8-bit Symphony - the Story behind the concert, Part 1

Posted by Chris Abbott on

Early Days

The Story of 8-Bit Symphony starts with... nothing.

Specifically, nothing on the TV in the 1970s.

I lived through a period in the 1970s when sometimes the only thing on TV was a static graphic (called a "Testcard") and some light music. You can imagine a questing young mind listening to and processing that music. Filing it away. It was a great variety of music, from classical tracks done properly, to classical tracks done in a different style, to pop, and... to early synth music made purely on synthesizers of the time.

It made quite an impression to hear what was, essentiially, chipmusic being played in the same continuous stream as classical orchestrations. In fact, the early chipmusic was mostly classical covers.

In the early days of chipmusic on home microcomputers, there were also classical covers. Lots of them. Sheet music was readily available and sound drivers were simple. Things like Bach were very easy to convert, and were also familiar.

Somehow, in me, all of this got fused together: chipmusic, classical music, symphonic orchestration and remixing.

The following video, which presents some of the testcard tunes of the time, illustrates just how easy it is to fuse together memories: a Testcard and its music, overlayed with classic 8-bit games that used those tunes.

This is how dreams of symphonic orchestrations of 8-bit tunes, apparently, get started!

Longing for orchestras...

The first original tunes I ever heard on a computer that desperately wanted to be orchestrated were the twin pair of Cosmi/US Gold/Audiogenic tunes Forbidden Forest and Aztec Challenge. 

Since I heard the C64 music from Rob, Martin, Ben, etc, my brain had heard it and integrated it. Some of their tunes were so obviously meant to be orchestral that it was painful that no one was interested in doing it.

Paul Norman, author of both games, and obviously a frustrated film-maker, was way ahead of his time: specifically, one year ahead. 

However, they were the only two. But more was to come, and we need to meet the composers behind the music.

Gathering the cast: the composers behind 8-Bit Symphony

While the Commodore 64 had been released in 1982, it wasn't until 1984 that the full cast that would drive Commodore 64 music forward was in place.

In the middle of 1984, Ocean released "Daley Thompson's Decathlon". This was notable for being the C64 debut of musician Martin Galway, albeit only doing the loading tune. This was a cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra's Rydeen.


Rydeen's first use in a computer games was in Sega's arcade game Super Locomotive: the rhythmic intro to the piece indeed sounds like a locomotive.

This game so impressed a young Martin Galway, who already had a musical background thanks to a musical family that included his Uncle, famous flautist James Galway. The game's music inspired him to become a computer game musician/programmer.

He later borrowed Rydeen for Daley Thompson's Decathlon, in a more innocent time when most record labels and publishers weren't paying attention, especially Japanese ones.

... and he covered another tune from Super Locomotive as the train riding music in the later game Roland's Rat Race. Presumably the train connection was what explained this choice!


Martin's 1984 debut coincided with other debuts that are equally important to our story.

Sheffield's Ben Daglish teamed up with his friend and new superstar programmer Tony Crowther to do the music for Loco: a game inspired by Super Locomotive but with different copyright infringing, though very impressive, music. This also makes Super Locomotive responsible for the careers of two Commodore 64 musicians!

Also, Fred Gray started his composing career at Imagine with the game Pedro: a simple tune simple code that he soon upgraded due to the competition.

As is quite common with Commodore 64 games, the music was better than the game.

In 1984, Elite Software hired a local lad called Mark Cooksey straight from school as a programmer, and quickly discovered he was better at music. His first game was a conversion of the theme from Airwolf: this time a licenced conversion.

One other piece made a big splash on the C64 in 1984, in the same way it was making a splash in other areas: Ghostbusters, with music programmed by American musican Russell Leiblich. This game showed what was possible on the Commodore 64 sound chip (SID), especially with the sampled speech shouting "Ghostbusters".

This tune really impressed a certain Mr Rob Hubbard, who was just at the beginning of his career programming educational games and games for a local software company, Ubik such as the Commodore 64 version of a game called "Paranoid Pete". The game was cancelled by Weetabix, but not before Ubik released other versions of the game.

After this software house went out of business, and Rob turned purely to composing, producing demo disks and sending them out. The first piece to make a real splash? Thing on a Spring.

Which was reviewed thusly:

Cementing the LSO as the gold standard and ultimate destination for C64 music: a journey that it's still on.

 And so the guard changed on Commodore 64 music, and most of the cast was in place: though two more players arrived with a new wave of composers in 1988.

 End of Part 1