We are thrilled to present you an interview with the sound engineer of Horizon: Zero Dawn soundtrack. Rich Aitken in his recent work for Guerrilla Games prepared a huge amount of material composed by many great musicians and recorded in multiple venues. Complexity was a challenge in this project, but teamwork, good attitude, and experience are the building blocks of a good musical material. We encourage you to read this interview and find out how important it is to have a dedicated and skilled engineer who can influence raw music material to “be more orange”!
We encourage you to read this interview and find out how important it is to have a dedicated and skilled engineer.
gamemusic.net: Do you think it is important that the composer doesn’t mix & master his/her own works? What are the benefits of having a specialized engineer?
Rich Aitken: Do I think it’s important? Tricky question… I think that all the best music has been produced by teams. There is certainly a lot to me said for people who are experts in their feudal. If you want a great violinist – do you hire one or try and do it yourself? Granted – a lot of simple sets are pretty good straight away but getting a second perspective on your own work is a very useful thing. I feel that the distance one gains by being new to a musical piece is invaluable to the composer. My role is to look at what the modern composer has written, recorded etc and try to expand upon the emotive content.
The secondary part of the job is to ensure that it sounds as good as possible on as wide a range of playback systems as possible. Finally it’s also about a composer taking advantage of targeted experience. I HOPE the answer is “I make it better and allow the composer to critique something “. That in itself is useful. However its not that mixing music for film or game is a specialised engineer. This is the normal way to do things. Its only recently that many are forced into the position of working alone and mixing their own work. That is not a positive step for the industry – music is a communicative and collaborative art form; reducing the collaboration makes it much harder on the composers.
gamemusic.net: How do you recall working on Horizon: Zero Dawn? The material is huge. How long did it take for you to prepare everything?
Rich Aitken: Not long enough! I mixed a lot of music for that project. I also recorded the strings for Joris’s compositions and much of the various flutes used throughout the soundtrack. I mix film and game score full time so preparing everything isn’t too difficult. I have my tried and tested routes to follow on set up. I like to listen to the composers mix and look for ways to bring a little more depth and emotion to the project. Sometimes that is a lot of very small processes, other times its very simple broad strokes. Horizon was a tricky mix from the perspective of Joris being an excellent composer and me not wanting to let him down!
That was quite hard! In mastering, the challenge was bringing together three different composition teams works. – Rich Aitken
gamemusic.net: What was the biggest challenge, apart from the sheer amount, in mixing/mastering Horizon: Zero Dawn?
Rich Aitken: The biggest challenge in mixing? I think it was combining the recordings from a couple of different venues. The Circle Percussion was recorded in a very different space to the Strings, for example. Julie was also recorded elsewhere and trying to get her wonderful performance to sit within the music was tricky. Its very easy to be too loud, too quiet etc. That was quite hard! In mastering, the challenge was bringing together three different composition teams works. So we had Joris de Man, The Flight (the very talented Alexis Smith and Joe Henson) & Niels van der Leest . Ensuring we had some consistency in overall sound texture can be tricky.
gamemusic.net: What kinds of tools were the most vital for you while working on newest Guerrilla Games production?
Rich Aitken: Well…. I guess my philosophy on how a mix works? I helps having such great source material to work from. The standard of composition is very high. Julie’s vocal performance is excellent and signature to the overall feel. But apart from that sort of thing, well my mix studio has a sound that really helps me work. You need to mix in a good room to hear what’s going on. In terms of equipment, I’d say that The Chandler Curve Bender EQ and Bricasti Reverbs have played a big part in the overall sound. And I love my speakers – made for me by a great guy called Steve Philips of SP Acoustics. We were also lucky to have a good back end production team in Al Lindsay (at SCEE) plus Lucas and Bastian at Guerilla. There are so many components that go into a production; all resources and assets are valuable. Equipment alone is meaningless. Again, it’s the team.
gamemusic.net: There are multiple in-box mixing & mastering solutions nowadays. Do you think those are enough to prepare good material, or perhaps you need some more expensive hardware?
Rich Aitken: As always, it’s less about the equipment and more about the room and the teams working on a project. One doesn’t need hardware but hardware gives someone like me a different perspective on doing things. However, I hate mixing with a mouse, its restrictive. I have a DCommand console to control ProTools and that helps a lot. I enjoy using many plugins and think that “In The Box” recording has come a long way. So yes… In the Box tools are good enough just as hardware is good enough. There are good ones and bad ones but ultimately it all depends on how you use it. Mixing and production is a creative decision process and part of that process is all about your experience. what YOU bring to the game etc…
gamemusic.net: Are you able to somehow influence creatively soundtrack while mixing it, or is this just a technical process?
Rich Aitken: It’s technical AND creative. Technical because I’m being tasked with ensuring the balance will translate to different playback systems. It’s creative as I’m looking to enhance the intended emotive content through a box of tricks I’ve worked out over many years. Much of that is reflected in a composer’s communication with me; often I’ll be asked to make something more/less epic, intimate, fuzzy, clearer, wider, narrower etc… or given direct references.. “can we get it more like this?”… that sort of thing. Sometimes even “can it be more orange”…!
gamemusic.net: What do you think are the most common mistakes made by sound engineers when mixing game/movie soundtracks?
Rich Aitken: Easy. Not serving the product. The same things apply to mixing as to composition. Serve the picture/game/spoken word. Listen to the composer. Listen to the production director etc. Mixing is a collaborative process. Without the direction of the composers I work with or the products an directors I talk to , I would not be able to finish the job. I’m being hired to bring a level of insight an sound experience to a project… but it’s not MY project. Most things I hear definitely serve their visionaries ell, but every now and then I hear something that is very much a MIX first and film/game music second. Careful with those tools….
I’ll be asked to make something more/less epic, intimate, fuzzy, clearer, wider, narrower etc… or given direct references. – Rich Aitken
gamemusic.net: Which part of your work do you find most interesting and stimulating?
Rich Aitken: Getting the clients what they want! It’s their vision, their music. If I can bring 10% more emotion to a scene and delight the composer… well nothing is more satisfying! I also really life finding something in the mix that may not have been noticed. Of course I consult the composer, but often like to say “hey – I noticed this in your work… shall we make something of it?”… I love that. Generally though – the best thing is just being able to work with some of the industries best composers. I’m gobsmacked at the talents out there. Incredible.