|★ AMSTRAD CPC ★ ROB HUBBARD ★|
|Rob Hubbard||Rob Hubbard At Assembly 2003|
Newcastle is not the first place you'd go looking for one of Britain's best known computer games whizz kids - nor, in these days of 14-year-old genius, would you necessarily expect that whizz kid to be pushing 30.
But Rob Hubbard is a man who's made a career out of the unexpected. After all, nobody expects their Commodore's hard pressed 3-voice Sid chip suddenly to issue forth expensive-sounding, complex multi-part arrangements of real, original music either: but if you've got Zoids, Monty On The Run, Crazy Comets, or any one of a growing number of a slightly-special Mastertronic games sitting on your shelf, then you've had a taste of what it can do in the hands of an expert.
If, as has often been observed, the software industry is a re-run of the pop business, then Rob Hubbard must surely be its Phil Spector, a great original, extending the bounds of the possible, and masterminding hits for others. (How many so-so games have benefited from reviewers passing comment: 'another great soundtrack from Rob' ?) The analogy goes further: Rob Hubbard writes just the music for other people's games, making him the only 'name' music specialist in an industry increasingly dominated by anonymous programming teams.
We're sitting in a decidely low-tech living room in his Newcastle flat. On a desk in the corner stands a 64, disc drive, and (covered) printer. A perfectly ordinary black and white portable TV serves for a monitor, whilst a bit further along sits a brand-new Amstrad 8256. Unplugged. Next to that, the only visible musical instrument, a virtually prehistoric Casio portable mini keyboard. Discs and music manuscript papers are everywhere.
"I've arranged for string quartets and pub-rock groups, worked as a musical copyist, and even pushed a knackered transit full of band gear through waist high snow at four o'clock on a January morning!'
Tyne Tees TV is currently filming a 'concept musical'he wrote a couple of years ago, Work, 'About life, society, and the whole bit, y'know?', but now computing affords the most satisfying - and lucrative - creative outlet. Ironic really, since Rob bought his first machine simply to keep abreast of the impact computers were making in music. He was considering the ill fated Memotech (How history would have changed if he'd bought it . . .) but when the price of the C64 dropped to the £230 mark, Rob, intrigued by its musical facilities, took the plunge.
"1 was completely self-taught, starting off like everyone else with Basic graphics routines, but the great thing about the 64 is how it encourages you to get into machine coding. I think 1 wrote my first code routine after about two months."
Early forays into educational programming having elicited little response. Rob chanced upon the idea that was to change his life.
"There were already specialist graphics programmers - why shouldn't there be specialist music programmers too? I went for it. . .1 guess my breakthrough games were Confuzion and Monty. Since then, I haven't had to look so hard for work." He laughs. In fact, his biggest problem these days is keeping up with the sheer volume of commisions. What's the fastest so far?
"That'd be Commando for Elite. They called me on the Wednesday evening, dragged me down to Birmingham on the Thursday, plonked me in a hotel room with all the gear at about 10 that morning - and I finished at about 8 the following morning. I still haven't seen the version that's on sale!"
He usually has about 4K of memory space to hit the music code in . . Sometimes as little as 3, never more than 6", and this leads to some hard decisions.
"I think the key for me as far as programming goes was understanding interrupts - 98 per cent of games work on Rasta interrupts. I just make sure my music routines are run from them ... As time's going on, I've built up a set of routines which let me do everything a lot more efficiently . . . For instance, I like Pitchband. and use it a lot a routine I developed while working on Monry On The Run. I also like things to sound rich, not wimpy. I think my experience of sync programming has been of help there: I've got two Pulse width routines, a short one and a long one, and a vibrato routine - between them you can get some great sounds. Ring Mod and Sync are the most versatile things to use on the Sid chip though - they are hard to use. because they take two of the voices, but are your best chance of getting distinctive sounds.
"I soon worked out that as long as you keep something going the bassline, or percussion - you can 'steal'the other two voices for a quick effect or impressive
He laughs: "You can break into any Turbo with a machine code monitor and a bit of patience . . . it's very educational"
"Anyway, the impression of so many voices playing at once is most helped by proper musical arranging, as much as bemg a programming whiz."
Results are monitored over the 'typical punter system' used for all his work.
"It's like a recording studio, listening to the final cut over tiny monitors - if a track sounds good then, you know it will when people play it at home." The spartan approach extends to programming aids.
"I've got a couple of Turbo loaders for the disc drive, and Andrew Trott's Assembler Package, but that's about it. I was impressed with the Orpheus Electrosound music utility - with that, someone who knows what they're doing should be able to put me in the dustbin -but the manual's about half an inch thick and it's not very user friendly ... 1 wouldn't write one myself, for the same reason. I don't think I could make it friendly enough."
Does his own taste in music influence his writing?
"I make a point of listening to the Top 40 every week. After all, most of these games sell to kids, so what's the point of putting in an obscure classical piece? They need to hear something they can relate to . . .One of my own favourite tunes, Crazy Comets, was a compromise between New Order, who I like, and a funk 'slap-bass'sound ... it all depends. Sometimes the tunes are totally original, sometimes I adapt things, and make them my own. Monty was like that -it started out as the theme from the old radio detective show, Dick Barton!"
Rob now feels that he has got the best he can out of the 64:
"I'm probably going to carry on working with Mastertronic: they now pay me over five times what I started out getting! But I'm also keen to do other things. I can push the Sid chip to its limits but I don't think there's much more soundwise I can get out of it. Of course, as a programmer and a musician, I'm very keen to get my hands on an Amiga built-in Midi, Fairlight compatible, 4-channel stereo (pannable, I hope) - I've even heard that the sounds are produced digitally like the DX7 [Rob's got one. and plays it in a local club band, whenever he gets the time]. Obviously, I hope it sells - because if it does, there'll be a lot more work for me! Though I do wonder if it's the right machine at the right time.
"I bought the Amstrad simply because there's so much work around for it. Frankly, though, it's like going from a Rolls to a Morris Minor. The monitor leads are too short, the speaker's pathetic, and the sound chip! OK, the graphics are good, and the disc drive is unbelievably fast against the Commodore -though not as reliable. I've lost stuff on it already, and that's never happened on the 1541, despite a lot of hard use. But as a programmer, I find the Amstrad unfathomable. Maybe I'm impatient, coming from a machine I know inside out, and immediately wanting to jump in the deep end. I'm transcribing some of my Commodore work for other people to code, but I think it'll be a long while before I do anything commercial myself on it."
"Do you know what I'd really like to do? If had the choice now - I'd be playing in a straight-down-the-line, honest-to God blues band!"
Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, the man who made the 64 sing looks like staying with keyboards of the Qwerty variety for a little while longer.