ZX Spectrum Alberto Gonzalez (Joe McAlby)
Alberto Gonzalez went under the name of Joe McAlby during his days as a developer on the ZX Spectrum.
He worked with New Frontier software and programmed the graphics and AY music for many arcade games such as The Light Corridor, Hostages, North and South and many more. In my opinion his game music was amongst the very best and really pushed capabilities of the AY hardware.
I was lucky enough to be able to speak to Alberto who was more than happy to discuss his days making those wonderful graphics and music on our beloved Speccy...
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on, and how old were you at the time?
My first computer was a Casio PB-700, which was not very powerful but at least it ran on batteries, so I was able to bring it everywhere with me. I was 11 at the time.
2: How did you get into the games development scene? Did you have an interest in programming as well as music?
I learned some BASIC with the PB-700's operating manual (that's when they were useful) and I started to program my first games on it.
But, at that time, my main interest was graphic design, since I used to draw a lot on paper. I programmed a small program to make graphics with my PB-700, and the first sprite I made was the soldier of Raffaele Cecco's Exolon; I copied it pixel perfect from a screenshot I found in a Spectrum magazine I used to buy (Microhobby).
At some point I changed that computer for a Spectrum +2 and that was incredible, I could play real arcade games and make true useful graphics! Then I continued making graphics with the Spectrum, and some more BASIC coding.
When I was 16 (in 1988) I found a letter-box with the name 'New Frontier' on it. I remembered it from a game named 'Time Out'. I Knocked their door, they liked my graphics and the next day I was in.
At first I started as a graphic artist, then some day a fellow lent me a copy of the Music Box program for the Spectrum. I started to make music, all sort of melodies, experiments... it was amazing to me. They liked how my music sounded, so I started officially making music too. The next step was learning assembler so I could have all the control over the music, and write my own sound driver and utilities.
Music and programming were both incredible experiences to me, I had much to learn and I was highly motivated.
3: Can you tell me a little about your musical background and knowledge?
Until I started making music with my Spectrum I had no knowledge or interest in music, in the sense that I didn't know I was capable of composing, I had never tried. I played some flute at school when I was 8 but that was all.
I'm not a good student, I need to make things myself to learn, so I never studied music. I always composed instinctively, without knowing much about what I was doing, or how that thing was named. If it sounded good then it must be OK!
It is now that I'm slowly learning some music theory. Now I know what a chord is! But I'm still unable to play any instrument properly.
4: How was programming the single channel Spectrum beeper?
I only made one song with the beeper, for the Light Corridor 48k version, but I didn't write the sound driver; actually I ripped it from another musician (guess who!)
At the time I had enough assembler knowledge to disassemble and understand the code, so I adapted the driver for my own music. I'm a bit embarrassed about that, but I learned a lot from the experience. You know, there was no Internet, or books about that; you had to learn many things that way.
5: How good was it when the machine was released with the AY chip?
Well, I started working professionally at 1988, and my first Spectrum was a +2 which already had the AY, so I didn't experience the transition from the beeper. I enjoyed both sounds, some programmers and musicians did a wonderful job with the beeper that couldn't be replicated on the AY.
6: Was programming the AY chip the same across all machines that used that piece of hardware?
My Spectrum and MSX soundtracks sounded almost the same. The Amstrad versions sounded a bit different. The sound driver was exactly the same, only with small changes to the code used to write to sound registers.
7: I see you also did some graphics work. Can you tell me what sort of things you worked on?
At New Frontier I was responsible of all the sprites and animations of the games. There was other fellow who made the backgrounds and fixed screens. So, I did the sprites for Hostages, North & South and Magic Johnson, in the Spectrum and Amstrad versions. I also made the music for those and other games, as well as some utilities.
Later we started to make Game Boy games, and I did the sprites of Asterix and The Smurfs for the Game Boy and NES consoles. Those were my last graphics, since I had to focus on composing and programming music only for our increasing production.
8: Which game on the ZX Spectrum are you most proud of?
It's hard to say, it depends. I really liked the graphics I did on Hostages and North & South. Both games were fantastic and got very good reviews, specially North & South.
On the other hand there was the Light Corridor, which I really loved to compose the soundtrack.
I'd rather say which one I'm not proud of (except for the music), and that was Magic Johnson. I did a terrible job with that one.
9: Which programmers or musicians impressed you most at the time?
I could name all of them! Some of the favourite programmers that come to my mind just now were Jon Ritman, Mike Lamb, Jonathan Smith (RIP, always remembered), Don Priestley...
About the musicians, many more: David Whittaker, Jonathan Dunn, Ben Daglish, Matthew Cannon, Fred Gray, Dave Rogers... each one had their own techniques and style I loved. But the one who I got most inspiration of is Tim Follin, even now!
10: How was life at Infogrames during the early 1990's?
I didn't work at Infogrames, my company was New Frontier, and we made games for them. Being a Spanish company published by a French one made us almost invisible to the world and even to our own country.
But in New Frontier life wasn't as good as It could have been. I was very young and motivated to learn and experiment with coding, music, and all sort of game things, but we didn't get a good payment for any of our games. The bosses took all the money, and made all sort of never-ending and agonizing excuses not to pay us. But what to do? We wanted to make games, and there was no other game company in Barcelona.
We couldn't earn a salary until we took the control and founded Bit Managers.
11: Do you have any anecdotes or funnies from your Spectrum days that you can tell me about?
There must be some, and good ones, but I can't recall any right now... sorry.
12: How did you come up with the name 'Joe McAlby'? for you Spectrum work?
At New Frontier all of us had nicknames for the games. "Alberto J. Gonzalez" is a name so common and Spanish sounding that I had to find a better alternative. At the time there were lots of famous Mc names (MC Hammer, McDonalds, Paul McArtney, Marty McFly...), so I thought I could use that before my own name, "Alby". Some time later I added the first name Joe, which is almost my second real name, "Jose". I take MC as Music Creator :)
Once I started making music for consoles I dropped the nickname, but I'm still not getting used to hear my real name pronounced in English! Sounds very weird to me.
13: Finally, can you please let us know what you are up to these days?
Actually I haven't stopped making video games since the Spectrum days. At some point the last New Frontier team (4 people, including myself) founded Bit Managers, where I did dozens of soundtracks for game consoles such as the Gameboy, NES, Master System / Game Gear, SNES, Game Boy Advance... Later I left Bit Managers and founded Abylight with some fellows (at 2003) , and started making more games for Mobile Phones, Nintendo DS / DSi, Iphone, Wii....
Now I'm more focused on game design, but I still do a bit of everything. I'm also still in charge of sound design and programming, but usually music is produced externally.
Cheers and good night!
Many thanks Alberto for talking the time to chat.
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