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Rob Hubbard

Rob HubbardRob Hubbard really sees himself as a composer of music rather than a 'games' musician - he has a wide experience of writing and arranging music. Rob started out having music lessons as a child, dropped out of university to play keyboards in a band and when they didn't make it, went to music college.

On reading about the impressive American music software for the Apple he decided to get a C64 and start experimenting.

Discovering that he had a flair for programming, Rob proceeded to write and market some music educational software. With a dire lack of money (and hence motivation) for educational software, he decided to market himself as a specialist music programmer. The first Hubbard original soundtrack, for Incentive's Confuzion, was greeted with rave reviews and since then he has improved and honed his techniques. Perhaps the real key to Rob's success is that he is essentially a musician first, and a programmer second - if he didn't have to earn money through games soundtracks he would probably spend his time playing Soul, R 'n' B, and Blues on a Hammond organ!

I got the chance to chat to Rob before he nipped off to the States for a couple of months to work for Electronic Arts.

Famous Name

Arguably, Rob Hubbard has the best known name in the world of computer games music and has led the field for several years. Working freelance from his hometown of Newcastle, Rob can be credited with raising the quality and reputation of computer music for games. His achievements with the C64's SID chip are legendary - and astonishing, given the confines that are imposed on him by game programmers.

Generally, C64 games only leave about 4K of memory for sound and music so some pretty tight programming is needed. Part of the secret of Rob's success lies in the library of self-written routines that he has built up - they occupy very small slices of memory but enable him to coax the chip into performing to the full.

The SID chip has three channels of sound. Each channel can produce one of four waveforms, which in turn gives a different 'colour' and sounds may be shaped, mixed and modulated. From this rather poor soil Rob has cultivated music extraordinaire, producing compositions that give the illusion of using far more than three channels of sound.

Rob deceives the listener's ear by using several techniques, including flipping very rapidly from channel to channel, inserting routines to change the sound very quickly (Channel One could be playing two notes of sound, then three notes on another sound and then one note of a third sound, all in rapid succession) and 'toggling', alternating rapidly from one note to another to produce the illusion of chords.

Praising Paula

Right now he is well impressed with Paula (the Amiga's sound chip)... "It's really amazing compared with anything else that's around and offers a lot of possibilities."

As you might expect, he is currently writing a player program for the Amiga (a program that enables him to get to grips intimately with the sound generating internals of a machine). As he will be using sampled sound, the player routines will also allow samples to be manipulated, opening up a wide range of possibilities. However, Rob is quick to point out that it's not so much a matter of the facilities you have, but more a question of how you use them. He's none too impressed with games that merely reproduce sampled, pre-recorded soundtracks and he's spent quite a while perfecting a way of incorporating sampled sounds into his music.

"Just sampling music and tacking it onto a game is a bit of a waste of time and not what I'd call constructive. I mean, that's where the imagination should come in. But there again you don't want to spend ages getting nowhere with a really complex sound chip. For instance, instead of farting around writing algorithms to work out additive notes and stuff like that to get the chords, I can just sample three chords from a DX synth using a Future Sound sampler that fits into the back of the Amiga. It's not an original idea, but what's the point in using, say, silly drums when you can use samples more imaginatively."

Sampling from a synth isn't totally straightforward though...

"Using digitised polyphonic chords is mostly pot luck - sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn't. High harmonics tend to cause problems, really strange problems with the SID chip. For the music in Firebird's Big Four Pack I used samples taken from the Amiga and reworked my music player routine in such a way as to give me three SID channels plus a digitised channel. If I'm lucky I can get an octave and a half of usable sample.

"The samples can be played in one of two different ways. I can either read them just once and end (known as One Shot Mode), or I can loop the sample so that it starts from the first part but loops back to somewhere in the middle of the sample at the same level. This gives me a fairly clean endless sound, although I can make up my own waveforms for a sample if I want.

"Hearing Simon Nicol's Crazy Comets demo with digitised speech over the top inspired me - I thought I might as well try and do something a bit more musical. But there's only so much you can do with samples on the 64 - with the very limited frequency spectrum, samples of really high notes get distorted and you're restricted to certain instruments because of filter problems.

"The big problem when dealing with samples is that the eye and brain can't comprehend all the data. If you see a drawing of the complete waveform it's a mess. But the ear... if you imagine you're at a party, and there are all these people talking, and there's music banging away in the background - well the ear's such a good organ it can differentiate between between it all. If you could see sampled data as the ear hears it, you could do wonderful things. But you can't visually break down a full sample structure, it's just loads and loads of bytes and you can't appreciate it as well as the ear can.

"I did the music for Rainbow Dragon without a sampler, but I bought a sampler for the Big Four Pack. I spent a whole day trying to get a good sample. Once I'd got four of five samples, I hacked 'em about and put them through a compressor (an audio signal processor). It took me an hour and a half to write an interface routine to drop the samples into my existing music routine. Getting the stuff in pitch is awkward, so I use an electronic tuner to get the samples in tune..."

Composing

Rob approaches composing in different ways, and when you consider the results he achieves it's rather surprising to learn that he doesn't begin with a mock-up of a soundtrack on a multi-track tape recorder.

"At times I do so much work that I feel totally burnt out of ideas, but when you've got the work to do, you have to try different ways of writing. Sometimes you can just switch on the machine and get something going straight away without doing any writing to start with. Most of the time though, I sit at a (music) keyboard and try and write 32 bars or so. I sketch out a few ideas on manuscript paper but all the hard work really goes in during the programming. I often add lots of other ideas when I am programming... but then I've got to look at all the source code if I'm going to convert a piece to run on several machines."

It takes Rob, when pushed, about a week to write and code up the soundtrack for one game, but very little time is spent sitting around...


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