David Wise Interview: Revisiting Donkey Kong Country (December 2010)
David Wise is a veteran game composer best known for his works on Rare's Donkey Kong Country series on the Super Nintendo. Known for their beautiful melodies and expert synthesis, his compositions for the series have been commemorated with soundtrack releases, orchestral concerts, and fan remixes. Wise's other scores include the Battletoads franchise, Star Fox Adventures, and Diddy Kong Racing.
In this interview, David Wise recollects his works on the Donkey Kong Country series in considerable detail, while discussing their place in his wider career. He subsequently discusses his thoughts on Donkey Kong Country Returns, featuring arrangements of his compositions, and his reasons for leaving Rare and reveals that he is currently working on a new title. The interview is supplemented with images and videos reflecting the musical legacy of the Donkey Kong series.
Interview Subject: David Wise
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: David Wise, many thanks for talking to us today. First of all, could you tell us about your background, education, and influences as a musician? What ultimately led you to becoming a game composer on behalf of Rare?
David Wise: An absolute honour to talk to you today. Thank you for your interest in my work.
My musical background first started materialising when my brother started his piano lessons. I was 8 at the time, and due to family fairness, I was going to have to wait until I was 10 before I could begin my piano lessons. However, being a little impatient, instead I found I could listen to music, and play it back by ear, which was far more rewarding than the piano lessons I eventually started. I also learned to play trumpet and joined a brass band. By the age of 14, I had a paper-round and started saving for a drum kit, and became a drummer for a punk band two years later. I've had no formal musical education, except for those piano lessons, achieving Grade 5 (of 8) from the Royal School of Music.
My first job was in a music shop, selling drums, until a Yamaha CX5 music computer came into stock. I learned how to use it, and using midi, I was able to hook it up to several drum machines and synthesisers. It helped me to sell a lot of music computers, but the best deal was when demoing the unit to two brothers: Tim and Chris Stamper. They asked me who had written the demo music and, upon explaining that they were listening to my compositions, they offered me a job at Rare.
Chris: While you are principally known for your SNES works, you have actually worked for Rare since 1985, initially on projects such as Slalom and Wizards & Warriors. What are your memories of your first game scoring experiences? What was it like to work with the NES sound board and HEX coding back in the day?
David Wise: After being able to use midi to hook up the latest synthesizers in a music shop, it was something of a challenge to work on initial projects like Slalom. I found out I would have to hand code HEX values for note pitches and note durations into sub-routines on a computer. The sound chip on the NES was a very basic affair with just four monophonic channels: two saw, one square and a noise channel. It sounded more like a door-bell to me at the time, but people are still making remixes of those tunes. Very humbling.
Chris: Years before development on Donkey Kong Country started, you were responsible for scoring the Battletoads series. How were you able to create such memorable stage themes for this series and integrate a hard rock feel into the multi-platform instalments?
David Wise: Tim, the creative force at Rare, was very much into German Rock bands at the time. His brother Chris, the technical director, had designed a Video Arcade Board, including a 12 channel, 12 bit sample playback audio engine, on which we made a version of Battletoads. I was using a Roland MT-32 sound unit, which helped me to compose the score. Some of the material on the Arcade version of Battletoads was used and converted to the NES and SNES versions.
Chris: Aside the aforementioned titles, you worked on numerous other early titles for Rare, our favourites being Beetlejuice, WWF Wrestlemania Challenge, Time Lord, and Monster Max. Looking back, which scores would you describe as the biggest landmarks for your career and which are you most proud of to this day?
David Wise: Ultimately, I think of all scores as very much an evolution, rather than a landmark. The experience gained from one is useful to the next. Some work well, others not so well, but they all help to shape subsequent works. The challenge on the NES was trying to coax different musical styles from what some may consider a rather limited sound palette.
Chris: Many describe the score of Donkey Kong Country as inspired by the tradition of Japanese game music, despite the fact that it was composed by a British composer. To what extent do you think this is true and what other game scores influenced you while writing it? Do you feel that your Western heritage nevertheless influenced you, for instance with the jazz and ambient elements?
David Wise: Initially I produced the majority of the first Donkey Kong Country score, having had previous experience in SNES music composition. However, I feel compelled to add that it was co-composed with Eveline Novakovic (née Fischer) and Robin Beanland also added a track for Funky's Fugue.
I actually first started producing compositions for Donkey Kong whilst I was still a freelance musician. I understood how important the Donkey Kong license was to Nintendo, so assumed my work would eventually be replaced by a Japanese composer. However, I was asked to produce three jungle demo tunes, which eventually were concatenated to become the DK Swing. I guess someone thought the music was suitable, as they offered me a full time position at Rare.
As for musical influences. I didn't really listen to many game scores at that time, but of course I had listened repeatedly to the scores for Mario and Zelda by Koji Kondo. "Plok" by Tim and Geoff Follin was very inspiring too. Most of my musical influences were actually early 80's synthesised film scores along with copious amounts of 80's Rock and Dance music.
Chris: The highly acclaimed music for Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong's Quest was even more expansive, diverse, and emotional than its predecessor. Could you elaborate on what inspired you to take such an experimental approach on this work? From the perspective of both composition and implementation, how did you create such high quality music despite the memory limitations of the console?
David Wise: Thank you for your kind words. Following on from the original Donkey Kong Country I was pretty much given a "Carte Blanche" to get on and create the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack. The mission was to make the SNES sound as pretty as possible, and this very much drove the composition of compositions such as "Bramble Blast". As for the emotional input, that's just where I was at the time.
Trying to squeeze as much sonic content from the 64k memory limitation of the SNES, I was very much inspired by the Korg Wavestation. It didn't have resonant filters, but used short wave samples, many of them single cycle waveforms, and Korg used a technique they called "Wave Sequencing" to put them back together in a harmonically pleasing order. I thought I'd like to emulate this technique on the SNES, and you can hear my first attempt at replicating wave sequences on "Aquatic Ambience" in Donkey Kong Country, which was also my first piece of music for Rare as a full time employee.
I tried to take the technique even further for Donkey Kong Country 2, using a Roland Juno-2 Synthesiser and sampling waveforms multiple times with different filter cut-off and resonance settings. We didn't have the memory to use midi, so again I typed in HEX sub-routines to put the waveforms back in the desired order, with the desired envelopes, pitch, lfo, and delayed offset information. Also, I discovered that, when cutting off the end of single cycle waveforms, in order to save memory, desirable artefacts were introduced such as subtle distortion and harmonics.
Chris: Although you had a comparatively small role on the original game, you created an all-new score for the Game Boy Advance port of Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble. What inspired the decision to create an all-new score for this title rather than a ported soundtrack?
David Wise: I came on to the project towards the end of development. We didn't have too much time to add the soundtrack to the Game Boy Advance port of Donkey Kong Country 3. We were using a custom sound engine, which took a little massaging to get the best out of it, and I was very aware we were making a handheld version. Graeme Norton had previously composed new and inspiring compositions some years before, for some of the original Game Boy ports of the Donkey Kong series, which I thought worked somewhat better than trying to do a second rate version of the original.
Actually, I did spend a week considering if it might be viable to convert the original score, but to do so would have required working within the limitations of the system, and it simply wasn't translating well. We were using 8 bit samples with no multi-sampling on playback, which introduces artefacts such as noise and anti aliasing. There is simply a very limited bandwidth to work within. The bass sounds very wooly on the GBA and has to be suggested, using hard sounds that we might think have a lot of bass content in them, such as piano and synthesiser bass. The original score used a lot of low sustained pedal notes, which would simply be lost on a handheld system. What's more, the high end breaks up using this system, so the notes viable aren't actually so high.
Thus, given the very tight time limitations and restricted bandwidth, I decided it would just take far too much time to adapt the original soundtrack. The only realistic way to meet the deadline was to compose a new score for the GBA.
Chris: You were also responsible for scoring a spinoff of the Donkey Kong series, Diddy Kong Racing. How did you approach the title, given the racing gameplay and youthful scenario? Could you also elaborate on your involvement in the DS port and the cancelled Donkey Kong Racing for the GameCube?
David Wise: In all honesty, for Diddy Kong Racing, I was unashamedly paying tribute and showing respect to some of the great Nintendo compositions from Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64. I was trying to keep them even more in the desired genre, with every cliché I could lay reference to, with a bit of added Diddy Kong icing on top.
As for the DS adaptation, this was almost a straight port to the DS. The style of the existing music meant that the score required only minimal changes to compensate for the hardware, in contrast to Donkey Kong Country 3. You mention Donkey Kong Racing, but I wasn't given the opportunity to work on this title.
Chris: Following Diddy Kong Racing, you were given the opportunity to work on another legendary franchise with Star Fox Adventures. Were the old Star Fox scores influential for your score or did the action-adventure gameplay — and rebranding of the title from Dinosaur Planet — encourage you to go in a different direction?
David Wise: We were originally creating an adventure game for the Nintendo 64 called Dinosaur Planet. However, this was delayed to be ported over to the GameCube, and then finally we were given the opportunity to use the Star Fox franchise to enhance the product. So the tracks referencing Star Fox came very late in the development cycle, but we were still able to incorporate and adapt some very recognisable themes into the score. The Nintendo 64 and GameCube were obviously a step up from the SNES; it was a real shame that Starfox Adventures was my last score for this system.
Chris: Following the aforementioned adaptations of Donkey Kong Country 3 and Diddy Kong Racing, your final score at Rare was Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise for the DS. Could you elaborate on your offerings to this project?
David Wise: I believe Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise is the best version of the game thanks to the interface of the DS. It mainly featured versions of compositions from the original score by Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke. However, I composed a few new pieces to fill in the specific DS requirements.
Chris: You were also responsible for sound effects and sound programming on these titles, along with several others such as It's Mr. Pants. Could you tell us more about the creative and technical demands of these roles? How have they developed from the days of the NES through to the DS?
David Wise: In the NES days, we had a somewhat crude, but effective way, of creating sound effects. Fortunately, the lead programmer at that time had assembled quite a large library for me to adapt. Due to much better sound engines and far more memory, both the GBA and DS systems allow for the extensive use of samples. However, the knowledge learned from the early NES code was a great audio education and introduction to sound design and the techniques are still just as relevant now.
Chris: As a retrospective, it would be interesting to learn about your personal favourite compositions from the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. If you were to choose your three favourite tracks, what would they be and for what reasons? Do you consider these your best works in general?
David Wise: I think my three personal favourites from the original Donkey Kong Trilogy would be:
Aquatic Ambience: For me, on many levels, this was part of a healing process. It was my first piece of music for Rare as a full-time employee, and it shaped the techniques I would use to create game music for several years.
DK Swing: I was obviously pleased at the time that this music was used to represent the Donkey Kong Licence, and am very humbled now that it is still being used to represent Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Bramble Blast / Stickerbush Symphony Having had it covered on Super Smash Brothers was an honour. It was also used in Boyfriends - Episode 10 by Team Genius — a hilarious short online comedy — as a homage to how hard the game was. And it's currently running at in excess of 733,000 views on YouTube thanks to MechSoul. And also for me personally, because I felt it really pushed the very limits of the sound chip on the SNES.
As for my best works in general? Due to the nature of game development, there are countless tunes I've composed sitting in storage somewhere. Some of these I was particularly proud of. However, I always believe it is up to the people who listen to music to decide which tunes and scores should be considered as best works.
Chris: Your music from the Donkey Kong Country series has been commemorated with numerous soundtrack releases, arranged by numerous fans and professionals, and featured in numerous concerts around the world, most recently Symphonic Legends in Germany. How does it feel to have your music so firmly engraved in fan culture? Have you ever attended a performance of your own music?
David Wise: It's immensely flattering to hear your own compositions reinterpreted and performed, especially by a huge orchestra and large choir. I'm still waiting to attend a performance of my own work, though.
Chris: You have also endorsed OverClocked ReMix's interpretations by arranging the final track on Serious Monkey Business. What resulted in this spectacular collaboration and how did you approach the arrangement and performance of your track, "Re-Skewed".
David Wise: My attention was drawn to OverClocked ReMix some years ago. There are some really talented musicians and remixers who contribute their talents and time furthering the reach of video game music.
I had already reached the conclusion that my career with Rare was sadly coming to an end and it was time to move on. So when OC ReMix asked me to contribute, I saw this as the perfect swansong opportunity. I asked Grant Kirkhope and Robin Beanland if they'd contribute their incredible talents, and Donkey Kong was rescued.
Chris: This year, Donkey Kong Country Returns will be released for the Wii. How do you feel about this long-awaited revival of the Country franchise and the choice of developer? Do you think the score will live up to the high expectations set by your own compositions?
David Wise: Retro Studios are clearly a very competent and hugely talented development team with an impressive track record. I'm very much looking forward to playing and hearing the original themes remixed for Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Chris: It is no secret that, following the release of Diddy Kong Racing, you worked on far fewer soundtracks for Rare. Could you elaborate on the various reasons for this and what factor cancelled titles such as Sabreman Stampede played in this? Was this one factor why you chose to leave Rare last year and noted that today "there is just not the opportunity to create the soundtracks that Rare were fortunately famous for"?
David Wise: I think the transition at Rare from a developer for Nintendo games to a developer of Microsoft software presented various transitional challenges. Obviously, no longer being able to develop titles for Nintendo at Rare, now opens the door for me to explore other opportunities elsewhere. Hence...
Chris: Despite your recent departure, you will continue to compose music and create sound design from your new personal studio, David Wise Sound Studios. Could you elaborate on your new venture and what titles you intend to work on?
David Wise: When leaving Rare, I initially planned on taking a well earned break for several months. At least that was the plan. The day before I left, word had already got round, and I was immediately in a position to consider my first contract. I have since completed subsequent contracts, but as with all of these titles, they remain on a Full Non Disclosure until release.
Chris: Finally, do you have any words to say to your fans all around the world? Many thanks for your time today.
David Wise: I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who takes an interest in my music. It's always a complete honour and compliment to hear from so many interested people. And a big thank you to Chris Greening for his accuracy and insight into my musical career so far and for asking the questions. Best, Dave Wise