When I caught wind that Manami Matsumae (Mega Man/Mighty No. 9) and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts series) were in town for Anime Boston 2015, I obviously had to take the opportunity to tap into their wisdom.
I had the chance to catch them at a Q&A panel where they spent an hour answering questions from fans. While most of the questions yielded answers that weren’t particularly useful for composers, I was able to capture the answers for three questions that I thought had some value to aspiring composers. Happily, I was the last person to ask a question before they shut down the session to clear the room for the next panel and asked them about the most common mistakes new composers make.
Here are 3 questions and answers from two of the industries greatest video game music composers!
What is your creative process like?
Matsumae: “My creative process is to initially have discussions with the planners of the game and I would ask them to give me pictures of the protagonists and the characters or any other art or background or animation data that would allow me to understand exactly what the game’s world is like.”
Shimomura: “When we’re asked to compose for a game, most often the game’s actually not complete so I always say ‘Give me everything you’ve got.’ So, sometimes it’s even just concept art, character designs, keywords, maybe a few scenes here and there that aren’t done and I use those to inspire myself to write music based on what my own reaction is to what I get.”
Did you find it difficult to write early chiptune music?
Matsumae: “So I began composing games for the NES, of course, and at that time the limitations of that system only allowed for 3 channels of sound plus [1 channel of] noise – so 4 channels – and of course you had to make music that tailored around those limitations. But after that, with the advent of CD-based games we didn’t have to have those limitations anymore. But more recently, the concept of “chip tunes” or music that was made to sound like the NES has become very popular again and I have gotten requests to make that kind of music. Even though I had done it once in the past, I realized when I tried to do it again that it was actually quite a difficult limitation to deal with. Especially when you haven’t done it for a long time, the balancing of the music is quite a challenge.”
Shimomura: “So actually I started on in the Famicon/NES days as well and honestly, since we were in the past – not the future – this was the only way to do it. So we kind of adapted. Back then, I really didn’t think of it as being a challenge or being difficult because that’s all we had and that’s all we knew. We weren’t thinking about ‘Oh, one day we’ll be composing CD-quality music.’ I actually recently had an opportunity where I had to go back and check on something that I worked on before back in the Super Famicon/Super NES days, and I was like ‘Whoa! I was really creative back then!’. I had this flute track, then snare drums, then flute again and I was going ‘Wow – I really had to come up with interesting ways to make it work.’ So, now looking back it’s kind of amazing, but back then it was just what we did.”
What are the biggest mistakes or misuses of time that novice video game music composers might make?
Matsumae: “I wouldn’t say there are any failures at this point in time. In fact, I would say failing would be succeeding because for a field like this you can’t learn without trying and failing a few times.”
Shimomura: “So actually, when I first started out as a composer there was a period where I actually thought of myself as a prodigy. I would take a piece I composed and think ‘Man! No one else could compose such a super piece like this!’ and then I would have someone listen to this and they would be like ‘Oh come on, what’s this piece of drivel?’ So it’s so important to have pride in yourself and have confidence in yourself, but at the same time try to compose thinking of your listeners and your audience and try to gauge what you want your audience to get out of that piece. And at the same time, once you do have something ready, let your friends and family listen to it to get their honest opinions – that will help you grow too. And make sure they give you their honest opinions!”
That’s it! Sorry I couldn’t snag more advice, but hopefully there are some helpful morsels in here for the VGM Academy community.