Getting started as a video game composer and sitting on the cutting edge of music technology
October 13TH, 2023
Meet David Wise — a video game composer with a deep history in the industry, whose guidance was instrumental in making Usynth PIXEL’s classic sounds as authentic as possible. Check out his quick bio below and you’ll quickly see why he was the perfect person for the job.
Starting out in the music industry
David got his start in music around the age of 12, learning songs he loved by ear and reproducing them on the piano before having formal lessons. It didn’t take long before he started writing his own melodies, learned trumpet, joined a brass band, switched to drums, and ultimately joined a punk rock band. After high school, he worked in a music shop with a Yamaha CX5 computer — before long, he connected Korg and Roland synths to it with MIDI and was demonstrating its capabilities to customers on the demo floor. His passion for music technology showed: David was making 90% of the sales in-store!
One day, two men came in for a demonstration and David ran out of cover songs to use, so he had to use his own original music ... which they enjoyed, so much so that they bought the computer, a sequencer, a drum machine, and subsequently offered him a job at their software company Rare Ltd. Thus began his work on video games.
Cutting edge (vintage) tech
At Rare, David’s first role involved playing Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to get the style down, then using that to write a new score for a skiing game called Slalom — yes, he was getting paid to write for games and play them! He was also listening to bands like Toto and Mr Mister at the time, which together led him to create his own unique sounds for Slalom. Later, he found out that there was a catch: He would have to program them to play on the NES, which was no easy feat. One noise channel, one triangle wave, and 2 pulse waves, each one of them monophonic. No midi, no effects. By manipulating these different sources carefully, it was possible to suggest different instruments like a clarinet or piano.
Every note had to be typed into a text editor and the piece had to be compiled with the code before he could hear it played back. This system meant that the biggest production levers available to him were volume, pitch, and — of course — clever use of melody and harmony. While these restrictions are nonexistent in modern games, working with so little wiggle room means you get an excellent course in arranging fundamentals! In David’s words:
“It made you as a composer think very carefully about how to use your percussion effectively. It also let you know the importance of a good bass line and how to suggest chords with only 2 notes available. The melody is effectively giving you the chord information too. This is also similar to a rock band such as Van Halen in harmonic structure.”
David’s early successes led to him working on titles like Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, Starfox Adventures, Snake Pass, Battletoads and Yooka-Laylee, among many others. If you’ve enjoyed the music from any of the above, chances are you’ve been influenced by his work! If you want to try your hand at using similar limitations to see how far you can take things, or even just work with a similar palette of sounds as David used, try using Usynth PIXEL’s presets to add retro video game sounds and instruments into your songs.
Favorite UJAM plugin
Speaking of Usynth, out of all the UJAM plugins available, David says it has to be his favorite. Why? The possibilities with real-time control over pre-programmed macros, making it possible to make broad changes to each patch very quickly — without having to map every filter, envelope, compressor, saturator, and so on all from scratch. If you struggle with programming complex patches that stand up in a mix (or you’re comfortable with it but don’t have half an hour to spend on a single sound), Usynth bridges that gap effortlessly while you retain control over the final sound. Plus, you can make even the most dramatic changes without having to start from a new patch or preset!
One of the aspects David enjoys most is the naming conventions — instead of diving into specific parameters tweaking effects one by one, Usynth makes it easy to tweak by feel. i.e. Instead of using a 12db/8v low pass filter to shape a preset’s tone, the Bright / Dark knob will do that for you. Rather than playing with the volume ADSR envelope, Fast / Slow does the same job with far less back and forth. This becomes especially useful when you’re using a synth to emulate an acoustic instrument, which David covers in great detail here:
“For example, when playing a brass sound, the more air we blow into a brass instrument, the brighter and louder the sound becomes. And when playing softer phrases, we use less air, the sound is softer in character with a longer amount of time for the note to get to full volume. And these often used parameters are mapped into easy to use macros on the U-Synth, which allows the composer to concentrate on the performance of the instrument.”
You don’t have to program your own music into an NES to build a career as a game composer — your path will have its own unique twists and turns that help you develop an original style and career. But make sure to take this from David Wise’s story: There are endless opportunities for musicians and producers who work on the cutting edge of music technology and actively integrate it into their own music.
If you want to write for big projects, focus on learning production and audio tech skills that set you apart and apply those to your writing process. Not only will your music be more unique and current, it will position you to take on higher profile gigs and find the work that most excites you!