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Stephen Barton

Cubase has immense power under the hood, but it’s so easy and intuitive to harness.”

Stephen Barton: Scoring Titanfall with Cubase

By Eckhard Doll, July 7, 2014

Stephen Barton, a British composer based in Los Angeles, contributed music to very successful film and video game releases over the past decade. Many of us have seen movies like Kingdom of Heaven, Gone Baby Gone or played games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The latest major release featuring a score created by Stephen is the online multiplayer shooter Titanfall which was released in March. As Steinberg’s Cubase 7 is the heart of his studio it was time for an interview.

Stephen, you have been part of a lot of commercially very successful releases in the past but for the vast majority of musicians and composers, this achievement remains a dream. What made you choose this rocky road in the first place?

I think it’s probably something between passion and lunacy! Maybe those are really the same thing…

As a musician I always was more interested in working with others than the lonely call of the practice room as an instrumentalist. The long hours and sometimes crazy deadlines are what I think surprises most people getting started in this particular part of the music business, we’re used to working at unusual times of the night as musicians, but now that the clients have wised up to how far the technology has come, it’s almost as if the deadlines have shortened to match that. It used to be that you had to build in a few days to the schedule for the copyists to write the parts for a big set of sessions out by hand, but now with the advances in score-writing software, that can happen in mere hours. The composers working on major TV shows and commercials often get ludicrous requests, where they practically need the music before they’ve even asked for it…

What fascinates you about creating scores?

No two days are ever alike, and it is never dull or predictable. You never know what you’re going to be asked to do next. I had a project a few years ago where an editor I had worked with a lot suggested me to a director — and I got the job on the strength of that and my prior credits. It was only a few days later that I found out the whole score was meant to be this Louisiana blues-inflected sound, something I knew very little about! So you have to be able to learn fast.

After the first years in the UK music business, you decided to move to Los Angeles and start your own company Afterlight Inc. Why did you move? I would assume that working in Hollywood is a whole different story than working in the UK film industry and not necessarily a change for the better.

I actually started out not working for my own company, but working as an arranger and assistant to Harry Gregson-Williams, who is an unequalled mentor. There are very few who have given so much of themselves as he has, in terms of experience and advice to composers looking to break into this elusive and curious business, and I have been immensely lucky to learn from him.

In essence, working in the UK and Hollywood is much the same, the scale and politics is certainly different, but in the end it’s about having a cue or two to write each day, and finding something that enhances and supports the emotions in a scene. The other crucial aspect of this business is learning the art of communicating musical ideas to your clients, dealing with notes, criticism and the like.

How you deal with a director who doesn’t like what you just played them is the real art, the skill of being able and ready to adjust what you are doing and get inside what they are wanting for the scene. One thing I learned from Harry early on was that you often have to look beyond the note to what the director is really trying to say. For example, “I want it to sound bigger” could mean anything from “you played the music too quietly” to “more brass” to, paradoxically, “less”. Guitar-driven cues or electronics often sound “bigger” in context than orchestral arrangements, for the simple reason there is often less going on and thus more headroom for each element. You can often make something sound “bigger” by taking elements out and leaving a clearer space for the melody or a key part. So there’s an interpretative element to how you work as a composer with the other filmmakers, developers and so on.

Studio setup

  • Cubase 7.5
  • ATC SCM50 ASL monitors with Grace m904 Monitor Controller
  • Cubase Sequencer PC - Core i7, 64 GB RAM
  • 2 Sample Slave PCs - Dual Intel Xeon (eight cores), 128 GB RAM each, all SSD, Vienna Ensemble Pro
  • Lexicon, Native Instruments, Sony Oxford, Spectrasonics plugins and many more
  • Extensive custom orchestral and percussion sample collection, as well as commercial libraries from 8dio, Spitfire Audio, Audiobro (LA Scoring Strings), Cinesamples, Berlin Woodwinds and more
  • Custom studio desk by Robert Beijer, tiger maple from Michigan, Yamaha S90ES master controller built in
  • Access Virus Indigo, Nord Lead 2, Minimoog Voyager

Since then you have been working on a lot of very different projects in both the US and the UK. For instance, the Titanfall soundtrack has been recorded in the Abbey Road Studios in London. Did you attend the recordings yourself?

Very much so! I conducted all of the sessions, which is always fun and scary in equal measure. Abbey Road is an incredibly wonderful place, a living, breathing place that is constantly evolving but has this extraordinary history and vibe. It is one of those places where the term “legendary” is really justified. It’s much more than just three great sounding recording rooms and an unrivalled gear collection though — the team there are really what makes it so special, they know the space and how to eke the best out of it, and they always bring their best.

When you were first approached for scoring a video game, were you afraid that this could have a negative effect on your film composer career and reputation? I am asking because even today, many people do not consider games being an art in its own right and ignore the fact that some of them have been more successful than most big Hollywood blockbusters.

In terms of the industry we are far from it now, I think anybody in Hollywood who professes the old opinion of video games harming one’s career as a film composer almost risks a little ridicule! It’s a little bit like what happened with TV; some of the strongest and most compelling creativity is taking place on HBO, on Netflix, and so on.

Financially the games industry dwarfs Hollywood, and it is strongest — by far — in one of Hollywood’s key demographics, a very fickle demographic for movies where you never quite know what will succeed. Hollywood eyes the games industry with a mixture of envy and curiosity now, I think.

Lastly, the technological limitation — the idea that game music is just 8-bit “bleeps and bloops” — even bringing that up now would look silly, both because of that sound having become such an important and almost nostalgic part of recent pop and EDM music, as well as game music itself now employing everything from 100-piece symphony orchestras, to major bands and DJs.

Is scoring for a video game more challenging than for a movie?

In some senses, yes, and some others, not really. The structural aspect is a little different. With a movie, you generally have a theme that starts out being played in a relatively simple form and then develops linearly, whereas with a game, you sometimes don’t quite know how things will be ordered and so you don’t necessarily have that map to work from. Unless there are big sections of the game on “rails”, where the action has fixed timing you’re generally not “scoring” to picture in a literal sense anyhow. So it draws on a different set of skills, I think, in terms of how you create the emotional arc.

How long did it take to compose the score for Titanfall?

Titanfall took about seven months to write, and a very hectic month of recording and mixing in London and Los Angeles. Jonathan Allen recorded the score, and Alan Meyerson and Joshua Blanchard mixed it here in LA.

I chose Cubase primarily because of the midi editing tools, which were so vastly ahead of the competition at the time and still for me represent the most musically driven tools.

What kind of material did you have to see the direction of the game and how the soundtrack should be like? Have you been able to play early beta versions to find the inspiration or was it all artworks and discussions with the team?

I saw lots of the concept art, and most of the maps were already built into a playable or viewable form. The Respawn team gave me little video files of those, which I kept on loop with the sound muted in the studio, so when I was writing there was always something to reference visually. I did also play the game over at Respawn a fair bit, although playing against the developers can be a bit brutal. They’re… rather obviously… quite good at their own game! I was also very used to the tactics of their Call of Duty games, which aren’t much help in Titanfall.

Since when is Cubase part of your daily work and why did you choose it in the first place?

I started using Cubase full time in 2000, although I actually used Cubase on the Atari years and years ago when I was still at school. I had a very forward thinking composition teacher, William Keyte, who in the early 1990s had figured out that sequencing would be a vital skill to teach his students, so one could say I’m rather grateful for that!

I chose Cubase primarily because of the MIDI editing tools, which were so vastly ahead of the competition at the time and still for me represent the most musically driven tools, particularly how the quantising tools are set up. I can play something in and with a few key commands have precisely what I want without having to dig through endless menus and dialog boxes. Cubase has immense power under the hood, but it’s so easy and intuitive to harness.

As you are traveling a lot, I guess that you work not only on your studio system but also on a laptop? Could you tell us a bit about the different setups in detail?

Funnily enough my main setup is now entirely mobile, housed in a single rack that I can just unplug and ship around. I first flew it down to New Zealand for James Cameron’s Cirque Du Soleil 3D project, which I was initially nervous about, but it worked like a charm. It consists of a main sequencer and two sample slaves hooked up via Ethernet, all PC based, which outputs to my monitoring setup. There’s minimal wiring, and pretty much everything happens in the box, it’s designed to be streamlined to precisely what I need. It’s all SSD-based and I built it to be as quiet and cool as possible.

I also recently stripped back my plugin folder to bare bones. I used to have every delay, EQ, and compressor plugin under the sun, but it got to a point where I spent more time picking a compressor plugin than writing or actually listening, which I think is a big danger. I’ve reduced that down to just having the tools I know inside out and that I think sound great.

Those three computers (with silly amounts of RAM) equal and exceed the power that I used to get from a whole army of samplers. I haven’t yet been able to max them out. That said, Cubase is the hub, the core of everything I do.

Is there anything you would like to see in Cubase in upcoming versions that would support your way of working with it?

A high-end score editor… but I believe that might be on the way!

Are you aware of Steinberg’s new scoring application currently in development? You can follow its progress at http://blog.steinberg.net/. Maybe it is of interest to you?

That’s the one! I’m keeping eager eyes fixed on it! For a long time I’ve wanted to be able to have a better link between the sequencer and the printed score, which is really the last final link in the chain. Since my sequences generally have everything orchestrated out — for example, I often divide out the individual violin sections into violin 1a and 1b to avoid the “organ” effect when layering samples, so even the divisi parts are worked out — the potential of being able to directly integrate that into the score without having to export MIDI files etc. is nothing short of awesome.

Now that Titanfall is released and has conquered the gaming charts worldwide, have you had time to actually play the final version?

I have! I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s every bit the fluid, dynamic FPS it promised to be and I think it’s the start of a great new series.

Is your next project going to be a movie or a video game?

I have various projects hovering — I’m not sure which will come first!

Thank you for taking the time, Stephen!

Visit Stephen Barton at www.stephenjbarton.com.

Cubase is the hub, the core of everything I do.