With Game Music Connect 2015 just a month away, we caught up with composer/producer duo ‘The Flight‘ (aka Joe Henson and Alexis Smith) who will be at this year’s event as guest speakers. The pair have worked on some of the industry’s biggest soundtracks including Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag and the BAFTA-nominated Alien Isolation, whilst their songwriting and producer credits include artists such as Lana del Rey, Skye and Empire of the Sun, to name just a few.
We found out about their studio set-up, how the partnership works and their involvement in this year’s Game Music Connect….
Let’s start at the beginning, how did your working partnership come about?
We met in 2007 co-producing Joe’s band at the time. We got on really well and realised we had similar tastes and work ethic.
What was your first project as a duo and what’s been the most important thing/s you’ve learnt since then in the world of game audio composing?
We worked together on and off for a couple of years, but the first big project was a game called Zubo for EA. The most important thing we learned is that games change a lot during the production process. The game that ships can be very different from the game you started working on. This is one of the exciting things about working in the games industry. You are part of a process that can take years. We find it fascinating.
How do you find the experience of working in a partnership – what do you find are the best and worst elements of it?
We much prefer working as a team. When we both started out professionally, the music business was very different to what it is now. Music was mostly made by groups of people, so that is how we like to work. We are lucky that we don’t disagree about creative decisions very often. We both trust each other’s tastes; if one of us doesn’t like something, it goes. Disagreements can ruin partnerships, but at the end of the day it is just music, it’s not worth having a barney about.
What other types of projects do you work on in addition to game audio?
We work on a lot of projects from songwriting and record production to working in film and TV. You need to do a lot of different projects nowadays to earn a living in music.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career to date?
Being nominated for a BAFTA for Alien Isolation is a recent highlight. It’s the first time our parents could relate to something that we worked on.
The soundtrack for the Alien Isolation game was one of your most recent high profile projects, how strict was the brief or did you have a lot of artistic license?
The brief was very interesting for Alien Isolation. Creative Assembly licensed a few cues from the original film. This meant that when we wanted to quote the original we didn’t have to pastiche this very iconic score. But we had to score something that can take 20 hours to play, so we had a lot to cover. We went on a journey through the game, a history of horror films, from Alien through the synths score of the ‘70s & ‘80s to modern day. It’s subtle and you may not notice but that’s how we kept ourselves inspired. Most of the synths and effects used were from the era of the original film – real tape delays, spring reverbs and vintage analogue synths.
How would you describe the music?
It can be ambient and beautiful, but also abstract and very, very noisy.
You were joined by Spitfire Audio’s Christian Henson on the project – does this mean a lot of Spitfire libraries can be heard in the soundtrack? If so, which ones were used?
We realised very early on that we didn’t want to use off-the-shelf libraries for Alien Isolation, so we recorded bespoke sample sessions at Air Lyndhurst. The team at Spitfire programmed the patches for us in Kontakt. Though there is some Scary Strings in there at times and some of the Albion brass.
Was the score entirely composed with plug-ins or did you also incorporate live orchestral recordings? If so, can you tell us more about those?
On all of our projects we try and do as much live as we can. For Alien Isolation we did three very large sessions at Air Lyndhurst. Some of it was asset gathering and the sample recordings mentioned above. This meant we could use real recordings during the composition process. It is very hard to fake aleatoric stuff with samples. We also worked with the amazing vocal group Synergy; they can do things that no other choir can do.
They do fantastic non “classical” sounding techniques. Micro tuning, strange effects and also can do very subtle and simple things, like no vibrato. It sounds surprising but some singers find that very difficult. They are not precious at all and are really fun to work with. We had them copying sound effects from the original film so we could use it in the score. Have a listen to Steve Reich. Synergy work a lot with him.
Your studio houses a number of homemade acoustic instruments – can you tell us more about those?
We have loads of stuff at the studio. We buy new instruments for every project we do. It doesn’t matter if we can play them or not, if it has strings we bow it even if you aren’t supposed to…if it’s hollow we’ll hit it.
It’s not just acoustic instruments, we also have fantastic circuit bent synths and a collection of weird and wonderful effects pedals.
You’ve also got a large collection of vintage analog synths – what treasures have you got in there?
The Korg MS10 is an almost sacred treasure. The Juno-60 is amazing too, that was picked up at a car boot sale. We also love our Casiotones; we have 4. We have modern analogues from Doepfer, Moog and Analogue Solutions. It’s nice having individual instruments that don’t have millions of features and reams of presets.
In terms of other software, you’re fans of iZotope’s distortion plug-in Trash – what do you love about it and which features do you use most?
The big button with the word “Trash” written on it. You can completely annihilate sounds, it’s great! All the stuff from iZotope is amazing; we still use their Vinyl plugin.
Was it used on the Alien Isolation score? If so, how did you incorporate it?
We used Trash a lot; sometimes to give sounds a little dirt, sometimes to make people’s ears bleed.
You’ll be at this September’s Game Music Connect in London – how did you get involved and what will you be up to at the event?
They approached us. The music for Alien Isolation is very interactive. We’ll be discussing the compositions and how they were implemented with some of the guys from the sound department at Creative Assembly.
You’ll be joined by many other video game composers and producers, do you find it to be a highly competitive industry or is there a good degree of camaraderie and sharing of ideas and news? Or both?!
It is competitive, but there is a lot of camaraderie in this industry, there has to be. You never know when you are going to need to ask somebody for help or advice.
Which game music composers, or specific game audio soundtracks, do you particularly admire and why?
There are a lot of great composers in the games industry; Jason Graves is amazing, we love Bill Elm and Woody Jackson who did Red Dead Redemption. But then there is Gustavo Santaolalla, but not just for his work on The Last Of Us, listen to his film scores for Motorcycle Diaries and 21 Grams, they are fantastic.
Game Music Connect is now in its third year, why do you think such events are so successful?
Conversations about games are usually about the technology behind them, the creativity and art sometimes get forgotten. Game Music Connect is great at championing some of the people who are usually behind the scenes. It’s also great to meet up with familiar faces, and meet new people.
Other than Game Music Connect, can you tell us what else you’ve got lined up for the remainder of 2015?
We are finishing off a new EP for release soon, working with an artist for Hollywood Records, and doing a couple of games… but if we told you what they are we’d have to kill you.
Visit The Flight website here