David Thiel / Action Graphics,
Free Radical Software,
Added on July 15th, 2013 (5610 views)
Hello David! As the musician on games like Winter Games, Championship Wrestling and Rock n' Bolt, you have a pretty huge fan over here in Stockholm, Sweden! Could you start by introducing yourself to anyone who may not know you?
Certainly, I'm David Thiel, an interactive audio guy whose current samples can be found at search YouTube for David Thiel pinball.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I worked at a unique synthesiser store in Chicago, the Elektrik Keyboard, which was the first Apple II dealer. My first job in games was with Gottlieb, where I was the primary audio guy for their first five games including Q*bert. Shortly before the coin-op crash, I left for Action Graphics. I worked on the ColecoVision, Adam, Atari 400/800 and C64 platforms. Action Graphics did both conversions and original games for clients including Epyx. We also did work for Electronic Arts and Coleco. While at Gottlieb, I was into the VIC-20 programming graphics and worked on original game ideas in assembler. I actually contacted Commodore and got SID audio chip samples for use in the sound board I was spec’ing. I had a working prototype when the bad news came in that Commodore would not guarantee sufficient quantities of SID chips and that I could not use it. A very sad day. Since Action Graphics created games for the C64, I therefore wrote a sound system for it. The David Dwyer Thiel Sound System (DDTSS) was unique in that it supported six channels, including three virtual ones which could be used for sound effects. SID was a cool chip and you could write to it very fast. This allowed me to use a channel already in use and then restore it after I was done. The effect was that it was almost like having two SID chips. I used this to great effect in Rock n' Bolt.
I ported DDTSS to all the platforms I worked on (and there were lots of them). DDTSS was basically like MIDI with logic. Each sound channel had a stack to support subroutines. I evaluated variables and branches to other sound strings of sound tokens. Later, I made timing information available so that new sound events could align with rhythmic backgrounds down to the 32nd note. When I went to Microsoft Research, I implemented DDTSS as MISS (My Interactive Sound System), but that's another story.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
It was so long ago that my experience isn't very relevant today, but for historical purposes: in 1979, I was a Data Processing Instructor at Zurich Insurance in Chicago. I was also an avid Apple II computing hobbyist. I was dissatisfied with working on mainframes, but it was a good job. I'll never know who told the head-hunter about the Apple II (maybe someone who wanted to get rid of me). Gottlieb Pinball was starting a video game division and they needed staff. At my interview, the manager asked me bluntly: "Why should we hire a guy from an insurance company?" Good question. I said: "Give me three days, and I will code up something than looks like a video game". And I did. With the help of the hi-res routines on the Apple II, I had a ship flying and shooting under joystick control within three days. It was very hard, but I got the job.
Was the games business something you'd wanted to get into from an early stage?
I was a jobbing musician for seven years, and when playing live music became tenuous, I switched to programming. I was working on mainframes, but not very happy doing that. I had Apple II and VIC-20 computers at home, and I knew that they could ultimately do a better job for micro-computer users than the mainframe environment, so basically, I wanted to get paid to work on micros. That's what drove me away from traditional data processing and more towards the games companies. When the first game was nearly complete and management suddenly realised it was a silent game, I raised my hand and said I could do something about that. So I was able to get my career back to music and sound but also incorporate my love of programming. I couldn't have planned it better: that job description had only existed for a handful of people a couple of years previously, so I was just the right person in the right place at the right time, I guess.
The early days must have been a lot of fun, perhaps filled with a sense of being part of a revolution of sorts. Could you comment on that?
The early days were a lot of fun and a lot of work. Everything was primitive and constrained in every way, and we were tasked with making something fun despite the constraints while finding and exploiting things that had never been done before with a computer. Management went nuts, because everything was new and they didn't know if we were working productively or just playing. Frankly, we had to do both in order to produce working products that were fun. I was there at the very beginning, putting Apple II software into baggies for sale at computer stores. It did seem revolutionary, though we were mostly too busy to really think much about that.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
While working in the coin-op field, I was hacking on VIC-20s and programming the SID chips I got from Commodore, and I was aware of how nifty the C64 was for its price range. The C64 could have competed with and even threatened Apple if they'd only used a parallel cable to the disk drive instead of serial (FCC EMR paranoia). The transfer speed was a killer and relegated the C64 to the entertainment niche. As a sound guy, I was always happy to work on C64 projects. For me, it didn't get any better than that, until I got back into coin-op and put Yamaha FM chips on the sound board.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
I worked on Artillery Duel, which Action Graphics did for Xonox. John Perkins, who was a co-founder of Action Graphics, wrote Artillery Duel for the Astrocade. He ported his game to a bunch of platforms, including the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, C64, Intellivision and possibly even the PCjr. John was a 'Radio Shack inventor', meaning he could make cool new stuff with parts from Radio Shack.
Beamrider was a conversion which Action Graphics did for Activision. Action Graphics did conversion work moving popular VCS titles to other platforms. Beamrider was a game that should have been a vector game.
Pitstop was something Action Graphics did for Epyx. Richard Ditton had written Pitstop on the Atari, and I believe Jay Fenton was brought in to do the C64 version. Jay was subsequently the programmer who single-handedly created VideoWorks and MusicWorks for the new Mac platform, which of course later morphed into MacroMind (google it).
Rock n' Bolt was made by Action Graphics for Activision. Carl Norden was the game designer. It was his first original game for Action Graphics. Rock n' Bolt was the first game in which I used the six-channel virtual SID sound system. This allowed me to have three-channel music playing with game sound on top of it. It worked pretty well.
Family Feud was worked on by Action Graphics for Coleco. Elaine Ditton did the original version for Adam, and somebody else did the internal port to C64. Action Graphics did a number of original projects for Coleco to help launch Adam.
Winter Games was written by Action Graphics for Epyx. This was another Richard Ditton original. Action Graphics was going down due to high overheads and the predatory attitude of software publishers. Richard was committed to finishing Winter Games, even though we were no longer getting our regular wage payments. When I left Action Graphics, they owed me three months' pay. We were confident that the royalties Winter Games would make would provide our back pay, which ultimately it did, though only much later. Richard, Elaine and I banded together to start our own company, and we exploited Action Graphics' former client list. I ported Winter Games to the Amiga and Atari ST.
Championship Wrestling was created by Incredible Technologies for Epyx. This was another Richard Ditton original. I'm not sure what the 'native' platform for this game was, it might even have been the C64. There were a bunch of wrestlers, and I wrote a theme tune for each of them – lots of thumps and crowd noises, basically.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I left an insurance company to work for the in-house start-up video game division of Gottlieb Pinball in 1980. At first, I was programming a tool to make sprites for the new system, but I switched to being their full-time audio guy as soon as the first game got far enough that it needed it.
Action Graphics was a game consulting firm and worked mainly for publishers such as Epyx, Activision and Coleco. I created interactive audio for a number of platforms including the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, Intellevision, C64, PCjr, Coleco Adam and Atari 400/800.
I was co-founder of a games company which started out as Free Radical Software but morphed into Incredible Technologies. Initially, we provided games for software publishers, but eventually we designed and manufactured video game boards for arcade cabinets with original games.
I was an interactive audio researcher at Microsoft Research for seven years.
I now run my own company Aud4Int ("sole proprietorship", i.e. staff of one) which creates interactive audio for clients. Stern Pinball is Aud4Int's primary client, and I have created fourteen audio packages for pinball machines such as Family Guy, Spider-Man and most recently X-men.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
I spend my time in front of the computer mostly programming, though also some composing and FX creation. In the C64 era, all of the run-time sound system and creation tools had to be made from scratch, no libraries then! I created the sound system and wrote an editor (in 8086 assembler) which could modify the sound scripts at run-time for more fluid experimentation. It was about this time that I got my first music keyboard which could talk to the computer (Yamaha DX7) via a Roland MIDI interface. There was still very little software, but I fixed that.
The hardest part of any sound-for-picture task is finding the "voice" for the project. Once you seize upon something appropriate, the rest is "just" the routine work of fleshing it out. Establishing the concept is the hard part, so a day of composing at the beginning of a project doesn't seem to be that productive, but that's where the real creative work occurs. Once a theme has been chosen, then the rest is just the mechanics of harmony, voicing, arranging and performing, so there is no one typical day but rather a flow.
How would work on a game soundtrack progress?
I always strove to have a system which allowed me to tweak sounds and sound parameters while the game was running. For the C64, I had a parallel PC interface which gave me access to the memory space. Using symbol tables, I created a tweaking interface in which I could adjust parameters at run-time. I always felt that it was critical to get around the edit-save-compile-load-run-review cycle for manipulating interactive sounds and music.
What did your music software on the C64 look like?
At Action Graphics, I got the Roland MIDI interface for my DX7, which was the first available way to get music keyboard gestures into the PC. I wrote a text editor in Intel assembler in order to edit note and timing data captured from the DX7 keyboard. I used this on Winter Games and Rock n' Bolt. At Incredible Technologies, I started using Cakewalk and wrote a converter from MIDI files to my interactive sound system format.
Did you write the music driver yourself?
Yes, I wrote the sound system which supported interactive sound strings with special features for music. Unlike standard MIDI, my sound system supported logic, branching, subroutines (at the sound channel level), pitch offsets (to track the current tonal centre), tempo offsets and event alignments down to 16th-note triplets. At the time (in the mid-1980s), this work was considered pretty advanced.
Did you have an editor or did you enter the notes in hex form?
At Gottlieb coin-op, they didn’t yet have MIDI, and I wrote music and converted it to notes in hex form. That's how Reactor and Q*bert were done. I was not happy. I even bought a RAW music keyboard with the intention of interfacing it to a PC myself, but the arrival of MIDI saved me from this.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
At Gottlieb and at Action Graphics, I was the sound guy so I had to personally manage how much time I spent on a project so that each one got all the attention it needed in a timely fashion. At Incredible Technologies, I hired a number of great people to help me, so some of my time had to be devoted to developing and managing those folks. In the early days, though, the work was still very time-consuming, so eight to twelve weeks for a project was pretty normal. Conversions to other platforms took less time.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I've touched on this above. I started on the Apple II, which was the development system for the audio on Q*bert. I wrote the sound system for VideoWorks on the Mac (early days). The Macintosh was too expensive and hard to support in a PC shop, so I did all my work on a PC which was not well supported for media work in the early days. Cakewalk was (and still is) my DAW of choice (though at the time, it was strictly MIDI). I was an early adopter of Sound Forge, and Brief was my editor. Everything else I either wrote myself or someone on my staff programmed it to my specifications.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Sure, mostly at Gottlieb. The first big disappointment was a superhero game called various things (Guardian, Protector, I forget the exact name). Although a lot of resources went into this game, it never tested well enough to go into production. The next game after that was Q*bert. There was a Tim Skelly game called Insector which tested well but not well enough in the aftermath of the 1983 coin-op crash. This one still lives if you have Mame, and I saw it on a Gottlieb conversion kit in a cabinet recently.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
Of my recent work, I am very proud of the pinball sound package for X-Men. I wrote a lot of music and sound FX for it. It was unfortunately overshadowed by less than optimum speech, something I have no control over. I am also proud of the Transformers music and FX which were almost entirely my own compositions.
I recently had a lot of fun writing music and creating sound FX for Dark Tonic's Angry Robot: Wall Street Titan. It had been a long time since I'd scored a video game, and it was a lot of fun to work on. The Dark Tonic guys are great, the game is fun, and it's out there for a buck on the iOS platform (and coming soon for Android). I hope to do more video games in the near future.
One real challenge for me was the first pinball game I did after re-entering the fray, which was Pirates of the Caribbean. I needed to create orchestral music that would be evocative of the movie but not too close, as we did not have the rights to any of the movie music. One guy with orchestral VST libraries is always a challenge. The results were good, but it was hard going. Six years on, I can now create orchestral work with relative ease, but it is always a challenge.
One particular headache was Spider-Man, the first pinball game I did for Steve Ritchie. It just took me a while to figure out what he wanted. Since Steve had been so involved in the music of some of his best games, like Black Knight, I was taken aback at how hard it was to establish some effective communication with him. This was partly because he was in California, I was in Seattle and Stern is based in Chicago, so no-one was just down the hall for a casual conference. Once I figured it out, it was a very successful collaboration, but the first tune was rejected about four times.
Regarding my work on the C64, I am particularly proud of the sound system and sound package I created for Rock n' Bolt. I took advantage of the SID chip to create the illusion of three addition channels for sound FX, which in turn let me use three channels for the music. Winter Games was fun to do, although finishing it while not actually getting paid was an act of faith. Thanks to royalties from the finished game, I did eventually get paid, though. None of the C64 titles gave me headaches, as it was always fun to exploit SID. ColecoVision, and other platforms based on square waves, were often much harder to get satisfying results on.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I always try to deliver the best stuff I can, within the constraints of the project. I am (hopefully) getting smarter every day, so there's always something that with hindsight I might have done differently, but I don't regret any specific decisions I made at the time.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
One thing which irritates me as the creator of the Q*bert audio is that I have never been consulted on any of its conversions or adaptations. I think I could have helped make them better. I know how to emulate the Votrax, so they could have had Q*bertese on platforms without the Votrax (better than just sampling it from the arcade game), but I'm still here, working in the trenches, being ignored. Oh, well.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
At Gottlieb, we always had the competitors' games lying around. When afternoon lethargy took hold, I would recharge with one of my three favourite games: Missile Command, Centipedes or Robitron. Better than a strong cup of coffee. I still do this today, although my favourites are now Halo Wars and Borderlands 2. Nothing like a little combat to get the adrenalin up. At Action Graphics, I was the sole sound person supporting more than half a dozen platforms and four or more development groups, so I didn't play much, though I did play Impossible Mission whenever I got the chance.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
The second game I ever did at Gottlieb was a superhero game. Now, I was and still am a film buff, so I went back to see how the great film composers created themes that manipulated the viewer's emotions. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann were my great influences from the 1940s. From more modern times, it is of course John Williams. I studied and deconstructed what they did, so that I could use similar techniques. With respect to the non-music part of the audioscape, I was most influenced by Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. All modern composers are walking on the shoulders of these men. The most inspiring programmer for me was Wozniak (he of the Apple II BIOS).
Tell us more about what Ron Waxman, Richard Ditton, Tim Skelly and Lonnie Ropp meant to you.
Ron Waxman was tasked with hiring people for a job that barely existed at the time: creating interactive games using computers. He couldn't therefore hire people who'd been doing it for years, so he had to find people who could invent their jobs as they went along. Special people, therefore. He did well. After I'd convinced him that a guy from an insurance company could do the work, I came under a lot of pressure from my then employer not to take this crazy leap to a games company in a warehouse near O'Hare. At one point, I even buckled, deciding to back out, and called Ron. He just said I was being crazy and he would see me on Monday, and that was that. I am so glad he had such a powerful personality.
Tim Skelly was the only person who had created a video game before joining Gottlieb. He was a pioneer and had done a bunch of successful games at Cinematronics. He was a mentor and a very demanding client, and the first sounds I created were for him. Reactor still holds up now. Later, he was one of the first employees at Incredible Technologies and created great art for their products. He left for Microsoft Research and then recommended me as the interactive sound researcher for the UI research group.
Richard Ditton designed Winter Games at Action Graphics. When Action Graphics went bankrupt, Richard, Elaine and I leveraged some Winter Games conversion work while we established our own company Incredible Technologies. Richard is a brilliant games designer, and I learned a lot about games design from him. He was also always a tough client for sounds.
Lonnie Ropp was at Action Graphics and a consumer of ColecoVision Adam sounds for Richard Scarry's Best Electronic Workbook Ever (which was also converted to the C64). Later, Lonnie and I worked together at Incredible Technologies, and I provided sounds for their pinball client Data East. Seventeen years later, Lonnie hired me as a sound freelancer for Stern Pinball, for whom I have now done over 15 pinball audio packages. Lonnie has been there for most of my career, as an important collaborator, client and a good friend.
Not much is known about Action Graphics, so anything you can remember about working for them would be greatly appreciated. Who started the company? Who worked there?
Action Graphics was founded by Bob Ogden. He had been an important programmer, creating games for the Bally Astrocade. Action Graphics was initially intended to exploit the games created for the Astrocade, but quickly became a conversion house and then an original game producer for Activision , Epyx and Coleco.
The coin-op crash of 1983 made a lot of experienced games people available in Chicago, and many of them were hired or used as freelancers by Action Graphics, including Richard Ditton (Tapper), Lonnie Ropp (Nibbler), Jay Fenton (Gorf), Tim Skelly (RipOff) and John Jaugilas (Nibbler). Action Graphics was a very social group. We played Walleyball every week and worked like demons, first converting Activision 2600 games to ColecoVision and the C64. Action Graphics then graduated to original product creation, including the very successful Winter Games for Epyx.
Ron Waxman was a wise man who was responsible for running the Gottlieb video games department. He said: "Nobody knows what is fun about video games, so essentially the enterprise is a random walk. The key is to have as many people walking randomly as possible". This was very true in 1981, and the lab was set up so as to give as many people as possible the chance to make something fun. This was a good strategy.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
Technology marches on. We were very publisher-driven, and the focus moved from the C64 to the Amiga pretty fast. Soon, we were being self-published on kit-based coin-op games, so we stopped developing for home platforms. It was the best audio platform of its day, in many ways better than the Amiga.
What are you up to these days?
In 2012, I created audio for AC/DC Pinball and X-Men and sound effects for The Avengers pinball game. I also delivered sound packages for two casino games and the aforementioned Wall Street Titan video game for Apple (and soon Android) platforms. It was a busy year. These days, I do less technical stuff and more composition and creation. I miss the control I had as a programmer, but it is fun to bring all the power of my studio to bear on a challenge.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
Anybody who has worked with computer technology since the late 1970s has had a wild ride. The context within which the work is done has changed radically (and mostly for the better), but the task remains the same: give me your attention and I will provide you with an activity which is not boring or frustrating but engaging and challenging (also known as "fun"). It is still the best career ever and one I could not have imagined when I graduated from college. My thanks go to the people who provided the forks in my road well taken, most notably Ron Waxman, Richard Ditton, Tim Skelly and Lonnie Ropp.
back to the list of available interviews