Sam Hughes speaks to renowned composer, Ian Livingstone!
Ian is a multi-instrumentalist who began his professional career as session musician engineer and midi programmer; recording and touring Europe with a number of successful bands.
After taking a music degree at Salford University Ian began scoring video game soundtracks such as “Starlancer”, “Lego Harry Potter”, “Star Trek Invasion”. In 2001 he worked closely with Nokia on their ringtone technology including the arrangement for the well-known Nokia default ringtone. In 2003 he wrote and produced a no.1 hit record “Complicated” in Luxembourg with Icelandic artist Thorunn.
Ian had his first break into films providing a full orchestral score for a cult joint Thai/USA movie“The King Maker” (2005) starring Garry Stretch (Alexander) and John Rees-Davis (LOTR, Indian Jones).
Ian has since gone on to simultaneously score numerous video games and TV documentaries and series. His video game career spans over 100 titles including more recently Lego: Dimensions, Walking With Dinosaurs, F1 2014, Valiant Hearts, Total War Attila, Napoleon Total War (earning him an Ivor Novello), Batman Begins, Harry Potter, Star Trek, X-Men2, Predator Concrete Jungle, Battlefield 1943, Bionicle Heroes.
TV documentaries and series include “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” ,“The Great British Sewing Bee” for BBC2, “Daredevils” for Ch4, “Survival: Tales From The Wild” for ITV.
Ian recently won a prestigious Ivor Novello award in 2011 for his work on “Napoleon: Total War”.
Thank you very much for speaking with The Sound Architect, we’re very honoured to have you!
Thanks for having me.
So to start off, tell us a bit about yourself. How did your career in composition begin?
Back in the early 90s I co-ran a small recording studio while I was taking my music degree in Salford, recording and producing different bands each week, which was a real learn-on-the-job experience and taught me loads about music production and sound engineering. I was also doing anything I could related to music to help pay the bills; programming karaoke backing tracks, local theatre sound design etc. My lucky break came about when I sold a piano to someone whose family were setting up what later became “Warthog Games” in Manchester, where I lived at the time. I produced a demo, which led to scoring a number of projects (Starlancer, Star Trek: Invasion, Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter, X-Men Wolverine’s Revenge) for them and other spin-off companies.
What has been your proudest project so far?
Lots of things really – I’m proud of my work on the F1 franchise,(F12010-2014), have always been fond of the Company Of Heroes – Opposing Fronts theme (below) which was recently performed live at the “International Composers Festival” in Hastings http://www.composersfestival.com/
Do any of them stick out as your most challenging?
Lego Dimensions has been tricky just down to the vast number of IP licences and styles there was to deal with – as well as re-recording some of the famous themes associated with the movies (eg Back To The Future, Ghostbusters) in Sofia, Bulgaria, there’s also a huge score that needed to seamlessly blend in with all the various franchises – eg The Simpsons, Scooby Doo, Doctor Who etc.
Also, Total War Rome II and more recently Total War: Attila were both incredibly complex project to co-compose for – lots of action music, different modes for different cultures, and a whole bunch of specialist ethnic soloists and vocalists. I tracked down a guy who makes ancient instruments out of swan bones which require a special licence to import into the UK, we recorded Tibetan throat singers, horse head fiddle, Mongolian long form vocalist etc – all great fun!
Is there a dream project you’d love to work on?
I’ve written a lot of action music over the years and a lot of fully orchestrated and electronica scores for racing games, but it’s a rare treat when I can strip things right back to just solo piano and small ensemble. I touched on it briefly with a few individual cues here and there on various soundtracks ie. Valiant Hearts “Dream Within Dreams” and Grid2 (below) but it would be so refreshing and challenging to write a whole 90mins score of music in that vein.
Let’s get into the tech now then. What software/hardware do you use?
My main writing room is based around a Yamaha G5 Grand piano, Nuendo, Quested monitors, Bricasti M7 reverb, Roland Space Echo, Fender Rhodes, Universal Audio and API preamps, Neuman U87s, whole bunch of PCs with UAD2s full of vintage plugins etc. I also have a bunch of fun vinrage stuff – Pro-One, SH101, Juno 6, Leipzig-S, Oberheim, TR606, MS-20), a eurorack modular beast and a Henry HVR200-12, which is so much cleaner sounding than the mk1.
Ok so how do you first approach a project, what are your first steps?
I usually immerse myself in visuals, scripts, storyboards, anything that will inspire. Most of the time, the first thing I do is sit at the piano or keyboard and just have a play with melodies and sounds, trying to focus initially on a general style, key themes, sounds and instrumentation concepts. Then, once I have a main theme written I start on the orchestration palette, textures etc and start fleshing out.
The first couple of weeks are the toughest – lots of procrastinating, sketching and binning!
Would you say your approach/process changed as technology has evolved so rapidly over the years?
As the sample libraries have developed so much over the years, from a compositional point of view, I’m finally beginning to feel that I’m no longer restricted by the technology, with regards to being able to reproduce my ideas, any more. Samples are never as good as the real thing, and I always use as many live musicians as the budget allows, but for sketching I’m no longer restricted to just writing for the strength of the samples.
There are many aspiring composers who are trying to decide between going freelance or applying for in-house positions. What advice would you give them?
I’ve only ever worked freelance so have nothing to compare it to, to be honest, but I love the huge variety in projects and mediums that can come in. Clients from all over the world with different cultures and visions. Being in-house does run the danger of getting trapped working on title after title of a single franchise. On the flipside of course, being freelance you miss the security of knowing when the mortgage will be paid from month to month!
You switch quite a lot between media formats and work a lot with TV & Film as well as video games, how does this affect your process and approach?
Obviously there are huge differences when writing for each medium, regarding pre-determined dynamics in tv & film vs interactive game music where the gamer determines the flow and arrangement of the music. It’s usually a lot more work writing for games, as you have to take into account every scenario by covering multiple intensity layers and outcomes. However, the fundamental writing process is basically the same; it’s the same gear, the same software and the same composition techniques. The most important thing is that the music has to be just as strong and well produced whatever medium you’re working on. It’s just with games there can be a few more technical things to be aware of; how it will be implemented in eg. WWise, what to do with reverb tails, looping, BPM and key tracking etc.
You’ve worked on a few games that are adaptations of movies/TV series, such as Batman Begins & Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds. Are there many restrictions on these types of projects or do you still have a fair amount of creative input?
Batman Begins is going back a few years now – I had lots of freedom as I started writing well before the movie composer(s) were announced – in fact at the time everyone presumed Danny Elfman would get the gig again. The exact same thing happened with Lego Harry Potter (book 1) – I started on the score months before John Williams was attached to the film franchise so just wrote what I thought would work, drawing more from Elfman than Williams – strangely we both ended up with a minor waltz on celeste. Other movie adaptations like Star Trek, Predator, X-Men the themes and styles were well established before I came on-board so I’ve just done my best to emulate the style and capture the essence of what the fans of the original soundtracks expect to hear so they won’t be disappointed.
Was there anything in particular that you have tried differently recently?
I’m currently working on the reboot of “Shadow Of The Beast” for Sony/Heavy Spectrum, which has a real mix of ethnic flavours, combined with traditional orchestral score (featuring Sofia orchestra, and the amazing Tina Guo on cello). It also has retro music featuring some motifs and themes from the excellent original score by David Whittaker. I’ve tried not to lean to any one style particularly – some of the die-hard gamers I’m sure would prefer a totally retro score but I thought it would be way more fun and challenging trying to integrate this with more modern elements to make a truly unique score.
Is there any advice would you give aspiring composers – Any Major DOs or DON’TS?
I’d say from a technical point of view really learn the tools inside out – speed can give you a huge advantage, you need to spend your valuable time being creative not getting lost in menus and tech. Don’t spend too long on one single piece of music – if something isn’t working it’s important to get to know the feeling sooner rather than later, don’t bother polishing turds just start afresh or come back to it later. Also, when presenting demos and showreels to any prospective clients really work on the realisation of your work – don’t use cheap sounds straight from Sibelius or built-in synths from your DAW. If you can’t afford to hire top session musicians bribe a friendly violinist student and get them to play your string top lines, it really adds so much emotion to a recording and shows you’ve gone the extra mile.
OK finally, what lies in the future for you now?
Couple of projects coming up I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but I’m currently finishing off on “Lego Marvel Avengers”, have just finished a supernatural movie called “The Messenger” starring Tamzin Merchant, Joely Richardson, David O’Hara and Robert Sheehan and a new TV series called “Close To The Edge” which is kind of a TOWIE for golden oldies!
A massive thanks again to Ian Livingstone, and thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed the interview, check out more over at our Interviews page and don’t miss a thing by signing up to our Monthly Newsletter!