band's worth myself, I got straight into music production.

So what led you to Collarts?
I studied at a music school when I was 19, but I was too young and didn't care. Then I was a fashion designer and buyer for a vintage company before studying to become a high school teacher. At this point I'd given up on music. I had my bedroom, but I stopped playing live. I work just down the road, and Jesse Hooper (Head of Music Performance and Killing Heidi guitarist) is a customer of mine. When I told him I was looking at going to school again, he convinced me to go to Collarts.

In all honesty, after looking at curriculums, I found that Collarts was more suited to what I wanted to do anyway. It was less music theory related, more practicality, which is my game, and is especially useful to the music I create, which isn’t note based. I make music based on spatial sound and spectromorphology.

Benji MESS-2-1

What do you love most about Collarts?
I needed the hands-on experience and that's the benefit of this school. The accessibility to the tutors and the fact they are just around the corner is great too. There’s no divide. It's that community and the people who I'm studying with that I've loved so far. My other friends who study elsewhere have said they have no friends at uni. How do you not have friends at uni? That main experience of the Collarts community has been the most important way of learning for me.

How did you feel coming back to study as an older student?
I was really nervous at the start because I was definitely the oldest person in my group and I didn't think I was going to connect. But coming in here as a mature age student is the best thing you can do. I've had the chance to have that life experience then implement it immediately.

The ensemble group was especially great for everyone to connect. You get lumped in a room with four people and get a trimester to make a performance. The people I've been in the bands with are the people who I’ve become closest to. When you perform, that's the most intimate you can get as a musician by performing to the same groove; you're locked in together.


Going back to the MESS workshops, how do you think this experience will help your future career?
Time restraints and the stress that comes with it was definitely a lesson I needed to learn. I also realised I can release music that isn't picture perfect and that's okay. With music production and the tools we have now, you can tweak an EQ for a year and still not be happy with it. The workshops helped me learn that rawness is sometimes the quality. Don't lose that by over-complicating it.

Lastly, do you have any advice for those looking to dive into music production?
Come to Collarts. Make Jesse Hooper happy. [laughs] It's the hands-on experience you want from a music school. As for MESS, if you're a Music Production student at Collarts, there's no reason for you not to go. Collarts pays for your membership, so you only have to pay $33 for a four hour session.

I also can't express how important it is that we need to take the next step in music production, whether that’s creating more immersive sound design or embracing quadraphonic sound. If we keep following this stereo-only road we're on, it's going to get boring. We can still love music, but we have to embrace immersive sound as a worldwide norm for us, to reach the next stage as music lovers.

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