Category Archives: Retro

Hail Rob Hubbard!

Creating original music has been a passion of mine since I was seventeen, plinking away on my Commodore Amiga computer. But for the past few years I haven’t composed anything, and I’ve been missing it lately. I’ve now got access to a spanking new Apple Mac with the GarageBand app, so I thought I would get to know the software by putting together my own remix of a fondly remembered game tune from the 1980s: The Human Race by Rob Hubbard, for the Commodore 64 computer (also released on the game Goldrunner for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, which is where I remember it).

Game tunes from the 1980s and early 1990s have a curious longevity, evidenced by the countless fan-made remixes that can be downloaded from sites like remix.kwed.org, AmigaRemix, and C64Audio.com. I think the reason for this lastability, aside from nostalgia, lies in the nature of how the tunes were made. Back then, computers were fairly primitive and could only output three or four single-note sounds (or warbles) simultaneously. Composers were constantly up against the wall of technical limitation, which meant that their music had very little going for it, unless they came up with a distinct catchy melody – and therein lies the strength of those old tunes. In constrast, today you can get away with layering any number of richly textured sounds on top of each other, in the hope that the dullest melodies will sound vaguely interesting. The technical limitations of the old game tunes also meant that those simple catchy melodies were crying out for extra depth of expression, which nowadays leads musically adept fans to now invent their own additional layers based on their own individual musical styles.

Here’s the original Commodore 64 tune (FIXED LINK!), so that you can compare it with my version. I created the following from scratch, by playing live on a keyboard. You’ll hear some electric guitar in the piece; this too was played on the keyboard with some inventive use of the pitch-bend lever and modulation wheel. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve wanted Goldrunner to sound like, as best as I can imagine it …

[ Play Music ]

(If you’re interested in hearing others’ takes on the same tune, check these out.)

Of course, the real glory belongs to original composer Rob Hubbard, whose name (along with David Whitaker, Allister Brimble and others) is as solidified in the memories us 1980s computer geeks as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran and New Kids on the Block. Okay, maybe not that last one; I have some standards.

Showing off the Vectrex

When you’re sitting in front of your Xbox/PS3/Wii, do you ever pause and think about the vast amount of mathematics that goes into making a computer produce near-realistic 3D environments? If you’re young, I suspect you take it all for granted. But if, like me, you were there from the very beginning of the home computing era, then you bore witness to all the gradual advancements in graphics that happened over the years, giving rise to what we see today. And in that frame of mind, you might still have a soft spot for something like this:

Test your retro knowledge

A few days ago I was delighted to get the winning eBay bid on something that I’ve been interested in since I was about ten years old (no, it’s not a DeLorean, but I’ll probably get around to that one, too, someday). I have distinct memories of longing after this product when it was released in 1982. I recall numerous occasions standing in the local toyshop, gazing at it in wonder as it sat proudly inside a glass-fronted display cabinet, for ever out of reach.

Well, not quite for ever. It will be arriving in a few days. This might be another disappointing whimsical purchase, but I’m so excited about it that I ended up dreaming about it the other night. It’s not often that happens with an eBay purchase. Although, to be fair, in my dream, the thing arrived in the post covered in ugly dents, no doubt a subconscious expression of my irrational paranoia.

But what is it, pray tell? Well, let’s see if you know. Have a look at the photo. This isn’t specifically what I bought, but it’s one aspect of the product (I siphoned the picture with a Google image search). Ring any retro bells?

DeLorean: A dream within reach

blackdelorean-tn.jpgSome of you know I have a thing about DeLorean cars. It’s based on nothing more concrete than a childhood memory: I recall being about ten years old, glued to the TV set, watching a documentary on the now-infamous car, and wishing I could own one. The power of nostalgia compells me to love this car today; I can’t help it.

There were only ever about 8,000 DeLorean DMC-12 cars made, 6,000 of which are believed to still be in circulation, most in the USA. Now and again, I tap the name of the car into eBay. Occasionally they show up for sale, in various locales and conditions. I never seriously thought I would have an opportunity to own one. However, last week, one of these cars showed up in County Down, of all places – just a short drive from where I live. The car was described as pristine condition, and had had its original rust-proof stainless steel panels painted black by one of its owners. I liked this unique look a lot. DeLorean Noir! Bidding began at £10,000, but with a reserve of who knows what.

So I started thinking, was it truly possible for me to buy this car? Well, the only way for me to raise the funds was to remortgage my house. It’s not as drastic as it sounds. I have a pretty small mortgage currently. More importantly, was it worth it? Let’s say the total cost came to £15,000. Fifteen grand just to make driving feel like piloting an X-Wing Fighter. Since I’m currently getting around on a bicycle (and intending to keep on doing so), the car would be for special occasions only – largely kept in storage, free from wear-and-tear, retaining its classic status for a long, long time. Again, I have to ask, is it worth spending fifteen grand to own a car that you will hardly ever drive?

At the end of the day, it wasn’t money that put me off; the car would retain its value over time and could be re-sold whenever. I opted out because I thought long and hard about what owning something like this does to your mind. I pictured myself driving with acute paranoia about damaging the car. I pictured myself parking in public, leaving the car there and going shopping, constantly worried about someone deciding to run a key along the side of the door because the car is so eye-catching. This mental issue can be summed up in one Bible verse: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). What the verse is saying is that the things we own form attachments to us, or rather we form attachments to them. It’s a basic, unavoidable principle of human life, rooted in our own greedy natures. We care deeply, usually too much, about what we own. Naturally, the less you own, the more your heart is free to set itself on what’s important in life. Bottom line: I don’t want to become the kind of person who owns all sort of pretty things and worries about them constantly. That’s what the DeLorean would provoke in me. In my youth, I had a terrible collector’s mentality for books and videos. I seem to have grown out of it, to the degree that I hardly ever buy anything these days. If I buy a DVD, I’m usually thinking about its resale value on eBay! I’m glad about that and I don’t want to be lured into materialism again. Maybe I have a better grasp on my mortality than I used to.

So I let the DeLorean go. All things considered, I would be better served pursuing my dream of one day owning a boat. On the surface, it sounds like the same pursuit as the DeLorean, but what I’m really after is the experience of life on water, away from civilisation and close to nature. And experience is far more valuable the ownership of rare treasures. After all, if we get to take anything with us to the afterlife, it will be our memories of what we did in this life.

Vinyl forever!

I’ve been in a retro mood lately. On a whim, I searched eBay for an old comic I remembered buying when I was ten years old: Load Runner – “The galaxy’s first computer comic.” As luck would have it, I was able to pick up a complete collection of the comic right there and then. Issue nine had a free flexi disc containing a pop single, “Talk to Me,” by a virtually unknown band called Mainframe. This was no surprise; for some reason, that song has been embedded in my brain for the past twenty-four years. The next thing I knew, I was keying the word “mainframe” into eBay, and now I’m the owner of a 12″ single and LP.

The only thing is, I don’t own a turntable. I had to get my friend Graham to fish his old 1980s stereo system out of his attic. CDs were invented when I was in junior high, so I belong to the last ever generation of teenagers who bought vinyl. And I still have some of those records lying around. I was keen to listen to my old stuff again and compare the sound quality to CDs.

You know those people who insist that vinyl has a better sound? They’re right. And I’ve always had the feeling they were right, ever since the internet file-sharing explosion allowed me to revisit the music of my youth digitally. Recently, I was listening to “Calling All the Heroes” by It Bites. It’s a nice, clear digital recording from a CD source. But the song’s opening blast lacks the oomphf (for want of a better word) that I remember from my old vinyl single of the same song. This is something you can’t recreate by simply turning the volume up. Vinyl, despite the crackles, undeniably provides a richer, fuller sound. I’ve a good mind now to buy a turntable and start collecting oldies from car boot sales.

As for Mainframe, they’re an interesting band. They’re sound is in keeping with the New Romantic material of the 1980s (Ultravox, Depeche Mode, etc.). Some of their less pop-oriented stuff is a little like Tangerine Dream. More info, including an audio sample, on Mainframe’s Wikipedia entry. It’s nice to find something from the 1980s that was almost unknown in the 1980s.

Junior high ninjas

The photo shows one of the few items that still remain in my possession since childhood (I sold everything else on eBay). At the moment, I have it hanging in my hall. I suppose you might call it a Japanese dart-board, although those holes weren’t caused by darts. They were the result of hundreds of shuriken throws (shuriken, for the uneducated and less geeky among us, is the proper name for a ninja throwing star).

Back in junior high, this kind of stuff was all the rage. Some of us even made our own nunchakas by sawing a broom handle in two, covering it in black tape, and joining the two halves with a chain. Ah, those were the days. I recall that the only fun I had in metalwork class was when I would sneakily cut shuriken out of sheets of copper, behind the teacher’s back. But of course, that wasn’t like having the real thing. Thankfully, there was a shop in the neighbouring town of Lurgan (where I bought the board) that sold all manner of martial arts gear, including genuine shuriken. Unfortunately, today, any that I owned are lost.

Shuriken are now illegal to sell in this country, and it’s no wonder. We brought these things to school, purely out of innocent fun, not considering that, technically speaking, we were bringing a concealed weapon. I remember practising with mine in the playground one lunch-time, throwing it at a tree that bordered with the neighbouring high school. Simultaneously, there was a guy on the other side of the fence taking motorcycle lessons. I didn’t miss my intended target, but I do remember him stopping the bike and giving me an earful. Once, I heard about another more dangerous near-miss: my friend Andrew put his hand on the door of the gym and a shuriken struck the wood right between his fingers. And hey, there were no secret ninjas in Killicomaine Junior High School; nobody’s aim was that good. The thing could easily have struck him in the hand, or the head. And that reminds me of my other friend Maurice. He was unlucky enough to end up with one protruding from his head for a time (incidentally, he lived to tell the tale).

Despite all that, my board is lonely without shuriken – which brings me to my question: does anyone know how I can get a couple of them? I have scoured eBay, and all I can find are a load of toy cosplay shuriken for anime custume parties. Help me, somebody. I don’t want to play darts. Besides, a few shuriken would be useful to have on hand if I should hear the floorboards creaking in the middle of the night.

Hello, Amiga!

Some of you will recognise the familiar look of Workbench in this photo (for the benefit of youngsters, that’s the operating system from the now obsolete Commodore Amiga computer, which was the machine to own in the early nineties). So, what are we looking at here? An Amiga emulator running on a PC, displayed through a TFT monitor? Au contraire, this is an actual Amiga running on a TFT monitor!

Those who have fond memories of this computer may remember how difficult it was to get it to work on a monitor. Most of us used them through our television sets. It was possible to buy a monitor adapter for the computer, but unfortunately many PC monitors didn’t feature the necessary hertz to show a picture. However, success could be obtained by attaching a device called a ScanDoubler to your Amiga’s monitor socket (bottom right of photo). Mind you, I’m talking about old CRT monitors here; try to hook up a modern TFT monitor, and you’re completely sunk. Nevertheless, with a little careful online research, I managed to find one (and only one) model of TFT that has the right range of hertz: the Eizo FlexScan.

So, what’s all this about, anyway? Well, when I move house shortly, I’m planning to have a Creativity Room – a place where I go to make things, whether it’s writing fiction or composing music, or whatever. This room needs to be free from distractions. That means no TV and especially no internet. The Amiga is the perfect computer for this purpose. I’m planning to have very little software on it. Just a word processor and a few music apps.

I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a few vintage synths from eBay, as an alternative to all these virtual synths you can buy for your PC – real knobs instead of virtual knobs; real analogue sounds instead of virtual analogue sounds. One of the most frustrating things about modern music-making on a PC or Mac is that you have to wade through hundreds of poorly made virtual instruments in order to find good ones for your songs. I think it would be a different experience using genuine vintage music hardware; memory was at a premium back then, and every instrument had to count. Anyway, this is still at the “thinking about it” stage. I need to get my new novel edited and published before I start diverting my attention to other things.

LEGO

I’ve spent the last couple of evenings playing with LEGO bricks. Now, before I’m accused of being a “big child,” let me explain. I’ve got a ton of old vintage LEGO bricks dating back to the late 1970s, including many kits from the first ever range of spacecraft. The boxes and instructions are long lost, but I came across Brickshelf, a website which has all the old instructions online and ready to print. I’ve already got some of the old kits reconstructed, including an old favourite of mine: the Space Transport. I saw one of these fetching forty-five pounds on eBay recently. Sadly, mine is missing four important bricks. But I think I’ll be able to get a few brick collections cheaply on eBay to solve that.

The idea is, of course, to sell my old LEGO models and make some money, but I’m slightly reluctant. Looking at the newly reconstructed Space Transport brings back memories of the fun I had with it as a boy. It’s almost like rediscovering a long lost photograph. Guess I’m a big child after all!

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