In June 1986 an amazing career began with an innocent letter. The 64er, a German magazine about the Commodore 64, published the entries of a reader competition. The task was to compose a piece of music on the C64. The only 17 year old Chris Hülsbeck was able to claim the top spot with his piece “Shades”, which was published as listing in the magazine. Luckily, his talent was exposed. And just a few years later, with his soundtrack for the Turrican games (Commodore 64 classics by the German game studio Factor 5 and Manfred Trenz), Hülsbeck was not only able to make a name for himself in the developer scene – to this day, the composer has an almost legendary reputation for his video game music. Reason enough to get in touch!
Wall Jump: Chris, can you briefly introduce yourself and us to our readers?
Chris Hülsbeck: I have been making music on the computer and for games since 1986, initially on the Commodore C64, then Amiga, SNES, Sega Megadrive, Sony Playstation and other newer consoles. I almost did something for every system.
Wall Jump: How did you get started composing music for computer games? Why was it attractive for you to use hardware that at that time hardly offered many opportunities?
Chris Hülsbeck: Music always played a big role in our family and I was very fascinated by synthesizers, which we couldn’t afford. The C64 with its synthesizer sound chip (the SID) came in very handy and gave me the opportunity to do something in that direction.
Wall Jump: How were creative compositions possible, given the hardware limitations of the time?
Chris Hülsbeck: The really exciting thing was to get a lot more out of the hardware using programming tricks than what even the chip designers thought was possible.
Wall Jump: Beginning of the 90s, a music genre developed out of game soundtracks such as your own. Chiptunes still continues to produce new artists. You achieved absolute cult status with your Turrican soundtrack as well and were able to reissue it as an anthology in 2012 thanks to a successful Kickstarter project. In your opinion, what’s the reason that so many people can still be inspired by the sound of computer games of the 80s and 90s today?
Chris Hülsbeck: Chiptunes have their very own character, which has a very high recognition value. The fans from back then certainly like to indulge in nostalgia and that was certainly one of the reasons why the Turrican Soundtrack Anthology was so successful.
Wall Jump: So this is what you believe fascinates listeners about it? Is it just the nostalgia or retro factor, do only Turrican fans hear the anthology? What is the cultural value of this music for you years later?
Chris Hülsbeck: The music is very catchy, melodic and driving, but doesn’t overwhelm the listener with complexity either. I think that is an important factor for success even after so many years.
Wall Jump: Why do the aesthetics of this kind of music work even without the games?
Chris Hülsbeck: Well, it is the melodies that simply remain in your ears and work without the game.
Wall Jump: You often use computers in your new compositions, but they often sound very much like orchestrated soundtracks. Why do you still rely on sound software and libraries instead of playing the music with live instruments?
Chris Hülsbeck: I have been working with live instruments on my recordings lately. For example, the Turrican Soundtrack Anthology also used a cello, violins, electric bass and electric guitar.
Wall Jump: For live performances, you decided to arrange your music for orchestra. Why did you choose this form of performance and not perform the compositions on a computer or synthesizer?
Chris Hülsbeck: That was not my idea, but that of Thomas Böcker, who has been producing symphonic game music concerts in Germany and other countries since 2004. But it was also a dream to have your own music performed by a large orchestra and choir, that’s a crazy feeling. But I could also imagine a concert with a small band and synthesizers – maybe I’ll do something like that in the future.
Wall Jump: The computer or the console have been fully-fledged instruments for you from the start, although that’s not their purpose. How do you see yourself as a music pioneer?
Chris Hülsbeck: For me, these devices were actually my instruments, because I couldn’t afford the really expensive studio machines. With C64 and Amiga I had synthesizers and samplers available to help me make my music a reality.
Wall Jump: Especially in the indie scene there is a strong retro wave with lots of games that graphically imitate the look of the 80s and 90s and are often also influenced by it musically. Are you interested in creating music in the aesthetic of these times for such games, to go back to your roots?
Chris Hülsbeck: Very much so and there are also a few projects in progress, but I am not allowed to talk about what exactly it is yet.
Wall Jump: Thank you so much for taking your time!
Chris Huelsbeck is an award winning composer and sound designer working mainly in the video games industry for well over 25 years. Having provided high quality music and sound for over 80 projects, Chris made himself a name not only with the fans, but also as a trusted contractor. He creates very memorable music ranging from elaborate electronic compositions to full orchestral scores.
An abbreviated version of this interview was originally published in issue 6 of the German gaming book magazine WASD.
This post is also available in: German