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November 08, 2012

On the Charts: Neil Davidge on the Halo 4 OST

Neil Davidge

Neil Davidge

As one of the primary architects of Massive Attack's brooding, cinematic sound, British writer/producer/composer Neil Davidge is no stranger to high-profile projects or commercial success. Even so, as you'll read below, Davidge seemed genuinely humbled to be asked to compose the music for Halo 4, the fourth installment in the blockbuster video game franchise. I sent Davidge a few questions about the soundtrack album, a couple weeks before it debuted on the Billboard 200 charts at #50, the highest-ever chart position for a video game soundtrack. Here's how he responded.

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This seems like such a perfect pairing of composer and project! Whose idea was it to bring you on board as the composer for Halo 4?

Well, I'd like to think it was my idea, since I've been preparing myself for this gig since Halo: Combat Evolved first came out...hmmm...but seriously, it was initially via an introduction from an Xbox music supervisor, Kyle Hopkins. Kyle is a fan of the work I did with the band Massive Attack, and when [Halo's developer] 343 asked if he had any suggestions for a composer, he recommended me. 343 then contacted my management company in London to find out if I was available.

Eventually, after much discussion and secrecy (I was unaware of the project title, only that it was "some Xbox game") they set up a face-to-face in Seattle. At the end of 2010, I met all the team including their new audio director, Sotaro Tojima. He and I hit it off straight away - he's very enthusiastic and you can't help but feel inspired talking with him, despite his limited knowledge of the English language. I played him a few sketches, including a piece I'd hastily composed before flying to Seattle called "Awakening," which he instantly loved. I think that clinched it.

What proportion of your score is synthetic? Did you get the chance to record anything live?

There's a fair amount of programmed and electronic instrumentation on this score, I'd guess 50%…epic beats, sound design, synth riffs and processed acoustic/sampled instruments. We got to record with a full orchestra, strings, brass and woodwinds, I think around 70 players in total, at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Five days at Abbey Road in total spread over a period of months, three sessions a day, two strings plus woodwinds, and one brass. We split the sessions up this way to enable us more control in the mix, plus better separation for the final process of implementing the music into the game. In addition to the orchestra, we also employed two choirs, the "RSVP" male voice choir and the London Bulgarian Choir, and a soloist, Claire Tchaikowski. For a video game this is quite exceptional.



What sort of information did you get about each segment before you scored it?

Information was fairly sketchy for the most part. Unlike a movie, you don't get to view the game before you score it, because it's still being built. Even after the music is delivered there's a huge amount of work to be done, and the details of the plot can change considerably. I had to lean heavily on my experience playing the previous games, the information I had gleaned from reading the various Halo books and my own vivid imagination.

My main source of inspiration was the amazing artwork supplied by Kenneth Scott and his team. 343 sent images for each mission and theme, with some early, partially rendered mission walk through videos and brief descriptions. I spent hours with the visuals looping around, trying to flesh out the characters and understand their motivations, sketching out ideas until I felt a connection. From there it was a matter of sending these sketches to 343 to see what worked for them. For two of the key character themes, however, I did manage to wrestle some dialogue tryouts from the team…that was quite a treat! [That was] for the two Forerunner characters, The Didact and his estranged wife, The Librarian...the tracks "Nemesis" and "Solace" on the soundtrack album.

This is the first installment in the Halo series not to be scored by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Did their work have any impact on your own?

I've been listening to their scores for ten years, and I've played every installment of Halo many times - their music scored my every heroic attempt to save the human race from extinction. I remember clearly putting Combat Evolved into the Xbox for the first time and hearing that eerie monk theme, thinking "This is cool." Music was and still is a large part of what separates Halo from the other blockbuster games. Its rich cinematic, emotional/thematic approach connects with the player and makes the experience far more than just a simple shoot 'em up game. There's heart. I thank both Marty and Michael for their vision. I couldn't help but be influenced by their work. It was a tall order taking over the baton, a big responsibility, but one I've enjoyed hugely.

It strikes me that the job of a DJ and the job of a video game composer are somewhat similar, in that your music has to be flexible enough to last as long as the clubgoers are dancing, or as long as the gamer is playing. Do you feel like your years of experience working in electronica helped you craft the score here?

Not being a DJ or much of a club goer (I can't dance) I wouldn't know...but yes, I imagine that's true to some degree. The non-linear aspect of a game score can be quite a challenge to compose for. There's no predicting exactly how a mission will play out, so a single piece of music needs to cover a lot of ground. I'm sure my experience producing electronic music helped me understand this process better with many days…and months…spent in the studio, experimenting, constructing and deconstructing tracks, seeing just how far I can push things then breaking down to a very stripped and unorthodox arrangement. It's a world away from making an album, however. A game score is out there, and a medium unto itself.



It's amazing how well your music for Halo 4 fits in with the rest of your resumé. Do you feel like there's a signature "Neil Davidge" sound at work here?

I try not to impose "my sound" on a project, rather I see what it is I can do to contribute. I work with people, I listen and learn from them, I try to soak up the vibe and then proceed to write and produce following my gut instincts as much as possible, going with what I feel rather than what I know. It's not an ego-driven process. I never wanted to be famous, only the music. I enjoy being a part of something bigger and find that so much more fulfilling. I am always looking to create/experience something new and unique however, always playing with sounds, even twisting and distorting orchestras. I love messing with sound. I could spend weeks experimenting…it's a good thing I have deadlines.

How did you figure out who would contribute to the bonus Halo 4 remix disc? Was there one track that you were particularly taken by?

It was a group effort, masterminded by the record label 7hz, who are also my management company. We all put forward suggestions, 343, Microsoft, 7hz and myself. We were looking to create a well-balanced yet diverse remix album. We chose the artists who we best felt would add something unique and cool to the project. I do particularly enjoy the Apocalyptica track. I guess that track's not so much a remix and more of a cover/mash-up of two different themes from the game. I'm hoping to collaborate with them someday. That would be fun.

In addition to the brooding industrial tracks, the Halo 4 soundtrack features some terrific string themes. Did the experience of scoring it pique your interest at all in composing a full-scale traditional film score?

I really enjoy scoring for orchestra; it was yet another reason why I wanted to do the game. I knew it would require some big tunes, classic sweeping orchestral melodies. I loved writing and arranging these. Taking them from the lo-fi of my dictaphone all the way to Abbey Road with some of the best players in the world, I felt very at home. But I guess my true love is in combining diverse organic and electronic sound sources in what hopefully comes across as authentic, human and not forced or gimmicky.

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Visit Neil Davidge on the web at www.neildavidge.com.

The Halo 4 Original Soundtrack is now available as a standard CD, digital download and a special limited edition box set, containing a bonus remix album and "Making Of" DVD. Find out more at www.halo4soundtrack.com.

ABOUT NEIL DAVIDGE: Having learned guitar thanks to punk's DIY ethic, Neil Davidge later embarked upon long hours of alchemical, suck-it-and-see experimentation as he learned the complex but rewarding art of sound recording. Happily, he was in situ at Bristol's Coach House Studios when famed trip-hop act Portishead recorded parts of their debut album Dummy there between 1991-1994, and in 1996, he hooked-up with Massive Attack on "The Hunter," a song for the Batman Forever soundtrack that featured Everything But the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn. That same year, Massive Attack won a Brit Award for "Best Dance Act," this cementing a working relationship with Neil Davidge that would continue for some 17 years.

It was Massive Attack's stately, cinematic sound - together with Neil's longstanding affinity with visual mediums, of course - that lent his scoring for film, TV and advertising an air of inevitability. After auteur Luc Besson came to Neil and Robert Del Naja of Massive to commission music for his 2005 martial arts thriller Unleashed, a swathe of other, attractively varied coups followed. Among them were scores for the films Bullet Boy and Battle In Seattle, advertising campaigns for Jaguar and Adidas, and Neil's collaboration with Snoop Dogg, while scoring music for In Prison My Whole Life, a documentary about US death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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