Composer Interview: David Housden
David Housden is an award-winning, BAFTA and Ivor Novello nominated composer best known for his collaborations with visionary game developer Mike Bithell on the BAFTA award-winning indie hit Thomas Was Alone and his latest opus, Volume and also video game Q.U.B.E. 2. Drawing upon his garage rock band days, Housden creates melodic, original music scores which illuminate imaginary worlds with real emotion and immersion.
How did you get started in music? How did you get into composing music for video games?
I grew up in a musical household, so there were always instruments around. I started to teach myself the guitar seriously when I was 14 and continued to play solo and in bands from there into my early 20’s. But I didn’t start composing in this sense until I was 23, in my last year of university! I met someone through the band who worked in games and I mentioned that I was hoping to get into writing music for games after uni. Someone he was working with was making an indie game in their spare time and he very kindly recommended me to him, when the guy mentioned that he was looking for music. That project turned into a game called Thomas Was Alone, which fortunately enjoyed a lot of success, the music was nominated for a BAFTA and the rest has sort of stemmed from there really!
Who are your biggest musical influences?
My biggest musical influences are definitely bands like Hammock, Explosions in the Sky, Mono, Sigur Ros etc. They inspire me to try to capture the beauty in simplicity and to say more with less. In terms of composers, I adore the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as you well know from our many conversations! I also listen to James Newton-Howard, Thomas Newman and John Powell on a very regular basis.
What are some of your favorite projects you worked on?
I think one of my favourite projects to date has definitely been QUBE 2, largely because it’s been one of my easiest projects, due to our collaboration! Not having to waste time or worry about hunting through synths to find the right sound, and just having instant access to a palette that sums up the sonic landscape I wished to create, allowed to me to focus solely on writing the notes and crafting the arrangements. So it was a really streamlined and organic process and one I will always look to repeat when the opportunity arises.
When you begin scoring a project, how do you decide on the sonic palette to use?
I think the genre of the game and the world it’s set in are probably two of the most decisive factors in terms of establishing palette. I find the story has more of an influence on the notes themselves and the nature of the pieces you write, but as far as the palette goes, I think I’m definitely most inspired by the universe the game is set in and the general aesthetics. For example, in Qube, the environment the game takes place in is an alien construct created by an entity attempting to replicate earth. So my brief was that everything should sound real and natural, yet not so. On the surface level there should be some familiarity but with a strange, alien subtext to it. Also, visually, everything was super clean, modern and polished, so that instantly reminded me of some of the Mirror’s Edge score. I also remember listening to the Gone Girl and Before the Flood soundtracks a lot for inspiration. Then we took real world sounds and instruments and you’d manipulate and change them in Omnisphere until they sounded like something completely different. So the essence of everything was grounded in an organic source, yet the end product was something unique and original, in keeping with the fundamental theme of the game.
What’s your studio setup like? What are your favorite synths and FX?
My studio is pretty basic! I run everything from a trashcan Mac Pro and a single Apple 30” cinema display and I monitor through Genelec 8020’s. I have a nice Yamaha electric piano which I use to write on, then I have a 61 key M-Audio MIDI controller that I use for note input and CC control. I run everything in the box, so no outboard gear, although I do have a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Tele and a couple of amps for guitar work. In terms of synths, Omnisphere is definitely my go to. There’s very little that I can’t do on there and the only negative thing I could say about it is that there’s almost too much content in there and it’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole! In keeping with the rest of my setup, my effects use is very basic too. I tend to use Valhalla reverbs on most things and I’ve been enjoying their new delay recently too. I also get a lot of use out of the Logic inbuilt EQ and Fabfilter Pro-Q. I have all of the Soundtoys collection but I find I don’t use them too often unless I’m trying to create a really weird, exaggerated effect on something. They’re not subtle enough for me to use as flavour on traditional instruments but are fantastic for sound design. My master bus is pretty basic too, I have the SSL G channel, a couple of tape saturators and the Waves L3 limiter and that’s basically it! I was taught early on that less is more and I generally try to get everything right at the writing/arranging stage to minimise the amount of salvage work I have to do at the mix stage.
What role do MIDIssonance sounds play in your work?
I touched on this earlier but having a curated, custom soundset to work from was a truly liberating experience from a creative perspective. I can’t put into words how painless and stress-free it made the entire writing process, not to mention the effortless inspiration that would come from hearing a new cue. Many times, I’d simply be trying a new sound to test if it needed any revisions and an entire cue could spawn from that. You can’t put a price on that sort of thing and I’d highly recommend anyone to experience it for themselves! Your sounds form a central part of my writing process and most importantly of all, represent instant out of the box playability, which is paramount when deadlines are mounting!