We recently welcomed producer and composer Neil Davidge to our Soho service and customer experience centre for an exclusive talk about his long and varied career. Neil, best known for his work with Massive Attack, went into detail about the band’s classic album Mezzanine, his past film, TV and video game projects (including Clash of the Titans, Trouble the Water and Halo 4), his experiences using Pro Tools (since 1994!), and his current film and audio album project, Slo Light. We’ve included a brief recap of some of the topics below…
Beginning with his musical background, Neil first talked about how he came from a musical family, his influences and his early studio equipment (going from 8 track to 16 track), and learning the gear. He also touched on working with lots of different artists around Bristol, doing remixes, editing and helping people produce.
“Initially I just wanted to be making music as much as I could, then you get to a point where you need to pay the bills,” Neil said. “Then you wake up one morning and your girlfriend says ‘I’m pregnant’, and you realise the responsibility’s on you. So for quite some time I got stuck into doing pop production, and would constantly be trying to find the emotional centre of this pop song, listening to the lyrics and talking to the singer. But they just want the song to be as catchy and loud as possible, so I was constantly disappointed at how deep I could actually go.”
Producing Massive Attack – Mezzanine
That depth Neil was looking for may have come after meeting Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja; Neil explained how he met 3D and started working with Massive Attack. “I got a phone call saying ‘Hey, do you fancy working on an album with us?’. Initially, they just needed someone to help them record and get some ideas down. I was thinking it was going to be three weeks’ work, three months’ work, and it ended up being three years’ work!”
But while working on Mezzanine, Neil wasn’t really thinking about just how special the album would become. “There were moments when I did something and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s great’, but it’s always very much in the moment when you feel that, and then the next day you listen to it and it doesn’t really have the same connection. But then you listen to it another three months later and realise that actually it was really good. That’s the bizarre thing about creativity, it all depends on your state of mind. It was very much the same with 3D – he’d come into the studio one day, we’d listen to the sketches we’d been working on and then think that everything was rubbish and we had to start again. At one point, we recorded ten hours of music over the course of two weeks, spent six months working on it, trying to make it into an album, then ended up throwing it all away and starting from scratch!”
Neil then touched on the technical side of producing Mezzanine, the different systems and platforms used, and the changes in his creative process. “I started on the Atari ST because that had been my setup, but I was plonked in Massive Attack’s new studio and they had this Mac with Cubase Audio sat there. I didn’t really want to touch it, but as it started to appear that it was going to take a lot longer than three months, I thought I’d dive in. I felt really unlocked by the ability to record stuff then cut it around and turn it into something completely different. It was quite a revolution as I’d always felt quite frustrated in the studio working straight to tape – having Cubase Audio was like ‘Oh my God, I can completely change this performance’.”
Working in TV, film and games
Following his work with Massive Attack, Neil then began scoring and composing, working in TV and film: “After Mezzanine was released, I couldn’t watch a film or TV show without hearing a track from the album – or something that sounded eerily like it! I always felt an affinity with film and TV anyway, I’m very visually-led anyway. Emotions and colours and smells are what music is to me, so the idea of doing film and TV scores seemed obvious.”
Neil also composed for Halo 4, one of the biggest selling games series of all time. “I did find [Halo] quite challenging, I don’t know how composers score for games and make it really connect with an audience,” Neil said. “You have to just have a really good team, and everyone on the same page. I’d be writing a piece of music to four lines and a few pictures that would make the audience know the person just from the piece of music. If I sit there and read a script for a TV series and think it’s quite humorous but really dark at the same time, I can start imagining this sound world, with these cavernous drums and crazy jazz and electronic driving stuff. Then I see the rushes and think it’s a different show!
“With games, it’s even more so, as everyone has their own impression and it’s not until the final moment when everything comes together that you really know what it is. For Halo, I was involved for a long time, but some of the guys were working for a big period before I came on, and a big period after I left and handed all the music over, by which point it had turned into something different. If I did it again, I think I would want to be involved right from the beginning and see it right to the very end, because I’m trying to communicate something for an audience so they get an experience and understanding of the characters when they play the game or watch the TV show.”
Neil then went on to talk about working in Avid Pro Tools, before a Q&A session with the attendees. “Just getting in [Pro Tools], editing audio around and tuning things is a massive thing for me. These days, I’m working a lot in TV, and I build what I call these ‘spotting sessions’, where I have the whole episode and I’ll be cutting together various sketches and overlaying them very much like a music editor would, building up a collage of a score. But I’ll also be writing in that same session, putting strings in and some extra beats, mixing and matching with various bounces, time stretching and pitching bounces around. Essentially I can spend maybe four days working on an episode, throwing in fresh ideas, and after that I can have written 40 minutes of music. It’s a really nice way of working, it’s been developing over a long period of time, and I feel like it keeps getting fresher, and I keep blurring the lines between writing and editing and mixing.”
– Missed our Evening with Neil Davidge event? Be sure to keep an eye out for all our upcoming events over at our Events page.