Rich Aitken is a composer, producer and sound mixer who has worked on a variety of TV, movie and video game projects over the years. Rich is and in many ways has always been more focused on being a mixer and producer than being a composer of music.
“I’ve had a long career mixing records, TV scores, film scores and game scores,” detailed Rich. “I’ve written for all those media too but games often require a lot of music so there is more opportunity to write more! I’ve been mixing since 1990. The composition part reflects that I was a songwriter on EMI for many years so maybe that’s where the writing part still pokes its head up. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy writing and composing but production is where I contribute the most. I mean, I get to work with wonderful composers like Joris de Man or Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exclusively a composer…. there are such incredibly creative people out there and I’m stunned at the talents I see in the composition world. I like to work with those people.”
When it comes to pursuing this particular career, Rich recommends that anyone interested to network heavily. “Your skills in the creative element are a given; you need to know what you are doing. More importantly you need to speak to people and be dependable,” detailed Rich. “Don’t try and be ‘cool’… there’s always somebody cooler. Just be efficient, courteous and work with people. I’m definitely not the sort of person to put myself in competition with anyone. I know a lot of great mixers and producers and I LIKE being pals with them. Enjoy the industry, enjoy what others who do what you do bring to the table. Oh and always listen to your clients, they know what they want.”
Fast and Furious Composing
Rich has worked on the music for a number of driving games over the years. Rich indicates that this originated with the work on on the game Driver 2.
“My career started in the music industry; I was cutting records. I knew how to make a killer authentic vintage vibe. The developers at Reflections wanted some music that sounded like a cool Cuban record from 1972 for Driver 2… I could do it,” said Rich. “I think the rest of that spiraled from being involved in a title that was, well, a hit! I don’t think its anything special in me at all, but if you’ve provided something cool for a title that people liked then it naturally attracts others towards you. That’s why the old saying goes ‘you’re only as good as you’re last hit!!’.”
“I was a songwriter signed to EMI and a touring musician. I played for a few bands as a session player and I also had my own band who put records out (and CDs… this is the 90s). I got involved in the internet age very early on – too early really. I put a lot into music promotion over the internet in 1995. Way too early,” Rich continued. “My first forays into writing music for games was really just as music that sounded like it could be a license. I didn’t get into the narrative side of it until later. With respect to interactive music, I worked with Jon Cartwright at Blitz to make such a thing for Taz: Wanted. That was fun!!! He is a great guy and he was ahead of the curve in ambition for music use in games.”
Over time, Rich worked on games in shooter series like Far Cry and Killzone, which was more just a reflection of general trends in the gaming industry rather than an innate desire, according to Rich. “I think they’ve somewhat spread into more broad narratives over the years, but shooting, driving fast… those were big maxims for a long time!” said Rich. “Mind you, that is very true in movies too!”
While Rich is familiar with sound work for both TV, movies and games, they note that games require a lot more work than a linear media. “The type of music is very different too,” detailed Rich. “I don’t mean the genre. They’re broadly similar; a bit of everything. The structure of the music is different, apart from cut scenes. With film it’s very linear, very narrative, very subtext driven. In game it’s very reflective and responsive to whats going on. In terms of mix, though, its pretty similar.”
Life in Music
Rich says that music has been a part of their life as long as they can imagine. Between playing various instruments and recording, music has been a vital part of Rich’s life, even during school.
“In production and mix work, I will usually listen to the guide mix from the client after having had a chat with them,” Rich said of the reactive process. “I try to understand the emotive context they are pushing. After that it’s about looking for tonal frameworks I can start to hang a hat on; how do the strings want to sound? What ‘tonality’ should the piece take? You can’t mix to a template. If an artist and composer has taken the time to creative contextual emotions in a piece of music, it’s up to me to expand upon it and help make that emotive message as translatable as possible. It has to convey the same depth on an iPhone or a cinema. My creative process invariably involves lots of cups of tea, a lot of thinking and a lot of pacing around.”
“In a compositional content it’s very much about paying attention to what the director or game designer wants,” Rich continues. “I’m not trying to be a dominant artist, I’m trying to serve an artistic vision for someone else. So I’ll have broad strokes ideas but then find the meat of the music in working with others. As always, it’s about the communication of ideas and the relationships between those making the creative work.”
When it comes to inspiration, Rich said, “If you listen to a lot of music, you have a lot of ideas. Funnily enough, though, I get most of my ideas when driving around. Things drop into ones head!”
Adversity and Triumph
One universal experience Rich has had, regardless of whether it’s for TV, films or games is hitting deadlines. Responding to feedback and delivering everything in a timely fashion is always a challenge.
“Delivering things on time is a hell of a responsibility. This is also the most rewarding part. Bringing the emotive level up for the clients on the project. I thoroughly enjoy getting project leads what they want and when I get that right… it’s big boon,” said Rich, adding, “The most painful experience was sending off the first draft of about 80 mixes for a game. I loved them; I’d hit what I thought was the right tone… raw, brutal etc. The response back was shattering: ‘this is terrible, we’re questioning whether we should have used you’. I was gutted. I got on the phone and rather than try and justify what I’d done, I said, ‘Okay – I agree. Let’s get it right’. We talked for an hour….. I went back to the mixes and reworked them . All in one week. Second delivery… pow. Nailed them all. Without my clients feedback I would not have been able to do it. The solution was working with the client and not against them. Mixing is a collaboration. They made those mixes happen and, to this day, it’s some of the best work I’ve done.”
Another painful thing that Rich has had to deal with are creative blocks. “When I was younger it used to be a real pain. Sometimes, I’d just try and work through. However, that isn’t the best way,” noted Rich. “For me, take a break, do something else, put a record on… or go and browse through a record store (we have a great one nearby). Go to a coffee shop; see people. Talk to other people who do what I do… it all helps.“
These low points make the highs in Rich’s career that much better. “I love the mixes on Far Cry 2. I love the mixes on Rob Manning ‘How We Invented the World’ (a TV series). I really enjoyed working with Sean Callery on 24. But what lead to them? My whole career has been a set of paths that lead to every moment. I probably wouldn’t have done Far Cry 2 if it wasn’t for 24 etc,” detailed Rich. “However, the real nice moment is attending to the Ivor Novello awards and Killzone 2 winning ‘best game score’. I’d mixed Joris’ wonderful work and that was a thrill.”
Get Emotionally Involved, Sell Your Vision
When it comes to making sure music fits, Rich recommends that composers and mixers listen to their client. Knowing what the client is trying to do and not just slapping a generic melody everywhere can save time and lead to better results.
“With mixing, I try and keep a sound stage that doesn’t wander all over the place (a real noticeable thing in games and an obvious reason to have a decimated music producer as well as mixer). Once I’ve got a sonic signature running I try and make sure it stays for the entire game. It’s hard work and MUCH harder than mixing film score – the non-linearity of it makes it tough,” said Rich. “I’d encourage AAA titles to ALL mix in calibrate rooms – many do. And I’d encourage composers to collaborate with a mixer or producer; it really frees them up. When I compose I get others to mix and it really helps. As much as composers have to mix a lot for themselves these days, it’s not a great solution. Music is communication and that includes working with others for performance and sonic reasons.”
“Music budgets are getting thin and the competition is getting fierce. Composers are having to mix their own work because they can’t always afford the budget or time to outsource. That’s not great for them or their art,” Rich notes. “I see more automated tools and I see mentoring composers in mixing. I’m planning for that at the moment!”
When asked about communicating with developers, Rich says it’s important to speak face to face wherever possible. “Let them see artwork, let them see demos. Provide them with game play videos – no matter how raw. And keep encouraging them! Sell them your ideas for music and sound. A good composer, sound designer, mixer or producer will invest themselves into your idea… so sell them it! No matter whether you’re a trained musician or just speaking in comic book vernacular, sell them your vision. Get them emotionally invested and the resultant sound will reward you much more deeply,” concluded Rich.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.