Tim Wright’s music can be found on everything from Shadow Of The Beast II and Lemmings, to the WipeOut series. He he discusses how he got into the game industry and the inspiration behind some of his most memorable pieces of work.
Hi Tim, thanks for speaking to us. Can you tell us how you first got interested in music?
My earliest recollection of being interested in music was my fascination with the whistling harmonics generated by a Whirly – a corrugated plastic tube about a metre long. You spin it around your head at different speeds to create different notes. They were intended to be simple toys, but as a child I’d happily spend the best part of an hour trying to get a good melody from one.
At around five or six years old I moved on to the piano. Not in any great capacity, but I did realise that I could listen to a song and then re-create it on my Grandmother’s old upright. This led to badgering my parents for a piano, and, in agreement to attending lessons, they caved in and got one. I still have it downstairs in my dining room… It’s a Kemble upright from around 1974.
Piano lessons were a bittersweet experience. I loved playing and learning new techniques, but I wasn’t so keen on learning old musical scores and taking exams; I wanted to write my own music. I tried playing some of my compositions to my piano teacher and he would tell me how they weren’t really a patch on what I was supposed to be learning. I just thought he was a bit nostalgic and didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Looking back now, I think he had a point!
What brought you to the games industry? Was it always something you wanted to get into?
I started my love affair with computing back in my early teens. My next door neighbour was a programmer and one day he gave me a few old copies of Practical Computing. I’d always been a sci-fi fan and, as far as I was concerned, these magazines were an Aladdin’s cave of electronic components and crazy software packages that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a sci-fi film set. From that point on I knew I wanted to work with computers.
By the time I was 15, the local authority built a dedicated computer room with around eight or nine BBC Microcomputers that were linked to a set of dual drives and a printer in the corner. When I first walked into that room, the smell of new carpet and shiny plastic computers was intoxicating. I can still remember that feeling as if it were yesterday. This room was where I first discovered computer games.
You started working for Psygnosis, producing music for Amiga games. How did you find the pressure of working for such a successful company?
I started on a freelance basis to begin with. It had already signed me up to assist in creating a game based on the Puggs In Space demo, and very soon after asked me to write the music for Shadow Of The Beast II. Apparently David Whittaker was too expensive so they thought they’d get someone else to do it for less money! This was my big break, so I wasn’t really going to say no, was I? I have since apologised to David for undercutting him all those years ago. In fact, when I was at Jester Interactive I gave David a job as head of audio, so we got to know each other quite well and still stay in touch.
Having said all this, Psygnosis didn’t pay me directly; I was left to haggle a price with the developer. I later found that the fee was extremely reasonable from their perspective. But, to be honest, I’d have done it for free at the time as I was so excited to be involved with such a high-profile title!
Shadow Of The Beast was a huge success and featured a fantastic soundtrack from David. Did you feel any added pressure following such a strong OST and how did you go about creating the music for the sequels?
The pressure was pretty immense. I listened to the music for SOTB and thought, ‘Wow, that is good. This is not going to be easy…’. Martin Edmondson, the head honcho at Reflections, had very clear ideas about what sounds he wanted me to use, right down to synthesizer patch numbers! I think this was mostly because David Whittaker had used a Korg M1 in his soundtrack, and Martin, who coincidentally owned one, wanted continuity from SOTB to SOTB II.
Even with similar sounds, no two musicians will compose the same music. I certainly tried to go with a similar feel, but I think the addition of electric guitar elements gave SOTB II a fresh perspective. Both SOTB II and III seemed to be written at breakneck speed as I was brought in fairly late on both games. This meant early morning trips into Liverpool on a number of occasions, and several late night drives between the Wirral and North Wales to collect the audio play routine code developed by Lee, my brother.
The soundtrack to Lemmings was a big hit. Can you tell us about the work you did on Lemmings in reworking Brian Johnston’s work?
Lemmings was a firefighting project. I got a call from Steve Riding, a producer at Psygnosis, asking me if I could help them with a problem. They had just received a build of Lemmings and much of the music was covers of famous tunes, for example the theme from Batman. I was tasked with creating around 14 new tunes that should be jaunty versions of well-known folk tunes, or remixes of music from other Psygnosis games. Basically, anything that wasn’t going to land them in hot water.
A few years later, after Lemmings had shipped millions of copies on umpteen platforms, Psygnosis was contacted by the copyright holder of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ aggrieved at not getting any royalties for the use of their melody in one of my tracks. Yes… the one thing I was told to avoid I fell foul of, and by the time this happened I was actually employed by Psygnosis too, so I was quite worried how they would take it. Thankfully, Ian Hetherington was fine about it, and they ended up paying a modest fee for its use. Ironically, the song fell out of copyright a few years later!
How did you find the move from the Amiga to the PlayStation? Did you enjoy the relative freedom of more CD-based audio or was the challenge of computer music more enjoyable?
At the time I think I was just excited to be finally writing ‘proper’ music. No more chip tunes, no more piddling about with RAM and no more polyphony in single digits. The truth wasn’t always in line with that, of course. On a lot of occasions the CD drive was used to spool level data or graphical content, so I found myself writing MOD files again, albeit with more RAM, more channels and even some real-time effects. Even when I could have CD audio, the CD got very full very quickly, so it would be encoded in a compressed format at a reduced bitrate.
Your work on WipEout has earned you a lot of fans. How did you go about creating the soundtrack? It was very different to anything you had done prior…
When I was asked to create the music for WipEout I thought it would be a breeze. They wanted electronic, fast-paced music, so I thought ‘I’ll just do Jean Michel Jarre at 140BPM and Bob’s your uncle!’. It was very naive and ultimately an incorrect assumption, as I quickly found out. The team were looking for something more along the lines of The Prodigy meets ambient trance, and I had no experience writing in either style. My first few attempts were more industrial grunge than fast-paced flyer action, partly because I’d just finished writing in that style of Krazy Ivan.
In desperation I was dragged out to a club to experience the kind of music they wanted first hand. At first I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to stand in a club listening to tracks that seemed to go on forever with only slight changes here and there, and the occasional breakdown. But after an hour or so I got it… it was like an epiphany! It’s only when you’re on the dance floor with the bass pounding that you truly get ‘into’ the music and completely understand it.
After the success of titles like WipEout, we saw an increase of licensed music and less reliance of professional videogame musicians. How do you think this has affected the industry as a whole?
At first, very few established acts wanted to put their name to games. It wasn’t seen as cool. But after WipEout and other similar titles hit the shelves, gaming became more trendy and acceptable, and so the floodgates opened. It didn’t immediately impact on jobs. Sound effects still needed to be created, someone had to convert the music for use in-game and there were myriad other housekeeping tasks to be done on the audio side.
In the Eighties and early Nineties game musicians were part composer, part programmer, and had to do a lot of self-management. However, as time went by the job of the in-house musician got split into separate disciplines: SFX artist, audio programmer and musician, with the latter role diminishing internally.
These days I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of videogame musicians are freelancers, who bolster their portfolio by working on general audio projects too.
What spurred you on to produce the excellent Music series for the PlayStation?
Initially it was the need for a quick product that could be created by a small team, but largely it was a desire to put music creation into the hands of the masses for a fraction of the cost of a synthesizer and a MIDI software package.
When I was in my teens, the nearest you could get to writing music on a budget was using a C64, and that wasn’t really going to win any music awards. Anything more progressive involved a multi-track tape recorder and they were very expensive. So when I designed Music for PSone, I wanted to give kids the power to be creative at a level that approached a good quality music demo, something they could tout to record labels and say, ‘Go on, give me a chance…’
Notable Tim Wright Soundtracks
You can read the rest of our interview with Tim Wright in issue 85. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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