The Rock Stars of Sega – 2009 Composer Interview
This lengthy and candid interview from 2009 with alumni Sega composers Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi originally appeared at game music core. The first part of the interview covers the early history of the sound department at Sega, while the latter half is devoted to stories and anecdotes about Sega’s “in-house” rock band, the S.S.T. Band.
Hiroshi Kawaguchi – Composer
Takenobu Mitsuyoshi – Composer
Yoshihiro Ohno – Producer (Pony Canyon/GMO)
—First off, please tell me where you’re from, starting with Hiro.
Hiro: I’m from Chiba prefecture. Choshi city.
—Did you always live in Choshi? Until getting a job in Tokyo, that is.
Hiro: Yeah, I lived in Choshi almost my entire life.
—How about you, Mitsuyoshi?
Mitsuyoshi: I’m originally from Fukuoka. But my Father moved around a lot because of his job, so although I was born there, when I was about 3 years old we moved to Chiba. Then when I was in high school, we moved to Sendai, and later I came to Tokyo looking for work.
—I know this is kind of a hackneyed question, but were you interested in music as children? Did you learn piano in grade school, for example, or take guitar lessons, or anything like that?
Hiro: I absolutely hated music lessons when I was in elementary school. I always received bad grades in those classes, and I basically had no interest in music at all.
—Wow. So when did that change?
Mitsuyoshi: Those were all big names back then.
—Why was it the guitar that grabbed your attention?
Hiro: Folk guitar was really popular then, and a lot of people around me were getting into it. So I jumped on the bandwagon too, and even started writing my own songs too.
Mitsuyoshi: You were writing original music from the beginning then, not covers?
Hiro: It was about 50/50, half covers, half originals.
Mitsuyoshi: And you wrote all that music on guitar?
Mitsuyoshi: Lyrics too?
Hiro: Yeah, there were also lyrics.
—You wrote your own lyrics? That’s cool.
Mitsuyoshi: Do you have any recordings of these? (laughs)
Hiro: I didn’t record any of them, but I believe I wrote some of it down… there should be some index cards with lyrics and chords written out.
—By the way, did you have a teacher for guitar?
Hiro: No, I taught myself from books. I bought guitar chord sheets, stuff like that.
—As a musician though, you have a strong association with the keyboard. How did you end up switching from guitar to keyboard?
Hiro: Once I started high school, I formed a band, and we did Masayoshi Takanaka covers. At first I just played rhythm guitar, but a lot of those songs have synth melodies for the intros, and I’d perform those. At first I did double-duty like that, on synth and guitar, but I soon started to feel that synth was more interesting. And I liked that you could make new sounds on it.
—Did you play any other songs in this high school band?
—Did the originals have vocals too?
Hiro: They did.
—Going back to what you said earlier, if you hated music so much as a kid, what things did you like instead?
—Your love of legos is well-known in some quarters, but I didn’t realize it went back to childhood. (laughs) Aren’t legos kind of expensive, though? Did you collect entire kits?
Hiro: No, nothing like that. I just got hand-me-downs from my brother, and added to it here and there with pieces I bought myself.
—Did you assemble things from kits, or make your own creations?
Hiro: I almost only made my own things.
Mitsuyoshi: Whoaaa. (laughs)
—Weren’t Daiya Blocks also popular then, when you were a kid?
Mitsuyoshi: Oh, I remember those, the slightly bigger ones.
Hiro: I didn’t use those myself—I used legos and those “Nintendo Blocks” that Nintendo made.
—Nintendo Blocks? I’ve never heard of those!
Hiro: They were actually compatible with normal legos. If you go to my webpage (CLUB LEGO) you can see them, check it out!
Mitsuyoshi: Getting a little advertising in, I see. (laughs)
—Hey, he’s been into legos longer than music. (laughs) Mitsuyoshi, what was your childhood like?
Mitsuyoshi: Like Hiro, I also hated music class in school. I was especially bad with reading music and anything having to do with music theory—and of course we weren’t really getting into actual theory then, but in any event, I absolutely hated music class. However, I did like singing. I’d sing the anime theme songs of the day, stuff like that.
—What were you into then, if not music?
Mitsuyoshi: I was a baseball kid. I was in little league, which I did until the end of middle school.
—How did you make the transition from little league to music?
Mitsuyoshi: Baseball was fun when I was in elementary school, but as you can probably imagine, once you get to middle school, the hazing from the older students is very hard. They call it “training”, but it’s just another name for hazing.
—I played baseball in middle school, so I completely understand you. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: Nowadays they just call it bullying, right? But it made me hate baseball. So once I started high school, I thought I’d try something completely different, and joined the science club.
—The science club? (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: I had been on the sports-track, so I thought I’d choose something in the fine arts and sciences. (laughs) It was there, actually, that I first used a computer. Back then they had PC-8001s, but when I heard them play music, I was very impressed. I didn’t know computers could do things like that.
—So it sounds like you got into music byway of computers, then?
Mitsuyoshi: Well, YMO was really popular then, and my interest in music really begins with them. It was also then that I started putzing around on keyboard, too. Of course, I didn’t join the science club to play music—we spent time doing science stuff: looking at stars, making dinosaurs out of paper mache… (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: One of the things we experimented with was sound synthesis and synthesizers, and it seemed cool to me, just the logic of it. That’s how I got interested in electronic instruments.
Mitsuyoshi: Then, as I mentioned a minute ago, my family moved to Sendai when I was in my second year of high school. After changing schools, I had the opportunity to join a band, so my musical activities proper begin then. Also, the style of music that YMO had pioneered was starting to go out of fashion, and in my search for more music like that, I dug up Casiopeia and other bands at the local record store. When I heard that they played everything on those records by hand, I was like, “what!!!!” (laughs)
I decided for myself that, from here on out, I was going to learn to play for real, so I started studying classical piano.
Hiro: Ah, so you took real lessons.
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, there was a teacher who lived near my house, and would give me private lessons.
—Have you always played keyboard then, since starting that band?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, until I graduated college, keyboard was the only instrument I played.
From Computer Kid to Sega Programmer
—Hiro, before you were hired by Sega, did you have any special experience with computers?
Hiro: We had a home computer. I was one of those “computer kids”, with a Commodore VIC-1001. I think that was middle school, or maybe high school.
Mitsuyoshi: The VIC-1001, that’s the white one, right?
Hiro: Those were the days of the “home computer boom”, so naturally I felt I had to have one, too. They could easily cost over 100,000 yen, but the VIC-1001 was more affordable, only 69,800. I’m gonna buy this!, I said to myself, and I purchased it the very day it came out. From there I started making my own games in BASIC, and I added my own music to them too.
—Wow, you made your own games and your own music.
Hiro: Yeah, I added music. I added notes for each time your character moved, and when you got the goal, I added a little anime medley which I had arranged. The VIC-1001 had very capable sound—three channels plus a noise channel. I really enjoyed it.
—So during that time, you played in bands and did your computer stuff at the same time?
Hiro: Yeah. From the VIC-1001, I got totally hooked on the fun of programming and making your own sounds with a computer. I also submitted my games to various hobbyist computer magazines, too.
—Magazines like BeMaga?
Hiro: No, this was before BeMaga… “MaiKon Games” or something? But I also submitted to BeMaga, later.
—And did any of your games get published in the magazines?
Hiro: Two or three times, yeah. They even got produced on tape cassette and sold commercially, and I got some royalties. (laughs)
—Since you could already make games on your own and you loved games, is that why you applied to Sega?
Hiro: I liked games, of course, but I thought creating something with computer programming was very fun, so I wanted to join a company that had a good R&D (research and development) department. I did some research, and I realized for the first time that there are companies making games. I actually didn’t know Sega before I worked for them.
—The story of how you worked at Sega in the early days as a programmer is a famous one, but did you join Sega wanting to do programming?
Hiro: The truth is that when I applied to Sega, I was wanted to do some work involving game music, but at the interview we started talking about my magazine submissions, and how I could program in assembly, and so I got hired as a programmer. I didn’t have any say in the matter. (laughs)
Hiro: I liked programming too, of course, so I was ok with it.
—Was there even for work for dedicated video game composers back then?
Hiro: My colleague Funky KH (Katsuhiro Hayashi) was the first one to have such a position. Before that, it was the hardware engineers that did sound. The reason why is that, in those days, you made sounds by manually connecting different resistors.
—By the way, what was the entrance test like for Sega? Did you have to make or present anything?
Hiro: No, I think there was just an interview and a simple written test. Hisashi Suzuki gave me the interview, and he pretty much just talked about himself the whole time. (laughs) I was like, is this how interviews are supposed to be? Aren’t I supposed to say something? (laughs)
—Mitsuyoshi, what was the entrance test like in your day? Sega was a really big company by then, so I imagine it was really difficult?
Mitsuyoshi: Actually, it was kind of the opposite: being the end of the very height of the bubble economy, it was surprisingly easy. My major in college was economics—totally unrelated to music, right?
—Were you in the “economics club” in high school? (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: I also took teaching courses, actually, and there was also the option of becoming a teacher. But then, as part of my training, I attended some actual school classes, and saw what being a teacher was really like…
Mitsuyoshi: Also, I had always been in bands during my school days, so I thought I’d like to do something with music if I could. As for Sega, when I was in college, an older student showed me Galaxy Force, and I remember thinking how far game music has come, and that I’d like to do that kind of work if I had the chance.
Actually, I also attended a Sega job fair meeting, though it was for their business and administration positions, not games development. At the meeting, I was surprised when someone else raised their hand and asked “I want to do sound at Sega, how can I apply for that?”
—At a meeting for normal business and admin positions?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah! I remember they replied, “Just send in your demo tape.”
—So you’re saying, if that person had never raised their hand and asked that question…
Mitsuyoshi: I’d be working in sales. (laughs) But those were the heady bubble days, right? Sure, this guy studied economics, but his music sounds interesting, let’s give him a try! (laughs) Nowadays I don’t think someone like me would get hired.
—What was the demo tape like that you sent them, by the way?
Mitsuyoshi: It was two songs, instrumental. I did all the playing by hand, using a multitrack recorder to overdub multiple lines. Only the drum machine was sequenced.
—Hiro, as someone on the hiring side, did you listen to his tape?
Hiro: I probably did.
—Did any of those songs ever make their way onto any games?
Mitsuyoshi: Ah, well… actually no. (laughs)
—Mitsuyoshi, did you apply to any other companies then? I hope it’s not rude too ask.
Mitsuyoshi: Oh no, it’s cool. I really wanted to do game music, so I applied to a bunch of different places. Namco, Konami, and also Taito and SNK, I think? I even made it to the final interview round with another company. However, by that time I’d already received an unofficial offer from Sega, and I also felt a little unsure about this other company. Their entrance test was insane too! They had an electric piano setup in the interview room, and they said, “Please listen to this melody. You will have 5 minutes to come up with an arrangement.” There was a test to see if you had perfect pitch too. I’ve never had perfect pitch, so I just had to guess. I think the interviewer was shocked. (laughs) After that, I had to meet with the business managers, but my head was all muddled and I blurted out that I’d received an unofficial offer from Sega. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: I should have backpeddled and said I didn’t know if I was going to accept it, but instead I said that I came to this interview just “to learn more about your company”, or something half-assed like that. This was supposed to be a final-round interview, of course, and so they were somewhat exasperated: “what do you really want here?” In the end they said I should go home. (laughs)
—I wanted to ask some questions about your first experiences at Sega after being hired. As part of your training, did you go to game centers?
Mitsuyoshi: Did they do that in your day, Hiro?
Hiro: We didn’t, no. As soon as I was hired, I was put right on a project.
Mitsuyoshi: They did that in my day. They took new hires to a training camp in Yamanakako, and after that they divided us into two groups, one to visit the factory sites, and another to visit the game centers. Each group spent a week doing training/research at those places, then we switched groups. I remember going to the game centers, and gathering the money from the machines and counting up all that change.
Hiro: We still do that today for new hires, too.
—So that training program started in Mitsuyoshi’s day then?
Hiro: We failed to get it underway in my time. (laughs) I think it started about 3 years after I was hired.
Mitsuyoshi: After the factory and game center trainings, there was a computer training. We got to make a game on our own.
—You mean actual programming, not just writing music?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, programming. Some of the people who already knew how to program were able to add my music too, but I remember struggling to get even a single beep out, that’s how inexperienced I was there. (laughs)
—And Hiro, what was in like for your era?
Hiro: After I was hired, for about a week I worked with Yuji Naka and Katsuhiro Hayashi. Sega told us, “we want a game targeted at girls.”
—Ah, Girl’s Garden.
Hiro: Yeah, so we didn’t get any training. But Yuji Naka had experience making games too, so we gave it our best shot.
Hiro: They just gave us a bunch of hardware parts and let us go at it. There was no planner, no designer. I had to do the art myself, too.
—You did pixel art?
Hiro: We eventually had a single designer join the team, but before that, I was doing the art. There were four team members total. K.H did the music.
Mitsuyoshi: Did you convert the songs he made to actual data?
Hiro: No, at that time, sound people had to know how to program too.
Mitsuyoshi: I see, so he had to do it himself.
Hiro: The first songs he turned in were rejected. I remember thinking, “I wouldn’t write stuff like this.” (laughs)
Hiro and PSG
—The first game you did the sound for was Hang-on, correct?
Hiro: Hang-on was probably the first, yeah. The first I wrote songs for, at least. Before that I had done programming. I also worked on our home console titles, but I believe Hang-on was my very first work as a composer.
—With the songs you wrote for home console, I’m assuming that was for the SG-1000 and Mark III… does that mean you’ve also written music for PSG sound chips?
Hiro: I have, a few.
—Do you remember them?
Hiro: Um, what’s the one where you dig the holes and bury the enemies?
Mitsuyoshi: Heiankyo Alien?
Hiro: No, not that one.
—That’s not a Sega game. (laughs)
Hiro: There were stairs… ah, I remember, the ending theme for Lode Runner was one. Also, there was a port, it began with a Pi… pi-something…
Hiro: Yeah, Pitfall. I don’t think I wrote all of the songs though. Let’s see, there were a few others… Dragon, Dragon-something…
Hiro: Dragon One, maybe that was it. The screen had two sections or something. I helped out on that one.
—As a video game composer you’re strongly associated with the arcade and FM sound. It’s interesting to hear you did PSG music too.
Hiro: Back in the day, the console and arcade developments were part of the same division, and you worked on whichever you wanted.
—You said the arcade and console developments were not divided at this point in history, but with Funky KH’s Quartet, for instance, I believe he ported the FM songs to PSG himself for the Sega Mark III. Did you also handle the porting of your own songs, Hiro?
Hiro: No, I didn’t. They’d always be finished before I even know about it.
—Really? (laughs) You weren’t annoyed by the fact that someone else was porting and re-working your music?
Hiro: No, not at all.
—Did you ever have any criticisms about how they turned out?
Hiro: Well, I usually only heard them for the first time after the port had been released. Hearing them now, 20 years later, they’re interesting to listen to.
—I remember you saying that there were some songs on the Out Run and After Burner 20th anniversary box cds that you had never heard before!
Hiro: Yeah, exactly. I have no memory of hearing them back then.
—Nowadays, if someone was going to port your music, I imagine they’d ask you for the data directly. What was it like back then?
Hiro: I don’t think that happened very much. Back then I wrote things down on sheet music, and I do remember being asked for copies of that sheet music sometimes. Probably some of the more wild ports/arrangements were done by people who didn’t have the sheet music. Like in Out Run, where I think the song is just totally different?
The Early FM Sound Era: Development Secrets
—I’d like to ask some questions now about the FM era. First, how did you get involved in the developments for Hang-on and Space Harrier?
Hiro: At the time of Hang-on, I was still working as a programmer. Yu Suzuki said, “hey Kawaguchi, you play in band—please make me some songs for Hang-on that sound like music a band would play.” I believe I then recorded a demo on cassette or something, and passed it off to the sound programmer who data sequenced it for Hang-on. So I didn’t do the sequencing for that one myself.
—And how about for Space Harrier?
Hiro: I don’t think I did the data sequencing for that one either. I do remember making the individual sound patches, though.
—When you say “data sequencing”, back then was it simply programming in “PLAY” statements in BASIC language?
Hiro: Yeah. We used macros in assembler. You’d write something like “PLAY C5 L4” for a fifth-octave C in quarter-note rhythm.
—It seems like you had to go through a very lengthy process back then just to get a sound to play on the PCB.
Hiro: I think that’s true, but at first I didn’t have to do the data sequencing myself, so it didn’t feel that bad to me. When I was writing Space Harrier, I remember calling Yu Suzuki into my room, and playing my rought drafts for him on K.H’s Yamaha DX-7. He said he liked them, and I would then just write out that music…
—So you always wrote out sheet music for your songs then?
Hiro: Yeah. I didn’t have a real sequencer. Compared with how I do it now, it feels like writing out the music by hand was 100x faster. Though I don’t think I could do it anymore. (laughs)
—Mitsuyoshi, by the time you joined Sega, sequencers were widely available, right? You could just play your keyboard parts and the computer would record the data immediately.
Mitsuyoshi: That’s right. By the time I joined, there was a strong technical base that Hiro had built up, and software tools too. I used a PC-98 and sequencer software to write my music. We had a converter that would make the MIDI data playable on PCB, and assembling and linking everything together took a bit of doing, but compared to Hiro’s day, it was all much easier.
Hiro: By the way, did you know it was K.H who created that MIDI converter?
Mitsuyoshi: Ah, so it was.
Hiro: He was the first person to start using MIDI at Sega, too. I hated MIDI back then, and was still all about my sheet music. (laughs)
—It sounds like in those days, even sound guys had to have some programming abilities. Mitsuyoshi, how was it for you? Did you have a tough time?
Mitsuyoshi: It was very spartan. (laughs)
—Was there any kind of “educational” system in place? Something where the legacy of knowhow was passed down from old employees to new?
Mitsuyoshi: Basically, if you didn’t take the initiative and ask, no one was going to tell you anything. (laughs) And even when I did ask questions, I often found myself confused by the specialized terminology. Many of the new recruits who joined Sega with me did understand this stuff, and they learned the programming quickly enough, so I can’t speak for everyone. I had an especially hard time. I never quite got good enough to program something from scratch—the best I was able to do was create subroutines. Afterwards, we moved more into the era of using robust software tools to do things.
—Was this around the time that Hiro acquired his nickname “shishou” (teacher/master) ?
Hiro: I think it was around 1988? Until Takaki joined Sega, I worked alone under Yu Suzuki. That was through the Studio 128 period…
—Ah, when After Burner was made.
Hiro: We worked in a kind of annex to the main development building, with a small crew. What happened was, we had another person join the team for sound, and it was like, well, what shall we call this arrangement? He said, “I guess you can call me your pupil.” (deshi) I said ok, then that would make me the master! (shishou)
Hiro: Mitsuyoshi joined the next year, as the disciple’s disciple (magodeshi).
—I remember reading something along those lines in the S.S.T. band cd booklet.
Mitsuyoshi: Takaki said to call him “ani” (older brother). (laughs)
—So, somehow this little nickname got out to the rest of Sega? Even people who weren’t on the sound team?
—I thought that name came from the fact that Sega was getting bigger and bigger then, and hiring lots of new employees, and you had some system where they called you “master” or something.
Hiro: No, people both above me and below called me by that nickname.
—Really? Your bosses too? Wow. (laughs)
Hiro: Well, it was all in good fun you know.
Mitsuyoshi: Once that nickname started to stick, even our people outside Sega started calling him that.
Hiro: At Sega it was no problem, but I would get some weird glances when someone would yell out “MASTER!” on the train. (laughs)
Hiro: Only recently have I started to think about how weird it all was. (laughs)
Out Run and After Burner
—The ability to choose what song you wanted to listen to in Out Run was a first for a video game, I think. Whose idea was that?
Hiro: Yu Suzuki used to say he came up with that idea himself. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: He usually talked that way though.
Hiro: Yeah, but I seem to remember the designer creating that radio screen and saying, “hey, if this is a radio, you should be able to select your own songs!” (laughs)
Hiro: I can’t quite remember, so take that with a grain of salt. (laughs) I do remember, however, that the screen originally didn’t show the hand. The original design was just the car’s dashboard. But once you were able to select songs, I asked Yu Suzuki whether we should have a cursor or some indicator on-screen to show people they could choose their music. Ultimately I’m the one who decided we didn’t need to do that, though.
Hiro: It would be a little secret, that only people who knew about it would know how to do.
—I’ve also heard numerous times that in Out Run, the songs “Splash Wave” and “Passing Breeze” had their names swapped accidentally. Perhaps we should just say you don’t remember, and leave it at that? (laughs)
Hiro: Hah, no, how could I forget that blunder. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: He’ll never live it down. (laughs)
Hiro: I think the original, true names were reversed when we added the song names to the game. However, when the cd came out, they were reversed again, and I can’t remember which was right in the first place.
—I’ve heard “Passing Wind” and “Passing Time” were the original titles for Passing Breeze, also. That would mean the song we call Splash Wave today could actually be either of those three…
Hiro: I say just call it whatever you want! (laughs)
—The use of sampled guitars in After Burners was also groundbreaking, but I imagine it took a lot of work?
Hiro: PCM was originally made with the goal of reproducing human voices in games. From the perspective of how it sounds, however, its no different than sampling. That’s why I used it to get a good sound in Space Harrier and Out Run, but for drums. On After Burner, then, I wanted to try using it like a more traditional sampler, where the sample can be replayed in different pitches on a musical scale. Unfortunately, the hardware parameters only allowed a scale from 0 to 7F, so while there were a lot of choices for notes in the lower registers, it couldn’t play very high notes. The sampling rate was also very low, so high-pitched sounds had a lot of crackling.
Hiro: At the time we were making After Burner, there were no “samplers” available to buy. Actually, there were, but there were prohibitively expensive, so one of our hardware developers created a sampler all by himself. It was huge, with the jumper wires all exposed, and only one mono input. It had only 3 LEDs: power, input, and one to indicate clipping. You had to use the clipping LED to set the volume manually each time you recorded something.
—Hiro, let’s talk about your time composing songs for the Megadrive. In cd liner notes I’ve seen you say that it was fun, but could you elaborate on that period?
Hiro: For the Megadrive, the first sound drivers we had weren’t very good, so I fixed them myself. I rewrote them in assembler.
—When you were developing those drivers, did you also create some kind of program to convert your arcade songs to be playable on the Megadrive?
Hiro: I didn’t. In fact, the only arcade music I ever arranged for the Megadrive was a song for Rent-a-hero. Trying to put everything together in a small space was fun—in that sense it was an “arrangement.”
—The Megadrive could handle PCM, yet very few games used it for drums or otherwise. Of those that did, I think Sword of Vermillion and Rent-a-hero were especially effective in their use of it. Was that part of your intentions when writing these?
Hiro: I had previously used PCM on the arcade, and from a hardware perspective, the Megadrive is almost the same. I figured since it had a main 68000 processor, it should be able to handle sampling.
—Were there any big differences between the Megadrive and Arcade, then? I imagine the memory limits were very different for both, for example.
Hiro: Yeah, there was no way around that. In that world, you counted the space you saved in bytes.
—After Sword of Vermillion and Rent-a-hero, did other sound composers at Sega want to use the drivers you’d created?
Hiro: Actually, that never happened. Probably because we were in that completely separated department with Yu Suzuki. Also, the culture back then was that sound people took pride in doing everything themselves.
—So there was no sharing of knowhow, tricks, or techniques?
Hiro: None at all.
Hiro: The sole exception would be FM parameters. Someone would make some cool sound, and another sound guy would be like, “I’ll take that, thanks!”
—Ah, like the whistle sound in Fantasy Zone?
Hiro: Yeah, that was made by Katsuhiro Hayashi.
—By the way, in Rent-a-hero you used PCM for voice samples as well as drums. Is that Mitsuyoshi’s voice?
Mitsuyoshi: It is. (laughs)
—I know you’re famous for doing Kagemaru’s voice in Virtua Fighter, but could it be that this was your debut?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, it was Rent-a-hero. Where did we record that…? It was at the office, right?
Hiro: Probably. At that time, we had never used any voice actors before. I wanted to add voices and looking around said, “Ok, Mitsuyoshi will do.”
—I believe the only Megadrive game you did music for, Mitsuyoshi, was the “GP Rider” song that plays in Rent-a-hero, in the game center area. Is that right?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah. I also did a little work on the port of Virtua Racing.
—Were Sword of Vermillion and Rent-a-hero the only two Megadrive games you worked on, Hiro? Ninja Burai Densetsu, for example, is a Japanese war simulation game, so the staff roll lists everyone’s names in kanji. There’s a name there “Hiro” 1… that game’s soundtrack makes great use of sampling, and there’s a theory that you wrote it. How about it?
Hiro: We’re just going to have to leave that one as a mystery. (laughs)
Forming the S.S.T. BAND
—The S.S.T.BAND was one of the most popular acts of the “game music band boom” which took place in the late 80s to early 90s. But before the S.S.T. was officially formed, you performed some lives shows simply as the Sega sound staff. I believe the “After Burner Panic” event at Sunshine 60 in Ikebukuro must have been one of those shows…
Hiro: Right. And indeed it was a “panic”…
—I actually brought a magazine with me today from that time, and the article covering the event quotes you, Hiro, saying “The staff was in a panic, too.”
Ono: I believe that musical performance was one part of the larger event. They did other stuff too, like a quiz.
Mitsuyoshi: (reading the article) It says here, “Overwhelmed by the impressive array of dazzling goods, the crowd nearly went wild.” (laughs)
Ono: Didn’t the sequencer stop at some point? I think we got it working again?
Hiro: We did, but there were a couple more times where it just stopped. Koichi Namaki said it was my fault. “Magical Sound Shower” never started. The intro would play through, but then the song wouldn’t start. There were no DATs or anything back then, you see. We brought a Roland MC-500 sequencer and played back everything from that.
Mitsuyoshi: That sounds scary.
Ono: I remember K.H. in that moment, saying something like, “well, this is screwed, we might as well dance!” (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: (looks at magazine) Ah, it’s written here too. “Funky K.H. suddenly burst into dancing on stage.” (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: That’s what he always did when things were going south. (laughs)
Ono: I thought he might really be a dancer… (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, he has unusually good control of his hips.
Hiro: I’m sure there’s a video of this performance lying around somewhere. There’s got to be. I’d love to see it.
Mitsuyoshi: Me too.
Ono: I remember you were unable to play the song you had planned for the finale, and it was Christmas time, so Namiki said “Well, let’s just do a Christmas song.” (laughs)
—Were there 4 members in the band at this point?
Hiro: Yeah. Koichi Namiki, me, Katsuhiro “Funky K.H.” Hayashi, and Sachio on bass.
—I believe the S.S.T. Band was officially formed after the After Burner Panic show, right?
Ono: I think it was when they were recording the album that they realized they needed a name, and decided on “S.S.T. BAND”.
—Some of the other “developer” bands had their names first, right? Like the Konami Kukeiha Club.
Ono: I think they all came out around the same time: Kukeiha, Zuntata, S.S.T…
—The S.S.T. BAND’s first cd appears to be mainly recordings of pre-sequenced music. For the arranged tracks, though, I get the sense that you didn’t do the arrangements yourself—rather, you asked other professionals to remix them for you…
Hiro: Actually, no, I didn’t ask them, and it was done before I realized it. (laughs) I don’t think they wanted to get too wrapped up in the composer’s original ideas, so they did it on their own.
Ono: Yoshihiro Kunomoto arranged those. But didn’t you talk with him at all about how to arrange them? I’m pretty sure you were at the studio.
Hiro: I was asked to come, but I didn’t say anything.
Mitsuyoshi: What, did they ask you not to speak? (laughs) Sounds intimidating! (laughs)
Hiro: I just thought that’s how things were done with CDs.
—So you didn’t take any part in the recording then.
Hiro: No. Kunimoto was the arranger, and the sound engineer was Kimitaka Matsumae.
—So you didn’t have any problem with someone else arranging and “finishing” the music you had written?
Hiro: None at all.
—You never thought, “Hey, let me try this one” ?
Hiro: No, that’s just how I figured things were supposed to be. Back then, composers didn’t really remix their own material. During the S.S.T. days, I didn’t arrange my own songs. I participated as a player, of course.
Ono: So, let me see if I’ve got this straight: the events and live concerts came first, and you got involved with the group by practicing Kunimoto’s arrangements of your work for those shows?
Hiro: Yes, that’s how it was in the beginning.
Ono: I think the first show you did at the S.S.T. Band was the “Megadrive Sparkling 1989” concert. I remember going to see you guys at your first rehearsal. You were all together, face to face, Matsumae, Jouji Iijima. My first impression was that this was an odd assortment of different types of people… I thought, “Uh oh, I wonder if this is going to work.” (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: I know that feeling. (laughs)
Change of the Guard
—Why did the S.S.T. band swap out Hiro for Mitsuyoshi on keyboards?
Hiro: I was late one day.
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, I remember that. I know its been brought up in other interviews, but Hiro liked to take his little siestas. (laughs)
—Is that true?
Mitsuyoshi: It was intense. The being late, but also just the amount of sleeping. (laughs)
Hiro: I don’t know, I think I slept a normal amount, but I was late a lot.
Ono: Did the activities of the S.S.T. band interfere with your work?
Hiro: No, not at all. Not at all. (laughs)
Hiro: I just didn’t go. (laughs) If there were 20 days of work, I’d be late 20 days.
Mitsuyoshi: That’s… everyday. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: For my part, I made my appeal to Yu Suzuki: “I really want to be in the S.S.T. band!”
Hiro: And Suzuki came to me one day and told me, “Mitsuyoshi is going to take over from here.”
Mitsuyoshi: You were kind of happy about it though, I seem to recall. (laughs)
Hiro: Yeah, well, the practices had gradually become more and more difficult for me. (laughs) So although I responded to Suzuki saying “Oh, I see…”, inside I was going, “Yes! Lucky!” (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: I could see that relief on your face. (laughs)
Ono: What was your first work with the S.S.T. Band, Mitsuyoshi?
Mitsuyoshi: When I joined, I was working on R-360. It had a song called “Earth Frame G”, so recording that for the Formula album was my first work with them.
—Was it difficult joining a band that had already been formed?
Mitsuyoshi: It was fun, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, so it was very difficult. Plus there was Matsumae, who was a real pro. They worked me pretty hard!
—Was it kind of like “spring training”, then?
Mitsuyoshi: Kind of. Naturally, Matsumae was quite good at composition, but was really inexperienced, so… He’d say something to me like, “Mitsuyoshi, why don’t you modulate that phrase there a bit,” and I’d cheerfully reply “Yes sir!” but then totally be unable to do it.
Mitsuyoshi: Then he’d hear it and be like, “You didn’t do it!” and I’d just let out a little fearful yelp. (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: At the same time, Saito and others reassured me that I was doing fine. I owe them a lot.
—Was there ever a live show with both of you? Perhaps a fan club event, or a private show?
Ono: Maybe the TakeOff7 show at Shibuya? It was when Tanabe had that throat disease, and Kumamaru threw it together quickly.
Mitsuyoshi: I don’t remember you being there, Hiro?
Hiro: When Kuma came out, I think I went onstage. There had only been a day to learn and rehearse these songs, and I remember thinking “wow, what a bunch of pros.” I think we played together then, maybe?
Mitsuyoshi: We did?
Hiro: I don’t actually remember. Please research it and let me know what you find. (laughs)
—You said a moment ago that it was difficult at first when you joined the S.S.T. Band. Did Namiki, your senior colleague, give you a hard time?
Mitsuyoshi: No, Namiki was a Sega employee like me, and in terms of seniority we were about on the same level.
—But Namiki has made comments elsewhere that “Mitsuyoshi was everyone’s punching bag.” (laughs) Didn’t they pull pranks on you, like filling your stage drink with hot miso soup? (laughs)
Mitsuyoshi: Ah, yeah, they did do stuff like that. The one I remember the most was during a recording session in Kannonzaki, a place which is reknowned for being haunted. I don’t remember what song it was for, maybe Rad Mobile, but I was alone in the studio booth recording my piano solo. It was pitch black in there. After awhile, someone who had been quietly standing in the booth the whole time suddenly turned a flashlight on their face and went “BOO!” I knew about Kannonzaki’s reputation so I was already scared, you know? Everyone was laughing their ass off, but I was like, “Stop it guys!!”
Ono: Mitsuyoshi kind of got treated like a team mascot. You were the youngest, right?
Mitsuyoshi: I was the youngest. But I remember at that time I was really struggling, so it was like, seriously? (laughs) Now when I think back on it, I think maybe it was a bit of hazing. (laughs) But it was a good experience.
“Belldeer Wind”, the first original
—In 1992, the S.S.T. band released Blind Spot, their first album of all-original non-game songs. But before that, on Formula, your first original composition was actually Belldeer Wind.
Mitsuyoshi: Ah, yes.
—I understand that you wrote the song as an original first. But did you know that it was going to be used in a Megadrive game, but that game never ended up getting released? (laughs)
Ono: Ah, that’s the game Scitron was working on.
Ono: It was a driving game.
—An F1 simulation game, yeah.
Ono: That’s the one.
Mitsuyoshi: What, really? I didn’t know about that.
—No doubt it’s fresh news for the Megadrive maniacs out there, too. (laughs) Personally I would have loved to hear a Megadrive FM rendition of that tune.
Ono: The whole thing began with a different project, in which we were trying to make a stereophonic recording of the sound of an F1 race. So I took an omnidirectional mic down to Suzuka Circuit and made some recordings. Then I asked Matsumae to make an image song from these sound effects recordings, and he replied “That’s not gonna work.” (laughs)
Ono: Belldeer Wind is the song that eventually came out of that.
Mitsuyoshi: Along those same lines, I remember that for the R-360 song, we recorded some of those effects by holding a speaker and running in a circle around the mic.
Hiro: Holding a speaker…?
Mitsuyoshi: Yeah, we ran around this omnidirectional mic in the studio. Matsumae liked doing those kind of experiments.
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