Over the last few years Paul Leonard-Morgan has amassed a significant body of work that's diverse and confident. Whether it's creating the sound of Dredd or finding the happiness in Despicable Me shorts, he's a rock producer at home with a 100-piece orchestra.
His new work is a first outing in video game scoring: Battlefield: Hardline. Leonard-Morgan uses the talents of rock drummer Josh Freese (who has worked with diverse acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Devo, the Vandals, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus) to create a rock-centric score with grand orchestration that makes the score a high-water mark for the busy composer.
Recently Leonard-Morgan fit me in at the end of a recording session to talk about his last few years and what has led to Battlefield.
Battlefield: Hardline feels like a cousin of your score to Dredd. Do you feel their sounds are linked in any way?
It's funny: when I came onto the project about two years ago they had obviously heard the Dredd score and said, "Oh yeah, we really like that," but you know how these things go. This was the first game I had done and what I didn't realize is that in the space of 18-20 months things can change quite dramatically. So, although in the beginning it was "we like Dredd, we like Dredd," suddenly we realized after about two months of working on it that it wasn't the same vibe. We wanted it more band-y, wanted it more guitar-led. It's definitely got throwbacks to the Dredd vibe and that was definitely the starting palette, but I think it moved away. There's less vintage synth.
How did they decide to bring you aboard?
There's a guy called Paul Gorman who's their audio director, up in San Francisco at Electronic Arts. We had a chat at the outset and he had heard Dredd and a couple other of my tracks and he really liked the vibe of it. At the beginning of Battlefield: Hardline, obviously it's a cops and robbers game, he said, "Look, we're going to make this sound different from all the other Battlefields. So yes, it's Battlefield, but the whole look and feel of it is going to be different."
What I thought was a cool idea was to just bounce ideas off each other from a soundtrack point of view. So, we set up this huge Spotify playlist that by the end of it was like 300 tracks. This was really cool, because now if you picture the score going along these lines it's got your whole palette — a sort of urban '70s vibe, but brought up to date. I think the whole sound of the game has a really modern feel to it, but then it's got those guitar-led sounds, which goes back to I'll call it the orange juice sounds: bands in the '70s and '80s with this really raw guitar sound.
You seem to really gravitate to orchestrating distortion and really do something with it that others cannot, where it's part of the construction and poetry of the sound rather than just noise.
It's weird. I am classically trained, so I am used to working with 100-piece orchestras and then I started working with bands, and there's something about the sound of guitars that I've always loved. Even if it's a crystal clean sound, there's some sort of harmonic distortion on it or frequencies on it. Then I started getting into vintage synths. So, it's been this whole transition of my musical experience.
I worked with a band from Glasgow called Mogwai. Lovely guys and amazing band. I remember working with them and seeing the walls and walls and walls of guitars the boys were just cutting up in Pro Tools and thinking, "How is anything going to cut through that?"
I just started experimenting with it. Everyone thinks they have to be this huge talent — "stay away from the plug-ins, they're difficult to use" — but you just start mucking around with it. For me, I take a bass sound, run it through distortion — that's how the whole Dredd sound came about, basically. I ended up layering up three basses with three different distortions and then just mucked around with them, and there is something about the clarity of having three distorted rings to it: it wasn't just this big wall of sound, but this one big fat sound. So, there's a lot of space for things in the mix.
Typically then, you start where your guitars are. You can have a totally distorted guitar sound coming down the side, but for me there is something beautiful about that, even if it's just a wall of feedback. There are things you can do with it. I don't try to create a cacophony of sound that gives you a headache. You can have this very beautiful experience by having this horrid screechy sound. You just fade it in and out through reverbs and everything else. My head is clearly twisted, but it really appeals to me to create something beautiful out of something that is really quite grim.
For me that's what's always been interesting about your work is that it is beautiful. It isn't just drums and guitars clanging together; it's arranged as you would a classical composition rather than just put together.
That's quite a good phrase.
Is a lot of your work post-production manipulation, or is it front-end recording?
It's all manipulation afterwards. I'm an absolutely awful guitarist. So, I have two guitarists I call upon. They play the stuff and then I like to go spend hours mixing around with it.
On the soundtrack to the film Limitless there's a shot of Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. Bradley Cooper's character is high on drugs, and I said, "Look, I need an orchestra to create this sound," and the producers looked at me like I was mad and I said, "No, I really really do." We went off and spent a few days in London, recorded the orchestra, but in the end, what I did with it was stuck it on a reel-to reel, reversed it because it had a different vibe than if we just stuck it in Pro Tools; I then put it through this tiny little Philips amp with a mic stand over the amp and recorded it like that. I remember getting back and the producer said, "It sounds great, but is there actually an orchestra in there?" I couldn't have created that sound without actually having the orchestra. If I'd just done it with a synth it wouldn't have sounded the same.
So, you do need that stuff at the front end: the incredible players, to begin with, to have the ability to then go make it sound good. It's fun, though. Anyone can sit down and kind of play with it without ever having an idea where it's going. With the Dredd soundtrack I used this program called Paul's Stretch, which Alex [Garland] and Geoff Barrow [of Portishead] had found. That was how I ended up creating this track called "Mama's Requiem."
I wrote this song for it: it was like a three-and-a-half-minute track, which then slowed down so much — it was like 8,000% — and you have no idea whether that's going to work out or not. Things like that are fun: it's as much producing as composing.
Have you, then, found it pretty easy to fold into whatever the sound designers are doing, whether it be for a game or a film? Can you have a common conversation?
I don't like hearing when music starts; whether it's a film or a game, when you're totally aware of it kicking in. It takes you out of the moment. So, I really like it when the sound design and the music blends in. I like when you're not quite sure if it's music or sound design.
With the game in particular what was pretty cool was I was shown how they do it, how they load in the music. Everything is a trigger point. So we'll look at a scene — like the everglades, here's a swamp — we're going along on a boat and there's going to be four layers. There's one layer as soon as you get on the boat, he writes in a bit of code and as soon as you get on the boat the game will start playing one of my tracks. So that's layer one, which has to be about three minutes long; it's got to be loopable and sound like a really cool track as it is, but there can't be too much going on because you might be on the boat for 30 minutes and you'll kill yourself if you hear that music for 30 minutes.
Suddenly you turn right and one of the baddies is coming toward you and that's layer two. So, another track starts coming in on top of track one to make it sound more threatening, a little more action going on. Then he pulls out his guns and it's full-on battle and layer four comes in with tons of drums.
It was this whole thing and I was trying to look at this and say, "It's like writing a track, but only having certain elements of the track in there. But they all have to work at the same time." So, I said, "if we're going to do this, let's get some of the best drummers in the world." Josh Freese comes in, he's smashing away at the skins, so basically every time you are pulling a drum you've got a Nine Inch Nails drummer playing behind you.
That's what it's about. Bringing the best people you can to a project to bring the best out of the project. Anybody can program up drums, but if you're going to make it authentic, get these incredible musicians. Let's make it like a band or orchestra.
So, for this that was one of the elements. There's a track called "Weedhouse" where I took Josh's drums and ended up reversing them, distorting them and putting delay on them. They don't even sound like drums anymore, so I combined that with sounds of bullet effects. We recorded a bunch of gun shots up in East L.A., and I took that and created a drum loop out of it. So, no one's ever going to know that it's in there, but at least subliminally I think it's quite cool.
You put all these pieces together and it allows it to become something you couldn't imagine at the start.
Totally. They just evolve. It's fun, but it's different and you get creative. I've never worked on a project for 18-20 months before and by the end of it — particularly the last three months or so — we were firing on all cylinders. It takes that long to get it all together while you've been making different tracks for the project, but by that stage you've got your palette together, and you say "All right, I've already got these guitar sounds. Now let's put these guitar sounds on this level and hear it play different tunes."
The difference is, it's not like listening to a CD where you go, "Oh, that's a cool track, that's a cool track." It's all got to work in tandem with the game. Some of them work really well as standalone pieces, whereas other tracks sound a bit weird [without] visuals. But, first and foremost it's the soundtrack for the game.
Was the length of time refreshing or imposing?
It's not full-on. When you're working on a film soundtrack you're on it the entire time: two months, three months, however long it takes. Whereas on this, you do a couple tracks for a level, then you don't hear anything for a month, and then there's another thing. In one sense it's annoying because when I get into the zone I like writing a whole lot of tracks because I'm into it. But, what was really refreshing was the ability to go back and make tweaks, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It gives you time to digest where you are with the music. It definitely has its pros and cons.
On the Everglades tracks you brought in a slide guitar. Was that difficult to integrate because it's such a distinct sound for the rest of the palette?
Not so much that it was difficult. For me, again, I wanted to keep it in the guitar-poppy sort of vibe. So, it's got these really big, thumping drums going on underneath it. We brought in a Cajon, a kind of box that percussionists sit on and hit. I didn't just want to stick in a harmonica going, "Oh, now we're in the Everglades, let's put on a harmonica, this will be original."
We had the slide steel guitar coming in and I sampled it up so instead of having it play a tune, I bit-crushed it: took it down to eight-bit, I think, might have been 12-bit — and made this hook out of it. So it comes in being treated like a sample the same way you might sample up an old seventies riff or however you might sample a guitar riff, I just thought "this will be quite fun, record a whole load of this, work out what works and take one or two of the riffs, chop them up so it feels like a short sample being triggered," and then I just built the track around that.
Was doing the record for this different than when you've done films that have a narrative to guide you?
The one complaint I got from the fanboys of Dredd was that none of the tracks were ever long enough: the longest track was three-and-a-half minutes long. So, I just decided that what you hear on the Battlefield: Hardline soundtrack is not what you would hear in the game necessarily, because there are so many levels and trigger points. I wanted to create some tracks I would actually listen to that are four to five minutes long. Hopefully what are on the soundtrack are tracks that remind people of the game itself from when they were on a certain level, but at the same time they are fun to listen to so you don't have to hear them in tandem with the game. The actual soundtrack acts as proper standalone tracks.