Matthew Cannon / Ocean Software
Added on May 10th, 2010 (6570 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi! I'm Matthew Cannon. I worked as an audio programmer/musician for a handful of games production companies in the late 80's/early 90's.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I was given a C64 for my 12th birthday back in 1984. Prior to that, I had owned a VIC-20 and had some exposure to the BBC Micro at school. My friends at the time owned all sorts of home computers: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Acorn, Dragon, all of which interested me, but I knew there was something special about the C64.
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 1988, I was 15 years old, and in my final year at secondary school. I applied to Ocean Software in Manchester (my home town) for what was known back then as 'work experience'; basically a couple of weeks out of school to experience the nine to five life. To my absolute astonishment, Ocean said yes, and a few weeks later, I found myself sat in front of the Ocean development kit learning about sprites, raster interrupts, bitmaps and so on (no music yet!).
The following year, just after leaving school, I returned to Ocean to do some part-time summer work with the testing department. Whilst there, I took the liberty of nagging Jonathan Dunn, probably three times a week at least, with whatever music demo I had put together that weekend using Ubik's Musik (the only editor I had access to). Call it pester power, luck, or whatever, but Jonathan came to the conclusion that I should be writing more than just demo tracks. He arranged with producer Gary Bracey to put me on my first project, which was Batman the Movie.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
I wasn't so much attracted to the C64 as a development platform, rather as a musical instrument. That may sound a bit far-fetched, but when I was younger, what I really wanted to do was make electronic music. The only instrument I had at the time was a wheezy old Bontempi Reed Organ with a dodgy PSU! So, hearing the C64 for the first time was a big deal. It must have been soon after getting the C64 that I stumbled on some game soundtracks and realized that the C64 had a very distinctive sound, and maybe I could make music with it. I realized it had three channels and that you could achieve a variety of timbres; I recognized that PWM and filter manipulation was going on, even though I didn't know what it was called. But, being equipped with only basic, low budget development tools, I was still a long way off making a decent sound with it. For a long time, it remained a puzzle to me how games developers had managed to manipulate the SID to such an extent that you could achieve a Hubbard or Galway sound. Funny that I expected to find all the answers in the Commodore 64 Programmer's Reference Guide! *lol* In answer to your question then, when you consider how much of a learning curve was involved, the C64 must have been a very special machine, otherwise so many of us wouldn't have bothered to make the effort. It was all worth it in the end!
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
Batman the Movie, Operation Thunderbolt, Night Breed, A 'Loader' tune, The Untouchables (with Jonathan Dunn), Robocop 2 (Jonathan Dunn ported from my Atari version), Adidas Championship Football, and Navy Seals.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I did all of my C64 work for Ocean Software, followed by some SNES work at Software Creations. In each case, my responsibilities were to furnish a game with music and sound effects. I went on to do some freelance work, and one or two short-lived jobs in gaming before I retired from the industry in 1996.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Type, compile, listen, tweak, repeat.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
It was usually a matter of days or weeks, depending on the number of game segments/levels and the required complexity of the music and sound effects. The lead developer or designer would typically ask for between two and ten tunes, and 30 or so sound effects. Cross-platform ports – of which I did my fair share – were usually tighter on time-scales. Often we would work on more than one project at a time, e.g., I recall working on Robocop 2 on the Atari ST alongside Night Breed on the C64.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
Ocean's proprietary development environment was all I knew really. For someone who up to that point had very few "real" development tools to work with (unless you considered Microrhythm and Ubik's Music real tools), the Ocean kit was a real revelation! It was an Atari ST based cross-assembler that enabled you to focus on editing the sequences, notes and instrument patches without worrying about treading all over the C64's RAM. Dave Collier was largely responsible for maintaining the cross-assembler platform, and the music driver/player had been co-written by Paul Hughes and Jonathan Dunn. By the time I joined Ocean, the driver had evolved through several stages, beginning with Martin Galway's somewhat impenetrable driver (my attempt to fathom the Rambo loading music source had ended in deep frustration), and finally arriving at a very sophisticated player that emphasised Hubbard style voice functions. It was a joy to use really, and there were a variety of neat extensions hanging around, including an NMI-based sample player as I recall. Regarding customization, I remember tweaking some of the core routines in an attempt to escape the vanilla C64 sound. It was very much a cut-and-paste coding effort as I wasn't entirely comfortable with some of the darker recesses of the Assembly routines, so I would keep my tampering to a minimum. The driver was actually very extensible – if you were brave enough!
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Not as such, but tunes had been known to vanish, or change for the final release. The original version of Navy Seals on the ZX Spectrum had digitized drums which were mysteriously absent on the final release. At the time of writing, I wasn't so keen on working with drum samples (OK, I hated them), but coupled with the AY chip sounds of the Speccy, it turned out to be surprisingly good. I remember writing a cheesy, over-blown stadium rock piece for F-29 Retaliator on the Amiga. Don't know what happened to that. Perhaps it was just too cheesy.
Towards the end of my stay at Ocean, I worked on the Amiga version of Rainbow Islands. I wrote what was essentially an atonal collage piece, full of bizarre tunings and overwrought musical in-jokes. Really pretentious stuff, e.g. great fun to do. I downloaded it recently and unsurprisingly, the piece had been corrected ('made tuneful and palatable') for the final release. *LOL* I don't blame them. There was one more game that I recall, Land Before Time or The Land that Time Forgot, something like that. I remember at least one developer really digging the music, although I wasn't too happy with it myself. Anyway, I'm pretty certain that this particular game disappeared down a chasm somewhere.
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?
Proud of: Navy Seals on the C64. I think by this stage I had arrived at a sound I was happy with. Fun to do: Super Hunchback on the Gameboy. A piece that sounds like I could have written it today, by which I mean the notes sound like they are roughly in the right order. I recall laughing a lot during this project, and at no point did the project team ask me to 'tone it down, Matt'. ;-) Challenging: Any Amiga project. Making it musical was beyond me. Headaches: Ditto.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I never ever wanted to pimp my tunes with synthesized drums as was de rigueur for the C64. To my ears, drum sounds on the C64 had the effect of muddying the sound, making it too busy, and generally detracting from the melody. We used to joke that a typical C64 snare drum sound resembled a wet sponge being thrown into a bucket, albeit rhythmically. Rather than going for a complex, busy sound, I suppose I was aiming more for the Martin Galway or Richard Joseph sound, i.e., something more subtle and refined. Not sure if I ever got there really. The main challenge was that such a stripped-down sound would have been considered 'so 1985', and therefore not encouraged at the time. I always thought that was a shame. So, given these frustrations, and the time machine scenario, I would have to go back and tear out the drums from each of my tracks. Every last wheezing, splatting drop of them! Oh, except the 7/8 stuff on Navy Seals – that was groovy, so it can stay.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I did my fair share of arcade conversions, none of which were my finest hour. So, no.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I probably started out as a games player (Impossible Mission, Thing on a Spring, and Wizball are games I remember enjoying), but that was early on. Because of my growing interest in music on the C64, it wasn't long before I was happy to simply: 1) Load-up a game and, 2) Listen to the title music, 3) Play about half of the first level, admiring the graphics and sound and generally soaking up the atmosphere, after which I would, 4) Get bored with the actual "doing" of the game, and so, 5) Go back to the title screen and listen to the music again. You could say that I approached computer games more like a multimedia experience than a gaming challenge, simply because the visual and aural stuff that was going on was so captivating. If I ever designed a game, heaven forbid, it would probably turn out to be one of those ponderous psychedelic efforts that Jeff Minter did (which I happened to like BTW).
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
I wasn't comfortable with any of the sample-based 16-bit platforms, so my efforts in that area were not the best. The appeal of sampled sound was a complete mystery to me at the time. I viewed the use of samples in game music as a bit of a gimmick, and I was convinced there was still plenty of mileage left in chip sounds. Perhaps that was a naive view, especially commercially speaking, as it was clear that consumers were fascinated to hear drums, bass guitars, and speech coming out of their home computers. I seem to recall that there were plenty of musicians at the time who were very keen to get away from chip music and into the 16-bit stuff, but I wasn't one of them.
Perhaps if I had heard Tim and Geoff Follin's work a little earlier and made the effort to understand how they had managed to achieve such a musical sound from what were fairly primitive samples. If I had understood how, then I might have made that extra effort myself. In the end, it was too little too late and I gave up. A few years later, when I worked with Tim and Geoff at Software Creations, I learned more about sample-based music and picked up some neat tricks. I took some consolation from learning that Tim and Geoff had themselves been just as exasperated by working with samples than I had, though they had persevered and arrived at a very nice sound indeed!
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?
In the early years, I was totally captivated by the sound that Martin Galway made with the C64. I remember feeling at the time that, compared to some of the other stuff out there, this guy's work was in another league of refinement. So, with regard to getting into computer game music, it was probably Galway's early stuff that encouraged me. Outside computer games, my influences were mainly from electronic music, classical music, and film soundtracks.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
I went to just one computer show which I think was in 1990, somewhere in London. It's a hazy memory now, but I recall a very cool after show party, and lots of laughs. I didn't know anything about the demo scene, nor did I ever rub shoulders with crackers. I just didn't hear anything about that side of the C64. Having said that, a friend of mine would occasionally drop off a demo from the likes of Stoat & Tim which I was grateful for because I could browse the music without bothering to load up the game! As for my experiences working in the industry, I suppose the most significant time for me was spent working for Ocean. It was a very vibrant atmosphere, populated by some incredibly talented individuals who taught me a great deal about working as a team and all that stuff.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
In around 1992, it was clear that the 64 was slowing down commercially, at least as far as Ocean was concerned. They were aiming more for the 16-bit market, and as a result, opportunities to work with the C64 were becoming fewer, so for me that was the end really. I recall two things happening around this time: 1) I found it difficult to adapt to the techniques and disciplines required to work with instrument samples such as on the Amiga, and, 2) I was becoming increasingly pre-occupied with contemporary classical music, having embarked on quite a lot of part-time study with a view to going full-time on a composition degree. As a consequence, I think that my tunesmith skills suffered (a key skill if you're going to write catchy stuff for games). I began to dry up and just couldn't 'do' tunes anymore. This became a real problem towards the end of my career at Ocean, because by then my music had become so abstract and atonal that for a games producer to allow it to see the light of day would have amounted to commercial suicide! It's obvious to me now that my interest in contemporary music should never have crossed-over into computer games, although I did manage to get a handful of obscure and wacky tunes past the censors. I wonder if anyone noticed? ;-)
What are you up to these days?
I continue to compose and record music from my home studio when I can find the time. Career-wise, I'm a software developer, working mainly with Microsoft technologies.
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.
You're welcome. I consider myself fortunate to have been given a break into computer games during what is now considered to be the "heyday". It was a fun time.
back to the list of available interviews