Christian Henson is the prolific composer and co-founder of Spitfire Audio, a British music technology company that produces high end sample libraries, virtual instruments, and software products. Coming up in the game as a drum and bass and breakbeat producer in the 90’s, Christian branched out and taught himself how to orchestrate. Since then, Christian has gone on to score well received films, television series, and video games including Triangle, Black Death, The Devil’s Double, Poirot, Chasing Liberty, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Alien: Isolation, Biggie and Tupac, and Trauma. After connecting with fellow composer, Paul Thomson over Myspace, the pair founded Spitfire Audio with the intention of creating versatile virtual instruments of a higher caliber. Over the course of ten years, Spitfire Audio has released over 50 libraries and attracted collaborations with the likes of Hans Zimmer, Olafur Arnalds, Eric Whiteacre, and London Contemporary Orchestra. In our intriguing discussion, Christian speaks on the composer minded ethos underpinning Spitfire Audio and what to expect next from their burgeoning enterprise.
Spitfire Audio is one of the leading purveyors of sample libraries and virtual instruments. I’m personally a big fan and avid user of your products. Can you tell us about the initial inspiration behind the creation of Spitfire Audio back in 2007?
Thank you! Well, I've actually been talking about this today on my YouTube channel. I think there's a reason why Spitfire is a partnership, but initially, it all started with an experiment with my brother. We made a sample of a charango, a small Andean guitar instrument. I just asked him to make every note sound different, which was like sampling 101 back then. I put it into EXS on Logic and played it through, and it was the most extraordinary sample I had ever played. I think that week Paul Thomson, my business partner now, had done a similar experiment with a violin, and we found ourselves on MySpace. We both agreed that we could make samples the same way you record music. I think that our personality types are similar but different. I'm very much a thinker and not a doer. I love to have a creative idea and sit on it a bit before jumping in, whereas Paul a thinker AND a doer. He gets the bone between his teeth and off he goes. I guess that's the importance of this partnership born of total serendipity.
Can you elaborate more on your core concept of “making samples the same way you record music”?
I think the obsession with sample recording ten years ago, was to cut out all of the extraneous information. So, it's about getting the player to play every note the same, getting the microphone as close to you as possible, to not get the room, and to not get any other noise other than the instrument itself. If we're recording a tuba player, he is being recorded with microphones that are 20, 30 feet away from him. We capture the room and the air that the player is moving around within it and we get the computers to reduce the noise, as opposed to getting the computers to recreate the room. It was, back then, literally the opposite of what was prescribed to record samples. I felt that the digital nature of how things were being recorded might be a culprit. So, for our very first commercial release, I found that because tape bevels the edges off, suddenly you weren't multiplying these 10k+ digital frequencies. It was all softened off with all of that magic of the tape. If anything, you were apt to find the magic of the tape as opposed to the unpleasantness of digital recording. That, I think, has been a good thing for us as well. Instead of everything being sharp and brittle, everything was kind of softened off.
What events led to forging a collaboration with legendary composer, Hans Zimmer?
Most composers you meet are excellent at gathering sounds, putting them together and arranging them, but every one in ten composers that you encounter is obsessed with actually making sounds. So, it's not about going and buying garam masala from the supermarket, it's actually about grinding the spices yourself. With Hans, we went to have a chat, and we said, “Listen, we should do some work together.” He acknowledged that we were copying a lot of what he was doing, but we're doing silly things like recording it to tape, which he would never dream of. And I think that he went away and just kept an eye on us. I think that to use his words; he likes how ‘reckless’ we were. I don't think many collaborations would have put together an orchestra of 330 odd string players, for example. But it was a great moment for me when his office called and said, “He wants to speak to you” and he said, “Let's work together.” It was like “Yeah, absolutely.” He said, “Do you have to ask Paul?” I went, “Nope.”
How long did it take for you to produce and road test his latest release, Hans Zimmer Strings? I understand it featured 334 string players and was recorded at AIR Studios in London.
I would say, a couple of years, which isn't, by any means, the longest production cycle. Alongside making sounds, which Hans loves, Paul, myself, and Hans shared this admiration for the romance of sampling. Even Hans, on the biggest budgets, would have difficulty justifying marshaling an orchestra of this size. This is the magic of sampling. Hans understands that you can actually create something that is impossible to do in the real world. You can make something, that is so small and tiny and silent, be the loudest thing in the room.
Generally, what is the average amount of time allocated to create one of your products?
We have a basic understanding that one day in the studio would be three three-hour sessions, that would create three months of post-production. One day equals three months of post-production, along with the editing, programming, noise reduction, tuning, all sorts of stuff that we have to do. So for example, if we released Studio Strings a week or so ago, and we started recording that four years ago.
You and your co-founder, Paul Thomson both actively work as composers. How do you balance your time between these pursuits and running Spitfire Audio?
We've got a new CEO, we have a new investor, and a team of 50 people and they all understand the importance that Paul and I continue to work as composers. We're very fortunate to have Spitfire support us in those endeavors, and occasionally, we'll literally go off the radar. I also made a personal decision a couple of years ago about how much of my time would be spent on Spitfire and how much time would be spent composing. I was doing about 50 projects a year as a composer, about 4-5 years ago. I simply decided to only work on the really good jobs and jobs for people I love, and as a consequence, I've gone from 50 to 5 a year.
Can you tell us about your favorite piece of music you’ve ever written? What was it used for?
It's in a movie called Triangle — that's a very ambitious movie. I created a blend of haunting female solo vocals, and a Steve Reich style microphone choir, and a chamber orchestra, but just made up of cellos. So, it was fourteen cellos split into sections, first cello, second, viola cellos, and cello cellos. The first cellos were playing in first violin registers. I'm really proud of that score, but the reason it's my favorite is the solo female vocal, not only beautiful, but the start of a relationship that ended up with us getting married. If it weren’t for that score, I wouldn't be married to this wonderful woman, and we wouldn't have two wonderful children. So, that's the most important to me.
Which Spitfire Audio libraries do you personally gravitate towards most?
That's very easy. It's Chamber Strings. We remade it about five years ago now. I still feel that's my absolute favorite library. I would also say soft piano in Labs just seems to work when I’m playing it; I guess because I played the samples in originally. It's brought me so much pleasure because I'll be watching something like the film, Lion with tears coming down my face and I'll hear my fingernail playing the default setting. It's like someone is playing me playing this thing, and that's great.
I heard that Spitfire will be entering a collaboration with renowned production music company, Extreme Music. Are there any details you can share about this forthcoming project?
Russell of Extreme wanted to check out the demos on our site and see if there's something we can do with those. Paul and I concluded that we approach demos in a very forensic manner. Also, we're a growing group of composers within Spitfire. I think what we liked about the Extreme option was… I think the demos are going to get even better if we know that, potentially, they're going to get on albums and be used as production music. So, you know, they felt like a good match. I've always maintained that there are three pillars to the music industry. There are the artist-led pop and rock stars that are synchronized, the music that is commissioned to picture, and there's library (or production) music. And I think they’re all as vital to our musical landscape as each other.
What can you tell us about the latest advances in sampling technology and the concept of “generative,” which is used explicitly in video games?
It's very primitive at the moment, but it's definitely going that way. When I worked on Alien: Isolation, if you died more than twice, they literally switched the music off because it got too repetitive. Well, we know as composers, you could simply change the key or the arrangement of exactly the same piece to prevent this. I think what's really interesting about both TV and computer games is that both industries still aspire to mix the music with the movie aesthetic. I look forward to certain computer games stepping beyond that.
What are the most promising innovations that you foresee in the virtual instrument space?
That's an interesting question! I think innovations will not be technological, but they will be simply artistic ones. I can’t tell you what those will be. We’re very fortunate because we now have the respect and trust of the composing fraternity, and composers will continue coming to us with these conceptual innovations. We'll hopefully come up with them ourselves, but I think a good example of that is my very good friend, Sam Sim who came up with the concept of British Drama Toolkit, which was velocity led, how-to-write-stuff that's expressive but whilst keeping both hands on the keyboard.
What can we look forward to from Spitfire Audio in the near future?
Well, we've recorded a choir library, so I think that's possibly very exciting. The idea is that basically, we want to stimulate a generation of orchestral music makers. That's what we're going to do. We're going to find new collaborators, new rooms to record in, new opportunities. We're creating YouTube content, but there's something beyond any partnership we've had up to date that will be coming in the next year or two. It is bigger than Hans Zimmer, and it's the biggest collaboration you could imagine.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing | Paul Goldowitz
Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Christian Henson, Charlotte Ratcliffe, and Spitfire Audio.