AN INTERVIEW WITH ROB HUBBARD
After sales of the Commodore 64 started plummeting and with it the sales of '64 games, sound programmers alike were forced to look elsewhere. The only viable machines at the time seemed to be the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, or perhaps consoles. But the music programming scene, which seemed to have been the aorta of life on the '64, was never the same again. In an effort to find out what the former major Commodore 64 music programmers were up to these days, I set about trying to locate and then interview them.
If you ask literally just about any former Commodore 64 user who loved SID music who his favourite music programmer was, he'll say "Rob Hubbard". If you ask any of the other sound programmers who their favourite music programmer was, "Rob Hubbard". The man is seen as the epitome of brilliant Commodore 64 sound programming, having conjured up awesomely classic tunes such as "International Karate", the heavy-rocking "W.A.R.", the eerily superb "Master of Magic" (which was actually kind of a cover, I found out recently), the immortal "Crazy Comets" (as well as a really funky sequel, "Mega Apocalypse") and my personal favourite, the 15+ minute epos "Knuckle Buster". He inspired a generation of sound programmers, including one of the technically most gifted sound talents to arrive on the Atari ST system, Jochen "Mad Max" Hippel. Then, suddenly, around 1989, he got whisked away by Electronic Arts US. He left his hometown of Newcastle, moved to the US and was never heard of again.
Or was he?
I set about trying to find him around and, in the end, did. Without him, something crucial would be lacking from any interview project about Commodore 64 music programmers that pretended to be 'attempting completeness'. The results of an email interview are to be found below. I have added one or two useful snippets that I could recall from an interview I'd done with him way back in early 1986.
For how many products did you write music and on which systems?
Robb: I don't have a complete list, but I did about 70 tunes prior to 1988 on the Commodore 64 [Rob included a list which has in it some tunes that I'd never heard of or seen anywhere, including "Food Feud" for Firebird (he did two versions that never shipped), "Deep Strike" for Durell, "Trojan" for Durell, "Pulsator" for Martech, "Wolf" for Gargoyle Games and "Rainbow Dragon" for Firebird], tunes on the Atari ST ("Goldrunner", which is basically a rework of a "Human Race" tune, "Thundercats", "Jupiter Probe", "Warhawk") and some tunes for other machines ("HydraFoil" for Amstrad/Spectrum, "Extirpator" for Atari 8-bit(?), "5 a Side Soccer" (Amstrad)) and the music score for "KnightTyme".
What was the first tune you ever did?
Robb: The first tune for a game (as opposed to demo tunes) was "Thing on a Spring" for the Commodore 64. Prior to that, I had primarily been attempting to sell some educational programs I had written, but it turned out the companies liked the music better than the actual programming. So I decided it might be a good idea to concentrate on the music instead of the educational software.
What was the most difficult tune to write, technically?
Robb: Delta in-game music was based on very short riffs and phrases that required a special driver to play it back. So the problem then became one of debugging the music so it played properly and didn't go out of sync.
What did you prefer, writing conversions (like "Commando") or doing new tunes?
Robb: I always prefered original tunes, although "Commando" was fun to do also, as it didn't end up much like the original arcade version.
Where did you get the tune of the "Delta" music from? Someone told me it was from an old black and white film where nuns or priests were chanting the tune, but he didn't remember the name and I'm really curious.
Robb: "Delta" was inspired from Pink Floyd and Philip Glass (the film was called "Koyaanisqatsi" [Island, 1983]).
Where did you get musical ideas from?
Robb: Some of the tunes were things I had written many years earlier ("W.A.R.", "Chimera", "Phantoms of the Asteroid"). Others were written specifically for the game. Other tunes were a result of specific direction from the game programmers or company.
What thoughts come to mind when you think of the game "Goldrunner" on the Atari ST system?
Robb: Steve Bak, the programmer, wanted to use the tune, as he had heard the original version on the C64 game "Human Race", so I just went and did it.
Which sound system did you prefer, Amiga or Commodore 64?
Robb: Looking back, I would say the C64 was more fun to use.
What was the most difficult aspect of programming on a machine with a rather more limited sound chip like, for example, the Atari ST?
Robb: You had to work harder for very little gain in terms of sound quality. Also, remember that the ST chip was nothing new to us (programmer/musicians) back then, as we had used it on the Amstrad machines.
What did you think of the Atari ST "BIG Demo"?
Robb: Pretty cool.
Around 1989, I believe, you left Newcastle to permanently live in the United States working for Electronic Arts. What was the change of environment like?
Robb: A radical change in life style, economy and culture. It takes a few years to adapt.
When you were back in Britain you were also in a band. What happened when you left England?
Robb: I am no longer in a band, I played my last gig back then, and have never played in public or in a band since then.
What was your main job at Electronic Arts initially, and why did they want you in the US permanently?
Robb: I was EA's first audio guy, and used to do everything back in 1988 - music, programming, SFX, PCs, MIDI, Drivers, tools etc. I wanted to check out all the hype about Philips CDi and optical media.
What was (or is) the working environment at EA like?
Robb: EA is a huge company now, and everything is driven by product development, ship dates and stock price. There is still a lot of interesting technology going on that keeps everyone busy.
You do no more game music programming these days. What are you doing now?
Robb: No, I don't write music any more for games. I sometimes do programming, research or tools. I spend most of my time doing managment and resources management tasks. I also look at new technology, set up demos for producers and help drive the direction that EA is heading with technology. I also sometimes find contracters to help with the workload.
Are you still in contact with people from the 'old 8-bit and 16-bit scene'?
Robb: I still talk to a few people through the magic of Email and the Internet.
What would be your favourite pieces of game music on the Commodore 64, of your own and of others?
Robb: Hmmmm , my stuff would be "Sanxion", "Kentilla", "W.A.R.", "International Karate" and "[Crazy] Comets". Other people's would be "Rambo", "Comic Bakery", "Chariots of Fire" (Ocean's "Hypersports" loader tune) and Ben's "The Last Ninja".
Have any of your tunes ever appeared on a 'regular' audio CD?
Robb: A few enhanced mixes of my tunes have appeared on "Back in Time" by Chris Abbott.
What follows now are the 'words and phrases to react to'. Please react briefly to the following...
Maniacs of Noise.
Robb: Charles Deenan - still works at Interplay.
Robb: I talk to him now an then...
Robb: I still talk to Martin, who works at Digital Anvil with Chris Roberts. Chris was the big producer guy at Origin, who did the "Wing Commander" series. He is an old school buddy friend of Martin's.
Robb: I don't know what he's doing now...
Robb: Yamaha sound Chip on the ST I think...
Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliette" (the "Sanxion" title tune is based on this).
Robb: Very nice piece of music. I have the score to the whole thing, plus all his symphonies.
L. Ron Hubbard :-)
Robb: I get called Ron a lot and it really iritates me ... :-)
Written September 1998
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