An exclusive chat with C64 legend Martin Walker.
Martin Walker is one of the most respected C64 programmers and musicians. Between 1985 and 1989 he released a string of games, including Rupert and the Toymaker’s Party, Back to the Future, Chameleon, Hunter’s Moon, and Citadel.
In 1988, Martin was commissioned to write the soundtrack for Thalamus’ seminal shooter Armalyte, which afforded him the luxury of developing his own music player and editor. After Citadel’s release in 1989 Martin focused exclusively on music and SFX, producing audio for over 20 C64 games including Dragon Breed, SWIV, and Speedball II.
Martin! Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with Commodore Format. Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up making games for the C64? Well it’s certainly been a varied background, although it always involved music in some way, shape or form. During my schooldays I built my own electric guitar and various electronic effects using my pocket money, performed in an electronic music ensemble, and then formed a band while at university. As soon as the exams were over we moved down to London with our demo tapes and hawked them around various record labels, but as with lots of other musicians, nothing came of it.
I returned home with my keyboards/synths and ended up getting a job locally as a radar engineer, then moving to be an electronic engineer in hi-fi (closer to music), but then I bought a ZX81 and my life changed for ever. I taught myself BASIC, upgraded to an Atari 400 computer and started learning assembly language on that. With this experience under my belt (and a few months selling Texas TI-99/4A computers in an Oxford store) I eventually got a job with Atari UK as their training manager.
When Atari made a load of us redundant couple of years later I took the plunge and become self-employed as a game programmer. I was approached by Quicksilva from Southampton to write the Rupert and the Toymaker’s Party platform game (they provided me with a C64), and then again to write the first Back to the Future game (which had a cripplingly short timescale so it could be released at the same time as the film). Chameleon followed, and then Hunter’s Moon, which is probably my most remembered game.
After Citadel was released, you began to focus exclusively on creating music and sound effects for other people’s games. Was that a deliberate change of direction or a happy accident? It was a deliberate decision, as like so many other game programmers I’d discovered that however good your reviews are, this rarely translates to earning a reasonable amount of money. I spent nine or ten months creating Hunter’s Moon from my initial idea into a fully developed game with a huge 128 levels, but after receiving my royalty advance I never saw another penny in royalties from it. So, while during the ten months I was writing Citadel and the Zzap! 64 diary of this game, I decided to also develop my own C64 music player, and move sideways into writing music for games. To be honest, I rather envied the computer musicians who got regularly paid for each commission they completed, and was finally able to pay my household bills again after scraping through for a year on an overdraft from the bank.
Your last C64 music commission was, appropriately enough, Final Blow in 1991. Was it difficult to leave the C64 behind? What did you do after this? I spent 1988 and 1989 almost exclusively creating music and effects on the C64, but it was obvious that the 16-bit machines were starting to take over, so I investigated the Atari ST and Amiga and rewrote my C64 music player to suit their formats. Subsequent Amiga/ST commissions kept me very busy during 1990 and 1991, but towards the end of 1991 I’d had various requests for music on the PC format, which was a whole new ballgame. PC games were still in their infancy, using a host of different hardware add-ons, and I ended up writing PC music for the Adlib soundcard, the Roland MT-32 MIDI synth, and even the primitive PC motherboard buzzer.
By 1992 things got really challenging, as a new breed of games machines appeared. To fulfill a load of potential commissions I bought some special hardware, and while still using my PC to enter and edit music and sound effect data, I started learning various new assembly languages so I could re-program my music drivers yet again, this time to suit the particular capabilities of the Gameboy, Game Gear, SNES and Megadrive. Several other musicians also licensed these drivers for their own use, so I ended up adding more and more features to them, and writing comprehensive manuals. Along with some other projects that required music/fx in PC Tracker format, and finally pure CD Audio tracks, all this kept me incredibly busy up to 1996.
You hung up your hat as a composer-for-hire in 1996; what have you been up to in the 20-odd years since then? I built on the experience I already had writing for magazines such as Zzap! 64 and Commodore Format, deciding at long last to attempt the final jump across to the wider music world. I sent out detailed ideas for articles to the three main music technology magazines of the time, and all three took me up on my suggestions! I slowly built up my workload once more with writing, and after a year was persuaded by Sound On Sound magazine to write exclusively for them, in return for which they kept me really busy working on features, reviews, and eventually their regular PC Music column, which I carried on writing for some 20 years. My previous experience with early PC soundcards also proved very useful, as I ended up writing reviews of 86 audio interfaces for SOS.
I got to review the first software synths, the first real-time plug-in audio effects, worked a lot more with DAW (Digital Audio Workstation – Ed) and sequencer software, and in the process finally found time to write and release a lot of my own music on CD. My sound design skills also came back to haunt me, as I ended up creating signature sound libraries for various software synths, such as Steamworx for Camel Audio Alchemy, and Kitnetix for Applied Acoustic Systems. I’m still doing sound design work, as well as developing steampunk audio devices and modifying hardware synths to create yet more sonic mayhem.
You’re working closely with Thalamus on Hunter’s Moon Remastered – how did that come about? Andy Roberts contacted me a long, long time ago with his dream of remastering the Thalamus C64 games, but so many people had approached me over the years asking for interviews, articles and so on, and I’d already written quite a few thousand words that have yet to see the light of day in the books, magazines or on the websites where they were intended to appear.
Andy was different. He put a huge amount of effort into realising his dream, creating the new Thalamus Digital company, and gathering programmers, graphic artists and musicians around him. After nearly 30 years my coding skills had faded to obscurity, and I was still a little wary. However, the sheer professionalism of his approach and the enthusiastic reaction from so many people to his Hunter’s Moon Remastered Kickstarter campaign won me over, and I soon found myself spontaneously coming up with new features for the remastered game, as well as agreeing to create a swathe of fresh levels for it.
So, the most exciting news we’ve heard all year is your return to C64 music. What tempted you back? Did you have access to all your old C64 disks? Once again it was all Andy’s doing. There was no way I could re-code my C64 music editor from a standing start after 30 years, and I’d long since sold my C64 and disposed of all my then useless 5.25-inch floppy disks. However, he said he knew a talented programmer who had already reverse-engineered my C64 music driver from existing games, and who was also interested in re-creating my long-lost music editor from scratch. If that editor were made available to me, would I be interested in composing some music for the proposed Armalyte and Snare remastered editions? After my positive Hunter’s Moon Remastered experience I didn’t take much persuading.
Without your original editor to work with, how will you be creating new music? Well, Andy had tracked down several grainy old photographs and screenshots of my C64 music editor from ancient Zzap! 64 and Commodore Format magazines, and from these I did my best to remember what all the screen functions actually did. From these rough notes, the talented programmer (who turned out to be Martin Piper – already a long-time Facebook friend) reconstructed a basic editor for my music player in just a week!
Just as he’d got the music editor working, I remembered that despite throwing away all my C64 disks, I might just have some sort of backup of my PC-based sound editors, since I’m still using PCs on a daily basis. Sure enough, after emptying out a cardboard box full of dusty CD-R disks, I found one dated 1996, and to my delight it contained a zip file with all my Gameboy/Gamegear/SNES/Megadrive editors and players, so I was able to pass those on to Martin Piper to fill in the gaps where neither of us could work out what a few of my C64 editor functions originally did.
Is the new music editor much different to the one you coded 30-odd years ago? It looks almost identical, but contains quite a few enhancements courtesy of Martin P, including mutes so I can audition each of the three SID channels separately, readouts of the current sequence, voice, and note in each of those three channels to monitor tune progress, and beat/bar counters to keep perfect track of any timing anomalies. Between us we modified my music data format slightly to make it more readable (in line with my later PC music players). I also added a few special features that I’d since added to the PC player, which we debugged together, and as my rusty coding skills improved I came up with a more sophisticated way to calculate and display song tempos.
Martin was incredibly supportive, so much so that in the end I was inspired to come up with five new special musical features for the new C64 player that I coded and debugged myself – it felt great to be programming again after all those intervening years! I can now indulge my music with Varispeed Multiplexing, Sample & Hold Pulse Width Modulation and other goodies, thankfully with only a tiny increase of code size and CPU cycles.
Tell us a bit about the process of crafting music for the C64 Martin Walker style. Where does it start? Do you tap out a melody on a keyboard, or is everything done on the C64? I’ve always worked directly on the destination computer platform, because that way I can hear in real time exactly what the end user is going to hear, rather than writing music elsewhere that then gets converted and hopefully still sounds similar. So in this case I’m entering data on the C64 itself for how the various instruments sound, the notes/durations they use, and how these sequences of notes are slotted together, all with no musical keyboard connected. I’m directly inspired by the sounds of the C64, which creates ideas that I then develop into note patterns and multi-channel combinations. My multiplexed chords are already rather well known, but the 2018 music player has some new tricks up its sleeve, both for more complex note sequences and real-time tonal changes. After all, I’ve had many more years of experimenting with and customising MIDI hardware synths since my C64 days.
How does it feel going back to work on the C64, compared to back in the day? This time round I’m working on my PC, using the VICE C64 Emulator, so no tediously slow floppy disks get involved, yet I can still hear very closely how the music will sound on the various different SID chip versions that folk may have in their C64 hardware. More revolutionary for work progress is that I can now converse on-line with Andy and Martin to get instant feedback on ideas and new tunes, and also have access to the vastness of the Internet for research. This makes a huge change from being the lone coder that I was all those years ago, when bug-hunting was a solitary and often tedious task.
What can we expect from these new tunes? Do you have specific ideas in mind? This is partly up to Andy, as he’s following his long-term master plan for the Thalamus remastered collection. However, I don’t think I’ll be giving much away to say that he’s hoping to get in-game music into the forthcoming remastered versions of both Armalyte and Snare, for which I wrote the original music. With them in mind, I’ve already been experimenting with my new music features, to create in-game music with more expression and treatments while still keeping the tune data as small as possible.
So we know about Armalyte and Snare remastered editions, but will you be open to commissions for other C64 games? I’m still in a bit of a state of shock to be writing new C64 music at all after all these years, but if anyone else is interested in commissioning some new music then I’ll be happy to discuss it with them. There still seems to be a thriving SID music scene on the go, and it’s great to see that so many coding musicians are active.
Of all your soundtracks, which are you most proud of and why? On the C64 they would have to be Armalyte and Citadel, which both had a big ‘cinematic’ feel to suit their sci-fi blockbuster genre. I’m a big sucker for complex evolving chords, deep bass, and percussion elements. However, I have to admit that I learned a huge amount from doing all those arcade conversions totally by ear, such as Atomic Robo-Kid and Ninja Spirit.
Where did your inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. One of the huge benefits of being a sound designer is that you end up listening to the world in a different way, hearing wayward sounds as possible new textures to be used in your music. I’ve sampled audio in slate quarries, on industrial estates, standing in the ocean, or focusing on the metallic rustle of a pill packet. I’m always searching for new music, buying hundreds of albums on CD or as FLAC digital downloads, and like me many of my friends release albums of their own, so I’m exposed to loads of different stuff on a daily basis.
If I had to pick up specific musicians, the guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson) would be a major influence for his arpeggiated playing and sustained fuzz tones , Bill Bruford for his unorthodox drumming style and sound, and keyboard players such as Nils Frahm and Tipper for their intimate and detailed approaches to music-making.
You’ve been a gentleman, Martin. Thanks for chatting to Commodore Format. Before you go – are there any other C64 musicians whose work inspired you? Rob Hubbard is of course an influence, and works like his in-game music for Delta are still mesmerising today. Matt Gray’s mean and moody music for my Hunter’s Moon game is a standout score, while Martin Galway’s Wizball is also wonderful. Ironically though, through all the time I was myself creating music across all those platforms, it was difficult to keep abreast of what everyone else was doing. So, now that I’m working on my own C64 music again, I find myself searching out lots of old game tunes that I missed first time around. Sometimes life seems to go in circles! CF
This article is copyright 2018 Martin Walker and Commodore Format Archive. Reproduction of this interview in whole or part without written permission is not permitted.