Outside Edge: Duncan Steer on one man abnd his music in Croydon

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Sitting before me in his mother's cluttered spare room in Croydon is a musician whose work was once at Number One for six weeks. He's only 20, still a student and only a few diehards know his name. Andrew Barnabas writes soundtracks for computer games: the jingles, title themes and sound effects. Recently he won commissions to provide music for new Amiga and PC versions of Disney's Aladdin. But, though the artform demands a film score composer's know-how and reaches into a million teenage bedrooms, it's stuck, in terms of recognition and rewards, in a backwater.

He started four years ago, approaching companies speculatively with discs of his music. The first customers to take the bait didn't pay or even credit him; copyright and royalty procedures for music on disk are still evolving. But a bona fide commission came in October 1990: to provide music for Swiv, a game which went on to be a national best-seller. The process, he says, is like writing a film score.

'My test is: close your eyes and listen to the music; does it tell you anything about the atmosphere of the game?' Barnabas also wrote the music for Pinball Dreams II, a pinball game on the PC with four 'tables': 'Each table had its own atmosphere. The one I did was called Safari; I thought of wildlife, jungle and everthing . . .'

Barnabas leans across to his keyboard and sets the music playing. Sure enough, its African rhythms and sampled animal cries are far from plinky-plonk jingledom. His portfolio is a triumph over technological limitations: there's jazz and metal and reggae, and they all sound closer to 'real' music than something made and played on a pounds 200 home computer. But can the music ever be too good?

'I wouldn't say 'too good'; 'too complicated' is more accurate. Companies don't want music to detract from a game - you don't buy a game to listen to, but to play. So they want music that's bitty rather than realistic . . . I've argued with them about this.'

Once the game itself has been programmed, the composer is left to work within a set, often small, amount of computer memory. Though important, the music seems to be an afterthought.

'When the game's finished, I get a couple of weeks to do some tunes. There's a lot of brainstorming involved. It's a challenge to make the computers do what you want them to do: to get something to sound realistic, for people to go, 'You did this on a computer?'. '

Surely, though, the games' hypnotic nature creates another, perhaps more sinister, limitation: that the music always be set to a speed somewhere around that of the human heartbeat?

'I don't think of it as a heartbeat thing,' reflects Barnabas. 'It just comes naturally. The standard speed is 125 beats per minute, but it depends on the game. It's like film music: when you see a car chase, you don't hear slow music. You just write the music to capture the mood.'

The Aladdin game should be a big seller next Christmas. It's a plum commission, but stellar financial returns are unlikely. 'It's just a job to me,' Barnabas says. 'In the past I've been treated badly by some companies. It's not been fun. But when I was talking with my friends about jobs and what we're going to do after university, they all pointed at me and said: 'You're sorted'.'

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