Grammy award-winning & BAFTA nominated film and game composer, Lorne Balfe is the man behind some truly memorable scores: Assassin's Creed 3, Crysis 2, Call of Duty 2, Batman Begins, Sherlock Holmes, The Da Vinci Code, and Inception. We caught up with Lorne to discuss his approach to composing for visual media, the tech gear we relies on, collaborating with Hans Zimmer, and more.
(This interview can also be found in the April 2013 issue of AskAudio Magazine).
Tell us about your background and how your musical life evolved.
I was surrounded by music as a child. My father was a songwriter and a residential recording studio was attached to our house. I didn't know anything else. I thought being musical and in bands was completely normal. Then when I was a teenager I spent most of my holidays working at studios or assisting people.
When did music become your career?
I started getting paid gigs when I was about 16 or 17. So, I was always doing it as a job but the funny thing is it never felt like a job. It was always a hobby than I seemed to get extra money for. At the time this was doing commercials, for small radio jingles, idents and the like. I was very lucky to be able to start getting to write at such an early age for commercials. I think commercials is the first step into writing music for games and films. In those days I was using a Fairlight CMi Series III.
Tell us more about when you started working together with Hans Zimmer. How did this collaboration manifest?
That was about 7 years ago. Batman Begins was the first film I worked with Hans on. I had been working for another composer, Henning Lohner, who was at Remote Control. Then I started working for Rupert Gregson-Williams. They both knew Hans and that's how I basically came onto his radar. I don't know if he ever listened to any of my music, but because as I was working for these people that he liked we had that connection.
Are there any differences between co-composing/co-producing versus working alone?
No. There's no real difference as you're still trying to achieve the same end result. So with working in film and games it's a collaborative effort anyway. Whether you're co-writing or you're writing it for the client it's the same thing. Writing in this medium of film, game or television you're having to work with many people, it's a big group effort.
I saw something on Twitter recently where someone said, '˜I don't know how you work with people in the room, doesn't it restrict your artistic license.' But, that's how it works in the realworld. You have clients who are paying you to do a job so they're there all the time.
You've scored so many high-profile films and games. Which has been your most enjoyable to date and why?
The funny thing is every single one is enjoyable. And even for the ones which are not as enjoyable as you'd like you learn something, so you get something from the process. Even if it's been utter hell you still get a good story out of it! I think the most important thing is to keep learning from each experience, and that's what makes the whole process an enjoyable.
Unlike in a band, a film composer is stuck in his or her studio 24/7. So, there's not a lot of different or interesting scenarios there. The only time we get out is when working with the orchestra. It's a very solitary world sitting by yourself a lot of the time.
One of the biggest game releases of 2012 was Assassin's Creed 3 which you composed the score for. Can you tell about your process for composing for games and if there are any differences, if any, in your approach to scoring for film?
Well, game and film for me are the exact same thing. With a game like Assassin's Creed you're dealing with about 80 minutes of cinematics which is the exact same of visuals you're dealing with in a film. With that you're still writing a lot to picture to tell the story and help the dialogue that's occurring on screen. So, it's the exact same process going on.
The only big difference is when the character is running around and doesn't know what he's doing... Or the player doesn't know what is about to happen yet. Obviously, in film that's not the case as the film has a structured adventure occurring. We know that character is definitely going to turn left, and not right for example.
Other than that, the whole creative side of it is exactly the same. The composer just has to write music to help tell the story, help create the atmosphere for the gamer or the viewer, and help us get into that world that we're visually looking at.
In terms of games, you're often creating loops and yet there are parts where, as you said, the player doesn't know what's coming next. What's your process for avoiding the feeling that a part is repetitive?
The only way a player will never get bored by a section is to write 20 hours or music. Unfortunately, you can't do that! A gameplay could have at least 28 hours and you probably might write 2-3 hours of music. It's next to impossible for a player never to get bored as you'll have to re-encounter the same piece of music when playing the game again. So the main thing I try to do is try to do variations within a piece. If there is a piece of music in that zone or level, I try to do other variations of the music: a stealth version, a suspense version or an action version. The actual structure and tempo is the same, so things can lead in and out of it seamlessly and be connected.
Thanks. As a game music composer, do you consider yourself a gamer?
No, I most certainly don't! I have no time to play and when I do, I'm not very good. I try... But you really need time to focus and perfect it... And I can't perfect it. In fact, I get stuck on the first level often. The funny thing is I've never been a gamer, and I remember someone saying to me, '˜well how do you compose for games if you don't play?' I don't know why that matters. It's not like if you're an excellent gamer you're going to make an excellent composer. My job is to write music for the gamer to enjoy, and the gamer enjoys the same music as they do in a film. So, we've just got to create escapism to help with the experience.
In terms of the audio for game production process, when do you get the first look at a game, like Assassin's Creed 3? Do you see screenshots, images, video, or in action? And when do you start building your creative ideas for the soundtrack?
Basically, the gaming world is very secretive, so you have to sign a lot of contracts before you see anything. Then, just like a film, you start seeing storyboards, drawings of the main characters and backdrops, and very detailed stories regarding who the new characters are - as well as the entire background story too. Especially with Assassin's Creed 3, there's a big historical context to it where they've done a lot of research, so you get presented with a lot of information.
You end up looking at a very condensed amount of information that you can then delve into. They even go into some of the music and musical styles people might have been listening to during that period of time. There's a whole depth of knowledge to tap into.
Do you typically use the research of the music of that period and/or place as the foundation for your own compositions?
The thing is when you're dealing with music from a certain point and period of time, the music doesn't sound to us in our head what it would sound like to them. So, the problem is we can't do a fully authentic score based on what the music would've been from that period of time.
All I'm really interested in are the instruments being used at that period of time. That helps me as a composer to get into that world.
What software and hardware tools do you use in the studio?
I use Cubase to sequence on and Pro Tools to record into and mainly to run the picture through. In terms of outboard gear it varies. At times it's a very simple rig. We have our own sampling software called Sam, created by Mark Wherry, which is pretty much replacing Giga Sampler for us. I have 12 SAMs, 6 Giga Studios still and then everything else is always virtual. So if I'm using synths, it'll be Virus or Zebra. That's normally it. It's very concise!
In terms of effects, Universal Audio's UAD is fantastic and Waves' CLA Guitars is a constant for me too. I just absolutely love UAD, so that's what I'm always using at the moment. My list of plug-ins is massive.
Do you use any sample libraries within SAM and Giga for strings?
Well, we don't really. In fact it's all custom-owned sounds. SAM is running custom sounds and we don't tend to use a lot of libraries. When a job starts, we try to do a sample session for the actual job, so each film or game has its own instruments.
How do you prefer to use samples? Do they ever replace the need for recording live instrumentalists?
Well, in the beginning of a project, if you record live musicians playing every single demo and pitch you might use for the project, you could be there for a year. So, the main thing is to try to get an example of how the instrument might sound
As you do a lot of traveling, do you have an ultra-portable laptop rig to help you work on your scores on the move?
Actually, no. I felt there was no point so I just have another rig that I travel with. I can only get so far with laptops considering how dense and large the projects I work on are. So, I tend to take an identical rig to my studio rig with me instead. If I was more in the electronic world, I know I could rely on a laptop, but most of my works are purely orchestral, so it's very difficult to be able to work on a laptop in this world.
Lorne Balfe: "Cubase is perfectly good for scoring and passing these ideas onto a player to interpret."
As well as Cubase, do you use scoring programs like Finale or Sibelius?
Cubase is perfectly good internally and it does a greta basic part, it does everything you need to be able to get somebody to read it. In a situation of a job where you pass the score on to an orchestrator, then they tend to use Sibelius or Finale, but I wouldn't have contact at that stage. So, for me Cubase is perfectly good for scoring and passing these ideas onto a player to interpret.
I heard that you started off not being able to read music. If this is true it brings a lot of hope to many modern computer-based musicians!
Yes, it's still the case now. I'm dyslexic, so the notes just jump out at me. It's the same with words too. That's why the Key Editor in Cuabse is the best thing for me as I see things in shapes in colors. It allows me to stack and layer parts unlike Logic. Being able to stack and layer MIDI parts as shapes and delve into them mean that Cubase has become my manuscript. That's how I read music.
Interesting how you use shapes and colors in Cubase to score. How is music represented to you when you're thinking/creating it in your head?
In my head it's melodies and chord progressions. The funny thing is I don't think those that do write music think of it as notes, they think of it as a melody or chord progression. I think what I've got in my head is the same as what everybody else has... I just simply look at it as being able to clearly see the structure and the way the shapes and melodies move.
Now that Assassin's Creed 3 has been a huge success, what are you working on at the moment?
I'm doing the DLC version of Assassin's Creed 3 which should be out soon in 2013. I've started another Spyro and I've just finished a film called Frozen Ground with Nicolas Cage and John Cusack which will be out sometime in 2013. In Britain, I recently worked on a TV show for BBC 1 called Restless.
I have many other projects which I'm working on. One particular one is taking me into 2014, so there are a number of projects that you don't focus on all the time, but run alongside other work.
With so many concurrent jobs going on, you must need to switch in and out of different creative spaces quite quickly?
Yes! I think I picked that up from when I was younger doing all the commercials. One minute you'd be doing a dance track, the next minute you'd be doing something classical. You've got to be able to write for different genres in different styles and be able to jump in and out of them.
Are there any artists or bands who've been particularly inspirational for you personally?
The funny thing is I don't tend to listen to film music! If you start listening to other film music then you begin to write '˜film music', and I try not to write film music. I am writing for film, but I'm trying to write music. I always go back and listen to the likes of Vaughan Williams, Britten and Elgar. When I was young that's what I listened to. Now, I have an iPhone full of different music to listen to every day. I'm not very loyal to my favorites unfortunately. I change every day: one minute I'm deeply in love with the music of Peter Gabriel, and the next I'll be into Nine Inch Nails. I think digital music and services like Spotify really help to introduce me to new artists and discover different types of music.
What tips can you share on breaking into the audio for film and game area of the music industry.
What's happening now is you don't need to be in the same location as the film or game developer or team. We can be wherever we want. Games companies can be in China and we can still be working for them from our office in New York. It's opened up the world, but there's more competition too. But, there's more ways of getting your music out there, from apps to idents.
There's no clear path or manual on how to do it. At least, I didn't have a clear route. But you've got to know that you want to write music, and even for a specific medium. I wouldn't advise on restricting yourself to only wanting to write game or film music... It's the overall visual medium that's important.
I don't regard what I do as a job. I think of it as a hobby I get paid for because it's great fun and is so varied. And there's no set way of getting into this industry. I think it's important to compare yourself to other music and learn your craft that way. Just start writing and get your music heard. The main thing is preparation and knowing your craft and tools... with the prevalence of music technology, gone are the days of just using a piano for demo. Now you must know how to program properly and make your demos sound top class.
Assassin's Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington Soundtrack and Third Installment is now available!
Soundtrack available on:
Discover more about Lorne Balfe here: http://www.lornebalfe.com