TALKING WITH CHRIS HÜLSBECK

di @Luca Abiusi



For a long time we wondered if Chris Hülsbeck really shaped a new syntax of sampling. Through the 8 and 16 bits routes of our videoludic consciousness we were witnessing the birth of an artificial-techno genre, born with Turrican and Jim Power, but we still could not grasp the meaning of those excesses instrumental sequences of bitrate. We interviewed Hülsbeck to participate in his egocentric vision of the computer music, these endless sound libraries from where he drew an entire universe of psychedelic synthesis and audio tracks.

PF: Your career as a videogames’ musician started so far in 1986 on Commodore 64. Which were the events that brought you to start this exciting as well as treacherous way?

Chris: My Family was quite musical. My grandma was a piano teacher and tried to give me lessons for a while, but I always was more interested playing my own pieces. As a teenager I became interested in synthesizers and computers, so I saved money for the legendary Commodore 64, also because it had the famous SID synthesizer chip. I learned programming and soon had my first music and game projects on the way. Then a German computer magazine ran a contest for computer music that I won. After that it was relatively easy to get a job in the still very young game industry.

PF: In your opinion which were the greatest limits of the sound - 8 bit technology? Was the quantity of memory to use for the soundtrack of a game estabilished before programming?

Chris: Memory was one limit, but the most important was CPU time. I was lucky if I could get 20 percent from the rest of the game. The memory was about 4-12 kbytes on the C64 and usually around 60 on the Amiga. Of course, these numbers had to be agreed on before the work started, because it would always get very tight at the end with all the graphics and program data and you could not afford any surprises.

PF: Speaking about 8 bit, is there a game which you prefer and which one caused you the biggest problems during programming or during composition?

Chris: A couple of times I used a special sampling playback routine, that was tricky to implement into the game, even my own one (To Be On Top). But it was a challenge that was very satisfying after it was done.

PF: We would like to know some details regarding the creation of a game in the eighties. Did you work in team? On the base of your experience what happened during production and which were the everage times of development?

Chris: The development times varied with the complexety of the game. It ranged from a couple of weeks to up to 10 month. We usually had 1 or 2 graphic designers who where often also making the maps. But the programmer was a more central figure and did alot of the game design as well.

PF: At the end of the Eighties you worked with the first games for the Commodore 16 bit. We remember titles of great importance such as R-Type, X-Out and Rock’n Roll. Which importance had for your career as a musician the passage to Amiga’s technology?

Chris: The Amiga was even more sucessful for me than the C64. The sampling technology offered interesting new possibilities and I enjoyed that time very much.

PF: Speaking about your experiences on the field, was the soundtrack of a videogame realized before, during or after the realization of the graphic code?

Chris: In those days, the soundtrack was usually done very late into the project, so most of the graphics where already in place.

PF: In 1990 the Amiga version of Turrican arrives. The title was getting excellent criticism in its C64 version, and a gold medal got from the English magazine Zzap! Rainbow Arts commissioned you music and sound effect for the above mentioned Amiga edition. Which were your reactions about that?

Chris: At that time I was the inhouse composer for Rainbow Arts, so I didn’t have to beg for the gig. I was very pleased with the reactions about the game and it became clear that we had a hit product.

PF: With Turrican you began your climbing towards renown and success. In fact the soundtrack revealed among the most successful on 16 bit systems. The question is: was there a precise musical kind you were inspired from or do you think you invented a new sound with Turrican and then with Turrican II?

Chris: I was always fascinated with instrumental music, specially the electronic and orchestral genres. Since the Amiga was still to far from reproducing perfect orchestral sounds, I concentrated on the electronic ones. But I always mixed in some orchestral flavours here and there. I listened to a lot of music from Jarre over Vangelis to Williams and also lot’s of japanese game music. So I had a lot of sources for inspiration and just mixed my own ideas on top of that.

PF: Again in 1990 you worked with the soundtrack of Monkey Island for Amiga. The final result completaly outclassed the same PC edition. How did the conversion procedure take place? Did Lucasfilm oblige you to follow the sound code of MS-Dos or left you a certain liberty of action?

Chris: What they did was to play general MIDI pieces on an AdLib soundcard (that was the standard back then on PC), which had only a FM based music chip. I got those midi pieces and reprogrammed them one by one in my TFMX editor with samples. It was a very tedious task, but at the end they sounded more natural than the FM sounds on the PC.

PF: After the first two Turrican Rainbow Ars has really disappeared. Considering the fact that you worked with it for a good part of your career, could you tell us which were the reasons which brought to the extinction of that important software house?

Chris: Rainbow Arts was very much from the beginning only a subsidiary of Softgold / Rushware who started to become real money makers in Germany with licensed titles and distribution. I guess Rainbow Arts wasn’t profitable enough for them to keep going.


The Sanctuary: here is where Hülsbeck has made most of his works.

PF: And what can you tell us about Manfred Trenz, programmer of the first two Turrican? During the programming of the games did you exchange ideas or did you work separately?

Chris: I had not too much to do with Manfred after Katakis, since I wanted to work on the Amiga and he kept working on the C64 for the first two Turrican. The Amiga versions where done by my friends from Factor 5 and also had a totally different soundtrack.

PF: 1992: Jim Power in Mutant Planet. An important project which involved you on four different platforms, and exactly Amiga, Atari ST, PC and PC Engine. How did you distribute the work of sound conversion? Do you think you exploited at best all the four platforms?

Chris: The Amiga version was first and back then I didn’t anticipate that it would be converted to so many other systems. I remember it had a very tight memory situation, but I consider it to this day one of my best works. For the Atari ST version I had a friend building me a little soundcard for the Amiga that had the Atari PSG soundchip on there... it was a lot of fun. The PC engine version was actually for their CD-Rom system, so that was in fact my very first CD-Rom game with real audio tracks that I produced in my studio. With that many conversions it was also one of the most lucrative projects, since I only had to compose once and still got payed for each version.


Turrican: the combination of two guys as Hülsbeck and Trenz in a single screen puts chills...


Jim Power: simply, one of the most memorable videogame soundtrack ever conceived.

PF: Toward the half of Nineties you could work with 16 bit consoles. Were there great differences between Amiga’s sound technology and Megadrive’s or Super Nes’? On which console was it easier to work?

Chris: The SNES had 8 channels sample audio, compared to the 4 for the Amiga, but had only a limited sample memory and the samples where in a special compressed format that made it a bit difficult to program. The Megadrive was a totally different beast: it used actually 3 different sound generation chips. There was a 6 channel FM chip (that was better than the AdLib chip from the PC), a 4 channel PSG type chip (similar to the one in the Atari) and a 2 channel DA converter that could be used for sample playback. There where also 2 CPUs because the Megadrive actually contained the complete hardware for an older 8-bit console of SEGA. We where able to utilize that second CPU to provide 2 channels of sample playback similar to the Amiga specs. The whole thing was cool, but awfully complicated to program and compose.

PF: With Factor 5 you worked on Super Turrican and Super Turrican II. How did you find, in general, these two episodes in comparison with the first two appeared on Amiga? With Super Nes did you perhaps add a new dimension to Turrican’s sound?

Chris: I certainly liked the possibility to use more than 3 channels for the music. On the Amiga I used mostly 1 channel for the sound effects with the help of my own cool priority system, and in some special cases I used 2 channels. But since the SNES has 8 channels to begin with, I reserved about 2 channels for the FX and maybe 1 or 2 more for special cases. That meant I had 6 channels for the music which was nice.

PF: With the coming of 32 bit consoles the sound idea in videogames changes radically. The introduction of powerful sound chips together with the capacity and versatility of CD determines a clean leap in comparison to the 16 bit. Which problems did you find passing from one generation to another?

Chris: The biggest problem is the availability of tools. Some of the new technologies required to rewrite the toolsets and that could take a while. Also we had to learn what the new systems where able to do and there was a lack of experience of what to avoid. Usually the second project was going much better.

PF: Among Saturn, Playstation and Nintendo 64 which one did you consider more powerful in terms of audio chip and why?

Chris: I never did anything for the Saturn, but the other 2 are a bit hard to compare. The Playstation was always able to play music from the CD, but the soundchip was a bit limited, specially in the memory department. The N64 on the other hand had no CD, but could utilize more memory and you had more control of the sound code. That made it better for realtime generated music like we used in Star Wars Rogue Squadron. From my point of view, the N64 was overall a bigger challenge, but at the same time also easier to work with (at least with our MusyX system).

PF: Could you make us a technical parallelism between the instrumentations you used on 8 and 16 bit and the ones you used on 32 bits? And speaking about the present time, by what machinery do you use to develop your new works?

Chris: I actually started with 4 bit samples on the C64, plus the synthesizer voices of course. For those I had a small library of my own programmed sounds, but they would also change a couple of times because I programmed 3 generations of my own music player. I was actually able to convert some of my synthesizer instruments for the PSG and FM sounds of the different platforms. With the sample libraries I pretty much started from scratch each time the bitrate would increase. The quality of the lower bitrates was just not good enough for conversion, except maybe for some creative sound design. Today I work with 24 bit samples and I have 5 computers with over 100 gigabytes of sample libraries. Everything runs with software samplers that stream the samples directly from the hard-drives, so there is no limitation by memory anymore.


The Sanctuary: grand angle shot.

PF: Was it more amusing to work with the limitations of ten years ago computers or do you prefer the greater liberty of the new consoles and of next generation computers?

Chris: Each platform had it’s limitations, but it was also fun to figure out how to get the most out of it. But any new system gives you new exciting possibilities and challenges.

PF: In the palmares of your career there will be some room for non videogame works such as Soundfactory (Music CD) and Light at the end of the Tunnel (Movie). Could you tell us what are the main differences between the development of a music CD and a soundtrack of a videogame? And the soundtrack of a Movie?

Chris: I did only very few movies so far, but I really liked it. It’s fun to compose to a linear timeline and to add another layer of emotion to the picture. Within a game, you never know exactly what happens next, so you have to make the music a bit more generic or switch the pieces often. On a music CD I can of course fully concentrate on the music alone and don’t need any compromises, neither technically nor artistic. But a music CD is much more work, because it adds print work etc. I really hope that I will find the time for a new CD project soon, I am ready for it.

PF: Could you tell us something about the Merregnon project? And, above all, what is Merregnon?

Chris: Merregnon is a project created by Thomas Boecker and based on a fantasy story. His idea was to get a number of known video game composers together and produce a soundtrack for this story. After the first CD became a success, Thomas decided to produce a second one and this time record it with real orchestral musicians and live choir. That was a very exciting project for me, since it was always a dream of mine to get my music recorded by a real orchestra. The new CD should be available soon.

PF: Now we would like you to reveal us some backstages on the development, deleted, of Turrican 3D for Windows systems. Were you in the staff which was working with the title? Do you know the reason which brought to the abandonment of the project?

Chris: I was not involved at all and I don’t know any details of what happened. There are rumors that the team had constant differences and fights and the whole project broke apart because of that.

PF: And what can you tell us about Thornado (by Factor 5)? The title, announced as non official chapter in Turrican saga, seems still now in phase of development.

Chris: The project was put on ice a while ago, but that doesn’t mean that it may not be started again some day in the future.

PF: Before stopping we would like to know something about you, what do you like to do in your free time, what are your hobbies and what are your future expectations?

Chris: I like movies, I go at least once a week to see a new movie and I have a huge collection of DVDs. I listen to alot of music in my spare time, since I can’t do it while I’m working and I need it to get my creative juices flowing. Of course, I also make music in my spare time, pieces that are not connected to my work and where I can try new ideas and stuff that I just like personally. From time to time I release one of those pieces to the public, for example on my mp3.com page. I have enough basic material for 2-3 CDs, I just need the time to finalize them. My spare time runs short lately, also because I am in a relationship and then there is a cat that needs attention too.

PF: Ok, that’s all. Thanks very much by all the editorial staff and see you soon, maybe on occasion of the publication of the next chapter of Turrican.

Chris: You’re welcome and sorry that it took me a while to answer these questions.

 

Interview released on 26/10/2003