Modal Electronics Backstage: The Flight, Part One
Modal: Hi Joe and Alexis. Tell us how you got into music and composition.
Joe Henson: We both come from the music industry. In the 90s and 2000’s I used to play bass for the Freestylers and other bands – big dance acts when dance music first hit the festivals. Alexis was a music programmer, working for Marius de Vries. He had worked on Moulin Rouge, and worked on many big bands and artists.
Alexis Smith: I did six or seven years with him, working on lots of A-list records and projects. It was a great education!
Joe Henson: Then, after I had left The Freestylers, I started my own band. When it came to looking for producers, I met Alexis. We just really got on. Because I was a bass player and Alexis was a programmer, we never wanted to be front-people, we just loved working in music.
Alexis Smith: It was around the time when the industry was going through massive change, teams were getting smaller, studios closing and a lot of artists starting to do all their own production. We decided to join forces and make a team.
Joe Henson: We both feel music is most fun as a collaboration.
Alexis Smith: Yeah, we didn’t really want to just work on our own all the time, that wasn’t what we knew.
Joe Henson: Exactly. So we started doing a lot of songwriting together, as well as working on some smaller TV projects. We decided to give ourselves a name, The Flight, and make a new start.
Alexis Smith: We had 10 years of experience behind us at that point, so we weren’t starting from scratch. At the same time, it was very liberating to have a reset of everything. We got to really think about what we wanted to work on, and how we wanted to work. We knew that we wanted a long career, and so we began to explore other avenues, especially the games music world, which we were both very intrigued by.
Joe Henson: It was about the time of PS3/ Xbox360, and games were beginning to have scores as good as movies. We had a lucky break and made a connection at EA Games, who took a chance on us to score our first game. After that, we haven’t looked back, and in the last ten years we’ve scored some great games; Alien: Isolation, Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Horizon Forbidden West.
“We both taught ourselves and we’ve had 10 years learning each other’s processes together as well. It’s a very natural, organic process and we don’t really think about it too much.”
Modal: What was that transition like for you in terms of actually making the move from working with artists on original songs, producing and composing TV to scoring for video games?
Alexis Smith: As I said before, we had a good idea of where we wanted to go, but you can’t really force that transition, it is a gradual process. You’ve just got to keep doing your best work, and eventually, hopefully, you end up getting to where you want to be.
Joe Henson: I was always around people working in TV and film, my parents were both actors. I grew up loving listening to film scores, from Danny Elfman to Lalo Schifrin. My dad had a huge record collection, and he introduced me to film music in general. I only realized recently that maybe that is unusual for a teenage boy! I’ve always had a real connection with it. I never had any kind of classical training, so that’s how I learnt to make music, by listening.
Alexis Smith: We approach any kind of music we are writing in the same way. We both taught ourselves how to compose and produce, and we’ve had 10 years learning each other’s processes together as well. It’s a very natural, organic process and we don’t really think about it too much.
Joe Henson: I think most composers would find it difficult to describe their work processes! A lot of the stuff we do is unspoken.
“The thing about us is, we try and play everything ourselves.”
Modal: When a big project like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey comes in, what is your creative process? Where do you begin?
Joe Henson: Well, with big games like that, the first stage is the pitch. You have to convince them that you’re the right people for the job. A lot of composers hate pitching, but we feel it’s a good way of working out what the client wants, and whether it fits us as well. Games can be very long projects, and we wouldn’t want to be on something that we weren’t suited to.
Alexis Smith: With games you don’t know much until you’ve signed a couple of non-disclosure agreements. They won’t even tell you anything about the pitch or send you the material until you’ve signed these. But as soon as Ubisoft sent us the material for Odyssey, I was very excited.
Joe Henson: I was panicking. I remember I was in Stratford station and Alexis said ’it’s perfect’.
Alexis Smith: I could instantly hear what we were going to do.
Joe Henson: And we sat down and we decided to keep it really subtle and relatively small. Because it’s called Odyssey you could easily do this huge score, but we wanted to focus on one person, the hero.
Alexis Smith: Before we started writing any music we did a lot of background listening, previous Assassin’s Creed scores as well as reproductions of traditional ancient Greek music. As soon as we get a new project, this is such an important process. We make each other playlists and we talk about them.
Joe Henson: Then next we begin thinking of sounds. What we’d like to use, and what new instruments might be useful.
Alexis Smith: It’s so good to start new projects with new instruments and new sounds, it makes you write in different ways.
Joe Henson: The thing about us is, we try and play everything ourselves. So for Odyssey we bought lots of instruments and learned how to play them along the way. Sometimes the naivety of bad playing is great too! You can always fix timing later…
Alexis Smith: It’s ancient Greece, but also science fiction. That was a fun brief to work out how to do.
Joe Henson: The Hero is a Spartan, who we like to think of as pretty rock and roll. “Legend of the Eagle Bearer” is one of the first pieces we wrote, trying to encapsulate this feeling. Ubisoft loved it and we were off.
Alexis Smith: We wouldn’t pitch for a project that didn’t instantly spark ideas in us. If we got a brief and it said, “we want this to be in the style of a Bartok chamber orchestra”, we’d probably think: “that’s not really our thing”, and help them to find someone else. We are quite honest about that.
Joe Henson: Yeah, but not all composers do that.
Modal: Is it also about levels of success? Do some composers feel that they’re forced into taking an opportunity even if it doesn’t gel?
Alexis Smith: Maybe that’s true, yes. I’d say a big part of our success has come from being ourselves, and not pretending to be anyone else, though.
Joe Henson: …and being honest with clients. There’s a fear when you first start, that if you say ‘no’ to a job you’ll never work again. You feel like you have to accept everything that comes in, and I would argue against that now because it can make people sick. We’ve discovered that for us it is better to only agree to do what we can do properly.
Alexis Smith: And that also we don’t do things that we don’t think suit us because there will be other brilliant composers out there who can do that job better.
Joe Henson: We were lucky enough that a job we turned down when we started Assassin’s Creed came back to us a year later and asked us again! In the games industry things can take a long time.
Modal: So it’s about letting go of FOMO (The Fear Of Missing Out)?
Joe Henson: Yes. I completely understand that. When I was younger I never wanted to go on holiday in case I missed a gig or new project. And I do understand that, but it’s always good to be a little bit exclusive and selective.
Alexis Smith: You get that from confidence. First you’ve got to learn what it is you’re trying to do. Once you’re good at something, you should be confident in knowing what you can do and what you can’t do. That’s not to say that you don’t learn new things on the way. There’s stuff we do now that we couldn’t have done five years ago; sometimes you get a brief and you think well, that’s not really our bag – but what about if we do this, and this, instead of that… you can get around it and make it your own.
Joe Henson: And that’s the pitch process. We say to our agent we’ll pitch, but we’ll do it our way. It’s about showing how we would do the music. A few of the last pitches we’ve done have been really unusual. We’ve got the gig because of us showing how we would do things differently, and sounding unique.
“We love old synths, interesting new ones and real instruments.”
Modal: Thank you for this insight into your process. Once you get into the creative stage of finding new instruments, learning them, playing them what happens next from a technical viewpoint? Can you tell us about the hardware and the software that you use?
Joe Henson: We record everything through our UAD Apollo, which we love. We’re not massive gear junkies really, once we’ve got something that works well, we like to concentrate on the actual writing. We’ve got a couple of mics that we use, an Audio Technica AT4033a, and a Neumann 184. When we were working with singers, we tried loads of mics but none of them sounded as good as that Audio Technica.
Alexis Smith: We’re more about what’s going in rather than how it’s going in, but we are dedicated Logic Pro users. We’ve used Logic since it was Emagic Notator – it’s like a second language to us. We could never use anything else, so we pray that it keeps going. We use Logic on Macs because Macs just work for us. We use UAD audio interfaces because they always work and they sound good. We like Native Instruments plugins and we also like making our own sampler instruments in Logic.
Joe Henson: We love Arturia as well, and the UAD plug-ins. We’ve got a basic Waves package, nothing fancy. And there’s Spitfire of course. We have all the Spitfire instruments.
Alexis Smith: And we love old synths, interesting new ones and real instruments.