Rob Hubbard

Tony Reed travels to Newcastle to talk to the man whose
music programming has squeezed sounds out of the 64
which shouldn't be possible with SID!

IT'S NOT original to remark upon a similarity between the world of top games programmers and the world of pop music - both with their charts, their overnight success stories, and their sudden failures. But the particular case of Rob Hubbard fits the cliche better than most. Uniquely amongst UK programmers, he has made his name, not through writing the next big thing in platform/arcade/adventures, but in writing the music accompanying them. And what music it is: on bestsellers like Gremlin's Monty on the Run, on Commando from Elite, or Martech's Crazy Comets, the 64's poor little 3-voice SID chip suddently brings forth great-sounding 5 or 6-part, original music, doing things you never thought it could. Hubbard's name on a game these days is a virtual guarantee of a great soundtrack. (though not necessarily of anything else.) So how does he do it? Quickly, apparently...

"...Anyway, I got a call from Elite the Wednesday evening, they dragged me down to Birmingham on the Thursday, plonked me in a hotel room with a machine and a really terrible monitor at about 10 o'clock in the morning - and I finished the music for Commando at about 8 o'clock the following morning. I still haven't seen the version that's gone on sale!"


Rob's native Yorkshire burr is overlaid with a Geordie twang, the result of spending the last nine of his thirty years to date in Newcastle (though continuing success makes an early move to London ever more imminent...)

"That's about the fastest, start to finish, that I've ever done. I'm still quite pleased with the main theme, but the Hi-Score tune, which I wrote at 4 in the morning, really sounds like the kind of thing you put on at a party at 4 o'clock in the morning!".

In the case of Commando, Rob was at least shown a demo version of the game. Sometimes, he's not even that lucky:

"I'm working on one at the moment, provisionally called Master of Magic. It's being written by Richard Darling for Mastertronic, and all I know about it are the three adjectives he used to describe it to me over the phone: 'Sorcery! Wizardry! Medieval!' Not a lot to go on, but it's musically the most complex thing I've done so far."

Given the opportunity, though, Rob usually takes about two weeks to complete a 'soundtrack':

Commando by Elite

Gerry The Germ
Gerry The Germ by Firebird

"Off and on, not working continuously. I usually get up, chuck some coffee down me neck, switch everything on, and stick at it until my brain starts coming out of my ears. I go to bed for an hour, have something to eat, watch a couple of hours of garbage on the TV, and stagger back again - sometimes for 12 or 14 hours a day, if I'm not gigging with my band." (Rob manages to fit a little ivory-tinkling with a local club band in between hacking sessions).

The more time Rob gets to work on a program - and, more importantly, the earlier he becomes involved in the writing of it - the more 'integrated' the results tend to be, as his work on forthcoming Firebird game, Gerry The Germ, demonstrates. Rob was supplied with a`cheat' version which let him see all the screens ("Just as well - I'm useless at games - when I was working on Thing on a Spring I managed to doctor it to make it easier for myself - and I could still only get a couple of thousand points!").

Gerry The Germ, which involves travelling around inside a human body, has afforded Rob the opportunity for some pretty disgusting sound effects (watch out for the Bladder and Bowel) and effective audio/visual links (i.e. a stunning 'train' sequence complete with whistle, and the clack of wheels over track).

"Basically," he explains, "You have to take your pick - either you have a 'soundtrack' running all though the game, with maybe a few effects thrown in at the right moment, like the motorbike noise in Commando, or you have sound effects for every little thing that happens, and no music. Usually, you only have about 5K for all the music and sound effects anyway. I think most room I've ever had was 6K, and I have squeezed into 3K before now, so you have to be choosy .. In Commando there is so much happening on screen all the time that if you had sound effects for all of them, there wouldn't be any point in having any music ...I generally do both music and sound effects, though, despite the fact that people seem more interested in the music now, so at least the client has the choice if they want. It varies from job to job - on The Human Race for Mastertronic, all the `jungle' noises and sound effects had already been written, which left me with only twovoices to do the music with. It was like doing it with one arm behind my back!"

"To be quite honest," he adds, "I think too much emphasis is put on sound effects, especially in reviews. Clients say to you: 'O.K. I want an effect for the bit where the arm drops off and hits the bottle.' Now, what are you supposed to do about that? If the result doesn't sound right, then the reviews'll give you a slagging - which is missing the whole point. Of course with things like explosions or bullets, it's easy to make it specific, but generally I think it's preferrable to keep things loose."'