An Interview with Ramiro Vaca

by LMan

Ramiro Vaca has provided wonderful tunes for the SID chip, many of them for the games foundry Factor 5. Among his most popular works are Turrican 1 and Rock 'n' Roll. I still remember the shivers that went down my spine when I won Turrican for the first time and listened to the wonderful moody end titles score. Read his thoughts about that and more!

Real name: Ramiro Vaca
Handle: Extremer
Born: 1969
Nationality: German

Ramiro Vaca
Why and when did you start making music on the c64?

I was fond of making music since I was very young. My first keyboard instrument was a Bontempi organ I got for Christmas in 1979. From that time on, I have grown more serious on the music topic. A few years later I got a synth and a commodore c16. In Basic, I wrote my own drummer software on that machine. It sounded pretty poor, due to the very limited sound features of the c16. Later on, I bought myself a c64. My very favourite sid tune by that time was One Man And His Droid by Rob Hubbard. Because there was no sophisticated music software for the c64 by that time, my career had to wait until the release of Chris Huelsbeck's Sound Monitor. After a few days of getting started with the program, I wrote my first tunes for a few friends, who have then integrated them into their demos.
To answer the question why I started making music on the c64, I can only say: I simply was too dumb to code something ;-)

When did you get your first c64?

I've bought a second hand c64 at the age of 16.

Who are your favourite sid composers?

Rob Hubbard and Tim Follin. The Maniacs of Noise and Tim Follin have hugely impressed me by the fabulous sounds they could tickle out of the c64. Chris Hülsbeck (with whom I have worked for several years) has also provided some very beautiful tunes. Though he has never reached the incredible ingenious level of Hubbard or Follin in my eyes.

What were your favourite sids of the 80s?

Oh dear, to make this quick: everything by Hubbard, Follin, Wizball or Arkanoid by Galway, as well as most of the Maniacs' tunes. I have certainly forgot a few here. I don't remember all of them after such a long time.

What were your favourite sids of the 90s?

I only possessed my c64 until the early 90s. Afterwards I have spent my time with the Amiga and MIDI music. My taste of music has stayed the same though in the 90s (still Hubbard and Follin).

Which of your own sids are you most pleased with?

That's a difficult question. Actually with none, because I always find something to improve, afterwards. I still find the Rock 'n' Roll tunes the most funny, because they really were something different from the standard regarding style. The Turrican music was in my opinion the cleanest work.

Were you inspired by any other sid composers?

Actually a bit from everyone, mainly by Hubbard though. His interesting sounds, harmonies and moods he tickled out of the c64 have fascinated me again and again.

Generally, where do you get your inspiration from when making music?

This depends on the topic I am supposed to compose for. For Rock 'n' Roll I haven't listened to anything else than rock 'n' roll music, to get a feel for the topic. This was similar with most other of my tunes, too. Also, I often get ideas just by playing around with the keys. Of course, I have also been inspired by my idols I have mentioned above.

What was it like, working at Factor5? When and why did you quit?

Fac 5 is a very funny bunch. Back then (when they were still living in Germany) we have met very often for a sneak preview. Since the guys have moved to America I barely get any news from them any more. Only with Chris Huelsbeck I keep mailing time after time. When he comes to visit Germany, we go partying big time and chat about the good old times 😊

From Stefan Hartwig we know, that he wasn't asked for permission and wasn't
paid a cent either for his work on the Turrican Loader tunes. Have you experienced
similar rip-offs?

Fortunately such rip-offs haven't occurred to me. This may be a result of my choosing very carefully with whom I cooperate. What happened to Stefan back then - I'm afraid I can't recall. But there's one thing for sure: There's a real shitload of cunning assholes out there who take a pleasure from ripping you off. No matter if you are graphic designer, musician or coder. After around 13 years I have witnessed plenty of rip-offs. Most of those talents loose their interest in the development of computer games afterwards and go finding themselves a real job (e.g. Frank Matzke, graphic designer of Turrican 3 SNES)

What are your likes/dislikes about the sid chip?

I liked its absolute versatility. To bad it only had three voices only, though. I was always keen on listening to new FX from other musicians. Chris and me always wanted to recreate and finetune those sounds.

Is composing on the c64 a different world to composing with real instruments?

Definitely. The limitations of voices prohibit free composing. All tunes that sound fabulous on a keyboard may sound horrible on the SID. You have to try to extract the most important things of a tune and place them onto the poor three voices of the SID. The selection of sounds is far more difficult, too, because it can easily happen that sounds bite each other.

If there was one tune you wish you could claim as your own, what would it be and why?

Hm, a few tunes from the Cirque du Soleil or by Hans Zimmer are damn good in my opinion. They are very well worked out, they reflect great moods, and are very interesting regarding composition. But generally, I wouldn't want to claim another musician's work as my own.

What are your fondest memories of the c64?

Real long gaming nights with my friends.

What non-c64 music do you like? Does it reflect in your compositions?

Generally, I like all kinds of music. It's not necessarily the beat or the instrumentation that makes a tune interesting for me. It's more likely the harmonic wholeness of a tune. That's why experimental music tinkling is nothing for me ;-)

Have you heard any remakes of your sids which have impressed you?

Besides the one you sent me, I haven't heard any remakes of my pieces.

Are there any of the c64 people you are still in contact with?

I'm still in contact with Chris Huelsbeck time after time, mostly when he visits Germany. Other people like Manfred Trenz or Teut Weideman I use to meet at exhibitions or at developer forums now and then.

What does Ramiro Vaca do nowadays, as a musician and for living?

I am Art Director for multimedia applications in the gaming section. In my private life, I rarely make any music anymore (got 2 kids). Now and then I compose for a theatre group, though. But I would really like to make music for games once again.

Are you still active in the c64 scene in some way? If not, would you like to do a remix of your own tunes?

Right now, I'm not active in the c64 scene. Doing a remix depends only on the time I have. But generally, I'd welcome the idea of polishing an old tune up to modern times.

Have you ever done any commercial music after the c64 era?


Lastly, feel free to say anything you want to share with the c64 remixing community.

The time I owned my c64 was one of the best times in my life. The good and bad experiences, successes and failures have hugely influenced me, a part of what made me the person I am today. I wish to thank everybody who has contributed to these wonderful years. Most of all Chris Huelsbeck. If it wasn't for him to release his Soundmonitor, I've had never become active in the musical c64 scene.

As you have read, Ramiro likes the harmonic wholeness of a tune, and this perfectly reflects in his own compositions. Definitely recommended!

- LMan

Interview date: 27.11.2001