An Interview with Chris Abbott

by Neil Carr

Chris Abbott has become one of the most respected arrangers of C64 mixes. His work with the Back In Time cd's and the upcomming Back In Time Live has proved beyond doubt that this man is very ambitious. He has worked with most of the top c64 musicians, including Rob Hubbard. Chris Abbott was our primary target for our first interview. We was delighted when he accepted. Not only did he accept our invitation, he also gave us an honest and open interview. So without further ado, here is what he had to say...

Real name: Chris Abbott
Born: 1970
Nationality: English


Picture of Chis Abbott and Ben Daglish at work on the remix of Trap
What are your hobbies?

C64 remixing, reading, going to the gym, internet. Mostly music though, and arranging C64Audio stuff. And Spyro the Dragon and adventure games when I get time. The orchestral arrangement studies are mostly slanted towards remixing. I've got a cold at the moment 😒

Favourite non c64 musicians/group?

John Williams, but I owe the most to Jean Michel-Jarre.

Your top 3 C64 music composers, and why?

I respect all of them in different ways: it's difficult for me to start naming names without upsetting someone. Of course you've always got to mention Rob and Martin (even the other composers will say that first off). Rob brought real musical expertise to the C64, as well as breaking the boundaries, and Martin took a programmer's approach to creating a sound of immense wellbeing. The other spot would probably be shared either by Fred Gray or Ben Daglish. I probably get on better with Fred's, since I have a liking for happy bouncy music (like David Dunn's)

Your top 3 C64 remix arrangers and why?

I've worked with many brilliant people on the Back in Times so it would be unfair for me to single anyone out.

What equipment do you use and why?

Hardsid: for the SID bits Supernova: for the SID bits and the bass bits Roland JP8080 - for the ambient bits Korg Z1 - master keyboard SB Live - to hold Soundfonts, including the orchestral ones Virtuoso 2000 - for the orchestral stuff JV2080 - more orchestral stuff and other SFX A4000 sampler - for the Yamaha orchestral stuff Yamaha DSP Factory - all the recording goes through here Other people - for the difficult bits! 😊

What are your top 3 Sid tunes?

Kentilla
Spellbound
Gerry the Germ (seriously!)

(incidentally, this is almost the same as Rob's top 3 of his own tracks, except he would replace Spellbound with WAR).

What are your top 3 remixes?

Can't narrow it down to 3!

What non Chris Abbott remixes do you like?

Generally if I really LOVE them I try and put them on CD... There have been many good ones: I remember in the early days being very impressed by Tim
Forsythe's work (Agent X 2, Ace 2 and Ghouls and Ghosts). Jogeir's covers always have a certain something, too. But there are just too many to mention
fairly!

Why did you start doing Sid remixes?

Because I had to! I remembered the pieces, no one was bringing them back accurately enough, I had the equipment, so I started doing MIDIs.

The concept of of the Back In Time cd's is a good one, but how did you come around to doing it?

No one else was going to! I'd been waiting for this CD for over 10 years... one composer had been talking about it so much that he'd effectively stopped anyone else doing it. I stepped in. I was lucky to have the support of Rob Hubbard and Gremlin, and later on Ocean and Fred Gray 😊 With their support, Back in Time became official.

The response to the Back In Time cd's, were you happy with it?

Kind of. What upset me most was the people who concentrated on what the CD wasn't, rather than what it was. After all the trouble I'd gone to creating it, and bringing the composers back, all some people could do was complain that the tracks weren't dancey enough, that they didn't like the lead sounds, that the EQ was wrong, etc, etc. Talk about missing the point! Luckily a lot of people forgave it its undoubted technical failings and concentrated on what it was delivering:
which was authentic C64 tracks in a CD setting, with Rob Hubbard's actual input. Again, it's those people who believed not only in the CD, but in the ideal: the idea that SID music could develop once again and become a force, who were responsible for allowing me to do what I've done so far. I've got contempt for those who tried to ruin the dreams of those true fans with malicious carping, pirating and general badmouthing. Who the hell were they to try and take the dream from us, eh? Saddest of all, one prominent C64 musician was chief among those hoping to see it fail.

You mention that the response to the bit albums, was that they wasn't dancey enough. My opinion is that there is a place for dance versions (The soundwavers work is awesome) but a true cover done in the right way with modern instruments does more justice to the music than a dance version. Isn't it a nostalgia thing after all?

Yes, it is, though different people believe different things... there's a sizeable group of people who believe that SID drums is the true remix (look at Zombie Nation), or that dance remixes are the way. I'm creating stuff for the other group! Historically speaking it's much better to have the definitive CD remix of a tune that captures it 100%. Once you've done that, people can do as many dance remixes as they like, I guess.

Have you been happy with the sales of BIT 1 & 2?

I guess so. You always look at how much you could have sold, versus how much you did, and regret not selling mega-millions. There's been enough sales to generate investment in C64 music. If I'd listened to the occasional person on Usenet who claimed I hadn't got enough talent for this kind of thing, we wouldn't be here now. Just goes to show the power of positive energy.

What are your hates about the scene?

The implied ownership of other people's work. I guess that would have some people calling me a control freak or something, but the way I see it, the fruits of a person's labour are theirs to control. Why should other people feel they have the right to claim it as their own or abuse it?

Napster and other such share sites could be a problem for you. What are your thoughts on these?

After some thought I realised that the people who use these sites and don't buy the CDs aren't going to buy even if Napster wasn't there. They'd just search and search, and then probably give up, or phone a friend. I'm never going to persuade them to put their hands in their pockets. They should know that their apathy is what killed the C64 software scene in the mid 90s when people like Kenz and Jon Wells were trying to keep it alive.Those people are NOT true SID fans, they are parasites. If you believe in something, you should support it. However, there are a large number of people who truly do get it. My work is for them: they deserve it, and they share my dreams.

So, did you do any music on the c64 itself?

Yes, for Superior Software. None of it was released by them though (licencing problems). The music was for the game-of-the-musical Chess. It's in HVSC. Getting a women's duet into three voices isn't easy...

Was these commerical products or hobbies?

Both. When I have a hobby I try to get the products to as many people as possible. This usually means trying to achieve distribution.

What was your dislikes and likes about the Sid chip?

Dislikes: unreliable

Likes: triangle waves, sync FX, powerful. Only Martin could make the sawtooth wave emotional. I think he must have been trying to emulate a trumpet in an extremely abstract manner. But it was basically just a chip, albeit advanced. It was what the composers did with it that made the magic: the SID was just the tool.

I would add that the utter controllability of the SID is sorely missed by some composers: Richard Joseph remarked to me that it was a truly level playing field for composers: they could use the SID as an instrument like one would use a violin: the emotions and expressiveness you could get depended on your expertise in the instrument, not how much money you could throw at it. He misses those days, as indeed does Rob Hubbard. The soullessness of music nowadays is one of the factors behind his leaving composing behind: he's very into orchestral music because it's the same concept as the SID chip: a limited palette of instruments which can be blended in infinite ways. The sound you can get with an orchestra is a function of how good you are, not what your budget is, as long as you can afford an orchestra at all. It's another level playing field, in which the scope for freedom and imagination of the composer is enhanced by being restricted. Jean Michel-Jarre once said that before he starts an album, he decides which instruments he will use, since no restrictions produces lazy art. Anyone who's used Microsoft products would concede he had a point. There's a fine line of course: you've got to get to a professional product, so there's a minimum standard.

This would suggest that music is better with limitations. However just to contradict the point, an example of unlimited instruments is Mike Oldfield, who on most Albums uses a massive library of instruments. His music shows this by being much fuller and more complex than many. I know he is famous for his guitar playing, but he uses many other instruments. What would you say to this?

Depends on the individual, I guess. Remember that to many people an orchestra would not be considered a limitation, but it is. It's a lot harder to focus when you can't see the horizons of your world, and some people prefer those horizons to be near and well-defined. Jarre himself _sounds_ limitless too, it's just a question of using limited resources deeply instead of using unlimited resource shallowly. I don't know how Mike creates his music, so I can't comment on that.

The music on the PC is more film esque - do you regret the way music on a computer has become? If so, why?

It was inevitable that as music became symbiotic with the game, and as games become less individualised that the music would stand less and less of a chance of existing outside it. Also, you can easily have 40 minutes of music in a game, not repeated on a regular basis. How will you get to know something if you don't hear it lots of times?

Also, the composers back then were commissioned like artists: go away, compose something, we give you money. They took pride in their work, and needed to produce something that meant something to them artistically. These days it's a much more workmanlike approach.

Do you have any personal favorite tunes on the PC and composer?

The music for the Monkey Island games, and Day of the Tentacle. LOL! Great stuff.
I adored Day of the Tentacle, and to a lesser extent Sam and Max...

So you have spoken to some of the c64 musicians and indeed worked with them - What was they like ? - if you have spoken to them all, then just the main composers!

I've emailed most of them, and talked with some. It's funny how some people reflect their music, and some don't. Fred Gray is a great friend of mine, and has a strange but refreshing outlook on life, though he's been through some difficult times. He's got a lot of musical appreciation and has eclectic musical tastes that don't really run to 80s stuff. I think you can see this in his music, which was utterly unique. Ben Daglish is hyperactive! He's a great guy but he can't stand still! Rob is utterly down-to-earth, Martin is... Martin! Mark Cooksey is a nice guy too, and still writing music for a living, mostly Gameboy games. They're all different people, but genuinely pleased (and a bit puzzled!) at the depth of feeling people still have towards their work.

Rob Hubbard to many was a genious to many, and maybe the C64 wouldn't have been the same without him. What are your thoughts on the man?

It definitely wouldn't be the same without him. He raised the bar, and the stakes, and inspired countless other composers. It's unfortunate that some of those inspired didn't have many ideas of their own, but reused Rob's: the fire behind Rob's work was his extensive musical experience before ever touching a composer. This gave him an authority on musical styles that was quite unmatched. Who else could have written Monty on the Run? Nobody. Rob had a unique gift to make you want to emulate him: the pieces were so good you wanted to have done them yourself. Remixing is a kind of claim to ownership of that kind, albeit benign 😊 Rob himself is a very down-to-earth man. I think any romanticism he had was expressed in his music, but his attitude to it was very workmanlike. Inspirational to everyone else, but Rob I think finds it difficult to regard the work as something other than something I did back then. Don't forget it was a job to him, albeit an enjoyable one! I think you'll find most composers (like most people) would rather people talk about what they're doing now, because that's the way humans are.

Martin Galway was another, bringing a very different style, but equally admired. What do you think made him so special?

Martin's work was very organic. If Rob was cramming a whole orchestra into the PC, Martin made the chip sing to you. Something about his use of waves and modulation, and of course the musical ideas, was other-worldly. With some composers you listen to their work and can hear it as a chord sequence and a melody. The true brilliance is those pieces that just exist in a life of their own: you can't easily dissect them: they just are. He just gives me warm fuzzies.

Rob has left the music making side of things, do you think he will return? - I think it could inject new life into the PC games market. And also the same goes for Martin?

I don't think either will return, and I don't really think the PC games market would welcome them, either. It's lost its appreciation of that kind of thing, and commercially the time is long gone when you could sell a game on the strength of its soundtrack.

Was you surprised by the response the original composers gave to your bit projects, and how much of a boost personally was it for you to manage to get Rob/Martin/Mark/Ben to do some music for the cd's?

It was a huge boost, though Martin essentially just provided feedback for Jogeir's tracks rather than contributing anything directly. The biggest boost was obviously getting Rob's work in for Back in Time 1. On the companion CD, there's an MP3 of the actual MIDI he sent me by email... history in the making. I'm always thrilled when the composers help out: it's one of the main reasons for continuing: I've always wanted to form a company that actively helps and respects the composers, and helps their interests.

In the beginning I was always surprised when anyone wanted to help: it seemed very much like a solo project. Later on it was less surprising because I'd been talking to them already. It's a thrill just to speak to my heroes from a previous time, let alone work with them. To that extent, I give them a lot of artistic freedom, which also helps. After all, who am I to tell Rob Hubbard or Mark Cooksey what to do? ;)

Did they take much persuading to work on the bit projects?

Rob volunteed his help when he heard my pre-versions, and they didn't quite do what he wanted, especially Crazy Comets.

Part of the art of management is in persuading people to do something they always wanted to do in the first place, so it was a question of providing the authors with a means to do something they'd always wanted to do (like, do Kentilla orchestrally, for example) and remove the financial constraints that were stopping them. CD pirates just don't get that: I wish I could get them by the scruff of the neck, shake them, show them the cheques I've written to various composers, and get them to understand what they could be a part of. Anyone who pirates a Back in Time CD is not a true fan of SID music.

Back In time live - could you explain the whole concept! - i.e how did you come about the idea, was it difficult to organise, what are your hopes for it etc.....

Big concept! It came about when I received an email from a chap in Finland, who told me he was about to go to a C64 club night in Helsinki. That's odd, I thought. So I got him to tell me about it after he'd been. And it was a big success! So I thought maybe there was a chance to do some here. The initial plan was actually to do a roadshow of these club nights in major cities, to cover all the fans, in nightclubs of about 500 people. The plan also included holding them in University towns and advertising heavily on campus to get the students in too. This is still the plan: I want new converts ;) It seemed doable. Then we realised we were being a bit ambitious, so we scaled it back to two nights: 1 in Birmingham (nice and central) and one in London. The initial plan was to have Birmingham as 500 people and London as 1,000. But then we found Club DNA (1500 people) and fell in love with it. And we found the ideal club in London but it was only 300 people, but with TVs in the back for Uridium high score contests (win a Hardsid Quattro!!) and seven draft beers (the same club also runs another night called Electric Dreams which is also 80s new romantic synth stuff). So the London one became an exclusive really late night Friday, but the Birmingham one became the biggest C64 event in decades. Then the VIPs started signing up...!! Just for reference, my diary says that I thought of the nightclub idea on January 22nd. By February 2nd I had found the club (on that same day we changed the number of nights from six to two). February 7th I booked the London club. February 12th I persuaded three major celebs to come... and in all of this, my great friend Jason Mackenzie has been central to it all, as have all my wonderful team. I can't do things like this by myself, and good old Kenz has been pivotal to BIT 3 and this event. He IS my right hand 😊 That's not to downplay all the other wonderful people I talk with regularly... I take their energy from them and channel it into these plans. What is amazing is how quickly this idea developed and found its level: almost as if it was just waiting to happen. It's astonishing, but then again, not so amazing. If you can tap into an idea that's been dreamed by many people, and then make it happen for them, there's immense amounts of positive energy built up over years to tap into. Of course I plan to make a profit from this night: but it's what I use the money for that makes the difference! Profit is not a dirty word as a reward for effort, or when it's invested. The money from the CDs was invested into the equipment and resources that made BIT 3 possible.

Could Back In Time Live, be seen as a launch party for Bit 3?

Indeed. In fact, there will be a launch party earlier in the evening (by invitation only) which will be held in the VIP room of the club. Name registration will be like gold dust... and there WILL be famous C64 faces to meet and talk to (some of the biggest, though probably not Rob or Martin). But the whole night is a celebration of BIT 3 (people will be able to buy it cheaply there, £10 for the deluxe version or something). Although not a lot of BIT 3 will be played during the night, since it's not dance music. It's ironic that hardly any Back in Time tracks will actually be played at Back in Time live, but that's the nature of the music.... 😊

You say that VIP invitation will be like gold dust. What is the criteria for a Vip invitation.... It couldn't possibly just to do with if you are the biggest fan of sid or not! I'd imagine anyone going to Bitlive would suggest they are the biggest sid fan of all time?

Obviously being a famous name helps 😊 But there are a lot of people who have contributed a huge amount to the C64 scene over the years who deserve a break: like Jon Wells, for instance. There are other people who have supported me since the early days and believed that this could happen. Those people are, coincidentally, some of the biggest fans of SID, though I believe that all SID fans consider themselves that way. There's no real criteria, and there's a real space limitation, so I've got to draw the line somewhere. But consider this: how would I know if someone was the biggest fan of SID unless they had actually proved it over a period of years talking with me? 😊 Those people who bothered to put pen to paper, or to contribute, those are the people who get the kudos. I have to add though that I will be encouraging the VIPs to frequent the actual club too, so you're guaranteed to see at least one famous face (just wait until I put up the guest list!).

Bit 3 - could you go into detail on the project?

If you read my news page on www.c64audio.com/whatsnew.htm you can follow the story of its development, from loose collection of C64 tracks, to mixed Martial Arts and Sci-fi CD, to Sci-fi CD, to Sci-fi CD with added story and pictures, to Symphonic Sci-fi concept album 😊 With the first two Back in Times, at least from my point of view, the emphasis was on technical accuracy as much as emotional impact. Getting the cover so that it was satisfactory technically, and preserved the spirit of the SID, and gave people back their nostalgic feelings. But there was no consistency of feeling. Back in Time 3 is designed to manipulate people on an emotional level. The technical things are taken for granted: I've been drawing relentlessly on a huge pool of talent, both orchestral, instrumental and even emotional. On the Back in Time 3 companion you'll find many technically great tracks that didn't make BIT 3 because they weren't emotional enough. I've never omitted tracks for this reason before. Having a continuous storyline throughout the CD and de-emphasising some of the nerd-ly aspects is also an attempt to reach a wider audience with this: my main focus throughout my remix career has been trying to capture and enhance the spirit of the music and prove it is superior to most other music. How am I going to convey that to people unless I try to take it to a commercial level? One thing becomes clear when you're aiming music at an audience that's never heard it before: accessibility is very important. The thing about originality is that it requires the audience to actually put some effort in, something which generally they aren't prepared to do. Now, as a person who wants to reach people instantly, you have to grab their gut feelings and rely on all the other things they've listened to smooth the way. John Williams is sometimes criticised by other classical musicians that his stuff is sometimes formulaic and simple. John is the first to admit that, on the basis that his audience don't have time to think about his music: just to feel! He has to express complex feelings in short sentences by relying on a well-established set of grammar and orchestral motifs. Things like tremelo strings conveying suspense, Tuba parping conveying clumsiness, stuff like that. But which other composer has contributed so many recognisable tunes to the zeitgeist? None. In short (big cry of too late!! 😊, everything on Back in Time 3 sounds like something else, because that's the best way to get an immediate emotional reaction. The storyline is an attempt to further enhance these feelings by giving the person some mental images to guide their enjoyment of the piece. The detail isn't as important as immersing the listener in a coherent world. Any listener can listen to the pieces, be transported to a familiar-yet-new world (the best kind for most people) and dream of the story.

So what does the future for your projects have in store?

Bigger and bigger. Once we've done the Thrust concert in Wembley stadium, then I'll retire 😊

Do you feel that c64 remixing has a life span, or do you feel that it's only a matter of time before then genre dies?

People will always be driven to create, but the famous source material is dwindling. Once the music that inspired people has been covered to death, then the supply of remixes will slow. I hope people then concentrate on quality. Mind you, it's been 15 years, and the rate hasn't slowed yet, so who knows? Especially if C64 music makes a commercial breakthru. I'm taking the remixing scene in a new and radical direction with BIT 3, as is Reyn with his Nexus series of CDs, so there's plenty of room in the place we've just left (for instance, Jeroen Brebaart's Special Agent 2001 shows him approaching Reyn levels of instrumental stuff 😊

So do you really think that c64 music has a chance of making a commercial breakthru?

It already has: Zombie Nation. It's just a question of when the perception switches from nerdy to cool. It's already happened in Germany... the actual perception that rules this is independent from the music. After all dance music already uses a lot of sounds that could be SID.... the British are especially weird about this. The Europeans are way ahead of us.

If something does happen, I'm going to try and make sure that the C64 scene is represented well, and that some large corporation doesn't try to rip everybody off: though my resources are (relatively) limited.

What is your musical background?

Nothing in particular. Did O level music, taught myself to play the electronic keyboard (my keyboard skills aren't great). Loved it. Fell in love with computer music and JMJ. Saw Bogg's demos. Got a MIDI interface for my Atari 400 and later an 800XL. Got a C64 with MIDI interface. Used Ubik's music. Stopped music altogether in 1988. Got an AWE in 1994. Started MIDIs. Bought a DB50XG. Did arrangement work for a crappy German publishing company based on XG work (they loved Monty on the Run high score and Rollercoaster). They thought of turning the MIDIs into a CD. Contract talks, etc.

So you are set to do a live event. What about a live performance - is that a possablility?

Wait until mid-end 2003. You WILL be shocked at the magnitude of my plans. But for that to work, people have got to bear with me. These things take time. I will need their support more than ever! To work out what I'm doing, you've only got to look at what the natural progression of the Back in Time series is, and what Back in Time 4 will be: Swords and Sorcery! Now what's the best way to do that justice? Pieces like Master of Magic, Nemesis the Warlock and Spellbound? 😊

So after bit 3 what's next, are you going to have a break or start work on bit4?

Straight into the London club night, then working on that theoretical live event, which will also coincide with the release of BIT 4. Plus there's CD releases from Tonka/Iridium and Instant Remedy, and maybe a dance CD of stuff from the club night... this is going to be amazing!


So judging by Chris's comments it's clear that he has high respect for the composers he has been working with. Chris seems level headed and knows what he wants from life. His ambition is enormous. Chris's exploits will indeed get bigger and better over the coming years. For one this is an exciting time for me and many other fans, aswell as for many other Arrangers and indeed Chris himself. The future of C64 remixing is set to not only come alight, but to engulf the scene amid the rages of flame.

- Neil

Interview date: 03.03.2001