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Page 2: Hildur Guðnadóttir & Sam Slater

Composing With Field Recordings By Tony Bacon
Published April 2022

Heart Of Glass

Another huge project that Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater have worked on together is Battlefield 2042, the Electronic Arts video game introduced in 2021 and staged in a near‑future climate‑disaster resource war. And while they planned again to travel to various suitable locations to find and record sounds for the score, the only place they managed to get to, thanks to Covid restrictions, was a World War II submarine base in Saint‑Nazaire in France. They brought hydrophones and contact mics, and went into the submarines and warships to capture strange sounds. They took the results to Kerwax, a studio in an old boarding school in Brittany run by Christophe Chavanon and Marie Kernéüs. Sam reports that Christophe has a 40‑channel valve console there that he built on his kitchen table. “It’s nuts, really fun,” he says. “And basically, it’s a 40‑channel distortion machine.”

Hildur Guðnadóttir & Sam SlaterHowever, back in Berlin with lockdown under way and no opportunities for sonic outreach. they had to modify their approach, staying put and making sounds in their studio, using all manner of sources and techniques. “We were interested in the idea that we could take the materials of the various levels of the game and create the music from that,” Sam explains, “so that the level comes to life sonically around the players. There are no real, traditional instruments on the whole score.”

One level of Battlefield 2042 is a cityscape where the humans are all gone but the buildings remain. It seemed to Hildur and Sam that there might be some mileage in creating a musical dialogue between people and glass. To do this, Sam says, they built a machine‑learning algorithm with a coder in Berlin. “You feed it material sounds, so in this case, we worked with a percussion wizard, Robyn Schulkowsky, and recorded all these incredible ringing glass and textural glass sounds. Then you ask the algorithm to essentially learn the properties that it thinks are present within glass. So it makes a sort of glass machine. And then you take a voice, enter it into this algorithm, and it will stylistically transfer the sound of one thing on to the sound of the other.”

When you ask the algorithm to process these sounds, he says, it might spurt out 24,000 files in a single process over the course of many, many days. “And then you have to sit and go through the outputs of this machine. It can be so beautiful, and it can be chaotic — and it can be totally empty. It’s a strange technology, and there are already many examples of algorithmic generative machines that go further than what we’ve used by a million miles. But ours felt pretty punk, and we really enjoyed that.”

Doom Without Gloom

Composing and recording the score for a game is of course quite different from working on a movie or TV, thanks in part to its nonlinearity. “That’s what interested me from the beginning,” Hildur says. “It’s an interesting way to write music when you’re not on a timeline. You’re working in a time‑fluid narrative, while the narrative itself can also change — and the person playing the game can influence how the music is working. It was interesting to work outside a story‑based narrative, and go more with this narrative of the surroundings rather than the emotional narrative. In fact, the changes that happen in those surroundings are the things that affect you the most emotionally.”

It’s also important to consider the long‑term potential of the job. When is the music for a game completed? Hildur is working on more levels as we speak, and the game’s producers are constantly responding to feedback. Players might find the footsteps here are too quiet, say, or that the music there needs bolstering, and so on — and EA will release a patch, alter the audio engine and remix things, as appropriate. The music for a game becomes a dynamic object, with its relationship to other sounds within the game constantly evolving. “The whole process is nonlinear,” Hildur says.

At one point in the process, they were talking to the audio director, and someone said how sad it was that they’d just died as a player. The director was unfazed. He told them it was essential to remember that within the context of the game, dying as a player is one of the least important things. Sam laughs at the memory, but at the time he was surprised. “I’m like, what? The guy says ‘Yeah, you just get reborn and chucked back into the game.’”

This is in complete contrast to the thinking when you’re producing material for a movie. “If the protagonist dies in a film, then you’re really in trouble,” Sam says, still smiling. “It’s a different film, suddenly. But within this context, the context of a game, the narrative somehow sits slightly outside of the action itself. So it’s a really different perspective. You can charge all these landscapes and these environments with atmosphere and meaning and excitement, but ultimately that creates a kind of cloud or a space in which the play takes place. It’s a very different way of thinking.”

Hildur comes back to the thought that the score they made for the apocalyptic Battlefield 2042 came out of their explorations around the concept of materials. “And also, it came out of an overwhelming sense of fear and dread as we sat there in the middle of this pandemic. We’d be thinking ‘Oh, my God, is this really where we’re heading?’

“I was trying to turn that feeling into music, but I hope in a way that is motivating rather than doomy. Because when you start thinking about this, especially in times like these, it’s really easy to lose hope and to lose faith. It’s easy to think, well, why should we even bother? But it’s important to us that we don’t lose hope, that we keep working towards a better future. I think that’s the point of this game, and it’s why we chose to be a part of it to begin with. We hope that people will get that feeling as well and hopefully be motivated to take action. Not just to take action to play this game, but also to take action for our planet.”  

From One Studio To Another

Trained cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir has her own unique instrument at hand.Trained cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir has her own unique instrument at hand.

The Kreuzberg studio where Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater met was an inspirational shared space in the middle of Berlin, Sam says. “Lots of great musicians and composers came through. It was the kind of space that could exist in Berlin 20 years ago but just isn’t possible to find now. We’d all meet up in the central kitchen area — part kitchen, part social area, part therapy space. If you look down the credit lists on Hildur’s scores, if you look at the credits on Jóhann Jóhannsson’s scores, on Dustin O’Halloran’s scores, and various other people’s scores during the years we were there, they will mostly consist of the people who were there in those rooms, the people who worked in this great, interwoven space.”

When the Kreuzberg studio closed down, Hildur and Sam had to hunt through Berlin for a fresh place. It turned out their friend Francesco Donadello had some spare capacity at his Vox‑Ton studio, in an old piano factory in the north of the city. Hildur and Sam built two small production rooms into a couple of spaces there — they look about 20 square metres each — and they have the benefit of backing on to the larger main studio.

“I worked with Francesco for over a decade, and he’s engineered most of my work,” Hildur says, referring for example to her 2014 album Saman or the score she composed with Jóhann Jóhannsson for the 2018 movie Mary Magdalene. “So it seemed a logical and extended family situation for us to go to his place to work.” Having two rooms means that Hildur and Sam can be isolated when they need to be, and when they work on larger sessions — or what Sam calls their strange sound‑gathering experiments — they can link all the rooms together. “And then,” he says, “we really can have a lot of fun.”

There’s plenty of gear available, too. “The beautiful main live room here has an old 24‑channel Cadac console,” Sam says. “Francesco bought the history of analogue gear when everyone thought analogue was lame and digital was cool. Now, obviously, the tide has turned. He bought the famous Klein+Hummel mastering EQs, things like that. People were like, ‘Take both of them for a grand,’ and they’re worth, what, 10, 15 times that now?”

Sam’s space is a hybrid affair with some choice outboard available.Sam’s space is a hybrid affair with some choice outboard available.

Sam describes his space as a sort of hybrid environment involving ATC SCM50ASL Pro monitors, an Apogee Symphony MkII (“the king of converters”), and outboard gear including a Tube‑Tech SMC 2B stereo compressor, an Audio & Design F760X‑RS limiter, an Aphex 204 Aural Exciter, a Shadow Hills Equinox rack mixer, a Zahl EQ1 equaliser, a pair of BAE 1073D mic preamps, a Thermionic Culture Vulture saturation processor, an Overstayer 8755DM stereo input channel, an early release of Teaching Machines’ Wellspring reverb system, and a Moog Minitaur bass synth.

“I think the rooms crystallise our working relationship very well,” says Hildur. “My room is dedicated to thinking and receiving music, where Sam’s room is dedicated to the knobs. Not that he doesn’t think of the music as well, but our different thought processes are crystallised right there.” Her work space thus looks positively relaxed, with just a piano, some string instruments, a small desk, and some HEDD Type 20 Mk2 speakers.

DAWs: The Right Tool For The Job

Steinberg’s Cubase is the main DAW used in the compositional process.Steinberg’s Cubase is the main DAW used in the compositional process.Photo: Camille Blake

Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater use different DAW programs depending on what they’re trying to achieve and where they are at in the production process. “If it’s more sound‑design based, we work in Ableton Live as well,” Sam reckons. “We do a Chernobyl live show, which is a 10‑channel immersive concert — pretty fun, very loud! That all runs off Ableton Live.”

But if the work involves more traditional scoring, picture, timecode and MIDI, they’re both pretty much into Cubase. Hildur explains: “I find that when you have to work with sample libraries, for example, when you’re working on a timeline, to picture, I find it most comfortable to work on a fluid timeline, and for that I find Cubase more intuitive, somehow, than Pro Tools, for example.”

Sam too finds the Cubase experience better suited to free‑flowing composition. “Whereas Pro Tools, we’ll see an error message, and it’s aghhhh! You’ll be sidetracked trying to sort all that out — and the idea’s gone. ‘Would you like to save a detailed report?’ No! I would like to make some music! ‘Sorry, this is a mono MIDI channel, and you’re going to stereo.’ Just go away!

“But all of those are the reasons why Pro Tools is perfect for doing the end recording, because it’s precise. When things are actually being recorded in a proper studio, everything is moved to Pro Tools. So all projects end up in Pro Tools at the end — and that’s the sign that you’re about to finish, because you can’t go backwards once you’re in Pro Tools.”