Modal Electronics Backstage: The Flight, Part Two
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work at the leading edge of the film and game-composition industry? Well, here’s your chance to find out! In our latest installment of our Backstage Blog Article Series we head to east London to catch up with the Ivor Novello award winning duo, Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, formally known as The Flight.
Modal: What draws you to using hardware synths when you’ve got access to a host of amazing software instruments?
Joe Henson: It reduces the options down a bit. You’re not just going through menus. I want to stop browsing and find unusual sounds in one place. Most hardware synths do one thing well and have their own sound.
Alexis Smith: We like to have gear that we know, then you can use it creatively. We have to write a lot of music and sometimes it can be to quite tight deadlines as well. So we don’t have time to be always learning new plug-ins.
Joe Henson: I’ve got 12 bass guitars or something, but I mostly use two of them; A Fender Precision and a Warwick Dolphin Pro. But starting this new job I might go and get a new bass just to have a slightly different sound. I know lots of people who are constantly buying more and more new gear. We don’t.
Modal: It can be hard to make music when you’re buying more gear and then taking the time to learn how to use it.
Joe Henson: Exactly! Modular synths seem to be the thing at the moment. And everyone has these massive modular synths. Alexis has started one but never seems to find the time to grow it…
Alexis Smith: Ha! One day.. We’re so busy right now!
“We like f&*king stuff up!”
Modal: After recording sounds, do you tend to process them and push them beyond the limit of what they are, or do you tend to emphasize the natural qualities of the instruments?
Alexis Smith: We like f&*king stuff up!
Joe Henson: Yeah, we do! We love sounds that have a bit of grit and dirt, but it depends on the project, of course. But we like having an acoustic or a played source, not just always synthesized, that gives the music heart. But then we’ll try all sorts of processing on the way: we’ve got lots of guitar pedals, reverbs & springs, and Eventide effects.
Alexis Smith: A bit of chaos can sometimes lead to unexpected, amazing places.
Joe Henson: Once we’ve recorded, we’ll muck around with stuff further, pitching and effecting. We both love Hip-Hop and some of the best Hip Hop samples are the ones that are almost made by accident. Wu-Tang Clan loops are great because they’ve always got character.
Alexis Smith: I love really weird experimental electronic music. I would love to have been in a time period where you could earn a living off that.
“We jam a lot. We sit and play, each of us with an instrument. There’s a shorthand between us where we don’t really need to talk that much.”
Modal: It could make a comeback – just like hardware synths have. Back to your workflow, does your dynamic mean you concentrate on different tasks, or lead in some areas and not others?
Joe Henson: We jam a lot in the beginning. We sit and play, each of us with an instrument. There’s a shorthand between us where we don’t really need to talk that much.
Alexis Smith: Sometimes we work together and sometimes we split off to work on seperate parts.
Joe Henson: Sometimes one of us will start a piece of music at the beginning and the other will write the music in the middle and we join them together and then we kind of cross over.
Modal: Do you ever come to points where that approach results in very different styles that can’t be merged?
Joe Henson: It doesn’t seem to. We know each other so well, and we always cross-fertilize if we work that way. It can lead you to places where you’d never think of going. But then also sometimes when we’ve got a lot of music to do, we’ll work on separate projects in the morning and swap over at the halfway point through the day.
Alexis Smith: Everything, every piece we do, has always got both of us on it.
Modal: Do you ever have to resolve creative differences?
Joe Henson: We don’t argue over creative differences. We have creative differences, but there’s no point in fighting over it.
Modal: Has that always been the case or has it been something that you’ve had to develop over time?
Joe Henson: It’s always been the case. And that’s very lucky as well. We make a lot of music daily, you know, and you haven’t got time to fight and argue about differences.
Alexis Smith: The reason we got together is because of how well we work together.
Joe Henson: That’s the thing, you know, when you have a group of people, in any relationship, you have to understand that you need to let little things go, keep your eyes on the bigger picture.
Modal: This is good advice! I know you’ve been using the Modal ARGON8 recently. Which projects have you been using it on? How has it been fitting into your workflow?
Joe Henson: We’re using it a lot on Horizon Forbidden West and Gotham Knights.
Alexis Smith: It always cuts through and it sounds different than our other synths. I really like that and it’s why we like Modal synths. It’s not trying to be something that already exists or existed in the past.
Joe Henson: It sounds very modern and the presets are really good; that’s really important to us when we’re working really quickly and we need something. It has interesting, unique sounds, especially the arpeggios. I like dialing these in and using them on action scenes, which we’ve done a lot of recently!
Alexis Smith: Some of the pads with aftertouch have been amazing as well. We used them a lot on Gotham Knights. The ARGON8 has been like the secret synthesizer at the end. It has its own character.
“Modal hardware is beautifully made. It’s fun, really intuitively designed. I rang up Alexis when I got it and told him he had to listen to this amazing synth.”
Modal: What other features on the ARGON8 attracted you?
Joe Henson: Modal hardware is beautifully made. It’s fun, really intuitively designed. I rang up Alexis when I got it and told him he had to listen to this amazing synth. They’re also priced very reasonably, especially the range of current synths. But for me, mainly, it’s the sounds. It doesn’t try to sound like a vintage machine from another company, instead completely unique.
Modal: Do you have the chance to play early versions of the games you’re composing for?
Alexis Smith: Yes. We started Horizon Forbidden West in 2018. So for the first 18 months, before lockdowns etc., we used to go over to Amsterdam every six months or so and play as much as we could. It’s really important. You wouldn’t work on a film without watching the film, so you need to play the game to work on a game.
Joe Henson: With Gotham Knights, we went out to Montreal at the beginning and played it. Unfortunately due to the pandemic we’ve not been able to do that since.
Alexis Smith: On Alien:Isolation we had a PC here in the studio, and we recieved Steam builds every two weeks. One of us could play while the other was writing, so you could look over and see the game while writing the music.
Joe Henson: We get sent a lot of video captures as well. There are things in the visuals that can influence the music very early on. For example the pace of the character walking; if the music is too slow it can slow the gameplay down too.
Modal: When working with the Audio Director of a game how do you find a compromise if your respective visions are not in sync?
Alexis Smith: They tend to have been working on the game for a few years and they’ve got very strong ideas about what they want and that’s fair enough. It’s their game. So, in the beginning you have to find your way and after a while that usually settles down.
Joe Henson: We’d worked with the Audio Director on Odyssey before. We knew from that the kind of stuff she liked, so that made it less intimidating. But part of the fun is getting to know new people and the way they work, and games are often so creative that what they ask you for has never been heard before!
Modal: Can you expand on what you mean by music that’s never been heard before?
Joe Henson: Well, for instance, if it’s a dystopian post-apocalypse setting, a thousand years after, and you’re writing science fiction music for the new tribes that have sprung up, it’s completely going away from any existing reference points. So we have to invent them, sometimes giving ourselves a set of ‘rules’. We did this a lot on Horizon Zero Dawn… if you’ve found a musical instrument and you’ve never seen it being played, how would you play it? So we played guitars with bows and stuff like that, just to give us a different sound.
“On long projects like games, you can get really immersed in them. You feel you’re part of the creative process because it’s not all happening in post-production like it is on a film. You’re there right from the beginning and you’re integral to the game.”
Modal: That sounds super creative and liberating. It reminds me a little of how Todd Barton created a giant, mythical horn instrument from an Ursula LeGuin book and layered it with Buchla sounds.
Alexis Smith: Yeah. We do things like that. They’re really fun. They’re brilliant.
Joe Henson: On long projects like games, you can get really immersed in them. You feel you’re part of the creative process because it’s not all happening in post-production like it is in a film. You’re there right from the beginning and you’re integral to the game.
Modal: Do you prefer it to advertising or TV work?
Alexis Smith: We don’t really do ads anymore because we didn’t enjoy that. That’s the opposite of what we like to get involved in with creative people in long projects and doing interesting music together. That’s not really our thing,
Working on a television series is a completely different thing. We don’t prefer one over the other. They’re just different and it’s nice to have a variety because it keeps you fresh.
Joe Henson: So we’re looking forward to having a little break and doing music for TV for a little bit and then at some point hopefully get onto another game.
Alexis Smith: More importantly, we work on projects. We don’t mind necessarily what they are. We just work on projects that excite us, that we think are really good and that we can get that buzz from.
Joe Henson: And we never really said let’s not do artists anymore. If somebody came along and it’s at the right time, maybe we would. I love writing songs too. So we kind of just follow our path.
Alexis Smith: The important thing is to believe in the project.
Modal: Joe being a non-classically trained musician, are there any judgments or snobbery you have to overcome if you wish to work on orchestrations?
Joe Henson: You sometimes get that, but it’s never been a problem with a client or when sat with an orchestra.
Alexis Smith: Most directors love music. A lot of them love music and the musicians, they don’t necessarily tend to be trained musicians either.
Joe Henson: And the musicians we work with love making music.
Alexis Smith: A lot of the great musicians that we come across can’t read music and play by ear.
Modal: How about when you wish to communicate with musicians that do want to follow a score?
Alexis Smith: I have enough training that I can read a musical score and know the language. And we work with people who help us translate what we do to the people in the room sometimes. You’ll need an orchestrator or conductor to translate, but we do all our arrangements ourselves by ear.
Joe Henson: It’s mainly an issue when you’re young and have imposter syndrome. But once you’re over that, no one cares. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a room with 50 musicians. If they’re professional musicians at that level they are completely used to being in rooms with very big composers who don’t have classical music training.
Modal: Thank you. And is there anything you can reveal about projects you’re working on now?
Alexis Smith: We’ve just had Horizon Forbidden West come out.
Joe Henson: And we’ve got Gotham Knights coming out October this year. And then we’re working on something else which is secret. It’s a TV series and we’re really excited about it. I’m sure we’ll talk to you about it when we can.
Modal: Do you have any tips for people who want to become the new generation of aspiring musicians and game composers?
Alexis Smith: Keep writing music. Just write music, write music, write music. Write what you like, not what you think others want.
Joe Henson: And try to find your own voice. Don’t try and sound like somebody else because you think that’ll be popular. Try and find your own voice and your niche.
Modal: Thank you so Alexis and Joe. This has been a fascinating insight into your creative process and working in the top of the game and music industry.