Peter Clarke / Ocean Software
Added on January 26th, 2012 (5873 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, I'm Peter Clarke. I composed chip-tunes back in the 80's for Ocean Software and others.
How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
The C64 was my start with computers. I went to school and left before the BBC Micro replaced the cane and other more inventive forms of corporal punishment. LOL! I was always intrigued by computers but had no idea that I wanted to write music on them when I got my first C64. It was just a games machine I had in mind when I bought it. Like everyone else, I discovered BASIC pretty quickly, learned a few tricks, peeks and pokes, read Zzap!64, went to computer shops, and was really just a consumer.
Then I realised that the sound chip in my C64 was more, much more than my mates had in their Spectrums and Amstrads. I was already playing with analogue synths and drum machines, and I tried to create something, well, anything with my C64's SID chip. I pretty much understood the basic structure, waveform generators, filters, ADSR, etc. I hadn't got the first clue about 6502/6510 machine language or assembly language at that time, and it was a real pain to compose anything outside of very straight melodies with the software that was around. I bought nearly all of the music software that came out. I spent fortunes on the next and the next solution to unlocking the C64 synthesizer! (That was the keyword all of the software companies used to make you feel like you were buying 'Rick Wakeman in a box'.)
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit work samples to various games companies looking for jobs, or did jobs come to you?
So, it was about 1983/4 and I had been making regular visits to Wigan to my favourite games store at that time, Bluechip Computers. The guys in there were brilliant, friendly and most importantly, knowledgeable about the games. When I think back, I bought a good number of duff games before I became a regular at Bluechip and got their true opinions about the latest batch of releases. This was before Zzap!64 hit the scene (if my memory serves me correctly) and there wasn't really another magazine around which told it like Zzap!64 did.
One day I get talking to this guy, another customer in Bluechip, and we get on really well. He says he wants to write C64 games. I tell him I'm a musician and want to write music for games. He recommends Electrosound to me, I buy it, he turns out to be Paulie Hughes, and that day my world changed. Now I could write 'proper' music. Pitch-bends, glissandos, presets and an interface that looks just like the Roland TR drum machines I've been playing with for 12 months. It unlocked everything!
Paulie and me became good friends and as he developed as a programmer and produced his first solo project for Superior Software, Repton 3, he asked me to do the music. No money, but it would get my name out there. Scooby Doo came next and off the back of that, Paulie got himself hired by Ocean. About mid-1985, I wrote a piece of music which Paulie took into Ocean. It became the Double Take theme and got me a job at Ocean too.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
It wasn't just special, it was unique! At that time, computers and music were literally worlds apart. The Atari ST was still about three years away and sampling was in it's infancy. The C64 was the only home machine which had that accessibility to sound (once you got the right software).
What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
Repton 3: My first ever pair of tunes for a game. I wrote the in-game tune at home and then triumphantly turned up at Paulies' house to be told we needed two tunes. Oops! I wrote the title screen tune in about three hours flat in his bedroom.
Scooby Doo: Don't recall much about this. It was just The Scooby Doo Theme with a nice harmony. I remember we only got paid a percentage by Elite Software though who said that they had asked for sound fx as well. I suspect Mr Cooksey did the fx and hence the reason he gets credited in some databases.
Double Take/Mission of Mercy: We've sorta covered this one elsewhere, but... This tune came out of an experiment with me trying to find a melody that would fit as many chords as possible and discovering that there's a limit. The melody works with five chords pretty much throughout.
Ocean Loader 3: I wanted to trick the listeners with this. Start with the old, familiar Galway opening bars and then 'Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!' :) Written in secret just in case it failed, at home, and then presented as a finished work.
Head over Heels: Written in-house at Ocean. I'd been messing with the Bach piece for a while before HoH and it just seemed right for it.
Tai-Pan: I quite like composing to a strict brief and this was one of those projects where I felt the oriental feel was essential. It was the first time I went and talked in detail to the story-boarders and then included some sound fx in the music track; the ship creaking, the ship's bell, etc. This kind of sound mix is now absolutely commonplace in modern games. In fact, what goes into a soundtrack nowadays, we could only dream about back in the 80's. But, this was an early, basic attempt to get some atmosphere into the game.
Bubble Bobble: This was a great arcade game and I knew I needed to produce a really great set of faithful soundtracks to go with it. It was the hardest work I did on a C64 project and the most satisfying outcome with the Zzap!64 review of it.
Denarius, Iron Hand, Kinetic, The Big K.O., Top Duck, Gunstar and Mystery of the Nile: These were the other tunes from back then, but I have no real memories of composing/programming them.
What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
I worked freelance for the most part but worked for Ocean for around 18 months. I was hired by Ocean to expand the sound department. The workload was going up and up, programmers never seemed to be a problem to find, likewise graphic artists. Martin Galway was a single entity trying to cope with the ever increasing output from the Ocean dungeon and my role was to initially take up the slack and the overflow and eventually, once I had become fluent with the ODS (Ocean Development System), my workload would increase.
What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Usually, for me anyway, 60/40 music keyboard/computer keyboard. I would spend 60 percent of my time getting ideas to work on the synth and then program them in on the C64. Sometimes, I would come to work with ideas there already which I had worked on at home. Then it would be 60/40 the other way around.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
The norm was about three months creation time, but you often had a couple of projects on the go. In the lead up to Christmas, it shortened considerably and you had less time to mess with the fine detail.
What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
In the early days, I used Electrosound and Paulie Hughes tweaked the save files to fit. Once I was hired by Ocean, The Ocean Development System became my standard music production tool. If I remember correctly, Dave Collier and others at Ocean devised it. It was basically a C128 sync'd to a C64. All of your source code was written on the C128 and it was squirted down the sync cable into the C64 at assembly time. If your program wasn't stable and it crashed, it was the C64 that crashed. All of your precious code was safe in the C128 and you simply pressed the reset button on the C64's sync cartridge and tried again. It was a great piece of kit and ahead of it's time.
On the music side, Martin created the Ocean music playing routine. It was very clever code which relied heavily on repeating common music phrases rather than writing duplicate notes and values. It was one of many ways to keep the music and the player under 8K (8192 bytes).
When I started at Ocean and first met Martin Galway, he already had the bones of 'the fourth channel' in place. What I'm talking about is the ability to play three sounds from three voices and make a fourth sound come out by firing values at the master volume register. Martin was already getting pops and clicks to come out of the C64, and we had a good few conversations around the sounds it made. My small contribution to that, if any, was suggesting that by changing the series of values that create a click, you change the waveform and the sound. The register itself was only four bits (16 values), so the fidelity was useless for any musical instrument sample. Drums and percussion were lo-fi enough to get away with though. We both messed with it, together and separately and Arkanoid was the first loader tune that utilised it. Although, I can't remember now whether the released loader had the four voices or not. The only downside to producing the four voices was that it took nearly all of the C64's processing power to do.
The music player routine was written in assembly language and evolved and changed constantly. I changed bits, Paulie Hughes made a lot of changes after my time at Ocean, and I rewrote it for my own use post-Ocean.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Yeah! Mission of Mercy by Software Creations. Although, I've only found out recently that it never was released. Paulie got himself hired by Ocean in Manchester and he offered them the music for Double Take. At the same time, I was talking to Software Creations, down the road from Ocean, literally five minutes walk from St Peter's Square along Oxford Road in Manchester. I had offered the same music to Software Creations for Mission of Mercy. Both accepted before anyone realised! I walked into Woolworths and there's Double Take on a TV-screen with the scrolling credits saying 'Music by Paul Hughes'. I was really angry thinking my friend had deceived me. Anyway, I went to Ocean to clear things up. Paulie got in a bit of trouble for it and Ocean were upset and talked about the lack of exclusivity. I told them that they didn't have my permission to publish my music! They backed down and offered me a job, so I took it.
Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
Back in the day, Bubble Bobble. I worked so hard to get that soundtrack as close to the feel of the arcade as I could. I spent longer on BB than any other tracks ever. The challenge for me was 'make it feel like the arcade but give it the SID chip's signature'. Nowadays, Ocean Loader 3. It still gets spoken about and it was a massive challenge to come up with something to match Martin.
If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
Nothing really. The work you do over a period over time is your development path. Occasionally, you put out a duffer and then cringe later, but overall it's like a series of photographs that represent how you were at that time.
Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
Oh God, yeah! Just one! NEMESIS! I loved that tune. I spent fortunes on the arcade machine and that opening music used to make my heart soar. When the C64 conversion came out, Paulie and me were at Ocean. I can't remember who ran out and bought it, but I remember a crowd of us all clustered around a TV-screen and the loader finished... And my heart sank. It was so disappointing! No feel to it! It was thin and weedy and not even transcribed properly. Awful! It's one of my favourite pieces of computer music and I will do a remix of it at some point.
Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Always and yes! On the Commodore 64: Forbidden Forest, Mr Do's Castle, Bubble Bobble, Slap Fight, Uridium and most power-up type sh'mups. On the Amiga: Rainbow Islands and (was it) F-14 (the one where you always took-off from the carrier). On the Playstation: Crash Team Racing. On the X-Box: Halo 1. On the 360: Ninety Nine Nights and most arcade racing games. On the WII: Mario Party 8 and Ghost Squad. On the PC: Counter Strike, Command & Conquer, World of Warcraft (for two years solid until they released Cataclysm and totally ruined the whole thing), Battlefield, COD and so many others.
Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
I'll take the 5th amendment on that one and refer you back to my answer, three questions ago.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly gave inspiration to your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
I think I've always tried to learn from those around me. Everyone knows something that you don't. From a music development perspective, Martin Galway was without doubt an accomplished music programmer and taught me much about the programming and driver side of what we did. Musically, Martin didn't like or rate my music and the feeling was mutual but we tolerated each other and worked together professionally. There was never any creative musical collaboration.
I have always gone after the melody/arrangement first and foremost. The actual sound/waveform has always been secondary in all but a few cases like Bubble Bobble or Tai-Pan. In my opinion, a lot of the computer music which accompanied games in the 80's had no real melody to it and I think it was the lack of strong melody in a lot of Martin Galway's work that made it hard to listen to, for me. Martin always went after the sounds first (certainly during the time we worked in the same room). I always picked out the melody and harmonies, the pedal-points and the descants. We were very different musicians and people.
Paulie Hughes was my travelling companion almost everyday going to and from Ocean and I got a lot from our conversations and he was always generous with his ideas and creativity. We still talk quite frequently now and any wrinkles from my latter days at Ocean have been ironed out.
Share some memories from the old days! It could for instance be something you remember a colleague did or said, about your time in the demo scene, about crackers stealing development disks, or about going to computer shows.
PCW Show at Olympia in London. Paulie and me had a great day! I met Rob Hubbard in the bar. What a guy! I met Andrew Braybrook who was just so modest about his talents. He was a really nice person.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. Share with us the software and/or hardware you created on other systems.
At the time, I was pretty much into the C64 although I did the music for Wizball on the Spectrum and Tai-Pan for the Atari ST.
What are you up to these days?
Nowadays, I work in the Business-to-Business sector of PC World/Dixons retail. I play in a comedy/cabaret band in my spare time and I still write remixes of C64 tunes and original music with computer games in mind. I'd like to get back into composing for games again. With the sophistication and fidelity available from a decent PC, I reckon I could produce some good stuff for the current games market.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any last comments to leave a final impression on the audience? Feel free to send any greetings to anyone you know.
I think that the 80's in the gaming industry was an era when a lot of people and companies were only just learning about producing games and bringing them to market. Nowadays, it’s similar to film production. There is a tried and tested model which gets hundreds of games released every year. The good thing about that is that we all enjoy a much higher quality end product. The downside, in my opinion, is that we never really see the unusual, off-the-wall, original games anymore because they don’t fit the model. All of those wacky, slightly awful games that we bought in the 80's and then frowned at when they were loaded, had an effect. They were the ideas which became the 'best' games later.
The industry has always been driven and improved by individual people, people who were blessed with being a little different. They are the ones who can make a sub-routine run faster or have the kind of mind which approaches a problem from the opposite side. It's the end products that come out of this kind of individuality and creativity that are the ones that make us all go 'Oooh!!' I guess what I’m trying to say is: The more that 'play time' becomes governed by 'business' the more games just become products to be sold and less products to be played and enjoyed. They become more serious and less fun.
Hi to Paulie Hughes, the person who even without realising it at the time was probably the most influential on my entry to the industry and also my most even-handed critic musically. Hi to Steve Ruddy and Richard Kay (which I haven’t seen or spoken to either since the 80's) and to Chris Abbott, Jan, Markus (LMan) and all the gang at remix64.com for continuing to breathe life into the music of the Commodore 64.
back to the list of available interviews