Article: Composer Interview: David Wise

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David Wise Interview Logo

If you've been a gamer for any extended period of time, you've more than likely played to the music of David Wise. Though most may not have known Wise by name back in the NES & SNES days, experiencing his scores crystalized a love of video game music for untold numbers of people. While many gained their first exposure to Wise's work through classics such as Wizards & Warriors, R.C. Pro-Am and Battletoads, it was 1994's Donkey Kong Country that displayed to much of the video gaming world just how superb Wise's compositions were. Spouting arguably the best sound quality of any SNES soundtrack, Wise fashioned pieces as anthemic as any Japanese music representing Nintendo's deep franchise of characters — a feat recognized not only by fans, but by Nintendo themselves when "DK Island Swing" found its way into several iterations of the Super Smash Bros. series.

Wise was one of the first composers to express appreciation for OC ReMix and remains a major inspiration across the fan arrangement community. Historically, interviews with Wise and Rare's sound team are few and far between, but he generously spent time discussing topics such as how much music is valued within game development, technical insight into his creative process, his reaction to Kong in Concert and much, much more.

David Wise profile

Interview

Conducted December 10, 2008 by David "djpretzel" Lloyd, Vinnie "Palpable" Prabhu & Larry "Liontamer" Oji:

djpretzel: First, asking as a fellow David: Do you prefer David or Dave? Is it more of an ego-boost to be referred to simply as "Mr. Wise"?

I don't mind. A slight preference for David. Although I'm not at all offended by being called Dave. Mr. Wise is fine also.

Palpable: You've had credits on games for sound design and effects, as well as music - how does that compare to composing? Do you find it easier or harder? Is the design process much different?

I enjoy writing music and find sound design good fun too. Totally different areas, but both are enjoyable and creative. I prefer to do a bit of both if possible. Regarding sound design, where possible, I really enjoy recording my own source material, as I think this makes a huge difference to the end product.

Liontamer: Your comments to Music 4 Games highlighted the benefits of in-house composers at Rare, i.e. that having audio early in development helps everyone feel that a game is coming together more quickly, driving the team forward. Robin Beanland mentioned the increased time and flexibility also results in a stronger, more cohesive soundtrack. When the net effect seems so positive, why do you feel the in-house composer model isn't more common in the games industry? Is it because costs make it impractical, because music is undervalued, or something else entirely?

I think on the whole, music in video games is very much appreciated. Watching the recent Video Games Live concert in London, and witnessing the reaction and reception of the audience at both the afternoon and evening performances, I wouldn't say audio is undervalued. I think there are budget constraints that may be involved. From a practical point of view, the graphics take preference over the audio, as without the graphics, there would not be much of a video game. I believe the audio though is an essential element to enhance the whole game experience.

As for in-house: From a personal point of view, the Donkey Kong Country SNES soundtracks were so involved, I just don't think the quality would have been achievable without the support of the programmers who also helped to make those soundtracks possible. Whilst as musicians, we take a lot of the credit, what we achieved was, and still is, very much a team effort.

djpretzel: In addition to original franchises, you've worked on licenses like Jeopardy! and arcade ports like Marble Madness. Would you characterize scoring these types of games as more chore, or opportunity? Did your approach differ in any way?

Definitely not a chore. An interesting and pleasant challenge. With Jeopardy, the challenge was trying to suggest the chords with only 3 note polyphony. And Marble Madness, which was a great soundtrack anyway, trying to coerce the NES into emulating the original, was very rewarding.

djpretzel: The Donkey Kong Country trilogy is legendary in VGM circles for setting a new standard for SNES audio. For the first game, you worked with Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, then flew solo for Diddy's Kong Quest, with Eveline rejoining you for the third game. Why the changes in lineup? Was this based on availability, interest, etc. or were there specific creative reasons? As the common denominator, how did you work to maintain a consistent feel across the games' scores?

Eveline was fairly new to writing video game music, having recently come from college. Robin was writing the music for Killer Instinct, so I took his original track and converted it to run on the SNES. I had already completed some games on the SNES, so I was a little more familiar with the Rare process. As for the lineup changes, it was down to who was working on the various projects we had going at the time.

Liontamer: Donkey Kong Country's "Aquatic Ambiance" is a favorite game music composition of yours from both an emotional and technical perspective; many fans paused Donkey Kong Country in order to listen to that theme. Do you know whose idea was it to have the music continue playing while the game was paused? That small detail really allowed the soundtrack to stand out that much more...

As I remember, the pause option was very much a last minute decision. I think we had either overlooked having a pause tune and/or were short on space, so having the music continue playing was the most efficient way to solve this.

Wise set a memorable, relaxed mood for Donkey Kong Country's water levels with the instant classic "Aquatic Ambiance"

djpretzel: The first DKC was huge for Nintendo at the time; for such an A-list title, working for a Japanese company on a franchise that was originally Japanese, did you feel any pressure to "compete" with Japanese composers? This was one of the first times Western composers had been entrusted with such a job by the company - was there an awareness that you were setting a precedent?

I thought at the time, that the Japanese composers might well write the music for this franchise. My original demo music for the game seemed to stick, fortunately, and this became the Jungle level music.

Palpable: Do you play many video games outside of the ones you've worked on? Are there any recent games that have really captured your attention?

I don't really play too many video games. Life is so busy, I don't really have time. One of the games I do like, and I also like the music/sound design implementation, is the Call of Duty series.

djpretzel: You've cited Cubase, Pro Tools, and Native Instruments as software you use for music production - are there any other key components, or tools/toys you've gotten into recently, that have changed or enhanced your writing process? What do you look for in a sequencer, virtual instrument, or effect, and what does your compositional workflow generally look like? (Feel free to geek out with as much technical detail & jargon as you want!)

The workflow for a tune usually starts in my head. And I prefer to let ideas swim round my head for a few days, so I have a good idea of how I want them to sound before I commit to them. However, it's so variable; sometimes I'm inspired by sounds, or situations, so many different ways to get inspired.

I see Cubase and Pro Tools as tools to get the job done. I also like using a Wacom pen, as this is such an intuitive way to edit notes and use the mixer, and it works well with Cubase 4. Much less strain than a mouse. I'm looking forward to checking out the MIDI-editing on Pro Tools 8.

As for virtual instruments, I like Komplete 5. I really like Kontakt 3, it's very easy to add movement to sounds and have these tempo synced. I also really like Absynth, from a technical sound design perspective. Sadly life is too short to explore these instruments fully. I find sound creation in Absynth far too absorbing, it's much too easy to lose all sense of time. I also like FM8; as with FM7, all of the time I had invested in trying to edit the original DX7 many years previously all of a sudden started to make sense. I think from having used synths like the DX7 and D-50 with menu-based editing structures many years ago, it was somewhat of a revelation to use VST instruments and the ability to easily edit and play with the sounds. They also don't suffer from the background noise associated with analogue gear. I also like Guitar Rig 3. It can make any dull keyboard sound great.

I'm also looking forward to checking out Omnisphere from Spectrasonics. I already use Atmosphere and RMX.

Liontamer: Many OC ReMixers were excited in 2004 when you sent kind words to bLiNd and Vigilante, who contributed to the Kong in Concert album project. You mentioned a colleague at Rare had passed along word of the album - was that your first encounter with OverClocked ReMix, or did you discover the site another way? What was your initial reaction to the music here, and have you had a chance to listen to ReMixes outside of the ones arranging your own work?

A programmer called Jens originally sent me a link. I had completely not heard of OC ReMix at all. When I first sent the email to bLiNd and Vigilante, for some reason I imagined OC ReMixers to be a very small group of enthusiasts. I had no idea that over 10,000 people had downloaded the Kong in Concert soundtrack. I found it quite unbelievable on many levels. And very flattering that people would invest their time ReMixing video game tunes, and even more people would want to listen to the end result. It's very rewarding listening to the ReMixes that appear on your site.

Liontamer: I've been working on a tribute album for Tim Follin, so it was cool to read of your admiration for his work on the SNES. When did you first hear his music, and what about it stood out to you? (Just to refresh on some of his titles: NES - Solstice, Silver Surfer; SNES - Plok!, Equinox, Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade's Revenge.)

Tim Follin – great video game composer. When I first heard Tim's work, he obviously had a much better handle of working on the SNES audio architecture. Very inspirational. I think it's because he used elements of guitar in his compositions, and this just brought his compositions to life. Also, I liked the way he used very small elements and put these back together. Because of his work, it totally changed the way I thought about creating video game music at that time.

djpretzel: You started writing the main Wizards & Warriors theme when you were still in school, as a means of using arpeggios to suggest a chord progression. Relative to the elaborate soundtracks being composed for big-budget, Hollywood-scale games these days, this theme is relatively simple, yet more gamers remember it (and ReMixers arrange it) than many modern scores. Is simple better?

Simple is always better. For something to sound simple, there has usually been a whole development cycle behind it. When I hear a piece of music and think, "I could have done that" – I now think there has probably been a very involved process to hone down the melody to get to the final result. In the early days of video game music, with the limited resources we had at our disposal, the melody was incredibly important. To some extent this has been taken over by other musical elements, that in an ideal world, we would have liked to have used way back when we only had 3 channels to use.

A childhood idea of Wise's came to life with the main theme of Wizards & Warriors. In this compilation of boss encounters, Wise's mantra of simplicity is exemplified through his strong melodies.

Liontamer: When you started with Rare in 1985, you felt game scores were a great way to get your music heard by as many people as possible without the need to "become a superstar". Now, looking at the setlist for 1996's Game Music Concert 5, you're the only non-Japanese composer represented, and one of only three non-Japanese composers represented in that entire concert series. At OC ReMix, you're the most ReMixed non-Japanese composer. It seems that, at least among VGM fans, you HAVE become a superstar. Was it all just part of your master plan? At any one moment did your original comments hit you as being ironic, given your popularity?

Very kind words to say - "superstar" - although that's not the way I see myself. In all honesty, I haven't really given my original comments that much thought. I just feel very privileged to have been in the right place, at the right time, and to enjoy writing music for video games. I also feel very humbled that so many people enjoy listening to music I have created.

And in all fairness, OC ReMixers bring a whole new dimension and very much enhance the original material, and I think it makes listening to these original video game pieces of music much more enjoyable. It certainly adds a whole new dimension. As an example, it's great to see/hear the Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD remixes, and see these used as part of the game. Now that's cool!

djpretzel: We spoke with Mr. Kirkhope and he mentioned you were both in a pub rock covers band before he left for the States - he apparently covered vocals while you rocked sax, guitar, and keyboards (hopefully not simultaneously, unless the pub had a very long happy hour). Can you share any stories/setlists from what must have been an epic experience?

It was certainly a very funny experience. Grant's main instrument is guitar. He's an excellent rock guitarist! But my small pub band needed a singer. Some years ago, the music department had got together as a live band to play at a few of our Christmas parties. This was when I first heard Grant sing. He has a great gravelly voice, perfect for rock covers and much more. And being a singer has advantages too, you only need to bring a microphone. After a few months of practicing and playing at a few venues he really had become very much the front man, very entertaining. Always a good night out! As for some of the material covered: Smooth, James Brown, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, The Killers, etc...

Palpable: Very few video game composers have had consistent work in the industry as long as you have. What do you feel is the biggest change in video game composing since you started? Where do you feel the future of video game composing is going?

I see the industry trying to move more towards the film industry approach. However, unlike the film industry, games are non-linear, and ideally, the action is lead by the player. There are now so many elements that work together, such as graphics, physics, and so many variables, especially in a multiplayer environment. You can't just stick a sound effect in and hope it works for all scenarios, or have a tune play and hope it might suffice. I think the opportunities for great video game audio will be with interactive scores that react or prompt the player about the scenario in which they find themselves. I also think that as games become a little more involved, the mixing of game audio will have to adapt to be a little more dynamic.

So I think there is still much scope available to improve the audio experience available to players. It's definitely a different medium to film. Far more immersive, and I would hope that video game audio will carry on evolving to reflect this.

Survey

The following are standard questions asked of all interviewed composers:

History

What was the first video game you remember playing?

A very early tennis game - Ping Pong, I think it was called.

Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music composer?

I have Piano Grade 5, out of a possible 8, which I obtained when I was 13. Very basic really.

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 became a video game music composer by chance. Tim and Chris Stamper, who owned Rare, visited a music shop I worked at in a city called Leicester in the UK. I demonstrated a Yamaha CX5 for them, with my own compositions used for the demo music. They didn't buy the CX5 - but they did offer me a job! So, it was one of those "right place - right time" scenarios where I fell into the industry by chance.

Was there a specific inspiration that lead you towards the profession?
Was breaking into the industry easy or difficult?

What was the first week on the job like?

Good - interesting. Video games were still in their infancy, and learning that the sound chip on the NES - the Nintendo Entertainment System - was somewhat compromised, compared to a Roland D-50, certainly made things challenging. But I like a challenge!

What was the most difficult thing to learn?

There was no MIDI, instead, notes were entered data style into a PC. I typed in hex numbers for pitch and length and a few commands for looping subroutines. And this method of writing video game music continued right through to the end of the SNES development.

What was your first official video game soundtrack?

Were you happy with it at the time? Now?

Slalom. I was happy with it then.

Navigating the courses of Snowy Hill in Slalom, Wise's first professional soundtrack after joining the Stamper brothers at Rare. (Courtesy NESguide)
What lessons did you take away from it that helped you on future projects?

The lesson learned was I needed to learn those hex numbers, else it was going to take a long time to write video game music.

Have you collaborated with other composers on soundtracks, and if so, what was it like?

Do you prefer working alone?
How does collaborating change your creative process?

Obviously I have collaborated with other composers, although I don't think this changes the creative process.

What was the last project you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?

I am working on a project now, but I am sworn to secrecy. The last project I worked on was the conversion of Viva Piñata on to the Nintendo DS.

Based on your experience as a video game composer, what advice would you give those aspiring to succeed in the field?

If that's what their passion is, they should pursue it.

Personal

Who/what are your inspirations in terms of composing video game music?

My inspiration is looking at the graphics, and playing the level to get a feel for what I think might work.

Of the video game soundtracks that you have worked on, which is your favorite? Why?

The DKC series, especially No. 2. I was trying to surpass the limitations of the 64K memory.

Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?

I always liked Tim Follin, who produced some inspirational video game soundtracks. I also admire the Rare composers too: Robin Beanland, Grant Kirkhope, Steve Burke, Dave Clynick, and Jamie Hughes.

I also like the Halo and Metal Gear soundtracks.

Also, Richard Jacques, Tommy Tallarico, Jack Wall, Andrew Barnabas and James Hannigan are all responsible for some fine video game music.

What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a game soundtrack? Worst?

I just enjoy writing music.

What's the most difficult thing about being a video game music composer?

I'm fortunate that I work in house. I think winning freelance contracts could be quite difficult.

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?

With the chip tunes, the tune had to cover a lot of bases. Now ambiance and sound effects can really help with the feeling of the experience. Therefore, perhaps the tunes are not as prominent as they once were, although still very important.

Are there pros and cons to both types, or have things clearly gotten better as technology has progressed?

I think this is where interactive music should be used. Having a blanket piece - one tune fits all of the area - is no longer relevant. Soundtracks such as Halo 3 are really starting to use interactive music effectively.

Fan Community

How has your work been received by fans? Is fan appreciation a rewarding aspect of the job?

It is rewarding when people say they appreciate your work.

What are your opinions of fan-created video game music arrangements or "ReMixes" (www.ocremix.org)?

I think it's great. Definitely a compliment that anyone should find your music appealing enough to want to use it in a remix. Always good to hear another angle and interpretation of your music.

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