8-Bit Symphony Review
by Lee Tyrrell, Podcaster, "The Sound Test"
“Kids today never leave the house” – a phrase you’ve surely heard countless times in the 21st century. It slipped into common usage by the end of the 80s and on into the 90s, coinciding perfectly with an explosion of home computers and games consoles. Television, of course, is partly to blame for the idea that children have grown lazier, but colourful sitcoms and small-screen flicks had already gotten stale by the Commodore 64 in 1982. Unlike TV, video games are malleable; interactive. To those with the patience, they’re just another playground, populated by brilliant sprites and bubbling with interesting sounds.
By now, video games can’t be shrugged off as just another trend. Instead, in our current climate, they’re finally being celebrated as the artform they clearly are. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the attitude that “kids today never leave the house” is set to fizzle out in favour of understanding why. The crude pixels on our screens weren’t just a handful of carefully arranged squares; they were dragons, space-scapes and warzones. The bleeps and bloops that famously burst from old systems weren’t just simple tones or thoughtless noise; it was music, through and through, with enough weight and skill to command symphonies.
The 8-Bit Symphony, which rearranges mostly 3-channel chiptune for live orchestra, saw an impressive amount of 80s kids leave their houses – in some cases, countries – in a glorious proof that imagination, art and expression are still going strong in the digital age. All those years in front of screens didn’t leave us the zombies that some might think.
After all, many of 8-Bit Symphony’s pieces (largely by legendary VGM innovators like Rob Hubbard and Ben Daglish) are over thirty years old. Yet, every note is faithfully rendered and placed in a context that showcases the depth of melody available on units like the C64, Amiga and ZX Spectrum. So much time has passed since the SID chip dominated video game music, but hearing its classics in an orchestral setting manages to prove its endurance and timeless appeal.
Today, games use orchestras as par for the course. Back in the 80s, musicians worked in the equivalent of cages; forced to code sequences, approximate instruments roughly and stuff as much content as possible into unfathomable memory space. Those creative shackles proved, ironically, liberating for those undaunted by the challenge, resulting in a string of clever, catchy and surprisingly accomplished compositions. Ben Daglish’s “Trap” is a nineminute journey through shifting time signatures and opposing movements. “Monty on the Run”, by Rob Hubbard himself, features one of the greatest synthesised solos ever written, ripping its way through a series of iconic pitch-bends.
The kids who never left their houses – and many of us did anyway, how else could we get to an arcade? – paid attention to these things, as much as the ever-evolving on-screen graphics and the actual gameplay that tied it all together. In fact, the period was an inspiration to so many that VGM continues to expand into its own nebulous world and explore fresh territory. As the genre has grown, its roots have only gained importance through the history they represent.
If the 8-Bit Symphony only traded on nostalgia and historical interest, it would probably be a quirky event still worth visiting. However, the music truly lies at the heart of it all. Its debut performance was beautifully played by the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra, while conducting, arrangement and orchestration were handled by an array of respected professionals, all dedicated to crafting something special. What happened that night – and I know from personal experience – transcended mere homages to the past, immortalising the now anachronous chirp of sound chips while simultaneously highlighting what made them important.
I was joined on the evening of 8-Bit Symphony’s first show by my partner, whose interest in video games generally stretches to tolerating my own. With that in mind, she came away as wide-eyed and blown away as myself. It helped open a door on video game music that would likely have remained closed for her, and offered a peek into that practically infinite world that us gamers hide in our bedrooms.
Sure, maybe we didn’t leave the house enough to pick up as many scraped knees, but we were busy in Forbidden Forests with Rambo, declaring W.A.R. on Flash Gordon and – sometimes – you could even catch us on the run from a few Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. Whatever we may have missed in our own gardens and parks was more than made up for by the stories we experienced first-hand, with the satisfying tap of a keyboard at our fingertips. All the while, complex and daring music piped from simple speakers, scoring our personal worlds and inspiring the next wave of popular culture.
8-Bit Symphony is just about the finest way to preserve and spread that legacy, and it’s a damn good excuse to leave the house to boot.