Ian Livingstone scores at Abbey Road
Ian Livingstone is one of the most productive and versatile media composers today. Over the years he has worked with Europe’s leading classical musicians and orchestras — from Vienna over Bratislava to Moscow. Having a background as session musician and pop producer, Ian is also the right person for cutting-edge electronic scores.
His long list of clients includes Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, Saatchi and Warner Bros. He has been involved in high-profile projects such as the sixth Harry Potter movie, the My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding TV series or the American Idol show.
For one of his latest projects, the soundtrack for the Formula 1 video game, Ian set up his workplace at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. In the interview with Steinberg, Ian tells us how he fell in love with the well-oiled Abbey Road machine and why he has always been a keen user of Cubase, Nuendo and CC121.
Hello Ian, thanks a lot for taking the time!
Could you please give us a short insight into your main activities and production areas?
I’m a composer working primarily in the video game, TV, and film industries. Each area brings a nice variety. One day I may be scoring a huge cinematic cut-scene with live orchestra and choir, the next a fast electronica racing game cue, or a subtle piano based documentary score about human emotion. Each industry has its own set of challenges and you don’t run as much risk getting pigeon holed into specializing in one particular niche or genre.
How did you get started in the music business?
I played in various bands in the mid 80s and decided to quit my day job as computer programmer to tour Europe and UK with A Certain Ratio and The Rhythm Sisters. Having got the taste dipping my toes in the writing side, I took a degree at Salford University in Popular Music and Sound Recording. While I was there, I teamed up with a singer and we built a 16-track demo studio primarily for our own purposes — but also to record other local bands and learn the ropes.
Although we were using mainly budget outboard gear at the time, it taught me the basic principals of the production process, dynamic processing and EQ. After my degree I took any music related work I could get. Programming karaoke backing tracks for example was a great insight into music arrangement. I reverse-engineered hits by The Beatles and Abba and analyzed what made the original arrangements work.
Then purely by chance I sold a keyboard in a free ads magazine to a guy whose family was setting up a video game company in Manchester, and he asked me to do some demos for their first game. That company became Warthog, which was a big player in the mid to late 90s, and I ended up scoring quite a few big titles for them — notably Starlancer, Star Trek Invasion, Mace Griffin, and Bounty Hunter.
"I recently sold a very expensive hardware surround monitor controller and now just use the CC121 . . ."
— Ian Livingstone
One of your main production areas is video game composing. What fascinates you most about scoring for games? What are the major differences between scoring for films and scoring for games?
Adaptive, interactive music essentially means the game is in control of your mix and arrangement. So, there can be a lot more work involved compared to traditional stereo or 5.1 mixes. Fortunately, the tools available make this much easier than it used to be. The batch export functions in Cubase and Nuendo easily let you export every single track to a stem and the Arranger track is invaluable for writing interactive music in segments, as you can very quickly audition how game state changes will sound.
The actual composing process for a multi-layered approach has its own challenges, as you can’t rely on the traditional arrangement techniques where you bring new elements in and out of the mix. The player is in control — and not you — so you have to make sure each stem plays continuously and in an interesting non-repetitive way, but at the same time make sure, that when all the scenario of all layers are playing, the mix doesn’t get too cluttered.
On your website it says “… a new breed of composers who is able to shift comfortably from big powerful symphonic scores for full orchestra, to cutting edge electronica”. Is flexibility the most important success driver in your business?
Not necessarily. I know plenty of amazing successful composers who specialize in either electronica or orchestral. I just find being able to turn my hand at both keeps the work varied and interesting to me. I often find video game soundtracks incredibly varied because the nature of the multi-level worlds calls for lots of different genres. One project I’ve worked on recently for EA games needed about 20 completely different styles ranging from hip hop, 50s sci-fi, acoustic folk, swashbuckling orchestral, etc. It was great fun tackling so many styles.
You recently recorded the soundtrack for the Formula 1 video game at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Could you tell us a little about that production?
That was my 2nd time there. I was lucky enough to record another score in Studio 2 last year for Battlefield 1943 and I instantly fell in love with the place. It’s strange, because at the end of the day it’s mainly a largely untreated box. But the acoustics sound great, and the team there is a well-oiled machine. It also makes a great place to bring clients to because of its amazing history.
For the style of music the developers at Codemasters were very keen to do something slightly different to what you’d normally expect for F1. The high-octane stuff, that has become synonymous with the racing genre, always works great for in-game, but they were keen to do something classier and unique for the other areas of the game. I found it very exciting to try something totally new. I was working very closely with the audio producer Andy Grier, and we ended up with a mixture of traditional electronic tech mixed with big thematic rousing strings. It’s fairly heroic, not in an “epic horns” gladiatorial kind of way, but more classy lush rich and expensive approach.
"If something works well just on an organic acoustic instrument, it’ll work great in a full blown synth or orchestral arrangement."
— Ian Livingstone
Could you give us a short overview on your studio setup at home?
It’s a brick built, double-walled construction designed and built by acoustics specialists Studio Wizard and Studio People. Situated in my garden, with lots of natural daylight, air conditioned isolated machine room for my eight computers, the fact that it’s actually away from my house gives me the best of both worlds. I don’t have to worry about commute time, but I can choose to have complete isolation without interruptions from my kids, cat, phone calls, etc. The only downside is that it is a little too convenient sometimes to just disappear into my own isolated world. Composing is a very anti-social existence and time becomes non-existent, so it’s very easy to spend 18 hours a day here without realizing you’re even hungry.
I used to have racks and racks of outboard gear, and a big Mackie D8b desk, but these days my studio isn’t that visually impressive really — just a bunch of computers. I know analog vintage outboard gear will always have the edge over the plug-in counterpart, but these days the difference is so minimal. Being able to load up a cue, and everything magically springs into place is a great advantage, compared to the way I used patchbays and tweaked them manually during a mix. I really couldn’t go back to hardware processing anymore, although I realize there’s a slight trade-off.
My main rig focuses around Cubase and Nuendo, with seven slave machines running my various sample libraries and virtual instruments. Eight PCs sounds excessive, but I have a huge template that takes into account all the commercial orchestral libraries (VSL, LASS, East West Hollywood Strings, etc.) as well as my own custom library that I recorded with a bunch of other composers in Utah a few years ago. It has almost 900 MIDI channels always loaded — so, at the moment there’s really no way to do all that on one single machine. The drives and CPUs just wouldn’t be up to it.
"The icons and placing of all the buttons are so familiar there’s really no learning curve. I just switch it on and start using it."
— Ian Livingstone on CC121
How do your ideas for a composition come to you? Do you start with an idea in your head or do you get ideas through experimenting?
I compose mainly via improvisation, although occasionally I’ll get an idea in my head and sketch it out on paper if nothing else is to hand. I have a Yamaha upright U3 Disklavier in my studio. It’s a real piano with hammers but also has MIDI I/O and motorized keys. So, generally I sketch out ideas on the piano but without the red record light putting unnecessary pressure on me. Then I use Cubase’s Retrospective Record function to listen back to ideas I’ve had in the last 30 minutes or so. If I feel I’m on to something, I’ll loop and try to develop the idea.
I usually start with just piano and build up the orchestration. I often start with multiple piano tracks before I begin to replace the piano with orchestral instruments. If I’m working on an electronica cue, I’ll often get a quick rhythm track and groove going first. But for the melodic material, the main theme or motif, I find the piano the easiest tool to work with. If something works well just on an organic acoustic instrument, it’ll work great in a full blown synth or orchestral arrangement — but that’s not always the case the other way around.
How did you first get exposed to Steinberg products?
I played in a few synth bands in the mid 80s, influenced by bands like Depeche Mode, Human League etc. A pal, Roger Lyons (programmer for New Order, Simply Red more recently Kaiser Chiefs) introduced me to Pro12 on the Atari. I tried the competition at the time, but once I’d been switched on to Steinberg’s approach, I realized that was it. Initially I had a Pro24 on the Atari ST. Then I bought the very first audio version of Cubase on PC, which needed the expensive Yamaha CBX-D5 to run just four channels. But Cubase VST came out a few years later and all was forgiven.
What role do Cubase and Nuendo play in the process of making scores?
I’ve always mixed at home in my own studio. The approach I take to a mix doesn’t really lend itself to working elsewhere. I’m constantly playing with the MIDI stuff up until I commit to a mix. Having the flexibility of your whole writing rig available during a mix is invaluable just in case you need to tweak the orchestration. I’d say I’m a fairly competent engineer, but I often get help on the final mix just for a different perspective and to allow me to sit back and see the bigger picture without getting bogged down.
"Composing is a very anti-social existence and time becomes non-existent, so it’s very easy to spend 18 hours a day here without realizing you’re even hungry."
— Ian Livingstone
I also saw you have a CC121 controller in your studio. In what sense does the use of CC121 affect your workflow?
I’ve worked with various eight fader controllers in the past but found myself just using the same single fader for everything. Having a single unit designed and built by the sequencer developer makes a lot of sense to me. The icons and placing of all the buttons are so familiar there’s really no learning curve. I just switch it on and start using it. The Control Room integration is great too. I recently sold a very expensive hardware surround monitor controller and now just use the CC121 to switch and control the overall levels of my monitors.
What do you think of the new Tools for CC121 version 1.6 update?
I really like the new EQ invert function, which is great for zooming in on troublesome frequencies and then quickly cutting.
Could you tell us a little about upcoming projects?
Currently, I’m mid way through a six part TV series, called My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, for UK Channel 4. There are lots of Irish and Baltic instruments which I’m recording live. I also work on another documentary series about Night Terror. Recently I finished a video game for EA, called Create. The score for that one is completely adaptive: eight layers of intensity, which is more than I’ve been asked to do in the past — so it was great fun.
Please visit www.ianlivingstone.net for videos, audio demos and additional information on Ian's work.