Tuesday, 10 August 2021

EXP001: TOP GEAR — BARRY LEITCH

Box art for Top Gear for SNES

This interview with Barry Leitch, composer behind dozens of games including Top Gear, is the inaugural feature in our EXP series, showcasing the stories behind some of the world's most iconic and interesting video game soundtracks

Top Gear was one of the first racing games to appear on the SNES in 1992. It was also one of the best racing games for the nascent console. Fans of the game often cite its simplicity: choose a car (some are faster than others); what country you want to represent; automatic or manual; and away you go.

And, though probably true for any two-dimensional racers, the way the cars whipped and screeched around corners — while in reality they were stationary in the middle of the screen — was exhilarating. It was transportive, too, whisking young gamers to places they’d barely heard of let alone visited — Bordeaux, Hiroshima, Stockholm — with the help of neat scrolling backgrounds.

But Top Gear fans also cite its music. Combining rock sensibilities with breakneck Europop, the soundtrack featured driving rhythms (no pun intended), with pulsing drums, juddering low slung bass and leads that spun sparkling, simple melodies — as well as some famously glittering arpeggios — Top Gear sounded good. Really good.


"It was decided that I would spend the week either sleeping in the office, or on some programmer’s living room floor"

Top Gear was developed by Gremlin Graphics, a now defunct studio then based in Sheffield, U.K. The game's musical maestro was Barry Leitch. Born and raised in Strathaven, a “nice wee town… full of the usual Scottish influences” just outside Glasgow, Leitch, 51, cites video games as an early creative outlet.

“Me and some of my friends who got computers around the same time simply embraced them,” he says. “I sold my first game soundtrack when I was 15 years old, just shy of my 16th birthday. That was 35 years ago.”

Seven years later, Leitch began working on Top Gear.

Was there a brief? “Fuck no! ‘Gremlin are doing a driving game, can you go down and do the music for it’ — that was the brief,” he says, adding that he had no real idea about the tracks or locations that would be involved in the game. Levels were still being made at the time Leitch joined the team.

Far from any luxurious studio endeavour, creating the music for Top Gear sounds like a much more rock-and-roll experience for the game development world.

“Gremlin were about an hour away from where I worked in Dewsbury, too far for public transport, and I was too poor to own car,” Leitch says. “So it was arranged for me to be delivered to Gremlin, and that I would spend the week either sleeping in the office, or on some programmer’s living room floor.”

In this Sheffield base, he acquainted himself with what he had to work with. The development manual was in Japanese, but one of the programmers found a source code file for the music, which Leitch started “messing around with.”

“I put in an arpeggio for my favourite chord progression (the one in the Vegas piece), just an arpeggio going up and down to test how many octaves I had, how things sounded etc. Just making sure shit worked,” he continues.

“I found the echo command [which was] amazing!” he says. “I set it to maximum and it sounded glorious.” But there were limits to the technology at the time: the echo was using all the memory, and there would literally be no game with the echo set so high. Leitch settled with minimum. “It sounded ok…” he recalls.


"I wrote a few soundtracks for games where you have to kill everyone, but it takes a personal toll. There is no upside to shooting games: It's all just death"

Aside from the new technology in synthesising music, constraints in the number of channels that could be used at any one time led to innovation in composition. The title theme, for instance, features a lead arpeggio with a secondary arpeggio playing between the gaps; what with the short notes and additional arpeggios of the bassline, the drums and lead melodies, it feels more like five or six channels, not just four. “Electronica always sounds great on sound chips that use wavetable,” Leitch notes.

Nintendo DSP-1 chip was the most widely used of all the SNES DSPs
That glittering, echo-heavy sound, prevalent throughout the Top Gear soundtrack, was quite groundbreaking at the time. “It was the first sound chip to have a built-in DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effect like this, and I totally dug it,” Leitch notes.

After the arpeggio, he extended the melody, adding drums, bassline, and more arpeggios. “By that time it was Tuesday afternoon.” He'd arrived on Monday, and that was one track.

The sheer reality of having to spend so long not only composing music, but also programming it, meant Leitch would have been spending more than a week crashing at the Gremlin Graphics. The solution was to recycle some of his previously written music.

Leitch grabbed pieces he’d composed for Lotus Turbo Challenge 1 and 2, both for the Amiga, and essentially remixed them, taking the choppy, somewhat harsh and staccato sounds of the Amiga soundtracks into the more glimmering aesthetics of Top Gear. The Top Gear title theme, for example, is the Lotus 2 completion music but remade with new, better hardware.

“I got finished in time to go home on Friday.”

The legacy of Top Gear continues today. It could be down to the gameplay, but key to any visual or motor memory is audio. It could also be down to the genre of the game itself, which is one that Leitch can get on board with.

“I like writing music for racing games,” he says. “I like a lot of powerful and energetic music, that whole melodramatic edge to things, I love that stuff, so writing a bunch of tunes that make it sound like you could win the championship any second, or go straight into a tree at 200mph is a lot of fun.”

Shooters — less so. “I wrote some game soundtracks [for games] where you had to kill everyone, and it takes a personal toll on you, because the outcome is always the same,” he says. “[You’re] killing everyone. There is no upside to that: It’s all just death.”

Specifically, Top Gear enjoys a large fanbase across South America, in particular Brazil. Leitch puts it down to price: “When the first PlayStation was released, it must have been too expensive for these markets, and as such the SNES had an extended lifespan,” he says.

The popularity and renown of Top Gear in the region has seen the game spiritually remade in the form of Horizon Chase Turbo (2018), by Brazilian developers Aquiris Game Studios, again with Leitch on music-making duties; he’s also given talks in Brazil, at Feevale University, Novo Hamburgo, to name one venue.

Being a game that’s almost 30 years old now, memories of Top Gear for many people — whether they’re from Sao Paulo, San Francisco or Surrey — come complete with nostalgia.

“You have no idea how many times people have told me heartwarming stories about how they used to play TG with their brothers, their fathers, their sisters, their mothers while they were growing up,” Leitch says.

“Those melodies have become theirs now, and when they hear them, it instantly transports them back to that time.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of that.”

EXP is an interview feature series dedicated to sharing the stories behind some of the world's most iconic and interesting video game soundtracks, and showcasing the composers who created them.

| EXP000 ← |   | EXP001 |   | → EXP002 |
Brazilian-developed Horizon Chase Turbo is the spiritual successor to Top Gear

  • 🔔 For a split of reworked tracks taken from both Top Gear and Horizon Chase, head over to Barry Leitch's Bandcamp.

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Barry Leitch Internet Presence ☟
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