Friday, March 09, 2007

rob hubbard - master of magic

Rob Hubbard is from Hull. He used to write music for computer games back in the 1980s. He also used to have a moustache. This self-taught musical maverick of the games industry is my newest hero.

The Commodore 64, when it was released in 1982, boasted a pretty sophisticated synthesiser chip. With an 8 octave range, its 3 voices were independently programmable, enabling you to cook up pretty much any sound imaginable - from harpsichords and flutes to barking dogs & explosions.

But as a compositional platform, it was by no means without limitations. Its 3 voice output meant that only 3 notes could be played at the same time. Even more importantly, composing music on the C64 the way Rob Hubbard worked involved writing reams & reams of code. Each note had to have numerical value assigned to it for pitch, waveform, volume, length, etc. For example, here's the code required to make a shooting sound:

10 V=54296 : W=54276 : A=54277 : H=54273 : L=54272
20 FOR X = 15 TO 0 STEP -1 : POKE V,X : POKE W,129:
POKE A,15 : POKE H,40 : POKE L,200 : NEXT
30 POKE W,0 : POKE A,0

This snippet of code produces just ONE note, played once. Imagine writing enough of this stuff to make a 10 minute, polyphonic, rhythmically complex piece of music. That's how Rob Hubbard rolled. His mad skills forged new ground in gaming audio - his compositions sometimes frantic, sometimes progressively epic & compelling - perfect video game music.

But don't be all rushing out to HMV and trying to buy the latest Rob Hubbard CD. The internets being what it is, these crunchy golden nuggets are only a click away.

Hark at the medieval mystery of The Master of Magic, the Jean Michel Jarre inspired One Man and his Droid, and the classic 'chase' theme from Monty On the Run. Then, if you still haven't had enough, here's the theme from Commando, and the full 10 minutes of International Karate. I love this stuff. But it gets better! Because, working with fellow composer Jeroen Tel & the Netherlands-based Ricciotti ensemble, Rob Hubbard recently scored some of these pieces for what was to become the C64 Orchestra. (Click the link & scroll down for recordings of the orchestral versions, plus a really interesting video of the rehearsals, featuring both composers talking about their early game music.) I find this kind of thing really exciting. I'm not just talking about any old cover version - it has to break new ground in genre-spanning for me to be interested. In fact, I haven't been so excited since I heard The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band do that version of 'Roundabout'.

Loads more Rob Hubbard tracks are available at The High Voltage SID collection. You'll need to go here to download sidplay2/w - don't be scared, it's a tiny bit of software that will enable you to play SID files. Then follow this link for the Rob Hubbard archive at HVSC. It seems like a bit of an effort, but I assure you it's worth it for such aural delights as 'Zoids', 'Sanxion' and my personal favourite, 'Shockway Rider', which I listened to for a full 45 minutes before realising it was on a loop.

So there you go. The music of Rob Hubbard, ladies & gentlemen. You can't dance to it, and it wouldn't go down well if you put it on in the pub. But there's nothing quite like it and, in all likelihood, there never will be again. Hats off, everyone.


  1. awesome! i love a good cover too. hand's up for "one man and his droid" by dragonforce. they're made for each other.

  2. Excellent post han! If I had my way, computers would still have 8-bit processors and be running BASIC when you switched them on. Have you been to see the collection they've got at Bletchley Park?