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How One Floppy Disk Turned an 18 Year Old From Devon Into a Video-Game Soundtrack Superstar

Despite failing his music O Level, Allister Brimble became one of the UK's most successful 8-bit producers.

by Mantis Kane
19 April 2016, 12:11am

Screengrab via Superfrog.

In 1988, 18 year old Allister Brimble speculatively posted a floppy disk of video game music demos composed on his Commodore Amiga computer to 17 Bit Software, a company specialising in public domain content. It was a punt that kicked started a glittering career—thumbing a lift on the gravy-train that bulldozed its way past music and film to become the highest grossing entertainment medium of the 21st century.

Allister hadn't exactly excelled in school. Although he'd demonstrated ability in music class he even failed his O Level in the subject. Upon leaving Crediton's QE High School in 1985 he wasn't so much at a crossroads, as a dilapidated gate guarding an empty, fallow field. Growing up in the backwaters of Devon meant most kids aspirations were constructed by the low-slung cider induced haze of provincial life. Farm yards and rural factories scooped up school leavers that weren't university bound; Thatcher's capitalist stimulus hadn't seeped into England's extremities, and these parts still rolled with Victorian industry. A meat packing plant stared Allister in the face, his name forebodingly inscribed on a swinging swine carcass. Which, you've got to admit, is a pretty handy metaphor for this preordained lifelessness.

When the Wakefield based software development company—who'd go on to garner global renown with their series of Worms games— responded to Allister's demo, he was plucked from the humdrum and thrown into a career that would see him go on to compose music for relatively obscure titles such as Alien Breed, Superfrog and Project-X, later going on to work on the 14 million copy selling Driver, as well as Rollercoaster Tycoon.

With an industry still a tad damp behind the ears, untainted by the avarice of its nascent prosperity, Brimble was offered a generous contract for gaming soundtracks: a 4% of net profits percentage cut was on the table. In today's tsunami of royalty free music and an attendant glut of composers willing to undercut each other into abject poverty, the deal Brimble made is stuff of dreams.

The video game industry, as you've probably noticed, boomed. As technology marched forth, arcades were transported into the living room. Early titles like Pac Man and Donkey Kong set the blueprint for future generations of home gaming. Japan, US and the UK led the way in consumption and production. Although the industry was grow-ing exponentially, the major players were a tight knit community. Cottage industry studios strove to do everything in-house; coding, graphics and sounds were produced by a sweatshop of highly adaptive geeks. Grand Theft Auto (GTA) pioneers David Jones and Mike Dailly were infamously housed in an unprepossessing Edinburgh office block, more resembling Wernham Hogg than the diamond encrusted corporate mecca that Rockstar now operate out of.

It wasn't long before Allister was the go-to music guy. Studios he worked with included: Reflections (Driver, Driver 2), Virgin Games (Screamer, The Dragon, Cannon Fodder), Codemasters (The Dizzy range of games) and Chris Sawyer Studio's (Roller Coaster Tycoon). Brimble was also recruited by Nintendo, working as an audio developer, an honour normally reserved for game publishers, giving him access to otherwise unavailable development hardware. Those with musicality, SFX and coding skills were in short supply and soon the cheques rolled in. Banking 10k per game wasn't uncommon from Brimble.

But Brimble's Dickensian rags-to-riches trajectory didn't involve a coming-of-age journey to the big smoke; he hardly left his home studio. Ensconced in a world of pixels and binary beats, it was an isolated life. Being a games music/sound effects producer you forgo the performance element you'd normally experience as a straight musician, mutating into a solitary studio animal stuck in perennial hibernation— "The workload and sacrifice was big once I became established. I had no social life for 10 years, but it was necessary to master my skills."

Add lots of money to this hermetic lifestyle and it can haemorrhage in gaudy bling. Some of Allister's purchases remedied the stuffy world he occupied. Performance cars particularly interested him; Porsches, Jaguars and BMWs all passed through his garage.

And although Allister isn't household name, within the world of games music he commands a huge amount of respect, regularly being asked to speak at conventions and attend industry bashes. His Kickstarter Campaign in 2013 to remix some of his first generation Amiga title music raised £20K straight off the bat. The fanaticism for memorabilia is growing steadily as first generation gamers enter the latter stages of middle age. The prospect of receiving a signed copy of a remixed 8bit video title might seem unfathomably uncool to some, but for many, the backing track of their youth was the lo-fi beeps and monophonic melodies of Allister's early repertoire. And to give an idea of the comparative economics between gaming and dance music, an artist would need to be a Beatport No.1 for a few weeks to reap that kind of bounty.

Gaming has become a lucrative channel for music artists. As licensing revenue dries up in the traditional avenues everyone from James Brown to Photek have pimped out their music to games. Companies hire industry experts to scout music. Beats In Space tastemaker Tim Sweeney had the dream job as Soundtrack Supervisor as Rockstar Games, most notably working on GTA.

Dance music producers have long since tried to muscle in on the gaming pie, offering their bespoke writing services as the crumbs of revenue are swept away by streaming demigods. A few have succeeded. British composer Martin Iveson (Atjazz) ran tandem careers in deep house and video game music composition. During his time with game developers Core Design he worked on Tomb Raider all whilst moonlighting as a prolific electronic artist.

As with every oasis in the desert, the ravenous and deluded swarm, but not many score the chance to work on a game. Even seasoned games composers like Allister have felt the pinch. Today is a much different market place; the corporate model has chewed down the once lucrative offer into a more fee based system. Allister says, "the eco-system is much different nowadays, coders and composers are rarely offered equity, treated more like hired hands".

Diversification has been the answer, and Allister has branched out into other areas like mastering (Circle Mastering), compiling sound effect libraries and composing for the ever growing app market.

Digital technologies and trends are ever evolving - inducting winners and crucifying losers in the same hand. When Allister posted that floppy disk almost 30 years ago, he caught a wave that diverted his fortunes. With legacy of bleeps and blips, this games music forefather composed the soundtrack to our semi-virtual world.

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