[In an exclusive interview with Wipeout series soundtrack composer Tim Wright, our correspondent Jeriaska talks to him about his new album created by bouncing radio waves off the moon, as well as his upcoming game soundtrack projects.]
Game composer CoLD SToRAGE, aka Tim Wright, most recently made tracks "SCARFACE X-TEND Mix" and "CLIFF DIVER BIG LEAP Mix" from the PSP/PS3-exclusive Gravity Crash available as a "virtual vinyl single" on Bandcamp.
Previously, Wright has composed music for such game series as Lemmings, Shadow of the Beast, and Wipeout. Now CoLD SToRAGE is traversing a new variety of imagined landscapes.
Project Moonbounce 2009 is an album that incorporates sound signals bounced off the face of the moon into original audio creations. There are NASA recordings to be rediscovered, samples of water swishing in a dog's silver bowl to be found, and an assorted space Odyssey of musical concepts to voyage.
In this interview, CoLD SToRAGE offers details of his experience creating the multifaceted interstellar-themed album. The discussion provides various insights into how embarking on original projects has helped fuel the creative process of the videogame composer.
CoLD SToRAGE, thank you for taking the time to offer some background on Project Moonbounce 2009.
CoLD SToRAGE: No problem… it gives me chance to look back on it with some fresh perspective.
The premise of "Earth-Moon-Earth" and various interpretations on this theme appears to be a guiding force behind this album. How did you come to decide on this approach to the original music project?
After completing my last album “CoLD SToRAGE HD,” which was an unofficial release to complement Wipeout HD, I wanted to do something quite different, both in terms of theme and style.
The idea for a moonbounce album came to me late one night when I was drifting off to sleep. As well as being a licensed Radio Amateur I’m also a big Astronomy fan, so to be able to marry up three hobbies into one project was ideal for me.
This meant that the concept of bouncing audio off the moon and re-incorporating it into a musical piece became the overall driving force behind the new album. That’s not to say that every track has moonbounce audio in it. I scattered the moon-bounced sounds throughout the album, except where it wasn’t appropriate as the musical piece may have had other constraints. Some use the sounds more overtly, like the title track, others are more subtle.
Did working within the constraints dictated by the theme of this project bring back any memories of grappling with limitations you encountered in your early days as a videogame music composer, such as the hardware capabilities of the game platforms you were composing for?
Absolutely. When I’m writing music, the most daunting thing can be a blank sequencer page with no limits or guidelines. If I’m feeling really creative then it’s not a problem, but on those days where I need a push in a general direction, a theme or some kind of restriction kicks in those grey cells and I can get going more easily.
Some of the tracks on the album were such good fun from this perspective. “Mars Project” was quite a crazy concept. I was pouring water into a metal dog bowl to give my father’s dog a drink and I accidentally banged the tap. The bowl made a great ‘bououououou’ type noise and I thought ‘I’ve really got to sample that!’. The next day I powered up my portable recorder and sampled the bowl as I tapped it, threw it in the air, filled it with water and even suspended it on a length of damp cotton and slid my fingers down to get a bowed string sound. I was really happy with the end results… the track does make use of effects, but every single sound comes from that dog bowl.
It was this approach that gave me a secondary theme for my album. For example, ‘Science 200’ only uses sounds from one source, in this case a ‘Science Fair 200-in-1’ I purchased from a charity shop for a few pounds.
Did you feel there were unique results that could only come only from sending signals into space?
In short, yes. I could have synthesized the sounds of radio static, single-side-band vocals and so on, but to know that the audio in your music has actually traveled over 477,000 miles and bounced off the surface of the moon is just a great concept!
Having said this, it was always the intention that the album wouldn’t descend into being an ‘art-house’ piece that used only bounced radio signals – I think that would have been quite a dull and a very self indulgent affair.
The original plan was actually quite grand. We were going to bounce audio ‘live’ during the playback of a song, and effectively use the moon as a giant echo-box. But this proved problematic, as the delay for the audio varies with the distance of the moon from the Earth. In the end it was decided we would capture the recordings and use them in a more free-form manner.
If time and equipment hadn’t been such a major constraint I could have created a live track that was more free-form to circumvent the timing issues… like a big ambient piece, but I’m happy with what we achieved in the end.
What process went into working with the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory in receiving signals you had sent out?
The guys that run Dwingeloo are unpaid amateurs, so it’s all done for ‘the love of radio’. They provide a web service where the radio signals received during a promising EME (Earth Moon Earth) phase are broadcast live over the internet.
We thought we might have to liaise directly or go over there at one stage, but the web service proved really flexible and more than sufficient for our needs, which meant we could play around with various ideas a lot more freely.
Neil Armstrong and NASA have recorded vocals for your track “Tranquility.” Would you consider this a giant leap for game composer / astronaut musical collaborations?
Ah, those recordings are of course the original recordings from the Apollo 11 moon landing. They are freely available from NASA, so I thought it would be great to include them in a piece for the album. Rather than go for the cliche of that ‘one-small-step’ quote, I thought it was more poignant to use the radio chatter leading up to physically landing on the moon, as this was a lot trickier and more fraught with danger than walking down a ladder!
I did tell NASA about the album and was hoping for some kind of reply or response to put into the booklet, but it wasn’t forthcoming. I guess they’re more than busy getting ready for the next Shuttle launch, and it’s new replacement!
Have you always had an interest in astronomy? The history of the space race appears to play a significant role in the latent themes of the Moonbounce music project.
I’ve been keen on outer-space ever since I was a child. I had a telescope at the age of 6 or so, and when I was 8 or 9 I used my Birthday money to buy an astronomy encyclopaedia.
In secondary school we had ‘mock interviews’, where retired people who had worked in specialist fields would come in and give us the experience of being interviewed for a job. The guy who interviewed me picked up on my astronomy hobby, and then really grilled me on it. At first I thought, ‘why is this guy really brow beating me over the astronomy thing?’ but it turned out he had a large vintage telescope he wanted to give away to someone who would actually use it. It was really great and I could pick out detail on the moon very easily… thinking back now, I guess that added to my fascination with the moon.
For this album what guided your take on investigating an international theme of space travel that includes both American and Russian programs?
I have probably leaned more toward the stereotypical view of Russian space travel for some of the tracks, with traditional Russian instruments used here and there, and ideas taken from old Russian recordings.
I also took ideas and themes from both the Russian and American space programmes of the 60’s and 70’s, especially the juxtaposition of being at the cutting edge of technology at the time and yet having to cobble together solutions in real world risky situations. Hence the minimalist approach with some of the tracks.
You touched on this earlier, that in addition to the lunar motif of the album, making do with constraints appears to be a recurring theme for the album. Aren’t there a number of unusual instruments that you decided to throw into the mix?
The constraints idea was borne from watching the film ‘Apollo 13’ where they had to make do with what they could find on-board to rescue themselves from certain death. I thought it would be good to use that theme too.
Aside from the Dog Bowl and the 200-in-1 Electronics kit, I also sampled a 1970’s ‘Viscount Cabaret’ organ and a Chinese bell piano that I picked up in a Charity Shop.
The organ is still in our dining room, and was owned by a chap in West Kirby who passed away suddenly. It was advertised ‘free to a good home’ in a local newsagent, so we were happy to take it. My son still loves to play on it from time to time.
The Chinese piano is a total mystery. It has no real identifying marks, but it seems quite old from it’s construction and has a lovely tone to it. Each key strikes a separate internal bell, and one is slightly ‘off tune’, but with the magic of sampling, that was easily corrected. I did contemplate leaving it out of tune as per the original sample, but it was just too ‘off’ to sound good.
I’ve also just remembered something that happened during the final mixing stage which is just ‘one of those odd moments’. I was playing back ‘Glitch’ when I knocked the telephone in its charging socket and it went ‘baaaaarbip’ to let me know it had re-seated itself. It fitted really well in the mix… so I sampled it and it ended up in the track. The only downside is that every time I pop the phone back after a call I start whistling the melody from the track!
Do you have any other specific recollections from making the album?
‘Tranquility’ was not sequenced. It was all created in Sound Forge by mixing and pitching samples, which I’ve never done before. I didn’t want it to sounds sequenced, so that was the quickest solution. I heavily processed the original NASA recordings, and gave them some room stereo which hopefully adds to the tension of the original recording.
‘Spacewalk’ was an attempt to create a track which only used analogue synthesizers for everything including the percussion. So all the hi-hats, claps and so on are all layered and filtered synth waveforms, as is the organ. I think I finally relented for the crash cymbal sound and used a real cymbal!
‘Sublight’ was just an ambient trancey track to start with, and then I got the idea of having a chamber orchestra at the start as a kind of high-brow motif. I think it worked quite well in the end, and I probably spent more time working on that section than the main track. I’ve had some great responses to this track, with people comparing it to Robert Miles’ ‘Children’ or Tiesto – ‘Adagio for Strings’ which is quite flattering.
‘Moonbounce’ will always be a favourite. You have no idea how widely I grinned and how excited I was to hear the first moonbounce radio signals come back on the day - it was a real high point for me! Those samples feature at the start of the title track. I wanted this track to sound really epic in a JM Jarre style, which I’m sure people will have spotted. In fact the album probably has a sizeable influence from Jarre and Vangelis in places. You may also spot a nod towards the Star Trek T.V. theme at the start of the track(!)
‘Viscount Cabaret’ at one point was going to have female vocals, hence the verse/chorus song structure, but I finally decided PM2009 should be primarily instrumental, aside from some occasional spoken words.
‘LoG HiE’ came about because I wanted a really up-tempo track to contrast all the other more ambient tracks. Given I was working on ‘Gravity Crash’ around the same time, I had to be really careful which musical hat I had on when I was writing it!
‘Re-Entry’ features radio vocals from Howard Ling, the guy who was generous enough to give his time to make the whole project a reality. He provided the transmitter equipment and dish that can be seen in the PDF booklet in the art for track 06. Thanks again Howard, you are a true gent!
‘Zero G’ Aquarium features the Chinese Piano. You can see it in my son’s lap on the back page of the PDF booklet. I think this track really does complete the album. Clearly Bach steps forward to take the credit for the score, I simply gave it a spacey arrangement with some mad sounds along with my own radio melody that tails off at the end.
Looking back now the album never really seemed to be cohesive until it was finished, and now when I listen back to it, I can’t think of the tracks being in any other order.
Track 9 is a tribute to Michael Jackson and the moonwalk. Did the passing of the artist have an impact on you personally?
Aside from his invention of the moonwalk, I knew of M.J. firstly through watching the Jackson 5 cartoons on T.V. as a child, and then later the theme from ‘Ben’.
I do recall being impressed by the Thriller video, but to be honest I wasn’t really into that particular album. It was only in 1987 that I really took notice with the release of ‘Bad’, which was actually rather good! I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was a massive fan, but I do acknowledge the man’s musical genius.
How did you go about creating the album art for the Moonbounce pdf? Are the brief passages written beneath the images belonging to each illustration meant to add to the interpretations of their meaning?
I always try to give my listeners more than just some audio to listen to… MELT had a large HTML based booklet and Android Child had some vertical art with lots of references in there.
Each track has it’s own musical theme, and I like to try to nod towards my interpretation, but not too strongly. This gives people room to have their own take on each track. The text on each page is again something that either compliments the visuals or proposes a different angle.
The artwork is something I love doing too… people are sometimes surprised to find that I create the art as well as the music. This time out I did have some help though, as the cover image on Project Moonbounce 2009 was drawn and coloured-in by my son. I thought it would be great for him to work on the project with me, so that he could look back on it in later life and remember us working on something together. He is of course very proud of his work!
Do you find it helps you creatively to be able to move between high concept artistic projects like Moonbounce and commercial game soundtracks like your upcoming Gravity Crash? To put it another way, does alternating between the two kinds of projects confer any creative advantages?
It really does… I know that many people follow me as a result of my work on the Wipeout games, but to keep creating up-tempo trance year after year would be tiring and unadventurous. I realised early on that I wouldn’t be pleasing all the people all of the time, and if I wanted to expand my horizons in terms of attracting more listeners, I needed to broaden the scope of my musical output.
The ‘MELT’ album showed people that I could write music in various styles and moods. ‘Android Child’ was a bit more self indulgent, and came at a really emotional time for me. CoLD SToRAGE HD seemed to satisfy the Wipeout fans, after a long wait.
With PM2009 I wanted to do something slightly ‘off the wall’ but create music that people could still say ‘yep, I recognise that… I bet it’s CoLD SToRAGE’.
What’s next for CoLD SToRAGE?
Gravity Crash is done and dusted now, but I’m hoping to release that music in album form, with some additional tracks and mixes.
I recently got asked to re-mix two Wipeout tracks for The Burning Man 2009 at Black Rock in Nevada. It will accompany some really great performers called ‘Controlled Burn Reno’. This years Burning Man event should attract over 50,000 people, so hopefully a percentage of these will hear the tracks and get in touch.
It has to be said that working on these tracks has re-kindled my interest a back burner project of doing a Wipeout compilation. It would contain all the Wipeout music I’ve released, but re-mixed and re-worked to include new sounds and beats and even some ambient mixes. I think that may very well be my next big project.
I’m also really enjoying being back writing music for games and video post production. There’s more in the pipeline over the next 12 months to be sure… I’ve even done some voice over work recently, which is totally new to me, but fun nonetheless(!)
Oh, and before I go I should thank everyone who helped make PM2009 a possibility. The list is long, but you know who you are! I really am very grateful, and not least of all to those who are listening to the album and who continue to support my work. Take it easy!
[Project Moonbounce and other albums by CoLD SToRAGE can be sampled on Bandcamp. Images courtesy of CoLD SToRAGE]