Masahiko Ishida – 2014 Composer Interview
This in-depth interview with composer Masahiko Ishida was featured in STG Gameside #9, alongside a companion interview with fellow Irem alumni Masato Ishizaki. This is another rare window into the world of Irem, as well as a detailed look at Ishida’s work on arcade classics like Image Fight, Ninja Spirit, R-Type II, and more. Ishida only stayed at Irem for three years, and then briefly worked at SNK.
—Before joining Irem, I understand you worked as a professional guitarist.
Ishida: In my second year of middle school I was fell in love with the singer-songwriter Takuro Yoshida, and my parents bought me a folk guitar. Later my interests shifted to the guitar itself. I had my phase of loving hard rock, YMO, and other typical stuff, but in my second year of high school I became fascinated with the guitarist Larry Carlton and bought a semi-accoustic guitar.
Around this time I formed a band. We mainly played fusion and pop standards. After college I worked as a semi-pro musician for Yoshimoto Kogyou talent agency, performing in backing bands for their artists.
—How did you learn composition?
Ishida: I studied guitar, music theory, and composition all on my own, but studied rhythm with jazz drummer Katsuhiko Kawase. Using polyrhythms, like combining a 3-beat and 4-beat part, became my specialty thanks to that experience. I especially used the 5-beat time a lot, almost to the point of it being a habit.
—That sounds about right for someone who’s more into jazz than progressive. In fact I often get an “Electric Miles” vibe when I hear your music.
Ishida: I went through a period where I was buying a new Miles Davis record every day. (laughs)
—I see you’re quite the accomplished listener as well! Your taste in music is very broad.
Ishida: Yeah, though one weak point is Japanese music, which I haven’t listened to much of. Some artists I really love are Pat Metheny, The Art of Noise, Weather Report, Enya, Sakamoto Ryuuichi, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Fatboy Slim… the list could go on forever so I’ll stop here. Right now I’m really into Foals. Besides pop, jazz, and ambient, I also love club techno. Since I started DJ-ing last year I’ve been listening to several hundred songs a month, from all genres, but mainly house, electro, and EDM.
—I’ve heard you also like folk music?
Ishida: After leaving Irem I joined a gamelan ensemble. I had taken lessons in high school.
—I understand you were introduced to Irem by Irem’s early sound programmer, Ichiro Takagi.
Ishida: We had worked together from 1980-1985, as studio musicians for artists from the Yoshimoto Kogyo talent agency. Takagi had a Sharp MZ computer and Roland MPU-401 midi unit at his house. Once I’d start playing around with these I’d never stop. (laughs) So he let me borrow them and take them home, and that was my introduction to sequenced music. Later, when Recomposer 98 was released, I purchased a PC-9801F, FB-01 (two units), TR-505, and a mixer. As for the keyboard, until I could buy an M1 myself, I borrowed units from my band members: the Poly-800, DX7, DX9, and so forth. Before joining Irem this was my basic work environment, where I made my own personal music and band demos. And it’s also where I made the demo tape that I gave to Irem during my interview.
—Why did you quit working as a semi-pro musician, and join Irem?
Ishida: Well, I had never originally had any plans to become a pro musician or anything. Until I was about 25 I just lived my life however I wanted, but I soon started to feel I better at least try to find a job. I interviewed with a bunch of companies but that didn’t go anywhere. But with Irem I knew right away: “yeah, this is the right place for me.” To put it more dramatically, working at Irem, I often felt “should I really be getting paid for this…?”
—Were you into games?
Ishida: Yeah, I’ve loved games since the Arkanoid and Space Invaders days. As a ronin after college, I played a ton of missile command–that was when I was really good at games. When I played Moon Cresta I could draw a crowd, that’s how much I played. And on the Famicom, I could make it to loop 5 of Twinbee without breaking a sweat.
—Wow! You were good!
Ishida: After I joined Irem I played R-Type a lot too, and I could clear the first loop. I joined Irem in September 1987, just after R-Type was released. I didn’t know about R-Type until after I joined, but as a gamer, I thought it was really fun. I played it so much I discovered a rare bug: if you died right at the end, after clearing all the stages, your ship would start to flicker and you’d be invincible. I think they said something to me like, “no one is ever going to find this bug, so let’s just leave it be.” (laughs)
—Naturally you must have also heard a lot of game music as well?
Ishida: I did, but Youkai doujuuki (Shadow Land) was about the only thing I thought was relaly good. I also thought the tones of the sounds used in Taito’s Rainbow Island series were really well done.
—What was the first project you worked on at Irem?
Ishida: I think it was Meikyuujima (Kickle Cubicle). The stage 1 intro melody had already been completed by Masato Ishizaki. Together with Masato and Morita, the three of us casually talked through our plans for the music for that intro, gradually working it into a finished song. But for the other music, Masato just told me to “make the rest of the songs feel like this one. I’ll leave it to you.” So although Meikyuujima is credited as a collaborative work between the three of us, in reality its music was almost entirely made by me alone. They let me work on my own, which was nice, but the flipside is that no one came to give me any guidance. (laughs)
In the beginning, I do remember being told by the designers “we want you to make it sound like so-and-so”, but I would refuse to make any changes. Only when I was really stuck would I go to the designers or Ishizaki and ask for help. When I look back on it now I guess that was pretty brazen of me, but I think they showed a lot of deference because I had worked as a pro musician. And not long after I joined Irem, the song I made for comedian Naoko Nozawa was released on CD, which further cemented that image.
—After R-Type, there was new focus on meshing sound and gameplay together, distinct from the previous era of games.
Ishida: At that time Ishizaki was the head of arcade design/planning, and Morita was the head of console design/planning. They left the music up to me, so I started working directly with the other staff. I didn’t think music really influenced game sales, so my attitude toward game music was that I would support the development team as a whole.
—What was your actual process for writing music?
Ishida: I would first play the game a bunch without sound to get ideas–now that seems like a crazy, wasteful way to do it. While I played I’d be looking for some key, be it a melody, tone, or rhythm. Actually it was a lot like the way movie composers try and find music that fits the film. That style was probably an influence on me. More than a poppish melody, I wanted something with atmosphere, impact. Since I was young I wanted to be confrontational and experimental, so I tried a lot of different things.
I also had an awareness that sound effects and music are really one. In this media we call games, the music sets the tempo, while the sound effects create immersion in the world. The music provides the player a kind of feeling or sensibility; and if the music is extraneous to that, it’s better to just have silence. I also paid close attention to the visuals on-screen and tried to layer the music thoughtfully. For instance, in stage 7 of Image Fight, when the screen is really hectic and crazy, I opted to put more relaxed music on top of that.
—What was your sound production environment like at Irem?
Ishida: It had already been mostly established by the time I joined Irem. During R-Type it seems that they really struggled, and had to rush to complete the in-house sound tools they were making… I think I joined Irem at a good time!
The sound tools all ran on NEC computers. Its slots were equipped with boards designed by Irem themselves, and it could play back the same sounds as the PCBs. It even had a handy copypaste feature. It was an easy system to work with. From the start we were using the standard version of the sequencer Recomposer, but as the days and weeks went by, features we requested were added, and our version ended up easier to use and all-around superior to the version for sale on the market. At the time I quit, you could take a phrase and advance it measure by measure, changing the tonal parameters as you went… it was really something else. For its time it was cutting-edge stuff.
For sound effects, too, we had time-based control over the individual parameters, like the FM carrier and modulator; I remember, for example, we could do an up and down glissandi at the same time. If our in-house sound tools had been sold on the market, I think they would have done really well.
—After you were hired, Irem’s use of FM sound really took off. In particular, the drum and synth sets you made, which fully utilized the unique functions of the OPM chip, sounded so thick and lush that one could mistake them for samples.
Ishida: I had almost never used FM sounds when I played with a band. After joining Irem, I started making sounds through repeated trial and error, auditioning sound after sound. But I think the sounds we achieved were again in large part thanks to the sound tools we had. We’d try anything we could to make those sounds, but ultimately those specific tones were made according to my personal tastes. For the drum sound, my idea was to make something that felt similar to the famous Simmons analogue drum.
—Then it makes sense that the first game to feature that sound was Mr. Heli, since I understand you handled that game by yourself.
Ishida: Yeah, that “kaan!” snare sound in Mr. Heli, when you fire your cannon… that was my style. I really like that sound, but actually, I was attempting to mimic the drum sound of artist Omar Hakim. He would actually use a trash can lid as percussion during his live shows.
—I feel with each of your following releases, there’s a very strong emphasis on rhythm. In those days, when you didn’t have more than 5 channels for sound, why did you put rhythm above melody?
Ishida: I liked the sense of tension and anxiety that rhythm creates. When I would play the games without any sound to get ideas, there were many cases where it was a certain atmosphere, rather than a melody, that came to mind. But just using a low bass note on a synth, or a Japanese-style drone, didn’t really fit video games. I think that was one reason I chose a rhythmic approach. Also, games have a kind of tempo or rhythm all their own, and I think I had that rhythm in (my unconscious) mind.
Also, there weren’t a lot of sounds that I could use alone as leads. What I mean, of course, is that none of the sounds available were satisfactory to mean. With only five channels, it’s nearly impossible to adequately convey rhythm, bass, harmony, and melody. If I have to use a lead sound that I’m not happy with, I’d rather there be none at all. Besides, if I was going to have a main melody, as a general rule I would prefer to use 2 or 3 sounds together. So I was limited with what sounds I could push to the front, but I worked things over until they were to my liking.
Aside from that, and this is a personal thing, but occasionally I wanted to try out some ideas that were experimental and related to music psychology. For example, in my music, I feel there’s more intense, heavy rhythms than light, jaunty ones. I think that evokes a sense of urgency and pressure when you play… like in the latter half of Saigo no Nindou (Ninja Spirit).
—Rather than stuff those five channels with busy sounds, many of your songs took advantage of empty spaces. What you say makes sense.
Ishida: Yeah, there’s definitely not a lot of arpeggios and such in my music. I don’t like playing chords much either. I’m the type that wants simple, unadorned sounds, so maybe it gives an impression of using empty space.
—Your next game was Saigo no Nindou (Ninja Spirit). I’ve heard that within Irem, this was your most popular game.
Ishida: They told me the music for Ninja Spirit had to have a “Japanese style,” but it unexpectedly turned out to be very easy to create. I had absolutely no troubles composing for it, and I felt that if only everything were this simple, I could just crank music out. (laughs) It was often said to me that Ninja Spirit sounded like “a foreigner’s idea of Japanese style,” but my intention had just been to do a straightforward Japanese aesthetic.
By the way, the lead line that comes in on the second half of stage 6 is the same as a Chick Corea riff. I wasn’t concious of it when I wrote it, but yeah, I guess I was influenced by western music after all. (laughs)
Our next release, Image Fight, was where I felt my musical style was really starting to take shape. Wooden arcade cabinets were really bassy, but I thought it imparted a cool sound. When I write, I usually compose in the order of the stages, and although it goes smoothly in the beginning, about halfway through I start to get stuck. Then I end up relying on old tricks and habits to finish things.
The song for the final stage was actually something I made for the introduction, and at the end we decided to switch it around. So although it’s well put together, I think it sounds a little “tired” for the final stage music. By the way, the stage 3 music was something I had written in the past and decided to use here. When I made it, I had always intended it to be used in game music, so it was kind of like the way film composers will quote their other works in their scores.
One interesting story I have about Image Fight: the designers came to me at one point and asked me to change the length of the songs I had already written. But I was not going to let that happen without a fight! So I challenged one of the designers to a game of Image Fight: if I lost, I would change the songs.
Normally, you would think I’d have no chance against the designers at their own game, but I too had played it a great deal without music, and I was now an expert at it. We both ended up making it to stage 2 of the second loop, but my score was lower, so I lost. As promised, I changed the length of one of the songs, and added that final piano outro to the ending theme.
—Around this time your music started to show a pronounced hard rock and industrial sound, but surprisingly you didn’t say you listened to any music from those genres.
Ishida: I’d have to say I was probably trying to make techno music, but since I always used a lot of guitars, I guess it ended up sounding like industrial or hard rock.
—Many of your songs from this time use the “self-delay” technique, which gave the music a more concrete, physical sound. Was this another technique that your sound tools made easy?
Ishida: That was accomplished by pasting parts, then manually turning down the velocity and volume. Since the copy-paste function of our software was so easy to use, it wasn’t difficult. I seem to remember that it was Masato Ishizaki’s idea to do delay like that.
—Utilizing these various techniques you’d cultivated, it was around this time you also recorded a new FM version of the Moon Patrol BGM for the R-Type OST record.
Ishida: That was just something I made for fun, but someone heard it and said “this is interesting, why don’t we add it?” It’s been included on later Irem cd compilations, so I’ve grown fond of it too.
—Almost all of your works, from your debut to the end, have been released on CD.
Ishida: I’m very happy about that. Although I never understood why the same game OST was released by two different record companies at the same time. (Alfa Records and Pony Canyon) All the song titles, by the way, were not titles I originally had; I thought them up specifically for the CDs.
—By the way, I was wondering: the music on the PCBs is all mono, but the recorded versions on CD are stereo…
Ishida: When it came time to record these for CD, I thought I’d try and get them a little closer to my original intentions as a composer, so I used the 3 open sound fx channels to create a stereo effect. I didn’t want to do anything too different from the originals, so I simply gave them a simple stereo effect and added some delay. Our sound tools were all capable of stereo sound so I simply recorded them straight from there.
—Ah, that explains why the sound on certain recent OST releases seems to be missing something.1 By the way, why did you use several different names like “M. ISHIDA”, “OH! G.I”, and “GEEO” on your CD releases?
Ishida: I was married at the time, so I had changed my last name from Ishida to Oogi. But I’m divorced now, so its back to Ishida.
—Oh, I’m sorry. Well, your next soundtrack released on cd was Legend of Hero Tonma, a rare symphonic work for you.
Ishida: Personally this was the most difficult game for me. I don’t think I’m the right match for that genre. I still think the theme for the first song is good, but as for the rest…
The number of sounds I could use was limited and that was a big challenge. The whole time I was writing them I was like, “this isn’t working…” I felt pretty comfortable with the sound effects though.
—Your next work, Dragon Breed, was the exact opposite. In the CD release liner notes, you said “I had no troubles writing these.”
Ishida: Yeah, it felt like it wrote itself, and I was just having fun. It had a density which encapsulated all the previous things I’d learned, and it has a lot of absurd, playful parts in it. I really like it. (laughs) That style was a specialty of mine at that time.
—After Dragon Breed you did X Multiply and R-Type II. Of all your work, these two games feature the most complex and heavy sound. I understand that you had a very difficult time with them.
Ishida: Both developments were going on at the exact same time. What’s more, they’re both horizontal STGs with a similar atmosphere, so I had a hard time getting into it, and it was hard to make each game feel distinct and different. I also was worried that there would be gaps in quality between the different songs. At the beginning things were going smoothly, and I thought I could do this, but I ended up running out of steam entirely.
When I started getting immersed in the writing, there were challenging puzzles that emerged. But there were also moments where I saw improvements, like how this motif might fit this part better, and so on. In the end, I have to say that outside of the first song in R-Type II, I don’t remember its music very well. As such I don’t clearly remember which songs go to which game either. It’s a good thing Masazaki was working with me!
—In what ways were you conscious the original R-Type when you were making R-Type II?
Ishida: The heavy atmosphere of the original was something I wanted to follow, and I wanted to include some of its musical motifs too. My initial idea was that it would sound cool to add a sense of speed to that heaviness. In addition I wanted to highlight the way the visuals had progressed since the first game: R-Type II has a more refined, mechanical look. And I wanted to match the increased expressiveness of the graphics with more intricate, layered music. In areas where there were lots of enemies with lengthy bodies, Ishizaki’s music was a great reference.
The music in R-Type II had flowing phrases with a lot of speed, so it felt thrilling when you played. Just looking at the screen without the music, I remember those stages felt kind of lifeless.
I also paid close attention to the use of backbeats in the rhythm. Ishizaki is a blues guy, and the music he writes also has a live, black feel to it. Many of the songs he writes emphasize the backbeat. The stage 1 music for R-Type does too, but the thing with backbeats is that if you don’t make the rhythm very clear, it’s easy for the listener to lose track of where the musical phrase begins, which kind of defeats the purpose. So that was something I was very aware of. The stage 1 theme of R-Type II also features a backbeat melody.
—Compared with the first R-Type, I feel the music of the sequel places less emphasis on melodic elements.
Ishida: I definitely didn’t spend much time thinking up specific melodies. This is a bit of a digression, but I like to add special melodies in parts of the game where the gameplay has slowed down, or not much is happening visually. Sometimes I’ll speed up the tempo in those parts too. Basically whenever there’s a part in the game that can’t immerse the player, I’ll try to draw the player’s attention to the music. I feel like I used this approach a lot in Ninja Spirit.
Obviously this is something I figure out on a case by case basis, and there are times when melodies just come to me naturally, but in many instances I would say it’s sounds that I imagine more readily than melodies.
By the way, that “piiii” sound you hear in the ending of R-Type… I can now tell you the truth about it. I made it, but it wasn’t intentional. An employee at Irem asked me “what’s that sound?” That was the first time I heard it, and I was shocked. “Oops… looks like I forgot to clean that up.” He thought it was something I had done on purpose.
—What! You’re telling me that mysterious, nihilistic sound wasn’t intentional?
Ishida: Yeah, and that memory is why I still get kind of panicked when I see R-Type II. The stage 4 music is also missing a second half that I wanted to add, and when I hear it now I always think “oh yeah, I never got around to making that part…”
—From what you’ve said, it sounds like it was an incredibly busy period for you. Was your departure from Irem in any way related to this?
Ishida: Yeah. But I have to say that during those two years, the whole time I wondered if I should really be getting paid for this “work.” It was always like play to me. I left Irem in September 1989 (right when both X-Multiply and R-Type II were finished). I’ve got a selfish personality, and partly I wanted to play in a band again as I had before. I think I caused Ishizaki a lot of trouble.
—Irem also did several console ports. Were these also done with Irem’s in-house sound tools?
Ishida: Yes. I don’t think it was all that different from our arcade development environment. The PC Engine tools were very good. I remember getting into the nitty-gritty with it, tweaking LFOs and individual tones. On the other hand I remember the Famicom sound tools were a lot harder to work with because you had to enter data in with that controller. With Meikyuujima (Kickle Cubicle) I re-arranged the arcade soundtrack for the Famicom. By that time we were able to take the original sound data and, to an extent, reappropriate it for the console versions.
That reminds me, you know the Famicom port of Image Fight… it was actually subcontracted out to another company, but it was a really sad how it turned out. It pains me to hear the arpeggiated notes sped up so crazily. They should have just changed the phrase altogether, I now think.
—After you left Irem, what did you do?
Ishida: For awhile I had no connection with the games industry, and did a variety of other things. Then I built a new DAW setup and started making a bunch of different music. Around that time I decided to drop in at Irem and say hello to everyone. I was surprised to find out that the games department no longer existed! Then I got in touch with Ishizaki, who was like, “I’ve been looking for you!” That was how I came to work for SNK. Then I did the music for one Gameboy Advance title… it took two years, and I thought it was really great, but it ended up not getting released after all. After working for SNK Playmore, I went freelance.
—And it sounds like you’re not involved with any game music today?
Ishida: If someone asked me to work on something, I would, but I’m not actively seeking that work myself. That’s sort of been the way I’ve gone about working since my days as a backing band musician.
—Your DJ work focuses on house and electronica, but do you have any plans to do some stuff that’s geared toward game music fans?
Ishida: I’m already planning something, actually. I’ve remixed some of my music, so now I just need to find a place that will let me share it.
—I look forward to that! Thank you for your time today!
If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!
The implication is that newer releases don’t add the slight delay/stereo effect mentioned here.↩