Last week we spoke to Will Helliwell, an aspiring young composer from England. You may listen to the podcast, or read the full transcript below.
Welcome Will and thanks for joining us!
Hey, thanks for having me!
Yeah sure. Great to have you. So Will, tell us a little about yourself, you growing up, developing your passion for music, and how you pursued it as a career path.
Sure. So I grew up in small town in England called Camberley, and I had a nice normal upbringing I suppose. I’ve always been interested in music, so as a child my parents really encouraged me to take music lessons. I started out with a recorder, like most kids do in school, making an awful racket on it. Then I moved on to taking euphonium lessons, and I’m not quite sure why. I think it was my mom, wanting me to be in a marching band for whatever reason. And I thought “OK, euphonium… that would be a good thing”. So I was this little kid, carrying out huge instrument on my back. Then I took organ lessons for few years, and then finally I took guitar lessons, and I’ve sort of stuck with that ever since.
What age was that?
So I think I started guitar at about thirteen!
As I hear it, guitar is one of the most difficult things to master. Am I right?
It would have been a lot easier if I have become proficient in piano I think. Cause like piano is all laid out infront of you, and everything is nice and ordered. And the guitar’s tuned, and then you get to the B-String and it’s tuned in a different way. So, patterns don’t reall work, and shapes are all over the place. So it’s a bit tricky. But you know, at 13 or 14 years old, it was a cool instrument to play.
At your late teen years, you chose to study guitar at the Academy of Contemporary Music, instead of completing your A-Level. Why did you make that decision, and how did it affect you?
Right yeah. I was actually meant to finish my A-Levels. And then I had actually applied to the ACM a year after. So doing my two years A-Level, then going to ACM. But there must have been a mixup somewhere. I don’t think it’s my end I’m sure. It’s their admin end, cause my application got accepted a year early. So when I got that news, I kinda knew I didn’t wanna carry on with college anymore. I was thinking, well I was doing math, further math, philosophy, and performing art. And I thought, playing guitar all day for two years would be way more fun than carrying on with all of that.
How did it affect you you think? Was it the right decision?
Yeah, I think it definitely was. The tricky part was convincing my parents to actually let me go. Because obviously they had to pay for it, and I wasn’t doing this academic anymore. But yeah, I think it definitely was the right decision. I think I would have gone straight away after college anyways. So it just saved me a year basically, doing more math… (chuckles).
And after that you studied music online at Berkley Music College under the BAFTA nominated Jack Wall, who worked in Mass Effect 2. That must have been really exciting. But do you think studying music online is effective? And what do you think are some of its drawbacks.
Yeah I think it’s super effective as a learning tool. You get all the course material in a digital format. So I’m saving everything to EverNote. I mean, my entire life is on EverNote. That just means that you can then look stuff up. You just type it in, and “Oh there is the course material”. It’s not like you have a textbook which you have to find the right page, and flip everything through.
It also means that you can also do work at 1 AM if you want to. You don’t have to do the normal going to school at this time and do that. You wanna work at 1 o’clock in the morning. Yeah you can do it, that’s fine. So that was pretty cool.
I think like the only drawback really to not being there in person is that you don’t really get to interact with the students on the course. So normally you go down the pub or something. You’d go “Oh you wanna come for a quiet night afterwards?” And you’d get to know each other and stuff. But online, you just sort of, there are just some other students taking the course. There is not much interaction outside of the weekly meetup you do.
And is there something like, instead of pub like “Hey ok, we’re gonna go to World of Warcraft and play in that guild.”. Is there anything like that?
Heh… There might have been. I didn’t get involved if there ever was. But that would have been quite a cool thing.
Going to a college, whatever it is, regular or music college, takes time and money, and I heard that question being asked before from high schooler during Game Music Connect, where the girl asked “shall I spend my parent’s money, and go waste 2–4 years on college, or shall I just try to learn on my own and go straight for the experience?”. What do you think?
That’s definitely a tricky one, as it really depends on your personal situation. But I’d say, if nobody is gonna get into debt, like if your parents aren’t worried about spending the money, or even if it’s your money, if you’re not gonna get into debt, then I’d say it’s quite a good idea to go. Cause I mean you’re young. You’ve got loads of time ahead of you. There is no need to get stuff done right now. And it’ll probably turn out that the people you meet at college will be your contacts for the next ten years. You can sort of call and go “Oh I’ve got this gig, can you sort of help out on this thing?”. So you’ll actually have people to do that with.
But then obviously the second option is to go straight into the real world, and see what you can make of that. I think it would take a bit longer, cause you have to network a lot, and obviously learn a lot by yourself, but I mean you’ve got YouTube now obviously. And that can just tell you how to do everything, if you just wanna sit there and learn.
It’s doable both ways, and obviously a lot cheaper if you don’t go to college. But I think you’ll be missing out on the contacts. That I think will be the main thing. All the people you can meet, and keep in touch with for ten years. That will be the one thing you’d miss out on.
Mentioning that, are you still in close contact with the people you met during college?
Ahh yeah… My best friend went to ACM as well. He went a year before me. I think that was part of the drive for me to go as well. I was like “Ah I really wanna, just go to college and play guitar with him.”. So I’m obviously still friends with him, and the people he kind of knew there drummers and bassers and stuff. That sort of little contact on facebook and things. You can ask them for advice.
So Will, we first met at Game Music Connect back in 2015, and you told me you were trying to get into the game industry. And there was a pattern where most of the composers I met that day were actually trying to get into the game industry. One and a half years later, how far have you come towards achieving that goal. And what are your plans in the future towards that?
I’d say I’m a little forward towards the goal. Not as far as I’d thought I’d be. But yeah, I’m a little further. I’ve written music for a game jam, and I’ve done a couple of friends video projects. And I’m in talk with music library at the moment about signing some of my tracks with them. So I’m definitely further ahead then I was. Just not on any actual games yet.
It seems getting into the game industry as a composer is a bit more challenging than as a developer, where as a programmer you can just download any game engine like Unity, get something together quickly, then get to call yourself a game developer, or game designer, even if the game sucks. For you it’s different. What do you think are the main challenges that you would face in the industry?
Oh.. well you’re really relying on other people as a composer. So you need someone to come along and say “Yeah I trust you to work on my project”. So unless you can create a game yourself, you have to rely on this other person, I’d say to come along really. You have to find this other person and say “Hey, can I work on your project?”. So that’s the tricky thing.
But then if you’ve got the skills, like the guy who made Stardew Valley. I mean, it took him four years, but he did everything on that! So he’d done the music, and the art, and just absolutely everything! And it turned out to be this amazing game. But for those of us who don’t have those sort of skills, I think there is a sort of supply and demand issue. There is lots and lots of people wanting to be composers. So it’s really just trying to get out there and find someone who wants to hire you and work with you really.
The funny thing is, I was in London at a Unity event (LUUG), and there was about a hundred people I’d say. And one speaker asked the question “Who’s a composer here?”. And one guy raised his hand, and he immediately said “You’re hired!”. (giggles) So it seems they’re that desperate to find composers. So it seems some developers don’t know where to find composers. And actually, around that time I had the idea for Skirmish. Why don’t we bring them all in place and see each other’s work.
Yeah, which is a great idea!
Thank you! So do you have any ideas that might make things easier for composers to make it into the game industry?
Well obviously the website, like yours Skirmish is a brilliant idea. And actually I’m enjoying the Discord channel in there, seeing what they’re working on. So that’s quite good. After is the actual music, sort of getting better at your craft, I think is the best thing a composer can do is sort of document their journey really. And just try and get lots of content out there, and go and meet people. Any events that you go to. Go to these like EGX or any video game event, and just try to meet people, and make friends, and have a beer with them. I think that would be the best thing to do.
One of your videos was you placing your own music track over an existing game trailer. Which to me, non-composer, it works well to understand your style of music. Do you think this type of work could help get you more attention, or it’s usually amongst professionals not the best way to approach them?
I think it depends what you want to get into. I think if you want to get into video games, doing trailers like I did isn’t probably the best way to get about it (chuckles). Because people see the trailer and they go “Oh you’re really good at making trailers. Can you do a music for our trailer?”. Rather than “Oh you’re really good at doing music for video games”. They’re two separate things I think.
But also if it’s for a game just coming out, or a new game that’s massive, with lots of like tags on YouTube and where you post it up, they’re gonna get views, and people are gonna look at them and go “Ah.. cool!”. They’ll see the music you’ve done.
There are many game developer gatherings that happen around London. Have you tried going to any of those to see if it can open a connection, or do you have your own composers gathering?
Ahh… we don’t really have our own composers gathering. I know there is one called “Game Audio North” run by Sam Hughes, The Sound Architect. So they’ve got one up North, because so much stuff was happening in London, when nothing was happening sort of up in the Midlands, so they’ve got their own kind of one up there, which is pretty cool.
I went to my first game dev meetup in London the other week actually. Which is how I got the work on the game jam. So yeah I feel a bit awkward going to those kind of things. Cause I’m not a developer, so I’m there going “Oh hey everyone. You’re making these games, and I’m not”. But I think as long as you’re there, and it doesn’t come across like you’re just trying to take work from them and say “Oh come on come on, please hire me”. Don’t come up desperate, but sort of take an interest in the work, I think that can work really well.
I go to another meetup in my town as well for filmmakers and animators. So that’s another good one. And there is also an arts festival coming up, so meeting up this week to discuss what we can create for that. So that will be a nice little project to do.
Oh that’s great. I know there is one monthly meetup that happens in one of the pubs in London (London Indie Pub Night). I’ve been to it twice. And it’s open to for artists, programmers, and even composers. So, I’ll send you that later.
Awesome yeah that’d be great.
Ok Will, describe your home environment for us. Do you have a home studio? And what of instruments and tools do you use?
Ah I wish I could call it a home studio. My work environment is currently large desk in the lounge of my one bedroom flat, with a PC plugged into a monitor and a TV. So it doubles up as a nice gaming system. We are looking to get a two bedroom flat, just so I can have room for music and gaming. Cause that would be lovely to sort of just lock yourself away. But at the moment, it’s in the lounge, and my wife right now is in the other room. I’ve closed all the doors, to keep everything nice and quiet.
But I’ve got a few guitars for recording, and then I guess the rest of my music is all made on the computer. For Orchestral stuff I’m using EastWest samples, and Sonokinetic ostinato strings, which is really cool. And then for the synth stuff, I’m using Reason. And I have few Kontakt libraries that I’m still building up any other sounds that I might be missing. And then I record everything into Reaper. And my monitor speakers, I’ve got set of M-Audio BX5As, in case anyone is interested. You might have some geeky people listening and go “Oh, I wonder what kind of speakers he’s using”.
It’s interesting that you can electronically generate music that works maybe close to or as good as real music. I know one lady asked during the Game Music Connect, “what do you think of music generated from the computer compared to real instruments?” And the answer was, it doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I mean as long as it sounds good, yeah!
So you were recently involved in an online game jam as a composer. Tell us a little about that. I know you have an episode about the jam, so I’ll link to it in the shownotes so people can listen to it. But briefly, tell us about your experience.
Ok yeah. It was a three day game jam for a people called The Home of Nerds. They were the people running it, and they were like a group of about 1500, or 1600 developers, and they’ve got this big Discord channel going. So I went to that meetup in London, and met one of the guys running the channel, and he was like “Oh yeah, we’re doing this game jam.”. So yeah! I joined on that.
And I think the main thing I got out of it is the realization that you can write a lot of music in a very short amount of time. So I normally I’d write like one track over the weekend a little bit, and then work on it for the next few days, sort of mixing it. But obviously here you had three days, and it has to be finished by the end. So I ended up with about give 1-minute tracks in the end.
But it was a really good experience in the end. I mean, just chatting with the other guys, seeing how their ideas were developing. And then just going back and forth with them, trying to see what they wanted for music. It was very compressed real world scenario, with a lot of stress, a lot of pressure to get it done in time.
Yeah I was listening to your podcast, and I was thinking “WOW… he’s chatting with people online who he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know the game, and he’s trying to create music”. That must be insane.
Yeah it definitely just helps having them going back and forth showing you. As soon as you got a picture of what the game is gonna look like, you go “Oh ok, so it’s that sort of thing. It’s like a little purple guy shooting other guys”. And I think as soon as you’ve got something, then you can start making music. It’s just a bit tricky in the beginning when they go like “Well, there’s gonna be some shooting, and then like some more shooting. Go make some music”. You go “Oh ok… I’ll go do that!”. (giggles)
OK, so as a composer who’s into games. Tell us about a game that had a music that really captured your heart. One that keeps your emotions moving everytime you listen to it. What would you say that game is?
So it will be a super old one. It’s Zelda — Links Awakening for the Gameboy. And it’s a very specific song there. It’s Marin singing Ballad of the Wind Fish, and it’s super simple. It’s just one voice, really really haunting melody. But it jus brings back memories for me, sitting in the back of my parents’ car at night with the Gameboy, and just listening to the track. Cause obviously in those days, as soon as you it went dark, you couldn’t carry on playing the Gameboy, because it didn’t have any backlight. So I just sit there listening to the music. So that one is really stuck with me.
It must be really good that it’s your favorite after all this time.
Yeah I mean, you listen to it now and it obviously sounds very harsh and leapy. But the actual melody is lovely, I think there is people who have done some nice orchestra arrangements of it. So yeah, I like it.
OK, we’re coming near the end of the podcast, but tell us about a game you recently played that you really want people to try it. One that you’d say stop everything you’re doing now, and go play this game.
Oh I dunno. There are two. I think I’d have to go for two. So one would be Gone Home. And that one is sort of like what people call Walking Simulators. But that one had just great plot. It’s you come home, and you walk through this empty house, and the story kind of unfolds ahead of you as you pick up different objects, and listen to like old cassettes and stuff. So that one is really really good, and an amazing ending, and a really good soundtrack.
And then the other game I’d had to recommend, which I just tell everyone to play is one called To The Moon. Yeah that one, amazing soundtrack, and it just hits you in the feels. It’s just like this old man, on his death bed, and his dream was to go to the moon. But he never experienced that. And these two people, I guess you call them doctors, they come into the house and hook him up to a machine, and he can experience his life all over again, and make different decisions throughout it, to hopefully get him to the moon.
So that’s like the Animus from Assassin’s Creed, or more like VR?
Umm yeah, it’s more like the Animus I guess. I’m trying to think, what the other film… I can’t remember the name of the film now. Um, Jim Carrey film anyway. Someone listening to the podcast will go “Oh I know the film, come on!”. It’s like that one. They go into his mind, and sort of re-enact everything.
OK. I’ve seen Gone Home. I’m not sure if I have it on my Steam library or not, but it’s definitely on my list. I’ll also check To The Moon.
OK Will, we have reached the end. Where can people learn more about you and see more of your work?
They can follow me on Twitter. Its @WillHelliwell1, cause someone already had WillHelliwell, or they can go to my website www.williamhelliwell.co.uk. And then I’ve got Instagram, and Facebook, and YouTube, and all that sort of thing.
OK, I’ll link it in the show notes. And if you’re fine, I’d like to wrap the episode by playing one of your soundtracks. Is that alright?
Yep! That’s great, yeah lovely
OK, so thank you so much for your time, and for being guest of Episode # 1 of Skirmish Podcast, and I hope to have you again in the future, and you tell us about the games you’ve worked on.
Yes, that would be great. Thanks for having me!
Links and Resources:
Intro: Underlocked (Erik Skiff)
Link’s Awakening — Marin Sings the Ballad of the Wind Fish
Closing music: Roaming (Will Helliwell)
London Unity User Group: Monthly event for Unity developers in London, attended by more than just programmers.
London Indie Pub Night: Monthly meetup in London where many indie devs and game talents show up, relax, have a chat, and often show their games.