We talk to BAFTA nominated composer David Housden

We talk to BAFTA nominated composer David Housden

We recently met David Housden at this year´s Game Music Connect event in London, where, in the previous year he had appeared as a guest speaker himself. A young composer for whom the term ´upcoming´ is long redundant thanks to a BAFTA nomination and a portfolio of soundtrack work spanning several video games, David gives us a very honest account of his university experience studying music production, plus his recent work on the Sci-Fi video game ´Volume´ and the music production software he relies on.

Hi David, first off, congratulations on the BAFTA nomination! How does it feel to be doing so well at such a relatively young age?

Thank you, I don´t feel particularly young anymore to be honest, my 20´s are disappearing at an alarming rate! But yes it’s amazing to be able to do what I love full-time at such an early stage in my career.

What did you study at university?

I took a BA in Music Production and it was here that I started composing in earnest for the first time.

How did you find the university experience in this subject area? Would you recommend it to other young people who have aspirations towards a career in this industry?

I get asked this a lot and I always give the same answer. When I went to university, it was around £3,000 a year. It provided me with the skills and opportunities I needed to craft a career for myself and I wouldn´t be here if it wasn´t for that course. That being said, it´s done less than nothing for me as a qualification. Having a degree behind me hasn´t opened a single door that would´ve otherwise been closed.

It now costs over £9,000 a year to study at university, the competition in the industry is increasing with each year, and I can´t in all good conscience say that the best way to get into the industry is to get in over £30,000 worth of debt before you´ve even worked a day in your life. I genuinely believe that with the resources available today, you´d be better off investing a fraction of that money into your own gear and the wealth of literature available on the subject, and teaching yourself whilst building relationships with students and indie filmmakers/game developers. There are dozens of hours of great tutorials available on YouTube for free, and many other resources available online. It comes down to your personal feelings on the matter at the end of the day.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

Definitely being nominated for the Best Original Music BAFTA a year after graduating. Defied any and all expectations I ever had for myself!

You were first launched into the industry, when creating the score for Mike Bithells’s indie game Thomas Was Alone. How did you get involved in that project?

Long story short, a friend I met through the band I was playing in at the time worked with Mike at Bossa Studios. I told him I was looking for work experience within the industry and a few months later, he put me in touch with Mike who was working on a hobby project in his spare time. He explained that he didn´t have much money and it was just for fun but he had some good contacts in place and the game was going to get a bit of exposure. So I wrote a demo for him, which fortunately he loved, and this went on to become the main theme for Thomas Was Alone.

Thomas Was Alone featured a lot of minimalist pianos, and ambiences. Which would you say was the most useful tool in creating this sound?

I´d say Omnisphere was probably the foundation around which all else was created. I´d hear a sound and be inspired by it, then I´d layer it with various other recordings and patches from other libraries to create something original.

Your latest score is for the video game ´Volume´, which is a sci-fi reimagining of the Robin Hood mythology - can you tell us more about the concept of the game?

That´s right, basically, it´s set in a dystopian near future, there´s a sort of Orwellian government in place and they´ve made life very difficult for the general public, seizing up the wealth of the many and distributing it among the few. Locksley comes across a military holographic volume, containing the schematics ofsecure governmental locations. He proceeds to stream himself breaking into the VR versions of these places, so that the public can then go and reclaim the wealth for themselves. And that´s the role the player takes. But of course nothing is without consequence!

The soundtrack is a fusion of medieval instrumentation with contemporary percussive beds and synths, post-rock type ambiences and cinematic grandeur, can you tell us more about how you went about creating this from the original brief?

The main theme that struck me after reading the script was this concept of old vs. new. It was everywhere from the central theme of the game, to the design of the artwork, so I quickly decided that this was something I wanted to enhance musically as well. On the face of it, it´s a very modern, slick-looking game, but it has its foot rooted in this centuries old legend at the same time. This is something which isn´t immediately obvious on screen, so I wanted to try and capture that essence with the music.

I´d start by writing my melodies on these odd instruments. Instead of reaching for a piano or a string library, I´d start on a zither or a mandolin for example. I found that starting my creative process from a different point led to interesting results, which I could then build an orchestration around using more modern techniques in keeping with the zeitgeist. In the end I´ve tried to create something which is cinematic, whilst also carrying this nostalgic, warmer quality to it.

Tell us about some of the key virtual instruments you used in the making of the score.

I used Heavyocity´s AEON to create the majority of my synth patches, especially the aggressive pulsing lines. The brass was mainly Symphobia with East West Hollywood for detail, and the strings were a combination of live recordings, Symphobia and LA Scoring Strings. I used a combination of source recordings, Output´s Rev, and Project Alpha/Bravo for the hybrid elements in the score. The majority of the percussion was live recordings along with Damage and Soundiron´s Apocalypse Percussion Ensemble.

The Robin Hood theme is firmly cemented in the music as you used source recordings from Sherwood Forest - can you tell us more about that?

It´s very difficult to bring something new to the table when it comes to writing action music, and to a lesser extent stealth music. I realised very early on that in order to best serve the needs of the game, this wasn´t going to be the time where I try to reinvent the wheel in terms of what people expect from the genre; so instead I decided to look within that and see if I could find an original way of writing, whilst still conforming to the needs of the game.

To this end I spent a few weeks capturing found sounds which were pertinent to the game. I spent a day recording ambiences and location sounds in Sherwood forest; I was able to record myself hitting, tapping and essentially ´playing´ a suit of armour one afternoon; I had a day at an archery range capturing various sounds, from the release of a bow, to the impact of an arrow. I recorded the clashing and scraping of swords, all sorts are in there. Once I had a nice collection of sounds I felt I could work with, I then spent another few weeks going through everything and editing and manipulating them into sounds I felt I could use in a musical sense before loading them into Kontakt and blending them in with my existing orchestrations.

I´ve worked hard to make sure they´re not too obtrusive as I didn´t want to distract the player from the game, but it´s quite nice to know that when a player thinks they´re hearing a hi-hat it could actually be a suit of armour being played with chop-sticks, or that the cinematic riser leading into a crescendo is actually the sound of an arrow striking a target, reversed, de-tuned and processed into something that works in a contemporary setting. It just adds warmth and a sense of identity and originality that you won´t hear in the wealth of other titles utilising this particular brand of music.

Talk us through your studio set-up – are you Mac or PC-based and what key pieces of hardware can be found in there?

I run a 3.7GHz Quad-core Mac Pro bin with 64GB RAM and 500GB flash storage. I then stream my sample libraries from two Samsung EVO SSD´s housed in a thunderbolt enclosure. And I run my sessions from a third Samsung Evo SSD in a USB 3.0 enclosure. I view everything on a single 30” Apple cinema display, which suits the way I work nicely.

I use a pair of Genelec 8020´s for monitoring and I cross reference on a pair of AKG-701 headphones (as well as usually doing a final pass on Apple earbuds)!

I have a Universal Audio Apollo Twin thunderbolt interface, as I never usually need to record more than two channels of simultaneous audio at home. I write on a Yamaha P90 digital piano and then play my music in with an M-Audio Axiom 61 MK2 MIDI controller although I usually use my iPad Air with Lemur for CC control.

We hear you’re a big fan of the Spitfire Audio products. Which libraries of theirs do you use most and why?

I certainly am! I´d say Albion is probably my most used library of theirs. Almost every score starts with an Albion mock-up and then I add individual lines in from other libraries for detail. Usually with the intention of replacing the Albion bed, however, it keeps its place in there 9 times out of 10. The felt piano is lovely as well and I also used their range of dulcimers throughout the Volume score. I have a horror film coming up which I´ve been using a lot of their plucked piano on too. 

And Project Sam’s Symphobia & Symphobia 2 can be found in your set-up, what do you particularly love about those instruments?

Well other than just being amazing-sounding libraries even after all these years, I guess it´s their ease of use which really makes them a mainstay. They allow me to create huge, professional-sounding orchestrations straight out of the box, with minimal tweaking required. A Godsend when up against tight deadlines!

Project Alpha and Project Bravo from Hybrid Two, what makes these such great Kontakt instruments to use?

At the time, they revolutionised what we expected from hybrid production/cinematic sound design libraries. The stock sounds give you an amazing out of the box starting point, but the level of customisation the guys have given the user means the sonic possibilities are limited only by your own imagination. There are a lot of sound-a-likes available in their wake, but they remain original and best in my opinion.

And, like many composers in the industry, Spectrasonics Omnisphere is a favourite of yours – how long has it been a part of your software set-up and what do you love most about it?

Omnisphere has been my go to synth since I was a student, so probably as far back as 2010 now. It´s been the starting point of a composition for me more times than I can count and if I´m ever stuck for inspiration, I only need to browse through some pre-sets for ten minutes to find something new which inspires me. It´s an absolute powerhouse and I´ve barely even scratched the surface of what it can do. Utterly peerless as far as I´m concerned which is probably why you hear it in everything! 

Orchestral and/or cinematic-style virtual instruments are in abundance with more being released all the time. What in particular tends to sway your decision to take the plunge and buy?

For me it´s all about sound quality with ease of use. Within reason, any library worth its salt can be made to sound good if used in the right way and programmed/mixed properly. What I´m looking for, is something that sounds good, with the least amount of effort possible. If I´m up against a deadline, understand I want to be writing music. Not faffing around with ADSR´s, EQ´s and finding the perfect impulse response to make something sing. The majority of my stuff is going to be played live ultimately anyway, so I don´t want to be spending any more time than is absolutely necessary on bringing a mock-up up to standard. If you can create something which works beautifully out of the box, has easy, user friendly functionality and doesn´t require you to wade through 50 patches to find a sweet one, the chances are I´m going to buy it.

What´s on your virtual instruments/plugins wishlist at the moment?

Albion One will definitely be my next buy! So excited for that. I´m also toying with the idea of replacing my Hollywood brass with the Soundiron Symphony Series brass collection, as I´d ideally like my entire template to be Kontakt based.

Finally, what advice would you give to young people wanting to break into the industry?

Firstly, I´m very jealous at the quality of sample libraries available to people starting out today! Professional sounds are available at entry level price points, so it´s never been easier to get started writing great-sounding music. That said, with such high quality tools available to everyone across the board, it really brings the focus on your own writing, which is where I´d recommend people invest the majority of their time.

First and foremost get your chops up to scratch and make sure you´re capable of producing broadcast quality music. If you put the work in here that 90% of beginners don´t bother to, you´ll instantly have a head start on the competition. After this it´s all about building contacts and a portfolio. To this end, student developers and film makers are the way to go. There are also thousands of indie games and films being created each year by amateurs and semi-professionals which all need music. This is where you start.

Do your best work on every project you get and make sure the experience of working with you is something these people will want to repeat. Assuming the quality of your music is of a high enough standard, word will spread and with a bit of luck it´ll be a matter of time until you get your break!

Thanks David!

You can follow David on Twitter for all his latest news.