This thoughtful interview with composer Yasunori Mitsuda from 2003 was originally featured in game hihyou. Mitsuda discusses various aspects of his creative process, including his studio setup, his inspirations and favorite pieces of music, and how he approaches composing for video games. Game hihyou was known for asking good questions, and Mitsuda offers some candid comments on most of his work up to that point.

Chrono Trigger interviews

 

Yasunori Mitsuda – 2003 Composer Interview

originally featured in game hihyou magazine

—Your music in Xenogears and other games has garnered you a devoted following. What things are important to you personally, when you compose?

Mitsuda: I try to hold myself to a standard: would someone want to spend money to hear this song? Because no matter how much you may love a piece of music yourself, it’s important how others will see it. I always ask myself that and it’s frequently on my mind. You know, I have to say it’s almost like I have a split personality. I try to maintain both a clinical, objective side, and a passionate side: the listener and the creator. I try to embody both aspects. That said, when I’m in the very moment of creation, there is only the passionate, enthusiastic version of me.

—You’ve mentioned before that composing is a very time-consuming process for you, and is that related to this process of dualistic introspection?

Mitsuda: Yeah, that’s an interesting thought. I think that’s part of it, but I’m also the type of composer who can’t write the music until I get my headspace into the world of the game and feel that I really understand it. With games, maybe 50% is decided by the initial script and story, but at 50%, I don’t feel like I understand things. Like a novel, until we get to the end phase, my mind doesn’t feel like it’s a real world… and I hate working on things in a fractured, piecemeal fashion.

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Yasunori Mitsuda, ca. 1999. Note the globe behind him: a fitting decoration for a devotee of world music.

The time I spend actually composing is, in fact, quite small; it’s the time that I need to fashion an image of the world in my mind that is many times greater. That’s why I often get asked by the directors, “why aren’t you working?”, and getting them to understand my process can be very difficult. It’s probably the hardest thing for me, when it comes to writing game music.

—Could you tell us about your working environment, for creating music?

Mitsuda: I completely changed it just recently, actually. I use Digital Performer on the Macintosh as my sequencer, and Tascam GigaStudio 160 for my sounds. I also use Yamaha and Roland equipment for sounds, and most of my music is written with those three sources (Gigastudio, Yamaha, and Roland).

Choosing the right patches/sounds is always tough, and I’m not especially good at it, so I use equipment like Gigastudio 160, which has a lot of high-quality, well-organized sounds to choose from. It makes that process easier. Of course, taking the PS2 as an example, there are people whose job it is to adjust the tonal quality (adding reverb, effects, eq etc) of the sound after its been recorded, but layering instruments and sounds creates specific textures and tonalities, and only the composer knows what was intended there. That’s why, even when I’m working on the initial demo for a song, I always start by selecting the specific sounds myself.

Another reason it’s important to me, is that when I bring live musicians to the studio to record, if I play the early demo for them and it’s a bunch of cheap-o, stock MIDI sounds, it really lowers the tension in the room. These are pro studio musicians and they love music, so if the demo actually sounds good, it makes them think, “oh crap, I better give it my best”, right? In my experience so far, this ensures a good performance.

—How did you compose your music during the Super Famicom era of Chrono Trigger?

Mitsuda: The Super Famicom era was almost entirely sampler-based. I used an Akai S-3200, an E-MU EIII, stuff like that. When I would come to work, I’d begin my day by selecting sounds, going through a huge number of CDs to find good stuff. That alone would take me 3-4 hours. (laughs)

—To go even further back, what kind of music did you do before Chrono Trigger?

Mitsuda: In Junior College, I worked part-time for Wolf Team. Motoi Sakuraba was the songwriter, and I was responsible for making new patches and sounds with FM synthesis. Next, I worked on synthesis and sound design for Enix’s Elnard (7th Saga), where again, my teacher wrote the songs. Chrono Trigger was the first game in which I actually did the composing. It’s my debut work.

—The Super Famicom could only play a limited number of sounds back at once; did you find this a hindrance to your writing?

Mitsuda: On the contrary, the limited sounds available meant that you could focus more on melody, and I loved that. On hardware today, there are more ways than before for a song to be good or bad, and for the faults or strengths of the composer to emerge… in that sense, I think the Super Famicom really fit my strengths as a composer, and I feel pretty lucky that it was the first platform I worked on, you know? (laughs)

Mitsuda has often expressed his love for the music of Radical Dreamers, despite how quickly it was completed.

—Do you ever listen to the music for Radical Dreamers anymore?

Mitsuda: Ah, that game is quite famous isn’t it. (laughs) I wrote the music in about three months, but I think it came out really well! Unfortunately, even if you still have a Super Famicom, the Satellaview system is no longer broadcasting games, so… (laughs) I think about half the material in Radical Dreamers is also used in Chrono Cross, but I wonder what will become of the other half…?

—How do you feel about your older works being rediscovered today?

Mitsuda: I think it’s just that these old games are becoming rarities, collector items. The thing with the Japanese people, it’s like they don’t care about anything until it’s old and on the verge of extinction. I’m like, damnit, why didn’t you pay attention when it was new?! (laughs) I think it’s kind of similar to the current craze for vinyl records.

—Which of your own compositions are you especially fond of?

Mitsuda: I have feelings for all of them, so it’s a little hard to rank them, but if I had to name one it would be the ending theme for Chrono Cross. It’s probably a personal attachment more than anything else. Of course, I love the ending song for Xenogears, and Joanne Hogg’s singing, but merits aside, it’s more that during Chrono Cross I was working with Masato Kato, and I have strong memories and feelings about everything from that period. It’s sort of hard for me to express in words, though.

—I get a strong impression of traditional, or folk music, when it comes to your music, but are there particular songs, composers, or musicians that you’ve been influenced by?

Mitsuda: I’m the type of person who’s easily influenced by others, so there’s really too many for me to name. If I did, we’d be here all day. I listen to a wide variety of different music, from traditional folk music to rock and pop, but my roots are in jazz.

I remember, from a young age, my Dad would always be playing Art Blakey. That music left a deep impression on me. I listened to a lot of The Ventures and The Carpenters too, which left a mark. Later—to speak of the music of my generation—it was the height of YMO’s popularity. I really liked techno back, but I think if I started writing techno music now, people would be like, “what the hell?” (laughs) As for classical music, I used to play classical piano so I love classical music. Electric organ is great for working out melodies and harmonies, and since classical music is all about layered melodies, naturally it’s been a big influence on me.

These days I like Ravel and Tchaikovsky, and I also really love Holst. For more weird, adventurous modern music, Ravel stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s very listenable music, and the melodies have something exotic and strange about them. He’s from Spain, so his melodies have this unique, smoldering Spanish soul to them. It’s classical, but it somehow feels like folk music. I like earthy, “rustic” music… yeah, I guess I’m a big fan of world music.

This was Mitsuda’s favorite composition of his own, at the time (he has since given different answers to that question). It makes sense given his abiding love of folk music, though apparently he loved it for capturing a specific happy time in his life.

—Do you have any “world music” albums you’d recommend, then?

Mitsuda: Hmm, there’s one I really love called Farmer’s Market. The album cover is great, and the music is impossibly cool. I hugely recommend it. You can buy it at any typical CD shop.

—How was it working with the London Philharmonic for Xenosaga?

Mitsuda: They’re as great as I had expected. Honestly, I like them so much that I didn’t want to work with them at first. (laughs) When I began writing music, I never expected I would one day have the chance to work with the London Philharmonic. The stress was insane. (laughs)

—How do you think the Xenosaga OST album came out?

Mitsuda: To be honest, I took a completely different and new (for me) approach to the songwriting in Xenosaga. Every song in Xenosaga was written with a specific video or cutscene in mind. This was something I agreed to in working with director Takahashi, but it was also what most fit the game itself—it was a completely different creative process from Xenogears. My usual process, you see, is to write songs that I think would be interesting to listen to individually, but that’s not what I did for Xenosaga. So on that note—and this is something I’m well aware of myself—but I suspect the Xenosaga OST album won’t be received very well, as music that stands on its own, unless you played the game. It’s a real “soundtrack” album, in the truest meaning of that word.

—Will you also be doing the music for Xenosaga Episode II?

Mitsuda: No, I’m not. I had to turn it down. Partly it’s because I’m very busy, but the bigger issue was that I set some goalposts for myself and said, “ok, I want to do this kind of thing for the next Xenosaga.” But my ideas were too far apart from the vision that Namco had for Xenosaga. I had started conceptualizing the music with some of the Procyon Studio members here, and we had even laid down some ideas, but once I realized it wasn’t going to fly, I had to turn the work down. (laughs) I apologize to everyone who had been hoping otherwise…!

—Can you tell us about your newest album, “Sailing to the World”?

Mitsuda: I wrote these ten songs for a Taiwanese game called “The Seventh Seal”. There’s a lot of world music influence there. Tracks 2 and 10 have singing, and I took a chance and made up my own language for the lyrics. That means no one will be able to understand them, but in turn you’ll be able to focus on the singing and melody. Koko Komine has a very exotic voice, it’s lovely. (laughs)

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A very young Mitsuda, ca 1998/99.

As for the music itself, it’s not modeled after any specific country, like Celtic or Spanish music. It’s nationless, or to put it another way, it reflects a diversity of cultures. I wanted to try mixing together all these different musical cultures and see if I could come up with something distinctly new.

“A new country”… that was really the idea, something created of an admixture of different peoples, who come together to create a new singular culture. I thought that would be really cool, and that’s the challenge I laid down for myself with this album.

—What would you like to work on in the future? Any dream projects?

Mitsuda: Well, I don’t have any plans to go major or anything (laughs), but I think I’d like to expand my horizons a bit and work on some more diverse projects. Games are always fun, but I’d like to do some work for theater or movies. Another dream of mine is to collaborate more with foreign artists. It’s not out of any desire for “cultural exchange”, I just find it super interesting to work together with people who have completely different ways of thinking. Finally, I want to keep working on music albums of my own, and maybe do some producing for other artists too. I plan to continue expanding my activities into other fields beyond video game and commissioned music, so please look out for that down the road!

Yasunori Mitsuda – 2003 Composer Interview

originally found at the GSLA archive

Getting Into Music

When I was in high school I loved film. On my way home from school I would stop at my local video rental shop and check out a bunch of movies, binge viewing them all until late in the night. One movie I saw, an Italian film called “Il Ferroviere” (The Railroad Man), had incredible music. Hearing it, it was the first time I thought to myself, “Man, I wish I could make music like that.” I also liked drawing, but my Dad was a painter, and I didn’t want to do the same thing as him.

A Weak Constitution

I always get sick whenever I’m working. During Chrono Trigger I got stomach ulcers, and it was very dangerous, but I didn’t go to the hospital. In the end, I realized I’d never be able to finish in time by myself, so Nobuo Uematsu helped out. During Tobal No. 1, I locked myself into the studio with the arranger and worked non-stop for a month. It was summer when we began, and when we finished it was Fall, and I stepped outside and was like, “damn, it got cold!” (laughs) I also sometimes work on multiple projects at once, and whenever that happens, I end up getting bloody stools. (laughs)

The film soundtrack that first inspired Mitsuda to want to create music himself.

When it came time to release the Xenogears music album, I finally collapsed from exhaustion. One morning at Square, I woke up with a start to find that someone had called an ambulance for me. Working overnight and taking naps and looking like death was par for the course there, so I was surprised. When I inquired as to who called the ambulance, it turned out they had discovered me collapsed on the floor with the phone receiver still in my hand. (laughs) That caused the Xenogears soundtrack release to be delayed.

Composing

I really like all the songs in Chrono Cross. At the time, I was limited in the number of sounds I could use, and I was worried the result would come across as half-assed. But I was able to get some support there and it turned out well. The most important thing to me, is creating songs with meaning. I want it to feel like, this sound or this melody has to come right here, right at this point! So I actually don’t write as many songs as other composers, in terms of quantity. A lengthy game like Xenogears takes 80 hours or more to beat, but it doesn’t have that much music. I would rather risk everything on just the necessary songs, no fluff. I don’t want only one or two songs to leave an impression; I want them all to be memorable.

Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that the songs I think are “perfect” don’t get noticed at all, and the ones I just casually cranked out become hits. (laughs) Robo’s theme in Chrono Trigger was like that: for me, it wasn’t especially remarkable, but people loved it. One song I think is “perfect” is the opening theme for Xenosaga. I wrote it so it would sync up seamlessly with the video image.