Yuzo Koshiro - 2001 Composer Interview
This wide-ranging interview with composer Yuzo Koshiro first appeared in the jp book series game maestro. Koshiro recounts his early days at Falcom, writing for the Megadrive, and some of his recent work like Legend of Oasis and Shenmue. There's a fun digression about then-new "music games" too. The influence of classical music is a recurrent theme, as is Koshiro's conception of game music generally.
—Your name is often associated with classical music, but when you studied under Jo Hisaishi, did you also learn traditional music theory?
Koshiro: I didn't go too deep into it, but I did exercises. Hisaishi would play a phrase on piano, then have me identify the notes, or improvise a second part. It was the kind of basic training one would receive before getting into the deeper stuff. I'd compare it to the pre-season training that an athlete does, like weight training for the legs. "You can always learn the theory later, so don't worry," I was told.
—Did you have any favorite composers?
Koshiro: The composer I most admired was Anton Bruckner. He wrote so many pieces that exhibited a pure devotion to the idea of music itself. He's also one of the few composers who succeeded in entering that sublime world of the infinite. I also enjoy Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, Brahms, Ravel, Stravinsky… honestly, I could keep going, but we'd be here all day.
—Did you like non-classical music too?
Koshiro: My Father was a big record lover, so I listened to all sorts of stuff, from classical to jazz. I listen to most genres of music. I like kayōkyoku too. I'd be hard-pressed to name a genre I don't enjoy listening too, that's how much I like music.
—Was piano the only instrument you studied?
Koshiro: I also took violin and cello lessons.
—Which instrument appealed to you the most?
Koshiro: I didn't think I was good at any of them, but piano was easy to play, and with the right environment I think it's the best. With cello and violin, they're a bit harder to enjoy without an ensemble; just playing solo isn't very fun. With piano I could enjoy it even by myself.
—Did you like video games?
Koshiro: Yeah, I loved both computer games and arcade games. The first computer I bought the was first-generation PC-88. I hooked my synthesizer up to it and sequenced it with MIDI, but at that time, becoming a composer wasn't remotely on my mind. Back then all I did was copy and sequence existing songs.
During summer vacation, I'd been messing around with my computer and got all this sequencing stuff set up, so I figured I'd try writing some music of my own. I filled a tape up, and I brought it to Falcom. Their offices were in Tachikawa, which was close to my house, so I believe I brought it to them in person.
—Were you hired right away?
Koshiro: I was, yeah. They used some of the songs I'd written on that tape for Xanadu Scenario 2 (1986). I'd never played Xanadu before, but I knew it had been a huge hit, so I would have been happy to have even one of my songs used on it. They ended up using over 10 of them.
—I've always thought you were unlike the other video game composers of that era, in that you liked video games from the start, and you actually wanted to be a game music composer.
Koshiro: I would say more than wanting to make music, I wanted to make games. It so happened that I could write music, so Xanadu was my first foray.
—Did Nihon Falcom hire you as a full-time employee?
Koshiro: No, I was part-time. I was hired as what they called a "sound programmer". I did both programming and writing music. The hardware we used was the PC-88. I worked at Falcom's office when I felt like it, otherwise I worked at home. Back then I only needed a single computer to do all my work, so it was nice being able to work in both locations. My workspace hasn't changed at all since then, I still do everything on a desktop.
—Were you the only person working on sound at Falcom then?
Koshiro: No, there were two or three people. One person was even younger than me. Falcom had a lot of younger staff.
—Back then you had all those high school programmers, everyone was quite young.
Koshiro: Yeah, which meant that there were no established processes for how to program a game. You had to be someone who loved games and computers, and you had to have the initiative to study and learn on your own. Otherwise you'd never get anywhere. That's why there were so many young people, I think. Nowadays people learn programming in school in order to get a normal job... they learn how to use e-mail for their future… it's just a whole different universe.
—You were known as an expert with FM synthesis. Did you do a lot of personal research on it?
Koshiro: Yeah, I did. I wrote and compiled my own programs, so I liked that kind of thing. I learned FM synthesis by analyzing the different kinds of sounds that different waveforms made. There weren't a lot of instructions or guides back then, either.
—It seems like the workflow is entirely different from writing classical music. Did you find it hard? Especially when working with only two or three voices...
Koshiro: I never felt that way at all, no. I was never asked to write a piece for piano or anything… if anything, I wondered why you couldn't write that way. But the truth is, I think writing video game music was really my introduction to music composition. I think it would have been harder for someone who had been composing classical music on piano, to suddenly switch to using just 3 voices.
—Do you feel like your classical training has been useful?
Koshiro: Of course it has! One's ability to come up with musical phrases ultimately depends, I think, on the accumulation of music you've been exposed to. In my case, as someone who's been listening ardently to music since I was a kid, it's like I've got a whole database of melodies in my head. It's been extremely helpful for me.
—What kind of work did you do after Xanadu?
Koshiro: I wrote the opening for Romancia (1986), and the music for Ys and Ys II (1987) and Sorcerian (1988). After that I quit Falcom.
—The music in Ys feels wonderfully synchronized with the visuals. I think that's the reason it's regarded as such a masterpiece. Did you intentionally write it with the timing in mind?
Koshiro: I didn't do a lot of very detailed syncing, but basically, I knew the game very well. When I compose, I put a huge emphasis on the movement in the game. I'm really bad at writing music for games that don't have a lot of movement or animation. Or rather, I just find it boring. I like to analyze the movement, and then match my tempos and rhythms to what you see. I think on Ys, though, that synchronicity was more of a lucky coincidence rather than something I planned.
—Do you usually write your music after the game is finished?
Koshiro: I write my music when the game is about 70% done, once there's things moving around on screen basically. In my experience, that approach yields the best results.
—During your tenure at Falcom, you also created the sound effects.
Koshiro: Yeah, I did almost all the sound effect work back then. There was no one else who could do it. Personally, though, I think the guy who created the sound drivers had a harder time. I wanted the music to have breadth and dynamism so I had him incorporate a lot of features into the drivers, but you know, just because I can explain a musical concept easily enough, doesn't mean it will be simple to program! I think I caused that programmer a lot of grief.
—Was The Revenge of Shinobi (1989) your first Megadrive game?
Koshiro: Yeah. I did everything, including the sound effects. The sound system on the Megadrive was similar to the PC-88, so it was easy to make. I even helped write some of the drivers on Revenge of Shinobi.
—For console games, did you have to go to the company offices to write your music?
Koshiro: No, I still composed at home on my PC-88, then used a data converter to port it over. I handed the driver source over to the programmers and said, "Please create these kinds of commands", and they did that for me. The Megadrive's sound CPU and the PC-88's CPU are the same. Most things could be converted pretty much as-is.
—Did you learn those technical things from your time at Falcom?
Koshiro: Yeah, I learned that at Falcom, and the programming side too. The developers at Falcom then were exceptional people, so picking up things from them was easy. If you didn't understand something, someone would explain it for you right away. Having that technical background gave me confidence too. It's something that's stuck with me, even now.
—When we talk about the Megadrive scene, we can't forget the "Megadrivers", those intense, dedicated fans of the system. Did having people like that make your work easier? Many of them became Koshiro fans, as well.
Koshiro: Yeah, it helped some. It was nice knowing that if I worked hard on a piece of music, there was a fanbase out there who understood it. I love games, so I really do pour my heart into the sounds I create. I'm one of those hardcore fans myself, so I think my music resonates with other equally hardcore fans. I think there's a lot of them overseas too. Now that we're living in the internet age, I get a lot of e-mail from Europe and America.
—Right, people who played the Genesis. The Megadrive always had a certain Western game quality to it.
Koshiro: The people making games overseas now, they played and experienced the Genesis, no doubt. Back then there were already Japanese developers making Western-ish games, right? I think the Western developers today were influenced by them. In that sense Sega and Nintendo's influence was very powerful.
—After Revenge of Shinobi, you worked on Bare Knuckle (1991).
Koshiro: That was right around when we created Ancient. For Bare Knuckle II, in fact, the whole game was done entirely by Ancient. The second game received the most praise of the series, but I think it makes sense. It was created by game fans, after all. We fussed over every detail, every single punch. When we made action games in-house at Ancient, I'm the gameplay guy, meaning I provide the details for the main moves, things like timing notes, how many frames each move should be, and so forth.
—Bare Knuckle features house music, which was a suprising shift at the time.
Koshiro: Yeah. Bare Knuckle mixes techno, house, and hip hop together. Nowadays that music is common enough in games, but at the time in Japan, it was an almost entirely-new experiment. But this too was something of a coincidence. At the time I was into clubbing, and I often went to Yellow and Maharaja in Nishi-Azabu. I'd like to try creating music like this, I thought to myself. Then, as it happened, we were approached about Bare Knuckle, and when I tried fitting club music to it, it worked surprisingly well.
At the time, the music wasn't especially well-received in Japan. It was more popular in America. But that was what I'd aimed for. I wanted it to be popular in the place where house music was invented. There's a lot of Japanese fans who love the music for Ys and Misty Blue, but even now, in America and Europe they really like Bare Knuckle.
—You also worked on the music for Culdcept (1997) on the Sega Saturn.
Koshiro: Yeah. Oomiya Soft put a lot of love and dedication into that game, which made it a nice working environment for me, too. Culdcept had two people working on the music; I was more of the behind-the-scenes guy.
—Do you still make sound effects today, by the way?
Koshiro: Yeah. When I take on a job, I'll do everything, including sound effects. I did all of them for Culdcept too.
—In the early days of game development, the music guys had to write both the music and sound effects. Is that why you continue to write them today? Back then, if they'd said "you can focus on the music only if you want", would you have done that?
Koshiro: No, I would have done sound effects too. I like sound effects, I'm very particular about them.
—Why is that, do you think?
Koshiro: Sound effects are an important element of what makes a game exciting. As a player myself, when the sound effects suck, that alone is enough to drain practically half of the enjoyment out of it for me. At Nihon Falcom, even when they told me "you don't have to do the sound effects", I always did them still.
—The music for Legend of Oasis on the Sega Saturn is amazing. Do you like those kind of fantastic worlds?
Koshiro: Yeah, I really get into the world and atmosphere.
—And the story as well?
Koshiro: Well, more than the story, what I really adore is a beautiful world that sucks you in. In an action game, the story is something the player creates, so I think it's important to flesh out the surrounding world and atmosphere for those games. It's fine for the story to be more bare-bones.
—In addition to the music, Ancient also handled the rest of the development for the Story of Thor games. Have you ever thought about making a music game at Ancient?
Koshiro: I never have. When music games started getting popular, people around me asked if I was interested, but I didn't want to make a music game. For people who like music, when you're actually playing music it's the greatest feeling. It fulfills that desire for me fully. If I wanted to DJ, it'd be more fun to spin actual records; it's not something I personally want to do in a video game format.
—The rise of music games seems to have been influenced by the Playstation.
Koshiro: The biggest factor was the success of Konami's Beatmania, I think. They discovered that there's people out there who enjoy that... like, whoa… just syncing up with the rhythm in a game is fun for people. But yeah, it's not for me.
—I can imagine it would be boring for someone like you who already knows music.
Koshiro: Yeah, it stresses me out, having to follow someone else's rhythms like that. It was interesting to see this huge discovery take place though, of such a new market of players. And at the same time, I think the people who made Beatmania were amazing.
—Right, they were able to predict that this whole previously hidden group of players existed, people who would enjoy the timing element alone.
Koshiro: Yeah, it's impressive. I think they had a much broader sense of the possibilities for music and games than I did.
—Early game music was all chiptunes; as someone who had studied classical music, did it feel strange?
Koshiro: No, I've never had that feeling, even back then. These things are all a matter of taste. There was never any snobbish sense of "oh, I don't like game music because those guys didn't study music theory." I've always loved writing music that fits the game like a glove, and the sense of unity that emerges therefrom.
I think the sound of game music has also been a precursor, in some ways, to the techno music of today. There was game music even before the advent of dedicated sound chips, and the method of getting sound out of that old hardware itself could be very artistic, even industrial sounding at times. I actually prefer the older era of game music compared to now, when you can play live instruments and anything back on CD-ROM.
—It seems like sound is often the first victim when a development is having problems. Did you ever encounter situations like that, where things had to be cut due to memory limitations and the like?
Koshiro: I never paid any heed to those things, no. If there wasn't a lot of memory available, I would just try to write with sounds that didn't take up much memory. That was always the premise I started from, actually. I think the important thing about game music is how well it matches the world of the game. That's what I prioritize. I think it's the same with film music too, where it's about how much it builds up and complements that movie. Film music, when you listen to it alone, can be surprisingly uninteresting.
—Definitely, I don't listen to much soundtrack music on its own, without the visuals.
Koshiro: Usually people visualize and recall the scenes from the movie when they listen to soundtrack music, right? I would call it a success if game music can achieve the same kind of thing.
—But game music has a lot of looping, unlike film music. The player sort of influences how it unfolds... like they could be walking around a map listening to your song, only to have it suddenly interrupted by a battle and battle music.
Koshiro: Well, I didn't pay attention to that. That's always been how game music is. It's more like the players are DJs who change the tracks. (laughs) That's probably the closest comparison. Music that gradually changes with the game's pacing and the atmosphere… it's a whole new style, a new frontier for music. Sometimes in a shooting game, you'll die before the song has even finished… but that too is cool in it's own way, right? That's my theoretical basis for game music: it's music that is made specifically, and uniquely, for a game.
—Do you revise your arrangements for the game OSTs on CD?
Koshiro: No. I use the game music as-is. Again, I think it's true for film music too, that if you remixed or reworked those compositions when putting them on CD, fans would find it uninteresting. Game music isn't a "pure music" genre in that sense. Even on my own albums, I rarely re-mix or re-arrange anything. I might change the source of the sounds, but I only use things that are very close to the original. Like for an FM piece, I might use a better quality FM sound. The underlying sound programming is the same though.
—You also composed music for Shenmue on the Dreamcast. I've heard Shenmue had dozens of people on the music staff along...?
Koshiro: Yes, though it was the smallest group within the project. It includes people working on sound effects and voice actors. The actual music composition was done by four main composers. Mitsuyoshi Takenobu wrote the main theme. He helped fine-tune the music in line with the programmers and director's requests, so I think he had the hardest time of us all.
In the beginning of the project, the offer they made to me was, Mitsuyoshi would write the songs, and I would orchestrate and arrange them. But as the project went on, we both went in the opposite direction. (laughs)
—The Dreamcast expanded the horizons of game music. The hip hop songs on Shenmue were your songs, right?
Koshiro: Yeah, they were. I think the original songs I wrote for them were better. When I translated them onto the Dreamcast's internal sound chip, they sounded cheap. The Dreamcast's sound is kind of… not great. I understand wanting to keep things affordable, but given how far hardware has come, I think players were expecting more out of it. But the sound is still muffled and muddy…
—So it's the tone of the Dreamcast's sound that bothers you?
Koshiro: That's the biggest thing, yeah. At this point I think it would have been better to just have a chip that replays mp3s as-is. Then I could write a song on my desktop, mixdown to mp3, and just hand it right over.
—Has your musical workflow changed as the hardware has evolved?
Koshiro: It has. The biggest change was probably when I switched from programming in MML to using MIDI. That was around the Playstation era, everything changed then.
—Is MML a language you made yourself...?
Koshiro: It's a language that's existed since the PC-88 days, and I tinkered with it for my own purposes. It allowed me to deeply customize every aspect, from the sounds themselves to the construction of the musical phrases. MIDI is nice, but it has certain limitations. By using my own programming, even if the hardware I'm using doesn't have a certain functionality or capability I want, I can re-create that on the software side. Say, for instance, that a synthesizer or chip only allows for 3 voices… well, with some programming tricks I can make it sound like 6 voices.
—Do PC users ever ask you "how did you do that?!"
Koshiro: Sometimes, yeah. Especially for Bare Knuckle 3, people still puzzle today over how we achieved that sound. We really pushed the limits there, it was crazy stuff.
—Do you still feel it's necessary to study the technical side of things?
Koshiro: Yeah. I've studied C++ and other languages over the years. After C++ I learned Java, and after Java I studied CGI (Common Gateway Interface). I'm a pro with CGI. I could whip up an internet messageboard for you in half a day. I'm completely self-taught when it comes to programming. I buy instructional books published in the West, and analyze the source code on webpages and stuff. But I think everyone who was there at the dawn of computers is like this.
—Can you understand what computer code does just by looking at it, then?
Koshiro: In the machine code days, yeah, I could look at a few of the commands and know what was going on. During Bare Knuckle 3, I actually wrote a "self-composing" program. With the press of a button you could write half of a song. It used random numbers and mathematical formulas.
—Why did you want to do something like that?
Koshiro: That was the new techno style everyone was hyped up about then. Languages like Max. I was very passionate about that kind of experimental music. I had studied C++, so I was very interested in object-oriented programming. I thought it would be fascinating to apply those concepts to music, so I tried to write such a program. But I wasn't content with leaving it as a mere experiment so I shoved it into a game! (laughs)
The way it worked was, first I limited the usable notes, then I wrote code that controlled what kind of progressions and what kind of additions would happen. When you pressed a button, a sort of half-complete music would emerge, and then I manually wrote rhythms on top of that. The games I'm writing music for now, actually, employ a similar philosophy and approach.
—Do you write all the music for the games which Ancient makes?
Koshiro: No, I don't. In fact, right now, of the main games we're working on, I haven't written a single song. I'm working as a producer on them, and the music is done by someone else. It's a game with a somewhat experimental, avant-garde flair, so the balancing and fine-tuning is proving challenging. There was talk of adding network features, too, but we would have had to coordinate with Sega about who would create the server architecture, who would administer it… a complete development model which includes middleware networking companies, Sega, and third-party developers like us, doesn't yet exist. For that reason we had to give up on the idea.
Until more network games come out it's a hard sell for Sega; once someone takes that first venture, it will be easier to contemplate. It's not so much a technical challenge, as a question of who, and how it will be administered. Oh, I'm sorry, I've gone way off-topic. (laughs) I like this kind of stuff though. I'm no longer just a composer… I'm a full-fledged game developer now.
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