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LIKE: The music of Rare's David Wise

We pay tribute to the man behind some of Nintendo's most iconic tunes

Welcome to LIKE, our semi-regular series where we praise the wonderful oddities, small miracles and flashes of genius that, in their own specific ways, have enriched videogame history.

This series is not intended as an exploration into grand or pioneering games, but instead a focus on one specific thing that the whole medium wouldn't be quite the same without.

We have intentionally called this series LIKE because, if you happen to love the thing we are praising, you can press the LIKE Facebook button as a way of democratically supporting its inclusion into the series. We hope you enjoy!

Our full LIKE archive: Metroid Prime's visors | The Strider from Half-Life | The PlayStation Adverts | Ganon | The Art of Yoji Shinkawa | The music of Rare's David Wise


Before orchestras, licensed soundtracks and hours of looping RPG 'ambience' took precedence in our wonderful medium, gamers were captivated by a simpler age of game soundtracks, dictated just as much by memory constraints as by their source material.

These memorable 8 and 16-bit tunes are the hallmarks of countless Japanese giants; Kondo (Mario Bros.), Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Nakamura (Sonic 1 & 2) - but my favourite game music composer is from much closer to home.

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David Wise started his career working on the first floor of a music shop in Leicester, where he was responsible for selling drums, his instrument of choice at the time. Little did he know his life and career would soon be transformed by the arrival of a new hi-tech music computer, the Yamaha CX5. A product which would eventually lead to the young man composing some of the greatest gaming tunes of all time.

Encouraged to take the device home, Wise learned how to connect the Music Store's various keyboards and soon had a number of his own compositions up and running - his first experience of computer playback of his own music.

The research helped David sell a lot of music computers, but his best deal came when two brothers, Rare Ltd directors Tim and Chris Stamper, asked for a demonstration of the Yamaha computer. His demonstration led directly to him being employed at the growing UK development house.

The young composer's first video game score was Rare's debut title for the NES; Slalom, and Wise believes the group's innovative work on the title's audio sparked the embers of a growing partnership with the console's manufacturer.

"It was very exciting working for Rare in the early days, from my own perspective it allowed me to write music and have it heard by a receptive audience," he recalled in an interview with CVG.

"Chris Stamper had reverse engineered the NES hardware as there was almost no information available to allow third party development for this system. I believe this caught the attention of Nintendo and helped to form the basis of a very successful relationship.

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"Initially, I had an early midi sequencer made by Korg to compose music on, hooked up via midi to a Roland MT-32. However, I then had to reconstruct these tunes by typing it into an assembler as Hex values. A note value followed by a length value, with a few subroutines to change the tones available."

Wise went on to compose a plethora of memorable scores for NES titles including RC Pro-AM and Battletoads, but the eventual arrival of the 16-bit SNES would result in his most iconic work.

Korg Meets Kong

In the early 90s the expanding Rare recruited more composers, starting with Eveline Novakovic (formally Fischer), then Robin Beanland and Graeme Norgate, and later Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope. The larger team relieved Wise of the pressure of his NES-era workload, and a friendly rivalry between the new composers helped cultivate arguably the most famous score of his career.

"I was on holiday in France at the time I first got to know that we would be making a Donkey Kong game, so I had a couple of weeks to think about different styles.

"I wasn't sure which direction to take things in, so I put together a demonstration tape of three different possible styles for the jungle level. I played these to Tim Stamper, who asked me to take the breaks out between the three pieces. That's the jungle tune."

Donkey Kong Country featured advanced Silicon Graphics, able to run on the Super Nintendo thanks to innovative compression techniques developed at Rare. The results were so impressive that Nintendo acquired 25% of the British studio, and handed over the keys to one of its most famous franchises.

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Tasked with prototyping the music for the title - Wise initially expected a Japanese composer to take over - he was determined to match the industry-leading visuals with an equally impressive soundtrack.

"I always want the music and audio to sound as good as it possibly can. I was very much influenced by a Synthesizer called the Korg Wave-station and I wanted the music to sound like this cutting edge music synth," he said.

"The Korg Wave-station used single cycle waveforms - and resequenced them in order to create dynamic, changing and rhythmic textures. We didn't have a lot of memory on the SNES, so I realised I may be able to use a similar technique to make the most of the resources available, which was 8 monophonic ADPCM channels and 64k of memory."

In order to save as much memory of possible for sound data Wise stayed away from using midi like other titles on the SNES, preferring to continue using the system of Hex numbers and subroutines utilized in Rare's NES games.

The advantage of using this system was that it worked in a similar fashion to the Wave-station he was trying to emulate - and the results are audible in the incredible sound quality of one of the Donkey Kong series' most famous tracks.

"Technically Aquatic Ambience was the first piece of music to use the technique of stepping through sound wave data rhythmically, which can be heard in the bass line," he explained (you can listen to the song at the top of this page).

The track remains one of the most beloved and hauntingly beautiful pieces of music to come from the 16-bit era - and David looks back on it with a fondness similar to that of his fans.

"Musically, I think I was probably drawing from my personal emotions at that time. I think the complexity involved in getting the sound data to work as I wanted was a great place to escape to."

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