Matt Gray / System 3,
Added on November 28th, 2014 (3002 views)
Hello Matt and welcome to C64.COM! Please tell us something about yourself.
I'm Matt Gray, musician and producer. I was born in the county of Kent in the UK way back in May 1970. I have a lot of interests, but the main ones are music (obviously), movies, computers and technology in general, football and my family.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I didn't get a C64 until 1985. Up until then, I'd had a ZX81 and then a Spectrum. Computers took over my life in a very short period of time from 1983 onwards. I had to get a C64 once I'd heard the SID chip and, specifically at that time, Ghostbusters. Then, when I heard what Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were doing, I was hooked. I didn't think it would become my job, though.
How did you connect with the demo scene?
If it hadn't been for Compunet, I would probably have never left first base. It was vital in enabling me to get my demos out there and heard. Guys such as Paul Docherty (Dokk), Cory Kin (Hex), Graham Hunter and many others were instrumental in pushing me forward. Compunet was such a great community of helpful and talented people. I don't think we even had trolls back then.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer back then.
When I was developing music, I had a little Casio MT-45 keyboard (the ones with all the pre-set rhythms on) which I used to work out chords and melodies with very basic sounds. I had a desk in my room that had the C64 and a portable TV on it, so I was totally isolated in my room and undisturbed. Later on, I got a second TV which was nearly always on, but with the sound down, while I was working, just to give me some extra visuals.
Who were your heroes on the scene and why?
Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were the guys I was inspired by and aspired to sound like. I think the first Rob tracks I ever heard were One Man & His Droid and Phantom of the Asteroids, and they sounded just amazing. He had created quite a complex sound from just three monophonic sound channels. Then, when I heard Martin Galway's loader tunes for Ocean, I started to get really interested in having a go myself. His Rambo loader is my favourite C64 tune of all time. It made such an impression on me the first time I loaded it on my C64.
What, for you, was the coolest thing ever invented on the C64? (e.g. a tool, routine, etc.)
Soundmonitor and Rockmonitor, godsends at the time.
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?
Initially, it was companies coming to me because of my Compunet demos. I think Dokk suggested me for Quedex, as he was doing the loader page artwork. Once I had Driller out, things got easier and not long after that, I went exclusive for System 3, which was great.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
For me, it was the best out there. Sound-wise, at any rate, it was in a league of its own.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them.
I'd best break this down by year. In 1987, I did Mean Streak for Dalali Software. Hanan Samara, director at Dalali, gave me my first break. Unfortunately, the game's programmers had to re-write the player in order for it to work with the game and they left out all the modulation and pitch end routines, so it sounded very different to the track I had written. Not a great start, therefore, but they gave me another project soon after.
Yogi Bear, also for Dalali Software, was a very different task as compared to Mean Streak and not really my cup of tea, but it was no good trying to "cool" it up. It was what it was, but in hindsight, I'm amazed I got any other offers after those two efforts!
Next up was Quedex for Thalamus. This came about because Paul Docherty and/or Graham Hunter passed one of my CNet demos on to Paul Cooper at Thalamus. They wanted to use it for the loading sequence, but it had been written on Soundmonitor. Somehow, they managed to get it to play while the game loaded. The in-game tunes needed to be written in such a way that if a sound effect played, it didn't destroy the music too much. Stavros Fasoulas and Paul Cooper drove up to my parents' house where I basically had the top floor of a bungalow to myself. Stavros loaded up his game demos and went through what was needed. I think it took me about two weeks to do all the tunes and FX. Working for such a big name in the industry definitely opened up more doors.
Driller, which I did for Incentive Software, was another big turning point for me. They wanted something long and epic, not short and repetitive. Concept-wise, it was the perfect game for me. It was exactly the sort of thing I had been waiting to get my teeth into musically. It took four weeks to complete, including an almost two-week pause in the middle when the Great Storm of 1987 struck the UK, leaving us without electricity or heating for about ten or eleven days. I can remember walking down our road one dark evening, wondering if I would ever get to use the C64 again, and suddenly noticing all the neighbours' lights were finally on again. I went straight in, fired up the assembler and carried on composing.
Sometime in November 1987, I got a phone call from Mark Cale of System 3 Software, asking if I could provide a loading track for Bangkok Knights, but they needed it next week. Rob had done the in-game, but I think he was departing for the US and didn't have time to do another track. This was a big opportunity, to effectively stand in for my SID hero. There was also the tempting prospect of perhaps working on the sequel to The Last Ninja the following year. I went up to their Hampstead offices in London the following week with my loading track for Bangkok Knights. Mark listened to it and approved it, then we went for a drink, where he offered me an exclusive contract to work for System 3. I said yes, and that was that. In mid-January of 1988, I started work on The Last Ninja 2.
Fruit Machine Simulator was the first track I did for David and Richard Darling of Codemasters. I'd met them several times at shows and at their offices, and they were always very helpful. They were the ones who convinced me to write my own player. Back then, there was little chance of doing games music without that skill. It's great to see how tremendously well they have done and how they've turned Codemasters into a real powerhouse. I remember this one time, in 1990, I got caught speeding on the M40 on the way back from their farmhouse in Banbury. I was gutted, because I was looking at losing my licence which would be a disaster for a freelancer. They offered to write a letter to the court effectively stating that without my licence, I would lose my job, though in private they assured me that if push came to shove, that would not happen. As it happens, I didn't need it because the case was dropped, but it was such a nice gesture. I've never been caught speeding again since that day.
For Hunter's Moon, which was for Thalamus, I conversed a lot with Martin Walker. We often discussed music routines and ideas he had for the overall sound of the game. I kind of figured I wouldn't be doing the music on his next game, because he was developing his own music routine. This was a smooth production, though, and I was pleased with the results.
Pogo Stick Olympics was a very last-minute effort for Silverbird, so I really can't remember too much about it. I think they had a modified demo track.
In 1988, as mentioned, I did The Last Ninja 2 for System 3. I did the Central Park tracks first, which was important in order to stamp some sort of "sound" on the game. It basically took from mid-January until early April to finish. It's about as big a project as you would want to undertake, but everything just seemed to work without any real hitches. I was given a fairly free hand to produce what I thought would be most suitable and luckily, every time I took in new tracks for each level, I got the thumbs up. It was a great time for me personally, to suddenly be working full time on C64 music. I was almost 18, but I had no real worries in the world beyond whether I could afford to buy a better car.
By the time I did Dominator for System 3, a dance-track influence was increasingly creeping into my tracks. This game was developed at System 3's then-new location in London. Paul Docherty was working there by then, along with Stan Schembri who is sadly no longer with us. Stan was a real character, quick-witted and always good for a laugh. I didn't get to know everyone there very well, though, because I was still happy to work remotely from home.
Tusker, also for System 3, was an interesting production because I'd heard Rob Hubbard create a sound like crickets in the grass or jungle on Flash Gordon, so I created a similar sound which was great for the general atmosphere on Tusker. The drums and rhythms were also very important in this game. There needed to be a tribal sound overall, and I think I managed that. I think I spent about four or five weeks on this game.
In 1989, I did Vendetta for System 3. The first track I did for this was a cover of Infected by The The. Paul Docherty introduced me to it as a reference, but I took it a little too literally. I had to make a lot of use of the filters on this game, to keep the mood. This was actually my last game for System 3, sometime around March 1989. I think the Maniacs of Noise had rolled into town by then!
Maze Mania was the first soundtrack I did for Hewson Consultants. It took me about two weeks to complete. I think I did the FX on this, too. At the time, this was probably my first freelance track for some 14 months. It went very smoothly, as I remember.
I enjoyed doing KGB Superspy for Codemasters, as I was trying a few new tricks, trying to maximise any rhythm elements without using a whole channel to do it. The high score theme is actually a straight cover of the victory theme from Escape To Victory, which is a football version of The Great Escape. It's a film that my mates and I used to enjoy as kids because of the many football stars in it, including Pelé and Ardiles.
I then did Motocross for Codemasters, though I'm pretty sure this started out as a track for Turbo Outrun that never came out, at least not with my music on it.
On Treasure Island Dizzy, also for Codemasters, the title theme was my version of the original Dizzy music, and the in-game tune had a rhythm in 12ths with a heavy swing. I liked the arpeggio chords in it. I also like the high score tune, for some reason. I later converted these to the NES. I also did the Micro Machines music on the NES for Codemasters. For some reason, I was never credited on Micro Machines, but the game was massive.
BMX Simulator II, also for Codemasters and also known as Pro BMX, was a very quick track to do – it had to be, as it was needed in a hurry. It has since taken on a life of its own on the demo scene, though apparently, not many people knew it was one of mine.
In 1990, I produced Deliverance: Stormlord II, my last ever SID track. Ironically, it was for Hewson Consultants, who folded soon after. It was time for a change, and by then I was starting to release dance music for club play. It's an alright piece of work, though I think the sounds were probably better than some of the tunes. I've just reworked it for a Kickstarter project and it sounds so much better now.
If you could pick three tunes from your back catalogue which you like best and/or think best represent your work, what would they be?
Driller, and the Central Park loader and Central Park in-game from The Last Ninja 2.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance?
I worked exclusively for System 3 and freelance for Codemasters, Thalamus, Incentive, Hewson, Silverbird and Dalali Software.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
It varied. The low-budget games were often quite last-minute affairs and had a turnaround of a few days. Driller took about four weeks, though as mentioned that was partly due to the power outage caused by the Great Storm. The Last Ninja 2 was completed within 14-16 weeks.
Did you personally invent any special techniques or tools to make things easier for you?
I don't think I invented anything specific, but I did write my player to adopt a sequencer approach. Rather than program every note played in sequence, it used a series of smaller sequences.
Tell us about your music driver. What's special about it?
I think the way I processed my modulation routines gave it my "sound" if you like. For example, my vibrato routines didn't use the correct algorithm, as say Rob's or Martin's did. Mine was just a simple up-and-down pitch change, depending on other factors such as delaying the vibrato and the vibrato speed and depth. But the higher the notes you played, the less vibrato you got, and the lower you went, the deeper it got. I was always adding-in modifiers and routines to produce better-sounding drums, but I always kept a bank of sounds that could be modified from project to project.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
I'm pretty sure I worked on Afterburner and Turbo Outrun. As I mentioned above, I think the Turbo Outrun music became Motocross in the end. Afterburner was just a lot of conversions from the arcade soundtrack, not too much fun in that.
Which piece of music for a 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?
I think the entire The Last Ninja 2 soundtrack is my proudest achievement, especially the Central Park tracks, as they seem to mean so much to so many people. The project itself was a pleasure to be part of. The whole team involved were probably at the top of their C64 game at the time, from John's programming to Hugh's fantastic graphics, Tim's storyboarding and of course Mark's overall vision and commitment. It's amazing that we're still talking about it nearly 30 years on.
The real challenges came towards the end of my C64 era, because I was being drawn by dance music and the record industry and was starting to find a threshold with the SID that I couldn't push beyond. In hindsight, I think I was just slightly bored with three channels, particularly as high-tech studio gear like samplers and the like was becoming more readily available.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past tunes, what would you add, change or remove?
Too many things to mention, but that's part of the idea behind the Reformation remakes I'm doing now: fixing things and enhancing sounds.
Are there any particular tunes you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I think at the time, I wished I'd been born two or three years earlier, because I think my C64 music peaked quite early on, but the games market was already in some decline by then. The tracks I aspired to emulate were mainly from 1985-1987, such as Sanxion, Rambo, Commando, W.A.R., Phantom of The Asteroid, Green Beret, Knucklebusters – all of these tracks were awe-inspiring. Arcade-wise, I always loved 720 Degrees, and I did do an early demo from memory which however was pretty bad in my view.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Ironically, once I was doing the music full time, I didn't have the time to play too many games. I actually stopped playing games for long periods during the 1990s, apart from many hours on Sensible Soccer for the Amiga. I then went through several consoles in relatively quick succession: the Sega, PS and Xbox. At Xenomania, we spent a lot of breaks playing Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty.
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?
Well, both Rob and Martin inspired me of course, but also dozens and dozens of other musicians and bands, everything from Blondie to John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone to The Sex Pistols. Kraftwerk were a huge influence, as were Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream. Many movie soundtracks also provided inspiration. There were so many influences from the music of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and a little of the early 1990s. Basically, anything that I heard and liked was a source of some inspiration.
Please share some special memories from the old days!
I once met someone at one of the big Earls Court shows who said they had developed a SID player that was available for licence. At the time, I had just started writing my own routine and learning 6502 as I went. They let me trial a copy, but it turned out to be just a disassembled Rob Hubbard routine which they'd re-commented and labelled up. I didn't use it, but the guy got very funny on the phone a few weeks later, implying I had stolen his routine and threatening all sorts of legal rubbish. My routine was clearly different. I can't remember his name, but he was a total nutter.
When did you become aware of the remix scene and the fact that people had done quite a lot of remixes of your C64 tunes? What do you think of them?
I first heard some remixes that Chris Abbott sent me about ten years ago. A lot of them were quite inventive, and there were some good remixes of some of my stuff, though the fan in me prefers listening to Galway and Hubbard remixes. I really like Reyn's Comic Bakery remix, and there were some cool re-workings of Sanxion as well.
So, you've got a Kickstarter going. Give us the sales pitch!
Well, it's an album of about 20 of my C64 tracks, remade using some of the SID elements but also adding a lot of sounds that just were not possible even on the great SID. There's also an accompanying album of extended remakes for the entire soundtrack of System 3's The Last Ninja 2. We've already hit the first stretch goal, so I'll also be adding-in six brand new pure-SID tunes based on imagined fictional sequels to some of the games I worked on. There's been a tremendous response so far, and the core project was completely funded within 14 hours of launching, which was amazing.
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.
Just a huge shout out to everyone who's ever heard one of my C64 tracks or remakes and thought to themselves "That sounds quite good". Music is all about stirring a mood or emotion in the listener. If my music has had that effect on just a few people, then I'm happy with that.
back to the list of available interviews