Interview: Korg DS Trio Talk App Creation, EXTRA Concert

In this interview, Gamasutra speaks with prominent Japanese video game music composers Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuyoshi Sano, and Michio Okamiya about their involvement with AQ's Korg DS-10 synth software for the Nintendo DS, and about the trio's perfor
[In our latest Japanese game music interview, Gamasutra sits down with three prominent Japanese composers behind Square Enix and Namco classics, and all now involved in the Korg DS-10 synth, as they performed a special three-DS gig at the EXTRA game concert held just after Tokyo Game Show.] A trio of established videogame musicians performed at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event hosted by 5pb Records in October. Their chosen instruments were Nintendo DS portable consoles running the Korg DS-10 cartridge, which is designed by AQ Interactive in Japan and distributed by XSEED in English-language territories. The Korg DS Trio is composed of Nobuyoshi Sano, a veteran composer of the Ridge Racer series of games, Michio Okamiya, a member of The Black Mages hard rock Final Fantasy band, and Yasunori Mitsuda, composer of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. All three musicians were involved in the process of creating the Korg DS-10 software. Following the performance, we had the chance to speak with the trio about the making the of the music creation software and the experience of demonstrating its features before a packed crowd of video game enthusiasts at the Studio Coast auditorium in Shin-Kiba, Tokyo. The conversation offers some insights into how the developers of the DS-10 sought both to retain the foundational design framework of the Korg MS-10 synthesizer while ensuring its tools could be applied toward recreating and expanding upon familiar video game music concepts.

The Korg DS Trio live at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event

For those who are not yet familiar with it, what is the Korg DS-10? Nobuyoshi Sano: It's not a game, but a synthesizer for the Nintendo DS. Compared with other music software designed for the DS, I think this is the most user-friendly and efficient choice for creating quality music on your own. Much like your performance today, we are told the making of the Korg DS-10 was very much a team effort. Who participated? NS: Developers from Korg, Procyon Studio, and my company Cavia were involved in the creation of the Korg DS-10. All the programmers on the project were extremely skilled, so everything went very smoothly throughout every stage of development. Everyone set out to create something remarkable using Nintendo DS software, and staff from Korg were actually involved, so it's more than just a name. We all participated in the programming together. Michio Okamiya: This was very much a project combining the talents of staff from a number of different companies. I am the producer of the software and very much wanted to make a DS product focusing on music. Then I talked to Sano -- we were actually drinking at the time -- and we concluded, it's time to make an instrument. Let's make a synthesizer! That's how the project started. Personally, I'm not only a lover of guitars, but I also like synthesizers, so it was a great opportunity. I hope that someone like me who does not play the keyboard, or somebody who loves the guitar, can just as easily find enjoyment in this software.

Yasunori Mitsuda, Procyon Studio

Yasunori Mitsuda: [Hidenori] Suzuki from our company worked on the sequencer. We had been researching the DS at Procyon, so when Sano told me he was working on this project, we realized that it was within the capabilities of the DS to make a synthesizer. We had pretty much figured out by that time the extent of what you could do with the DS. What was the source material for the songs you performed today? NS: "Grip" from Ridge Racer Revolution. I was surprised at how shockingly easy it was to program. It's impossible to make it sound exactly like the original, of course, but the spirit of the original is retained. MO: The tune I performed was not my own composition but Nobuo Uematsu's. I got permission to play it today, and as for "Korg de Chocobo," that's a name I came up with for it just now. I hope he isn't angry with me for calling it that. Mitsuda-san, today you performed a medley of songs from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. I'm certain many people in the audience were thinking about the Nintendo DS release. YM: Yes, Chrono Trigger was remade for the Nintendo DS. I wrote these songs a long time ago, and today I had the chance to make a techno remix, which was really a lot of fun. I could see that everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, but I was just as excited. The original tunes were more oriented toward acoustic instruments, so to create a techno arrangement was a new experience entirely.

Nobuyoshi Sano, Cavia

How did this idea of the Korg DS Trio performing at the EXTRA event come about? Had you worked previously with the concert organizers? NS: I talked Nakamura-san into it. He is the producer of 5pb Records and the organizer of the EXTRA event. I wanted to show off all that could be done with the DS-10. How was it working with AQ Interactive during the product's development? NS: Every day was full of surprises. Even after 17 years of working in this industry, joining this project offered such an abundance of discoveries. You say you performed a song from Ridge Racer Revolution. As someone who has been a member of the series' sound team since the beginning, what would you mention as one of your fondest Ridge Racer memories? NS: You know, the moment I put together the intro section to this song, I was struck by the thought that I had been touched by genius. I don't think I will ever forget the feeling. At EXTRA, you performed your electronic software live, but for the game Drakengard, you took live orchestral music and treated it electronically. Seeing as the two musical ideas seem like inverses of the other, was it in your mind at all during EXTRA? NS: These projects were similar in the sense that no one had ever done them before. The beauty of exploration through music was an important motivation on both. The amount of interest that listeners have expressed in your music with Takayuki Aihara for Drakengard appears only to have increased with time. What was the kernel of the idea behind it, and do you have any interest in taking this unique musical experiment further in the future? NS: In a way, I was interested in working on a musical concept I had heard explored by the Chemical Brothers. They had used the sounds of the guitar and reconstructed it through techno. Quite often you find that the use of the guitar is implicitly prohibited in techno. Observing this idea, I thought about applying a techno design to reconstructing orchestral music. The game Drakengard revolved around the concept of the player being overwhelmed by opponents that must be defeated, complemented by a storyline that grows chaotically out of proportion as it progresses. I tried to express that in the music, but for the player that expected a traditional RPG music style, it was disappointing. They complained of it being repetitive and grating. Some of the criticism was, let's say, very harsh. However, more recently I have begun to receive a number of positive comments from listeners, as you just mentioned. Although the soundtrack is still rather niche, it is gratifying to see more and more game players' opinions resonating with the composers' original intentions. For my own personal feelings, I still like the originality and the intensity of the music. If someone were to ask me to return to this style, especially if it were for a film score, I'd put everything else on hold and focus all of my attention on it. It's gratifying to have the chance to talk about the soundtrack again, since it has after all received negative feedback in certain circles.

Michio Okamiya, AQ Interactive

Okamiya-san, as you have stated, you have a keen interest in synthesizers. What specific features of a traditional synthesizer did you feel were important to integrate into the Korg DS software? MO: For one, we wanted for this to be an analog experience so that touching the stylus to the screen would mean something. For example, Patch Mode is an essential part of the software in that it allows you to create more complex sound designs than would otherwise be practical. Furthermore, the visual interface of plugging and unplugging cables is really well built and an irresistible addition for those who really love analog synthesizers. I think that in general, most composers plan out the structure of their songs prior to sitting down to compose. That can be done on a DS-10, but perhaps more importantly I wanted to allow people to clear their minds and just be free to play around with the software. To borrow Sano's apt words, "It's like kneading clay." Suddenly, lo and behold, there you are with a splendid musical idea that you never would have arrived at otherwise. Just, please don't forget to save your data! We think it will be fun for people with a Nintendo DS to recognize that the fun of listening to and analyzing the musical creations of others is a challenge not unlike making progress through a video game. As someone who performs on stage as a member of The Black Mages, what did you feel was important to bring to the EXTRA Hyper Game Music performance to showcase your Korg software? MO: Today, I tried to perform just like how I play my guitar. If you use the Kaoss Pad, you can do dynamic maneuvers just like I did today. Normally analog synthesizers have a keyboard attached, but it's not the primary purpose. In terms of making good sounds, knowledge of music theory is not the key thing, so I want to encourage a lot of people to try out the software. I tried to emphasize that aspect of the Korg DS through my performance today. Would you consider taking a DS along to the next Black Mages concert? MO: Sure! It really is an interesting instrument to be used live, and it's visually unique from the audience's perspective, so I want to try it in the future. There's nothing quite like the feeling of plugging a game console into a Marshall amplifier and playing music! As the producer of Korg DS-10, what are your feelings about the intersection of video games and music creation? Can you envision guitar creation software being designed for a home console? MO: My focus is rather on the promotional side, and that's often how I get involved in projects. I feel that video game music is catching on more and more. I often hear of people starting to create music because they are inspired by their memories of games. Another plus is that music transcends language barriers, allowing us to communicate directly with listeners around the world. In designing video games, music plays an essential role, and I think it has to be treated very sensitively, just like other significant elements of the game design. I feel it would be tremendously interesting if more music creation software is released in the future. I am very interested in seeing software designed for guitarists. There are hardware specification restrictions of course, but something like an amp simulator would be very practical... but I had better stop there or else I am liable to give away too much information about my next project. Finally, how did you enjoy the performance at EXTRA? MO: It was really fun. Didn't you want to keep going today, Sano? NS: For sure. I am positive that a lot of people in the audience had a great time, but I think those who were on the stage were the ones who enjoyed it most of all! If you invite us to your country, next time we hope to perform for you. [This interview was conducted by Jeriaska and Jérémie Kermarrec, with translation by Ryojiro Sato. This text is available in Japanese on the Korg DS-10 Blog and in French on Squaremusic. Images are courtesy of 5pb Records, Yoshie Miyajima of Procyon Studio, Peter Gallina of Photofashion, and Michio Okamiya.]

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