AN INTERVIEW WITH BEN DAGLISH
After sales of the Commodore 64 started plummeting and with it the sales of '64 games, sound programmers alike were forced to look elsewhere. The only viable machines at the time seemed to be the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, or perhaps consoles. But the music programming scene, which seemed to have been the aorta of life on the '64, was never the same again. In an effort to find out what the former major Commodore 64 music programmers were up to these days, I set about trying to locate and then interview them.
A relative latecomer into Commodore 64 music programmer's superstardom, Ben "Benn" Daglish quickly gained a high reputation by being able to compose catchy tunes that were filled with interesting and sometimes insane sound effects as part of the whole. Some of his classics include "Last Ninja", "Bombo", "Ark of Pandora", the fantastic "Trap" and one of his older and really odd tunes, "William Wobbler". He also co-wrote the excellent "Auf Wiedersehen Monty" with Rob Hubbard. I kept track of Ben's work on the Atari ST after he'd more or less said goodbye to the '64 until ST sales decreased, too. Around 1989 I lost complete track of him, and it wasn't until Chris "Back in Time" Abbott helped out that I was able to locate him in the first place. I had interviewed him once before when I visited the offices of the software company that he worked for at the time, Gremlin Graphics. That was in the summer of 1989. The result of my second Benn interview, this time conducted via email, is to be found below. I have added some relevant info I took from the 1989 interview.
Can you give us some biographical information on yourself?
Benn: I was born 31st July 1966, in Chiswick. Both my parents were musical - my mother taught me the penny whistle (still my first instrument...) and harmonica as a young child. I went through the usual school route of recorder, dull music lessons etc., but survived well, studying oboe and percussion. During my school years I was principal percussionist for a number of orchestras - something I would have continued professionally had I not been persuaded that I needed a 'proper' degree. After an abortive attempt at a maths degree (but a hell of a social life) I started writing music for computer games - something I'm still famous for among a very small hard-core male 25yr old fraternity (mainly Scandinavian for some reason - I never sussed why). I worked for a number of years as a freelance, then for Gremlin as their in-house composer before tweety little sound-chips drove me mad around 1989. By that time I had met Sarah, a theatre director, and started working with her writing music for plays. This now consists the majority of my composing work, both producing soundtracks and musical direction, working with actors and musicians.
For how many products did you write music, approximately, and on which systems?
Benn: Fucking thousands (4-500). Loads of ST stuff for Gremlin. PC Stuff: 1 or 2 beeper chip things; this was before Soundblaster stuff. No consoles though.
What was the first tune you ever did, and on which machine was that?
Benn: My dad and I were involved in computers, and then I entered a competition in school where I won a BBC Micro. Then I met Tony Crowther whom I'd met in school and we started making demos. First thing that ever got done was "Death March" in "Potty Pigeon". I wrote out the notes for Tony [Crowther], and then three weeks later he asked me to do the JMJ [title tune] ripoff. I'd only listened to "Equinoxe" once before transcribing it, even the arpeggios! The idea wasn't to do anything that compared with the original, just to get a good soundtrack. I went round to his house after school and wrote it. I was 15 or 16.
What was the most difficult tune to write, technically, and why?
Benn: The music players were written in consultation with the programmers. I'd tell them what to program, and they would get going. Musically, I don't know because tunes aren't difficult to write. Transcriptions are hard: the transcription I spent the most time doing was "Top Gun". I spent ages getting every single guitar note out of the soundtrack. I wanted to get it absolutely right. Harold Faltermeyer I think it was. I remember the guitar solo in "We will rock you". We stuck all sorts of technical SID wizardry on that. I must have listened to that guitar solo a hundred times!
What do you prefer, writing conversions or doing completely new tunes?
Benn: New tunes.
Where do you get musical ideas from?
Benn: Don't be silly. I refer the questioner to a very good essay in Anthony Hopkins books on Beethoven's symphonies. People always ask composers this: they ask this question because they don't understand music: people assume that you see a beautiful landscape and get inspired, but the landscape wouldn't give you any ideas itself: you've still got to go and do the important technical work that underlies music.
Which sound system did you prefer, Amiga or Commodore 64?
Benn: Commodore 64. It was a fun synthy chip whereas the Amiga was boring samply shit. It had so little memory, and you had to do so much technical boring shite like artificial ASDRs and stuff. I always used to write on the C64 first and then get an approximation of the sounds on the Amiga.
What was the most difficult aspect of programming on a machine with a rather more limited sound chip like, for example, the Atari ST?
Benn: It didn't sound as good. That's basically it. I used to compose on my ST cross-development system, port it to the C64, and rework the AY sounds to approximate the C64 stuff. The tunes were already done, it was just using whatever sounds I could. I had a load of SID-like patches, and I just slapped them in. All the tricks and stuff like wobbly chords were there. I didn't worry about it. It's notes, not sounds.
What was it like to work together with Rob on "Auf Wiedersehen Monty"? What did he do, what did you do?
Benn: Mine and Rob's private life is a matter for me and Rob :-)
Your lead tunes were always very frenetic. Why?
Benn: I've always been able to think fast notes: some people can only play or compose fast when they've got an instrument in front of them: I can see the notes without that.
What are you doing these days? No, let me rephrase that, what have you done since 1989, and what are you doing now?
Benn: I'm both a professional composer and a programmer. Music is my first and only true love (with of course the exception of my beautiful partner Sarah and our son Jake), but unfortunately it doesn't pay anywhere near as much as contract programming, so I do some part-time techie stuff on the side. In addition to my composition, I play (flute, whistles, guitar, percussion, vocals etc.) with a couple of folky/rocky type groups, Loscoe State Opera and Tomorrows Ancestor and also with 'Ensemble VIII', an improvisatory group which is starting to get rather big in the business...
What were your last computer tunes, and on which platform were they?
Benn: For "Touche", an adventure game for US Gold in 1994. We ended up scripting it and rewriting the game as well. It was a moderately good point and click. The music's up on the Web page.
Where do you live these days?
Benn: In hiding from my past...
What are your favourite game tunes on the Commodore 64?
Benn: 1) Hubbard's "Monty on the Run" - the first piece that bought the SID, 2) Hubbard's "Master of Magic" (even though my good friend Chris Abbott recently told me it was a cover), 3) "Trap": it was really early on in my career, but for the time and for my level of musical experience at the time, and because of the video element and it being surreal, etc., I don't think it was matched for a long time in demo terms, 4) Galway's "Rambo" (the morse code [loader] theme), 5) Hubbard's "Crazy Comets": that was fun, I liked that, and 6) "Auf Wiedersehen Monty" of course...
Now for the 'words to react to' section...so please react briefly to the followings words and phrases. The first one's "Maniacs of Noise".
Benn: Heard of them.
Benn: I wish them all the best...
Benn: What a cool game!
Benn: Fun music.
Benn: I've never met anybody so thin who could drink so much beer.
Benn: I prefer AY8192 because the sub-modulated square-generated harmonic frequency distribution was more to my liking.
Benn: Wayeye man!
Benn: 23. Specifically.
Written September 1998
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