Composer Interview: CoLD SToRAGE (Tim Wright)
Part musician, part engineer, part entrepreneur, Tim "CoLD SToRAGE" Wright has made his mark on game music with several Amiga titles under his belt, including the Shadow of the Beast series, along with the next-generation racing series Wipeout, where his work shares the spotlight with several of the most legendary acts in electronica. Also a key player for music creation software franchises MUSIC and eJay, Wright has made a lasting impact on the accessibility of music to budding enthusiasts. He took time out with us to discuss his latest original album projects, advice on making it in the game music industry, tales from a storied career and much more.
- Real Name: Timothy Brian Wright
- Aliases: CoLD SToRAGE, Pulsar of Jester Brothers International
- Date of Birth: 1967/07/31
- Birthplace: Cymau, Wrexham, North Wales, United Kingdom
- Websites: CoLD SToRAGE / Tantrumedia
- Family: Married, 3 Brothers, 1 Sister, 1 Son
- Education: BTEC HND in Electronics & Communications Engineering, 3 x "A" levels, 8 x "O" levels
- Tools: I use REASON 3.0, Techno eJay 5, Sound Forge, AKAI MPK49 Controller Keyboard, loads of VST plug-ins (too many to mention!) and a shed load of sample CDs. I monitor with M1 Active MK2 speakers and BeyerDynamic open-style headphones. My kit has whittled down over the years, as I used to be really outboard heavy in the past. But with the advent of powerful laptops it’s great to be able to compose on the move.
djpretzel: Your second original album ANDROID CHILD was recently released, following MELT in 2005. Is your creative process markedly different when you're putting together an original piece versus a track for a game score? Are there certain things you'd do in an original piece that you wouldn't on a piece for a game, or vice versa?
MELT was an accumulation of tracks or demos I’d written for projects that hadn’t quite made it off the ground, along with small tunes I’d had buzzing around my head and I’d quickly jotted them down for later.
I’d decided it was time to release some music for its own sake, rather than for a project, and so MELT was born. In fact, there were so many tracks I decided to divide them between RED & BLUE (virtual) discs... RED for faster paced and BLUE for more thoughtful and spiritual. It was great to finally get an album released, and the response was fantastic. I’ve shipped 100’s of copies, both as downloads and data CDs.
ANDROID CHILD was more a fixed project from the outset. I wanted to start with a theme, and work to that theme... so the music on this album is a bit more electro/ambient apart from the bonus track remix of "Onyx" from Wipeout Pure.
The process of putting together a track for an album versus a game is very different to begin with. For a game you have a fixed idea of what the client wants, and the style they’d like. So in a way it’s actually a lot easier, because there are ground rules set out. When I’m writing an album track from scratch, it can come from a tune I suddenly whistle or from sitting in front of the computer with a blank sequencer page and hitting some keys to a beat I’ve just loaded up.
However, once the basis of a track is there, the process becomes quite similar... I have a certain way of working and that’s the same regardless of what the music is for. Come to think about it now, maybe I should shake that up a bit... I guess you get into your comfort zone of how you do something and then you can relax and concentrate on the melodies and so on. Maybe I should try writing a track on 4-track tape and see how far I get(!)
djpretzel: What can listeners expect when they buy your albums?
That’s a tricky one! Well, I hope they’d agree they get well-produced and thoughtfully written music. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to production, and if something doesn’t sound right I’ll tear it back down to basics... sometimes throwing away whole chunks of song, or totally changing arrangements, until I think it sounds ‘natural’ to my ears.
In terms of style, people seem to think I sit somewhere between Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and Now That’s What I Call Trance... but I do shake up the styles quite a bit. Some tracks are a bit Prodigy and others nod more towards Erasure. I’m firmly encamped in electronica though... I have always been a massive fan of synthesizers and that raw waveform sound. Not that I’m scared to add vocals, orchestral strings or empty buckets being hit with a hammer... as you’ll probably find all these in my tracks at some point.
I like to think that my tracks take listeners on a journey too. Each song is born, sometimes quickly and sometimes kicking and screaming, and then takes shape and is honed and preened until it’s ready to be heard. By this time I’ve probably listened to it 100’s of times in the car, at home and on an MP3 player just to make sure I’m totally happy with it. At some point in that process a song takes on some kind of meaning for me, and I’ve had e-mails from people saying that my music has helped them through divorce, the loss of a loved one or helped them run marathons or drive from one end of the country to the other. For them the songs have a different meaning, but a special meaning nonetheless. That’s something you can’t account for, or do deliberately. It’s something quite special!
Above all, I hope people appreciate my music, get something from it and I hope it touches their heart in some way. If that happens, I’m a happy man.
djpretzel: Do you think being a VGM composer has helped you market your original work, or has it presented challenges due to preconceived notions about VGM?
It’s a double edged sword... Without being a well known in VGM, I’d have had to start from scratch by trying to build up a fanbase, or some kind of following. Nowadays it is possible to do with the likes of MySpace, but even so, you really need some luck... or maybe run naked down Tottenham Court Road or something, just to get some attention! But yes, there used to be a bit of a stigma attached to being a games musician, but not so much these days... it seems to have evolved with the industry and has more of a "cool" element about it thankfully!
djpretzel: I remember your score for Wipeout on the PlayStation as being the first time I heard CD-quality, original electronica in a game, and it made a lasting impression on me in terms of my perception of VGM and how it was evolving. Does that soundtrack stand out for you as being particularly special? Did you have a sense at the time that the game's score was going to break barriers?
I’m really grateful (and very fortunate) that I was in the right place at the right time when it came to Wipeout, which, let’s face it, is why a lot of people know my music. It was just one of those games that was hyper-cool, and broke the mould by having well-known artists on board. I basically hitched a ride, and then everyone started asking, “I’ve heard of Orbital, Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers... but who is this CoLD SToRAGE, and where can I get more music by them?” I did feel Wipeout was special, because Sony were really behind it, and it had Designers Republic making it look cool, all the in-house people loved it, and every detail was under scrutiny. It was just a fantastic project to work on.
It was a bit of a culture shock for me too, because at that time I’d never written any music in that style. So I was learning about trance/dance music at the same time as writing the tracks. In fact, I did a lot of dance nights at local clubs to soak up the vibe of the music, and it was only after a few nights that I really understood what the music was all about. When you’re on the dance floor, and it’s just you and the music, with subtle changes in rhythm or filter sweeps really standing out... it was mesmerising, and yes, that’s without any chemical assistance!
I think I completed all the music for Wipeout in about 2 weeks, most of which I spent in my studio rather than going home. It was a crazy time. When I listened back to the tracks it was as if they’d written themselves, either that, or I was so high on the free Red Bull and pizza that I didn’t know what I was doing! ;O)
When I listen to those tracks now, some of them are of their time and have dated... but others seem to have a really nice "timeless" quality to them. There was a definite progression. Mike Clarke (also a musician at Psygnosis, who had the studio next door) was really supportive. I remember him saying, “...that track is amazing. How did you manage to write that? They are definitely getting better each time...”.
At first I thought it was a passing thing. But as the months went by I got quite a lot of fan mail and it spurred me on to push myself when writing tracks for Wipeout 2097/XL and ultimately release more music for the people who enjoy my electronic style.
The warmth and support I’ve had over the years from the Wipeout music has been just unbelievable. It’s brought me a lot of new friends, and a firm following of people who really enjoy my work. I don’t like think about how long it might last... I just go with the flow.
Coming back to Wipeout on Wipeout Pure was just great, and the response to my track "Onyx" gave me such renewed confidence. In fact, I’m currently working on CoLD SToRAGE HD, a 7-track album specifically written for people to use with Wipeout HD. It’s not official or endorsed, but I think people will enjoy listening to some fresh CoLD SToRAGE while they pilot on their PS3.
djpretzel: The audio CD that was released for Wipeout largely featured different music than what was actually used in the game, excluding your pieces in favor of licensed tracks. I was personally disappointed in this decision, and also felt it was misleading and not particularly a step forward for VGM as an art form. Was it frustrating to have what I personally consider a fantastic score replaced with licensed music for the soundtrack CD release?
VERY frustrating! The record company received a lot of complaints asking why CoLD SToRAGE wasn’t on the audio CD, and that the tracks that had been included had no bearing whatsoever on the game. Most people viewed it as a cheap shot to sell back catalogue music off the back of a really cool game. I’m surprised Psygnosis allowed it to happen, as in many people’s eyes, including the in-house development team, it cheapened the brand just as it was emerging.
The truth was that the record label wouldn’t include me because I was an unknown. They did say that because of Wipeout, I would eventually be a known quantity by the time 2097/XL came out, and that they would put my tracks on that audio CD.
When 2097/XL did come out and I asked to be included they told me the roster was finished and that there was no more room on the CD for any more tracks. When I received my copy of the audio CD, there was enough room for at least 3 more tracks. So basically I was totally bullshitted. The truth was, if I went on the CD the record label would make less commission per CD. It’s all about profit with record labels. They are there to make money. Not to promote artists, not to further music, not to give listening pleasure... they are there to make money for shareholders - full stop. It’s just a fact of life.
Having said all that, the funny thing is, after I’d given up all hope of ever being included on an audio CD, they finally backed down and allowed "Onyx" to feature on the Wipeout Pure audio CD. I got 2nd spot in the billing after Aphex Twin too, so that was pretty cool. Maybe there are some half decent record labels after all. ;O)
Liontamer: How challenging was the transition from the Amiga's sound capabilities to scoring for CD-quality audio? Many composers stopped scoring new games after the end of the 16-bit era, but your career continued without interruption. How did you adapt?
I started writing computer tunes on the VIC-20 and C64, but my music was never used for anything commercial enough for people to remember it. Prior to this, I was already writing music on piano, guitar and synthesizers... so I’d been composing for a good few years before the Amiga came along.
I think this made things easier in terms of writing within the constraints of chip music, 4 channel samples and eventually full CD audio. I always tried to push the music on the Amiga to sound more like CD audio when I could... basically cajoling programmers into letting me have another 50-100k per tune rather than being happy with the memory I was given. This meant more samples, and bigger sounding tunes, like the guitar solo in Shadow of the Beast II for example.
Sometimes I like to go back to those constraints though, just to see what can be done. Last year, I had to write tracks for Nintendo DS in tracker format with a really small memory constraint. At first it was a nightmare! It took ages to remember all the commands and composing tricks for echo, reverb, chorus and so on... but I soon got into the swing and really enjoyed it.
CHz: You arranged a piece you wrote for the game Shadow of the Beast III: Out of the Shadow on the album Immortal 2, as well as pieces from Agony and Aquaventura for Immortal 3. How did you get involved in the project, and why did you decide to arrange those specific pieces?
Jan Zottmann contacted me, and asked if I’d heard of the project and would I be interested in being involved with the next CD. He said it wasn’t going to be a big money spinner, and that it was more for "old times sake." I thought it was a great idea, and a fantastic excuse for me to try to remix my old tracks into full-on CD quality.
At first I was going to create faithful versions, right down to the original sounds but with higher sample rates, more polyphony and better production. But then it dawned on me that there was more these pieces of music could offer to the listener. So with some I’ve added lyrics and with others I’ve produced them in a totally different style.
I chose pieces that either people would remember or tracks that had really strong melodies, that would stand being re-mixed and brought to life in a different way.
I’m in talks over Immortal 4 right now, and I’m looking at which songs are still ripe for re-mixing from back in the day.
CHz: You've also rearranged other tunes you've written before, such as the "Puggsy Theme Tune 2007 Remix" arrangement from the Amiga "Puggs in Space" demo. Do you have plans to arrange any of your other previous compositions, perhaps from your later compositions on the PlayStation and beyond? Have you ever thought about arranging an entire game's soundtrack?
Like doing a Shadow of the Beast II soundtrack with full orchestra in 7.1 Dolby? Yeah... the thought has crossed my mind. It would be a really great challenge, and a fun project to do. I guess it’s all about time, and keeping focus. At the moment I’m so busy running my company [Tantrumedia], that I really have to fight for time to do any hobby work, or composition. ANDROID CHILD took a lot longer to complete than I’d hoped... so with my latest musical project I’m hoping to be done within 2 months and not 2 years!
djpretzel: Psygnosis was a very unique company with a long, successful history in the games industry. Can you describe what working for them as both a game composer and more generally as an employee has been like? Is there anything about their culture or style that you think has affected your own approach to writing game music?
I was in my mid-20’s and they were a young company who had just been bought for millions of pounds. Sony was looking to them for guidance in terms of making the PlayStation cool, and look fantastic. There was plenty of money and virtually no restriction in terms of what we wanted to do. You’d be right to guess that we had a great time!
You’d imagine that the programmers, artists and designers would be favoured above us guys in the backroom producing the "blips and blops." But in my experience that wasn’t the case. Everyone was really respectful, and they always gave great feedback, even if it was bad news it was constructive. I remember my producer on the [unreleased] game No Escape coming to listen to the tracks I’d written. They were based around the orchestral score from the film, and he just sat there silently as I played my tracks. I thought, "damn... he thinks they suck." He turned to me and said, "...they are f*cking great. Far too good for this game," then got up, and walked out. That kind of response really makes your day, and your head widen!
Psygnosis gave us good bonuses, free games, good parties, easy hours and so long as you delivered the goods they loved you. Basically they took the view that you were there because you had a talent, and anything that got in the way was a bad thing. Maybe not everyone had this experience while they were there, but I have no complaints. Yeah, there were some tough times and the odd argument, but we all loved games, and all wanted to see that 10/10 review in Edge magazine. There was always a really strong team spirit.
Psygnosis did have a culture of "work as late as you like." This really helps when the creative juices are flowing, but it really can screw up your home life. There were a few divorces and break-ups, and some people went off the deep end in a "rock and roll lifestyle" kind of way, if you know what I mean. But what I’m trying to say is that it was more like a youth club than a work place. We went there, came up with cool ideas, shoved them in a box, made money, had fun and occasionally went home(!) I’m still a sporadic worker now... I can’t do 9-5, it kills me! I work when I feel I can do my best work, which doesn’t always suit being an M.D. of a company – so I have to compromise now and again.
djpretzel: After a long string of original game scores on the Amiga and then the Saturn and PlayStation, you switched gears to work on material for MTV Music Generator and later the eJay line of applications. What prompted this segue from game scores into providing material for these more tool-oriented programs? Can you compare and contrast the two different contexts for composition?
I think there must be a linear progression from writing music to creating music creation packages. Let’s see... The idea for MUSIC/MUSIC 2000/MTV Music Generator came from a conversation with my brother Lee. He had always coded up the playroutines for my Amiga tracks, hence you’ll see in the credits “Music by Tim & Lee Wright”. I did the audio, he did the programming.
So basically he comes to me and says his boss wants to invest some surplus cash into a new business and that he’d managed to convince him to have a go at computer games. He wanted me to get involved as I’d had a good few years experience from the inside at Psygnosis.
So, after a shaky start at trying to educate one of their sales guys, he was finally given the elbow and I decided to leave Psyggie and go help set up Jester Interactive as a full time thing.
At first, my brother and I talked about doing some game ideas we’d had for a while, but with only £200K to spend, we realised we needed a kick-start project that would bring in enough cash to allow us to do larger projects. So, one evening I said to Lee, "...it’s funny no-one has ever done a music sequencer for the PS1. It’s got a great sound chip," and then we talked over the features it could have.
Lee’s boss was a bit wary and wanted to dress it up as a music package within a game. But after a few weeks of really crap ideas, he finally folded and allowed us to just do what we wanted. After pinching a couple of staff from here and there (sorry Psygnosis and Rage!) we had a team ready to produce MUSIC™ for PS1.
9 months of blood, sweat and tears later and we had a product ready to be published by Codemasters. In that time I’d had a veritable baptism by fire in terms of learning to run a business. I’d designed the product, written the music, created the sound samples, helped manage the team, run the office, assisted with marketing and sales and demonstrated to the press around the world. It really was a full on 25 hours a day job for those 9 months – I’m sure my wife still holds a grudge all these years later!
So there’s the background on why and how I changed direction. Did it change my way of composing? Not massively, because MUSIC on the PS1 was in itself a limited platform. It had 16 channels for sounds, with 8 being kept aside for echo and chorus effects. I’d created a good selection of core sounds to play with, but even so there was only so much SRAM for samples at any one time. It was basically like having a souped-up Amiga to play with all over again, so I actually felt quite at home writing those first few tracks.
Interestingly, MUSIC was originally called NoiseToys when it featured in an issue of Edge magazine. It was also supposed to be called MusicStation for final release, but Sony told us we couldn’t use "Station" in the name, so begrudgingly we dropped "Station" and called it MUSIC – funny at the time, but not a clever name upon reflection, especially when trying to Google!
djpretzel: In the VGM fan arrangement community, MTV Music Generator and Dance eJay don't have the best reputation, as often users create fan mixes with them based very heavily on presets, without a lot of interpretation or manipulation. Clearly these tools can be both used and abused - what's been your experience in listening to user-created pieces?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! ;O)
For MUSIC on PS1, we ran a competition with Codemasters and PlayStation Magazine, where people would send in their tracks on memory card, CD or tape and we would judge them. The top 3 would win a really good prize. What really surprised me was that people did send in memory cards, knowing full well that the magazine wasn’t in a position to organise returning them. We were also blown away by how many entries we received. Literally hundreds...
So, what were the compositions like? I’ll be honest... none of them were awful, because the packages have a safety net of having the BPM and musical key all matched up for you. So the worst we got was "bland." Yes, there were a few totally crazy tracks, some even made us laugh so hard we cried. But... there were loads of really great tracks too. Funnily, the guy that won first place didn’t even know he’d entered! His girlfriend had recorded his music onto a beaten-up old cassette tape and sent it in with a scrap of paper with his name and address on. Even with the awful tape quality, the track really stood out.
We also found out that 10% of PS1 owners had bought a copy of MUSIC, which is a lot of people playing around with music and learning the basics about music production.
So to answer your question head on; yes... songs made from presets can sound "samey." It’s inevitable. But you have to acknowledge that if you’re having fun, where’s the harm? If you manage to get past the presets, and make a brand new track, then you’ve taken the next step. That’s what it’s all about. MUSIC/MTV/eJay... they are all very powerful tools in the right hands, and in the wrong hands the worst they can do is create tracks that might sound a bit similar.
These packages were designed for one thing as far as I’m concerned... to put the power to create credible music in the hands of the masses. A cheap yet powerful starting point for literally anyone to write their own music. I should add ™ at the end of that sentence. Hahahaha!
Liontamer: How have you ended up receiving most of your offers for soundtrack work? At this stage of your career, do you more often have to seek out those opportunities or do companies seek you out?
Most of my work comes from people I’ve worked with in the past. They know they can rely on me to create music in pretty much any style and to suit anything they might be working on. I do a lot of music for advertising and video post-production these days, as well as working on the odd game here and there.
There are always people coming into the marketplace, and they are chasing all the available projects really hard. I don’t have the desire to do any chasing these days... that’s not arrogance, it’s just that I’m happy writing music for me, projects such as the Immortal CDs, the occasional game and video project here and there. I like the gigs to hit me unawares, and come from unexpected places... like recently scoring an amateur film in Australia. Stuff like that really excites me. :O)
Liontamer: On your website, your wife is often referred to as "Mrs. CoLD SToRAGE." Can you tell us a bit on how you met and how she's felt about your music career?
Mrs. SToRAGE is actually called Claire. You’ll see her in the credits for some games and in the recent eJay packages. We met while I was still at Psygnosis. She moved up from South Wales, and me being from North Wales, we had that whole "Welsh" thing going on... although she has a strong Welsh accent, she can’t speak a word of it, whereas I’m reasonably fluent.
It’s a long story, but we got together because I wanted to sand blast my armoured tank – yep, CoLD SToRAGE used to drive an army tank around the lanes of North Wales. Again, that’s another long story, and the tank came about because of a dare while I worked at Psygnosis... I did tell you it could get crazy working there!
Claire was never really into computer games as a child, although she had played Lemmings and when she read I’d written some of the music she said, “Oh my God! You did the music for that bloody annoying game! Haahaha! I remember that one...." Other than that, she’s more into old school rock music. She’d be the first to admit that she can appreciate that there are people out there who love my work, but if she’s honest she just loves me for doing the best I can, rather than actually enjoying my music.
She also thinks I wouldn’t cope without the e-mails I get from day to day telling me how wonderful I am and how people are enjoying my music. She’s probably right... I’ve gotten used to feeling crap about something, and then someone I’ve never met will send me an e-mail telling me how my music has changed their life in some way, whether it’s made them change direction in terms of what kind of music they listen to, or helped them get over a horrible time in their life by keeping their spirits up, it all just makes you feel really humble and thankful that you could do something like that, just by playing one note after another and recording it for people to hear. It really is just unfathomable and magical at the same time.
CHz: What services does your company Tantrumedia (www.tantrumedia.com) offer, and which of those services do you personally provide while managing the operations of the company? What led you to become an entrepreneur? Has the company left you with less time to pursue your own projects, or has it given you more resources to create games and other things that you've always wanted to see created?
It does eat up time, and does make you have to re-arrange your time constructively. In fact there is work that has made this interview take a couple of weeks longer than it should have, and is slowing the creation of my CoLD SToRAGE HD album, not to mention Immortal 4 - sorry Jan!
Most of the services Tantrumedia offer are as a direct result of my experiences over the past 20 years. I’ve worked as a programmer, systems analyst, manager and PC engineer. I’ve been a full-time video repair technician, a musician, a producer, a designer, a graphic artist and a marketing and sales representative. I’ve learned a lot about running a business and how to deal with the pitfalls too. As well as this, I’ve met some amazing people who have skills I know I’ll never have. So I decided to put all this knowledge to good use, and along with a network of really great people, offer up this knowledge and experience in the form of business to business services.
Truthfully, I think the last time I was working for someone under tight direction was at Littlewoods as a programmer. At Psygnosis, you were trusted to manage your time and produce the goods. At Jester Interactive, I was the Creative Director by title (but Jack of all trades by duties!), so I was managing my day then too. So from that point of view, I’ve had to organise things (sometimes well, sometimes badly – but hopefully getting better as time goes by!) for myself. Again if we’re being honest, Mrs. SToRAGE does try to organise me too... she works in the company as the Finance Director, so if I want to get paid, I have to do as I’m told. ;O)
Having a company does mean you can do some things as back burner projects, so yes it’s true I’m working on some things I’ve always wanted to do. Generally speaking these turn out to be the least profitable, but they are fun nonetheless.
As for what do I personally do? Well I manage projects, create music, graphics & the occasional web page, fiddle with our web servers and provide consultancy on loads of topics.
djpretzel: Your pseudonym "CoLD SToRAGE" uses stylized capitalization, as does our site name, "OverClocked ReMix" - coincidence... or psychic link?
Heheh! Maybe so? ;O)
I’m not sure now if I came up with that, or whether it was the first C.S. logo that Lee Carus, a graphic artist at Psygnosis came up with? Needless to say it has stuck, even though some people think it’s naff and take the piss. Come to think about it now, it’s probably quite handy, especially on the internet to differentiate between "Keep your chicken fresh in cold storage" and "Some really cool tunes by CoLD SToRAGE." The capitals let you know it’s me and not some deep freeze depot!
- The following are standard questions asked of all interviewed composers:
What was the first video game you remember playing?
That would be Pong on one of the first UK consoles. I think it was called a "Grandstand." Not amazing in any way by today’s standards, but it was good fun at the time. Then there was the Atari VCS the following Christmas and I played Space Invaders and Pac-Man for hour after hour while munching on home-made Christmas cake! Ahhhh.... memories! :O)
Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music composer?
Yes. When I was about 6 or so, I used to visit my Grandmother and play random tunes on her upright piano. My Dad noticed and said he’d buy me a piano so long as I agreed to having music lessons. I though, “yeah right... more school? No thanks!” Then after a few weeks I thought I’d go for it and asked my Dad if the offer was still open. Within a couple of weeks I had a new Kawai upright, which I still have in my house now. The lessons started soon afterwards, and I attended them from age 7 through age 15 or so. I got up to Pianoforte Grade 5 before giving up in favour of concentrating on my school work and being a teenager(!) I wrote quite a few tunes on that piano, and I’m glad it’s still in my possession.
How did you become a video game music composer?
Was it more by chance, or was it something you knew you wanted and had to fight for?
I always loved computers. My next door neighbour noticed my enthusiasm and used to pass on his copies of PCW Magazine so I could check out the latest news in computing. I saw the Commodore PET and thought, “Wow! A computer as a PET – how cool is that!”. When I got to secondary school I actually got to use one and it was a bit of a disappointment. But after realising what could actually be done, and how you had to program a computer to get something out of it, I re-gained some enthusiasm.
After an initial dabble with an Acorn Atom, our school purchased networked BBC Micros. Someone brought in a copy of Elite, and I was hooked! Then my brothers and I started to badger my Dad into getting us a BBC Micro. At the time they were in short supply, probably because of all the schools buying them, so when he called us from the computer shop asking if we wanted him to bring home a VIC-20, we jumped at the chance.
Was there a specific inspiration that lead you towards the profession?
As luck would have it the VIC-20 led on to us getting a C64 and that’s when I realised that I didn’t have to save up for a synthesizer or a drum machine, I could use the SID chip to compose some tracks. I’d always admired the C64 musicians and wanted to get into writing music for games. My first few attempts were nothing special, in fact I think I still have the first few tunes I wrote using RockMonitor 3 (a sequencer for the Commodore 64) lying around on a floppy disc somewhere.
Was breaking into the industry easy or difficult?
Before I could really get into the intricacies of the SID chip, I decided to buy a brand new Amiga A500. When I heard the 4-channel sampled sound I knew I’d found my weapon of choice. I’d written dozens of tracks using a few different tracker programs when happened to hook up with a couple of guys forming a demo group in Liverpool. This led to the creation of a demo called “Puggs in Space” where I created the music and the sound effects and helped out with the design a bit too. We showed the demo to a number of publishers, but it was Psygnosis, Liverpool who decided to hire us to create a game based on the demo.
What was the first week on the job like?
I guess you can’t really count the freelance work as this was done at home, as and when I wanted. My first week working in house was quite cool actually. As there were only a couple of musicians, they pretty much allowed us free reign to get whatever equipment we needed to do the job. And, as the years went by, we had custom studios built and a budget for more equipment as needed, so we were well catered for back in those days.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
I’d only ever used a computer to write music. All nicely self contained. When I started to use the Amiga as a sequencer running Bars & Pipes, I had to learn the package, all about MIDI and how to mix a track through a mixing desk. How to compress and E.Q. a track. It was a steep curve, but really great fun to learn on the job.
What was your first official video game soundtrack?
If memory serves, the first I composed was for Shadow of the Beast II, but the first to market was actually Aquaventura.
Were you happy with it at the time? Now?
I was really proud of my Beast 2 tracks, maybe slightly less so of Aquaventura... but I was still trying to discover my own style on the Amiga, and I think I did a good job.
What lessons did you take away from it that helped you on future projects?
Always demand more memory for your music! If you can get more space take it, because the better the samples, the better the music can be in terms of creating a full landscape of sound. There are tricks I learned, like taking long pad sounds and playing them at really low octaves to sound like longer samples, not to mention loads of other tricks that I picked up as I went along, or spotted in other people's MOD files. I think in those days we all scrutinized other music to see how people were getting unique effects in their songs.
Have you collaborated with other composers on soundtracks, and if so, what was it like?
Do you prefer working alone?
Not so much. I’ve written music with a long term friend, Shaun Morris. In fact it’s his M1 and DS-8 that you’ll hear in Shadow of the Beast 2! He’d be happy to tell you how I woke him up at 2 AM one night asking to sample his keyboards – he wasn’t overly impressed, but let me anyhow.
How does collaborating change your creative process?
Collaborations are great in terms of keeping the flow going. Sometimes when you work by yourself you just can’t do any more, and you stop and walk away until you feel re-energized. But when there’s someone else in the room, they can fill the gaps of downtime with their creative energy, and vice versa. Generally speaking, whoever came up with the original idea stays in control of the overall project, or at least that’s how I’ve always worked because it makes the most sense.
I’d love to do some collaborative work with someone soon. I think the time is right to experience other people’s way of doing things. Now that I’ve settled into my own M.O., it’d be good to throw all that away and see it from someone else’s perspective.
What was the last project you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?
The last project I worked on was for a Panasonic advert. As for games it was a DS casual gaming title and a top secret game for PC. I’m currently working on an album to compliment Wipeout HD, entitled CoLD SToRAGE HD. Although I enjoyed working on Wipeout Pure, SCEE decided to go with a label deal for the latest Wipeout game. So, although it’s not an officially endorsed album, it’s just something I’m doing from my website to keep CoLD SToRAGE fans happy!
Based on your experience as a video game composer, what advice would you give those aspiring to succeed in the field?
Get a proper job first. No really... It’s so tough these days to make a living from writing computer game music, and really tough to break into it. I’m not saying don’t do it, just make sure you’ve got the rent covered from a more run-of-the-mill job.
When you have a portfolio of work, send it to everyone and anyone. Send CDs. Send links to MP3 files. Don’t actually e-mail large MP3s as this can tend to annoy people!
Think of some weird angle to get in to see people.
Don’t send your music to in-house musicians... why would they promote you over themselves? Send it to producers of games.
Create a video of a computer game with your music replacing the original score and upload it to YouTube, then send links out saying that you feel the music should have been like this. Cocky? Yes. But if you’re right, you might just get an interview.
Above and beyond anything else, don’t give up. Even if people tell you that your music sucks, or you won’t succeed, or you get no feedback, or you get crap feedback, be like a terrier on the end of a stick. Don’t let go of the dream... It really does happen that people get lucky and get to do the job they want to do. They didn’t get there by giving up!
Who/what are your inspirations in terms of composing video game music?
Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Ben Daglish, Mark Knight, Romeo Knight, Lee Wright, Shaun Morris, Mike Clarke, Mr. Krueger, square & sawtooth waves, resonant filters, genuine heartfelt love, sunsets, sunrises, caffeine, Jack Daniels, Roland, Akai, OSCar, 6581 & 8085, Top of the Pops, The Tube, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Howard Jones, Erasure, computer shows at the Novotel in the late Eighties and a whole massive long list of people, places and ace memories!
Of the video game soundtracks that you have worked on, which is your favorite? Why?
Tricky... To answer this correctly I think it would have to be which one I enjoyed writing the most, as opposed to which one do I now regard with the most fondness. Wipeout would fit the latter, but the one I enjoyed writing for the most would probably be Magician's Castle. Yeah, strange that it’s the one that most people won’t even have heard of! I think it was supposed to be released as an Amiga game, but it finally saw the light of day on a cover disc of a PC Magazine, many, many years later. Why was it the most fun? Well, I thought my days of Amiga music were over, and then Psygnosis decided to take a chance on this crazy game where the main character was a top hat and gloves, no body... I really poured my heart and soul into that music, and even my co-musician Mike said it was the best Amiga music I’ve ever written.
Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?
The top five C64 musicians were Gods to me. How they managed to get the SID chip to sing like that still amazes me. I know "how" they did it now, but at the time it was just like magic. Rob Hubbard’s Flash Gordon music is totally top notch, Martin Galway’s sweeping leads and fiddly pitch bends are good listening now, and Ben Daglish wrote some great melodies. The strange thing is, that when I started to forge my own way on the Amiga, I didn’t really get to meet many other people who were doing the same thing. So I only ever got to hear Amiga music on demos rather than on officially released games.
What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a game soundtrack? Worst?
My most enjoyable was sat on the roof (not clever or covered under insurance!) at Psygnosis, with a recently completed "Doh-T" pumping out of my studio door at full whack, watching the sun rise over Wavertree in the middle of the summer, and waving to the security guard as I shoved some cold pizza and Red Bull down my throat.
My worst moment would probably be turning up for work at Psygnosis when they had their offices in Century Buildings in the Liverpool docks, only to find a white faced producer standing in the hall next to a smashed door to the main office:
“What happened, Steve?”
“We’ve been burgled...”
My heart sank.
“Is all my music kit gone?”
“Yes. All of it”.
Luckily, Mike Clarke and I always took our Amiga A1200’s home with us, so we hadn’t lost anything, but others were not so fortunate. I say we were lucky, but we did have our own synthesizer keyboards in work, which had been stolen. Psygnosis eventually decided to pay us for these, and so we got to go out and buy some new kit, so the story kinda ended OK.
What's the most difficult thing about being a video game music composer?
Too many chiefs. So long as you can appoint one person on a project to decide if your music suits the game then you are fine. But if you get feedback from 4 or 5 people, who all have different tastes, but they all think they’re right then you are screwed. I learned from an early stage to make sure I only dealt with one person from the outset, and everyone channeled their feedback through them.
Over the years, video game music has evolved from chiptunes to full orchestral scores. Some still prefer music from the 8-bit and 16-bit era due to its simplicity and melodic emphasis, while others appreciate newer, more cinematic scores.
How do you view this evolution?
A good tune is a good tune. That’s basically it! If a melody can stand the test of time when it’s being played with a one channel sine wave, then it can stand being a fully orchestrated piece of music. I guess really it’s substance over style.
Then there’s the melancholy of rose tinted memories and lost childhoods that come into play. So it’s probably a really complicated question to answer properly.
I just love music... OK, I have a tough time with some Country & Western, but, other than that, I can listen to anything so long as it’s pleasing to the ear. ;O)
Are there pros and cons to both types, or have things clearly gotten better as technology has progressed?
Technology, memory, polyphony, sample rates, bit depth and surround sound... all these things can give a more immersive and complete experience, but the human brain is a wonderful thing. You can play a C64 tune, in mono, at a crappy MP3 rate, through awful speakers and still raise a smile of recognition and give someone a warm glow of a distant memory - so it’s not all about quality.
How has your work been received by fans? Is fan appreciation a rewarding aspect of the job?
I don’t think I’ve ever received a really awful comment about my music. One person did say that they preferred my Wipeout tracks to MELT and ANDROID CHILD, but appreciated the music nonetheless (and they’d happily parted with their hard earned money for it). So on the whole it’s been a joy to receive such wonderful comments, and have the support of what is a much bigger fan base than I could have ever hoped for.
I think without the feedback I’d start to wander off course, and not be sure why I was writing. It is nerve wracking releasing your works into the world. You know that people have enjoyed your music so far, but you’ve tried something new and will they understand your choices? Will they get put off and never come back? I guess every musician or artist has those insecurities.
I think that even if just one person enjoys what I do, then I’ve done something worthwhile. If it’s more than one, then I’m really lucky!
What are your opinions of fan-created video game music arrangements or "ReMixes" (www.ocremix.org)?
I think it’s a great idea, and I’ve already downloaded some fantastic mixes of early C64 tracks by Hubbard and Galway. They are on my MP3 player right now in fact!
As for people remixing my tracks, I genuinely love some of them. They are so well put together, and they show me my own music in a different light. Above all it’s a massive compliment that someone has used hours of their precious time to remix something you originally created. It must have touched them inside enough to prompt them to want to remix that track, or to inject some of their own experiences into it, so I’m really grateful to them for doing that.