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8-bit Mondays: Monty on the Run – Main Theme (Rob Hubbard)

November 3, 2009

I’m starting something new this week: 8-bit Mondays, where I’ll be covering some classic chiptune music from the games of yesteryear. Today is the first major classic of the Commodore 64 era, Monty on the Run by Rob Hubbard (1985). As mentioned earlier, this soundtrack really demonstrated to musicians electronic and otherwise that vgm could be something really awesome. However, just as Koji Kondo repeatedly states that Super Mario Bros. is remembered today for being such a great game, barely a gamer remembers Monty on the Run today except for its music, considering the gameplay was average platforming at best (in case you’re curious, the game is about a mole who is being chased by the authorities for his role in the UK Miner’s Strike of 1984-85). In fact, it’s possible the title (and afterward, any Rob Hubbard title) sold more because of the music! Anyway, now you can hear what the fuss was all about!

Monty on the Run – Main Theme (Rob Hubbard)

Monty on the Run features a fantastic set of “recognizable instruments” (for the time and hardware) including a violin section, “hand clapping,” and of course the C64’s famous arpeggios/chords (that ringing sound). There really hadn’t been much else like it at the time and was truly a breakout moment for vgm. More practically, the main theme is quite catchy, with some great variations and a nice buildup, providing great atmosphere. If there’s any downside, it’s that the song does get a little tedious after about four minutes, which is probably why the C64 album, Input 64, contains only a four-minute version. There is certainly something to be said for the standard pop song length, which has sort of defined what listeners are willing to hear – though I suppose if you’re playing a game four hours on end, you’ll want something a little longer anyway. This version is encoded directly from the SID file using foobar2000 and is recorded in mono.

The C64 had severe limitations compared with other hardware on the market such as the Famicom/NES, MSX, and later the Commodore Amiga. The computer uses a MOS Technology 6581 sound chip, which had only three sound channels (meaning only three instruments can play at a time) and mono audio. Despite these limitations, the chip is actually quite friendly to composers, being designed specifically for that purpose by Commodore tech Bob Yannes. In addition, it suffered the same problems of data storage as other early computers and gaming systems, mainly normal 5 1/4″ floppy disks (the BIG ones you might remember) could only hold 160kb, and only a very tiny fraction of that was ever devoted to music: the entire Monty on the Run .sid file is only 5.62 kb, which is probably less than your average e-mail. (Of course, the washed out color scheme also makes the system less impressive visually than Japanese home gaming consoles of the time, but in the end, it came down to the games, as it always has.)

At the same time, the theme comes in at a whopping 5:50 in length, which is over five times the length of the average NES song (of course, most C64 games had only three or four songs, compared with an NES soundtrack’s dozen or more). The reason why C64 artists could create such long and complex songs is by breaking down the audio into smaller chunks and then layering and mixing them up. Thus, a small 10-second loop could be mixed and used multiple times in a song, sometimes creating tracks that can sometimes reach 10 minutes in length! (This technique was also put to good use on the Amiga.)

In all, Hubbard composed dozens of soundtracks, nearly all of them high quality, and is still making games today. The Commodore Zone has a wonderful overview of his soundtracks.

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