To say that Blake Robinson is like a one-man band is not an exaggeration: it’s the truth. The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra created dozens of interpretations of well-known themes from games, movies and animation, as well as a few full-length albums. In his extensive interview for Gamers Listeners, he reveals the secrets of his works, tells us about instruments that grow on trees, about the newest Chrono Trigger Symphony album and whether he’ll arrange a Polish piece of music. We promise to add our two cents to the torrent of fan mail he receives every week and to regularly remind him of including a Polish accent in his works.
Gamers Listeners: The Synthetic Orchestra’s logo is pretty cool: a tree with instruments growing on it. Did you come up with it yourself? Do you design all the artwork on your own or do you have a mysterious helper who brings your ideas to life?
Blake Robinson: Thanks! I did come up with the original logo myself. Originally it started off as a Christmas tree with musical instruments in it. After the holiday season was over, I thought it would be fun to convert it a maple tree, and it just stuck.
I do design all the artwork myself – no mystery helper unfortunately (though that would come in handy when I’m swamped in work!).
Gamers Listeners: The Synthetic Orchestra is the name of your project, your “stage name” of sorts. Was this name meant to be paradoxical (it’s synthetic, but an orchestra nevertheless) or some kind of manifesto (e.g. saying that nowadays samples are so good they might as well replace the live-action orchestra)? Or maybe my guesses are wrong and the reason is in fact very down-to-earth?
Blake Robinson: It took a while to come up with the name. I wanted to give the orchestra its own character and identity, and so calling it ‘The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra’ gave it a kind of personality.
At the same time I wanted it to be clear that my work is sampled and synthetic in nature. I’ll be the first to admit that there are still many limitations with sampled orchestras, but I think if you step back and listen to what people are producing with them, it’s hard not to see how far they’ve progressed the past few years.
I quite like the way you put it – the name is a kind of manifesto.
Gamers Listeners: What are your criteria of selection when you choose a piece of music to arrange? Is it the given theme’s popularity or its “arrangement potential”?
Blake Robinson: I tend to get so many requests for specific songs (we’re talking literally hundreds of them a week) that I would never get any work done if I went by what was popular.
Most of the time I simply pick music that I enjoy listening to. Orchestrating existing music has always partly been a learning excercise for me. I love to pick apart my favourite composer’s works and figure out what makes them sound so great.
Arrangement potential is also definitely a factor – I sometimes have quite limited time to compose and so I’d rather focus my time on music that can be achieved with the tools I have available to me.
Gamers Listeners: Which do you find more fulfilling: being an arranger/audio engineer or a composer? While browsing through your works on your private website or e.g. on YouTube, I can’t help the impression that you put more emphasis on the former. Isn’t there a game that you dream of writing music for?
Blake Robinson: Up until this year, arranging and orchestrating music has definitely taken up more of my time and dedication. This has been partly due to being a music software developer by day. A lot of the time I’m testing out new sounds and techniques and it’s much quicker to do this with music that’s already been written. It also prevents the kind of writing bias you can run into when using samples; You can’t simply change the music to fit your sample libraries.
I’m slowly trying to compose more original music for video-games and I’m actually in the process of scoring a really cool project at the moment. My involvement hasn’t been officially announced yet but it’s a relatively well known upcoming indie game on Steam.
I would definitely love to have the opportunity to score more video games, though!
Gamers Listeners: Apart from remixing game music, you also do other media, like popular TV shows (Dexter), movies and even anime (Full Metal Alchemist). Was it because your fans pressured you to do it or because you simply have broad horizons when it comes to music? You even used chiptune when making Adventure Time music. Are you planning to continue enriching your compositions like that?
Blake Robinson: I’ve always just orchestrated music that I enjoy, regardless of the genre or media. Daniel Licht’s Dexter score and Akira Senju’s Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood soundtrack are some of my favourite pieces of music. I really enjoy working my own style into them while retaining the aspects that make the originals so good.
The response to the Adventure Time songs has been crazy – they’re some of my most popular videos. However, the reason behind making them was simply my love of the TV show and the music featured within it. Adding in the chiptune aspect was a great way to experiment with blending that music genre with an orchestra. I definitely intend to try more music in this kind of style.
Gamers Listeners: You are very effective at using social media to promote your works. This, combined with coherent artwork, allowed you to create a recognizable identity for yourself in the Internet. Was it all according to a plan from the beginning or maybe it “just happened” at some point?
Blake Robinson: It was all completely by accident. I had been making these ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ orchestrations and I figured that a few people might get a kick out of listening. A few years later and I’m coming up to my 46,000th YouTube subscriber.
I still find it hard to believe that I had less than 500 subscribers just a few years back. The response on social networks has been phenomenal and I’m just glad that other people are still enjoying my music and orchestrations.
Gamers Listeners: Why is more of your music available on loudr than on bandcamp? I believe the trend is the other way round, with bandcamp becoming a must-be place for every composer.
Blake Robinson: My Bandcamp currently only contains original music I’ve written myself. A decision that I made early on with my orchestrations was to only monetise music that I had the rights to. I’d love to be able to offer my orchestrations on Bandcamp but unfortunately certain features on the platform make it difficult to do so legally. I know that a lot of artists choose to ignore the legal aspect, but it’s not something I feel is worth the risk.
For example, when my Chrono Trigger Symphony was announced, there were a lot of comments such as ‘Square Enix will sue this guy’ and ‘Square stopping this project in 3…2…1…’. Because I had licensed the album and was only distributing through Loudr, I knew that I was doing everything legally required of myself and that Square were on board with the project and receiving royalties for their composer’s work.
Copyright can be a bit of a minefield legally and morally, with different companies taking different stances on the matter, and I just prefer to play it safe.
Gamers Listeners: I listened to the new Chrono Trigger Symphony and I think Mitsuda should be pleased with many of your interpretations. Does it ever happen that the creator of the original music contacts you after you make an arrangement of it?
Blake Robinson: I hope that Mitsuda gets the opportunity to listen to it and enjoys it as much as Chrono Trigger have.
I’ve actually heard back from quite a few composers whose work I’ve orchestrated. They seem to really enjoy how I interpret their work. Banjo-Kazooie Symphony was actually an example of this. Grant Kirkhope had reached out to let me know how much he enjoyed my Banjo orchestrations, and the discussion of a full album came about.
Gamers Listeners: How is an album like Chrono Trigger Symphony created anyway? It is only Volume 1, when can we expect the other ones? Are you going to work on some “big” albums in the meantime?
Blake Robinson: For these symphonic projects I tend to listen to the original music quite a lot before hand so that I’m familiar with the themes and ideas the music’s trying to convey. With Chrono Trigger Symphony I was playing through Chrono Trigger as I was working on the first volume. I really wanted to make sure my orchestrations captured the feel of the game.
I usually start out by transposing the accompaniment in the music to an orchestra. Sometimes this is a simple 1:1 conversion, though a lot of the time it requires a little improv and experimentation. Once I have the body of the song orchestrated, I begin to transfer over the melodies and themes. I generally like to stay really faithful with my orchestrations, but I do take creative liberties sometimes. Once the main song and its melodies are in place, I add decorations such as flourishes, runs, crescendos and arpeggios.
The plan with Chrono Trigger Symphony is to release further volumes until every piece from the original soundtrack is orchestrated. Originally I was going to be working on some other big projects in between the volumes, but with the amazing response since release I’m now currently hard at work on the second, with the intent to have it available within weeks, and not months.
There are other big projects planned once the symphony is complete, however. I’ll be working on follow ups to the Super Metroid and Banjo-Kazooie albums, as well as a project thatI’m currently in the process of negotiating licenses for. I’ve been really keen to announce what it is for weeks; I don’t think anyone will be expecting it! It’s a very tricky (and iconic) franchise and I have to make sure it’s legally possible first.
Gamers Listeners: Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger Symphony and Video Game Orchestrations are all in digital distribution. Are you planning to release anything on CDs or vinyl records?
Blake Robinson: This is something I actually get a lot of emails and comments about. I’m really keen to offer physical releases, but it’s something that gets a little bit tricky when you’re an independent musician. You have to be a bit careful when you’re working with established trademarks and IPs, and you also have the aspect of manufacturing and shipping to worry about. It’s definitely something I’m always investigating, though.
Gamers Listeners: Would you consider remixing a piece of Polish video game music? The Witcher, Dead Island or maybe something older? We have a few ideas.
Blake Robinson: I’ve actually done more than consider it; I’ve dabbled with the Dead Island score over the past few months. It’s one of the games on my to-do list as I’m a big fan of Blaszczak’s soundtrack. Pawel’s work on the Witcher soundtrack was also awesome, so it’s something I’d love to give my own interpretation of when I have some spare time.
Gamers Listeners: We wanted to ask you a question about Nyan Cat Orchestrate really badly, but we couldn’t come up with anything original. Would you be so kind and tell us a few words about it? In return, we’ll say that this video deserves way more views on YouTube than the 1 million it already has!
Blake Robinson: Oh Nyan Cat, the orchestrated meme that kickstarted my YouTube channel! Would you believe me If I told you that I hadn’t anticipated the response that video got? I had a relatively unknown YouTube channel u pto that point and expected the video to get a few thousand views. It’s closing in the million now, though, and still gets a ton of views and reponses each day. I think right now, people have been role playing a virtual-tour of the internet in the comments section.
Gamers Listeners: Thanks for the interview. Feel free to say a few words to your fans around the world, all over the Internet and throughout the galaxy.
Blake Robinson: Thanks for taking the time to ask me a few questions and help spread the word about The Synthetic Orchestra.
I’d also like to say thanks to the many people that support my music. They’re the reason that projects such as Banjo-Kazooie and Chrono Trigger Symphony exist, and I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to listen, comment, email and even purchase my music. You guys rock!