If you use synth plugins, you’ve heard Bryan “Xenos” Lee’s patches. His long list of clients includes Cakewalk, Rob Papen, Image-Line, FXpansion, and Camel Audio. In this interview he explains how he got started in sound design and gives some tips for breaking into the factory preset industry.
How did you end up designing sounds?
I’ve always had a fascination with sound and just how it works ever since I was a little kid. I was always interested in sound effects, like when you watch TV, you wondered, ‘How did they get those sound effects? How did they make those?’
And then when I was ten years old, I got a synthesizer for my birthday. [...] I would just sit there and tweak for hours, I loved it. So that was the thing that just really jumpstarted the whole thing.
What synth was it?
It was a DX100 by Yahama. […] I got my start in sound design in FM, so I seem to have kind of an intuitive understanding of it. A lot of people talk about how they are intimidated by FM synthesis, where that’s one of my favorites.
Yamaha DX100 article at Vintage Synth Explorer.
Make no mistake about it, when I had my first synthesizer I darn near threw that thing out the window so many times, because it was FM synthesis. Like I say with anything; you spend enough time with it, you will learn it bad enough. And have the attitude like you’re just playing with it, y’know. You really have to have a ‘play’ kind of mentality as a sound designer.
How did you go from just having fun designing sounds to making all these factory preset banks?
I was just looking around the [Pro-Sounds] site and he had an ad, advertising that he was looking for sound designers and that intrigued me so I contacted him. I gave him a demo of my work with Wusikstation, a VST synthesizer which I was just playing around with at the time, and I got an email back from him the next day saying, ‘wow, hey, this is awesome stuff, definitely I’m interested, let’s talk about the details and if you’re interested, get back with me.’ The first time I got that email I was like ‘Holy s—t, dude!’ and I jumped out of my chair, ‘Yes!’ Because I always wanted to do something, you know, make money doing what I love. My first ever commercial product was the Tesseract soundset for Wusikstation.
From there I contacted ReFX and showed him some of my Vanguard [synth plugin] sounds and asked him maybe he might have any work I could do for him.
It all just kinda snowballed from there. I started contacting other developers. There was more interest and more interest, eventually I started getting steady clients. So I started doing that before I started Xenos Soundworks. With Xenos Soundworks, I wanted to do more of what I wanted to and get paid for it, not necessary what they wanted to do. I still do like to have a mix. I still like to do freelance work with softsynth developers when the chance comes up.
I’ve noticed in a lot of these factory preset banks, they’ll have like XS in the name of a sound… I see that all over the place.
Some of Lee’s presets in the freeware TAL-Elek7ro plugin
(laughter) Yeah probably. I’ve got my tentacles everywhere it seems.
I’m curious, what is your process usually to make a sound?
(laughter) That can be kinda unpredictable […] I can take inspiration really from just about everything. One approach is looking at just abstract artwork, there’s pictures all over the internet. I try to […] imagine a soundtrack that’s in my head, that plays to that picture, and then dial it in.
I’ll just come up with a sound that’s in my head, and know exactly how to put it in there, and bam, it’s done.
I do a lot of different projects at once, usually with different methods of synthesis, so if I hear a sound in my head, and I think, ‘Hmm, that sound would be more appropriate for granular synthesis and grain clouds, and I might put that sound on another synth.’ There’s another reason that I work on several projects at once—it’s better for the inspiration because I don’t burn out that way, it keeps things interesting.
Lee produces sounds in many different styles, this is a shortened version of four demo clips from: Powerhouse for Z3ta, Dubstep and DnB for Predator, EDM Underworld for V-Station, and Retrospace for Xils
What do you do to get so many sounds? Is it like a family tree that mutates?
Always from scratch, every time. […] My personal opinion is that if I do like that branch off approach, where you make one sound and then try to make something else from that sound, things tend to get too similar.
Which soundsets of yours are you the most proud of?
All my Cakewalk Z3ta  soundsets.
I was originally only planning to release these only under my own brand and like Producer Loops, you know. But with these Z3ta soundsets […] Cakewalk contacted me back after I sent them the Dark N Dirty, the original Z3ta bank. They got back to me and were quite impressed with it and they were like, ‘we would like to sell this at the Cakewalk store, by the way, are you interested in making more Z3ta soundsets?’
It seems like just about everybody out there that’s into music at least knows about Cakewalk even if they don’t make music on their computer, so that’s a nice step.
One of Lee’s banks in the Cakewalk store
What’s the next step for beginning sound designers to build clients?
First word of advice would be, ‘Don’t try to make it on your own.’ I made the mistake of trying to go independent with my own site a little earlier than I probably should have.
Make sounds for other, smaller sound developers like Pro-Sounds where I got my start. The reason being, the smaller sound design companies tend to push their products harder. So if you make a bank for them, they will kind of be a little more enthusiastic about advertising it. Where Producer Loops, […] they’re a big site and they kind of seem ‘hands-off.’ Yeah the bank is there, but the advertising is entirely up to you, really.
I would also recommend contacting developers of synthesizers, and making sounds for factory presets for the release of a new synth. Of course, you have to show them your sounds beforehand and they have to judge whether you’re good enough. If they accept you, that’s a good way to get your name out there, y’know, bragging rights. And that’s important, because people are going to want to know ‘what have you done?’ That’s the all-important question in the music business. They’re not going to take you seriously unless you’ve done something they can verify.