Had a chance to talk with the extremely talented musician, record producer and composer, Timothy Lee McKenzie, better known as Labrinth.
Along with a successful solo career, Labrinth has collaborated with a number of artists including Beyoncé, the Weeknd, Billie Eilish and more. He's also made a significant mark in the world of film and television scoring, with the score for HBO's hit series, Euphoria.
Below we talk about his favorite synths, growing up, and sci-fi movies.
Synth History: What are some of your go-to synthesizers right now in the studio?
Labrinth: The Pulsar-23, it’s like a German drum synth, it’s flipping crazy, you can literally plug it into anything and get something crazy out of it. The MS-20 has always been a staple. When I did the Euphoria score, the MS-20 was literally all over that show. I’m really enjoying the Prophet X, just because I like the way it approaches sampling and sending samples through an analog filter. I enjoy the sound. Then, the Prophet 6, which I think is one of the best synths ever made, especially in terms of modern synths.
Synth History: Oh yeah, I have the desktop module!
Labrinth: Oh sick! Do you like it?
Synth History: Yeah, I love it, use it for everything pretty much.
Labrinth: It’s something you can go to for so many different things, so I really appreciate that they found a way of making a vintage modern synth.
Synth History: Do you remember the first synth you fell in love with?
Labrinth: It was actually the MS-20! I had other synths, but the moment I fell in love and said, “OK, I’m doing this” was when I got the MS-20. I literally slept with it beside my bed, and my misses, who is my wife now, was just like, “You’ve got issues. You’ve got mental issues.” I would wake up in the middle of the night to start learning patches and figuring out stuff.
Synth History: What music were you listening to growing up?
Labrinth: I was listening to a lot of gospel because my family was super religious. My mom was religious, and my granddad was a reverend, so earlier on, it was a lot of gospel and stuff like Kirk Franklin. As I got older, it was Wu-Tang, Flipmode Squad, Prince - a kind of mixture of classic and modern black music. Once I got into school, that’s when I got into David Bowie, Massive Attack and loads of other electronic and rock bands.
Synth History: When did you start making music? I heard you were in a band growing up called Mac 9?
Labrinth: Oh yeah! I was in a band with my family when we were growing up. My brothers and sisters are all musicians, they were already playing or banging on some form of instrument before I was even born, then I just came and joined the party.
In secondary school, I had a band called Dynamics, like a four member band. We used to sell out tickets in our auditorium. Before we were famous, we would argue like we were the Sex Pistols. Actually, me and another producer called Flow, who produced Little Simz and a few other amazing artists like Adele, were the two guys that came out of the band who became successful in some shape or form.
Synth History: Your last record had a sci-fi aesthetic to it. Sci-fi is one of my all time favorite film genres! So I’m curious what some of your favorite sci-fi movies are and what were some of the inspirations behind the record?
Labrinth: Some of my favorite sci-fi films are 2001: A Space Odyssey. Logan’s Run, nobody likes it, but I just love the primitive idea of the future. It’s terrible, but it’s terribly great to me. Of course, Alien I think is incredible too, only the first one for me. I love the dustiness, the really low-end, grainy synthy sound from a lot of the 80s, 70s and 60s movies. I don’t know why; it just makes something happen for me when I hear sci-fi music and watch sci-fi films.
Another sci-fi film that might be one of my all-time favorites is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I never knew of the movie, never knew it was like a cultural phenomenon of its time, or one of the ones people study in school, I just found it in some random shop and fell in love with it. I started making a lot of my music while playing that in the background.
So sci-fi, I don’t know what it is, but it’s just got a hold of me. With my last record I was just kind of going further into that, maybe showing my real face, taking the mask off. With this album, I wanted to explore some of what I really enjoy with synths and production, sonically. I wanted to make a record that kind of supports that, you know?
Synth History: Did you use the MS-20 on the record?
Labrinth: Yes, yes I did. I used it on loads of things. I’m a bit schizophrenic with synths, I want to use them all at the same time. I really enjoy synthesis and I’ll go and study about random different ways to make sound. I’ll want to use granular synthesis, then I’ll study physical modeling, then I’ll be like, “OK, I’m using that for my kick drum somewhere on the track!” You know what I mean? For me, it’s just really fun. If it wasn’t my job, I would just sit in a room all day making sounds with synths.
Synth History: If you had one piece of advice to give to other producers and songwriters who don’t know where to start with synths, like finding the right one, or just getting into synthesizers, what would it be?
Labrinth: I guess with synthesizers, it’s the same thing about life: Don’t do something because you think it’s gonna be cool for someone else, do it because you think it’s gonna be cool for you. At first, my experience with synthesizers was just that, like, “Oh, it’s gonna make me sound cooler, it’s gonna make me sound more expensive, this is what all the greats use.” Then eventually, it was like, “This is an instrument. Where’s my soul in it? Where’s my personality in this thing that’s being used?” I guess that's what we're all doing. How many millions of love songs have been written, how many millions of whatever songs have been written? You have to find your own personality, while doing what’s been done and finding some unique aspect in it. Finding ourselves in it.
Labrinth: I wanted to ask you a question! When you’re making music, do you mix your stuff that you put online?
Synth History: I mix most everything, although sometimes I have somebody else mix my stuff.
Labrinth: Where did you learn to mix and work with sound? Was it just like trying out stuff?
Synth History: I just learned about production as I went, I guess. I’ve been making music since the 2010s and I’ve learned a lot since then. My earlier stuff was definitely… when I listen to it now I’m like, “Oh God!”
Labrinth: Yeah, like… you think, “What the hell were you doing?”
Synth History: But yeah, I use Ableton. I’d think, “Why does my bass not sound good, how could I make my bass sound louder?” and then I’d learn about compression and EQs. Just reading stuff on the internet and watching YouTube videos.
Labrinth: You almost have to feel your way through it, because there’s so many different types of mixes as well. Sometimes it can feel like there’s a type of mix you’re supposed to do, but I feel like mixes can be like, “This is how I felt in the moment,” as long as you know the basics, if that makes sense.
Synth History: Yeah! I’m definitely always learning new techniques so the way the music sounds changes over time.
Labrinth: But I like it, I think your stuff sounds great, man! Don’t hate on it!
Synth History: That’s so cool that you listened to it!
Labrinth: Don’t hate on the work! I’ve got to get back to my kids, but have a nice day and good to talk to you.
Synth History: Yeah! Thank you so much for doing this. I’m honored you’re part of the magazine!
Labrinth: I appreciate that, sending it right back at you.
Synth History Exclusive.
Polaroid by Labrinth.
Korg Brochure scan via Retro Synth Ads.