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A conversation with Lx Rudis - The Atari Times

A conversation with Lx Rudis


Atari's most famous musician speaks!
by Gregory D. George

September 9, 2002
If you've played a game on the Atari Lynx, you've probably seen the credit, "Music by Lx Rudis" and wondered "Who is this guy with the strange name and strange glasses?" Wonder no more! Lx was kind enough to answer the dozens of questions posed to him about the Lynx, Epyx, the Tramiels, and of course, music.

So, spend a few moments getting to know one of the most fabled Atari musicians: Lx Rudis!

[The Musician] [Epyx & the Hardware] [Lynx Games] [Atari & Jaguar] [Outside Atari] [The Coder Inside]

Lx Rudis, the Musician

First of all, I have to ask: Is Lx your real name, or does it stand for something?

:)

My friends on fatbabies.com like to call me Alex. It's on my birth certificate. Lx came out of endless hours driving up and down 101 to various game companies. I kept seeing it on the back of cars. When we worked on Lynx titles, giving credit to team members was a sort of 'new' thing. I noted that the Japanese guys who worked on PC Engine games tended to give themselves these radical 'cyber' names, so I figured, what the heck, it'll only be a game or two...call me Lx...history proved me wrong. :P

...but now I sort of like it.:)

Tell us about your early years?

Born here in SF. Mom was a jazz pianist/singer. Dad was in charge of sets for local ABC TV affiliate and also managed set construction for Monterey Jazz Festival. Grew up with all sorts of weird artist types hanging around the house and sometimes cooling my jets on-set at KGO-TV.

I rebelled from both parents and spent most of my early adolescence sk8boarding and riding bicycles. Discovered synthesizers and made my first bad decision: I would become an Electronic Musician. Parents were supportive but wary. 

I wound up being accelerated into college about 2 years early. Didn't have the required discipline, didn't rub my professors the 'right' way. Got tossed out of college pretty quickly.

Moved back here to SF, moved in with father. Inspired by local 'punk' scene, got accepted into a series of 'cyberpunk' or 'synthpunk' bands where I composed, played, sang lead vocals. Also was pretty involved in using slide projectors, dissolves, broken video stuff so that what I did would seem more like 'theater'.

Got noticed, which led to a couple of positions as 'staff sound designer' for local theaters. This also meant that I spent time climbing around in rafters, building sets, lighting, standing in for actors, doing stage management.

This led to experimental radio work. I worked on KPFA for a bit, doing the pick-up show after negativland.that led to another radio show on KUSF, local college station, doing live sampling and stuff in a pretty wild 'no holds barred' production environment.

Is there a type of music you listen to more than others?

:) Insistent rhythms, medium to faster tempos. Unusual/captivating chord changes, good melody. Strong vocals with interesting POV.

Jesse Hartmann has a project called "Laptop" which I like a lot. He refers to his style of music as 'Ironica', somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think.

I listen to a lot of 'glitch' techno, also the neo-synth-punk stuff. I like some old stuff, mostly 70's era 'krautrock' and Eno. Repetitive, trancy music.

How do you feel about the music of today?

I think there are a lot of options opening up for people to produce their own music (or visual art) without suffering an extremely high buy-in for the privilege.

I think that this (freeware/shareware production tools) is great, but I also have to note that there has been little (if any) real progress in getting the general public to accept the notion of 'personalized' music as implied by outfits like mp3.com.

In other words, we're still stuck with these old notions of having "famous people" who produce the art we want...or think we want.

And I think that's another deep subject - we think we want tunes, but what I think we really want is an association with 'fame', or our closed view of what 'fame' means.

Gotta agree with you there. So where did you get your inspiration for your music?

Anger, futility, deadlines, greed. :)

...Oh, I'm sorry, you mean 'what artists'? Well, my clock started ticking with bands like Devo, Buzzcocks, Human League (Reproduction, Travelogue), the Screamers and local bands like Tuxedomoon (who I was fired from), the Units and Voice Farm. www.synthpunk.org has a bit of info on my activities during this period, btw.

What was your first video game experience (and did it have music in it?)

My dad propped me up in front of a Pong machine while he was drinking with friends in a bar. My most profound gaming experience was/is with Tempest. Last year I worked for a while with Hyperware/Ultracade as an evangelist for their arcade machine, Pentium based with a custom arcade-hardened OS and very sophisticated accounting/tuning scheme.

One of the side projects I was trying to kickstart was a 'vector graphics' ultracade variant that would have Tempest, Tempest Tubes and possibly games like Space Duel in it. I'm pretty bored with poly/mesh/nurbs/whatnot video games. The geometry, immediacy and brightness of these old vector graphics games really attracts me these days and I'd love to see this graphics/game programming style get more attention. It's beautiful and I think it suits the form.

Although I admire and appreciate the 3d games and was pretty enthusiastic and involved as we transited from sprite graphics to 3d models, my heart remains with classic games, a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. I will play games like MGS2, but frankly I prefer Tempest, KLAX, Qix, etc....actually, I'm a sucker for Mario Kart also and will play Mario Kart anytime with anyone. I even keep an SNES and an N64 around specifically so I can play both of the old versions of Mario Kart. Mario Kart rules.

No, Tempest rules!err...

What do you feel is the role of music in a video game?

Jeez, it is different from game to game. In the case of Parappa, Space Channel 5, DDR, it's crucial because of the rhythmic basis of those games. In other products it's designed to deliberately distract the player to create more of a challenge (I am infamous for this, btw). I think too many people try to elevate game music composition to the level of BG music in film. IMVHO it's not the same - in a game you go thru the same 'dramatic' points over and over and over again in a way that even the most obsessive film would not. Although music can and does provide dramatic base for many games, it's my opinion that atmospheric SFX provide much more effective emotional grounding in most games.

Perhaps with the advent of the XBox and the directsound/ directmusic/ directmusic producer components we'll start seeing more truly 'interactive' music. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Production-wise, what's the difference in video game music today versus music from 10 years ago?

The sound hardware was extremely limited compared to today - You were lucky to get 4 voices to play with. On some platforms like the 2600 or the NES these had incredible limitations - I think the oscillators on the 2600 only had about a 2.5 octave range, for example, and some of those notes didn't play 'in tune'.

The Lynx was a major step forward, audio-wise. With 4 identical 8bit audio channels fed by 12bit shift registers you could create a lot of racket, much more detailed racket than you could on the master system or NES. Costs were dropping, so it was trivial (or at least negotiable) for us to request carts with twice or four times the ROM of the older consoles.

However, the racket came out of a 1" speaker.from the users' perspective, it most likely sounded a lot like racket that sometimes resembled music, especially when compared with the Genesis' 6 voices of FM, 4 voices of 'classic' PSG (one voice of each audio system could be dedicated on the fly to sample playback) and SNES' 8 voices of 8bit sample playback.

How did CD consoles change video game music?

Once CD media arrived with the PSX and the SegaCD, a lot of people were able to start relying on the format to get away from these bottlenecks. For example, if gameplay was entirely resident in RAM, and there was enough space for a streamer, one could just encode full orchestrations as Redbook files and call those during gameplay. ...Or you could have bank after bank of unique sample data, downloaded on demand by the game.

In some cases, I think Redbook made for pretty spectacular soundtracks, but it couldn't turn on a dime the way that scripted audio calling discrete voices could. There was always a time lag, and many times this wound up IMVHO hurting the overall gameplay.

The Sega Saturn and Atari Jaguar attempted to bring back some synthesis capabilities, but never made enough of an impact in the marketplace to change production styles and techniques. There was another push going on - we realized that we had the film industry in our sights, and many of us wanted badly to make our games as 'movie-like' as we could.

I think the PSX's hardware really influenced what many game audio producers thought about when scoring a game product: Multiple sound banks for SFX and some BGM. Use several samples and MIDI scripts to composite explosions and perhaps simple melodic 'signifier' cues. Make minimal use of the onboard DSP, demand CD streaming and burn full mixes of majority of BGM to Redbook, wherever possible use Redbook because it gets around the 8 voice polyphony limit and sounds better with less time expended, etc...

How much do soundtracks cost to produce these days?

I'll reveal that the first sound design contract I did was for something like $3,000. A recent sound design I oversaw budgeting on was close to ten times that amount, and that's before I start factoring the cost of the big-name voice talent we were paying for!

How many designers generally work on a game's music and effects?

My first design involved something like 8 little tunes and about 32 SFX. The more recent project involved more than 30,000 edits, a tune library of well over 40 tunes and ditties. It required the full time work of a couple of game audio professionals for several months plus assistance by outside audio engineers, plus an SW engineer who devoted about 2 months to creation of a sound management engine so we could call the audio cues during gameplay. 

What does the future hold for video game music?

I think we're headed toward more synthesis in future products (XBox has a pretty sophisticated audio section), and more widespread use of interactive composition where the BGM is tied directly into maze position, health points, advancing NPCs, etc. (I think that Crystal Dynamics' composers Jim Hedges and Kurt Harland offer some pretty good examples of this sort of experience in a console game).

I'm guessing that there are a growing percentage of musicians out there who are exploiting the interactive audio possibilities presented by websites and directed surfing - IMVHO the web provides a realm where a budding composer can 'practice' techniques that allow a soundtrack to respond to an end user's actions ...to more effectively 'drive' the experience. As this skill becomes more commonplace, it will show up more and more often in our console games.

I also expect to hear more use of 'classic' PSG type sounds, primarily because of the increasing interest in 'lo fi' sounds in the pop music world.

Epyx and the Hardware

I understand you've worked for several different game companies. Which one did you feel the greatest sense of "wonder?"

Most probably Epyx during the Handy days. The place was chock-full of genius programmers who also loved to play games, not just computer games. It seemed like everyone had incredible, non-gaming, LIFE experience and background to bring to the task.

How did you come to work for Epyx?

Chris Grigg of Negativland was audio director at Epyx. Kept telling me I should do vidgame sound. I didn't believe him. He persisted, and waited until I needed money one day. Invited me to Epyx on pretext of 'lunch' and 'showing me some stuff'. I went down there, he baited me for a bit, then said 'if I tell you more, you'll have to sign an NDA. Are you ok with that...?'

Before signature was dry, I was grabbed by scruff of neck and dropped in front of a devstation. Prototype for the Handy audio sub-assembly.

Was paired with Bob Vieira, a veteran vidgame composer. He was to do the dirty tech stuff, I was to do the captivating melodies. Turns out that Bob was sick and tired of dirty tech stuff, and he did more captivating melodies than I did. We swapped roles and then settled into a switch-hit role we maintained for my 13 month stay at Epyx.

Made tailfins for my Amiga 500 which impressed RJ Mical. Also composed some stuff, got a toothache, learned a bunch more, found out that to be a game musician meant that you sometimes went back to the test lab and worked as a tester, or that you would help artists out with tweening or something. Anything to help the product ship. I liked this...

Epyx absorbed by Atari. I wound up unemployed and unknown due to my NDA. No one knew who/what I was. Very sad.

I don't imagine the atmosphere at Epyx was very happy when Atari took over. What happened with Epyx? Did Atari buy them or just the Lynx?

I believe the contract involved the Handy project, but the terms were quite strict. Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari's lawyers and Epyx' lawyers worked out a 'compromise' where Atari got the Handy. I was not high enough in the food chain to know much about the contract, but if I remember correctly, Epyx and Atari were supposed to be 'partners' in bringing Handy to market, then Epyx would be something like the main provider of games and software for the thing. As it turned out, Handy became Lynx.

What happened after you were unemployed due to the Atari takeover?

Clyde Grossman remembered me, called me up and dragged me down to Tengen. There, I began work on NES Klax with Dave O'Riva.

Then Atari called. They wanted me to help them with Lynx audio, help explain the weird audio hardware/tools to 3rd parties, provide SFX, compose tunes, etc. Lynx Klax entered my life.

What can you tell us about the people you worked with? Were they excited about the Lynx's potential?

We thought we'd change the world with the Lynx. FWIW, the machine and its products still stand up against handheld product. A very superior machine, IMHO. Probably too superior.

Too superior? Do you mean "too expensive" in comparison to the competition at the time?

No, I think the machine was just too much for the market. It was hard to understand, because I think it was just 'too powerful'. Sometimes small technology is better. I think a gaming device like the original GameBoy was close enough to the LCD games that predated it that it had an edge. Also, it was much cheaper. And it delivered a reasonable entertainment experience as well (of course, having access to the Nintendo stable of Mario and his pals doesn't hurt, either).

Another problem was physical size. GameBoy was small enough to fit a pocket, wasn't obtrusive.Lynx was this giant sled of a thing with a glowing screen - I think some people were put off by the size, although as a gamer I find the Lynx (especially the original one) to be of a better size to hold while playing.

Do you still keep in contact with Dave Needle and RJ Mical?

Unless I miss my bet, RJ will be at Cal Extreme vintage video game/pinball show in San Jose September www.caextreme.org

I'm also on a maillist along with RJ although both of us lurk. Well, he lurks, occasionally I have some sort of brainboil and go posting nonsense.he's more responsible than me.;)

[Note: You can visit RJ's website at www.mical.org ]

What were some limitations of the Lynx hardware were you able to overcome?

Image Courtesy of www.backintime.netNothing like the Lynx had ever existed before. Dave Needle helped design the WEIRDEST audio hardware I've ever seen in my entire life. [The "Mikey" Chip] He used to drop by my office and just laugh at me as I struggled with the system. They wouldn't even budget a hard drive for me - everyone else had these kewl HOWDY boards, but I had like the rev 0.00009 wirewrap board hooked to an Amiga 500 that I'd taped paper 'tailfins' onto. Occasionally a chip would literally blow up, and Howard Delman would have to come cursing into my office and waste an hour or so making my baby work again.

At one point, I spent weeks flipping bits and building a library of something like 512 'tones' that the thing could generate, along with notes to outside developers that would tell them which (nearly random) offsets they'd have to plug in to get these tones to play straight.

If I had it to do over again, I'd own that board and would have it hanging on my wall in a picture frame. Man, what a scary contraption.

The Lynx Games

I have you down for writing music for these games: Klax, Gates of Zendocon, California Games, Electrocop, Chip's Challenge, Gauntlet 3, Gordo 106, Hockey, Ms. Pac-Man, Rampage, Rampart, and Shanghai. Are there any I missed?

Wow. To be honest, I don't have a list. I've worked on many titles where I just 'passed through', maybe doing deep work direct with the coder.

For example - M1 Battletank on Genesis, I did the 'doppler shift' FM helicopters. I also did a lot of tools consulting and testing, being a 'typical developer' for a series of shops. Have also done 'ghost writing' for a few products, working for folks like Mark Miller's Neuromantic Productions.

The last time I checked, I'm named on something like 40 videogame manuals or am pressed into the cart/CDrom, whatnot.

The Lynx Klax intro has to be my favorite tune for the system. Was that an original work, or was it inspired from the arcade? It's really superb!

THANK YOU!

Wow. Composed on a drum machine, an Emu SP12. Samples painfully transferred and manually manipulated in line editor to make them playable. Entire song recomposed in Amiga program Music-X. Transferred painfully, note by note into a .h file played by ultra-rad sample player code developed by Greg Omi (Greg was raised just over the hill from me, btw). Finished Klax during our first adventures in Baghdad [on TV. We] used the genlock to toss CNN up on the Amiga's screen so we could watch the news while we worked with the tools and editors. Greg sorta just lived at our house for the last few weeks.

BTW: Regarding the SP12 - it's actually a drum machine with very primitive sampling. I'd been working with this feature about the time the Klax gig came up. Greg was hot to exploit the sampling idea and lived close by. He was the one who asked [John] Skruch if we could do this, Skruch agreed after listening to my demo.

Initially I figured it would be a dropkick. Unfortunately, Greg was not able to modify the MIDI scripters in time to work with his sample playback engine, I discovered some really annoying things about the way the SP12 did MIDI, Atari decided it would be fun for me to be forced to perform a Klax Audio Autopsy down the street at Atari Computer...

The Lynx version of Klax was in stereo, even though the Lynx I was mono, right?

Yes. If you can find a fully equipped Howard board and the ROM image for Klax, not only will the title music fly around in your headphones, but the tiles will go slightly left and right as they approach you, I think I even did some stuff to the 'yeah!' and 'aaaw!' samples also.

I've got a version of the title music on open reel tape in storage. Assuming it hasn't rotted, I can do a dub of it. At one point I flew everything around in stereo, then thought better of it - I think that version has the drum 'solo' flying around and also some subtle panning of the 'gronk' synth chord, possibly the quarter tone 'slide' in the bass voice. That was one cool thing about working in 'c' modules. I had pretty much complete control over the samples. Of course, when you consider time the samples had complete control of me. Such a conundrum.

Did Atari always have plans to redesign the Lynx with stereo audio? Or did you code Klax in stereo just for the heck of it?

Klax was done during the design phase of the LYNX 2. There was a stereo audio board retrofit for the 'Howard box' which I had installed in my (poor, departed) devkit. 

Then financial reality set in, and they had to scrap the idea. FWIW, I think you can crack into a Lynx and hotrod it by bringing out the 0,1 and 2,3 DACs to an outboard preamp. This, obviously, would void one's warranty.;)

I think there's one or two other games from around the Klax period that supported stereo audio. APB, perhaps, or maybe I'm too senile to remember. I do recall that I got several phone calls from a developer in England around that time, asking me how to get at the output registers.

What is involved with composing a piece of music for the Lynx (or any system for that matter)?

Much different back then. Lynx Klax was probably the most involved, where my main tool was the Amiga's Cygnus line editor and quadrille notepaper.

Each sample was converted to 8bit format, then translated to hex. I went manually thru each file of sample data looking for the endpoints, then manually redefined these endpoints with a specific value, in this case 7F. And removed all other instances of 7F. That became our 'stopbit' which told the sound engine not to go marching off into the cart and start playing other samples or graphics data as audio data.

Then I took my poor little 'KLAX' tune, gave up on MIDI and simply reconstructed the entire thing on graph paper so that I could calculate timeouts and channel data - this involved reducing about 30 MIDI notes' data down to 4 output channels, which meant that I had to create a workable '4 channel' version on the Amiga for auditioning purposes, using a nifty little program called music-X.

Finally, the entire thing had to be transferred into a series of dozens and dozens of little modules of C code that were saved as .h files. These became the resource files which actually drove the title music.

FWIW, the SFX during the game are treated and called identically, with the caveat of panning data and volume data being fed [realtime] via the game engine.

I had to do similar work on Genesis titles in the pre-GEMS era and also for my Jaguar work, but I've been pretty fortunate in that I was one of the guys who helped usher in a lot of the MIDI conversion tools during the dawn of the 16 bit era. Mostly by whining and frowning grumpily a lot. I really worked that whining and frowning routine.;D

The real composition work usually happened in the line editor because space was at such a premium that you had to justify every single byte. Worst case was Rampage where I started off with a 'budget' of 3k per song, then 2k per song, then......if I recall correctly, one of those little buggers clocks in at something like 433 bytes...and sounds like it, too. :P

What was the most pleasant experience working on a Lynx game?

Probably the feeling of doing something really new, also being an integral part of the Handy/EPYX devteam. I learned so much from these people and will be forever grateful to them.

Of the games you worked on, which one are you the most proud of?

Hmm. Hmm. Well, both Klax titles, also Slime World for Genesis. Coincidentally, these projects both feature Dave O'Riva and Greg Omi.

Which is your favorite Lynx game to play?

Wow. Well, all my Lynx stuff got stolen from me in 1999, but I'd have to say it's a tie between Chip's Challenge (Chuck Sommerville) and Klax. I also liked the port of Qix a lot. I'm very retro in my tastes.

Sorry to hear your stuff got stolen! I'll bet the thief never knew that he stole games from a man who helped design them!

Actually, I'm pretty sure I know who stole the stuff.

Do you remember the last Lynx game you worked on?

Gordo 106, if I recall. Or maybe it was Shanghai. (I'm especially proud of Shanghai - A coder pal dropped by as I was finishing the project, worried that I hadn't made the music 'Chinese sounding' enough. He took one listen, turned to me with his face all scrunched up and accused me of being a racist. I took that as an indication that my work was dead-on.:) )

Gordo 106 was one of the last Lynx releases while Shanghai was earlier. I'm guessing Gordo was your last project.

Err, I think you're right about Gordo, but Shanghai was closer to the end than the beginning. I think it may have been just before Rampage which was programmed by Pete Wierzebicki

Your tunes have been a part of so many Lynx games and I think you've become somewhat of a "legend" in Atari circles. How does it make you feel knowing that you've become the most well-known Lynx musician? (And likely the most well-known Atari musician for that matter.)

I really don't know how to respond to this. When I started doing video games it was because I really needed to pay rent on my way to becoming a world famous experimental/pop musician. I failed miserably at becoming a world famous experimental/pop musician but I did OK paying rent with video games. At one point about 4 years ago I had to look around and admit that I'd done video games longer than I had done anything else in my life. At that point I had to accept games as my career.

When you look at the 20th century, the visual, theatric and audio arts have been pushed to the point to where it is difficult to see anywhere further to push. The confluence of ideas and the incredible meshing of technology and creative intuition that game development demands seemed to me to be the only logical place to go.at that point I realized I was no longer 'passing through'.

Is that really your picture in Gates of Zendocon?

Yes, my enemies can KILL me in GOZ!

The capture device took something like 15 seconds to scan an image, using a videocamera. Dave and the others froze so the scanned image would be clear. I worked a lot on 'arty' graphics and stuff using Xerox machines so it occurred to me to try a similar technique with myself. I slowly rotated my head as the scan occurred, making my head distort as it looks on the sprite.

Atari, music, and the Jaguar

The perception of Atari was that they didn't place much importance on music in their games. Is this a valid interpretation?

Not my experience, although my perception was that they expected a hell of a lot out of composers. I have a great deal of respect for Leonard Tramiel who I worked directly with during the Jaguar project, but he and I got into several heated discussions about the composer's role in development. He had good points, but my position was that the devtools should be transparent or nearly so for an artist to be able to create. His counterpoint was that if we didn't know how the machines worked, our non-technical bias would result in problematic compositions. Actually, he was right. Unfortunately, there just weren't that many good composers who were also computer programmers. Hubbard comes to mind. By that time, we couldn't afford someone with that background, that talent. Sticky issue, eh?

Do you think this is the real reason music was lacking in so many Jaguar games?

Yes. For comparison, look at the Genesis. Until the GEMS tool was developed, audio for Genesis wasn't so great. GEMS turned the Genesis into essentially a MIDI peripheral that could load and play samples and address all ten voices dynamically. It freed a composer to think as a composer. The early Genesis titles have very sketchy audio (with exception of some of the Japanese games. I think Shinobi predated GEMS. But the Japanese have a very different work ethic which extends to subjective product such as art and music.)

Atari expecting a lot out of composers is 180 degrees opposite from everything we've ever believed.

Leonard wanted us to appropriate a strict 'roll up your sleeves' approach for Jag music composition. It was about using trial-and-error combined with a more formal 'engineering' approach rather than depending on automated toolsets to do the grunt work. We did have some GUI tools for getting at the DSP synthesis engine that Lynett had been contracted to provide, but we were expected to do the charting and calculation that enabled music/SFX to play without crashing.

I knew that [Jeff] Minter was using a 'tracker' converter to get the cool techno stuff into Tempest 2k. Leonard wanted me and my team beating hell out of the Lynett toolset, using more 'pure' synthesis techniques and scripted note data to generate music and SFX. Although part of the justification was to save cart RAM 'real estate', he had a very strong opinion that we should be pushing the synthesis capabilities of the Jag.

Although there were, IMHO, some priorities down at Atari I didn't agree with, I have to say that I got a lot of support for my work. For example - that Klax Lynx cart is something like 36k of game, 120k of sample data and audio script. They also paid me well to do things like spend time doing intricate doubling of lines on the Ms. Pac-Man music so that I could make the thing sound a bit better.

I think a lot was expected from us. But it was engineering savvy and a 'nose down' work ethic followed by catchy tunes. I learned a lot about how our DSP code worked during that period... 

What was the Tramiel philosophy of coding games?

I can't speak for everyone, but Leonard was pretty old-skool regarding Crescent Galaxy. At one point I remember complaining to him that we needed more game design for the levels. His reply was that side scrollers were too dynamic to justify lengthy design, that the best way to do it was to toss a bunch of NPC scripts at the game engine, then test hell out of the results until the team and testers deemed the result 'fun'.

What work did you do on the Jaguar?

John Skruch and Leonard Tramiel brought me in fool-time on contract to assist in test and finalization of the audio toolset for the Jag. The tools were a bit difficult to deal with, and the work was way more involved than anyone had wanted to admit. I had to extend the contract, then was fortunate to be able to tap two sub-contractors of mine, M 5tevens and Wiley Evans who are both talented musicians as well as programmer/technicians. As the days went on, we kept getting deeper and deeper into the Jaguar.

It was very involved work, C code and whatnot. Supposedly we were going to be able to use standard MIDI sequencers to compose for the thing, but there were multiple issues with the toolset which reduced MIDI functionality to a horrid joke. Audio for the bootrom sequence was initially time-budgeted at about 12hours. It wound up taking about 12 calendar days of solid 10hour days by all three of us, and the original 'greenlit' tune I cooked up for the Jag went thru about 20 iterations before we had anything that the audio subsystem wouldn't choke on. At the end of the bootrom project, I resigned and concentrated on Genesis work.but that's another story...

So, you did the little, "Have you played Atari today?" ditty at the beginning? That's cool!

Amazing!you're something like the third person who recognizes it!!!

Yes, meetings with Leonard resulted in me resurrecting the old Atari tune. I said that we needed some sort of 'real' sounder to anchor the startup. He reminded me that there was an Atari theme.

I got a copy of one of the old commercials and transcribed it, then arranged it out in a way (I thought) I could get it to play on the Jag, using all of the Lynett synthesis methods and sample playback. Whoo!

Someplace in my archives is the original FABULOUSLY INCREDIBLE arrangement I did, complete with harmonies, nifty quiet/then loud crescendo, the Fierce Jaguar Roar, etc.

My colleagues sat stunned when they heard it. Then we went over to the devsystem and... Sadly, it wouldn't play without hiccupping or crashing the system.:( Many revisions later...

[Listen to the Atari theme Lx wrote. 70k.]

Atari fans generally don't like the Tramiels. You've obviously had a great deal of contact with them. Could you tell us your experience?

Gary, Sam, Jack, & LeonardA bit, but because of my level of contact I will not go into much detail. I was closest with Leonard, second closest with Sam. Jack yelled at me a couple of times, and I sometimes hung out with Gary when he hung out with James Grunke (Atari's main computer audio person, also a close friend.)

My relationship with Leonard and Sam was close enough that I was able to get pretty emotional from time to time, and I'm told that Sam was personally hurt when I resigned from Atari. I think that the Tramiels are a family with extremely strong and dedicated business sense. From the outside, this can be seen in negative terms, and can possibly be attacked from some ethical fronts. Nevertheless, these two guys were always very good to me, they saw to it that I had no problems getting my invoices paid. And although I'd sometimes get shut down in meetings, I was encouraged to share and effectively argue my opinions on development issues. 

Besides the Jaguar and Lynx, what other work did you do for Atari?

Well, although I always insisted on working on contract rather than full time, I did participate in some HR tasks such as interviewing potential fulltime audio personnel. 

I also picked up some project oversight work for Atari. An example of this would be the HD recorder software that was a pack-in with the Falcon 030 computer. I located the devteam who did the software, assisted in the contracting and ran 'interference' during the project. Didn't really 'produce' the project as much as assisting Atari in 'greenlighting' milestones and trying to provide support for both sides during production.

Do you have any Atari anecdotes that might be of interest?

At one point someone decided to get a Jaguar 'roar' for the bootrom sequence. Rob Lodes dutifully went over to the zoo with his DAT machine to record some Jaguar roars. An incredulous zookeeper informed him that jaguars do not roar.they do hiss and sometimes purr or yowl but apparently they can't roar. I presented this info to Leonard, but by then everyone wanted that bloodcurdling jaguar roar.

Rob went back to the zoo and had to hang out adjacent to the lion's cage for several hours before he got something like a useable roar. Unfortunately, there was a lot of resonance in the room, so when we got the sample and then downsampled it, the thing sounded more like a toilet flush than a roar. By then, it was too late to change the scripting in the bootrom sequence, so we had to stick with it. To this day I can't listen to a Jag start up without wincing. Aiiii! Not correct!

When I did California Games for the Lynx I discovered that we'd paid the author of 'Louie Louie' for rights to put that song into the game. If they licensed that, I assumed, they licensed everything...

When it came time to do the surfing title, the coder asked me if I could 'dress up' the soundtrack for that [Surfing] mini-game. Dutifully I did my best, changing a note here and there, even making a sort of parody of the tom-tom roll that is in the original song, making it more like the 'original' I remembered hearing.

When the time came for Atari to release the Lynx, they decided to show the actual graphics and play actual audio for the TV commercial. One of the things in the TV commercial was the surfing mini-game, complete with soundtrack. Greg was at my place working with me on the Klax stuff when we both heard the commercial playing on MTV. We rushed into the living room, high-fived each other and laughed about how we were suddenly 'famous'.

Unbeknownst to me, the author of a tune named 'Wipeout' was at his home in Malibu or wherever watching MTV also and he heard something that sounded a LOT like 'Wipeout'. [He] didn't remember ever granting rights to a game company to use his tune. Turns out that the original music in California Games was originally composed to be memorable as 'surfing' music, but no more.

By agreeing to 'adjust' the tune I had unknowingly made it litigatable. I was named in the resulting lawsuit and was immediately summoned to Atari for a stern lecture. 

Although I was eventually dropped from the suit, this made me Very Unhappy for a couple of months and I was very worried about my financial and professional future during that time.

Outside Atari

You mention working on the music for NES Klax... Which system was easier to write music for, the NES or the Lynx?

The NES version of KlaxBoth systems were fun to use in their own way. Neither system related very much to the synthesizers and systems we take for granted today.

The NES Klax music is an attempt to do 'speed-metal' on the NES. Do a search for NoseFart which is an NES audio emulator, then look for BugSuk, the nom-de-guerre that Dave O'Riva and I used to compose the music under.

Basically, I went into the test lab with a cassette recorder and went from tester to tester, asking them to let me record a few minutes of whatever they were listening to. I went back to my desk and had this cassette filled with about 40 minutes of fragments of Anthrax (the band), Metallica, Judas Priest, AC/DC, etc. I used these fragments as a sort of springboard to give me focus in coming up with appropriate riffs and structures for the music. Dave was a big metal fan, also, and had an interest in music. He and I double-teamed on a few of the tunes - One song, for example is his attempt at doing 'Greensleeves', but we both started laying the gnarly riffs down and one thing led to another...

Dave's NES tool used a gamepad for entry. You used alphanumeric values to signify note and octave, and entered voicing instructions in hex. Then you uploaded the result to a PC hooked to a hotrodded cart in top of the NES. Took quite a while to enter a piece of music this way. I spent a lot of time propped up in a chair drinking Coca-Cola and with my sneakers up on my desk.

Klax NES was just plain incredible. I'll always be grateful to Bill Hindorff and Steve Calfee for their support. And Dave O'Riva for his craziness.They said SpeedMetal Could Not Be Done on a Console Game Machine. We proved different!

The Lynx had MIDI converters, but only monophonic and it wouldn't deal well with note overlaps or rests. Specifically, there were script converters that could take a MIDI format 0 file with one channel of monophonic note data that did not overlap. This sounds much easier to do than it actually was. I learned a thing or two about how the most simple music can be quite complex.

You could compose in MIDI, but then would spend about 4x as much time creating 'acceptable' sequences which then might or might not be accepted by the converter. Many times it was faster to just open up a line editor and type in the notes and rhythms. I got to the point where I could work without using a keyboard as a reference - I'd hum a melody or bassline, then would just calculate out the timing offsets and notes in my head, then transcribe them into the line editor.

Funny, but you were indirectly working for the "other" Atari (Atari Games) when working for Tengen!

Yeah, not lost on me. I liked working at Tengen, but the Epyx experience had left me very cynical regarding anything resembling 'full-time' contract employment. I spent my free time tracking down any other contractors so that I'd have something to fall back on. If my memory is correct, I think I did some contract work for another developer before getting Lynx work. I've blanked out the name of the Chicago-based Atari executive who dragged his feet on bringing me in on the Lynx project. I do know they were having some problems with audio before I got brought in, and I also know that this guy spent a percentage of his time during my tenure hiring and firing a string of 'audio' people based in Chicago. Courtesy of the Atari 1040's predominance in MIDI music production this guy had access to plenty of 'computer musicians', but I think he wound updealing with people who knew MIDI and hardware synths, not obsessive wingnuts like me who got some sort of mutant charge out of counting in hexadecimal, etc... ;)

Tell us about visiting Sega and your work with FHT.

[Around 1993] Clyde [Grossman] went to this upstart company, Sega of America. They had this ridiculous stuffed cartoon hedgehog in front office. 'This place will be bankrupt in six months' I remember thinking. They contract me to assist with audio on this weird black box they thought they'd release over here. Haha!called, Megadrive, or Revelation... no, Genesis.

Spent the next few years driving really fast between these three companies, working on contract. They kept me very busy. Eventually had to give up on Tengen, but the gap was immediately filled by third parties who needed sound and/or crummy graphics. My wife was a computer artist, so we were sort of a double-threat content team. House filled with devstations for all consoles.

Finally decided that audio was a sad ghetto to be stuck in. Teams were getting bigger, and I'd actually had to 'assistant produce' some of the games I'd been hired to write charming melodies for. A third party, FHT (here in SF), discovered that I was in negotiation with Tengen to work as audio specialist/associate game producer.FHT matched Tengen's offer, then reminded me that I would not have to commute. This was an offer I could not refuse - Remember that I was doing a lot of driving up and down the peninsula.

3rd parties have it rough. After about three months of project managing, my boss told me 'I can't afford to waste your time on audio anymore. Are you willing to go FT as a producer?'. I agreed.

Tough 3rd party times continued for a couple of years.FHT finally closed its doors pretty dramatically. I got my team placed at various shops in the peninsula, decided to get out of games.

The Genesis was so successful, it's interesting to hear someone didn't think it would make it.

Well, I think my reasoning was based on my personal career history of working in the arts. It's been my experience that what we do is mostly about failing to do something with the occasional smashing success occurring to keep us interested in our careers.

I'd had some powerfully bad experiences with previous employment in staging, art and games. This negatively coloured my opinions regarding Sega's future. Boy was I dumb. ;)

Do you keep in contact with anyone from Sega?

Ed Annunziatta was my main producer contact at Sega for several years. I did work for several other producers who I run into from time to time (Scott Berfield, who I think is up in Redmond doing Xbox stuff comes to mind), but Ed and I seemed to hit it off the best. Ed runs a small game company in half moon bay called AndNow.they have done some interesting stuff, IMHO.

Ed was one of the first executives to drag me away from audio work, BTW. I worked for him for a short while on the original game designs for Jurassic Park - As a matter of fact, we both read Jurassic Park when it first came out. Ed was able to get a great option on using the title in interactive entertainment. Upper management saw JP as a risk, though and there was a lot of waffling about the money (which was nothing, like $40,000 for rights to the name.) Then Spielberg decided JP was good enough for a movie and suddenly we were looking at spending a fortune for the rights. Aargh.

The Coder Inside

Did you ever think about writing your own games?

Commodore 64 version of Choplifter!I used to have a concept for 'Uncle Al's Real Crappy Games, Featuring Pixeldude'.these were inspired by my obsession with Choplifter.

Gotta point out - my programming was limited to stuff I could barely understand how to get at via the C64 Programmer Reference Manual. I'd type in programs, then do things like make my own sprites with my name on 'em, etc. Strictly hobbyist stuff. I went on to mess with Apple II computers, a friend, Matt Kane (now a world famous roboticist from Carnegie Mellon, I'm given to understand) helped us come up with simple Basic programs that would do stuff like direct translation of game paddle values into MIDI notes, etc. He went on to do a game for LucasArts, Zak McKracken. He's also known for a weird Apple II/Roland Juno 106 program called Modzilla.)

Have you ever coded a game, professionally?

The Flintstones for GenesisNot in the programmer sense. When I was at FHT I worked on the Genesis version of The Flintstones. Originally I was to oversee it. Then the assigned artist left the company. So I had to do all the character animations. Then the coder/artist ran out of time to do backgrounds and strikepaths. So I did those. Then there were anomalies in the engine, requiring that we abandon the GUI tools for .h files. So I did that. Then there were problems with the font generator. So I did that. Then the project went overtime and the main producer at Ocean started screaming for blood. So I ran interference on that...

I guess that's the closest to coding a game I've done. On the other hand, I work a lot in avant garde theater and stuff around SF. So I've been up to my armpits in OpenGL code doing things like working on giant projected 3d spiders which correlate to infrared sensor feedback registering actor positions onstage, and weird performance stuff where we did things like build MIDI controlled tesla coils from scratch so we could create honest-to-god lightning bolts on stage in time with snare drum hits coming from a drum computer.

I don't look at this stuff as 'coding'. For the most part, someone else did the gruesome work, explained it to me as best as possible, then turned me loose with a line editor and a compiler and a deadline. It ain't pretty, but I can usually get the job done...

What advice would you give to those who are still developing games for Atari systems?

Jaguar BattleSphereKeep going. I'm very proud of my copy of Scatologic's Battlesphere. Not much money in these products, so it has to be a labor of love. imVho this is worth much more than $$$ in the long run. Keep going, know that people like me are out there and we like to support what you're doing.THANK YOU!

After leaving Atari, what did you find yourself doing?

I continued working for a series of game developers, most of the time under contract from my own company. In 1998 I decided to get out of games [and] went back to theater work and corporate show production.wound up as Technical Director/Stage Manager for George Coates Performance Works. helped produce the kickoff show for the California Sesquicentennial Celebration. Nearly croaked from overwork.

Still doing some work on the side for other 3rd parties, mostly just 2d animations and texture maps, some very simple models.

I was hired in March of 1999 by Konami and brought in as a 'troubleshooter' on contract. Helped a couple of milestones to close, isolated some production issues. This led to a request that I go fulltime as producer. Eventually promoted. Eventually resigned, once again sort of burnt out, once again wanting to go back to theater/art.

I started as 'senior producer' for Konami in charge of relations between the various Konami studios and Microsoft. I also assisted in co-production of the Dreamcast Castlevania project.

Currently I am Technical Director for Drum Machine Museum's WhiteBox Performance Series http://www.drummachine.com and do corporate stage production work. I am also active on several game production/rapid development oriented mail lists and continue to do contract work on games, mostly for 3rd parties. Occasionally I get asked to lecture students or convention attendees on what it means to have a career in the game industry.

I've recently hooked up with http://www.paxrecordings.com and have released a CD of really abstract music which is charting on several college radio and internet radio stations, so I guess that makes me a successful experimental musician/multimedia artist. I also DJ a bit around the Bay Area here, so I guess that makes me a success also...

Two weeks ago I herniated a disc in my back, so I can't do show production! This means I have to go back to 'desk' work. As a result, I'm dressing up my resume' and will soon be at the mercy of headhunters and prospective employers.

Thanks a bunch for the interview, Lx. It was really cool chattin' with you!

THANKS AGAIN for digging me out of my tomb to talk about stuff from last millennium! It was fun to reminisce.




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