I was a coder and musician myself on the C64 and often paying attention to other composers, both to the technical side of things as well as the music itself. It was important to keep track of the competition to see if there were new tricks, styles, sounds or techniques to pick up on.
At the end of the day we all needed inspiration.
So, what did I think of the other top dog C64 musicians back in the 80’s and 90’s?
Note: This will be about the musicians that were known from games. No demo scene stuff, and also no composers that I knew personally. So no Drax, no Laxity, and no Johannes Bjerregaard. Only the guys that other media might actually mention today.
Absolutely not overrated
In the far top of my list, standing on a lonely mountain top, will always be my C64 hero #1, Rob Hubbard. Absolutely no doubt. He knocked my socks of repeatedly back when he entered the C64 gaming scene.
To quote myself from My Computer Chronicles blog series:
Rob Hubbard was one of the first game composers on the C64 to introduce the idea of a freelance resource to be hired by game developers instead of being part of a team. He coded his own music player and delivered a block containing both the player and the sound data, typically with several tunes and jingles as well as an array of sound effects. The game developer would then just call this music player with an argument depending on what piece of music or sound effect was needed in the game code.
Rob Hubbard’s work was also revolutionary because of the way the capabilities of the SID chip was utilized extensively, combining its output with vibrato and arpeggio effects calculated by the music player. Although a few other musicians had experimented with a similar upgrade, Rob Hubbard’s tunes took the C64 gaming world by storm. It was a quantum leap that would soon be the norm in C64 games as other composers learned to follow the same pattern, whether by freelance too or as part of a team.
But at the same time, Rob Hubbard was also a skillful musician and repeatedly created long and varied masterpieces that would sometimes even have guitar solos or be arranged like symphonies. He wrote and converted music for more than 75 games from 1985 to 1989, including Monty on the Run, Crazy Comets, Master of Magic, Commando, Delta, Thrust, Sanxion and International Karate. Other composers on the C64 have had their impressive innovations and music too, like certainly Martin Galway and Tim Follin, but Rob Hubbard will always be special to me for the way he revolutionized music on the C64.
A bit down the mountain side, the next musician to find there is Martin Galway. He also managed to leave me flabbergasted on several occasions, but his songs wasn’t always a win in my book. Sometimes it was clear that he had his limitations, such as the way he avoided using thunky drums for the most part. His tunes could be long and require a lot of patience, and I must confess I often lost that.
But make no mistake, Martin Galway was absolutely not overrated. When he did get a song right, and he often did, it left most of his competitors in the dust. The clean pulsating with the instantaneously triggered notes (a trademark of his) and the slow guitar solos always made me pay attention, and just like Rob Hubbard he also broke new ground on several occasions. Most may immediately think of the digi drums in his Arkanoid theme there, but I’m willing to wager that he was also a pioneer of programmed pulsating, years before anyone else. Want evidence? Load up the old game Rambo and play for a while until you get to the hiscore table. Listen to the tune there and pay attention to the pulsating. Note how it changes several times on the long notes.
Tim Follin actually didn’t leave me a solid first-hand impression. He kind of snuck into a few games and made interesting music, sometimes with really fancy instruments, but still not enough to get me all wound up. It wasn’t until Ghouls’n Ghosts that he really managed to open my ears. The music for that game made it clear that not only was this a really talented musician that composed better than most everyone else, he also had a knack for creating truly unique sounds.
Again, quoting myself from part 4 of the chronicles:
His music was often radically different than other music on C64, using other styles such as jazz, progressive rock and folk music. In the game Ghouls’n Ghosts, Follin also impressed everyone by producing quality instruments no one had ever heard on a C64 before, such as a lifelike harmonica and an old electronic organ.
I remember I was so envious at that lifelike harmonica that I had to dig in and figure out how he had done it. I then used it in one of my own tunes (it starts at 1:18).
Jeroen Tel also composed a lot of marvelous C64 tunes with an amazing harmony and vivid melodies, topped of with the most delicious and polished instruments you can imagine. I loved his songs just as much as anyone else did back then.
Fred Gray may not have had the best of sounds, but he had a thing with jumping pulsating settings for subsequent note triggers, and he knew how to make the most of it and make it his very own style. His tunes were often fast and energetic. I liked most of his tunes.
Believe it or not, I might actually have been the idiot that once thought his tunes were composed by Greg Holland (another employee on the games he made the tunes for) and thus it carried into HVSC until someone else corrected this bummer. I seem to remember that the list of credits didn’t mention who did what on the sleeve, and then I just sort of guessed at Greg Holland. My apologies, Mr. Brennan.
But regarding his music, I always liked the early use of filtering and his very distinct portamento slides. This came at a time where almost no one else were experimenting with this sort of stuff. Especially Way of the Exploding Fist was very atmospheric.
David Dunn is another one that made good use of filtering before most everyone else. His use of filter settings give his songs a wow and spunk, but I also loved the way some of his tunes sometimes instantly broke into something else.
Among my favorites of his are Jump Jet, High Noon, Nonterraqueous, Theatre Europe, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and Trapdoor.
Russell Lieblich sometimes had a good rhythm masterfully powered by a swooshing filtering. Sometimes there was even a subtle use of pulsating. My favorite of them all is probably Master of the Lamps.
Indeed very overrated
This will probably be the section where I might get a few frowns from people, but remember, this is my subjective opinion of their skills as C64 musicians only. They may be very nice people but I wouldn’t know. I have never met any of them. (Neither have I met any of the above, for that matter.)
The first one here is actually a bit hard for me because he’s actually in sort of a “no man’s land” between these two sections. I recognize that he has made a lot of beautiful tunes and the instruments are not that bad either, but somehow I can’t help but feel that he is a little overrated.
I don’t know, a lot of the tunes just sounds like going through the motions, like Ben is satisfied with the default instruments and not really wanting to try pushing the envelope. It’s possible I don’t have a case and I would lose in court. I really like a lot of his tunes, but I also get tired of his instruments real fast.
I might also allow Chris Hülsbeck to be placed in the “no man’s land” along with Ben. He did create one of the first good music editors on the C64, an editor that became very popular and was used in a lot of early demos. That is of course a remarkable feat.
But I never really found most of his tunes on the C64 to be that interesting. There are exceptions, such as the early Shades that had an amazing mood, but I actually thought he was better on the Amiga.
I never understood why people loved this musician so much and perhaps I never will. I have always found his songs to be downright boring. The sounds were absolutely not amazing, and for me it’s important that the whole package is good, not just the compositions. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but when it’s clear that the musician doesn’t really care about the instruments, a lot of the charm seeps into the sand for me.
This is another musician that was severely overrated. He too had the problem that the sounds were not amazing at all, but sometimes it also sounded like he composed a title tune just to get a paycheck. There are a few exceptions that I like, and I especially loved the experimental music he made for Lazy Jones before Rob Hubbard made his impact.
But for the most part, David Whittaker was like musical fast food.
I rate his music just about at the same level as Matt Gray’s. Uninteresting sounds and tunes. I really wasn’t a fan of those long arpeggio chords of his.
This is another one where, like Matt Gray, his popularity really puzzles me. His music was often simple, boring and the player and its instruments was nothing special either.
I generally disliked Mark Cooksey’s music. It’s not so much the unremarkable compositions as much as the boring instruments with an edge-breaking pulsating and an exaggerated vibrato, that really put me off. Sometimes the player also felt imprecise.