James Hannigan interview

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James Hannigan is a BAFTA & IFMCA award-winning composer and co-founder of Game Music Connect www.gamemusicconnect.com.

Brief list of credits:

Transformers Universe (Jagex), Dead Space 3 (EA), Primeval TV series (ITV / BBC America).

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?

I’m a composer, a sound designer of sorts and, in recent times, an organiser of events. I also pen the occasional article.

What is your niche or speciality, that makes you stand out from rest of the audio professionals?

I try to stay flexible and not to pigeonhole myself, although it’s difficult in any industry not to be defined by the things you’ve done so far. In my case I’ve mostly been involved in projects belonging to the fantasy and sci-fi genres, which suits me as I happen to love them. I tend to create music combining old and new techniques, drawing on diverse influences, and have a fairly broad knowledge of music history to draw on. If you put me in front of some manuscript paper I can compose for an orchestra, but I’m equally at home in the studio working with a sequencer or programming synths. I care about relatively old-fashioned things like harmony and melody, building on core ideas and themes, generally taking a symphonic approach when I can. I’m being a bit sarcastic there with ‘old-fashioned’, but I do find that this approach is dying out a little now, perhaps due to diminishing attention spans and an increasingly episodic approach to music that rarely needs to be longer than 30, 60 seconds or so in length. Games in particular have a very fragmenting effect on music, for better or for worse, but that’s another issue.

I care a lot about sound itself as well. I try to stay objective and critical of what I do in order to keep things real, imagining how others will actually experience it. When I’m creating a piece of music I try to think on a number of levels about how it operates. There’s the style, emotional content and context, but I also try to give it a sonic identity if I can. So although I care a lot about the ‘notes’, I do try to get my stuff sounding right as well. I tend to think recording and delivery are just as important as what you have sitting on the page. In fact, recordings are pretty much the first and only way most people will encounter music today, despite being a relatively recent development in western music, particularly orchestral music. So a score is one thing, but ‘audio’ is increasingly important as well. Composers increasingly shoulder the burden of being engineer and producer when it comes to music production these days, but I actually quite like that.

I greatly enjoy the sound design component of writing music using technology. It doesn’t matter to me how I generate the sounds I’m imagining so long as I can get close to them in reality, whether they’re from synths, processors, acoustic instruments or all at once.

Can you give us a brief summary of the equipment you use regularly?

It depends on the environment I’m in, and I try to adapt to what’s there. If I’m writing for an orchestra and sketching out ideas, then the equipment I use will mostly be a piano, pencil and paper. When I’m mocking up or sequencing, I’ll use Cubase and various sample libraries. For audio production, when I’m mixing, I prefer to export audio from Cubase first and that could end up in something such as Nuendo or Pro Tools, depending on where I am and/or if there’s any third party mixing. I’m comfortable on both Mac and PC but, sometimes, when I want to do some quick track laying or PC-based audio or video work, I find myself using Vegas and Sound Forge – a very portable and powerful combo for years now. I particularly like Vegas and its interface, but do wish it had a few more music-related features (tempo changes for one!)

At the end of the day, I think the best tools are the ones you are simply used to. For me it’s all about the creative energy and imagination of the composer or sound designer, not the studio you have, although having one obviously can’t hurt. I think in these days of powerful plug-in laden DAWs accessible to almost everyone, the greatest advantage of having a purpose-built studio is likely to be the sound insulation it offers, along with a decent monitoring environment. It doesn’t really matter what tools you have if you can’t hear what you’re doing.

In terms of effects and outboard gear, there’s so much I could mention. I used to use the Lexicon PCM 80 and Eventide DSP4000 a lot, along with various filter banks like Sherman and Mutator. I was always a fan of the Focusrite Red 7 compressor as well, but the list is endless. I have a collection of analogue synths and processors accumulated years ago, but many are gathering dust now. Like a lot of people, I simply made the move to software plug-ins. Some old favourites include the Waldorf Microwave, Oberheim Matrix 12, Roland JD800, Virus and the Kurzweil K2500.

What are your go-to plug-ins and software? (virtual instruments, audio processing etc.)

The PCM Native reverb and Altiverb I find are particularly good reverbs. Fabfilter do some great stuff (love Volcano’s simplicity), and my favourite soft synths would probably be Absynth, Zebra and Virus (I had also been using the TC Powercore version as well until TC discontinued support for it and I stopped using the system).

I’ve had some fun recently playing about with Izotope’s Stutter Edit for some of ‘Transformers Universe’, which is a very powerful tool. It’s a far cry from the old days of creating stuttery effects manually through painstaking editing and digital manipulation, that’s for certain.

When do you find you are most creative?

I used to do most of my work in the evening, into the early hours. But family life can really change all that. So now, if I’m on a project, the only way to manage it is to get up incredibly early and try to get a decent amount of work done before my day gets invaded. I find that it takes a lot more discipline getting things done when your time is limited like this. Another solution though has been simply to cut down on projects, which is something I’m quite happy to have done in the last year or so. Happy for now at least, but I’m itching to get back into things.

When it comes to creativity, I discovered that there’s a way of handling your energy in order to harness it at the best times. At the start of the day I find that clarity of thought and enthusiasm is optimal and this is when the ideas come and I feel excited about what I’m setting out to do. But if, after an hour or two, I haven’t capitalised on it, it’s easy to lose focus, become distracted and drift into less productive activity. And, of course, if you’re monitoring / mixing as well, ear fatigue sets in and you lose objectivity. If I manage to seize on an idea and turn it into something quickly, then the fleshing out and development of that idea seems to be much easier as time goes on having established a framework already. It’s almost a kind of inertia, really, where getting the object moving is the hardest bit, but keeping it going is a lot easier. Basically this is probably just another way of saying, ‘seize the day!’
Very often, I get my best ideas when I’m out walking or when I’m not trying to be creative. That’s another mysterious aspect of the process for me. Sitting indoors at a desk or in front of a computer all day I find really kills my creativity. It kills my will to live, if I’m honest. I need to have a life outside composing, or I think my music would suffer.

What is your usual process for creating audio content for games, films etc.?

I look at any materials that exist as early as possible and try to let it all swirl around in my mind for a while, and let the ideas just flow from that. I try not to force things as I’m a great believer in the idea of simply ‘listening to the music in your head’. In games, you tend to see animations, characters, first playables (early versions of games), read back-stories or even get to see storyboards that may inspire you. In TV, there tends to be more tangible, visual sequences to work with. I’d say the process of applying music in games is conceptually harder than it is in film and TV, in the sense that it’s often less visually led (unless you’re talking about linear sequences like cutscenes) and more to do with game states and a general sense of ‘what is happening’. But in terms of composition itself, I think TV or Film can be difficult in a different way because of the need to inject more of a narrative into the music and because the music itself is necessarily locked to picture.

I find composing for games to be a fairly unique process a lot of the time, but it does intersect with linear media at times, especially if the game has set pieces or has a set outcome or story. At other times though, you can find yourself wondering who and what music for games is actually for, particular in those games that create something resembling a virtual reality or very believable world you are led to believe you are ‘living in’. Or ones that give you enough control to effectively create your own story – like a sim. In those cases I find it much harder and less applicable creating narrative music, and try to look for something else to motivate it. For example: the emotional state of the player, the atmosphere of a given location or to provide extra information helpful in playing the game, not based on visual cues.

For linear media such as TV, music tends to have a trajectory – which is to say it has a starting point or origin, a sense of direction and a destination (which you know already because you can ‘see ahead’ what will happen just by skipping along the timeline or reading the script in advance!) So you can write music that goes from moments A to B, B to C then C to D, and so on, and half the job (aside from being able to compose music!) is working out how to do all that as naturally and musically as possible. But you never need to go from, say, A to D directly because there’s no skipping, going backwards, slowing down or speeding up to worry about. In games, all that and more can happen and you rarely have the luxury of knowing exactly when things will happen. You might know what will happen, but rarely when, and that’s a challenge – especially as players often progress through games at their own pace and, to some degree, control time. So interactivity can seriously disrupt and challenge our notions of what music is at times, when you think about it.

Various techniques have developed for handling the problem of getting music to be more elastic and flow from moment to moment, event to event, but not always satisfactorily if you ask me. I mean, yes, there is a lot of very seamless delivery of music in games now, thanks to interactive music systems, but I think composers need to be very careful not to sacrifice musicality in achieving this goal. In my own experience working with various systems for almost 20 years now, interactive music has often had the effect of segmentalising music and forcing a kind of cell-based approach to composition (that’s to say – you start to think in small chunks that can be repeated or reordered, such as loops, or even layers/stems to control the density of the music) which is all well and good on one level, but can occasionally make for less engaging music if not careful. Things are getting better all the time though.

I do wonder sometimes though if the games industry’s efforts are really appreciated on the interactive music front, as it still appears that the most popular music from games continues to be the kind of linear music you can very easily separate from games or experience in some other context – such as at a concert or on a soundtrack album. That’s very telling for me, as it does suggest gamers still simply like a ‘good tune’ in their games. But this could also simply be the result of taking interactive music for granted, I guess.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?

Yes, I miss the days when mixing and crafting effects was a little more hands on, unpredictable and a tactile experience. I used to like getting my hands onto pots and faders on an analogue console, playing around with feedback and creating unique and unpredictable effects out of nothing, which I find harder to achieve in the digital domain. Well, maybe I could, but it feels a lot less exciting sitting in front of a screen moving a mouse around. I mean, digital is really great at what it does – and is more transparent – but it feels like a different way of thinking and interfacing with a studio, almost on a physical level. I’m not knocking it, but I just wouldn’t want to spend my life sitting still in front of a DAW, that’s all. I like to at least get out and record some musicians, interact with real people as part of the process as well. Plus I think it’s really cool sliding around a polished studio floor on one of those cool wheelie chairs twiddling knobs (not my own though, you understand).

Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?

Oh, so many. One thing that happens to me often is this strange thing where something I write as a kind of bonus or side track – something I wasn’t even asked for in the first place – actually ends up being a key piece of music for a given project. For example, some of my main themes – such as Soviet March from Red Alert 3, Evil Genius and a few others – started out as tracks I wasn’t even asked to write initially, but somehow did anyway. This taught me that although it’s important to work to a brief and do what you’re asked to do when brought onto a project, you still have to try to demonstrate why your ideas and vision count as well. You really have to fight your corner as a composer. I believe that being a composer should be about deciding when and where music is heard and not just about being a music writing machine implementing someone’s else’s vision. After all, why go into this biz if you don’t get some input on why music is being heard? That’s half of the art of composing to picture in any industry. It’s really important to put your stamp on things because nobody else is going to do this for you.

Another thing I’ve learnt goes like this. I used to work as an in-house composer at EA around the mid 90s, and even back then tens of demo tapes and CDs came in every month (I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like now). All I can say is, the ones that got listened to and enjoyed most were those with character and with a personal slant – more like albums or a personal statement of what the composer was about. The ones that just listed styles like ‘classical’, ‘jazz’, ‘techno’, etc. simply felt like textbook exercises and an attempt to ‘fit in’ and left the audio team pretty cold. Things may have changed now, I really don’t know, but my advice to any new composers would be to just be yourself whenever you can, unless you know the recipient of your showreel is after a very specific style or set of styles.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?

I’d love to say something super positive here, about working hard to realise your dreams and so on, but it’s getting harder to suggest that this alone will get anyone into the business in today’s climate. Although it is, of course, possible I no longer completely believe the commercial arena is a meritocracy, and feel it’s important first of all to enjoy this kind of work and activity for its own sake. Any success you achieve, financially speaking, are a bonus. I have many contacts in the film and games industry, including numerous composer agents, and I discuss these issues regularly with them. The overriding message I get from them is that working relationships are where it’s all at and, sadly, music itself is just one part of the equation.

Having said all that, sticking around long enough to get a break is going to help and I wouldn’t suggest to anyone they give up after a few failures. I mean… you have to be in the game to win, after all. It’s just that it’s important to keep things real and in perspective, or you’ll end up punishing yourself with each setback you will inevitably experience on your journey. The important thing is to enjoy the journey itself without getting hurt each time you feel you haven’t ‘arrived’ at your planned destination, so to speak. When or if you actually do manage that, then that’s all the more wonderful.