VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

In most cases it’s fairly reasonable to think of the ZX Spectrum as a secondary system for game music. It didn’t seem to have the capacity of the Commodore 64, and a lot of the game themes that ended up there were toned down takes on C64 originals, attempting to emulate the SID sound as closely as possible. But the ZX Spectrum did have its own unique if seldom exploited flavor, and over the course of three years one ingenious artist in particular would develop that into a brilliant new chiptune style to rival anything produced for the SID.

Some time in 1985, or perhaps a bit earlier, Mike Follin scored a programming job at Insight Software. Mike passed the soundtrack of what would be his first commercially released game, Subterranean Stryker (Insight, March 1985), down to his musically inclined younger brother Tim, who thereby got his first taste of programming. The result was fairly simple–little more than an amateur doodle–but for a 15 year old kid with no prior programming experience it was a pretty sound start. Insight Software were satisfied enough to keep Tim Follin around, and over the next year he familiarized himself with the sounds of the ZX Spectrum.

What he probably didn’t do was familiarize himself with the sounds of Rob Hubbard. What emerged from Tim Follin’s early experimentation on the ZX Spectrum was a sound all of its own. Agent X (Mastertronic, 1986) was heavily influenced by progressive rock, a feature which would characterize Tim’s work across multiple decades and platforms, but its uniqueness rested on his productive employment of the system’s excessively distorted tones. Rather than viewing the distortion as an obstacle blocking the path to quality arrangements, Tim Follin made it an essential and intrinsic feature of the music.

Agent X didn’t appear out of nowhere. Follin’s sound steadily improved during his short stint with Insight Software, such that on Vectron (late 1985) you can definitely hear a rough draft of things to come. His better works also coincided with his first real job. Follin was hired by developers Software Creations in 1986 (they developed all of the Mastertronic games I’ll be featuring here); he was no longer tailing his brother and composing for spare change. The compositional quality understandably improved in turn.

Tim Follin’s ZX Spectrum sound was unlike anything heard on the Commodore 64. It was a sort of post-rock prog shoegaze madness before any such notion formally existed, meant to be blasted at maximum volume, encasing the listener in a wall of sound. Future Games (Mastertronic, June 1986), my personal favorite on the system, was a far more intelligent piece than Agent X. The way the song slowly builds up into a glitch-beat explosion at 2:06 is a tremendous feat given how little Follin had to work with. The song essentially ends unfinished at 2:31, but I think that can be forgiven in light of what all he accomplished here.

I think a lot of this style is the product of Follin’s own originality, and fairly unprecedented in its day. Certainly outside influence on some of the progressive rock elements is self-evident, and in an interview probably dated to 1999 or 2000, the original of which is now lost, Follin acknowledged that he was exposed to a lot of Genesis, Yes, and Rush growing up. But the shoegazey layer of static and especially the glitch beats are features I don’t start to identify in other musical scenes until some time later. It’s not like he was listening to Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares at home.

Agent X II (Mastertronic, 1987) was a good deal more accessible than most of his previous works, featuring a bluesy groove and plenty of rock and roll soloing, but noise was still the glue that held it all together. I think it’s pretty telling that when Tim Follin programmed the Commodore 64 port sound–Agent X II and Scumball (Mastertronic, 1987) were his first attempts at C64 composition–he wrote an entirely new set of songs. Follin based everything he wrote around the instrument with which he wrote it, and however much other artists were trying to make the ZX Spectrum sound like a C64, these were two different animals.

Chronos (Mastertronic, 1987) is probably his most famous ZX Spectrum theme, and understandably so. Technically, or so I gather from the comments I’ve read, it is his most outstanding effort on the system. I don’t know enough to recognize technical skill in chiptune programming when it slaps me in the face. But I think the music speaks for itself. Tim Follin was to the ZX Spectrum what Rob Hubbard was to the Commodore 64, and it was only his first of many legacies.

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