Chip Music, Featured, Game Music

Musical Awesomeness Generator: Neil Baldwin Interview

November 10, 2009 | | 11 Comments Share thison Facebook Musical Awesomeness Generator: Neil Baldwin Interviewon Twitter

If the name Neil Baldwin immediately rings a bell, that likely means you are a huge fan of NES music; however, for the less informed, let me quickly educate you. Neil Baldwin is awesome, and the reason for that is that he was one of the few Western composers back in the day that really put his mind and soul into working with the NES, pushing the limitations of the system’s audio chip to the absolute limits, and composing fantastic songs in all his games. He is one of the founders of Eurocom, and with them, he composed and developed many titles over the years, often based on movies. Eurocom is still going strong, having recently released Dead Space: Extraction on Wii.

Baldwin was kind enough to take time to talk to us about his past, present and future works, and educating us on just how challenging, yet wonderful it was to work with the NES back during the peak years of the system, as well as his works on C64, SNES and N64.

So step back in time and look into the amazing world of NES development with Neil Baldwin!

OSV: Mr. Baldwin, it’s an absolute pleasure to speak with you today. How are you?

Neil: That’s very kind of you. I’m really good thanks. Just super busy with all kinds of stuff, work and personal. Looking forward to taking a break at Christmas, though I know I’ll end up bored after a couple of days away from home. Actually I owe the time off to my long-suffering partner – I think I’ve been incredibly guilty of neglecting her this last year. Fortunately she’s patient and understanding. I’m a lucky man.

OSV: Tell us a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up. Were you musically active as a child?

Neil: I come from a working-class family in the Northwest of England. Both my parents were musical, but mostly my dad who was a guitarist/singer in a couple of obscure ’60s bands (before having his guitar stolen from his car which pretty much ended their career). He taught me how to play guitar: I think I was about 11 when I started. Later on, I got my first electric guitar and amp, and I learned stuff like The Shadows, Burt Wheedon and The Beatles. I still love playing The Shadow’s tunes from time to time as it reminds me of playing with my dad. He still plays and it amazes me how he still has a really good ear for figuring out songs. I learned that from him too, I never had any formal musical training or tuition.

OSV: How much were games and computers a part of your youth?

Neil: Until the time of the C64, I didn’t really spend that much time sitting in front of the TV or playing games. I was a real outdoors kid. We had an Atari VCS though, like most people. I never had a C64 originally, but a couple of my friends had them. We used to play games on them occasionally, but that was it. Then I (along with countless others) discovered the music of Rob Hubbard and I was changed forever. I begged and begged my parents for a C64 because none of my friends appreciated me typing out BASIC programs on their computers to make sound effects. Eventually I got a C64 and that’s where it all started really.

My best childhood story though has to be my school Computer Studies teacher screaming at me: “Baldwin! You’ll never get a job in computing, you have no respect for the technology!” All this because I disconnected the floppy drive from one Commodore PET and connected it to another so we could play games on it while the teacher was out of the room! I pretty much failed the course. Maybe he was right.

OSV: Haha! You started your game music career on the C64 I believe, with the game Shadow Skimmer. How was the C64 to work with musically?

Neil: The machine that spawned a thousand careers! You only have to look at the staggering body of work done by composers on the C64 to know it’s a musician’s computer. My first experience of writing on it was with some software called Electrosound. Electrosound was pretty limiting though, so I progressed from there to actually writing a couple of tunes using Rob Hubbard’s music code (I think it was “Phantom Of The Asteroid” that I hacked around with). It was this understanding of how his stuff worked that pushed me into writing my own music routines. I was pretty immature at the time and just tried to mimic what Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were doing (and failing!). I suppose that’s how most people started really. I’m no programmer, but I had just enough skills to get by.

Yes, Shadow Skimmer was my first (of few) commercial projects on the C64. I got a lucky break from Mat (Mat & Psy) who I’d done a couple of demos with. All of my music was written in the old-school way, using an assembler and text files. I still have this mentality even today!

OSV: You used the pseudonym “Demon” to credit your works on the C64. Was there any specific influence behind this nickname?

Neil: Someone else asked me this recently. The only thing I can really think of is that the idea might have come from a horror film magazine I used to read called Fear. In reality, I probably just thought it sounded cool and everyone else had nicknames so…

OSV: Hah! I remember Fear, my big brother used to subscribe to that magazine! How much did you follow the works of other C64 composers at the time, such as Rob Hubbard and Jeroen Tel? Back then, a lot of the demoscene artists and composers depended on floppy trading and compiling music collection software, so did you find it hard to stay on top of the developments on the C64 music scene?

Neil: I was just like anyone else – I still remember the excitement of new releases from Rob and Martin Galway. For me, their musical works transcended the games they were written for. That’s not to say the games were bad (well, not all of them) but the mystery of how Rob and Martin were making the sounds they were, it was much more captivating than the games themselves. I think we’ve lost that in recent years, as games are using Hollywood composers and 100-piece orchestras. The writing is good, yes, but the magic of sound design (in music) is a rare thing these days in games. I guess that’s what still attracts me to the chiptune scene. I’ve also been a massive fan of Tel since the C64 days.

OSV: When you worked on games for the C64, how was the procedure of getting hired to do so, and the working process of making the music based on the developers wishes? Did you have more or less free reign to do whatever you felt suited the game, or were you informed of the game play and elements in the game to inspire specific themes?

Neil: In reality, my C64 career stopped as soon as it started. When I began to get noticed I “applied” to join Maniacs of Noise and technically I was a member for about a week before I left home to start up Eurocom and therefore never did a project for them on the C64.

OSV: And that brings us to 1988, where you were among the men who formed Eurocom Entertainment Software, along with Ian Sneap, Mat Sneap, Tim Rogers and Hugh Binns. How was it setting up a development team during this era? What was the process of being approved by companies like Nintendo for example, and what was your role in the founding and establishing Eurocom?

Neil: It was scary and exciting in equal measures. We were just kids really and much of the process of actually setting up and running the business was taken on by Mat Sneap’s dad, Ian. We all knew each other through the C64 scene so it was like making big demos, but we all sat in an office instead of one of our bedrooms. Ian Sneap, through his contacts in electronics companies in Japan, got us a foot in the door. So, I actually have no idea what was involved in getting approval from Nintendo for us to be an official developer. My role was purely to program and create sound. I adapted stuff that I’d programmed on the C64 and then it got uber-optimised by Tim Rogers because that’s how his mind works. I learned a lot about programming from Tim, he’s one of those proper genius types. He still helps me even today with C and stuff.

OSV: Eurocom’s first game was Magician on the NES. You detailed on your website that you developed this title without any proper knowledge of development on NES, no development hardware, just six Famicoms given to you by the publisher (TAXAN) and a development manual completely in Japanese! With the help of two Japanese girls at the local university, and impressive determination, you managed to develop this game. My question would be, were the Japanese girls hot?

Neil: Haha, great question! Have you met a female Japanese student that isn’t!? Next question, before I get myself in trouble.

OSV: So Eurocom is now developing their first NES game, and all your resources are new to you and your team members. How did you find your first moments of music development on NES/Famicom to be? You also mention on your site that you used the audio drivers you developed on C64 to help you on your work for this game. How was this accomplished?

Neil: I think the most difficult aspect technically was coping with the different approach required for a ROM-based medium. All those self-modifying-code tricks that you could do on C64 were just not possible. As I’ve said before, we also lacked proper technical information, so it was very much trial and error. It’s not actually correct to say I used C64 drivers, but the NES ones were definitely modeled on the same token/sequence/track format that I (and most other people) used to use, which was probably invented by Rob Hubbard.

OSV: Magician has some great music, still remembered today by fans of the NES. It also has one of the longest songs composed for an NES game. How do you feel about the work you did on this game today?

Neil: Well, if you’re going to be remembered, it’s an accolade of sorts! It blows me away that so many people seem to be a fan of that stuff. It seems a little simple and awkward to me when I look back, but I have very fond memories of the time. Some of the tunes (the long one especially), I have very vivid recollection of the time I wrote them. Good times.

OSV: Your next game was James Bond Jr., based on a cartoon I remember watching before school. Being a licensed product, were there any restrictions put on you musically?

Neil: If there were, I wasn’t aware of them. Certainly from listening to the tracks you get the feeling I could do whatever I wanted, don’t you? That was probably one of my common “failings” – I just used to write tunes that I thought sounded cool, with only a loose idea of the actual game themes/action.

OSV: James Bond Jr. has some impressive vibrato work for an NES, and you seem to be one of those who liked to push the sound chip to new places and challenge the technical restrictions. Did you find the NES sound chip to be a frustrating piece of hardware in general?

Neil: Thank you! I think I wrote most of my music by starting with an interesting sound and then trying to build a track around it. I had no formal training (I still can’t really read music even today!) so for me, this was the most natural way. I never sat down and planned out a song as a traditional composer might. From that point-of-view, I was constantly messing around with the audio programming side, trying to invent new ways of making the NES sound different (some say trying to make it sound like a C64 which is probably close to the truth). The NES was very frustrating to work with. It’s a quirky piece of design, but part of being a chip-music composer is the requirement to be slightly masochistic – the challenge is part of the fun.

OSV: Early in your NES career, you were obviously most famous for your work in music, but you also had your hands on other things such as game design, coding, testing and pretty much every other aspect when it comes to developing a game. Aside from music composition, what field did you enjoy most when it came to development?

Neil: To be honest, anything that took me away from audio I saw as a necessary distraction. Like cleaning the toilet. I have fond memories of helping with the triggering/scripting on Erik The Viking though. I worked with Tim Rogers on it as he invented and wrote the script system. This taught me a lot about programming and creating a macro language. Which, I guess, is a bit like learning algebra, but it was fun at the time.

OSV: You did a few more games on the NES, such as Lethal Weapon, Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge, Dropzone and finally your last project on the NES, Disney’s Jungle Book. This game is pretty much a port of the 16-bit counterpart, and you were in charge of transcribing someone else’s score for the first time. What were your feelings on doing so?

Neil: That was one of my favorite projects, it was a huge amount of fun. Those old songs are superb: just really, really great writing. It was a challenge for me as I’d never transcribed anything before. I worked with a combination of sheet music and snippets of the film recordings. I’d originally picked out quite a few of the themes to rework into original songs but we had very limited time and so, a lot of it got shelved. At least I got to do the more iconic songs from the film – I just hope I did them justice. I was really proud of all the arpeggio work, especially in “The Bare Necessities.” The way my audio driver works is by having instrument definitions, and so I had to have a separate instrument not only for each chord but for the down-stroke and up-stroke chord. It was a nightmare to put it all together but I was very happy with the result. Most likely one of those things that nobody even noticed, haha!

OSV: One of your NES projects that did not gain much attention till recently is Hero Quest, a project you did while freelancing a bit during the early ’90s. Hero Quest was actually canceled and the ROM file was released online a few years ago, and the music turned out to quickly become a fan favorite. Were you surprised suddenly getting feedback on a game that was never actually released?

Neil: I was really surprised! Most of the NES games I worked on were fairly obscure, but these days you expect someone to turn them up sooner or later. However, Hero Quest was never even released so it would’ve been fair to imagine that nobody ever saw it. I’ve said before that we kind of existed in a communication vacuum back then, certainly compared to today, so to suddenly discover that people have been discussing my music for years was amazing. Especially when you hear people claiming that your work was a great influence to them – that’s the kind of stuff that makes me really smile because I was probably younger than them when I wrote that stuff! I don’t mean that in an egotistical way: it’s really humbling and makes me very proud and warm inside.

OSV: You also released the soundtrack to another unreleased NES game on your website, Erik The Viking. This was a game based on Terry Jones’ book and movie adaptation, and you kept the binary files and managed to release the music. When these games were canceled back in the day, did you always have in mind to eventually release the music somehow?

Neil: Absolutely not, mainly because as far as I knew, nobody was listening. It’s only because of the community that I released it, otherwise it could’ve stayed in the archives and I could’ve continued stealing ideas from it without anyone realizing, ha ha. I always felt that that music was the best stuff I did on the NES. Because of the passion of the community I felt it kind of belonged to them, so it should be heard by those who appreciate it the most.

OSV: You did a few conversions from NES to Game Boy as well. Was the Game Boy more or less the same to work with as the NES?

Neil: Well we just “ported” the audio driver over to the Game Boy, there wasn’t a great deal of effort put into it really. I found it horrible to work on because of that clicky envelope issue – apparently something people subsequently worked out how to get around. We used pretty much all the same music and SFX data from the NES. There was just no time to be creating anything special for the Game Boy – handheld platforms were never the main source of Eurocom’s work so the resources and effort for audio followed suit.

OSV: Do you have any personal favorites on NES from other composers? Just to throw a name at you, what’s your thoughts on the works of Tim Follin for example?

Neil: Strangely I’d never heard any of Tim’s work on the NES until very recently. I was well aware of his C64 and SNES stuff and the NES stuff doesn’t disappoint either. He’s a really gifted composer, his NES stuff had loads of dynamic range in it, which I think is quite unusual and makes his sound very unique. Back then, I was only really aware of Jeroen Tel’s stuff (apart from the obvious Japanese guys) because of industry connections.

As for more modern NES composers, there’s just too many to list. Loads of people doing truly amazing stuff. It wouldn’t be fair of me to list people and risk offending anyone that I left out.

OSV: You did some work on the SNES musically as well. You did conversion work on Brutal: Paws of Fury, and some work on the European only Dino Dini’s Soccer. What are some of your memories of working on the SNES, and why did you do so few projects for it musically? Lack of time or just not much interest in the technical side of the system?

Neil: During the period that Eurocom worked on the SNES, I spent most of the time writing audio code. The SNES was really great to work with, being sample-based and having its own dedicated audio processor. I wrote a total MIDI-based audio system for the SNES. We’d employed another composer then (Steve Duckworth) and it marked the start of a really creative period – he was a much faster and talented composer and I’d make the audio drivers work the way he wanted. In between, I got to write a little bit of music which you’ve correctly spotted.

OSV: Now, I believe you did some audio driver work on Nintendo 64, such as Duke Nukem 64, where you worked with before aforementioned Steve Duckworth, who did some fantastic work on Maui Mallard I recall. Many people have in the past stated that the N64 was very difficult to work with and the music suffered as a consequence of that. How did you find the Nintendo 64 to work with?

Neil: Actually I didn’t do any audio programming on the N64. It was a nightmare to develop for and we ended up using a couple of off-the-sh