8-Bit Symphony Pro - Review

8 Bit Symphony Pro

A review of 8-Bit Symphony Pro by podcaster Lee Tyrrell

It started with a bleep. Then came a bloop. Next, waves and white noise flooded the bedrooms of 80s adolescents and older enthusiasts alike. As electronic symphonies – crammed into three channels of synthesised audio – blasted from the speakers of early gamers, a whole new approach to writing and experiencing music evolved. Of course, the parents didn’t understand. Naturally, teachers had no clue. But video games, and the unique compositions that accompanied them, belonged to a digital renaissance that swept and changed the world.

By 2020, as I write this, the power and influence of the video game industry cannot be denied. It’s among the most lucrative forms of entertainment on the planet, and is regularly lauded for its increasingly artistic qualities. Game music, for example, has long outgrown its chip-based roots; so far in fact that evoking those roots is resoundingly retro. Live orchestras and bands have become more common than anything else, resulting directly from the ever-increasing potential of memory.

Today’s trend of classically tinged game soundtracks definitely says more about the advancement of technology than the minds behind them. Back in 1986, Ben Daglish composed Trap for a Commodore 64 demo; a ten-minute opus consisting of constantly shifting time signatures, multiple themes and extremely clever development of established melodies. It achieved all of that with nothing more than the aforementioned three channels available, which required an equal knowledge of coding and composition to pull off. Incredibly, for those born in the 90s or beyond, spoiled by the virtues of CD audio, Trap was far from a one-off.

Talents like Ben, Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway and Richard Joseph were true rock stars for the home computer generation. Their compositions – possessed of a musical depth seldom heard in the charts – were often reasons to buy the games that featured them. They were challenging, innovative and, above all, highly complex. The community that blossomed from those halcyon days of VGM continues to this day, and thrives through a succession of warm and welcoming live events.

That’s why 8-Bit Symphony Pro – just released – is so triumphant. For decades, fans have known how well music from C64s and Spectrums would translate to an orchestra. Where previous generations heard beeps, players heard every last rhythm and phrase – now taken for granted as electronic music rules the roost. The passion of such trailblazing composers as Ben Daglish and Rob Hubbard survived through the filter of clinical code, living through to 2019’s debut performance of the 8-Bit Symphony with a full orchestra. The hearts of stalwart obsessives and new loyalists (like myself) stirred in tandem that night as a profound beauty arose from SID chip cages.

After a tense but successful Kickstarter, Chris Abbott, Rob Hubbard and the rest of the team were given the opportunity to take their arrangements to Prague; this time for the full studio treatment. From its first announcement, supporters waited with bated breath for the
final recordings to emerge. In order to write this, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with those very recordings ringing in my ears. But the only trouble – considering I’m penning a review – is how speechless the collection has left me.

In some ways, I’m an imposter. Unlike those who lived through the boom of home gaming in the 80s, scored by the incredible music of those the 8-Bit Symphony honours, I came to authentic chiptune much later. For my first series of Sound Test podcasts, I spoke to both
Rob Hubbard and Ben Daglish about their significant contributions to VGM. My interviews with them left me similarly lost for words, and I’ve followed the C64 scene and projects like this ever since. I attended the performance in Hull, which moved me to tears, and have heard an array of synthesised demonstrations along the way. With all that in mind, I can say without hesitation that these final recordings are definitive.

From the opening of disc one – Ben Daglish’s Firelord – you know you’re in for a journey. What follows is a rollercoaster of emotions. First, the power of the music itself builds up through a moving arrangement by Glyn R. Brown. Then, you remember that all this was first heard on the most rudimentary waveforms it’s possible to synthesise. It was great then – enough to sustain it through decades of development in VGM – and an orchestra only gives it the weight it always deserved. As Forbidden Forest and Beyond begins, the amount of people behind-the-scenes who were driven to complete this project and work on the various scores becomes clear. After waking from the trance that track is likely to put you in, up strikes Kentilla and the realisation of how many individuals it took to actually fund. All those variables came together perfectly for 8-Bit Symphony Pro, and by the middle of that first disc you’re likely to have forgotten it all as the pure quality of the recordings takes over once more.

For some, that first disc will be a powerful pilgrimage of nostalgia. For me, and hopefully those who may not have heard these pieces otherwise, they’re an absolute proof of the compositional strength that sat hidden in old, forgotten video games. Those bleeps and bloops that so many parents disregarded were as carefully composed as anything in the history of humanity – in many cases more so. 8-Bit Symphony Pro allows them a chance to fly and flourish in a form that even closed-minds will welcome, and the familiar will celebrate.

Disc two continues the trend set by the first, and even expands on its treasures with some of the most beloved themes of the time. After a spine-tingling rendition of Paul Norman’s Aztec Challenge, the collection juggles between choices that represent the very best of Rob
Hubbard and Ben Daglish. International Karate gets its own suite, The Last Ninja’s Wastelands themes meld to honour their sadly departed composer and W.A.R. joins forces with Flash Gordon for an epic double-bill of sci-fi glory. But the real centrepiece of the entire project, for me, is Trap; finally given the orchestral heft it always begged for.

8-Bit Symphony Pro comes to a simply gorgeous conclusion with Monty’s Journey, which ties two high score tunes into one beautiful whole. As it plays during your first go through the album, you may find that you’ve cycled through that same thought process from earlier several times. The quality of the music, the dedication of the arrangements and recordings, the love of supporters and how well these pieces have survived a turbulent world will all swim around your mind. Goosebumps will rise. Memories will float to the surface. And then, as I did, you may just click right back to the beginning and do it all again.

It’s incredible that we – as a community – could make this happen in the first place. At the same time as enriching our lives, we can hope that it leads those without a love for VGM and chips to recognise the expression within. And now we have made it happen, let that be proof that we can do it again. The twenty recordings that make up 8-Bit Symphony Pro are just a hint of the hundreds – maybe thousands – more that await the same treatment. There are already plans for the future but, until then, take the time to appreciate each note of these recordings. After all, your parents and teachers were wrong, and this is all the validation of that you’ll ever need.

8-Bit Symphony Pro can be found at C64Audio.com