Interviews



Interview with Neil Baldwin

Published in Recollection #3
Performed by SIDwave


Neil Baldwin, or Demon, as we know him - came crashing into our reality with his funky SID tune 'Demon's First' back in 1986. He was one of those UK Electrosound musicians, with their special sound. His most known works are 'Hardcastle', 'Metal Bar II', 'Garfield', and 'Shadow Skimmer'. Every old C64 knowledgeable person around knows Demon's tunes - we kind of just grew up with them!


S)
Hello Neil! Thanks for doing this interview!

N)
You're welcome, Jan. I only hope my memory serves me well enough to make this interesting and worthwhile!


S)
First, can I ask you to give us some information about yourself (full name, age, birthplace and date, where you reside, job and interests?

N)
An easy one to start with, I should be able to remember that much at least.

My name is Neil Baldwin and I was born and raised in Manchester, England. I left there around the age of 19 to work for Eurocom in Derby and have lived there (or around there) ever since. I have been Audio Director for Eurocom for the last 10 years (or so) though in recent years I've not been involved in audio production quite so directly (I have an amazing Audio Manager, Steve, who takes care of things on a day-to-day basis).

Away from work I'm a guitar player, mainly bluegrass/blues but have dabbled in most areas over the years. I have a small computer-based recording studio at home where I play around with all sorts of nonsense but typically never finish anything - my work hard drive is literally filled with files named "Untitled Idea 43"! I still have a fond fascination for programming but I'm not all that great. I'm reasonably competent with 6502 and Actionscript (I learned it a few years ago in order to produce a Flash website for my best friend's tattoo studio). I've recently got back into NES audio and have a website dedicated to it: http://dutycyclegenerator.com

Away from music and computers, I recently realised a life-long ambition of mine and trained to be a falconer. I'm also a keen amateur ten-pin bowler. I have a ridiculously large collection of CD albums and my favourite film is The Big Lebowski. I live with my girlfriend and our two cats. I am 39 and three-quarter years old.



S)
What is the background story about you getting a C64 and getting productive with it and making music? i.e. did you have musical training, did you buy the C64 to play games, what motivated you to compose with it?

N)
I remember badgering my parents constantly about a C64 as a couple of friends of mine had them and we were always playing games such as Manic Miner and Forbidden Forest round at their house. The problem was, I was always fascinated more by the programming aspect (Basic) but nobody wanted to sit there and watch me typing in Basic programs to make the border colour flash! Fortunately my parents gave in eventually. It was about the time of Monty On The Run. I think that was the game that totally blew my mind in terms of music. Suddenly the games themselves became largely irrelevant and this was reflected in the demo scene: there seemed to be more fuss made over the latest Hubbard/Galway music hack than the game that they belonged too. Besides being captivated by the music itself, there was also an intriguing mystery about how it was created. I had absolutely no idea. It was only when Electrosound was released that I had a tool to connect me to that process.

I had no musical training at all apart from my father teaching me guitar when I was young. I learned how to play all of The Shadow's song when I was about 11. I don't think much of that came through in what I was doing on the C64 though; mainly I was just trying to copy Rob Hubbard. :)


S)
Your scene name, Demon - how did this come about?

N)
I actually hate the name now. Maybe hate is a bit strong, but to me it always reads like a descriptive word. Same as calling myself "Awesome" or something, if you see what I mean, and that wasn't the intention at all. Perhaps I should've gone for "The Demon" to be less ambiguous. As for how it came about I really can't remember, apart from wanting something short, snappy and cool-sounding (hey, I was only 15/16!). I have this nagging idea that I might have been inspired by something from a 80s horror film review magazine called "Fear" which I used to read avidly.




S)
Releasing music demos on the Compunet as you did, how did this happen? I mean to ask, did you only use CNet, or were you also swapping disks with other people, perhaps worldwide?

N)
Ah, Compunet! I have to thank my good friend Paul for that side of things. I never had a modem so I had to rely on him to upload my stuff. All I remember about it was that I used to turn up at his house with a floppy disc, he'd copy the file(s) and set them uploading and then we'd go away and play games for about 7 hours until it was finished! It was also the way I got to be friends with the likes of Stoat & Tim and Psy & Mat etc. through the U-to-U chat program.

Later on I did do some disk swapping. I got friendly with a guy who ran a local computer shop. Him and his friend were insatiable pirates (who wasn't back then!?) and through their contacts I got to do quite a bit of demo and crack-intro music. I actually did quite a lot of that stuff (much more than I did game music) but I have no idea where most of it turned up.




S)
As early as 1986, in your first year of releasing anything under the nick Demon; you were using Electrosound music editor, and later you hacked Rob Hubbard's player, and later you used your own routine? How was it like using these programs? How was your work process?

N)
Yeah, Electrosound was my first introduction to C64 music as I suspect it was for a lot of the post-Hubbard generation :) It was a great piece of software to use but it used to frustrate me because, as much as I tried, you just couldn't get the same kind of sounds that Rob & Martin were putting in their games. For one of the demos I did (Metal Bar II), I so badly wanted that fast-arpeggio sound that I cranked the tempo in Electrosound up to full-speed and actually entered all the notes for the arpeggios by hand. The only problem with that was that because each sequence ended up being so short (in time); I had to piece together 4 sequences to make 1 bar so I eventually ran out of sequences! Electrosound was good for getting something down quick but the resulting code and data was so poorly designed that it was utterly unusable in a commercial project or even in a demo (hence most of my early music was presented with nothing more than some text on screen!)

It was these frustrations that forced me into programming my own sound engine. As I had no idea how to write one, I first went through Rob's code with a fine-toothed comb to figure out how it was done. Because I figured out exactly what all the numbers in Rob's data was doing, I was able, with a hex editor, to compose a whole song using Rob's code from Gerry The Germ (or actually I think it was Phantoms Of The Asteroid). I only did it the once though (the cover of Paul Hardcastle's "Rainforest"), even though I heard through a mutual acquaintance that Rob thought I stole his code to produce the game music I did. This is not entirely true as I did write my own sound engine from scratch. I was totally influenced by the way Rob had engineered his routines though. I did look at Martin Galway's and Fred Gray's code too but Rob's made more sense to me. He should take that as a compliment. I hope he does. :)




S)
How did you make music in the custom player? Do you have a secret editor?

N)
Eventually I had my own music and SFX player. Everything was still edited as text files and compiled (I can't remember the name of the assembler though). I did write my own instrument editor that ran on the C64 - this meant I could edit all the instrument parameters on the fly and get the sound just right without having to tweak and continually assemble the code. Well, you did spend a lot of time doing that too but the instrument editor bridged that gap between the sound you imagined in your head and what the numbers forced the SID to blurt out.


S)
How was a typical day, being Demon, before you made any music for games?

N)
I left school aged 16 to take on an engineering apprenticeship. That was my full-time day job, the C64 music was just a hobby that I eventually got paid for! After I'd done a couple of games, I became friends with Ben Daglish and he had this great idea of setting up a group of freelance composers ("W.E.M.U.S.I.C", I think) to try to make a proper business out of what we did instead of getting paid Ł100 or not getting paid at all (which was common). Nothing ever came of it though, unfortunately. A little later on, Charles Deenen (Maniacs Of Noise) had a similar idea. He ran some kind of auditions where he invited people to submit demo music and he liked my stuff enough to give me the thumbs up. I suppose essentially I became a member of MON. Before anything came of that I'd left home, and the C64, and went to work for Eurocom making NES games.


S)
If you take a look at what you did back then, what are you most proud of? The highlights of your career... :D

N)
I didn't really have much of a career - I didn't do that many games compared to many of my peers. I think one of the favourite things I did was a piece of music called "Beat SID" (a pun on "Beat Dis") where I kind of "mixed" bits of other people's work and it was the first time I used sampled drums. I think it was the last thing I ever did on the C64. I've never seen it on the internet anywhere. I'd be really interested to hear it again to see if it's as good as I remember.

The thing that most put a smile on my face was seeing Reyn cover my Garfield tune on YouTube. I only recently discovered it and my jaw hit the floor. Mainly because the other songs he covers are some of the cream of the C64 and it was an honour to be vicariously included in such an esteemed list. :)


S)
Did you have any scene heroes, compunetters or professionals, that inspired you or whom you madly worshipped?

N)
There were loads of cool people. It's a cliche but Rob Hubbard has to take the crown here. Such a massive range and depth to his work. There's still some of his stuff that, to this day, I don't know how he got the sounds he did, especially when he got into the ring mod stuff later on - just totally blew me away. I think Martin Galway had the edge when it came to "feel" - his melodies were executed to utter perfection. Then later people like Jeroen Tel - he had such an ear and feel for a groove his stuff always made me grin. Some of the funkiest stuff ever on the C64.


S)
What do you think of the demo scene back then, the art, the gfx, the scrollers and all that looking back at it now?

N)
Brilliant! Some really creative stuff was being created and still is, amazingly!


S)
Did you go to copy-parties, meetings or tradeshows?

N)
Never any copy-parties but I did go to the old computer show down at Earl's Court - ECTS was it?


S)
Any special stories from such parties and shows?

N)
Compared to Manchester, the price of beer at those London shows was ridiculous! I quite vividly remember meeting Psy (Psy & Mat) at one show. I was a tiny little kid and this hairy gargantuan of a guy came up and introduced himself. He was totally the opposite of how I'd imagined him.


S)
How was a typical day as a pro, when you worked on music for the games?

N)
Like I said, I was a full-time engineering apprentice (making precision components out of various metals) so I only worked on C64 stuff at weekends and at night in my bedroom. Actually, I shared the bedroom with my brother so I quite often worked till stupid hours in the morning with the lights off, the brightness on my little black & white TV turned down really low and using little ear-bud headphones plugged into the TV so as to let him sleep.


S)
Are you in contact with old C64 people today?

N)
Well, the other Directors of Eurocom are Martin Sneap (well-known pixel artist and half of "Psy & Mat"), Tim Rogers (Tim from "Stoat & Tim") and Hugh Binns (worked on graphics for games like "Cybernoid"). We also have Ian Denny (from "Ian & Mic") working for us as our lead programmer for our engine/game tools team. Chris Shrigley (author of games such as "Bounder") also used to work with us in the early days but I'm no longer in contact with him. There are still quite a lot of the old crowd in the games industry!




S)
Do you still have a C64, and what's it used for? Or do you use a C64 emulator?

N)
I don't unfortunately. I wish I'd kept my old one. Inspired by seeing Jeff Minter's custom-sprayed monitors at a computer show one time, I took my C64 apart, sprayed it completely matt black and then used some silver spray paint at a distance to make it look like stars. It was rubbish. :)

I have got "Power64" installed on my Mac - amazing C64 emulator. I have a massive archive of games and demos too.

I've also got a "Sidstation" but it sadly has remained in it's box, pretty much since I bought it. I did plug it all up a couple of weeks ago and I forgotten what a great sound it can make. Whether or not I'll actually record anything with it, who knows.


S)
Do you ever watch old demos, or listen to music from the High Voltage SID Collection?

N)
Funnily enough, though looking at old demos is not something I do on a regular basis, through getting re-interested in the NES chip tune scene recently I've been looking at new graphics/glitch/etc. demos that people are doing. Loads of amazing stuff over on CSDb.com, too many to list.


S)
Was the C64 really that special that we like to think it was?

N)
People are still managing to be amazingly creative with it 20-odd years later. To have that much longevity it had to be special, didn't it? In terms of audio it was an amazing piece of hardware to work on back then. It was capable of making very sophisticated sound - the kind of sound that you'd normally associate with very cumbersome and expensive synthesisers. I don't think anything (comparable) could come close to how organic it could sound. To think that during a design meeting they could've gone with a different chip that didn't have programmable filters! The life of the C64, I suspect, would have been very different.


S)
Does the C64 really have a soul, or was it just another tool in a long process to become a professional musician?

N)
Because of it's faults and quirks (or more precisely, the SID chip) it definitely seems more like an analogue instrument than a digital computer. Like an old valve guitar amp...


S)
Do you have a message to your old contacts and everyone else reading this?

N)
Hope you're all still being creative - it's what separates us from monkeys. :)


S)
I've run out of questions, and I thank you a lot for a nice interview Neil! However, if you feel that something was missed or not deeply enough discussed, please feel free now to tell us. If there's something you want to tell, that nobody ever asks you about.

N)
No problem, it's been fun!

Something nobody asks about? I can't think of anything so here's three random facts. I have a 19 year-old son. I used to be a break-dancer. I once got arrested for graffiti (we called it art, the police preferred the term "vandalism").

(If you have a goodbye message or slogan, you may fire it from the hip here!) :D "It's just a ride" - Bill Hicks

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