David Newman (VGM Composer) – Interview

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We’ve had some great composers on site and this guy is no exception. A short but sweet career encompassed some of our favourite games including Zero 5 and Sleepwalker. David Newman answered our Adrian’s questions and gave another fascinating insight into the life of a VGM composer.

 

Can you explain to our listeners your earliest memories of music and gaming while growing up?

There was an older boy across the road from me, Michael, who owned a ZX81. I remember sitting on the floor of his bedroom and typing in the code from a magazine for a submarine game. It took bloody ages and we had to troubleshoot each line of Basic because it wouldn’t work the first time, naturally. There was no way of saving our progress, either, so the next day we would have to type it all in again! I was hooked.

My earliest memories of music was actually one Christmas in London at my grandparents. I remembering opening the first present – it was a nursery rhyme cassette, which we didn’t have a player for. A couple of presents down the line and I opened my WHSmith cassette recorder that would one day double as a loader for my ZX Spectrum 16K. Anyway, that nursery rhyme cassette was played on repeat all Christmas!

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?

I’d been writing four channel MODs on the ST & Amiga (TCB Tracker, Noisetracker, Protracker) for some time, mostly for fun or for our demoscene groups (The Pixel Masters and Torment). One day an old school friend, Leigh, got in touch saying he knew a couple of chaps working on a game in Weston-Super-Mare who needed some music. So my music-writing friend, James, and I went along for a chat and we were in!

 

Can you run us through a typical day of writing music for a video game and how long does it typically take to start and complete a track?

It all happened very quickly in those days and, if I’m completely honest, there was not a great deal of finesse to the finished product. We could typically knock up a track in a couple of days. It’s a different story now – I have precious little time to write music, and when I do it feels incredible laborious because there’s so much choice in different synths and effects. On the Amiga we only had a handful of samples we’d pilfered from other MODs, so it was much simpler to get on and concentrate on the music rather than the sounds.

 

What are your biggest inspirations when working on video game music?

There were many composers whose music I loved in the gaming and demoscene. From Mad Max on the ST to Allister Brimble, Chris Huelsbeck, Firefox, Moby and Dr. Awesome on the Amiga, so I was drawing inspiration from everywhere. For something like Sleepwalker, it didn’t feel like there was any direct inspiration although I’m sure subconsciously there was, but for Deadly Racers I seem to remember we just lifted Nuke’s (Martin Iveson) MODs wholesale from the car game Jaguar and just re-used the samples. To say we took inspiration from him is an understatement.

 

Sleepwalker was a clever and quite unique platformer, and I remember playing this classy game a lot on the Amiga. What was it like working on this particular game’s music?

It was great game, indeed. I think the title animation of Ralph (the dog) chasing Lee (named for the aforementioned Leigh) was a stroke of genius by animator Richard Cheek. I remember getting back home with James after grabbing a copy of the sequence either on floppy or VHS, and quickly coming up with the main theme. It didn’t feel quite right with the music just plodding along at the same pace all the time, so for laughs we made every other pattern speed up to follow Ralph’s run. We were in hysterics – it fitted perfectly. We weren’t quite so sure it should be this easy, so when we played the music back to Richard and John the next day, their faces lit up and we knew we’d made the right move.

 

 

Do you think there is scope for a new Sleepwalker title using modern graphics and would this be a title you would be interested in working on?

There’s always scope for a good remake 🙂 Of course I’d be up for working on it, but Richard and John have both been living in the US now for well over 20 years and I don’t think they keep in touch with each other, so I can’t see the old team getting back together. It was a good game and a much better one than Cheesy IMHO, which came after it. Although Cheesy was a PSX game, a lot of those early 3D titles were much more ‘experiments in 3D’ rather than being good games in their own right. This is one of the reasons that the PlayStation Classic holds far less appeal than the SNES Classic for me.

 

How did you first get the opportunity to work on the ace Zero 5 game and did you work on both the music for the Atari ST and Jaguar version of the game?

My old school friend David Pratt (who I still keep in touch with) had already started work on a PC-based 8-channel music programme called ‘Zik Tracker’ for the Jaguar. Caspian Software one day got in touch with Dave to write the 3D routine for Zero 5, which ran in the DSP, not using any external memory and so was pretty fast. And as Dave had already written a Jaguar music player and James and I were already using the tracker for our own personal projects, it was an easy decision to have us compose the Zero 5 soundtrack. The STE version featured a music routine made by our old friend, Tony B. And yes, we did the music for both, I seem to recall.

 

Zero 5 is a true Arcade Attack favourite. The amazing music really complemented the game so well. What inspired you when working on this particular space title?

I seem to recall that the style of music was requested from the game developers. They wanted something really fast and techno-y. James and I had never written anything in that style and it really was our very first attempts that made it into the game. I can’t remember if Tempest 2000 had been released at the time of writing, but the music in that would have undoubtedly been our inspiration, along with all the Sheep On Drugs we used to listen to 🙂

 

Are you a personal fan of Zero 5 and do you personally feel it pushed the Jaguar to its graphical and musical limits?

I remember being really excited about the Jaguar when it was first announced. I would scour magazines for screenshots and articles, imagining what Cybermorph or Alien vs Predator might look like when running in all their glory. But it all seemed to take such a long time to materialise, by which time I think I’d seen DOOM (and Elite II) running on a 486 and the Jaguar, which would’ve been a big expense, didn’t seem to offer anything hugely above and beyond that, so I never bought one. Undoubtedly Zero 5 pushed the Jaguar, but it was just a huge shame that Telegames bungled the release. And also a huge shame that Atari failed so spectacularly on delivering on that console. It could’ve been a more exciting time.

That said, I’ve never really been much of a console guy – I’m much more interested in computers, what you can do creatively on them vs a console and also, particularly historically, games have always been much more interesting to me on computers.

 

If somebody, somehow, acquired the rights to Zero 5 and decided to make a remake of the original ST game or a new title entirely, would you be on-board?

Indeed, yes. Although I think hell might have a greater chance of freezing over 🙂

 

Cheesy came along at a time when there were many other 3D platformers. Why do you think this title found it hard to find an audience and not make much of an impact?

While 3D was nothing new when the PlayStation was released, it was a technology that had previously been reserved for games that needed to be in 3D. For example, Hunter, Darkside and Mercenary were all games whose experience relied on them being in 3D. The PlayStation era brought about the ability to shoehorn 3D graphics into a games that had all the mechanics of a 2D platformer. As I said above, I think a lot of early 3D games, Cheesy included, suffered from being a kind of tech demo, rather than being great games.

 

Did you ever work on any video games that were never completed, and if so, what titles were these?

I was working on a PC game with a friend, Moon Rising. Sadly certain circumstances prevented us from finishing it.

 

How much freedom were you given when creating video game music, and did this freedom differ depending on what titles you are working for?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a number of music projects both inside and out of the video game industry and for the most part, you have complete freedom. I think people either don’t know what they want or recognise that the composer should decide on the direction. I’ve been involved in one or two projects where clients have gotten way too involved – changing basslines, for example, or EQing the music in a certain way, and it’s often ended up worse as a result.

 

 

What game is the one that you consider as your best work as a composer?

I’m most fond of Sleepwalker. It was our first and is probably the most fun 🙂

I have lots of other tracker and chip music I’m pleased with, but that’s mostly demoscene work under my pseudonym Rhino in the ST-based group Torment.

 

How do you reflect back at your time working at CTA Developments and why did you choose to leave the gaming industry?

I mostly remember endless sessions on DOOM, a very smoke-filled and windowless broom cupboard-sized office, and nights out in W-S-M’s very own Hobbits night club, where all manner of industrial and goth music would be played. Not many people wearing bright colours in those days!

I didn’t choose to leave the gaming industry as such. It got tiring sending around demos to games companies and I think going away to university sealed the deal.

 

Apart from your own work, is there one game that has blown you away with its music score?

If we’re talking about Amiga stuff, then I was completely humbled by Allister Brimble’s Alien Breed title theme when that came about, but I’ve probably spent more time listening to the Turrican II soundtrack than any other game. More recently, the Cowboys Vs Aliens track from Rochard by Captain (an old demoscene guy) was one that stood out for me. But there’s just so much to choose from in the game industry and demoscene running all the way back from the Speccy through the ST and Amiga right up to the PC.

 

Are you a gamer in your own time, and if so, which are your three favourite games of all time and why?

When I get a chance I love to play games. If it wasn’t for those pesky kids… (ha ha! Us too! – Ed)

Wow, picking three favourite games is a tough one. I’m going to pick three old games that I can remember spending copious amounts of time on when I was younger which would have to be Elite, Damocles and Midwinter. Not that I didn’t love 2D game, but the aforementioned are the earliest examples of sandbox games that I can think of, they were brimming with atmosphere and all of them highly playable.

Again, it’s like picking favourite music from a game – there’s a lot to choose from. Some honourable mentions from across the ages: Skooldaze (Spectrum), Dungeon Master (ST), Monkey Island (Amiga), Frontier: Elite II (Dos), Commandos (Windows), FTL (Windows)

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m very loosely working on an album of synthpop music scheduled for release in 2030 at this rate! And I hope to be working on a classical score for a small film this year. If I get any time in my life I also have one or two ideas for games that I would love to be able to make.

 

If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?

Probably Miner Willy. I’d like to know why Maria, his housekeeper, didn’t clean up his house for him.

 

Adrian

 

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