18 Features

LIKE: The music of Rare's David Wise

By Andy Robinson on Friday 12th Oct 2012 at 12:25 AM EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: To mark the 20th anniversary of the original Donkey Kong Country, this article - originally published in 2012 - has been updated from its original form. Happy Birthday, DKC!

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

"Wise started his career working on the first floor of a music shop selling drums"

"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.

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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."


Delving Deeper

Donkey Kong Country sold over 9 million copies on the Super NES, making it the second best selling title on the system behind Nintendo's own Super Mario World. It was an incredible achievement for the fledging studio in Leicestershire, but for the inevitable follow-up the developer - and Wise - wanted to push the 16-bit console even harder.

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"I felt that with DKC-1, I had started something that I wanted to delve deeper into, and DKC-2 was the perfect vehicle," he explained. "We were also given a 10k float of extra sample memory per track - and that opened up many more possibilities to be explored."

Much of the composer's inspiration came from trying to surpass the limitations of the aging Super NES's memory, and to do this he had to be more creative with how he utilised his method of delving into waveform data.

Just as with Aquatic Ambience, David's experiments resulted in one of most ethereal and majestic game tunes of 1990s...

"I'm not really sure as to why it's a fan favourite, but I'm very pleased it still is."

"This piece almost never made the game," he said of Stickerbush Symphony."It was originally composed as a follow up to Aquatic Ambience, however, there was no water level in DKC-2.

"Fortunately, it was used for the Brambles. It seemed to fit and was a good juxtaposition to the difficulty in negotiating through such a hard stage of the game."

The track's beautifully woven layer of string and brass instruments and laidback, summer feel - at odds with the dead, spike-filled bramble of the level in which it features - make it a clear fan favourite with hundreds of remixes published to date - including Nintendo's own in Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

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"I'm not really sure as to why it's a fan favourite, but I'm very pleased it still is," Wise humbly recalled. "Perhaps because the level was so difficult, players had to listen through the music so many times?"

The Donkey Kong Country games cemented Rare's position as Nintendo's premier Western development studio, kick-starting a golden age throughout the 90s which saw countless classics debut on both the Super NES and the Nintendo 64.

So highly regarded is Wise's work on DKC that Shigeru Miyamoto himself is said to have instructed future series composers (such as Kenji Yamamoto on Donkey Kong Country Returns) to take "great care" updating his original score, rather than producing entirely new soundtracks. President Satoru Iwata too has claimed he still listens to the SNES tracks on his personal iPod.

David Wise recalls the healthy rivalry between the once-great partners of the 1990s, which saw the British developer trying outdo Japan not just in the gameplay stakes, but in audio too.

Wise's first N64 project was Diddy Kong Racing, a game with a soundtrack - although not nearly as highly regarded as his work on the DKC series - infectious enough to linger in the heads of those who played it right to this day.

"Graeme Norgate produced all of the sound effects for Diddy Kong Racing, including recording Mr Stampers children for the infectious laughing at the very start of the game," he recalled.

"I've always admired the Mario Kart soundtracks, and yes, I wanted to pay homage to the talented composers at Nintendo by trying to make the OST even more fun than Mario kart, if that's at all possible?"

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Although he only managed to meet his legendary Nintendo equivalent once during his 20+ years at Rare, David remains a huge fan of Nintendo's famous Mario composer.

"Whilst we were making DKC-1 we had many visitors from Nintendo," he said. "I have many fond memories from this time, but I think one of the most memorable was a visit from Nintendo's legendary game creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

"Since I first played Mario on the NES, I've been a huge fan of the legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo. The only time I managed to meet Koji Kondo was at the Games Developer Conference in San Francisco several years ago, where he was giving a speech about interactive game scores."

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