What's it like composing the music for a videogame? How do write something knowing potentially that every person who hears your music could be experiencing it at completely different times with different emotions? With Halo 4 set to launch on Xbox 360 on the 6th of November this year I caught up with the man behind its soundtrack, Neil Davidge, the producer and composer behind much of work in the Massive Attack albums.
So Neil, you’re the composer and producer of the new Halo 4 original soundtrack. How did you land that gig?
It was a combination of a few things really. Halo 4 developers 343 studios based in Seattle were looking for something iconic with a fresh direction for the series and my management had gone to L.A. for a big music business convention and got to talking to music supervisor for Xbox who just so happened to be a fan of the work with Massive Attack. At the time, I didn’t actually know what was going on. The first I heard was about 2 weeks before flying out to Seattle for a meeting to score “a videogame.” To be honest, at I was pretty keen about getting back into film school and wasn’t particularly excited about scoring a videogame but, as soon as I found out it was Halo I jumped at the chance.
Are you a Halo fan yourself?
Oh yeah, I’ve been playing the Halo series since it started on the original Xbox. I have all the games, even the spinoffs like Halo Reach. It’s one of my go-to things like going for a walk or going to the pub for a quick half. Whenever I get frustrated in the studio one of my things is to play a bit of Halo so in a way, me getting the job seemed like it was meant to be.
You’re most famous for your work on the Massive Attack albums, and you’ve scored tracks for film in Bullet Boy and Clash Of The Titans. How does creating a soundtrack for a game compare?
It’s very different from composing for a movie or writing and scoring an album. It’s very much its own beast because of the interactive element. I did an interactive display previously at the Victoria & Albert museum so that helped me in working in an unorthodox, non-linear way.
When I was starting this project I thought I had a basic idea of how to go about it but as things went on I realised how little I knew about how things worked.
How was that for you?
It was good and bad. So I had to do a lot of learning on the job so there was pressure on me to get it done quickly and get composing straight off the bat but at the same time it was a lot of fun and the guys at 343 gave me a lot of information. It was all about adapting my working processes for this media and following my instincts. When working for a game, you don’t know how a particular scene is going to last so you have to have your music open ended. Tracks have to be easily manipulated and looped and multi-layered so that the music doesn’t get boring and cover all bases.
Whenever I get frustrated in the studio one of my things is to play a bit of Halo so in a way it seemed as if me getting the job was meant to be.
I gave it a listen on Soundcloud and you definitely hit all the right gaming notes.
Thanks. I think we got there in the end. One thing that I didn’t take into account was that it takes a long time to put a game together. What they initially start with are just the bare bones so I was given a lot of mesh images of Master Chief running through... something. Ultimately, in parts I was creating music to half a dozen still images and two sentences of what was going on in a mission. I had to come up with ideas of what Master Chief, Cortana and other characters what doing and feeling and then waited to see if they came in conjunction with things 343 would give me when they had furthered development. It was a bit hit and miss sending stuff over and then getting a reply with a bit of direction but it worked out well in the end.
When working for a game, you don’t know how a particular scene is going to last so you have to have your music open ended.
Halo 4 is the first of a new trilogy. Are you returning for the next instalments?
If they’ll have me I’d like to do the soundtracks. I’ve really enjoyed this creative process. It’s been a huge challenge and I feel like I understand the medium now so it’d be a shame to not be involved in the next game at least. I’m very passionate about the game, as was everyone involved in this project. I just love working with inspired people so from that point of view this was the dream gig.
Ah that’s great to hear! In terms of current projects what are you working on?
I’m currently working on an album for myself which I was working on before I got the Halo 4 project. I’m attempting to finish my first solo album in the next couple of months before maybe taking on a film project.
Any pointers to how it’ll sound?
In all my work I don’t particularly follow one definite direction. I like to branch out and experiment and pull all of these different elements into hopefully a satisfying final project. It’ll be a contemporary album with my usual blend of organic and electronic madness. It’ll be mainly song based as I fancied a bit of a change. I’m working with a guy called LowRaw who’s originally from California but is now based in Iceland and there are a few other guest vocalists who I am working with.
I’m very passionate about the game, as was everyone involved in this project. I just love working with inspired people so from that point of view this was the dream gig.
Fantastic. One final thing and forgive me for my bluntness but it’s my first ever interview. You’ve had a long successful career working with artists like Massive Attack, David Bowie, Snoop (Dogg) Lion and Damon Albarn. What really stands out for you as a composer?
I got lots of stories about waiting in the studio for 24 hours for Massive Attack to show up, that was probably when I got most of my Halo time in! But for me, one of my favourite moments was sitting in the studio with Elizabeth Davidson Fraser for the Massive Attack song Teardrop. (Which featured on the Ubisoft game Assassin’s Creed) Just listening to her and going about that tune was absolute magic. I hadn’t heard that track before and when she started singing I was just blown away. It was a real spine tingling moment.
I live for those moments where everything comes together and it seems like pure magic is being created and I lucky enough to say that I had plenty of that on this project. The first time I heard the orchestra play some of these pieces at Abbey Road was just great. Sending mixes off to the engineers and then seeing what comes back just brought a smile to my face.
And have you bagged yourself a free copy?
Not yet! It’s so secretive but I’m sure I’ll get a deluxe copy in the post and I’m going to make sure I get one for my daughter on release day because she’s a massive fan as well.
The Halo 4 OST will be available to buy on October 22, with the remixes following as part of the Special Edition Boxset version on November 6. For more information, click here.
You can follow Carl Anka on Twitter @Bubblegum616
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