NIGHT TRIPPING ON THE LATE FANTASTIC
|Music has become such an important and interesting aspect of Commodore 64 games that the people who write it are worth catching hold of for a chat. SEAN MASTERSON was sent ‘home’ to Manchester to talk to the man behind so much of Ocean’s great compositions, MARTIN GALWAY. But he found the maestro had flown. . .|
It’s not every week that I get a good excuse for a long weekend (just
most weeks). Last week I was asked to take on British Rail once more in an attempt to get back to my home city
of Manchester and interview the man responsible for some of the most remarkable music in arcade games at the moment,
Martin Galway. No problem with that, thought I in my usual innocent manner. What could be easier than getting a
train straight from Ludlow, interview the man himself and relax for the rest of the weekend? Oh, but there was
plenty that could go wrong, if only I knew. . .
The trip was simple enough and yes the train was on time (so much so that I almost missed it - I was beginning to wonder why BR didn’t simply re-schedule their trains to arrive twenty five minutes late). I wandered through the packed city centre, past the monumental Central Library and before you could say Taumatawhackatangihangikuauotamateaturípukakapickimaunghahoronuka -pukawhenawhackatanatahumatakuaitanaturikapamikitura, I was being confronted by Ocean’s legendary Tropical Fish Tank.
Now this is where things began to go sadly wrong. Martin wasn’t there. He had been rushed off to London at short notice and would not be back until the evening. Hmmmm, tricky. But thanks to a miraculous piece of technology (courtesy of British Telecom) and a timely piece of Newsfield-Ocean co-operation, I managed to interview Mr Galway while he was cruising up the M1 via the car phone (who says programmers aren’t jetsetters?) and so what follows must be one of the fastest long distance interviews ever carried out for a computer publication (Mad Masterson sets a new record).
First I was sent deep within the bowels of the Ocean Empire and cast into the programmers’ pit. Actually, they’re a marvellously friendly bunch who set me up with the first decent cup of coffee I’d had that day before unveiling their masterplan. They seemed pleased too, that subtitles would not be needed to speak to a fellow Northerner (we at Newsfield try to please, you see). Soon after being treated to a glimpse of how the Oceaners develop games in-between getting different computers to talk to each other, the phone buzzed and I was talking to the nephew of the famous flautist James Galway about how he created his kind of music.
But before I go on any further, I had better explain some of the complications of interviewing somebody who’s doing the better part of a - er, seventy miles an hour. Throughout this country of ours, there are a number of different Cellnet receivers to cope with signal reception of radio phones in different areas. These work in a relay to get the call back to you. If you exit one area during a call, the system disconnects you while it finds a better route for the call. Is nothing simple? The result in this case was, of course, that I was never on the phone for more than a few minutes at a time so our conversation was crackly and disjointed - but interesting nonetheless.
The first thing to sort out was exactly how many games Martin had been involved in. The list is quite impressive. . . The Never Ending Story, Hypersports, Roland Rat, DT’s Decathlon and more recently Streethawk, Transformers, Comic Bakery but perhaps most outstanding is his work on Rambo, which employs a variety of themes - not always complex or indeed remarkable in terms of ‘stretching the SID chip to its limits’ but certainly brilliantly designed musically with atmosphere and character that often makes the work of his competitors’ seem barren by comparison.
One thing Martin seemed to stress very strongly was his faith in that remarkable device, the SID chip. ‘I’ve already found an interesting way to get more than one sound from a single voice simultaneously but it’s a trade secret,’ he said. But more to the point, ‘I don’t believe in using something like MIDI to transfer something (from a synth) to the machine which the voices might not be able to handle. I prefer working purely within the limitations of the machine itself.’ CLICK! I was confronted by a dead phone line! Martin was obviously entering a new reception area.
While waiting to be re-connected, I wondered whether he had any reservations about taking advantage of some of the Commodore's capabilities such as the filters. ‘No, the filters are too unreliable. A brilliant result on one machine is no guarantee of satisfactory sound on another. The filters have been greatly improved on the C128, though. Perhaps when more people have upgraded to that, I’ll take advantage of them - not until then though.’
So how do the tunes get from his mind into the silicon maze of an eight bit micro? He is inspired by a number of sources; the electronic orchestrations of Jean Michel Jarre and frantic, jazz-funk slapping base sounds from UB40 are two diverse but prominent influences. Colin, one of the programming team has souped up an assembler with the result that once Martin
has constructed his work on a small keyboard, pure data is all that needs to be transfered to the computer. In a way, this is a pity because the explanation belies the complexity of such a fine tuned (if you’ll pardon the pun) process.
There are other considerations as well. Martin develops the music at the same time the game itself is being programmed. He only has a relatively small space in which to work, in terms of memory. Rambo’s eight or nine major themes had to fit inside 8K! How he did it is another of his ‘trade secrets’ no doubt. But it appears to cause no real problems and he seems content to work in whatever memory environment he has to.
Some of the voices and effects have seen their way onto more than one game (though in a modified form). Martin does have a few favourites. ‘There’s one that resembles a trumpet sound I used in Hypersports (CLICK - wait - another coffee) which I like to re-use as long as it doesn’t become repetitive.’ So does he think he’s taken the use of old SID as far as is possible? ‘No. In that piece you did on Rob Hubbard, you said that he had stretched the SID chip to its limits and that’s ridiculous. There are plenty of things you can do with it yet.’ Well, that sounds promising if nothing else. CLICK - Thank goodness for that. I was ‘running out of ideas for questions. Interrogation over the phone was never one of my strong points.
Finally, I asked Martin if there were any other things he would enjoy working on. He wouldn’t mind doing an entire game himself but realises that his forte is obviously programming original musical themes for others’ games. But you never can tell. Apart from that, he sounded distinctly enthusiastic about playing on an Amiga and putting that through its paces (but who can blame him). Whatever the Micro Maestro turns his digital fingers to next, it’s sure to add hitherto unforseen depth and attraction to the game to which it is applied. In a field which is rapidly becoming the domain of specialists, Martin Galway is becoming set to leave the others behind.
And so I headed out of the Ocean offices and off to see some friends. The cold winter night had fallen. The city grime and gloom alleviated only by the Christmas lights across town failed to deaden my enthusiasm for a city so full of remarkably talented people (after all, I come from there). I reached Piccadilly and caught my (late) bus. Listening to a treasured recording of Duke’s Travels on my Walkman, I sat back and thought, now that was a different kind of interview!