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For gamers of a certain age, Tim Wright will forever be a cult figure. Almost accidentally, he found himself participating in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the games industry’s evolution.
25 years ago, as the in-house game music composer at Psygnosis in Liverpool, Wright recorded – under the pseudonym Cold Storage – the melodic trance that soundtracked the anti-gravity racer WipEout which, more than any other game, cemented the original PlayStation’s status as a new kind of console with appeal beyond mere bedroom-dwelling teens.
Happily, beyond the following that his WipEout music fostered and which, if anything, has grown over the years, Wright has been consistently involved with the games industry (in a dizzying array of capacities) ever since, and he’s even still creating music for anti-gravity racers, having written the music for Pacer, which is best described as WipEout’s spiritual successor.
We managed to catch up with Wright via Skype from the Swiss home where he is now based, and he regaled us with stories from an extraordinary career in his inimitably wry, self-deprecating style.
Originally approached to write a single track as a theme for an early incarnation of Pacer, Wright’s involvement in the game ended up mushrooming: “The project was rebranded and revitalised, and I was approached to write loads more tracks. And some little in-game musical stings – if you complete a section of track, you get a little 15 to 20-second audio jingle. Then there was a discussion about sound effects, and I said: ‘Yeah, sure: I’ll take a look at those.’
“So obviously, a lot of the history and heritage of working on various racing games – especially WipEout – came to the fore. All the techniques: layering engine sounds; having virtually nothing at the bass end – it’s all about the wind whistling and whining noises. You want the constant indicator of what’s going on with the engine and what speed you’re doing. But you need to leave space for the music, and for all that to work together.”
Still Cold Storage
Wright says he initially felt a bit “nervous” about writing Pacer’s music: “You’d think the simple solution would be to write some more music in the way that you’ve written it before. Get that sort of WipEout flavour going, you know – knock a few initial threads together, get yourself back up to speed with the whole anti-gravity clubs thing, and then just fire up the tune.
“But then on the flip side, it’s not WipEout – it’s Pacer, a game in its own right. It’s almost something like WipEout in a parallel universe, to a degree. It’s more about the racing; it’s not building up some big backdrop and embedding it in a tightly scripted universe, where everything has got a character. It’s more about getting down and having a good racing game.
“On the other side, it’s Tim Wright, Cold Storage, so we want that Cold Storage vibe. As you can see, it’s a bit of a tricky one. I’m not going to write WipEout music, but it needs to sound like it, identifiable as Cold Storage. So, I kind of forgot about it for a couple of weeks and let it all stew.”
Wright contends that the music he came up with for Pacer was dictated by the game and the technology behind it. Even having composed music for more recent resurrections of the WipEout franchise, he says: “As the games progressed on new hardware, there were a lot of winding tracks, and it was still, I wouldn’t say claustrophobic, but very much focused on the track.
“Whereas with Pacer, I guess it’s an aspect of the technology, but it looks bigger, more expansive. In the music that I’ve created, there is an element of that. It uses big reverbs, and there’s more of a sense of setting the sound-stage. So it’s not necessarily: ‘Doof, doof, doof, doof.’ There are some tracks that give it some large, but I like to have a good little catchy melody, and there are definitely tracks that are like that.”
A quarter of a century in video games
The way he tells it, Wright’s emergence as a dance music icon, with a distinctive, much-loved melodic trance style, was even more unlikely than it seemed at the time, given that he was developer Psygnosis’ in-house music composer: “Yeah. It was a bizarre one for me because I was dragged kicking and screaming into it, more or less.
“My history up to that point, where PlayStation became a thing, was writing music for Amiga games, the Mega Drive and Atari ST – that was my bread and butter. I was working in a games company that I had known since there were seven or eight employees, then suddenly, there was this massive injection of money from Sony.”
Psygnosis’ PlayStation game Krazy Ivan, developed before WipEout but released after it, proved to be something of a dress rehearsal for him, since it was the first game he worked on that required CD-quality music: “Then I’ve got [WipEout co-creator] Nick Burcombe saying: ‘I’ve got this cracking idea for a game: you’ve got to take a look.’
“I’m seeing an excerpt of a ship flying, and then he’s playing The Prodigy in the background. And I’m thinking: ‘No, not that – I frigging hate that’. I’m a big 80s-head. I like electronica – I like Jean Michel Jarre, Howard Jones, Vangelis, Kraftwerk to a degree, and then obviously all the big names like Human League, where there’s plenty of melody and lyrics. I really just can’t bear ‘doof, doof, doof, doof’.”
He continues: “I didn’t like industrial, like Nine Inch Nails, but that was something I had to do for Krazy Ivan, to get that robot vibe going. And I found that really interesting, because I had to chop up old radio recordings and make weird noises with a synth and a bit of a pounding beat.”
For WipEout, Wright had no choice but to embrace the heady, all-conquering British clubbing scene that provided such fertile ground for the PlayStation’s reinvention of the idea of gaming: “The last time I had gone to a club, at that point was, I don’t know, the Hippodrome in London, when I was a student – a totally different vibe.
“So, I got dragged kicking and screaming into writing music in that genre, appreciating it, going to nightclubs and dancing, without any booze, just water, with the lights on. I thought: ‘What the hell is going on here?’
“After a couple of goes at that, I was like: ‘Ah, I get this music now.’ It’s dance music: you’re meant to dance to it; you’re meant to sweat like a pig and have fun. And then, when you listen to that music again, in your house, it’s not that you’re appreciating the music necessarily, it’s the memories that are attached to that.
“But even so, when I was writing the music, I couldn’t get rid of that 80s vibe ingrained within me. My music has got that techno-trance-electronica vibe, but there’s always a melody. As I said when talking about the original WipEout music, each of those songs are like eight songs bolted together.
“But my memories of the evenings I did go to are really fantastic. I got to go on stage with the Chemical Brothers. Things like that, just moments in time that you never forget. And then actually working on the tracks, working three, four days, not going home, having to have a bit of a scrub in the toilet to get yourself clean and presentable, listening to your music with the windows wide open sat on the fire escape, eating pizza and drinking Red Bull.”
The origins of Cold Storage
Head to Wright’s Cold Storage page on Bandcamp, and you will find a vast array of music he has created over the past 25 years – many of it for games (including 8-bit chiptune efforts from the pre-PlayStation era) but also including plenty of proper artist albums – such as Project Moonbounce, which incorporates sounds made by bouncing music off the moon.
It’s an impressive and distinctive body of work, but without WipEout, there would have been no Cold Storage: “I think it was Nick Burcombe who said: ‘You’ve got to come up with a name, because you can’t just be Tim Wright.’ And I said: ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Come up with a name, and you can come across as some unknown band or whatever.’ I was like: ‘Alright, fair enough.’ I didn’t really give it much more thought.
“At the time when I had to choose some sort of moniker, we were in this dingy old warehouse down on the docks. In my ‘studio’, which was just a room down the end of a corridor, with no sound treatment, there was a really high corrugated ceiling, so when it rained, you couldn’t hear yourself think – no work happened when it was raining. And it was freezing cold in there. In summer it was amazing: you could go in there and: ‘Ah, this is nice and cool.’ But in winter you had to crank the heating up.
“I was out talking to one of the programmers. We were talking about music and sound effects and whatnot, and I think I’d been talking to him for about an hour, so I said: ‘I think I’d better get on – I’ll pop back to Cold Storage,’ just because the room was so bloody cold. I think at some point, I wrote Cold Storage on the door, for a joke. So then Nick came in and said: ‘You’ve got your name then, Cold Storage,’ and I was like: ‘Oh yeah, go on then’.”
WipEout was famously supported by an audio CD entitled WipEout: The Music, containing tracks by the likes of Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Orbital and The Prodigy, and by the time WipEout 2097 came around, two years later, pretty much all the top dance music acts wanted to be involved. So, Wright was worried that he wouldn’t get any of his music in the game. However, he had also developed confidence in his new-found Cold Storage dance music persona.
He says: “When 2097 came along, time had passed, I’d now done a couple of other things. I actually got a bit cocky and thought: ‘Alright, it looks like I’m not going to get a track here. I’ll write one, give it to the programmers, and they can use that as a test. Then, let’s see what marketing think of that.’
“Then I thought: ‘What can I do? How slow can I go and it still be suitable for a racing game?’ So I wrote the track Canada. I gave it to the guys and said: ‘Can you just put this into the game, to see if it works well with it?’
As luck would have it, one of the marketing ladies came down, and somebody else from marketing was showing her where the game was up to, and of course, my music was playing in the background. And then they said: ‘Thanks: that’s coming on nicely. Oh – who is the music by?’ ‘Oh, that’s one of Tim’s.’ ‘What, our Tim? Ooh, that needs to stay in.’ And I thought: ‘Yeah!’ I wrote one more, slightly faster-paced one. I think I had grown a bit of confidence by then.”
Hopes for Pacer
Being the go-to guy for soundtracking anti-gravity racers – Wright is hilarious on that particular subject, and has written music for obscure WipEout clones like Slipstream and Sodium 2, ‘which was in PlayStation Home’ – Wright is well placed to assess Pacer, for which he clearly has high hopes.
“I would say there are definitely two potential audiences for it. One is the WipEout audience, who have always been into the WipEout vibe, and love the fact that this is definitely influenced by it. I think that’s a pretty strong audience.
“Then you’ve got the younger crowd who perhaps haven’t played WipEout – they’re just into racing games in general. My hopes for it are that it does really well. It’s multi-platform, so there’s an opportunity for a good swathe of people to get access to it. For me personally, it’s great, because my music is out there again, on various consoles and Steam, on another product.”