Mark Knight, also known as TDK or Madfiddler, has been part of the video games music scene since the onset of the ’90s, having cut his teeth in various cracktro and demo crews. His fruitful collaboration with publishing giant Mindscape secured him a number of successful subsequent titles and collaborations with Bullfrog, EA and Codemasters. Destiny led him to the racing game arena, where he learnt his sound design skills. The smell of petroleum would eventually follow the accomplished composer and sound designer on a creative journey under his very own banner: the aptly named Sonic Fuel.
Hi Mark, what would be your very first memory of a chiptune?
It depends on what you class as a chiptune, cause you can argue that anything written on C64 is a chiptune. Yeah, I do remember, because the C64 sound chip made a massive impression on me straight away. The first game I had was a cartridge game called International Soccer – and the sound was terrible in that – but soon after that, there was a game called Forbidden Forest. I had three games early on: Forbidden Forest, Super Huey and then, a little bit later, Commando. Commando is one of Rob Hubbard’s best soundtracks and that blew me away. I fell in love with the C64 sound.
We are talking about the mid-‘80s. I was about 11 years old and I didn’t have any kind of stereo or anything like that. The only person in my family who had a sound recorder was my grandmother. She had this old fashioned, big hi-fi sound system with a turntable, radio and cassette deck. She also had a microphone. So I used to stretch the microphone over to her television and recorded the music from the games through the TV speaker. I did this for a little while, probably for a year or 18 months until I got my own little ghetto blaster Walkman. So I’d record my own C64 tapes and listen to them on my Walkman.
I didn’t get a computer because of the sound. I got the computer because I was banned from riding my bicycle, as it happens. I was a bit too dangerous. My dad was a policeman and I raced one of his colleagues down the hill – basically raced a police car down this very steep hill in Brighton where I lived. They told my dad that, if I didn’t calm down, they’d be scraping me off the pavement. I guess, my dad and mum had a conversation which involved taking my bike away from me. That was a big thing for me as I was always out riding my bike. That got replaced by the Commodore. After falling in love with its sound, I bought a program called Electrosound and tried to write my own music on it.
Did you have any musical background?
Yeah, I had been playing violin since I was six. My grandfather, before World War II, was a Polish concert violinist. During the war, he moved to the UK as part of the Polish forces flying for the RAF and settled down there with my grandmother. He started to teach me the violin a few years before he passed away. That legacy carried on; my mum kept me learning it. So I had a grounding in music – not necessarily in music composition or music theory, but I certainly knew what notes are and started to understand what chord progressions were and melodies, etcetera. That certainly must have been a help to me.
What were your other musical influences back in the ‘80s?
Back in those days I didn’t have a cassette recorder or player. So the only things that I heard in the house were my mum’s ABBA LPs, and my dad had an Akai Reel-to-Reel recorder and he had things like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Tubular Bells,’ – but only the first half. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scared me as a kid. I don’t why, but I found it a very scary piece of music. But ‘Tubular Bells’ was awesome. When I finally got my own cassette recorder, somebody almost immediately introduced me to Jean-Michel Jarre. So it was a mixture of JMJ, Mike Oldfield, and then Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway on C64, that really got me going – got the juices flowing that I like electronic music.
Can you still recall the first tune you wrote?
The very first tune I wrote? I would have it on a cassette somewhere, cause I’ve still got everything. Actually, I have digitized it all now and put it all on hard drive. I can’t remember what it sounds like, but I am sure it wasn’t very good. Electrosound didn’t really use a lot of C64 capabilities either. There were no multiplex chords, no ring modulation or syncing of the waveforms. It was very very basic. You had three waveforms or three instruments. There was no wave table, so you couldn’t make an instrument that had a bass drum at the beginning and turn it into a bass guitar or anything like that. But I can remember roughly some of the tunes I was writing or arranging back then. I was stealing a lot of stuff as well, because for some reason I was thinking I could steal a piece of classical music and say it was mine – that’s a bit weird [laughing]. I think I rearranged some Mozart or ‘La Folia’ by Corelli and all sorts of violiny type of tunes.
Okay, so what about the first tune you were really pleased with?
Yeah, I remember that track. At that time, I had a little drum machine on the C64 called Microrhythm. So, when I got to that point, I was recording C64 on one half of a stereo cassette and – I don’t know how I managed to do it but – I was able to record two tracks. So I’d record the C64 on one half and then, on the other half of the stereo track, I’d play drums on the keyboard – really, really out of time! But I got a lot out of it – a lot of pleasure out of doing that.
How was the transition to Amiga after all that?
Easy [laughing]! The Amiga made a lot more sense. I had no programming background whatsoever, so Electrosound worked for me, because it was almost like a piano key editor from something like Cubase. Whereas a lot of the other programs like Soundmonitor or Ubix Music were almost like trackers, but I think the concept wasn’t as well written as the tracker format on Amiga. I bought Amiga because I heard the music. I think it was a Dr. Awesome remix of ‘Tied Up’ by Yello which was on a Team 17, or whatever they were called, when they did public domain before they did game software. I heard that at a friend’s house and I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta get Amiga now,’ because I can drum sounds that sound like drums and I can have saxophone that sounds like saxophone. So pretty much from day one that I had Amiga, I got the tracker and I started learning properly how to write music.
SoundTracker, ProTracker or…?
Yeah, I think it was before the ProTracker. I got the Amiga in either ‘88 or ‘89. And yeah, then there was ProTracker and all the little strange versions of it. I had one called MelonTracker; it was a ProTracker, but Melon Dezign-styled with their logos and fonts on it etcetera. I’ve still got that on a Melon floppy disk.
Around that time, you came out with your first handle: Warlock, which later changed to TDK.
Very quickly [laughing]!
And you became a part of the demoscene. How did that come about?
Me and a couple of friends, we talked about starting a demo group on C64. Unfortunately, we were gonna call it the Kool Krackers Korporation, using only Ks, which you narrowed down to KKK and that isn’t very politically correct [laughing]. We never actually did anything anyway. I don’t think I released anything as Warlock. Warlock was just something that came to my mind; not something I put any thought into. Then there was another guy I knew, Adam Daws, who was in a demo group called THR and he suggested The Dark Knight. We got talking and The Dark Knight – dark sounds like Mark and knight obviously sounds like Knight, and then there’s also TDK, the name of the cassette company – that kinda worked a lot better for me. So TDK came and I stuck with it.
So eventually, you started writing tunes for the demoscene, but also did some memorable cracktros. How much did these two scenes blend together?
Oh, very much! Most of the music I wrote, I had no idea what it was gonna be used for. I just used to write tunes, stick them on a floppy disk, put them into an envelope and send them either to Anthrox or Melon. There was no real instant communication, so probably the first I’d known that a tune of mine was used, was when I got a copy of it downloaded via BBS.
Anthrox and Melon were the two main crews you were associated with, right?
Yeah, they were the two big ones for me.
Where were these crews situated?
Well Melon Dezign was based in Copenhagen, although they had members [elsewhere] in Denmark, a couple of members in France, and me in the UK. So there were a few kind of splattered all over the place. The music I wrote was more used in Crystal cracks. Then Audiomonster did a lot of the full-sized stuff, because my full-sized music really wasn’t competitive.
Anthrox was based mainly in the UK. I got hooked up with Anthrox when I made some childish, nasty remark about some member in their group. A guy, Trevor – Mungo was his handle – phoned me up to have a go at me, I think. I pretended to be my dad [laughing] and we kind of just hit it off. We got on and so I started to do stuff for them.