Q&A: Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge scores the next chapter in Halo’s legacy

Neil Davidge: Halo 4 OSTNeil Davidge: Halo 4 soundtrack (7Hz / The End, 10/22/12)


Neil Davidge: “Arrival”

Since 2001, the biggest video game in the world has been Halo. And, as shown by all sci-fi epics, you’re nothing without your immediately recognizable theme music, which Halo has in spades.

For Halo 4, publisher 343 Industries wanted to change things up, hiring film-score composer and Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge to re-imagine the soundtrack while retaining its iconic elements. We talked to him about creating the dramatic, rhythmic, electro-orchestral accompaniment.

(Update: Head here to hear and purchase Vol. 2, by Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi, released 4/9/13.)

How familiar with the Halo games were you before working on the soundtrack?

When working on the album 100th Window with Massive Attack, I’d play Halo: Combat Evolved when waiting for the band to turn up or when there was some technical issue. I’ve played all the games, not just once — more times than I can remember. The great thing about working on this project is that I can play the game and say I’m working and have it be true!

How is composing a video-game score different than doing a film score? Are there any production parallels with Massive Attack?

There are certain fundamental similarities: there’s a story to tell, and the music needs to emotionally engage the listener and take them on a journey. Yet with a film, that journey is all mapped out and will, to a large extent, never change. In a game, the “journey” is dictated by the player, so each piece, each theme, needs to cover a lot of ground emotionally and dramatically.

There are many parallels between working on an album and composing for a game. I used a lot of my experience as a producer — twisting, processing, and programming, playing around with sonic perspectives for emotional effect and then mixing this with a very human performance, whether a single vocal or a 70-piece orchestra.

Does the interactive nature of the medium affect the way you work?

Not knowing how long a scene is going to run and what exactly is going to happen has a big effect on how you compose, arrange, and deliver the music. A single theme or piece needs to cover a number of scenarios, from “everything’s going my way” to “oh, shit!” It might need to play for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours depending on the skill and style of the player, so it needs to have a lot of variation to follow the dynamic of the mission and keep from getting repetitive. So I would build these large arrangements, with each new section taking the music to a new place sonically and emotionally.

The vibe of your score is different from other games in the series. Was this intentional from the onset?

Early discussions between audio director Sotaro Tojima and I touched on building a stronger rhythmic base, introducing a more present and contemporary electronic element whilst emotionally engaging the listener. I was keen to expand the sonic pallet of previous scores, bringing more of an “otherworldly” yet muscular element. I also wanted to connect the player to the characters in a way that I’m not sure had been fully explored before. I didn’t simply want to score the grandness; I wanted to bring things down to a human level.

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