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Profile - The Master Of Micro Music
By Tony Reed
Published on 11/20/2006
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.

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."'

Not the Memotech!
A relative latecomer to computers, Rob was until about four years ago, keeping things very loose, plying his trade as a professional musician, turning the skills gained from a lifetimes' playing and three years at music college to a variety of musical jobs: "I've arranged for string quartets and pub-rock groups, worked as a musical copyist, and even pushed a knackered Transit full of band through waist high snow at 4 o'clock on a January morning!"

Tyne Tees TV are currently filming Rob's 'concept musical' Work, "About life, society, and the whole bit, y'know?", but it is now computing which offers him his most satisfying - and lucrative - creative labour. Ironic, since Rob bought his first machine to keep abreast of the impact he could see computers having in music. He was considering the now-forgotten Memotech (How history would have been changed if he'd bought it...) but when the price of the C64 dropped that first time to the £230 mark, Rob, intrigued by it's musical facilities, took the plunge.
Memotech MTX512
Memotech MTX512 by Memotech Limited


"I 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 I wrote my first machine code routine after about two months."

From the very start, Rob had an eye on the commercial applications of his new hobby.

"At the time, about 3 or 4 years ago, the games boom was at its height, and there was no decent educational software about at all. So I wrote two or three music tuition programmes - Pitch training, sight reading - and sent them out to companies. No response.

"Then it occured to me that there were specialist graphics programmers - why shouldn't there be specialist music programmers too? That's when I decided to get in there. I guess my breakthrough games were Confuzion and Monty. Since then, I haven't had to look so hard for work." He laughs.

Rock n' Bolt
Rock n' Bolt by Activision

Does he ever worry about the whizzkid competition, I wondered?

"As far as music is concerned - not really. There are a couple of people I respect - the guy from Ocean who did Hypersports, the American kid who did Master of the Lamps and Activision's Rock n' Bolt ...He's good. But I broke into the games to see how he did it - if you've got a machine code monitor and enough patience, then you can break any Turbo - and, from what I can gather, his coding is really inefficient - he just treats the music like any other data, loads all the information each time for every sound, which uses up bags of memory. The system I've developed is very efficient. Musical data - pitch, duration and so on - goes in on one routine, and the actual sounds on another."

One of the strongest features of Rob's best work is the way in which the music enhances the atmosphere of a game - listen to his sombre theme for Martech's Zoids and you'll see what I mean. Does his musical training help?

"On occasions. One of my early games seemed to called for a'hillbilly' feel, so I went out and got an album of Bluegrass fiddle music, and a couple of song books..." (Rob played me the result, complete with finger-pickin' banjo and stunningly realistic howdown fiddle. I was, ahem, impressed)"...

or, for instance on Master of Magic. I've been looking at a few medieval scores to help with the feel. In general terms, though, It's fairly obvious what to go for. One of the games I'm working on should be out in time for Christmas, so I've made all the tunes in it Christmassy."

Does his own taste in music influence what he writes?

"My tastes are very wide, but I make a point of listening to the Top 40 every week. After all, most of these games go to young kids, so what's the point of putting in some obscure classical piece? They need to hear something they can relate to ...One of my favourite tunes, Crazy Comets, was a sort of compromise between New Order, who I really like, and a typical funk thing using a sort of 'Slap-bass' sound all depends. Sometimes the tunes are totally original, sometimes, if inspiration doesn't strike, I adapt things, change them, make them my own. Monty was like that - it started out as the theme from the old radio detective show, Dick Barton!"

Dick Barton - Special Agent - BBC Radio
Dick Barton - Special Agent by BBC Radio

A popular radio program on BBC Radio from 1946 to 1951.
The BBC’s first daily radio serial, airing at 6.45 pm each weekday evening.
At its peak it reached an audience of 15 million listeners!

.mp3 - press play button to hear
a 30 second sample of the signature tune.

Direct transcriptions?
Rob draws the line though at the recent trend towards direct transcriptions of arcade game tunes, or hit records: "I mean, what's the point? If you want to hear Relax, put a record on. I felt really sorry for Tony Crowther over View to a Kill. When People have heard something so often, they're bound to be disappointed by a computer version! It's the same with the arcade games. They're very good in a way, pushing programmers to get as much as possible out of micro adaptions, but you have to be realistic. Those machines hav six or seven dedicated sound channels - you can't compete with that, you have to adapt, and get the best you can out of your machine." And how, since you mention it, do you do that? He laughs.

A View To A Kill - Domark - Tony Crowther
View To A Kill by Domark

"Its taken me long while to develop my routines, and I'm not about to give them away!" (Rob hinted that one company which had made free with one of his demo disks might shortly regret having lifted his routines!).

"Mind you, there are some general points that people might be interested in: I think the key for me was understanding how interrupts work - ninety-eight percent of all games work on raster interrupts. I just make sure my music routines are run from them. Obviously as time's gone on, I've built up a little set of routines which let me do everything a lot more efficiently and quickly. I like pitchbend, and use it a lot - a routine I developed while working on Monty. I also like things to sound rich, not wimpy: I've got two pulse width routines, short and long, and a vibrato routine - between them, you can get some great sounds. Ring Mod and Sync are about the most versatile things on the SID chip though - hard to use, of course, because they take two of the voices, but they offer the best chance of getting distinctive sounds." (My personal favourite is the very modern `metal' dunk which punctuates the Zoids theme. Depeche Mode, watch out.)


"I soon worked out that as long as you keep something going - the bassline, or a bit of percussion - you can 'steal' the other two voices for a quick effect or impressive noise, without interfering with the music. On something like Commando I've taken it to ridiculous extremes - there's barely a moment when the voices rest - voice 1 carries the tune, with the second and third voices flitting all over the shop doing different things ...though the impression of so many voices playing at once is helped by proper musical arranging as much as being a whizz at programming."

Could you describe the composition of a piece from start to finish?

"Usually, I start by tinkering around with that," he indicates a battered, and very basic Casio portable keyboard. "It's a bit of a dinosaur, but it does the job, and it's dead portable. Or, I'll start by sketching a few ideas out on manuscript instead. The bassline goes down first usually, and maybe a bit of percussion. Once I've got a four bar riff worked out - and on bad days, that can take a long while - then I bung it into the machine, just looping round, and start to develop a little melody on top, adding it in while the bassline is still running. That's when I start experimenting with sounds too, using a big Master Source Code File I set up which can be edited while the patterns' running. Some of by best sounds, like the little 'voices' in the Zoids theme have come about from tinkering, happy accidents which I hang onto; but obviously, having had a lot of experience of synths and things, I've got a good under-standing of ADSR, Ring Mod, and so on... if I've got an ideaa for a particular sound in mind, I usually know how to go about getting it... "With the basics worked out, it's a matter of beefing it up as it goes along, using available 'gaps' to steal two voices for a moment."


Results are monitored over the `typical punter system' he uses for all his work. No technoflash here - just a Spartan little room, a 64, disc-drive, and a little black and white TV. Sometimes, he'll try it out through his (perfectly ordinary) hi-fi; and that's it.

"It's like in a recording studio, when you listen 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 the disc drive, and Andrew Trott's Assembler package, but that's about it ...I was very 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."

Had you ever considered a music utility yourself?

"No, because I can't think of any way to make my methods accessible enough to the average punter to make it worth while."

Electrosound 64
Electrosound by Orpheus


What about the future? "Of course, as a programmer and a musician, I'm very keen to get my hands on an Amiga - "Fairlight compatible", 4-channel stereo - I'm trying to get as much technical information as I can about its sound chip right now... As far as the 64 goes, I'm probably going to carry on with Mastertronic: they now pay me over five times per game what I started out getting! But I'm also keen to do other things. I can now get the SID chip to do more or less anything I want, I don't think there's anything more soundwise I can do with it. The next thing would be an absolute monster game, with 10 or 12K set aside for sound, featuring very close synchronisation betweenn sound and action, like a cartoon. I've made contact with a very bright young programmer in London who's keen on the idea too - something like a Tom and Jerry cartoon perhaps. I can hear the music for it now..."

I hope it's not too long before we do. Thank you, Rob Hubbard - the first Commodore 64 pop star.

Article reproduced from Commodore Horizons magazine February 1986 edition.
Although all text appears unchanged, some photographs or images have been added or modified for aesthetic purposes.

Thank you to the following websites which were used for sourcing some images or audio that appear in this article:, Dick Barton - Special Agent, Memotech MTX Computer, Wikipedia.