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This week marks the official release of the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack, and yours truly got to sing in the choir on several of the tracks. In this post, I share with you the path that led me into the recording studio to lay down some vocals for original compositions by Yoko Shimomura (one of my favorite composers) for one of the most popular game series on the planet – as well as some takeaways from the experience that can help you rock your next recording session.

First off, a very special thanks to Shota Nakama of Video Game Orchestra & SoundtRec Boston, who originally invited me to join this exciting project, and Jose Delgado of Força for inviting me back and being an amazing session conductor.

I’ve always felt a sense of wonderment when I hear an orchestra tuning up. That sound let’s you know that something magical is about to happen, and I get excited like a little kid at Disneyland every time. Imagine my delight sitting in the recording booth listening to the orchestra tune up to record Final Fantasy XV music. So awesome.

!!!!!!!!!!AND I CAN FINALLY SAY IT OUT LOUD!!!!!!!!!!

I’m a bit excited about it. I’ve been playing Final Fantasy games since I was in 3rd grade, after all.  Not only did I make it into the soundtrack, but the first full-choir recording session was video recorded for a presumed making-of feature that I have yet to confirm or see.  What I HAVE seen, however, is my very brief appearance in a Japanese TV commercial advertising the soundtrack release:

Hey, I know that guy! My awesome facial expression and I appear for a precious half-second during the Japanese TV commercial for Final Fantasy XV’s official soundtrack.

 

If you haven’t yet, listen to and purchase this amazing soundtrack (now available on iTunes): Final Fantasy XV Official Soundtrack

Now that I’m (mostly) done gushing, I’m going to move along to a few things that I hope will provide some perspective as to how someone lands a gig like this. Shall we?

Networking: a Long Term Strategy

This opportunity did not drop out of the sky into my lap. In 2014, I reached out to Shota Nakama, the head of the Video Game Orchestra in Boston to explain that I had sales/marketing experience and a music background, and that I was interested in working with the VGO/SoundtRec in this capacity. He was interested to hear my ideas and graciously agreed to meet up for coffee, but ultimately it wasn’t the right time to work together in that capacity.

Bummer?  Sure, a little bit.  But I continued to attend VGO shows and show my support for Shota’s work, and kept in touch.

Make Yourself Useful, and Add Value

About a year later, I visited the VGO booth at PAX East and Shota remembered that I was a singer. He asked me to join the choir for a performance with Tommy Tallarico’s Video Games Live show, which was an awesome opportunity and an absolute blast of a time. This was really my first chance to deliver value beyond social conversation, so I jumped at the chance. I received sheet music beforehand and practiced the hell out of it so I’d be prepared to crush it at our brief pre-show rehearsal.  My second opportunity to be useful came on the day of the performance. I had originally been asked to sing Tenor, and practiced all the Tenor parts. When I showed up, however, for some reason we were shorthanded on Basses – so I volunteered to sightread the whole show and sing Bass.

Fast forward a few more months to a conversation with Shota, during which he asked me if I was available for a recording session that was coming up – which I obviously agreed to because if Shota’s recording something it’s probably good. I arrived to discover that we’d be recording “Apocalypsis Noctis,” a piece of music to appear in the international release trailer for Final Fantasy XV. I sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement) stating that I wouldn’t talk about our work, reveal the game or developer I was working with (basically, keep everything a secret) until the trailer was unveiled publicly at the Final Fantasy XV special event.

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy ok I’m done.

So at this point, I’ve worked my way into a smaller recording gig and – once again – I do my homework and show up ready to crush it. All goes well, and – as I had hoped and anticipated – I was asked to record with them again when another mysterious, much larger project came around. Once again, I show up prepared and ready to rock and walk in the door and OMG IT’S FINAL FANTASY XV’S SOUNDTRACK AND YOKO SHIMOMURA IS HERE.

Dan Hulsman of Video Game Music Academy standing with Yoko Shimomura during recordings for Final Fantasy XV

Look who I found! Dan Hulsman (left) and Yoko Shimomura (right).

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy ok I’m done.

Again, I bring the professionalism and do the best damned job I can. It must’ve paid off, because shortly after the session I was asked to join a second, smaller recording session to sing for some additional tracks.  Even more awesomeness.

The Long Play is The Way

That, my friends, is how I ended up singing for the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack. It’s a long-winded explanation on purpose: I want to illustrate how important it is to BUILD long-term relationships and not FORCE short-term relationships. This all happened over 2 YEARS. It’s also vital that you provide value in your relationships if they’re going to grow and continue. In this case, my years of classical voice training, choral performance, and sight reading (being able to immediately read sheet music that you’ve never seen before) were the skills that helped me bring value to these projects.

And now, onto some of the more musical takeaways…

Remind Musicians to Be Prepared

This is one of those trust-but-verify kind of things.  Everyone should be prepared without you saying so, but you should make sure that everyone agrees on what YOU consider “prepared” to be.  For each section of the orchestra/band, these things will be different.  For singers, this typically includes:

  • Having all scores printed and bound in a binder, with the pages organized to minimize the number of page-turns (page turns make noise – bad for recording);
  • Bringing a pencil, ready to make notes/corrections;
  • Wearing clothing that wouldn’t make additional noise in the room, removing all jewelry, etc;
  • Warming my voice up BEFORE the recording session;
  • Being on-time.

For singers, I’d like to offer these additional options for bonus points to really bring the professionalism:

  • Bringing an *extra* pencil, because sometimes you lose your pencil or sometimes the person next to you needs a pencil and I’m nice like that;
  • Remaining focused during time in the recording studio, because every minute in there costs money;
  • Using downtime and breaks to review the upcoming repertoire and practicing any tricky rhythms or lyrics that were added last-minute.

Jose Delgado, our conductor for these sessions, made sure to provide scores, special notes, and logistical details – as well as some reminders about being ready to go before all recording sessions.

Orchestra VS. Choir (Spoiler Alert: Orchestra ALWAYS Wins)

I learned this little tip from my college years, during which I was part of a choral department who bi-annually collaborated with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra to perform large works like *Carmina Burana* or *Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9*, which demand a large orchestra and choir to do them justice. This tip is true during both live performance and studio recording, so if you’re ever working with a choir and they’re going up against an orchestra you better listen up.

Here’s the deal: The orchestra always wins.

Specifically, I’m talking about raw volume. The human voice is a powerful instrument, but the average singer – and average choir – can easily be overcome and drowned out by an orchestra. The orchestra will always overpower the choir, so you have to make some changes for the performance to be as effective as possible.

The words you’re singing, specifically, are threatened the most by the tapestry of sounds booming out of the orchestra. People may be able to hear the pitches you’re singing, but they may have no idea what you’re saying unless you’re careful. In live performance, this is critical: unless you use this tip, no one will understand you. In the studio, you run the same risk and/or create more work during the mixing process to make the choir audible enough to be understood without overdoing it.

The Cheat Code: Articulation

Here’s the tip: Articulate. Over-enunciate EVERYTHING. When we speak in our daily lives, we tend to slur sounds together and drop some sounds entirely and nobody really notices. That’s fine. In musical performance, that’s the exact opposite of what you need to do. As a singer, you should be using clear enunciation (pronouncing every letter sound of every word) all the time. As a stage actor or performer, you should be over-enunciating (over-pronouncing) consonants so that the audience can understand you clearly. Slurred or sloppy consonants just don’t carry, and the result will sound unintelligible to your poor audience.

Choirs? Same deal: you have to over-pronounce your consonants to an absurd degree. While you’re standing in the choir, or in front of the choir as the conductor, it may sound like *too much* – comical, even. You might THINK you’re sounding ridiculous, but in the sound booth (or the audience seats) you’ll sound loud and clear. If you don’t feel like you’re giving those consonants 10 times more attention than they deserve, you’re not giving them enough.  By over-enunciating the lyrics, a choir is able to cut through the curtain of sound created by the orchestra in order for their lyrics to be understood.

Now, you might be thinking that proper microphone placement and usage will mitigate this challenge during recording/performance. This is true, but it’s not always enough – especially when you’re doing something loud/big/epic. If you’re talking about a lone singer, a microphone and some decent enunciation might cut it. When you have a group of people singing together at the same time, however, things can get muddy very quickly. Everyone is attacking each note/word at *slightly* different times, with varying degrees of intensity, and these differences – when added up – muddle the lyrics and make them harder to understand. By agreeing as a group to over-enunciate, you’re agreeing on when to pronounce the “T” at the end of a word (is it at the end of the whole note, or the downbeat of the following measure?) and using teamwork to overcome a difficult sonic challenge: cutting through the orchestra.

If you want a great example, go listen to a professionally-produced audiobook.  Any narrator worth their salt will pronounce every single consonant well while making it sound natural.  The “t” sound at the beginning of a word does not become a “d” sound, for example.  It’s a real “t” sound.

The Other Cheat Code: Multi-Tracking

Another way you can beef up your choir (or any other ensemble) is by recording them multiple times and layering them overtop one another. This approach is called multi-tracking, and can create the illusion of a larger ensemble than you actually have present.   This is a great tactic for getting big sounds out of small groups, but there are a few considerations to keep in mind should you go this route:

  • When layering, use different takes instead of layering the same take multiple times.  The minor differences in articulation, tone, inflection, and timing will create a more authentic illusion of a larger group (using the same exact take multiple times would be noticeable to most listeners).
  • Repositions musicians relative to the microphones .  For example, have choir members sing nearer to the microphone for the first take and have them move backwards, away from the mics, to create an imaginary second row to sing for the second take.  This further enhances the illusion of a larger choir because, with an actual larger choir, you may have the singers arranged in two separate rows.
  • Check rules and regulations in your state/country before doubling musicians to comply with any compensation rules.  For example, musicians that belong to a union may be entitled to an additional 20% of their normal hourly rate should you double them on a recording.

Preparing for a Successful Recording Session

If you’ve never had the opportunity to record live musicians (or play on a recording session yourself), you may not realize the staggering amount of preparation that goes into a single professional studio session. There is a LOT of prep involved in setting up and facilitating a successful session. Here are just some of the tasks:

  • Orchestration/arrangement: Translating your songs into a score that is playable and complimentary to the instruments you’re recording;
  • Score preparation: Producing a conductor’s score with rehearsal markings, correct dynamics, expression marks, etc on large paper that is bound in a page-turn-friendly way;
  • Hiring musicians for recording session: Sourcing, hiring, and coordinating recording artists for your session based on the needs of your score;
  • Preparing reference/click tracks: Creating mock-up tracks that musicians can play along with (optional), and creating click-tracks for all pieces you’ll be recording to provide musicians with an audible tempo “click” in their headphone monitors to keep them on the beat.
  • Booking a recording studio: Booking a studio, communicating your recording session’s needs, and delivering all relevant materials that they need ahead of time to prepare the studio for your musicians.

Now, I’ve only listed the tasks that I could think of off the top of my head that go into preparing for a successful recording session – but notice that none of the tasks that I listed are small tasks. Most of them take hours of work – yikes! This is another reason why you should 1) never work for free, 2) charge fair rates for your expertise, and 3) consider alternative pay structures other than the per-minute or per-hour rate for large projects. If you’re working with live musicians to record any part of your work, the amount of non-composition work involved will be significant and surprising to you AND your client which means you’ll either surprise said client with a huge bill OR you’ll feel badly about billing them the extra time and trim/slash your invoices (and thus, your income) to avoid the sticker shock and subsequent awkward confrontation. Not good.

In short, factor all of the work – not just the raw composing – that goes into a project when pricing your services so you don’t rip yourself off or shock anyone later.

MIDI Mockups

The choir was fortunate to record our tracks later in the lifespan of the project, which means that we were usually singing along with orchestra recordings in our headphone monitors – which was epic and awesome.  However, someone always has to go first!  If you want to provide the players/singers an accurate feel for the piece they’re recording while they play along, a high-quality MIDI mockup will be necessary.

We beat the strings section to one of the tracks we recorded, which means that their recordings didn’t exist yet so we couldn’t sing along to their playing.  However, Yoko Shimomura and the SoundtRec team were prepared with a high-quality mockup for us to hear while we sang.  It was a big, epic battle theme that was fast-paced and intense and the mockup communicated the feel of the piece very well.  It was still fun and epic to sing along to, and so when the choir sang our intensity matched the intensity of the composition on the first take.  I was impressed with the musicianship built into the mockup that we heard!

MIDI mockups can also come in handy when you’re trying to show your client what the end product will sound like before they foot the bill for the recordings.  Not everyone you work with will be a musician or be knowledgeable about music, so a high-quality mockup can help bridge the gap between your vision and their ability to hear your vision before it’s fully realized.  Even if you’re gunning for a smaller recording budget with a handful of live players and a more modest instrumentation, giving your clients a glimmer of what things COULD sound will be useful.

Conclusion: Go be nice and useful.

I spent the majority of this article talking about how I stumbled my way into this amazing gig, and I hope that the big take-away here is that you must build relationships over a long period of time to maximize your success.  Happily, the gaming industry is full of amazingly generous, kind-hearted people who are super passionate about video games.  There’s a lot of common ground to build friendships upon, so get out there and meet some people – and make yourself useful!

 

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