Interview With Game Composer David Wise

Interview with the creator of the soundtrack of Donkey Kong

If, one day, I had the opportunity to make a video game, and I could choose a composer for the soundtrack, perhaps he (or she) would not be Hans Zimmer nor Harry Gregson-Williams. Great composers, anyway.

And no, I’m not crazy … Yet. But I would choose someone like David Wise. And quite possibly David Wise himself. The reason is that, in my opinion, he represents, like Koji Kondo, Grant Kirkhope or Michiru Yamane, the game music in its purest form. Regardless of trends, techniques, resources and styles, when you hear his music you know that is music from a video game. From a great one, indeed.

David Wise joined Rare in 1985, being the only composer until 1994 when the arrival of Robin Beanland, Graeme Norgate and Grant Kirkhope, forming with them the most powerful team of composers in a game company, ever. He said goodbye to Rare in 2009, claiming that there was just not the opportunity to create the soundtracks that Rare were fortunately very famous for.

Until then, he worked in a long list of titles, like Wizards & Warriors series, Battletoad, Star Fox Adventures or Diddy Kong Racing. But above all, David Wise will be remembered for his work in the trilogy Donkey Kong Country for Super Nintendo.

So…Hi David! First of all, let us show our respects to a true legend in game music. It’s really an honour.

Thank you for your kind words and your interest in my work as a composer of video game soundtracks.
It’s always an honour to be asked for an interview.

You were a part of Rare since 1985, almost the very beginning of the company. How did you become a videogame music composer?

I became a video game composer quite by accident. I was working in a music shop, demonstrating a Yamaha CSX music computer, using some of my own tunes. Tim and Chris Stamper asked for a sales demonstration, then they asked who wrote the tunes, and offered me a job at Rare.

It is the lifestyle do you imagined when you were a child?

I wanted to be a song writer, so I consider it a privilege to be composing music for video games.

In Battletoad the music is pure rock, DKC has a jazzy and ambiental feeling, DKR’s music is pop and catchy… Your work is very varied. What music do you like to listen?

I listen to absolutely loads of different styles of music, constantly.
Orchestral, opera, ballet, rock, funk, pop, dance, children’s music, film scores, anything that connects with me emotionally.

Do you usually play any instrument?

I play a variety of instruments: My favorite is Saxophone and I’m fortunate to have a Bluthner grand piano in the lounge.
I play guitar, bass, drums & percussion, and at the moment I’m re-learning to play the trumpet, which I used to play as a child.

The music of Donkey Kong Country series is still hailed by the fans and critics, 15 years later. That series of games will inevitably always linked to themes like Jungle Groove, Fear Factory or Aquatic Ambiance. From where came that melodies?

At lot of the inspiration came from trying to surpass the limitations of only having 64k bytes of memory in the SNES, and to do that I had to be a little more creative with how I used the waveform data available.

In many Rare games, it was usual to see credited several composers. You were included along with Graeme Norgate in Donkey Kong Land, in DKC with Robin Beanland and Eveline Fischer. How do you distributed the work between the composers?

Fortunately Graham, Robin and Eveline are very talented and technically competent composers. Getting the tunes into the SNES or the GameBoy was a fairly time consuming process, so it was more a case of who was available to write the next tune required.

Nowadays, games music for the bestsellers is recorded with a orchestra, string arrangement… I’ts great but, sometimes, gamers remember better a midi theme made 20 years ago with far fewer resources than the newest symphonic score. Do you think it is due to nostalgia, or is there something else?

We didn’t even have the luxury of midi, it was all had typed Hex code until the N64. The sound chips were much more limited than today’s available resources, so the music had a lot more prominence in the games.

Perhaps because the music now has to compete with sound effects, speech and environmental sounds, it may not get the attention it deserves.

Stickerbrush Symphony, Aquatic Ambiance, Spaceport Alpha, Forest interlude, Turbo Tunnel Race on Battletoads… Every one has his “David Wise favourite theme”. But what is the song you are more proud of? Why?

I think Aquatic Ambiance was a turning point. I was technically striving to emulate the Korg Wavestation’s ‘wave-sequencing’ technique to circumnavigate the 64k limit of the SNES. Aquatic Ambiance took 5 weeks of programming, and re-programming to get it to work, but the results were definitely worth the experimentation.

In the nineties, Nintendo and Rare seemed to compete to see who made the best games in SNES and N64, ie Mario Kart and DKR, Banjo Kazooie and Mario 64, or DKC and Super Mario World. Did you feel that healthy rivalry in music?

Nintendo write great music themes, after all every one knows the Mario theme, it’s simply iconic, as are the themes for Zelda, Starfox and countless other Nintendo video games.

So yes, there was definitely a healthy rivalry. For example; with the score for Diddy Kong Racing I wanted to make it more Mario Kart than even Mario Kart. Nintendo’s game themes and styles are a huge source of inspiration.

Rare’s departure from Nintendo was traumatic for the Japanese company, the fans, and for Rare too. Since then you are only working in a few titles related to Nintendo franchises or consoles. I don’t know what happened in this industry when a great composer like you have to leave the company he has worked so many time. But you has start again with the David Wise Sound Studio. Do you have projects to continue making game music?

I’m very fortunate to be working on some very inspiring video game projects at the moment, with some very talented game producers. Very exciting times, and I can’t wait for these projects to come to their fruition.

Your recent remix of the DKC2 credits theme, “Re-Skewed” is really impressive.

The “Re-Skewed” remix was fortunate enough to benefit from the incredible talents of both Robin Beanland on his Flumpet, and Grant Kirkhope on lead guitar.

It made for the perfect Swan-Song for my career with Rare.

Is that the way (computer+real instruments) you will make music for your new projects, or do you have in mind, like Grant Kirkhope did in Viva Piñata, write an orchestral score?

Should a project suit a full orchestral score, and where the budget is available, then I’m very much in favor of using this approach.

I also believe the score has to be sympathetic to the game enviroment too. A score I worked on last year was very atmospheric, and I favored a more esoteric use of instrumentation.

I always prefer the performance and delivery of using real instruments where possible as nothing can compare.
However, sometimes I take a more hybrid approach of using midi controllers to trigger samples or VST instruments, either from a midi drum kit or the Akai EWI wind controller.
I also have various microphones set up to record the assortment of instruments I have on hand in my studio.

In recent times, we have seen many game music concerts around the world, Videogames Live, Castlevania Concert, Play!, Zelda Symphony… As Rare music team (Beanland, Kirkhope, Norgate, yourself…) was one of the best ever in a game company and many of you still are in touch, so has there been any plans to do a concert with the music that Rare did in those days? Would you like to?

Last year Thomas Boecker invited me to attend Symphonic Legends which was presented by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the Konserthuset Stockholm.

They played a version of “Aquatic Ambiance” from “Donkey Kong Country”, which had been arranged by Mr Masashi Hamauzu and also featured the very talented pianist Mr Benyamin Nuss. This was a concert of famous Nintendo themes and arrangements, conducted by the wonderfully charismatic Arnie Roth.

I’ve been to many orchestral concerts in my life and I can honestly say, I have never experienced anything quite as powerful and energetic as the performance they gave, it was very inspiring.

I haven’t heard of any similar plans regarding orchestral concerts exclusively for Rare’s video game compositions, but it’s certainly worthy of consideration.

In an earlier interview, Grant Kirkhope also told us what theme was his swan song in Rare. It’s Bedtime Story, a theme from Viva Piñata, so beautiful and sad, reflecting nostalgia for the golden years, which definitely left behind. David Wise, did the same with Re-Skewed, but it is a song much more optimistic, seems to put accent not on the fact that sadly it was over, but fortunately, one time, there was magic. I agree with both.

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