David is an award winning, BAFTA nominated composer from Suffolk, creating immersive and memorable music for visual media.
In the years since completing his studies he’s worked on a multitude of titles including Bossa Studio’s BAFTA award winning Monstermind, Sony’s Playstation Home for PS3, Mike Bithell’s BAFTA winning Thomas Was Alone, Jonathan Ross’ first game (narrated by Stephen Fry).
He’s also recently signed to numerous international publishing agents, creating film and television cues for their vast lists of clientele including Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Paramount, Fox, MTV, HBO, ABC and VH1.
Currently scoring Bithell’s sophomore project ‘Volume‘ due for release on PS4, as well as a variety of short films, and unreleased indie titles, this promises to be another important year in Housden’s career.
How did your journey into music composition begin?
As so many of these things do, with a band! I played guitar in a pop-punk band for three years (the pinnacle of musical integrity…) and I remember being on tour in my third year of university. I was studying music production and was in the middle of the dreaded dissertation, researching the techniques and technologies behind the creation of modern game soundtracks, whilst at the same time attempting to hold onto the fleeting dream of being a rock star. It just so happened that one of the bands we were playing with had a guitarist who was a programmer over at Jagex, so we got chatting after the show and I mentioned I was looking to get into writing music for games, dropping not so subtle hints that I’d appreciate some work experience. He cottoned on and very kindly offered to see what he could do. It wasn’t until after I’d graduated that I heard back from him, but he said he’d left Jagex to join a new start-up company called Bossa Studios. They didn’t have any work experience as such but the lead developer there was working on his own hobby project in his spare time. It was the usual spiel of, “there probably won’t be any cash involved unless it sells well, but it’ll be great exposure yada yada”, but I obviously gladly took the opportunity. Turns out this guy’s Mike Bithell and this hobby project is Thomas Was Alone. Although little did either of us know at the time, that it would go on to be the success it has been. So Mike asked me to write him a demo, because, y’know, people were clambering over each other left right and centre to score this unheard of 2D platformer, for this random guy who worked at a new start-up nobody had ever heard of at the time, for zero cash upfront… aaand the next thing I knew, that demo was the title track for Thomas Was Alone and I found myself in the middle of scoring the entire game. 12 months later we were at the BAFTA’s with three nominations, including best music, and considerably financially better off than beforehand. Quite the first project!
Did you always want to work in games?
No, not at all, film has always been and still would be my dream career. However I have always loved games, probably more so in the past than I do now in fact, which is ironic seeing as I actually do it for a living now. And some of the most powerful and emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced have been through games. I actually used to want to be a games journalist when I was at school, or a QA tester. But then again I also wanted to be a palaeontologist, clinical psychologist, screenplay writer and professional footballer at various points throughout high school and sixth form, so I could hardly lie and say it’s always been my calling!
What has been your most challenging project so far?
Working with Jonathan Ross was probably the most challenging project I’ve yet had to deal with. There wasn’t a lot in the way of feedback, something was either right or it was wrong, and there wouldn’t always be a lot to go on when it was wrong. So it was often a case of just trying something different in the hope that it appealed more to the vision he had in his head. More often than not people need to hear what they don’t want before they can appreciate what they do want, and I have pretty thick skin when it comes to that kinda stuff anyway so I don’t mind going back to the drawing board a few times if it means that we get the end result everyone’s after.
What has been your proudest project so far?
Easily Thomas Was Alone. It was my first project, it was critically and financially the most successful title I’ve ever been lucky enough to work on, Mike is a great guy and gave me the best possible working conditions a creative could ever ask for, and it yielded the results he was hoping for. Probably better results than he was hoping for to be honest. To be the subject of so much critical acclaim and to see how far the game has come and the various platforms it’s available on is staggering when I hearken back to its humble roots. It’s definitely my proudest project to date.
What would be your dream project to work on?
My dream project would be to score an emotionally hard-hitting big-budget film. I love noir and detective fiction and games, and something of that ilk in game or film would be incredible. I guess my (hopefully) slightly more realistic dream would be to work on a genuinely good survival horror game. I spent countless hours playing through the Resident Evil series when I was growing up, Silent Hills 1-3 were incredible, I loved the Project Zero games, I lapped everything up, even the less prestigious titles like Alone in the Dark, Clocktower, Haunting Ground, Forbidden Siren etc. I couldn’t get enough of it.
The music in Silent Hill was incredible (I still use a lot of mandolin in my work!) and so atypical of what we’d come to expect from a horror soundtrack. It was this juxtaposition of styles, with the music focussing on the emotional plight of the character (particularly in 2) and allowing the visuals, environments, enemies, sound design and subject matter to provide the majority of the scares, that made it so hard hitting. I’ve always felt that the best horror films, and games, aren’t the ones that set out to scare you but rather they’re the ones which set out to tell a story. Sure, there are scary elements involved, there have to be, it’s a horror! But it’s not the main focus; it’s secondary to the plight of the characters and when you find that beautiful sweet spot between telling a sad story of love, loss and betrayal, along with some genuinely scary moments, that’s when you’ve created something of real substance which stays with people for years to come. And that’s ideally what I’d love to work on. Unfortunately my portfolio of work thus far isn’t exactly a great advert for my abilities as a writer of horror music, so I shan’t hold my breath!
Is there a particular piece that you’ve written that will always stick with you?
Freedom on the TWA OST is probably the best piece of music I’ve written to date. Although very few other people seem to agree, which is a shame. It means a great deal to me personally though and I know that if someone else had written it, it would be one of my favourite pieces of music in recent times. Being the author I can’t objectively enjoy it that way though, so I’m just proud to have been able to write something which invoked such an emotional response.
What’s your usual process when beginning a project?
I wish I had one :’) No, in terms of the actual composing, I genuinely couldn’t tell you. It’s literally different every time. But what I do at the start of every project without exception is sit down with the creator for a long discussion about what he or she would like the music to bring to their title. What are the key themes and feelings they’re looking to explore, how do they want the player to feel over the course of playing their game etc. We’ll also discuss influences and reference tracks, music they like, music they don’t like etc, but I’m notoriously bad at going off piste when it comes to this sort of thing. More often than not they’ll be lucky if I’ve given a vague tip of the hat in the direction they’ve asked me to go in, because all I’m focussing on is capturing the mood and emotion of the scene and engaging the players on a deeper level than the visuals and narrative will be able to do alone. Luckily this approach seems to work 9 times out of 10, and at the end of the day, people are paying you for your expertise. If they knew how to write music and what would be best for a scene etc, they’d do it themselves, or pay for royalty free music to place in. They hire you in the hope that you’ll be able to bring something to the table, which they’re not capable of imagining themselves. Sure, some people will want you to rigidly follow their examples, but the real visionaries are the ones who trust in you to know what’s best for their project. Chris Nolan doesn’t give Zimmer anything more than a script to write to these days, because he doesn’t want the visuals to colour Hans’ interpretation of the film. These are the guys you want to work with.
What software/hardware do you use to compose with?
I use Logic and Pro-Tools to write on, more or less everything’s written in the box although I do have a couple of synths (Korg Triton and a Roland XP 50) and a variety of pianos, guitars and percussion instruments for getting some live colour into mock ups.
Do you have any “Go-to” plugins?
Omnisphere has a big presence in almost everything I do. I‘m trying not to become so reliant on it but I don’t have much imagination when it comes to creating my own sounds, I just want something which sounds great out of the box straight away so I can concentrate on the notes and arrangement, Omnisphere does that with aplomb. Unfortunately everyone else uses it as well, so you do have to put a bit more time into creating unique patches or making presets your own with some creative tweaking.
Any specific techniques that you use that you recommend?
I’d definitely recommend getting a proper music education. Coming from the band background and playing guitar from tab etc is great when you’re a teenager, but when it comes to composing I’m at a distinct disadvantage to the guys who were classically trained and attended conservatoires. I have a great ear for what makes a good piece of music, but I’d be a lot faster if I’d practiced more piano and studied my grade 5 theory when I had the chance etc. I’m obviously making up for lost time now, but it’s something I wish I’d have gotten out of the way when I was younger, so I could focus more on my productivity now that I’m actually getting paid for it!
The Thomas Was Alone soundtrack is brilliant, can you tell us about how you approached that score?
Thank you very much. Thomas is special because Mike couldn’t have given me a better brief if he’d tried. There was one sentence describing the key themes for each stage and there were ten stages in total. Solitude, despair, euphoria, friendship, loss, really powerful subjects which needed to be expressed through music. So I’d just wake up and take a look at this sheet, I remember one of the first pieces I’d written was called Hope and the brief for hope was “Meeting for the first time – Thomas meets a friend, it’s exciting and new, but they are still confused.” So I concentrated on writing something which captured that blend of excitement and nervousness which comes from meeting someone new for the first time, there’s the potential that you’ll hit it off and be great friends, but there’s also the chance that you won’t click at all and they won’t like you. This feeling is what I attempted to sonically portray. And it was the same for all of the other briefs. I’d just wake up and write a piece depending on how I felt at the time. Sometimes I’d just be emotionally ambiguous and sit at the piano with no real goal in mind, and a piece would develop itself from there. I’d look at the list and think, “oh this could work well for stage 6, it has a similar feel to it.” And that’s how it would work. But it’s a very autobiographical soundtrack and basically an aural diary of how I feel when presented with the situations and feelings that Mike was looking to portray to the audience. Luckily the majority of people who’ve played it seem to relate.
What are your top tips for aspiring composers?
Firstly, learn your craft and get damn good at it. There are so many composers looking for work these days it’s insane, but because it’s so easy to create professional quality music from home these days, common sense tells you that not everyone’s going to be good at it. In fact very few people are. There’s probably a core unit of 30 or so composers who will consistently get offered the best projects and work, because getting them involved with your game is a guarantee of a fantastic score. That’s the sort of level you want to aspire to. It’s hard when you’re starting out because everyone’s giving away production quality music for free to get that foot in the door. All you can do is work harder and longer than them so that you’re better. Put in the extra 10% to your work that other people don’t. I’ll spend a week on a piece that some people would be able to knock out in a day, but my piece will be considerably better, more original and stronger thematically because of it. If you can strike the balance where you can turn over unique, incredible sounding work in a very short space of time then you’re onto a winner, but I personally don’t see how an incredible piece of music can write itself from start to finish in 24 hours and be the best piece it could possibly be. I usually allow at least a day after writing for my ears to acclimatise, before going back with a renewed perspective and listening again. I nearly always end up changing the arrangement slightly. I don’t know any novelists who’d scribble down a manuscript over the course of a week and send it off to be published without reading it through and creating numerous drafts. The same should really go in any creative industry, although we don’t always have that luxury as music is so often an afterthought in games.
Any Major Do’s and Don’ts?
Do practice, do work hard, do learn your trade and become a master of your tools. This will save you when it’s 3am and your deadline is at noon the following day. Don’t become disheartened if you’re trying your hardest and no one seems to be listening. It’s a tough, tough industry to break into, I must have written to over 200 companies looking for work when I graduated from uni and I think I heard back from three, two were rejections and one was an interview for a role as a junior sound designer, which I didn’t get. There will be hard times before it gets good, but you need to put your best work into every opportunity you’re given, regardless of how small, because it only takes that one project to catapult the rest of your career, and you never know which one it’s going to be.
What lies in the future for you now?
I’m slowly starting to get more into films this year, which is great. I’m working on a couple of short features at the moment and I’m creating numerous cues for my publishing libraries. I’ve actually applied to study a masters in film scoring this September which I’m really looking forward to and hopefully it will be the push through the door that I need. Game wise, I’m about to start on Volume (Mike’s second project) in earnest any day now, I’m also collaborating with a couple of other prominent indies on titles which I can’t say too much about at the moment. I’m speaking at a lot of game events throughout this year and have been running some composition workshops at various schools and colleges, which has been great fun and something I’d definitely like to do more of this year. I also intend to do a lot of travelling in my downtime this year. I haven’t given myself enough time to recover between projects in the past and that’s something I’m definitely going to avoid this time round. You write better music when you’re relaxed and recharged, and it doesn’t do wonders for your creativity when you spend months on end sitting at a piano, staring at a computer screen surrounded by the same 4 walls.
David Housden continues to compose emotion invoking music and can be found at the following links for updates:
Interview by Sam Hughes