Rob Hubbard - The Official Reference - Kenny McAlpine interviewed

Posted by Chris Abbott on

We did a Q&A about the book with Dr. Kenny McAlpine, our main musicologist and first named author on the "Rob Hubbard - The Official Reference" book. Hope you enjoy it!

1. You’re the UK’s foremost academic expert on chipmusic: how did that come about? Is it still difficult getting other musical academics to recognise that’s even a thing? 

Ha! That’s unduly flattering, I think, but thank you. 

If it’s true, then it’s almost certainly by dint of the fact that there aren’t all that many other academics who are working in that space, so I've ended up being a leading voice by default — quite a bittersweet achievement, really. 

The full story of how I ended up here is, I suspect, a little too long, convoluted and dull to unpack in its entirety here, but in brief, I’ve been a music geek for as long as I can remember, and a technology geek for almost as long. 

Ever since I got my first computer, a ZX Spectrum+, and started experimenting with the BEEP command in Spectrum BASIC, I’ve been fascinated by that raw, geometric sound, and — maybe more importantly — by the ways that 8-bit musicians were able to work beyond the affordances and constraints of the hardware to create some truly remarkable compositions. 

I took up my first full-time academic post at Abertay University in 1999 as part of the team who developed the university’s first computer games degrees, and that opportunity essentially legitimised my professional interest in chip music. 

From then until now, I’ve been digging as deep as I can to understand the hardware architectures, the code, the music and the process of writing music using vintage computing systems, and working hard to try and find engaging and entertaining ways of explaining them and sharing them with other people. 

2. Who are your favourite chipmusic composers and why? 

Oh, now come… That’s like asking which of my children is my favourite, or which lung I prefer to breathe with! 

I grew up on a Spectrum, and didn’t get my first Commodore 64 until slightly later — maybe about 1986 or '87 — so a lot of my first, formative experiences with chip music were Tim Follin’s compositions on the Speccy. 

Chronos in particular, really sticks in my mind. It’s full of Keith Emerson-style licks and pitch glides, and I think it’s a very complete piece of work — musically very accomplished, but also beautifully executed. There’s still something about that raspy, 1-bit sound that sends the hairs standing on the back of my neck when I hear it. I was also a big fan of the theme tune to Durrell’s Turbo Esprit, which had a bubbly, Jan Hammer-esque soundtrack. 

On the C64 you were really spoiled for choice. Martin Galway’s cover of ‘Chariots of Fire’ on Imagine’s Hypersports was one of the first tracks that made me stop and listen, slack-jawed, to the music in its entirety before I even thought about playing the game. It’s a very accomplished cover, and in some respects I prefer it to the Vangelis original! 

Fred Gray’s soundtrack to Frankie Goes to Hollywood is wonderful too, particularly the ‘Flower Power’ section — it’s one of the trippiest, most soothing game sequences I’ve come across. 

3. You’ve interviewed Rob for your latest book: what do you find particularly noteworthy about him? How does it feel to work with him? 

When I was a kid, all of those guys, Rob, Ben Daglish, Tim Folin, Dave Whittaker… They were like rock gods! Rob was amazingly prolific, and yet he consistently wrote some of the best music for the Commodore 64. 

I remember reading an interview with him in Zzap64! or one of the other computer mags back about 1986, and I just thought that this guy… he had the perfect job. The more I found out about him, and the more I listened to his music, the more I came to realise just how significant a figure he was. 

His music is beautifully crafted — it was always clear to me that it had been written and orchestrated by someone who understood music theory inside out — but I think it’s the way that he combined that innate sense of musicality with a deep technical knowledge that really elevated his work to another level. 

Remember Rob was working at a time before there were any real software tools for composition, and his creativity didn’t stop at writing the notes. There’s a beauty to the way he implemented everything, and packed so much complex musical detail into the three channels that the SID chip had to offer. 

People often say that you should never meet your heroes, but in this case, it’s been a delight. I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but Rob’s a very modest and private individual, and the first time we met, I’m sure that he was sizing me up. But we sat down together, started taking about Chick Corea and Professor Longhair, and he just lit up and came alive! 

Rob has music coursing through his veins, and he’s very knowledgeable. It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone who lives and breathes a subject like that. 

4. You’re writing a large portion of the book for the Kickstarter: would you tell our readers what delights they can expect? 

Well — hopefully — they can expect a thorough breakdown and analysis of some of Rob’s key works, looking at not just the music and the arrangements but the technique that pulls them all together. 

I’m going to be working with Rob to select the works that he thinks are the most important from his back catalogue and we’ll use that as a focus to explore how his sound developed over time. It’ll be thorough, but I hope readers will also find it entertaining. 

I always try to write about game music in an affectionate, playful and sometimes quite tongue-in-cheek way. I think that’s really important. After all, games are all about fun and play — there’s no point in writing about them in a way that sucks all of the enjoyment out of them! 

5. What are you planning for the future? Well, my plan for the immediate future is to try and get some sleep. I’ve been working in Chicago for the last few weeks, and my body clock is still in UK time. I’ve been waking at 04:30 every morning since I got here, and nothing I’ve tried, from staying up late to a nightcap of Malort — a particularly disgusting local spirit that tastes like a mix of absinthe and pond scum — has managed to reset my biorhythms. I’m out here for another week yet, and odds are that my body will acclimatise the day before I leave for home, and I’ll have to spend until Christmas trying to get my body back to UK time again. 

Beyond that, I’ve got some interesting projects in the pipeline. I’m planning on being down at a games festival at the National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham in January — I’m going to be doing a workshop on chip tune with my old friend Mark (TDK) Knight. 

Later in the year, I’m off to Germany to talk more video game music as part of the Ludomusicology conference 2018, and I’ll hopefully be doing a book tour later in the spring to coincide with the launch of my chip tune book, Bits and Pieces. I’m also working on a 2-part documentary series for the BBC about the birth of the Scottish games industry. That project’s still in its early stages, but already it’s shaping up to be a fascinating story!

Thanks Kenny, we're really looking forward to reading your work!