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Ian Livingstone


Name:Ian Livingstone - Music & Games
Links: Ian's Homepage
Links: tsunami-sounds.com
Ian Livingstone - Music & Games (interview von yak)

Along in our series of interviews about music in games, we had the chance to speak with talented the young composer Ian Livingstone. Even though his name has not been so common in the gaming industry by now this may change very soon, seeing his tremendous talents.

Preparing my review for the much underrated game Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter (see Review), I was overwhelmed by the music played in the intro of this game and then, even before starting the game, I had to check the manual looking who is responsible for that music. And not only the main theme got me hooked, in fact all of Ian's music has this quality.

Publishers and developers of computergames seem to recognize that not only state of the art graphics are necessary to enhance the overall gameplay experience. We got full orchestral scores that did not need to hide behind big hollywood scores. Jeremy Soule (see Interview) let us live in the world of Morrowind, Neverwinter Nights or become a Knight of the Old Republic, Richard Jacques (see Interview) transformed us musically into a Headhunter, Jesper Kyd (see Interview) let us be a Hitman or fight the russians as Freedom Fighters, and Christopher Stone (see Interview) helps us to free the damsel in distress in Dragon's Lair 3D. Now, with the talents of Ian Livingstone, we'll be a Bounty Hunter, travel the Seven Seas as Sinbad, fight as Tau in the Warhammer40k Universe or help Buffy to fight the evil.

 


Hello Ian, thank you very much for the time and the chance to speak with you about your music. First, as always, I like to ask composers about their background. How did you first get started in music?

No problem - and thanks for the kind introduction :-) Well I started playing piano when I was 5 and took my grades quite early on - too early really to appreciate what I was playing. Around my early teens I turned my back on classical music in favour of rock/pop and formed a few bands here in Manchester - no big success but my band were supported by local band Oasis on their first ever gig, and I worked with a few acts on the infamous Factory Records. Fortunately my folks supported my decision to drop the classical and helped me buy a couple of analogue synths which I still have and use to this day. It was much later when I re-discovered classical and film music.

Did you receive training as far as classical music is concerned?

I did my grade8 piano and got a degree in Popular Music and Sound Recording, Salford in the early 90s - the course was more oriented to jazz and dance so the other students thought I was crazy writing all this romantic orchestral music when they were all into hard-house and acid-jazz. It was great being in a competitive environment though and I picked up on a lot of styles I wouldn't normally have heard at the time.

Who are your favourite musicians in the classical field, or in the field of film composers?

Classical composers: I love the Russian greats - Rachmaninov, Mussorgskij, Prokofiev, John Adams, Gorecki. Film composers - too many to list, but I guess Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Christopher Young, Michael Kamen, Basil Poledouris and Danny Elfman are a big influence. I also love the stuff that John Debney's doing recently - his Cutthroat Island and Passion scores are awesome.

What kind of equipment do you use?

It's almost entirely computer based - I have 8 PCs 1 for sequencing, 2 for Strings, 2 for Brass, 1 for Wind, 1 for Percussion and 1 for misc World / Choirs etc. I know it sounds over the top having so many computers but a lot of it is for speed when I'm working on a lot of cues at the same time. I tend to swap over a few times a day to work on something different as I like the freshness of working on a piece I've not heard for a while, so my instrument template stays largely the same no-matter what I'm on. The quality of the orchestral sample libraries has shot through the roof in the last 18months with some awesome tools for midi-based composers - and as it's all disk-streaming based technology they're no longer limited to size of samples, so the realism is breathtaking. Having said that I'd obviously still use a real orchestra any day than a midi-mockup but there usually isn't the time or budget for more than a handfull of real musicians.

The Bounty Hunter Theme is a terrific piece of music, you reach the goal the create an outstanding atmosphere and mood for the game. In fact we only get a "title screen" accompanied by your music. But the music presents all aspects needed in the game. The player virtually can hear the danger of space, the lonelyness, the cold, the mystery and the adventure. Starting with a low-key metallic-sounding dark theme, the music increases tensions up to the end of this 3-minute long lasting "tour de force" piece of music. This is the first time I heard a so strong and atmospheric main theme in a computer game and virtually without the help of visuals or complex render scenes. Congratulations for this. Did you have, musically speaking, freedom in the way you wanted to score Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter? Did you get a temp track from the developers or did they say what kind of emotions they would like to be transferred in the music?

Thanks! I'm glad you think it worked - I guess the titles screen is the one area you can go completely over the top with big themes and extreme dynamic contrasts as it doesn't have to match any particular game-play scenario. I had pretty much complete musical freedom as the score was a relatively quick turnaround. Another composer (Dean Evans "Silver") was supposed to be scoring Bounty Hunter but he had a bad car accident just before work was to begin so I took it off his hands in the final hour. I really didn't see many visuals beforehand either, just documents with character descriptions and scripts, so I was pretty much on my own for most of it.

You use a lot of chorus and voices in your scores producing an impressing sound. The electronic produced chorus and voices sound very real. How did you achieve this?

That's all thanks to a new revolutionary Text-to-Speech midi tool developed by a guy called Nuno Fonseca, which works in conjunction with an old choir library Voices Of The Apocolypse. It's like black magic - you literally type in your lyrics, chose male/female, play your parts on the keyboard and it sings it back to you. It doesn't work that well too exposed in a mix, but if you surround it with other big orchestrations you can usually make it sound pretty convincing, especially if it's latin as no-one can follow the lyrics! There's also some similar new tools developed by Yamaha called Vocaloid which work along the same lines but with a combination of sampled and acoustic modelling but for solo singers. Still very early stages but it's frightening to see how convincing these tools are becoming.

Did you compose your scores having in mind that it would be played by a real orchestra ? In fact I think some of the tracks in Mace Griffin couldn't be played or performed by a live orchestra and chorus- at least not longer than a minute - too fast and too furious :)

I'd always prefer the real thing, but usually the budget just isn't there. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a catch 22 situation because at the same time as trying to persuade the decision makers that a real choir / orchestra will make so much difference to the overall production and realism, you also have to do a good convincing mockup to get the gig in the first place and get the music across to the producers. I think with Mace Griffin I was resigned to the fact that it had to be out and on the shelves in a matter of weeks so maybe got a bit self-indulgent with the fast and furious orchestrations! Most of the time I try and stick with realism but it can be fun to go a little crazy from time to time when you know no-one's gonna have to follow the dots!

Most of your scores are for multi-platform games. Did that bring along technical limits regarding the musical part?

Not really to be honest - these days unless you're writing chip-music or midi which I've always tried to avoid, streaming audio is pretty consistent between the various platforms, as long as there's a good audio-programmer on the job. I'd like to do more 5.1 surround scores than I do currently, and not all platforms can handle that yet in real-time yet but it usually just means a down-mix to Prologic.

You composed the music of the Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas for the offical game, based on Dreamworks' animated feature scored by Harry Gregson-Williams. The result is a fresh, adventurous journey in the tradition of the hollywood swashbuckler movies. In fact I prefer the main theme of the game rather than the movie theme. Did you get the film score as an orientation?

Wow - thanks! I loved HGW's Sinbad score - yes I did hear his trailer before I wrote mine but I didn't actually hear the soundtrack or see the film until after the game was released. Yes I was obviously guided in the direction of what he'd done to retain the consistency throughout the franchise, although I've also tried to bring in some of the old-school swashbuckling influences in there like Herrmann and Korngold. HGW's main theme also sounds very simlar to Silvestri's Mummy Returns to me, so I'm sure he must have had a temp track aswell :). I also try and put in a bit of Livingstone here and there too but it's easier to put my own stamp on non-licenced projects.

The Theme for the sirens is a very impressive piece of music along with the melancholic reprise of the main theme in the track "storybook". Which theme had been most difficult to compose for Sinbad with all the different foes and heroes?

"The Roc" gave me trouble as the balance of graceful flight together with huge vicious beast was a tricky one to pull off. "Fish Island" was also tricky as writing for lots of skeletons running around often ends up sounding too comical. I think I went through about 3 drafts of that cue and they kept sounding like a cross between Elfman's Beetlejiuce and Tom & Jerry! In the end I listend more to what Herrmann had done with his Skeleton themes ("Jason and The Arganouts" and "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad")

Scoring a fantasy adventure seems to be most challenging and a project with much musical freedom. Did you have this freedom?

Yes it's always a challenge as you can't always draw from personal experience so you have to really stretch your imagination and try and envisage the scenario. There's alot of freedom but as I said the licence tie-ins like Sinbad can be a bind as you have to make sure it all fits in with what you will hear in the film.

Some film composers show their best work in small- or low-budget movies. Sindbad seems to be a more or less small-budget game production only to present an "offical game to movie" tie-in (which in the end turned out to be a nice little game). Did this influence the way you composed your music? Do "small budget" productions offer more freedom in creativity?

From the experience I've had myself, you still have to satisfy the producers and publishers whatever the budget. In some ways there's more at stake for the smaller developer to get it right first time so the project doesn't get canned two thirds of the way through development. So in theory you can get less freedom. But…on the other hand it's sometimes easier to get more involved with the smaller developers and be more vocal with ideas. It very much depends on the personalities of the people you work with and how much of an active interest in film scores they have. I guess that doesn't really answer your question though! Hard to say…

The Sindbad track "Fish Island" sounds a bit like music from the Conan score composed by Basil Poledouris. Did you receive prescriptions to compose a sound a bit like this?

Heh! Poledouris is a big influence and Conan's been on the temp track for a couple of other projects so I guess these things subconciously rub off. No for this it just seemed natural to go for a primitive sound - I think the ancient percussion is giving it that Conan feel.

Did you compose the music for games like Sinbad or Bounty Hunter based on scripts, or did you compose according to actual ingame sequences/videos?

No - not really - scripts and videos are always the most fun part in games but there's ever enough of it. Sinbad didn't have any FMV, but I'd seen a couple of film trailers in advance so I knew the kind of thing to expect, plus everyone knows the story of Sinbad. For Bounty Hunter I was working with the Developers Warthog quite a bit on a few other projects so I knew a bit about the project before I got started, but again there was no FMV.

For Warhammer 40k: Fire Warrior the developer of the game decided to include music in the game's cut scenes only. How did you think about that? A lost opportunity?

I think it works well as a game without it, and the in-game sound design speaks for itself. But obviously I'm gonna say it would have worked with it too (and I would have liked to have asked to write more!), but who's to say it would have been any more effective... I guess we'll never know.

As far as Fire Warrior is concerned, you provided the game with your musical voice in the cut scenes only. Has this been a difficult task, having in mind that you only had about 15 minutes to fill with your musical ideas , compared to the 15+ hours of gameplay?

Yes - it would have been nice to develop the various character themes a bit more - you only hear the Tau theme as a gentle passive melody in the FMV, but in-game it would have had chance to take that to a few different levels. Oh well - maybe if they ever do a sequel ;-)

Are you playing computer games yourself?

I do when I get time. Must confess I'm also a retro gamer and love my Williams Robotron cabinet currently residing in my studio live room - used to have a Defender too but it had to go when I bought the piano down here into the cellar. I love a lot of the downloadable and java games for the same reasons as they focus on the traditional gameplay and largely ignore lavish 3d models, but I'm also realistic and realise that things have to move on.

Which game would you have liked most to compose music for?

Would have been nice to do EA's Harry Potter - I was a fan of the books and it was kinda frustrating doing the Lego version as I couldn't go as dark as I would have liked to due to the target age range. Mr Soule did an excellent job though I have to say!

Which are your personal favorite games you play on the computer or console?

Getting into Tron 2.0 at the moment - good score too - but I still love Carlos's original! Halo is pretty amazing but I guess they had enough time and money behind it to make it work!

What are your future projects?

I've just started a feature film called "Team-One" - low budget British Sci-Fi / Martial Arts movie (Martian Arts) which is a lot of fun. I've been given freedom to go completely over the top with huge orchestrations and big choirs - quite untypical for UK films but I think it's going to work. On the game side there's not a lot I'm allowed to talk about right now - I'm doing another project for the guys who did Gotham Racing1&2 but can't be more specific. Also doing another film-game licence for Fox which is looking like great fun - a real Silvestri inspired score, but again it's not been officially announced. Also doing a project for Sony which is another electronic/orchestral cross like Buffy was which is always good fun. Also working with some guys from Zimmer's Media Ventures on a UK library venture which has allowed me to write and orchestrate for real orchestra for a change.

What do you think about the future and capability of development concerning interactive music?

I was never a big fan of midi-based chip-music which a lot of interactive music used in the past and as a rule turned down midi-based formats like mod, directmusic etc, but things have moved on and now the hardware's up to multi-streams of CD quality audio and tons of memory available to audio I think the future's bright. However I don't think it's the most important aspect of a good score though - I'd prefer to hear segments of 1 minute well-constructed music than quick multi-segments of 15second pieces joined together seemingly randomly. I'd much rather play a game with a well composed non-interactive score than a badly-composed interactive one, in the same way I'd rather hear a good midi-score than a badly composed or performed real orchestra.

What is your most liked CD (Classical, Filmscore, Others)?

It changes regularly - but at the moment I'm enjoying Herrmann's Vertigo, Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto, Air's Walkie Talkie, and Muse's Absolution - is that varied enough?!

Which of your work in the field of computer games are you most proud of?

Hmmm... still don't feel I've written that elusive perfect score yet. I always like the current stuff I'm writing more than the old projects as it's still fresh. For previous games - Lego's Harry Potter had quite a nice melody but nobody bought the game! I liked the way the cutscenes in Fire Warrior turned out too - although it did get drowned out a bit by the big sound design (which I did myself and mixed too so have no-one to blame!).

Is there anything you would like to say to our readers?

Thanks for taking an interest!

Thank you very much for your time and this interview. We hope to hear from you and your music again, soon.

Hope so too - thank you :)

 

MP3 Soundtrack Samples:
Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter - Theme
Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter - Watcher (Casus Belli)
Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter - Grier's Theme
Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter - Krugo's Theme
Sinbad - Main Theme
Sinbad - Sirens



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