Motoi Sakuraba – 2002 Composer Interview

Motoi Sakuraba – 2002 Composer Interview

This interview with veteran composer Motoi Sakuraba from 2002 was originally featured in the book "sou da! game music o kikou!" It covers some obscure details of his early FM work, as well as his personal history and composition process. I’ve also appended a miscellaneous selection of comments from another interview, with brief remarks on Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, Tales of Phantasia, and others.

—I understand you’ve been involved in game music since the days of Nihon Telenet and Wolf Team.

Sakuraba: That’s right. I was involved in many titles, and I can’t specifically remember them all now, but yeah, I’ve been doing game music for quite awhile now—since the MSX and PC-88 days. For Nihon Telenet and Wolf Team, I worked almost exclusively on their PC titles.

I did all the music for the Zan series, which was a strategy series set in the warring states period of feudal Japan. I don’t believe I worked on the first Arcus game, but since Arcus 2, I’ve worked on them all, I think, including Aakushu and Arcus Odyssey.

—Had you done any music before that?

Sakuraba: I was in a band. It was a keyboard, bass, and drum trio called “Deja-vu.” It was mainly progressive rock, and we put out a cd. After that, I released a solo album titled gikyokuonsou. By the way, the art that you can see on that cd on the cover and inner sleeve was done by my Father.

—Was the music you made in your band, and the music you made for games, very different from each other?

Sakuraba: Yeah, a lot of the music that I worked on back in the day was different from the game music I did, both in genre and style. Lately, though, I’ve been able to work on more games that reflect my personal musical style. Those are fun to do.

These days I’m thinking I’d like to reform a band and start doing shows again, but it’s hard to get members together. If you know any good people, please introduce me!

Motoi Sakuraba (2002)

—In the era when FM sound was king, were you consciously trying to imitate the sound of real instruments with FM synthesis?

Sakuraba: In my case, I don’t really approach it that way, even when using sampled sounds. The reason why is that for songs composed with FM, if you try to mimic real instruments, the sound usually ends up being indistinct and hard to hear, or it just plain sounds weird.

As such, I came up with a lot of tricks and techniques to get the best sound out of FM as FM. I wasn’t thinking about live instruments or sounds.

— Please share some of your thoughts about the early computer game music of systems like the PC-8801 and the X68000?

Sakuraba: The PC-8801 could actually do a little sampling, couldn’t it? But the X6800 had an even better sound, and it was kind of put on full display in those games. I thought it was really amazing. I believe the X68000 had more polyphony than the PC-8801 and the PC-9801, right? With the PC-9801 you always had to use some PSG sounds, but now you could go full FM. It was an awesome sound for its time.

—For the Game Gear version of Zan, I understand that the original songs were compressed so they could work in a mobile game format, but what were some of the difficulties you had with porting music to a system with so few sound channels?

Sakuraba: Yeah, in fact, it was quite difficult writing music like that. There were only three channels, so I tried to focus on having each channel stand out: one for melody, one for bass, and then a backing part. For example, if I wanted more backing polyphony in a certain phrase, I’d have to turn the volume up on this part here, but it had to be done subtly, so that the listener wouldn’t notice it… there was lots of detailed work like that. I actually think writing music for only 3 channels is much more complex than writing normal music.

Zan OST. One of Sakuraba's lesser-known works, but a minor technical feat given the GG's lack of polyphony.

—Today there’s a new movement that’s revisiting and reappraising those old sound chips, and your work from that time is getting a lot of attention again. How do you see all that?

Sakuraba: Hmmm.. I wonder why? (laughs) Is it because this is music you can’t hear through normal means, like buying a CD…? I think game music today is gradually becoming indistinguishable from normal music. So maybe hearing that older game music today sounds fresh to people, because it’s completely different?

—Since your earliest work, a relatively large amount of your game music has been released on cd. Were you also involved in the arranges and remixes that appear on those cds?

Sakuraba: I think my first game music to apear on cd was Arcus 2. After that, maybe Zan? Then Granada and Final Axis… most of the remixes were done by me, but not all of them, I think one or two songs on each cd were done by someone else. As for my more recent games, the Valkyrie Profile and the Star Ocean series both have had arrange cds released. The Valkyie Profile voice remix album, in particular, was a defining album for me in a certain sense. I had never written music like that before, so it felt very fresh. However, searching through the 1000+ lines of dialogue for ones that would fit the music was extremely trying! There’s also a lot of very dark dialogue in Valkyrie Profile, so after working on it I’d be kind of depressed, so much so that I was starting to have trouble sleeping. Definitely check it out if you have the chance.

—After leaving Wolf Team, did you start doing freelance work right away?

Sakuraba: I think so. I don’t clearly remember, but I think it was 92 or 93 that I quit Wolf Team… after that I started doing a lot of freelance work. I started doing work for television after the SFC Tales of Phantasia, I think? It was right around the time Tales of Phantasia came out, or maybe a little after that. I did almost all the music for that Asahi Terebi program “Weekend Drama Series.”

—For those dramas like “roppongi kyabakura“, were you offered that work by someone in the TV industry?

Sakuaraba: To my surprise, one of the drama producers was a fan of my band, and he apparently had been wanting to work with me for a long time. One day he gave me a call.

Deja Vu, Motoi’s prog rock band.

—What are some of the differences between composing game music and tv music, and what sort of things do you pay attention in each case?

Sakuraba: With TV, there’s a person called “Music Director”, and I write the music according to his wishes, trying my best to think from his perspective when I write. For instance, I might think “oh, this kind of song would be helpful for the show to have here” while I’m writing. The thing that I have to pay the most heed to, of course, is the schedule. In many cases, it’s more effective to just quickly create something and even if it doesn’t fit perfectly just revise it later, rather than try to get something perfect off the bat.

Faster, faster… I’m always having to write as quickly as I can. With TV work, people are speaking dialogue over your music, so I have to make sure the music doesn’t interfere with that, but in games… well, there’s sometimes spoken dialogue, but there’s more sections without it. Also, much of the music I have to write for games is going to be looped, so I try to write things that won’t bore listeners upon repeated listening. I also mentioned this before, but in game music, the hardware specs limit you. I try to push the hardware as far as I can, exploring how to get the best possible sound out of it.

—I understand that with the Shining series, you were approached directly and asked to work on the music?

Sakuraba: That’s right. Someone from Camelot asked me, and Beyond the Beyond was the first thing I did with them.

—I realize the number of songs changes depending on the game, but can you tell us how long, in general, it takes you to write all the music for one game?

Sakuraba: The time it takes varies—for example, a score for the PS2 and a score for the Gameboy are totally different. For the Playstation, I wouldn’t start writing until they asked me to, and sometimes certain parts of the game wouldn’t be finished, so I’d have to wait and write around their schedule.

That kind of thing can influence the amount of time too. So yeah, as I said, it really does vary. But the one invariable thing is that you must make the deadline!

—You seem to have a reputation among game developers for being able to create songs very quickly.

Sakuraba: Yeah. But if people start thinking that about you too much, it’s not good. (laughs) I try to work on-schedule, but I also always try to create high-quality pieces, you see.

—Did you work quickly in the old PC days, too?

Sakuraba: Back then the schedules for games were very strict from the get-go, so if you didn’t create things quickly the entire development would get stalled. I wasn’t as fast then as I am now, but yeah, you could say I’ve been creating things at a quick clip since those days.

—I think your music has a distinct mood to it that you don’t hear in other game composers. When you sit down to write, are you consciously aiming for your own “individual” sound?

Sakuraba: No, not at all. I just create the way I want to create… I also don’t play any games myself, none at all.

—Please tell us about your future plans.

Sakuraba: It’s not announced yet, but a certain series that I’ve worked on will be releasing a new PS2 release, and it’ll be my first PS2 game I’ve worked on. It’s a new collection of recordings, so please look forward to it.

Motoi in the studio on keyboard.
Miscellaneous Commentary

taken from a 2003 interview and the ToP liner notes

Star Ocean 3

With Star Ocean 3, it became possible to use live recorded music with the PS2, instead of using a system’s internal sound chip. These were my first experiments using live music for a game. All the keyboard parts were played by me personally.

Baten Kaitos

All of the songs were performed by me personally. My favorite is the ending theme. The one that caused me a lot of grief was the opening, because the opening movie had visuals that were constantly changing every few seconds, and I had to make a lot of fine adjustments to make the music match it. For the normal battle music, I was asked to give it a “light feeling”, and that was what I intended to do, but it came out too violent, so I used that theme for the boss music instead.

As for the song titles, to be honest, I don’t really play a lot of games, so most of the song titles I leave to the other developers.

Tales of Phantasia (PS1)

The hardest thing for me with this PS1 remake of Tales of Phantasia was that not only were there a ton of songs, but I had also forgotten which songs were which. I realize it sounds irresponsible, but I couldn’t even remember which ones were done by me. Also, I composed this a long time ago, so when I heard the songs I had made I kind of cringed. But at the same time, there were also some interesting discoveries: “oh, I used to do this kind of thing.” All in all, it was a complex mixture of emotions to hear again.

Valkyrie Profile

Usually when I compose game music, the planners and writers give me a document explaining what kind of songs they want for each scene… but for Valkyrie Profile, all 25 songs said “stylish and dark.” (laughs) This is true about all the titles I’ve worked on, but I spent a lot of energy and effort on the battle music. It’s the song you’re going to hear the most so I make sure it’s solid. I think the Playstation has great sound quality compared with other consoles right now.

In addition to composition, I also did a lot of the sound sampling myself for Valkyrie Profile, and in that regard too, I think it turned out very well.

Motoi Sakuraba's highly praised Valkyrie Profile OST

On Composing

When it comes to making music, I do the composing, mixing, and everything to get a song into its final state all by myself. I bring the same mindset and effort to all my work regardless of genre, be it games, anime, dramas, or a movie score. I think that if you leave music to machines, then the music itself will sound mechanical, so I don’t make so-called “sequenced music”; I play everything myself by hand. In the future I want to create music that is made with performance in mind, music that would be fun to play live.

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