Composer and Ivor Novello winner Ian Livingstone talks to Time+Space

Composer and Ivor Novello winner Ian Livingstone talks to Time+Space

As one of the UK´s most productive and in-demand composers, we are proud to have Ian Livingstone as a long-term customer of Time+Space. The Ivor Novello award winner has numerous film and TV credits under his belt from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to Channel 4´s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and ITV´s Babies Behind Bars plus numerous video games such as Formula1 ´2013, Batman Begins and Napolean: Total War, to name a few.

We got in touch with Ian to find out more about his studio set-up, the music software he´s using and what he hopes Spectrasonics have got up their sleeves...

Hi Ian, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. First up, please could you sum up what you currently do for a living?

I’m a composer – primarily working in video games, television and film.

How did you get into writing for the media and what was your first project?

It’s the usual story of being in the right place at the right time. I was fresh out of Salford Uni, had tried a few things like running a small demo studio facility with a friend, producing Karaoke backing tracks, bit of session work etc. Then by chance I sold a midi keyboard through a free local paper ad - the guy arrived to pick it up, we got chatting and it turned out his family were setting up as a local games developer “Warthog”. I ended up doing some demos for him which ultimately led to me scoring quite a few big titles for them and some spin-off companies.

My first gig actually wasn’t for Warthog but came via an introduction from someone working there Nightmare in the Toy Factory which I think was around 1994. One of the designers on that game later became one of the founders of documentary makers “Firecracker Films” and he got back in touch years later which led me to a whole string of TV work including, more recently, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

Which project has been your proudest to date?

I’m generally proud of everything I’ve worked on, even a documentary I scored a good few years ago about Penis’s. I guess the very latest project at the time is generally the one I’m the most happy with in terms of production and orchestration. I’ve recently been working on F12013, Total War Rome 2, Walking With Dinosaurs game and The Great British Sewing Bee reality series - which have all been incredibly rewarding projects each in their own way. Also fairly proud to have arranged the default Nokia ring tone – every time I hear it on the train, on holiday or even in soaps/movies I still get a buzz.

We love the photos of your studio – can you tell us more about the hardware in your setup?

Thanks - I’m actually about to pack everything up lock stock and barrel and build a new one in a few weeks - those pics are quite old, but my current setup is primarily based around Nuendo. I use RME Madi in the DAW and RME HDSP9632s in my slave machines, RME D-A converters. Monitoring is Quested 108s and 208s. Computers are all PC despite having an Apple keyboard and screens, I love Apple’s hardware and design but I also love building and customising my own machines from scratch and if anything goes wrong I can be back up and running in hours with off the shelf parts.

I don’t have much outboard gear these days just a Bricasti M7 reverb and a UA 2-610 mic pre, everything else is plugin based in the DAW - mainly UAD powered plugins. I do have a bunch of vintage analogue synths though – have recently been building myself a eurorack modular synth which is way too much fun.

Which DAW are you using and why? Have you tried any others?

I jump between Nuendo and Cubase depending on which is the most recent version, I have Pro Tools which I mainly use for stem exporting from live orchestral sessions but I never use it for final mixes or composing. Have heard good things about Logic, Live and DP but I’ve just been using Steinberg software for so many years (since Pro24) I’m too set in my ways now to consider switching to anything else.

You’re a big fan of Spectrasonics instruments, what is it about each of these that makes you want to use them time and again?
It’s just the sheer talent of the team that make the sounds. Eric Persing, Diego Stocco etc – those guys are giants and do such great innovative and unique work. I do love tweaking and making my own sounds from scratch but sometimes when you’re up against it on a deadline you just want to be able to load up an amazing patch and be instantly inspired.

Right now, there are many forum conversations circulating about when Spectrasonics might have some new product update announcements – is there anything in particular that you would like to see added to their existing instruments (Omnisphere, Trilian, RMX)?

That’s a really hard question to answer because those instruments are so near-perfect I think they’re going to have a real hard time topping them! I guess more than 8 channels would be useful. Would also be nice to see some more musical phrase based stuff appear in RMX – 3rd party developers seem to have cornered the market with phrase-based libraries but there isn’t much default “musical” content in the stock RMX library, yet the REX approach seems so appropriate for this.

I guess for Trilian and Omnisphere I still only feel I’ve played about 50% of what’s already in the library it’s so vast! But I’d like to see them improve the raw synthesis engine to be able to do more from scratch, some analogue modelling synthesis without having to use rom-based wavetable sounds at its core.

And if they were to announce a brand new product, what would be your dream Spectrasonics instrument?

Really hard to speculate as they never give any pre-release clues but I just hope they stick with what they do best, amazing sound design and slick drum programming. I’ve less of an interest in seeing them take on traditional libraries like orchestra, guitar etc as there’s so much of that stuff about already, but if they did I’m sure they’d come up with a totally amazing new take on it. 

iZotope also features in your setup, specifically Trash 2 and Stutter Edit, in which areas of your work do you find these most useful and why?

I’ve worked on a lot of racing titles recently and that stutter glitch sound is a great tool especially with hybrid scores where you’re having to blend orchestral and electronica. You can put it on anything bass, drums, strings etc - I guess like any device it’s going to get over-used and am expecting a backlash but I think for what it does, iZotope’s Stutter Edit goes one of the deepest especially for rhythmic gate type fx. Trash 2 is amazing at just adding balls and dirtying up anything – I use it on synth basses a lot, drum hits too, the interface is so slick and the presets all superbly programmed.

You were involved in the beta testing for Hybrid Two’s first release Project Alpha, which has proved very popular this year, how did you get involved in that and do you use the library in your own music now?

I’ve done a fair bit of beta testing of sample libraries over the years – about 7 years ago I was part of a custom sample library project called VI Pro with a bunch of composers from Vi-Control forum, we pooled together resources and recorded a full orchestral library in Utah, headed up by Colin O’Malley (8DIO), Thomas Bergersen (Two Steps/EastWest), Andrew Keresztes (LASS) Troels Folmann (Tonehammer/8DIO) etc all before those guys got into commercial developing themselves.

We got some great results and all learned a lot about sampling orchestras and I made some good friends along the way, which has led to being asked to test quite a few commercial libraries since. Dan James from Hybrid2 approached me when he started off the Alpha project as something he was just doing for fun for himself and a few other composers, it was never originally intended to be a commercial library but it just grew and grew. Dan and Aaron are incredibly talented and smart guys - I’ve used Alpha lots recently on Codemasters “Grid2” game especially the drones and Whooshbangs!

We spotted a guitar and Yamaha U3 Upright piano in your studio, how long have you been playing and do you play any other instruments?

Piano was always my main instrument – I started lessons when I was 5 and did my grades at a fairly early age, but I still like to dabble with other instruments if only to get an appreciation for writing for them. I play a bit of violin, guitar, bass and drums but not well enough to record - I hire people who know what they’re doing for that!

The U3 upright piano is also a Disklavier so has midi I/O with mechanical playback. It was a bit of an experiment in that I originally hoped I could use it as a kind of sample playback device and get the ultimate sound of a real acoustic piano playing my perfectly edited compositions from my sequencer. But in reality I think a lot of the sound of a real piano is the pianist’s fingernails hitting the keys, the stool creaking, the player breathing spilling into the mics and the improvisation aspect – something magical just happens when you sit down at a real living breathing piano. Even though recording a mic’d up disklavier should sound better than sample libraries for me it’s just way too sterile. I often record the U3 but it’s generally live now without the Disklavier bit, or I stick to piano samples if I want more of a grand sound.

And the waterphone, does that feature regularly in your projects?

I bought that for a couple of spooky horror shows I did a while back – it’s got such a disturbing quality to the sound. Yes I’m using it on a couple of projects at the moment too - the problem with Waterphones though is rust. I often forget to empty it after a session and then it can sit in the studio corroding for weeks on end. I think it’s going to need a bit of a service soon actually as it’s started leaking a bit.

You’ve also indulged in some synth programming, can you tell us more about that?

I’ve always been an analogue synth fan - I played in quite a few bands in my teens growing up in the age of synth-pop in the mid 80s, my first synth was a Sequential Circuits Pro-One mono synth in 1984 which I still have. I guess at the time you often didn’t have any way of storing the patches so you had to know what you were doing to re-create from fresh. I do use loads of virtual VSTi synths too now though just for speed and variety of sound sources, but you can’t beat the buzz of switching on a modular and creating something brand new that no-one’s ever heard before, and there’s just something magical about real analogue.

Finally, you’ve obviously carved out a successful career with some high profile shows and projects under your belt, what are your ambitions for the future as a composer?

Thanks - I’d love the opportunity to work on more slow emotional music that can really tug at the heart strings, although that doesn’t come up much in games (with the exception of a couple like Heavy Rain or Journey) but I’m hoping it’s a growing trend. Would certainly love to do more drama – my ultimate ambition would be to score a Stephen King movie, I’m a massive fan of his - despite writing all that gypsy and racing music I do love getting in touch with my dark side!

You can find out more about Ian Livingstone´s work over on his website or why not follow him on Twitter?