Feature Q&A: Matt Simmonds on the design of 4mat chip music

Jerry on 2015-01-12
Cambridge-based composer Matt Simmonds participated in the Amiga demoscene in the early '90s, placing him in a unique position to contribute to the growth of chip music as a popular genre.

Through his work as an audio engineer he has contributed sound design to the Silent Hill game series, while in his free time he codes such innovative indie games as Depth, a red-cyan glasses-enabled 3D soundscape. Most of us know him as 4mat, the prolific and protean chip musician capable of crafting one unique and fascinating album after another.

In this Q&A we hear from the musician on the subject of his creative process and the interplay between game development and recording for studio albums.

It seems like chip music has reached a certain threshold, where you no longer need to explain the premise to most people?

Matt Simmonds: I think people know what it is now. You can put it in a playlist with other kinds of music and people will be okay with it. When I started doing it, it was all on disks and only other people that had the same hardware could listen to it. It’s a whole other world now.

Are you using chipmusic.org for research or to gauge the response?

Yes, for technical purposes it’s a good resource for learning. There’s loads of knowledge. About 95% of my interacting with other chip guys is through the net, through forums and on Facebook.

I've observed that there is a strong interest in seeing you perform live, especially among event organizers, ever since you played in New York. Seeing as you are living in a college town with an audience in close proximity, is live performance something that you might pursue in the future?

I would need to get a keyboard, so that it’s not me just moving sliders around. I have literally done two gigs since I started doing chip music, because being busy with work makes it impossible. The Blip Festival was the first show I had done live in fifteen years, and that was with a band. It might happen.

Do you view chip music as having evolved in a certain direction, and are such tendencies reflected in your own progress over time?

I think early chip music releases were about putting together some LSDJ tracks, and that was it. Now there’s more recognition that you can use the same tropes as a proper album, and that just makes it a richer experience.

For me, Decades was about, “Can I put forty minutes of music together in this style without people being annoyed with it?” Style-wise there was not a massive amount of direction. Surrender was me doing something more coherent with the same setup, and personally there was nothing on that album that I would go back and change.

On Legacy Trails I was thinking of stopping, because I was changing jobs at the time and wondering if I should move on. That made it more personal. If I’m listening to certain tracks, I relate them all to certain events, and Legacy Trails was written while I was traveling to Blip, so there was loads happening while working on that one.

Origins was me saying, “I will start writing again,” and George came in and did vocals on that one. Nadir has a coherent style to it without being 100% chip or 100% samples. That mishmash has evolved over the past few years, and the style is something I’ve subconsciously wanted to do since Decades. There are liner notes for Nadir on chipmusicisdead.tumblr.com.

The albums have a distinct sound to them. I’m not massively satisfied writing in the same style all the time. One part of writing is trying new stuff out, and the other part is composing a nice melody that I like. Those kind of bounce off each other.

Do you recall what the starting point was for “Daisies?” The song that was posted to YouTube prior to the release of Nadir?

It was when I was working on the first track, “Vampires.” I wrote half of it and just got completely stuck, then ended knocking out “Daisies” in about two hours. That happens to me, where I get annoyed and suddenly it motivates a flurry of work. Those two songs share samples that I had written years ago and never used, because I have a massive archive of sounds recorded using MIDIs and VSTs.

The cover art for Decades comes from a screenshot of Depth, the three-dimensional game you programmed for use with 3D glasses. There is also a visualization of “Moonrock” from the Surrender album that is up on YouTube. How did you go about making the video?

Working on demos, I had been interested in synching music to visuals. With the "Moonrock" video there’s a program written in BlitzMax monitoring the waveforms, and that’s fed back into the visuals in real time. You could put any other music track in there and it would be slightly different. What I like about this programming language is you can get a real time display up really quick in five or six lines of code.

For your own independently developed games, what kind of play experience are you most interested in designing?

The thing I like the most about games is the environment. If I like the place I’m in within the game, that’s usually enough for me to keep playing it. With a lot of twitchy games, you don’t have the luxury of time to establish the surroundings, whereas with a more ambient game like Proteus you can stop and take a look around.

Do you find it useful to write down ideas for songs when you’re not actively at your desk composing?

Definitely. It’s a bit of a cliché, but while I’m at work or out shopping, occasionally I will hear a sound like the beeping at a rail crossing and think, “I could use that.”

All this experimentation in the pursuit of a unique sound, does that help make the challenges worthwhile?

It does mean that I have a lot of freedom. People aren’t necessarily expecting me to do the same thing again and again. “Paper Dolls” from years and years ago is still a popular track, but I’m not being asked to rewrite it over and over. There’s tolerance for what I’m trying to do. The experimentation is a motivation to keep doing it.

Prior to your releasing something for public reception, how do you evaluate the quality for yourself?

Either there’s an emotional response, or I leave it on the drive. When you write something one night and you’re happy with it, then you wake up the next morning and it’s still good, that becomes the acid test for anything you create.

Music by 4mat is available through Bandcamp and Spotify.