Neil Davidge, producer for Massive Attack and composer for films including Clash of The Titans, Push and Danny the Dog, recently finished the colossal task of scoring the soundtrack for Halo 4. Neil invited MPVHub to his studio in Bristol, UK, to chat about his take on compositoin, production, tech and of course, scoring for one of the most popular video games of all time... Halo 4!
Before we talk about Halo, I believe you’re working on a solo album at the moment?
Yes. I started working on it before I began working on Halo 4, which took over my life for about two years. I’ve just got back to working on it now. I’m hoping to finish it by November 2012.
What direction is it taking?
I guess somewhere between cinematic and song-based. There’s electronica elements in there and it’s eclectic in a similar way to the work I’ve done with Massive Attack. It brings together a lot of different sound sources and styles and I’m trying to make them into cohesive songs. It’s song-based but doesn’t adhere to traditional song structures.
It’s very much a continuation of all the work that I’ve done with Massive Attack, film scores and the Halo 4 soundtrack. I kind of take it all in and bring it all with me. It’s all my baggage. Every project I work on always brings my baggage, plus I look for new baggage too!
It’s interesting that you refer to it as baggage. Does it feel like something you’d like to let go off?
Well, it’s experience really. I’m using the term baggage because sometimes it feels quite heavy and unwieldy. When you’ve worked on a lot of big projects there’s often a sense of ‘how am I going to better what I’ve done before?’ We had it on every Massive Attack album I’ve worked on, from Mezzanine, where we revolutionized the group’s sound, through to 100th Window and Heligoland. But after such success and critical acclaim, to reinvent the wheel yet again is a daunting task.
I think every project I’ve come to there’s always been a point at the beginning where you think it doesn’t sound as good as stuff that I’ve done before until you break through the pain barrier. For me there’s always been a pain barrier period where I’ve been stuck in the studio banging my fists on the desk. Working on projects where you get over that pain barrier can help you break through into a new place. Then, all of that experience you have goes back into your unconscious and infuses everything that you do.
How does it make you feel hearing your productions on TV, radio or in a film?
It’s a great feeling. I’ve always been inspired by the combination of music and visuals. I trained to be a graphic designer originally, so I’ve always been inspired by visuals and when I’m working on music I’m often thinking in colors and textures. I take whatever emotional feeling I’m trying to achieve with a piece of music and visualise it. Often when I’m working with musicians and artists I try and explain to them how I want this piece to sound using what I see in my head.
What started you off on your musical journey?
I remember listening to bands like The Banshees, Joy Division, and others that were experimental with sonics. That inspired me. The very first sound “thing” that inspired me was when my Dad bought our very first stereo. He played one of those stereo demonstration discs, and I could hear a duck walking between speaker to speaker, and I was wowed! That was probably the point at which I really got into sound.
Music has always been a big thing for me, and combining that with sonic manipulation sparked my interest in sound which has continued ever since. My training as a graphic designer taught me how to take images, distill them down, and find the essential core of a visual. That’s infused the music I make: trying to find the nugget, the emotion, the core.
"My training as a graphic designer taught me how to take images, distill them down, and find the essential core of a visual."
Is that pure emotional quality what you strive for when creating a sound? Or do you create sounds that take on an embodiment of an emotion?
Sometimes it’s just serendipitous and things collide. I guess it’s by design as I head in a certain direction and I go through my emotional progression and eventually come across things that fit with what I’m feeling. I spend a lot of time experimenting with sounds, and even when I have a fully arranged piece, I pull it apart and mess around with the mix. I like to look at different graphic constructs of a piece of music to try and direct it to what I want to feel when listening to it. The emotion has always been at the core of it for me. I’m not into making music as a purely conceptual, technical exercise - it would bore me senseless.
Instinct is really important to me. I try to create an environment where my instincts have full reign, and when working with others I want them to feel completely free to follow their instincts. Sometimes I feel an artist is best left on their own, and that they probably know exactly what needs to be brought to the track and that they’ll find it on their own. I trust people’s creative instincts. If you’re working with someone who’s good, they’re good because their instincts are good.
How did you get involved composing for Halo 4?
My management company went to LA for a big music conference and they bumped into a music supervisor who does a lot of titles for Xbox. He was a fan of the work I had done with Massive Attack. He had heard the soundtracks for Danny the Dog, Push and Clash of the Titans and was interested to know I was looking for new things.
Unknown to us 343, the company that has been making Halo 4, had been in contact with the supervisor with a list of potential composers for the game. They wanted to do something different, not just another generic Hollywood score. So my name was put forward and 343 got in touch with my management company who told me there was some interest in me scoring an Xbox game. Between the first meeting and when they actually came to Bristol to tell me it was Halo 4... well, that was about 6 months of conversation!
So you really had no idea at all it was for Halo 4?
I had no idea! And, no one knew I was a big fan of the game and had been playing it since it came out! When we were working on 100th Window with Massive Attack I’d be playing through the story of Halo when I was waiting for the band to turn up or the computer systems would go down. I have all the games, I know all the characters. In fact my daughter got really into the game so Saturday morning became our Halo morning! She’s actually a lot better than I am these days...
343 didn’t find out I was a fan of the game until about two weeks before I was due to fly to Seattle for the first meeting in December 2010. We got on very well and I played them a piece of music I’d prepared which they loved, and that became the track Awakening.
Is there a difference in how you score for a game as opposed to an album or film?
There are certain fundamental things which are similar, like needing to be emotionally engaged and visually inspired. But in terms of the process itself it’s very different. In a film score you’ve generally got the complete visuals to compose to. Often with a game you’ve got nothing and the best you can expect to be scoring to is a bunch of still images and a proposed plot which isn’t set in stone.
So how did you deal with writing for something which hasn’t taken form yet?
Initially I started by trying to inhabit the Master Chief (the main character) and from his perspective tried to imagine how I’d feel in that particular mission, confronted with that particular character in that environment. So, I spent a lot of time reading the books, looking at images and the script to get some ideas of what’s going on and where I should be in an emotional sense. Then I wrote to that image I’d created in my head.
Master Chief says: "The Halo 4 Soundtrack is now available on CD and download. Grab it now!"
How did you deal with duration, timings and pace while not allowing the music to become too repetitive?
Not knowing how long a scene is going to last is key aspect to game audio. You have to have faith in the people you’re working with, i.e. the guys who’ll implement the music into the game. We all had to take a leap of faith: they sent me the visual ideas, I wrote a piece of music which might be 3 minutes long and then probably wrote between between three and twelve different ideas for that mission depending on how central that is in the game. Then I whittled it down to a more manageable number to arrange, sent these to Seattle to see what worked with the plot. Between us we brainstormed about where these pieces would go, and I kept trying to build in variations of these pieces.
In general, I’d write a piece and start with the chorus, then write another chorus to follow it, and then another one to go after that chorus... so I’d keep evolving the track. There would be some loose thematic, melodic thread that’d go through the piece and maybe some kind of rhythmic thread too.
So, not only concentrating on the motifs, but allowing it to move and change direction?
Yes, exactly. Sometimes I’d take a motif and expand upon it over and over like Chinese whispers to a point where I’d have a piece of music that’d cover all bases and all scenarios, so that when it’s in the game the player can find themselves in a number of different situations - which you can’t predict when they’re going to occur and how they’re going to play out. So you try and create a piece that’ll cover all bases. Sometimes I’d just try and write a piece of music to try and take it on a journey, or through an emotional arc, until I felt like I completely satisfied that piece of music.
How did you feel when you first played Halo 4 to your soundtrack?
Well, it was really cool but quite distracting. The track would come in and I’d be thinking I recognize that... then I’d get killed! [laughs] It’s going to be a very strange experience for me playing Halo 4, especially after playing through all the other games so much. I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to it really. It’s going to be a weird experience.
Tell us about your studio gear.
I’m a Pro Tools user. In terms of plug-ins, Native Instruments’ Kontakt is my sampler of choice. I love the Soniccouture library, Spectrasonics, Project Sam's Symphobia, LA scoring strings. I’m always looking for other sound libraries though! For synths, I love Arturia - they’ve got some lovely classic, old synths.
For effects, I use the GRM Tools plug-ins suite a lot. You can really twist things nicely. I’m also loving the Ohm Force stuff. It’s pretty hungry but Ohmicide is an awesome distortion plug-in, which we’ve used a lot in Halo 4’s orchestral score! [laughs] I also use my UAD Satellite. You can’t beat the sound of those plug-ins, they’re amazing.
Do you have a drum library you gravitate towards?
Not one in particular but I do like Damage by Heavyocity. I’ve got lots of orchestral percussion libraries, but I’m getting more into building my own sound libraries. Sometimes sounds originate from a sample library, and I process and pitch them to create new Kontakt instruments. More and more I’m building up my own libraries from scratch.
What projects would you like to work on in the future?
I love working to picture. So, I’d like to score more films. There’s a possibility I’ll produce again in the future, but for now I’m really big into scoring, and hopefully the fans of Halo 4 will like what I’ve done as I’d love to work on the music for Halo 5!