Tim Follin: A Brief History

Blog By Dr_Z Marklincadet

Editor's Note: This article was written by Dr. Z and Marklincadet for Tim Follin's 50th birthday.

He might not have the same fame as Koji Kondo or Rob Hubbard, but should you find yourself digging around for the best chiptunes of the 80s and 90s, you will hear the whispers of a legendary name whose work unlike any other caused buzz amongst not only video game fans, but his fellow composers as well. That man turns 50 today, and his name is Tim Follin.

Born and raised in St. Helens, Merseyside along with brothers Mike and Geoff, Tim was always looking for something new to keep himself entertained, and little was more exciting in the Follin household than their ZX Spectrum. As older brother Mike started immersing himself in the vast world of coding Tim did some tinkering of his own, channeling his love for music into the beeper the 48k Spectrum had for sound. He later joined a music school as a more conventional pursuit of his passion, but ended up dropping out only three months later when he realised writing for old-fashioned orchestras wasn’t quite his thing compared to the prog rock bands he grew up listening to. It would be by complete chance that at age 14-and-a-half Tim combined his two fascinations into a career, as a simple tune of his ended up in Mike’s first game to hit shelves, Subterranean Stryker, and gamers got their first taste of the tunes to come.

The more Spectrum games Tim worked on, the more impressive his music became. Even though many games at the time only had the infamously dinky beeper for sound, Tim never stopped trying to top his last tune and learnt tricks in the process, such as incorporating more than one sound channel into his tunes. Eventually he worked on titles such as Chronos, Agent X, Agent X-II and Raw Recruit, which to this day boggle the mind in their sheer ambition, if not for just how great they sound.

While the early games Tim worked on were for a company known as Insight Software, he soon started work at the company most associated with his music: Software Creations. Like at Insight, Mike pulled along his brother to do the music for the games, this time with their third brother Geoff in tow. Because Software Creations often made ports of arcade games to the various home computers of the time alongside their original titles Tim was kept very busy, exposed to a wider variety of sound chips than he’d had before and managed to pull off great results with each one.

It was also when joining SC that Tim left the role of programming sound drivers to Ste Ruddy, who did so with input from Tim. In an interview with Ste, he had this to say about Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts’ C64 tunes: “Tim's music, as always, was astonishing for me. Having programmed the music driver (with Tim's design input), I had no idea how he made it do what it did. I remember the first time I heard the title tune with Tim explaining and miming the story to go along with it. The rain, the dungeon, the screams, the heart beat and the last breath. It was quality.” Indeed, Tim’s achievements with sound design left even the person who programmed sound drivers for him puzzled.

Sometimes Tim would do arrangements of existing music and other times made up something that fit, but even on arrangements Tim made sure to give whatever tune he worked on his own flair, arranging tunes in unique ways or adding his own stuff to the songs to make them just as, if not better then the original- a feat that would continue into his coming console years at SC.

With the release of Sky Shark and Magic Johnson’s Fast Break on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 Tim made his console debut, on which he would create some of his most famous works. Games like Solstice, Silver Surfer, Pictionary and Treasure Master all make the NES sing in a way no other composer before had achieved. Tim’s rich-sounding music for the system made some of his contemporaries seem sparse by comparison, with his music being densely-packed with arpeggios and other such flourishes of great sound design, from impactful instruments like the guitars in Silver Surfer to atmospheric foley with the bird cheeps in Treasure Master. While many of the NES games Tim worked on were never quite recognised at the time, they have seen a great resurgence in recent years- especially for the quality of the music.

Soon, SC started making video games for the SNES. This console was a huge step up for Tim, as it provided him with the perfect playground to compose what he wanted. While his first taste of sampled music was with the Commodore Amiga, he often had little space to store his samples and sequenced data as the game programmers needed the space for their games. The SNES’ consistent 64k of sound RAM was a playground in comparison, and gave Tim room to experiment.

The music Tim put out on the SNES would remain some of the highlights of his career thanks to not only masterful sample work that sounds like they’d come from a CD, but also from a compositional standpoint as many of Tim’s SNES songs are simply beautiful and breathtaking. Whether it’s with the rock-based jams like in Rock & Roll Racing or the atmospheric pieces in Equinox, you can tell Tim was giving it his all, which shows to this very day. The intense dedication to the sound of his music which brought him and Geoff to train stations for Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends led to works such as Plok impressing folks all around the industry, from David Wise to supposedly Shigeru Miyamoto himself!

Eventually Tim left Software Creations after seven long years at the company, and with his brothers and some colleagues they joined a branch of Malibu Interactive in Manchester. The stint turned out to be comparably short-lived as the company lasted only 18 months and three games, of which only one was released. Despite this, Tim took the opportunity to be rather exploratory in styles during this period. While Firearm’s single surviving track reflects the rock style he’d established on his other SNES tracks, Time Trax embraces the FM sound of the Sega Genesis to create one of the best heard on the platform.

Whether it be the groovy cutscene theme or the headbanging, rocking in-game themes, the instrumentation is absolutely fantastic and it just adds to the compositional quality of the soundtrack. However, it would be Ultraverse Prime that reflected where the tides were turning for Tim. His title theme for the game, a seven-minute epic packed with vocals and other redbook goodness, proved to be his swan song to prog rock, as the rest of the soundtrack takes a backseat to a more chill atmosphere that will reflect his shift towards the less intense for the most part.

After Malibu Interactive’s closure, Tim spent much of the late-90s to the early-2000s freelancing, and in the process took on less work than he had in his heyday. When he got to do some reflecting on his last decade through interviews that he began to take on during this period, he made it clear that he was glad to be away from it. Once calling his C64 music music in an interview from the period a bunch of nonsense (although he liked the C64 Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts soundtrack he did), it’s clear only a few of his soundtracks still brought Tim pride and joy. The freedom of redbook audio was liberating to the man who had wrestled with sound chips to bring them to that standard, but despite the push away from synthesised music’s limitation Tim would discover a whole new world of struggles to deal with on the other side.

Curiously, Tim Follin still did some Game Boy and SNES music while freelance, but now he no longer crunched the numbers himself, leaving the arrangements and sound programming to Andy Brock, which makes for a marked departure in sound from Tim’s other chiptune music. Only hints of his and Geoff’s signature style appear in games as Batman Forever, South Park and the latter’s later incarnation Maya the Bee and Her Friends, yet his essence still shines in the compositions even when separated from his trademark sound design.

When the new millenium rolled around, Tim Follin would be asked to compose for one of Sega’s IPs, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, the latest game in the Ecco franchise. Interestingly, he was hired to do the soundtrack because Sega UK producer David Nulty was a fan of Tim’s Commodore 64 music, showing that his fans extended to within the industry too! Defender of the Future’s soundtrack dips more into the atmospheric side of Tim’s music coinciding with his newfound perspective on music being "basically an unconscious experience”, something which is very apparent in this soundtrack. While Tim had written atmospheric music before, this soundtrack takes it to another level with the faux splashing sounds and the chorus, all working together to create a breathtaking soundtrack that leaves goosebumps on the skin.

Working on Starsky and Hutch was a lifelong dream of Tim’s, having worked the theme into the title music of Treasure Master, and in 2003 the dream was fulfilled as he got the gig doing the soundtrack for a video game adaptation of the hit TV series. As Tim says, “I've always loved Starsky & Hutch and it's original title music. I've tried to make the game music as cool and funky as possible, given the nature of the gameplay and overall franchise”. Needless to say Tim achieved just that, with the soundtrack having a funky yet fast-paced feel throughout.

Tim Follin would work on 4 more video games over 3 years until 2006, when Tim announced that he would be retiring from making video game music. Citing stress due to low pay and games being delayed (which happened with games such as the aforementioned Starsky and Hutch) or just cancelled entirely, the last game he worked on was Lemmings for the PSP. like Defender of the Future a lot of the music is atmospheric but it also has tunes that really take your breath away, truly a great finale to end his career.

However, the story doesn’t end there! Tim would go on to make graphics and music for the TV station Channel M, and also created TV adverts as he tapped into his underutilised passion for film. This all culminated with Tim setting up his own company, BaggyCat, to reflect this shift in career in 2013. The BaggyCat website has a list of all the work the company has done but it also used to have a section that showed some of Tim’s non-chiptune music (although the website doesn’t have this feature anymore).

That same year, Tim returned to the world of video games with a KickStarter, this time creating not just music but an entire game! Called Contradiction: Spot the Liar!, it was the type of game Tim had wanted to make for a long time, combining the medium’s interactivity with the filmmaking experience he’d gained producing short films such as Body Counting and The Sun Circle (the former winning Best Short Film under £5,000 at the 2004 Salford Film Festival). This year Tim released his second game, At Dead of Night. A survival horror game, Tim notes that “there's a small amount of what you could call actual 'music' in this but it's almost exclusively ambience and sound design.”

Which brings us to the current day, as it would seem that Tim is warming up to being in the games business again. Although involved in a more relaxed capacity than he was decades ago, he does show much more enthusiasm over games and his music than ever before. Perhaps a sign of this is with this year’s official Plok vinyl, with sound mastering by fellow legendary game composer (and huge Follin fan) Alberto Gonzalez. The soundtrack to Plok has become the showcase piece of Tim and Geoff’s work over the years, thanks in no small part to how varied the game’s songs are. From the blood-pumping Bonus Level and Boss theme to the slower, Prog Rock-inspired Akrillic theme to the Pink Floyd-esque Flea Pit, the soundtrack never goes stale and contains something for everyone.

Unsurprisingly, Tim Follin has gained quite a following over the years, and as mentioned those fans often included game musicians themselves! Here’s what Alberto, one such composer, had to say about Tim and his music:

“Well, how do I get started? Hearing his music for the first time was a revelation. I was fascinated by his technical ability to make sound chips (or lack thereof, as in the ZX Spectrum 48k) sound different from other game composers. He also composed intricate and original melodies that made his music clearly recognizable. That spread to all the platforms he wrote music for, raising the sound quality level for all of them. So, being myself a musician / programmer with no more studies than what I could hear in other people's works, he was always a great reference for me”.

Tim Follin rarely spends time on social media, however if by any chance he comes across this, just know you have a fanbase that adores your music, and that we’ll look forward to any future projects you may have in store!

Until next time Follin Fanatics, goodbye!