Sunday, November 18, 2018

Jason C. Brooke

Many of us enjoy the gorgeous chipmusic from games like OutRun, Flying Shark, Vixen, Starquake and Overlander. These and others were all created by Jason C. Brooke and are also some of my favourite tunes from the 80s.

I found Jason lurking on Twitter so it wasn't long before I began stalking him for a mini-interview. Well, you know me!! Back in the day, I didn't realise that the same guy created each of these tunes so our chat was fascinating to discover he made the humble YM2149 perform far better than Atari had ever imagined.

I'd like to thank Jason for taking the time out of his busy schedule to go back in time for 30+ years. Bless him for racking his brain when trying to remember stories and the various jobs he worked on. He's a cracking fella and one I found to be extremely modest about his achievements. I fear he doesn't fully appreciate just how memorable he helped make certain games, like Ikari Warriors as a belting example. I hope you guys enjoy this interview and if you wanna hear some of his works then head over to SNDH Records [an awesome digital recording of the SNDH Archive].

Jas C. Brooke - The Interview

How did you get started with computers?

As a kid, I was blown away by seeing a ZX81 obey a list of instructions: I'd encountered another 'computer' so began frantically saving up my paper round money to buy a ZX Spectrum. At the paper shop, there were magazines about these computers and I was hooked on the whole idea of programming.

I imagined that games programmers actually lived in a "software house" and spent their lives making machines do clever things. But before I met 'computers', I used to spend my teenage years writing music. So, when I was asked by a careers officer what I saw myself doing for a living, I naively replied that I wanted to be a music composer.

In response, I was informed that there were only probably two people in the whole country who earned a living from writing music and one of them was Andrew Lloyd Webber. OK - think again!

What 8-bit software did you create?

I knew of a lad at school who was called "Boffy" and he did weird stuff and it turns out that what he did was 'computing'. I ended up teaming up with him to write some Music Composing software for the Spectrum in 1984. He sent it to Melbourne House and they gave us £300 in advance because they wanted to market it. So that was my first encounter of the Games Industry, just around the time I was starting my A' Levels.

Melbourne House stepped back from the deal a few months later, but Boffy and I had spent our sixth form days on various projects and, by the end of my A' Levels, I'd started on my own - a Spectrum game called Plum Duff.

Plum Duff is not only a game I'd never played but I had never heard of it until this interview!! O_o

It was time to get a job, and my parents were suggesting things that sounded really boring. On the other hand, I'd heard there was a company in Manchester called Binary Design that were looking for Games Programmers - so I moved to Manchester in 1986 and started writing games, eventually selling Plum Duff to Bug-Byte. That was my first 8-bit game and my last was Feud. I asked Jason for more information because Feud was a favourite of mine:
[Feud] I was the sole programmer for the Amstrad version. We used to program all versions at the same time (I was working at Binary Design) and there was no organised sharing of code even though the CPC and Spectrum were both Z80. However, the Spectrum programmer adopted some of my code but only parts of the AI would have been the same, so I doubt they played very similarly.

I remember buying Feud. A couple of mates and I loved it. In fact, we played it to death - almost!!

Jason and Dave Whittaker join forces!

Binary Design's musician was David Whittaker and I loved hearing his music while games were being developed. Max Headroom was being written when I started there but people complained about how much processing time the music driver ate up. In 1987, Dave (who preferred 'David' I seem to recall, but we all called him Dave anyway!) had a conversation with me about writing a new driver. I'd done that sort of thing myself years before but somehow hadn't connected my experience with what I was currently doing. So I wrote a new, more optimised - shorter and faster - driver, with a few extra features. I think the first music to benefit from this was Dave's Glider Rider.

Then, Dave decided he was leaving Binary and I was offered his old job. But it wasn't long until I was also offered a joint Directorship by Dave who'd set up Musicon Design alongside the games company Icon Design - which was Binary's rival. Around this time, the Atari ST and Amiga were steadily joining the 8-bits as target machines for games development. In my own time, I wrote the driver that Dave used, then wrote conversions for Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, MSX, Atari 800, Atari ST, Amiga and PC. At one point, I recall noting that we'd written the music for 8 of the top 10 games. (I think days had more hours in them back in the 80s?)

When I worked alongside Dave at Musicon, if we got an arcade conversion come through, it was often me who ended up doing it. Dave preferred to do originals. Conversions like Outrun were done by the company sending an audio cassette tape with the music on, often taped from the arcade machine actually in an arcade. So there'd be lots of muffle, lots of background noise and lots of chance of the tape playing at the wrong speed so that the tempo I ended up with was not at all the same as the arcade original. Unfortunately, I didn't realise this at the time!

My job was to play a short part of the music and listen for the bass, the backing and the main tune. I might also have to make decisions about what to miss out on because the arcade machine's hardware was far more sophisticated than the 3-channels of square waves and the white noise produced by the Atari ST's AY chip. But for games like Buggy Boy and Pacland, the original sound wasn't overly complex.

How was multi-platform music created?

All programmers at both Binary and Icon Design used a Tatung Einstein as a development system that had links to output the compiled code to Spectrum, C64, Amstrad and Atari 800. The ST and Amiga were different so, if I was writing music on the ST that I'd already composed for other AY-sound-chip-based systems, then I would port the musical data over to the Atari ST and work on it directly on there.

We didn't have MIDI or any fancy musical hardware or software. My drivers were written in the relevant assembler language for each target machine and the code was compiled and tested time and time again with music being typed in as "defined bytes". I simply gave each musical note a label like "c3" for 'c' on the third octave and "fs2" for 'f#' an octave down. Then there'd be labels for extra features to create chords and different 'instruments'.

I would then send the music to the programmers to help them implement the music. I've just found the instructions for the Atari ST game Savage which is typical of the information I'd have sent for other games. The only thing I've changed in the following text is to * out the phone numbers because I don't know who'd own them now. [download].

Which Atari ST tunes are you most fond of?

It was interesting to take a peep back at what I've done on Atari ST. Outrun was an arcade classic and a relatively early conversion for me (from one of those audiotapes!). So I'm fairly fond of that one, though it is basically a port from Spectrum 128k. By the time I was asked to write some music for Overlander on the Atari ST, I had noticed that companies seemed to be asking me to do the music for games in the racing genre. I think this probably had something to do with Outrun so Overlander is one of my 'Outrun'-esque pieces.

Doing the bulk of the arcade conversions in the early days meant I had little chance to create my own tunes. Vixen was an early exception and so I'm fond of that, though I do think it's overly twee in the middle! And Savage was one I was fond of because it was all original music and I was given it over a number of platforms so I was able to spend more time on it than usual. When I look back at much of the music, it's with a knowledge that they could have been better: if I'd had two days instead of one or one full day instead of a half!

As for Resolution 101, that was just a basic "12 bar blues". We hardly ever knew what the style of a game was, merely guessing from the title. I'm not convinced that the music here fits the game and I don't think it was what the developers were quite after - but they went with it!

Any free time left to play?

At Binary Design in 1987, we had some arcade machines in the office, mainly because was being asked to convert them to home computers. I played Pacland quite a lot but at that point, I wasn't being asked to write the music, but the game (though that didn't happen). If a game looked like you had to spend time on it, I'd avoid it because I didn't have the time. I guess there were some puzzle games too but in short, I don't think I ever did much gaming!

Are there any long-lost unreleased tunes?

Yes, there was one piece I wrote called Dreadnaught but I haven't seen of that since. Also, I have this other note of a game "Chainsaw Warrior" which I must have written music for it as the two pieces both have how long they last - and NO music would last 0s! Sadly, these ST tunes are now long lost.
;Title tune "The chain"    1m 19s
;Game tune  "With Caution" 2m 08s

Do you listen to chip/music?

I rarely listen to music. I don't find it particularly restful, which may well be because I find myself listening out for the bass line, the main tune and whatever might be appropriate for that third channel!

Are you proud of your achievements?

I don't look back with pride at what I did because I was fortunate to be able to encounter those early days of Computer Games, especially from the mid to late 80s. From around '89, I was back into programming and did little music as I had moved into writing 3D games: F29 Retaliator (PC - DID/Ocean - and I wrote my own music for that one) and Darker (PC, Psygnosis/Sony). Then I joined Perfect Entertainment. I wrote some sound and video compression code for the Discworld games but otherwise, I moved away from music.

When I look back at my music-writing days, I smile at how the careers officers had told me I couldn't write music for a living and yet, by heading in the direction of Computer Games Programming, I ended up doing just that without even seeking it out. By 21 I had achieved my childhood dreams and got bored of it so the challenge of writing 3D games on a 12MHz 286 PC was my next goal.

Jason "at work" with Brian Beuken during the development of Ken Griffey's Slugfest in the late 90s.

So what's Jas up to these days?

As the games industry developed, it became less creative and less technically challenging. By the 2000s, programmers had become 'coders' just making the computer do what somebody ELSE said it should do. I'd moved on to Gameboy in '98 but when I ended up on XBox/Playstation II in 2002, there was little left that interested me.

I'd become a Christian in the 90s and my evaluation of life had changed. I knew that one day 'soon' I would step away from the industry, but it wasn't until 2003 that the day arrived. Personal circumstances, coupled with the unethical direction of the company in which I was working caused me to jump into something new.

I'd been studying Biblical texts from a 'programmers' perspective, noting how they interrelate, and observing certain structures which are part of ancient orality. Some of these structures are very like ones found in musical forms. I'd started to dig into this, effectively reverse-engineering the texts and working out how they developed. One thing has led to another, with new languages to deal with - Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic instead of Z80, 6502, 68000 etc.

The end result will be a piece of software that enables people to explore Scripture from a structural and developmental viewpoint rather than just linear words. The research has been immense, but I've never been involved in a project which has so great a potential for a valuable and long-term impact. Life has not just been an experience, but a development - to something that would have been off the radar and impossible for me to aim towards when I mentioned being a "music composer" back in my teenage years. It seems to me that God's plans were not my plans, just as my plans were not the plans of that careers officer.


  1. Thank for the music you did, you where one of the people that made that time so special 😁

    1. I couldn't agree more and I'm actually thinking of Flying Shark right now in my head lol

  2. woww you are doing exceptional work.I loved your work. Your all posts are very informative . thanks for sharing it. Best of luck From Team Rally Racer