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International SYN

By Steve Harvey. Run by Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, wife Yasmin Le Bon and friend Nick Wood, music production house SYN is gaining an international footprint.

Global music production house Syn closed out 2017 on a high note when a promo spot that the company scored for CNN scooped up 16 awards at PromaxBDA, including Best Use of Music and Sound Design, closely followed by an Emmy Award for Outstanding Promotional Announcement. The company was founded in 1991 by Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, his wife, Yasmin Le Bon, and longtime friend Nick Wood, creating the name from their first initials.

Syn’s music is not only heard globally but it’s also produced globally, at the company’s three facilities and by a team of collaborators worldwide. The company was established in Tokyo, where it maintains its largest facility. Syn added a studio in Los Angeles in 2014 and, in 2016, another in Beijing. The company’s client list includes major brands such as Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, AMC and Wrigley’s.

Wood initially moved to Japan when, at 23 and newly signed to Virgin Music, he fell in love with Tokyo while on vacation. “Virgin Japan asked me to write a song for a Japanese singer; that became a big hit and was used in a TV campaign. Back then, Japan was very innovative in how they promoted music through advertising, and that really appealed to me. I saw an opportunity to be part of something both exciting, different, challenging and very innovative,” he says.

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“Simon and I both thought Tokyo would be an amazing place to establish Syn’s headquarters and do something very different in the land of Blade Runner,” Wood adds. The Tokyo studio recently added a pair of Amphion monitors in its control room, which is centered on a 32-channel AMS Neve Genesys console, with Pro Tools|HDX and plenty of outboard gear and microphones also to-hand.

“The beauty of the console is it’s digitally-controlled analog. These days, since we’re a full-time, 24-hour working production facility, it’s really hard to incorporate true analog audio into all of our mixes. Many times, the sessions just move too fast and require too many back and forth revisions to recall a console and outboard analog gear. Having the Genesys definitely helps,” says Wood.

The Amphion One18 monitors have become a staple at the Tokyo facility, which is used for music production, mixing and mastering as well as voice—narration and ADR—recording. “We’re really liking the clarity and versatility of these monitors,” he says.

The studio’s collection of outboard includes a GML 8200 and a Tube-Tech CL1B, “a go-to favorite for tracking,” says Wood. “And we love the [Lexicon] 480L and use it whenever we can. We also have a vintage Fairchild Model 670 and some beautiful microphones—a matched pair of U47s, Telefunken ELAM, Neumann U67.”

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In addition to working in a production suite in L.A., the company’s team also utilizes the city’s numerous commercial facilities. “There’s definitely an abundance of them, and they all have different characters and vibes attached to them,” says Wood, adding, “We’ll be working on a full-service studio in L.A. hopefully later this year.”

“Why We Go,” a promo spot for CNN’s “Go There” campaign, is indicative of Syn’s global reach. The spot follows CNN reporter Nima Elbagir as she reports from locations around the world, including a Syrian refugee camp in Greece. It was shot by Klaus Obermeyer, a director based in Los Angeles, features music composed and produced by Syn in Tokyo and L.A., orchestrated in Toronto, by Todd Hayen, and recorded by a 40-piece orchestra in Macedonia.

“We have been using ISDN codec technology for 25 years,” says Wood, who first used it as an alternative to sending tapes via FedEx. For the “Why We Go” sessions, he says, “We used Source-Connect and Skype to communicate between the scoring session in Macedonia, our studio in Tokyo and our producers in Los Angeles. It was a pretty incredible way of working.”

Syn also uses Source-Connect and ISDN for remote ADR sessions, he says. “Sometimes we’ll have voice artists in Japan who will need to be plugged into a production studio in L.A. or vice versa. I still love the ISDN codec; just last week [English electronic music band] Clean Bandit came into the Tokyo studio to record a live radio show using it.”

Whether Syn is producing original music, acting as music supervisor and licensing songs by clients such as Deep Purple, Lenny Kravitz or the Rolling Stones, or reinterpreting favorites by artists such as—not surprisingly—Duran Duran, the emphasis is always on helping to convey the story, emotion and mood of the spot. Every project is very different, says Wood. “But it really all starts with the creative brief. We like to spend as much time with our clients talking about their vision, and what they can possibly imagine a spot sounding like. Once we have our minds wrapped around the creative, we often go to our ever-expanding and evolving Rolodex of composers and look closely at which ones might be the best for the project.

“We always welcome ideas from our composers; most of the time, we choose them for that very reason. This creates what we like to think is our collective sound palette.”

When he first viewed “Why We Go,” Wood was immediately struck by the drama. “It’s not made up; it’s obviously a tragic story of the refugees from the Middle East and North Africa getting to Greece, risking their lives; being in this refugee camp with the aim of getting to Europe. It’s a very emotional, moving piece of storytelling.”

From the outset, he says, “We knew that we had to create something beautiful and emotional that would touch people’s hearts without it being over-sentimental but would help tell the story. It would help the various sections, the arc of this beautifully crafted piece of work.”

Wood’s first thought was that the piece needed an orchestra, but he had been told there was insufficient budget. “So, we went through many demos. We did a mock-up using sampled strings and we worked to picture and went back and forth,” presenting the client with several different choices and directions, he says.

“I think it would have been very difficult to emulate that emotion with a non-real orchestra. I’m not a big fan of using sampled strings; I’d rather find another way. We always find a way based on the confines and the restrictions. That brings out great creativity.”

The theme eventually selected is based on melodies that Syn previously created for CNN’s “Go There” campaign four years ago. Syn and CNN have been working together for nearly 10 years. “This is kind of an arrangement of that melody with some artistic license. We definitely felt that this version—the one that’s finally on-air—was by far the one that we should go with,” he says.

At a recent convention in Hollywood, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, who has created a lot of production music, noted that current or former band members don’t always respond well to such commercial music’s collaborative environment. As Le Bon observes, the world of production music is certainly different to working in Duran Duran. “You have much tighter parameters to work within, especially in terms of time,” he says.

Wood also had to make that transition and is a better composer for it, he believes. “I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to learn is to open my mind to explore types of music that I wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with otherwise. You often will find yourself thrown into areas of music you might have never thought you’d be working in.

“The challenges have opened my musical mind and given me amazing opportunities to develop skills that perhaps, if I’d have stayed in the world of writing pop music, maybe I wouldn’t have evolved and developed as much as I feel I have as a composer. I’m really grateful for that opportunity.”

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