Interview by Vinny Fanneran
To be lazy about it, David Wise is an English cross between Mozart and Steve Wozniak. Wise can write stunning music that refuses to leave a listener’s head but also condense the piece into bespoke code written to circumvent whatever hardware limits he is working with. He has done it too many times to mention in a career that has spanned three decades - from the days of ‘doorbell’ sounds serving as soundtracks through the CD-ROM days, right up to today. In that time, he has serenaded generations of gamers and at least two generations of hipsters with catchy, eerily appropriate tracks to match a variety of games.
For example, one track in particular, ‘Aquatic Ambience’ from Donkey Kong Country is one of the greatest single video game pieces of all time, regularly appearing in YouTube Top 10s and being remixed hundreds of times by amateur electronic artists. Wise is only a little surprised when I tell him that there are over 500 remixes on Soundcloud.
“Yeah?! I knew there was few but wow! It is great to have done something like that. To know that it sort of transcends the game itself as well as being a part of such a well-respected game. I was actually talking to my friend the other day about music and how it was funny that I never had ‘good’ music in games when we grew up, it was just Pong or something else that sounded awful. So most people just a little younger grew up with these more memorable tunes and I think they carry them into adulthood more and more.”
The journey to the top of the pile was typically filled with the unexpected for Wise.
“I dropped out of college when I was 18 or 19 and you have to be careful when you are doing that because it can go either way. But I was just so sure that there was nothing I could get there, it had no solutions for me. After that, I made ends meet in a crisp factory. I took the bad crisps off the line or cleaned the machines at night. It was not really a life, you sleep all day, you’re missing everything.”
“I had played in a few bands and ended up working for a few hours in a music store. So one day, two guys came in and wanted to look at a music computer and it turned out to be Tim and Chris Stamper who had already formed Rare - they asked me to work on music for their video games. I jumped at the chance to make music which was my passion and it was much better for me than working in a crisp factory or a music store.”
Despite the acclaim and 30 years in the business, Wise still feels that luck played a small part in his story.
“There is always a small element of luck and you have to put yourself into these situations but I am blessed to get the opportunity to work for as long as I have. When the guys came in to the shop, I had already played drums and keyboards in a few bands and could easily demonstrate that I could programme the instruments and hook them up to MIDI.”
Rare would provide Wise with almost 25 years doing what he loved, composing and pushing technical boundaries. From his first job, Slalom on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Wise was working to squeeze a little more out of the hardware.
“I would write the music on a keyboard and an EDIROL but knowing it would end up sounding like a doorbell, I would flesh it out with a piano sound. Then I would have to write it using Hexadecimal code and everything has to add up or it all goes out of sync. It was very involved process but I am a computer music nerd really and I found it thoroughly fascinating.”
On the edge of glory
“We didn’t really know that Battletoads would be a technical warm-up of sorts and a sample for levels of success we would have with the Donkey Kong Country series. Normally, a composer is brought in and showed the game, showed the levels to get the ‘vibe’ or atmosphere. Then we would play the games, level by level - for some reason I wasn’t too bad at Battletoads (a famously difficult game) even though I was usually so bad I preferred to watch others play after I had the feel for the game. But anyway, I was working with primitive hardware; just four channels, two square wave channels, a white noise generator which was usually used for percussion and a saw-wave generator which sounds like an owl hooting.”
Despite this, Wise managed to coerce the NES into belting out an upbeat synth rock soundtrack that would nail the game’s attitude, finding a place in player’s hearts. Battletoads was a smash hit, despite punishing difficulty, running on aging hardware and facing intense competition. The soundtrack was even committed to vinyl in 2015 as part of a three album series celebrating the best of Rare’s music.
Their next project would begin a run of hits that made Rare one of the world’s most respected developers and would make Wise famous.
Donkey Kong Country
Rare found themselves snapped up by Nintendo as a second-party developer after impressing the Japanese giant with CGI-rendered sprites in a boxing game demo. Rare were granted permission to resurrect the Donkey Kong character and, utilising state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics workstations, gave DK a jaw-dropping next-gen look on the aging Super Nintendo. Wise would excel working around the limitations of the SNES’s tiny sample cache, his early work deep in the minutia of ‘doorbells’ allowing him to deliver the three best-sounding 16-bit cartridge games in Donkey Kong Country and it’s two sequels.
The introduction to the first game pokes fun at Donkey Kong’s decade away from the spotlight with obsolete beeps, scratches and tones being usurped by a flashier Kong sporting nigh-on CD quality music. This intro, the aforementioned ‘Aqautic Ambience’ and DKC 2’s ‘Enchanted Wood’ are three of video games all-time treasures, not just for their melodies, their rhythms or their incorporation of the environment’s sounds. But also the fact that they play at all.
“I am proudest of ‘Enchanted Wood’, or Scary Woods as I used to call it, because of the way everything just came together. One of the keyboards I was using heavily at the time was a Korg Wavestation and it could synthesize single-cycle waves, move them around and resequence them in different orders so it could effectively simulate filter sweeps. I meticulously sampled many keyboards at different cut-off points to get single-cycle wave samples and by getting into the nitty-gritty of sub-routines, I was able to introduce portamento and filter-sweep into what sounds like a synth line at the very beginning. Those little sounds, that were supposedly impossible to do on a SNES, I was particularly proud of.”
David Wise will be answering attendee’s questions and discussing his music, his career and changes in the discipline at PlayersXpo 2017 while Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads are amongst DOZENS of retro greats playable across 20 classic systems in Xpo’s Retro Zone.
PlayersXpo, Ireland’s ULTIMATE gaming event is taking over The Convention Centre, Dublin THIS WEEKEND on the 28th & 29th of October. Limited tickets are still available. Get your tickets here.