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Interview with Mark Knight

Dr Kenny McAlpine interviews Mark Knight, also known as TDK, a video game composer and sound designer.
These days, Mark Knight is a game audio professional who travels the world recording Formula One and rally cars, but in the late 1980s, he spent his days composing music on the Amiga under the pseudonym TDK. I spoke to him about that period and how he made his first big break into professional game audio. Now, Mark, you started off with the Commodore 64, gaming, and listening to music, but it was really the Amiga on which you started writing your own tunes. Can you tell us how you got started? Well, it was all a bit of an accident, really. We had computers at school, VIC-20s and BBCs, but I was well into riding my bike, to be honest with you.
But I was a bit mad on it, and I ended up – oh, I don’t know why – but there was quite a steep hill where I lived in Brighton, and I decided that it’d be a great idea to race a police car down the hill. Now, with me dad being a policeman as well, they went back to him and said, look, you know, you’re going to be scraping your son off of the ground if he carries on the way he’s going. So I was banned from my bike. I had my bike taken away from me and that was it, and then I suddenly didn’t have anything to do.
So a second-hand Commodore 64 was my combined birthday and Christmas present when I was 11, I think, and I was really interested in the sound. As soon as I heard the SID chip… Oh, wow, I love this! I used to spend time at my nan’s house. She had the only cassette recorder in the house that we had, with her black-and-white TV, with me with a microphone holding it up to the mono speaker, recording onto cassette so I could listen to the music. But I didn’t really get into writing music so much. I did have a programme called Electrosound, which I did all my GCSE music composition on, which I’m not sure that my music teacher really liked that much.
She’d prefer it if I did it on the violin, I think. And then a friend got a Commodore Amiga, and I went round to have a look at it, see what it did, and see what it sounded like, and he played me a demo, which had a piece of music by Doctor Awesome. It was a cover of Yello’s “Tied Up.” And suddenly I was hearing saxophones and drums and all these sort of like pretty convincing sounds coming out of his computer. It’s a complete step away from what the 64 was capable of producing. So I had to get an Amiga. So the Commodore 64 got sold, and I managed to pick up a second-hand Amiga.
Quite soon after that found Soundtracker, and instantly that gave me the ability to write music and easily to save it onto a disk, load it in, the music, the samples, all in one little file, and that’s when I started learning my trade, I suppose, of trying to get something that didn’t – try to write something that sounded even slightly musical, I guess. And those Soundtracker files, MOD files, they packaged up the sounds and also the musical data. So as well as an effective and efficient way of sharing music with other people, it allowed you to have a look at other people’s tunes and incorporate elements of their style and technique into your own stuff.
Yeah, a lot of that went on. I mean, me personally, being a self-taught musician, that’s the way I learned. I’d load in somebody else’s module into Tracker, and you could see what little tricks they were doing with pitch bending or multiplex chording, or indeed how they might be mixing two samples together to save a channel, because four channels is still quite limiting. And that’s pretty much what we all did. I ended up with about four floppy drives so I could save samples on to different discs. So I had a drum disc and this, that, and the other.
And every time a new module came out, I’d be pinching the samples, until the point where I ended up getting me own synthesiser. But to be honest, even then, I wasn’t getting the quality of samples that other people were getting. And, yeah… combined in with that – that would have been when I first started hearing what we call chiptune, which was basically Amiga modules, but where the samples were pretty much single-cycle waveforms to keep the size right down. And, yeah, I learned a lot off 4mat in that respect.
He had good sounds, but he also had a really, really good capability of bringing out a strong catchy melody, which, with the chiptunes, that’s what you need to make up for the fact that the samples themselves aren’t actually that good. And you mentioned demos as one of the ways you really got into music. Now demos are little kind of interactive digital art programmes, which is how your music started to be shared and how you began to develop a name for yourself as your musical alter ego, TDK. Can you tell us a bit more about the demo scene?
Yeah, well, it all started not really much of a scene at all, but I was well aware, in my computer science course, that there were the kids there either had Amigas or Ataris, and there would be some people there who just had them to play games, but there would be some of us who were doing other things, be it writing music or drawing with Deluxe Paint or whatnot. And then one of the guys there started to say, well, I do these demos, and we try and show off what we can do with the capabilities of the machine and, as time went on, how we can actually do things with the machine that it was never even designed to do.
So I was churning out pretty basic tunes – one of them was “Waltzing Matilda,” I think – but it was all part of learning your trade and that sort of thing. And it got to the point, eventually, where one of my tracks was used in one of his demos. It was a demogroup called “The Hacking Relation.” And then, of course, once that’s been, and that’s propagated around the groups using bulletin board systems and that sort of thing, then you end up being asked to do more and more things for more and more people.
So it starts off very, very small, which was good, because I don’t think what I was writing was that good at the time, but, as we were talking about with getting modules by other people, learning what they’re doing, learning what good chord sequencing sounded like, learning what bad chord sequencing sounded like, you obviously improve. I remember, I’d pretty much wait for my mum to go to work. I’d wait in the park.
Once she’d gone, I’d be back home at about 9:30, and I’d spend the whole day basically tracking, and that would carry on until the college phoned up asking where I’d been for the last two weeks. So that’s kind of how it really kicked off, but I was never really happy with the music that I was writing. I wasn’t actually that happy about only ever using other people’s samples as well. And then I kind of noticed this subsection of the music scene within the demo scene, which were people who were writing these chiptunes.
And the main difference between chiptunes and the full size – and when we say full size, we’re still only talking about 200K — but chiptunes tended to be anywhere between about 6 kilobytes and maybe 30, using single-cycle waveforms. And the only aim of chiptunes was to be used as an introduction to something else, be it a demo or, dare I say, a cracked game, just to tell people what they were about to experience. And it needed to be as small as possible. So if you had a 6-kilobyte chiptune, that was always going to be used over a 200K MOD, which, if it’s not compressed, that, at the time, would take up nearly…
well over a third of a floppy disk just for the piece of music. So, yeah, that’s how it kind of moved from demo scene into chiptune, and I think TDK, the TDK name really took off then with the chiptunes because I found it quite easy to write quite cute, catchy tunes that people enjoyed to listen to. And that was also then your route into video game music. You had your big break with Wing Commander on the Amiga. How did that come about? And how was writing music for games different from the sort of self-expression that you had with the demo scene?
Yeah, it came about simply because, I think, during my college years, I’d decided that I wanted to go into music in some shape or form. I actually wanted to work in a recording studio, which, I guess, at that time, a lot of people wanted to, and I did get so far with the process with, was it CB – I can’t remember the name of the studio now – but it didn’t work out in the end. I’d also looked at doing a music technology degree.
At that time, there were only two courses that did the degree. There was the Tonmeister course and there was Salford. Tonmeister I was never going to get because I think they wanted maths, music, and physics at A level. I was like, well, no that’s not going to happen. And in the end, Salford turned me down because they said that they didn’t think a classically trained musician could deal with music technology.
So a quick rethink, and I ended up just posting a floppy disk of different Amiga MODs I’d written off to all the different games companies that I could find the addresses for in the UK, and eventually Mindscape got back to me and asked me if I would be interested in writing. It wasn’t writing. It was converting the music from the PC version of Wing Commander over to the Commodore Amiga. And I was lucky enough that the quote I submitted was – I think it was 50% less than Richard Joseph. So they gave me the gig, and that was effectively my break. In terms of how different it is, Wing Commander’s quite an exception really because it was an arrangement.
It still wasn’t the easiest to do, as you were taking a 24-channel General MIDI file and reducing that down to four channels. Also take into account the one channel had to be used for the sound effects as well. But we managed it. We didn’t use full MODs, though. We actually, for Wing Commander, because the music’s interactive, we did separate the song data from the sample data. So in Wing Commander, the samples were held resident in memory all the time, and then we’d pull in the small song data as quickly off the floppy disk to try interactivise the music.
But as you go on, yes, I mean, I think, on the Amiga you were quite lucky that a lot of game music was demo music. So you didn’t really have to change a lot. Those sort of changes happened later on when the advent of CD and that came along. Now Mark, you’ve had a long and very successful career in the games industry. It must be getting on for about 25 years now. And in all that time you’ve worked on everything from the limited sampling of the Amiga, right away through to full-on production music on the PC and other consoles. The process of writing and producing video game music must have changed immeasurably in all that time.
Yeah, probably, controversially, in my opinion, these new formats have killed computer game music in some ways, starting with the PlayStation, when instead of being stuck by limitations which forced you to create music in a certain style, in a certain way, using certain instrumentation as well, to a large part, then suddenly you could go into a recording studio, you could record an orchestra if you wanted to and plonk it on a CD as Red Book audio.
I think things are moving back again, though, now, what with the indie scene, and part of that may well be due to a limitation of budget rather than a limitation on the platform, but you’re hearing a lot more, what I consider to be,
game music coming back: it may be chiptune; it certainly has awesome melodic content rather than big orchestral sounds. And I don’t know what it is. Everybody wants to be Hans Zimmer these days, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s done some awesome stuff. Funnily enough, I think his best stuff most recently is Chappy, which has hardly any orchestral instruments in it whatsoever. But I’ve been listening to a lot of game music recently, and like film music, it doesn’t stand out any more. It’s all kind of – it’s the same. Whereas the indie scene just seems to be picking up where we left off back in the days of the Amiga and that sort of thing and moving forward with that.
Like I say, probably controversial. In terms of production techniques, yes, of course, now it’s quite interesting with some of the work that I’ve been doing recently, where I’ve been given a brief and then I’ve done something, and I’ve been told, yes, but it doesn’t sound like deadmau5. And I’m kind of like, well, if you want deadmau5, then ask him to do something, because deadmau5 is deadmau5 for a reason. And asking anybody else to do something and to make it authentically sound like deadmau5 is pretty impossible, I’d say, to do. So I kind of like to remain TDK. I have a certain sound to the sort of music that I write.
Obviously I will try and fuse that with whatever style I’ve been asked to write music in, but I still try and get a bit of me in there, for better or for worse, I suppose. That’s lovely. Mark, thank you. TDK. Thanks. Thanks very much.

Mark Knight, also known by his chiptune alter-ego TDK, has been a professional video game composer and sound designer for nearly 25 years.

Today, he travels the world recording engine sounds from Formula 1 and Rally cars, but in the late 1980s, he played a part in shaping and promoting the sound of the Amiga music scene. In this video, we talk about his experience and his perspective on game music.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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