Sam Hughes chats with Music Producer/Mixer and Composer, Rich Aitken. Rich has a 20 year career as a music producer & mixer working on hundreds of scores for film, TV and video game. The 90s and early 2000s saw him producing bands on labels One Little Indian, EMI, Sony & Universal as well as smaller labels Fierce Panda and Shift Disco. He is known as a producer and mixer of AAA projects recently finishing work on Rare’s Sea of Thieves, SCEEs RIGS and movies “The Banksy Job” , “Burn Burn Burn”, “Petroleum Spirit” & “Neon”.
Thanks for joining us Richard, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the site!
I’m honoured to be here! You’ve done a wonderful thing here and I follow what you do quite avidly.
Now before we discuss some of your recent projects let’s chat about how you your career began, where did it all start?
Naturally, I’ve always been involved in music in some way; I started playing drums when i was very young … around aged 9. I didn’t get a proper kit until later though. Perhaps somewhat quixotically I followed a path into mathematics and VR research back in the late 80s and early 90s to give me free time to develop as a musician and writer. My undergrad degree was about 12 hours a week and my post graduate studies (as part of the Virtuosi project) was pretty minimal. During that time I played in a lot of bands in Nottingham and worked my way into the session scene working with the dance producer Robin Younger and the legend that is Amrik Rai (Nick Cave once took a hit out on him… so the story goes).
During the mid 90s I met a guy called Cave and formed a band with him. We signed to EMI and we had a lot of fun. However, I could see that we weren’t going to take over the world so I used the money to build a studio and buy Pro Tools many years before it became the ubiquitous studio crutch. This opened production doors for me and I was asked to do a lot of edits on songs etc.
One of the things probably not to best to brag about, though, was getting Autotune very early on. I tuned many a vocal for lots of records before it became the norm….. a dubious honour. From there I really took an interest in producing and mixing and started getting asked to mix records for people. Nothing big but plenty of stuff for labels like One Little Indian, Fierce Panda and a few others. I also started developing acts in my recently acquired home town of Oxford (this is back in 97).
Was there anything that you consider to be a big break at all?
There have been many pivotal moments in my career so far but perhaps one that might be relevant is a chance meeting with Maurice Suckling. He was the script writer for much of the Driver video game series. We got on well and he told me that Reflections needed some more music that sounded like “a license”. Well – I was mixing and producing records so I had the experience to get “that sound” so I made a few cuban jazz style tracks to fit the game genre. Well that was for Driver 2 and the game was a hit so for the next few years the phone rang a lot! Around 2001 I partnered up with Marc Canham (the composer behind Alice Creed, Far Cry 2 etc) who was, at that time, a young guy who wanted “a way in”. We got on well too and so began our long partnership. We formed Nimrod, brokered a record deal with Sony music and worked together for 14 years. I still see him, but he’s very much his own very talented artist now. The other thing that happened was grabbing the producing and mixing gig for Sean Callery’s Abbey Road recording of 24; this was for the 24 game. Sean is an amazing composer, he has so much depth to his arrangements. I’d mixed a few scores already but that was a really good door opener too.
Ok so how does one begin to specialise in score mixing and production in the way that you do?
I’d always liked score and sound track based music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a songwriter and I still mix for bands, but film score and game score mixing is the thing that I do most. I suspect that my way of seeing things in music just fits with film/TV/game dynamism. Perhaps it’s the dramatic view point or the addiction to tonal shifts or various shades of sound…. dunno!
I guess mixing that sort of music is quite focussed and specific to supporting other areas, i.e. dialogue or onscreen action. The technical skills are the same but it does take a mind set that lives outside of always looking to grab the main focus. You have to work with your composers needs and respect the final product (film/TV/game) requirements.
It’s a very specific area indeed, what kind of things does it entail?
In its most simple terms mostly being dialogue aware and being able to communicate with musicians and composers whilst maintaining a handle on the project needs. I really do want the composer to get exactly what she wants BUT sometimes I have to think of ways of achieving that whilst serving the picture or game. Its quite tricky sometimes. In score mixing there is a real search for creating three dimensional depth – after all its not so much about grabbing the ear but supporting a narrative …. and often even suggesting things that are not there on screen but that the composer is alluding to. I do a lot of watching hat is going on in the 1.5kHz region and thinking about what low end content may get masked.
Composers are told these days to be a “one stop shop” that can do all their own mixing, so do you get a lot of mixes that are almost release ready when you get them?
Composers have it very tough these days – especially at the mid to lower end of the budgets. One of the great assets a composer can have is someone feeding back directly on the construction of the music; a mixer is very well placed to do that so acting as a one stop shop deprives the artistic music creator of a really valuable resource. Its a shame but I totally understand it from the composers perspective. The tools available these days have made just about any work useable in terms of mix quality. Very few people make a huge mess of it – so yes, many composer mixes are pretty darn good when they get here. However, if I can add just a little more emotion to a piece, or bring out details that a composer may begin to ignore through overfamiliarity, then I feel I’m doing my job. When I DO compose I tend to get others to mix for me… I appreciate the different viewpoint.
What tech are you using, do you have any go-to plugins?
I mix mostly in ProTools using a Dcommand, although that is getting old now. I’ll probably get at S6 sometime this year. I use a lot of Fabfilter 2 EQ and Altiverb. I’m very happy to also own a couple of Bricasti reverbs which really are fantastic. No plugin comes close, yet. I use UAD a lot – mostly for the Massive Passive. I sold my Massive Passive when I heard the UAD one. My new faves, though, are the plugins from Acustica – things like Magenta.
Decapitator gets used a lot as does Sonnox Inflator and TransMod. I live about 3 miles from the Sonnox boys.
I’d say that little list is on nearly everything I do. Until last year I used to use a bit of outboard EQ too – but its become impractical with the number of change requests and versions. I like my room a lot as well, its a greta part of my monitoring chain with my SP1m monitors…. full range is important in my work.
What would you say one of the key challenges for you so far has been?
Staying relevant! Its not as fashion conscious as pop music but it still has its movements. I’m always looking for new tricks and alternate viewpoints on what a “great sound” is. I’m happy to say that I get to work on really creative scores for some amazing composers so that helps.
On the flipside then, how about a proudest moment so far?
Probably Killzone 2 winning an Ivor Novello. That was great for Joris and I was pleased to have been the guy to produce and mix it. Joris is such an amazing guy; lovely chap and very very talented.
So you’re a composer as well, how does that influence your mixing and vice-versa?
I rarely mix my own work these days. I have a friend who does it. Ive sent a few things to Hugo Nicolson as well over the years. In terms of being “writer aware” for mixing I think it helps me understand what the intent may be in a particular piece. I’m certainly not the only mixer that writes as well but it’s still a useful tool to be able to get what the emotive vs technical aspirations are within a piece. Most of my writing is songs for films (I’ve done quite a lot of those – The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Final Girl, The 9th life of Louis Drax) and a few games… Clumsy Ninja is one of mine and I’ve written pieces for Far Cry2, the Driver series and Second Son.
Can you tell us much about what you’re up to at the moment?
I mixed wonderful action score for Bob n Barn. Those guys are really hard workers!! It was great to do some stuff with them. I’ve been working on a couple of AAA game autumn 2016 but I’m a bit NDA’s so cant mention them…. but you’re gonna love it! I’m in the middle of mixing a cartoon series and working on a few mixes for adverts. I mixed the Burn Burn Burn score for band Candy Says and Marc Canham last year and that stone down very very well.
Ok fun one to finish off with, if you could hang out with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Iggy Pop! I have , in fact, worked with him on Driv3r…. but man – he’s my favourite artist (especially the Stooges) but I think, given his quite intense stage persona coupled with what I know to be a deep intellectual inner core…. what a film score he’d write!!!
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The Sound Architect