I stood alone on the platform, which was shrouded in mist. I blinked away the dawn and boarded the train. I had all the necessary equipment. Notebook, tape-recorder and Geordie phrase book.
Three hours later I was confronted by the horrible realisation that I wasn't going to need the latter item after all. The people here actually spoke comprehensible English.
This, friends, is Newcastle. The basis of a throughly baffling cliche about 'coals' and, more importantly, home of Mr. Rob Hubbard - musician extraordinaire.
For the uninitiated, Rob is probably the main behind that infuriatingly catchy theme tune on your favourite arcade game. His list of game sound tracks are as long as your arm.
Rob's 'workshop' is a large room with a back wall which seems to be constructed with very thick books. A brief perusal of the titles show they are not wholly unconnected with his programming.
Rob likes to get the 'mood' of a piece of work. For a recent project he bought books and record on the subject of Russian Balalaika music, and for a karate game he worked on, he played the Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence soundtrack incessantly, before realising it was 'rubbish', and composing his own piece!
The name of the game for Rob is space. Sometimes he is given a handful of kilobytes to play around with. Other times, however, he isn't so lucky, and his tune has to go through several stages of compression before fitting into the ridiculous space left over after an extravagant programmers has finished.
His 'brief' can be as vague as a few hopeful adjectives over the phone from a software house, or a couple of photos. Sometimes, he actually gets to see the game...!
One of his newer projects, Master of Magic, the excellent Mastertronic D&D game, contains a piece over five minutes long, yet Rob managed to fit it into 3k.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Sakamoto
How long would something like that take to program? "About four days." Solid?
"No. It'd be spread over - hopefully - about two weeks. Even so, it'd be four days of pretty hard graft."
"I like to work so that I can, like, do a certain amount and then leave it, and go back after a while to see what's wrong with it, and what's right with it. If you work in a long stretch, you lose your critical facilities. Know what I mean?"
Like a writer, Rob is a little protective about his work. Has a software company ever decided that his music isn't 'right' for a certain game?
"No. Reviewers have thought that, but nobody else!"
"But you know what reviewers are like..."
His programs are all (of course) machine code, and extremely confusing to look at for the simpleton interviewer. He works with sub-routines and tables and raster interrupts. This was all a bit beyond me - being something to do with 'fitting it onto the time it takes to cross the screen'. When visible, they make the Commodore 64 look rather like a Spectrum whilst loading.
Warhawk (aka Proteus) by Firebird
music is structured. The way he explained it made his system sound
rather like Forth. One command branching to another, which, in turn,
calls another and so-on. When writing the tune, he works in 'chunks',
rather than voices. He says that if you complete one sound channel, or
'voice' it's very hard to make sure that other channels are in time. If
you do it piece by piece, perfecting each couple of seconds of music at
a time, with all three channels going at once, it's easier to handle.
A word familiar to BBC users will be 'procedure'. This is how the 'Forth' idea works. It's really quite simple. If your music is going to play the same set of notes more than once, write a procedure. It's easier to call it twice than to store the data twice. The more notes you fit into a procedure, the more space you save.
What with conversions, rushed deadlines and out-of-the-blue requests for certain items, it sounds like a full-time job.
"Well, I play in a band as well. Doing cover versions of other groups' records. I play keyboards. Doing clubs and that."
Which presumably helps to forget the computer for a while?
"Yeh. For a few hours I'm in a completely different place with different people. It's a break to get on stage and play with the band."
Rob works on at least a couple of projects at a time. When I was there, he had just about finished the theme for International Karate for System 3, and Proteus, for a company of the same name, in Norwich.
After searching through his disgustingly orderly box of discs, he loaded one - "You have to wait ages for this." - and gave me a demo. A fairly tame 'ching' started the tune, and then mixed with a 'woooo', a 'tcheee' and some others I can't spell, until the poor old Commodore 64 was busting a gut and sounding eerily like a soundtrack for a rather up-market martial arts movie. It's frighteningly good. How long did it take to do this one?
"Oh, I spent quite a long time on this, er, a couple of weeks."
With ideas for computer games being used up at a ferocious rate, I sat on the train home, wondering how long it will be before people start writing games around Rob's soundtracks.
THE ROB HUBBARD FILE
Favourite Food: Steak & Kidney pie / Lasagne ("a decent one...")
Favourite Drink: Coffee
Most Disliked TV show: "Anything with Terry Wogan in..."
Favourite TV show: Fawlty Towers
Favourite Music: Chick Corea
Favourite Movie: Never Ending Story. "It was quite good..."
Countries Visited: Belgium / Austria / Italy / Denmark / Norway / Sweden / Jersey
Pet Hate: Baseless, "my computer is better than yours", debates
Rob's not a fan
but with eight million listeners to his BBC Radio 2 show,
Terry Wogan is the undisputed king of morning British radio.
Article reproduced from Computer & Video Games (C+VG) Magazine June 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 that appear in this article:
Amazon.com, Commodore64.hu, Wikipedia.