Aurally, there wasn't much to write home about during the 8-bit home computer era. Games burped and belched to accompany in-game action and that was about it. Early ZX Spectrum attempts at music were painful, and, when amplified using the EAR lead, sent pets running for cover. Early attempts on the C64 didn't do much better.
It was only towards the end of short, sharp development that the bedroom coder considered sound effects. Music was often out of the question. So it took a special kind of person to transition from pixel-by-pixel 8-bit game development to notes, quavers and synthesised drumbeats. These individuals, technically adept at programming low-level machine code and gifted with a good ear for a catchy melody, took a while to arrive, but a number of names spring to mind - Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, David Whittaker and Fred Gray, for instance.
Chris Abbott, meanwhile, continues to keep C64 music alive with, appropriately, live events called "Back In Time", which celebrate classic SID tunes with modern remixes. Tracks like Spellbound, Parallax and Comic Bakery have never sounded so good - a testament to the underlying quality and longevity of the compositions. Elsewhere, Chris' website celebrates the tunes further, with any proceeds going back to the original authors, and a quick browse is worthwhile if you've never been there.
But enough preamble. In this, the first in a series of interviews, we talk to Fred Gray about the games he worked on, attitudes now and at the time and links to other prominent C64 composers.
Eurogamer: How did you get into making games, and did you ever plan to become involved in designing and writing the actual games more so than the sound side of things?
Fred Gray: I got into programming computers through a friend called Vic [the Vic 20]. Wrote a few games for it and submitted them to a friend - the flesh and blood kind - Tim Best, just as he was taken on as recruitment manager for Imagine. Tim loved the music I managed to get out of the Vic 20 and made me in-house musician - a job title that never existed before as far as I am aware. The rest is history.
Eurogamer: Besides the C64, are there any other tunes you produced on other system that you are particularly proud of?
Fred Gray: I did win an award for a tune I arranged for the Spectrum - a reggae version of Jerusalem.
Eurogamer: It's been nearly 15 years since the C64's heyday. How do you feel when retro enthusiasts knock on your door to interview you about the old days?
Fred Gray: To me it was a job - but the fans were just teenagers at that time and it is carved into their hearts and souls. The more C64 fans I meet the more I see it as a huge family. It is really nice that some write their own music or covers of SID chip classics. The BIT phenomenon came about out of a great need and I think Chris Abbott does a fantastic job at trying to reunite fans and musicians. In fact it is great that the musicians finally got a chance to meet - I found them all to be really great guys - modest yet so talented who each do their fans a great justice.
Eurogamer: Which was the defining track for you? The one that propelled you forward.
Fred Gray: Some of my early stuff, as raw as it was, was really popular - Shadowfire, Enigma Force etc. The music I started writing for Psyclapse - a bouncy 12/8 number - had a raw power that impressed the bosses at Imagine - I used to get my inspiration from kids' TV show themes.
Eurogamer: Which composition on the C64 are you particularly proud of?
Fred Gray: Mutants is an obvious choice - especially the unsung high score tune - but Madballs I love also, especially as the software house that took it loathed it. Somebody did a hilarious cover with speech samples.
Eurogamer: When did you know a song was as good as it could be?
Fred Gray: When I usually fell asleep at the keyboard! I would work all night and sleep in the day - became the end of me in the end. Creative people fall into the nocturnal trap so easily. I would wake in the afternoon and play it back and decide if it needed more work or sometimes, if I hated a piece, I would just say to myself "what the hell - that will do!"
Eurogamer: What were the limitations of the SID chip and how did you overcome them?
Fred Gray: My personal limitation was my software. Rob Hubbard wrote the most amazing software as well as music - combined they made for an amazingly original and energetic sound. He used Multiplexing which gave great drum sounds - sounds I never mastered.
Eurogamer: What was actually involved in creating one of your tunes? What hardware, what inspired you; how did you actually begin?
Fred Gray: I had a cheap synth which I used to dream up melodies but I would start work on the backing first as that was the backbone and driving force. I would mess about on the synth with one hand while assembling one tune and new tunes would pop into my fingers (not my head) as I messed about the synth. Enigma Force was a classic example of that - "Where the hell did that come from?" was what I thought when I first played it! It was that simple - although on Mutants I remember swapping the bass line with the melody in places - such an inspired move it turned out to be!
Eurogamer: Did you see the other C64 composers at the time as competition/a threat? Or were you all a happy bunch that shared tricks and ideas?
Fred Gray: I knew how popular the other musicians were from friends and magazine reviews, so I was always a tad jealous but knew they were just musicians earning a crust like me. I think there was more rivalry among fans than musicians about who wrote the best music. As for being part of a happy bunch of composers, the only other musician I ever met during my writing days was Martin Galway. He had his own room in Ocean and we would talk during my visits there. Another room was filled with arcade machines and I would take my kids along sometimes and leave them in there for hours!
Eurogamer: What came fist, the SID tune or the game? Did you ever play a game first which then in turn inspired the basis of the tune produced?
Fred Gray: I rarely got to see games before writing though often got a rough spec. Working for Denton Designs was a nightmare because their game specs were positively surreal at times.
Eurogamer: A steady stream of remixes of your C64 compositions have been delivered over the years. Are there any particular versions that stand out to you? What do you consider comprises a good remix?
Fred Gray: There are lots of great and well crafted takes on my music - thanks guys - but Reyn Ouwehand's Mutants really captures the mood so well - such amazing guitar bending sounds.
Eurogamer: David Whittaker successfully ported his compositions across a number of 8-bit platforms. Were there any reasons you stayed away writing tunes for the Amstrad and Spectrum home computers?
Fred Gray: David was the master of the arpeggio and his compositions lent themselves well to the AY chip - personally I hated it after working on the SID chip for so long.
Eurogamer: A large proportion of your C64 tunes appeared in Ocean games. What was the company like to work with? Did they reject any of your tunes? Did they provide you with any feedback that you thereafter applied to improve the tune?
Fred Gray: They paid top money for anything on offer and always paid on time - I was a happy bunny as they were my main customer. It was so sad to return to their old premises in Manchester to find it closed. I think the room where all the arcade machines were was being used as a second-hand book shop. It is about time we had a museum dedicated to the British computer games industry - that building would have been absolutely perfect.
Eurogamer: Is there any particular game you had wished you were involved with musically?
Fred Gray: Post-64, games like Max Payne maybe. The graphics and musical capabilities if modern PCs are awesome - it must be great to be coming into the computer games industry now!
Eurogamer: Do you keep in touch with any of the 8-bit composers such as David Whittaker and Rob Hubbard? Have you been involved at all in the Back in Time events?
Fred Gray: The first time I met the other musicians (apart from Martin Galway) was at the Birmingham BIT event then later at the Brighton gig. Both were fabulous events but those are my only encounters with the other musicians - so, no, I don't keep in touch with any I am afraid to say. I was quite in awe of them all - they were such fun to be around - Ben Dalgish and David Whittaker especially.
Eurogamer: What is your link with Chris Abbottt?
Fred Gray: Chris is a great guy and has made many sacrifices, taken many risks and put a lot of hard work into making the Back In Time concept work. I can't remember exactly how we came to be in communication but I have had a lot of fun taking part in the events he organises. We even discussed hosting an event in Liverpool at one point as it was so central and its airport caters for most of Europe - but the logistics didn't add up. We keep in touch still by email - hi Chris!
Eurogamer: Do you ever reminisce about the good old days? Do you prefer the games industry the way it is now, or as it was back then?
Fred Gray: I loved the early Atari games - they were magical and I was addicted to Missile command, River Raid and Dig Dug especially. I even worked in an arcade at one point and played as much as I liked. While the C64 was musically more sophisticated I really did welcome the 16-bit machines and the ever-increasing power that the PC later offered both graphically and musically. Like I said - there has never been a better time to enter the computer games industry and I envy those who are at its heart now!