Matt Gray is a name synonymous with the Commodore C64/Amiga scene. Having created the amazing soundtrack for the equally amazing Last Ninja 2, he went on to compose tracks for many of our favourite games including Treasure Island Dizzy and Micro Machines. Adrian caught him for a chat to see what he’s up to these days. You can purchase his latest project ‘Reformation 3’ on 6581records.com.
Note: This interview was conducted in February 2020 and we’ve pointed out where some details now differ.
You’re best known for your work on Last Ninja 2. How did this opportunity arise and what were your early ideas for creating the game’s soundtrack?
A bit of luck in that Rob Hubbard was leaving to go to EA in the States and he’d produced the in-game track for Bangkok Knights but System 3 needed a loading track in just a few days. So I turned it around quickly, took it to their offices in Hampstead where they played it, liked it and within the hour were offering me the in-house musician’s job at System 3. And the first project to get my teeth into was Last Ninja 2. I knew the LN1 soundtrack reasonably well and I wanted to do more of a departure from that as the follow-up was set in New York. So whilst I did some Far Eastern style nods to the first game I mainly went for electronic rock soundtrack type pieces.
Micro Machines is another Arcade Attack favourite. What was it like working on this soundtrack and did you know from day one that the game was special?
I got to see the game in production and I’d already adapted my C64 player to work on the NES for the Treasure Island Dizzy port. But the NES had a very different sound to the 64’s SID chip so it wasn’t always straightforward working on it musically. The main riff on Micro Machines is an arpeggiated keyboard riff I’d always messed around with on the keys or piano. It’s very similiar to the riff in Clocks by Coldplay but it wasn’t copied because it was some 7 or 8 years before that track. Perhaps they were NES fans? (I want to say…yes – Ed)
Can you share details of your Reformation albums and is it true a third edition is in the works?
Reformation started out as an idea that Chris Abbott of C64Music.com suggested to me in 2013. But at the time I was full-on with production and writing at Xenomania doing pop records. But in late 2014 I had the opportunity to give it a go and try to crowdfund a boxset featuring full blown productions of my tracks and especially LN2 but keeping the same feel and sound of the SID versions. I really had no social media presence at that time and people thought I was mad to try it after just a couple of months prep, but it was launched and funded the same day and since then I’ve gone on to produce Reformation 2 which was released in 2018 and Reformation 3 will be released late Spring this year (it’s now out for purchase – link in the preamble – Ed). The support from the retro fans has been brilliant and without their enthusiasim and support these albums would never have been produced or released.
Where is the best place to learn more about your Reformation albums and do you have a personal favourite track in each of the three albums?
The best place to start is 6581Records.com or search them on Kickstarter.com. There’s too many tracks to choose from as regards favourites. Over 50 tracks on R1 and 25 for R2. There’ll be 25-27 tracks on R3 by the time it’s released.
Do you have any plans to expand these albums to other computers and consoles?
I’ve done three or four Amiga tracks for Reformation 3 so I’ll see how they are received on release. But I’d love to do more of them if there’s enough demand to warrant it.
What were both your earliest and fondest memories of playing video games while growing up?
Earliest memory was playing Pong at home in the late 70s. But the first game I had on the Speccy was Tranz Am, which kept me hooked for weeks. Later on I loved Winter Games on the 64 and then Sensible Soccer on the Amiga.
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
Being a Compunet user gave me my first opportunity as software developers were using it to find coders, artists and musicians. Dalali Software gave me my first games commission for Mean Streak and my second in Yogi Bear. Codemasters and Thalamus soon came calling and within 6 months or so I was ready to go full-time.
How long does it take to start and complete a track?
I actually used to work mainly at night, initially because I worked a day job, but then later because I found it more inspirational. Back then on the C64 it was very much a case of experimenting with sounds but it could be a pain waiting for code compiles to hear the results. Working on lengthy tracks could also be tiring because you’d often have to listen from the top every time to keep your perspective in the overall piece.
So with coding being an essential part of C64 music making it could take several days to start and finish a track. Nowadays with modern DAWs you can get something going very quickly. I could do 4 or 5 tracks a week if the demand was there now.
Did you ever work on a piece of video game music that you found difficult to complete?
Sometimes I’d hit the wall or get writer’s block, but often something would come together in the end. The later C64 games were hard to stay motivated on as I was getting tired of the SID’s limitations as by the early 90s I was building a good synth collection and getting into dance music production.
How much freedom are you given when creating video game music?
On the 64 I had a lot of freedom really to do what I wanted. These days it’s more specific requests but ultimately the final ideas have to come from myself. But it was more loosely conveyed to me back in the day.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
Has to be Last Ninja 2. It was the biggest project I worked on, sold the most copies and has endured with the fans the longest and by far the most significantly. An honour to have been involved.
Did you ever start work on any games soundtracks that were never released?
Yes I did versions of tracks for both Afterburner & Outrun on the 64 but they were never used.