An Interview with David Warhol

by Neil Carr

Dave was one of the very early c64 musicians, He started out writing games at Mattel Electronics before the company folded. In The mid 80's Dave won EA audio of the year award.

Real name: David Warhol
Born: 1959
Nationality: American


Dave Warhol
What other c64 composer did you like?

Rob Hubbard! I once heard a rip of The Dark Side of the Moon he slipped into one game (oops, I can say that, can’t I?). He also used tones on the SID other than the vanilla waves that were built in to the hardware that I didn’t know how to do.

What other sids did you like?

I’m not as familiar with competitive product of the period as I could have been, and I didn’t really have exposure to the tons of great stuff that was being done in the UK at the time.

Which tune of your own are you most pleased with?

When I listen to Pool of Radiance today I like that a lot. It’s got a drive that I like, and I think it holds together well through all of the sections. There’s a even little Wagner quote stuck in there. (But when I listen to it I’m still unhappy with this one bar transition that just doesn’t flow naturally!) Then there’s the music for Adventure Construction Set won an EA award that year. That has a nice suite, and the space music was Philip Glass inspired. The fugue was actually written during a college exam a few years before…

How did you get involved in creating music for computer games?

Growing up, I played lower brass instruments in school bands, jazz bands, and orchestra, but was listening to Rock. In college, I studied classical music, but wasn’t much of a performer, so I got a degree in Music with an emphasis in Theory/Composition.

My first job out of school was for Mattel Electronics, writing games, but I did the sounds and music for a number of other games. After Mattel Electronics folded, I started doing contract work here and there for C64, Atari, Apple, Amiga, and eventually PC products.

In those days, cartridge/computer memory was precious, so I would custom write drivers that would read obtusely-hand-compressed data based on the need of the project or even the scope of the composition. When MIDI came out, and memory opened up, it enabled those who were more musically inclined to be able to contribute, and my interest in overall software development eclipsed my ability to contribute solely to audio.

So for the 8-bit NES, GameBoy, SNES, and Genesis platforms, I was more of a creative/technical producer, where I would discuss composition styles and goals with MIDI-keyboard composers, then arrange their compositions to fit my drivers and tone banks on each platform. I still got a lot of enjoyment out of that, and I think that level of technical contribution was still important to get the best out of the platform.

What does Dave Warhol do now?

I founded Realtime Associates, an independent interactive software development studio, over 10 years ago. Realtime has published over 80 games in most of the popular console formats, from the 8-bit NES up through the PSX. We’re currently working on a series of electronic books as well as writing an original Next-Gen game.

Did you work In-house or free-lance, and what are your opinions on this?

I was always free-lance while doing audio (except when I was doing audio for my own company). It depends on the volume of work a developer is doing. It’s great to be doing enough to have a full-time audio resource, but back in those days, a music gig was part time for only a couple months and not enough to make a go on. Doing free-lance, I always had black box drivers with very simple interface entry-points, so back then it was easy to integrate the work without having face time.

Nowadays, of course, the sky’s the limit. I think some of the best work in the industry comes from companies that have strong in-house music departments, like EA and LucasArts. I’m not particularly impressed by the current trend of licensing popular music for games, but on the other hand, I do understand why it’s done.

What were your likes/dislikes regarding the Sid Chip?

I liked the beefy bass range. You could manually do pulse width modulation which gave some richer timbres. Having hardware volume envelopes was nice as I used to have to do that by hand. I remember hardware bugs in some of the installed base that meant you couldn’t reliably use all of the features of the chip, and the triangle wave wasn’t really all that useful.

What did you use to create your c64 music?

I think there was an assembler called Merlin that I used. I would pretty much compose the music at a keyboard, then manually reduce it to define byte statements with macros, and compile them into a driver. I would deliver a binary image of the driver and data linked together in one lump, usually less than 4k or maybe 6k if memory serves correct.

Have you ever considered remaking some of your old c64 tunes using modern sounds?

Not really. If I were to compose I would probably do something more electronica, music concrete, or orchestral.

What would be your proudest moment in your career?

Publicly proud moment - probably either winning the EA Audio of the Year in the mid-80’s, or in another year, having done the audio for 3 of the 5 products that had been nominated for the same award. (Amiga Earl Weaver Baseball won, which I didn’t do – but heck 3 out of 5 nominations wasn’t bad!)

Privately proud moment - there was a time when all of the computer games being done could fit onto one or two shelves in software stores. I went into a shop one day, and looked at the boxes, and of an uncanny number of popular titles in different formats, I was able to say, I did the audio in that one… and in that one… and that one… and that one.. and…


What are your fondest memories of the c64?

As far as the platform goes, looking back, it was All that memory and All that power relative to the platforms before. As far as the era goes, I also thoroughly enjoyed working with the programming leads on the projects – Rick Koenig, Dani Bunten to name a few. Also the early crews of Electronic Arts and LucasFilm Games (now LucasArts). Being part of a project, working with others, learning about other things, was as rewarding as actually doing the work.

Have you ever been treated unfairly by a software house?

Sure. Some software houses put their own interests over the vendors. This is an entirely legitimate doctrine, and it works for some. Others seemed to put the interests of their vendors over themselves. This is also a legitimate doctrine, but the company still has to make sure their own needs are met. (Though those two houses I cite are still around, one of them now has a market cap of $25 million, the other over $9 billion.)

How different is it composing on modern day equipment, as compared to the c64?

I don’t write that much any more, but the basic difference would be that the composer had to constantly work against a knowledge of what the technology afforded. In writing 3-voice compositions, I can say that a knowledge of music techniques really helped (what voices to double, what spacing with the different elements of a chord created what effects, use of counterpoint, etc.).

Today, with technology, it’s 99.9% pure creativity. A long time ago I noticed that someone could arrange chopsticks on a MIDI rack and it would sound like the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But there’s really no skill in that – it just depends on how much money is pumped into a rig. I always respect well written music over music that sounds good.

What influenced your music when writing for a computer game?

I would talk with the game designer to figure out what type of music they were after. Then there were the architectural limitations, how much memory I had been allocated, and stuff like that. I often had to figure the structure of the composition (A:A:B:A) and only include copies of the portion that were unique, or have music subroutines of a bar here and there.

Other than that, I was influenced by the sum total of music that I had heard up to that point in time. The popular music I respect the most is from the Beatles, Steely Dan, Brian Eno, Steve Morse / Dixie Dregs, Little Feat, William Orbit, but I’m cutting the list way too short. The classical music I respect the most is orchestral music from 1800-1900, particularly Beethoven in the early part and Debussy/Ravel in the later part. (I forget the Interplay C64 product this was for, but I did among other pieces an arrangement of Pavane for a Dead Princess. I later learned that it was actually not in the public domain for some reason, so I wrote a sound-alike that I really liked. I’m not sure it was released – does anyone have any idea what product that was for, or if it’s out there?)

Did you take writing music for the c64 as a serious job or was it more of an hobby?

I treated it as a serious job, but I could never do it full time as the amount of money I could command with the number of projects that were out there wouldn’t provide a complete income. So I did it professionally, but on the side as I was producing entire video games as an independent then eventually founding Realtime.

Further, I never broke the sound barrier of being able to write music freely and quickly. I tend to write from the brain rather than from the heart, and that slows me down. With the advent of MIDI enabling more prolific composers to contribute to interactive, it would have been tough to make a go of it. But, my interests in programming, producing, and in enabling all sorts of other people the opportunity to work in the interactive field definitely eclipsed my potential career directly in music anyway.

If you went back into your career is there anything you would like to have changed?

I’d change that one bar transition in Pool of Radiance that’s driving me nuts!

Lastly what would you like to say to the scene?

Wow for listening to and appreciating this old genre! It’s great that people can be interested in what it was for the time it was in, as opposed to just going goo-gah over the throw-a-big-rack-or-licensed-actapproach of the present!


Dave is obviously very ambitious. This fact is proven with what seems to be a succesful venture into the software market with realtime Associates. I must say i'm not aware of the products they have released but its sure to be fascinating if i do.

- Neil

Interview date: 23.04.2002