An Interview with Horizon Chase Composer Barry Leitch

Chasing the Horizon in Top Gear

(Yes, that was the best title I could think of. Deal with it.)

Today, Aquiris Game Studio released their hit mobile game, Horizon Chase, on the PlayStation 4 and Steam in an enhanced Turbo edition, with a Nintendo Switch port announced for later this year. Horizon Chase is a retro-styled racing game that simulates the scrolling background effect used in almost every racing game from NAMCO’s Pole Position until SEGA’s Virtua Racing brought us 3D rendered tracks. In particular, it draws inspiration from Kemco’s Top Gear franchise, which debuted on the Super Nintendo in 1992, and featured a bass-thumpin’ techno score by veteran game composer, Barry Leitch, who returns to the genre on Horizon Chase, and even contributed some exclusive music to the upcoming Turbo version.

I first learned of Leitch from another racing game, the Nintendo 64-exclusive sequel to Midway’s arcade racer, San Francisco Rush, Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA. I loved the music from that game so much that I once hooked my N64 up to the audio inputs of my dad’s stereo and recorded some of my favorite tracks onto a cassette tape. It wasn’t until years later, when I was searching for a digital recording of the complete score, that I learned Barry’s name. I found him on Twitter and requested this interview. He was more than willing and gracious to participate.

Image source: alchetron.com

Justin Clough: So, starting with the obvious, what drew you to composing, and what made you decide to compose for video games specifically?

Barry Leitch:Growing up, I played a couple of instruments not very well, but was always fascinated by music creation.  When computers came out, that beat everything. It was, by far, the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I was besotted by them. I started with a Sinclair ZX81, and moved onto the Spectrum, and then Commodore 64. But in between, I regularly had access to a borrowed BBC Model B computer, which had 3 channel sound (more than the ZX81 and Spectrum). I started experimenting arranging music on that, and was quite enamoured with the whole process, even if the results were a bit “beepy”. When the C64 came out with its powerful sound chip, it became my weapon of choice, and I dived in with both feet.

On hearing Rob Hubbard‘s music demo, and realizing that you could actually write music for games, there was the incredibly slight possibility that it might actually become a thing, and that one could possibly do that for a living, instead of being something boring instead. That was enough for me. I decided about the age of 14. Young enough that I can still remember asking my French teacher at school how to say “Je ecrivez la musique pour les jeaux d’ordinateur” — or something like that. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: The correct translation would be “J’écris de la musique pour les jeux d’ordinateur,” which means “I write music for computer games.”)

J:I understand having a love of music but lacking talent. I took nine years of piano lessons, and all I have to show for it is I can play Linus and Lucy… badly.

B: Playing Linus and Lucy is more than I can do. I play badly.

J: So I’m guessing that means you do most of your sequencing by code, not by keyboard?

B:Exactly.

J:Interesting. I can’t imagine trying to do that at a time before graphic user interfaces allowed you to see what note and instrument were being emulated.

B:NoiseTracker was awesome for that.

J: The few things I’ve written have all been inspired to some degree by other artists’ music that I like. Who or what inspires your musical style?

B:Inspiration can come from many places, though, whether it’s a musical idea or just general inspiration. I’ve had tunes that came to me in dreams, there’ve been tunes that were inspired by other pieces of music, things that happen in daily life. The “tick tick tick” of the indicator in a car has no doubt been the inspiration for many great drumbeats.

There was a piece of music I wrote that was inspired by a restaurant. Here in this little town in Ohio I live in, a friend opened a restaurant in the basement of an old church. He filled it with religious artifacts from all different religions around the world — Buddhas, Mongolian statues, Tibetan flags — and this dark, demonic setting underneath a church. The chef he had hired was just an unbelievable artist. The food would come out looking like a work of art. It was amazing! I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Anyway, I was inspired by this visual and literal smorgasbord laid before me, and wrote the piece of music that we ended up using to introduce all the stage shows they put on upstairs in the old sanctuary. It was biblical!

J:What is your favorite score by another composer?

B:From just games, or other mediums too?

J:Specifically games, but if you’d like to include other mediums, go ahead.

B:I’m very fond of the Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader soundtracks. They match the game perfectly, and I found them very melodic and enjoyable to the point where I’d listen to them outside of the game. As for other mediums, film: probably Last of the Mohecans, or a lot of John Carpenter’s work is so simplistically effective in creating a mood, yet remaining melodic.

J:It always impressed me that John Carpenter did his own scores.

B:Says he’s the cheapest composer he knows!

J: So here’s a tough one: What’s your favorite score that you’ve composed?

B:I was quite pleased with TFX. Both it and Horizon Chase Turbo were probably my personal favorites. Both just felt complete. There is another game called Madballz that is still in development, but on hold, that I really quite liked. But I’m not sure that will ever see the light of day.

J:As I mentioned earlier, I discovered you from Rush 2 on N64, but I see you also worked on the Top Gear games for Super NES. The SNES had a very unique chip for processing sound and music. What was the biggest hurdle about going from that to the MIDI system on the N64?

B:There are no real hurdles in advancing forward. In those days, every new platform had new features, and they were always fun to discover.

J:So it never felt like a downgrade, like there were things you could have done on SNES but couldn’t on N64?

B:No, the N64 hardware was superior to the SNES. The audio driver created by Factor 5 that I used in Gauntlet Dark Legacy was quite amazing.

J:That’s right. I forgot Factor 5 had a hand in the N64’s hardware. So do you have a favorite and/or least favorite system of all the ones you’ve worked with?

B:The MT-32 was definitely my favorite. Amiga, second.

J:What’s the MT-32?

B:Roland MT-32 and later the SCC-1, were basically cut down versions of the Roland JV series of synths.

When PC gaming started to take off, all it had was a single channel beeper. So people started to make sound cards: Ad Lib, Sound Blaster, and Roland. Ad Lib was FM based. So was Sound Blaster, but Sound Blaster also had the ability to play digital WAV files — but not pitched, so just speech or samples.

Neither of the Roland cards could play digital WAV files either, so it became fashionable to have one of each: the MT-32 for music, and the Sound Blaster for digital WAV files., which cost about $1000 at the time. So think about that. People were happy to spend $1000 to get full music and speech in their games like Wing Commander, TFX, and all the Sierra games.

This is from 1992. Think about that for a second, and compare to what was going on with the Amiga and Atari ST at the time. It was just an incredible piece of hardware, and we had the most amazing sound driver for it. It was, by far, the most powerful on the planet.

1990…

Listening to the SNES version of American Gladiators, it’s just terrible. We had no way to get good sampled instruments for it.

J:See, I’m actually learning something. From things I’ve read, the SNES had an incredibly advanced sound chip that allowed for audio to be sampled and modified. Some composers have raved about it, and even consider the N64 sound processor to be inferior. It seems your experience was the opposite.

B:Yes, but the SNES cartridges were tiny, and the loop points on the instruments had to be a multiple of 16 or something (I can barely remember), and it only had 8 channels. Compare this to the Amiga at the time, which had 4 channels (although 8 channel was capable with fancy driver stuff) and zero limitations on loops or stupid stuff.  N64 – not sure about channel limits. I don’t really think it had any. Probably depended on the driver. I had 2 or 3 different drivers for N64. Top Gear Rally used an XM playback routine, whereas Rush 2 and San Francisco Rush 2049 used MIDI + samples. And then there was the Factor 5 driver for Gauntlet.

J:Which system is/was your least favorite to work on?

B:Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). After using Ad Lib, I hated FM with a passion. That and our music driver for it was shit. We were offered a really good one at Ocean, but they wanted some ridiculous amount of money for each use, so the bosses said “NOPE!”

J:Speaking of Ocean, clarify something for me. On Wikipedia, it lists The Addams Family as one of the games you worked on. Was the music from the NES version yours?

B:Not sure. Jon Dunn did one of them, I think. Keith Tinman another.

We worked on so many projects back then, and quite often it was common for one of us to compose a track and another to port it to another system

J:Okay. If that had been yours, I was going to tell you that the Crypt music is one of my favorite video game themes ever!

B:I know I did one of the Addams Family games. Might have been Game Boy? I remember the SNES one sounded great as Jon Dunn had spent a lot of time on his driver.It was just a conversion I did, though. Nothing original.

Keith had the office between me and Dean Evans. Quite often, Dean and I would simply switch offices halfway through the day and work on each other’s tunes.

J:What game franchise would you give anything to work on?

B: I always wanted to do a Command and Conquer game, but these days I’d prefer a Supreme Commander game. 🙂

J:I don’t know about Supreme Commander.

B:Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance was, in my humble opinion, the last great PC RTS game.Made at the peak of PC development. It has yet to be surpassed.

J:Have you ever considered releasing a solo album of original music?

B:Like the ones on https://barryleitch.bandcamp.com/? There’s also a bunch of stuff at http://soundcloud.com/barryleitch/.

J:That’ll work. Any other things you want to plug?

B:It’s all available on every music store out there. The Horizon Chase Turbo OST should be out by then too.71 minutes of music.

J:I’ve seen the original on iTunes. Which store do you get a bigger cut from?

B:Bandcamp

J:I figured.

I guess all that’s left is to open it up for you to share any stories, advice, future projects, or anything else you want to mention that didn’t come up in our conversation.

B:I’ve been writing music for games for over 32 years now, and always enjoy the challenge of new projects of varied styles. Any developers out there, feel free to get in touch. It’s never too early to talk about the audio for your project. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: You can reach Barry Leitch via his official website, http://www.barryleitch.com/)

J:Thanks for taking the time to chat with Infendo. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about your experience, as well as both your technical and creative processes. I know I’ll be checking out more of your music, and I hope our readers and listeners will too. Feel free to get in touch if you want to promote any future projects. Is there anything else you want to add before we close the book on this?

B:No, I think we got it all. Hope you had fun doing it. Enjoy the Horizon Chase Turbo completion tune — 5 minutes of self indulgence.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: