The music of Alien: Isolation - MCV

The music of Alien: Isolation

We talk to composers Joe Henson and Alexis Smith about their work on Creative Assembly's sci-fi horror hit
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The musical duo of Joe Henson and Alexis Smith is becoming more and more prolific in the world of video games.

The pair have created the score for titles ranging from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag – for which Henson and Smith created an entire soundtrack just for the multiplayer mode – to more unusual titles like LittleBigPlanet Karting and Sesame Street Kinect TV.

Most recently, the two were responsible for composing the soundtrack for Alien: Isolation, providing the terrifying tones that accompanied players' encounters with the deadly Xenomorph. We caught up with them to find out more about the process...

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How did you come to score Alien: Isolation? Did you pitch to Creative Assembly or did they approach you?
Joe Henson: They approached us to pitch. We went down to meet them and have a sneak peak at what they were doing, and we were hooked.

How does the soundtrack for this game differ from those youve previously scored?
Henson: This was our first horror game. So probably the scariest and most atmospheric music we have ever had to score. 

What was your experience of the Alien franchise beforehand? Are you fans?
Alexis Smith:
We are all huge fans. Alien is one of those films that we still watch every year. It was an honour to be part of such an iconic franchise. 

The music is usually going hell for leather when the Alien is close… because basically you are about to die – again! 

Where did you start when trying to find the right sound for Alien: Isolation? What was the process?
Smith:
We studied the film and original score, then discussed what makes the Alien sound so unique. Christian (Henson, who worked with us on the score) then wrote a nine-minute long suite, exploring some of the themes that had been licensed. We also did some large aleatoric orchestral sessions, covering the material that is impossible to do with samples. This gave us a lot of bespoke assets to use from demo through to the mix stage.

Is there a particular tone or instrument you used to represent the Xenomorph?
Henson:
We didn’t assign a single sound to the Xenomorph. The music is usually going hell for leather when it’s close… because basically you are about to die – again! 

How did you ensure it fit with the music of the original film?
Smith:
Creative Assembly licensed the key themes from the original Jerry Goldsmith score. So we were lucky enough to be able to use those without having to pastiche. This was very important, and gave us an authentic starting point from which to continue our explorations.

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How did you ensure it sounded original?
Smith: Although we started from Jerry Goldsmith’s themes, we had almost 200 minutes of music to write, so there was never any question that the vast majority would be original. We wanted to get an electronic element into the score as well as the orchestral sound that he was known for.

We are huge fans of early electronic and ambient music, and felt like this suited the ‘1970s in space’ feel of the game. We looked at the musical journey of the game as kind of a ‘history of horror film’, from orchestral, through the 1980s synth scores, and on to a more processed, artificial modern sound.

This may be subtle to the player but it kept us developing whilst writing the music! When working on such a long score, you don’t want it all to just sound the same, or you can get stale.

There are only so many horror stings that one can write... and I think we’ve done them all

How did you handle making the soundtrack dynamic, so that it flowed seamlessly from quiet to dramatic depending on what happened on screen?
Henson:
We composed the music in a way that could be delivered to the Audio department in a kind of ‘kit form’. This would then be played back by the audio system in a way that interacts with what is happening in the game; where the Alien is, if it knows where you are and so on. 

How did you account for the unpredictable actions of both the player and the Xenomorph?
Smith:
Probably a question best put to the Audio department. We put the music into the system and crossed our fingers.

What did you learn from this experience, and how will you apply that to future projects?
Henson:
Mostly about writing for a highly interactive music system. How to keep the original writing musical and inspiring but not give yourself too much of a mountain to climb when it comes to getting it to work in the game. Also, there are only so many horror stings that one can write... and I think we’ve done them all!

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