Interview: PixelJunk Eden's Baiyon Vs. Metroid's Hip Tanaka

Continuing our series of interviews between Japanese musician and artist Baiyon and other industry notables, he talks with Metroid and Mother musician Hip Tanaka about his history in the game biz and current thoughts on the industry.
[Continuing our series of interviews between Japanese musician and artist Baiyon and other industry notables, he catches up with classic Metroid and Mother musician Hip Tanaka to chat about his history in the game biz and current thoughts on the industry.] A Kyoto-based graphic artist and DJ, Baiyon has presented on his art and music direction for Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden at various venues around the world. Earlier in 2009 he gave talks at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the CEDEC Developers Conference in Tokyo, and the Korea Games Conference. In this interview on the subject of music and gaming, Baiyon sits down with Creatures, Inc. president, Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka. A game composer since the early days of the 8-bit Famicom console, Tanaka has also performed live techno remixes of his music from Dr. Mario at 5pb's EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event in Tokyo. This discussion, posted in Japanese to GAME Watch, begins by shedding some light on Hip Tanaka's musical influences, from New Wave to reggae. Offering background on the making of such classic Nintendo Famicom scores as Metroid and Mother, the conversation provides a unique look at the state of music in video games from the perspectives of two innovative audio designers. Baiyon: Can I start by asking what has appealed to you about performing at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event? Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka: Seeing as I began working in games 29 years ago, back in 1980, an event like this one allows me to catch a glimpse of people who have listened to my music over the years, people of different generations. When I began in this field, no one talked about "video game music." There wasn't much conversation between game designers, either. It really took gatherings like this one to allow game creators to get together, have a drink and talk casually about their lives. Last year when I attended EXTRA, I spoke to a lot of people in my field for the first time. We got to chat about gaming trends and the various disappointments we've encountered over the years. It was eye-opening. While at Nintendo, I needed to be focused only on my own work. In terms of your live performances and what you do in sound design, what do you find to be the big differences between the two? Nothing beats hearing your music in a live performance at full blast. Whether it’s videogame music or any other type of music, there's something about the joy of witnessing a crowd getting enjoyment out of it. Working in the studio by contrast is serious work, but there are these almost transcendent moments. What I mean is that there are times when something you never expected would come from you emerges in your creative process. When you get your groove on and you have a spontaneous breakthrough, it can be a real joy. Do you rehearse extensively before live performances? No, not at all. In terms of my own experience performing music from my laptop, I find it's best to leave room to ad-lib. What I prepare for in advance is the order of the set list and the general duration of each track, but that's the extent of it. I find the success of the performance itself often depends on how much you're physically involved in the experience. Some say you need a live instrument to perform on stage, but I have a different view. I was watching a show back in the '80s and there was this keyboard player who put his hands up in the air in the middle of a song, but the sound of his instrument kept going. Instead of thinking, “Hey, I've been cheated,” my feeling was that I ought to rethink the meaning of live music. Is this opinion in contrast to mainstream assumptions about what makes rock rock? It just means there isn't the need to think up these divisions between live instruments and electronic music. I've read that you like New Wave and club music. What categories of music do you enjoy most? There are so many. Maybe too many to mention here. (laughs) For instance, what led to your appreciation of reggae? I think I was 18 or 19 when I was first exposed to it. I remember hearing dub reggae for the first time while having pasta at a restaurant. I was eating, and I remember there was this deep reverberation at one point in the song. The echo was sounding and my body was instinctively following the rhythm while I held the bowl in my hand. I turned to the waiter and said, "What is this?" He said, "It's Jamaican music." There was a bass player named Jah Wobble in the group Public Image Ltd. that I liked at that time. His performance style was influenced by reggae music. First I began listening to British reggae and eventually moved on to Jamaican reggae, listening to a lot of it in my '30s. Incidentally, what do you think of On-U Sound Records? I've listened to it, of course. However, once you've paid close attention to Jamaican music, On-U is On-U. Have you ever been to Jamaica? Not yet, but I've gotten to play with Sly and Robbie twice, and it was incredible. I've heard you used to be deeply into the club scene. Where would you go? As you can imagine I used to go to a lot of reggae clubs, rare groove and acid jazz clubs, occasionally hip-hop as well. What I like about hip-hop is the use of rhythm. The same is true to some extent with reggae, but the flexibility of hip-hop allows it to be generated quickly. In the studio it feels like all it takes is a few minutes spent on the kick drum, then polishing off the vocals. Whenever I listen to hip-hop music, I'm amazed by the improvisatory quality and how quickly the various elements are tied together. Have you applied these experiences to your videogame music? That was only natural. The use of rhythm in Balloon Fight and Wrecking Crew was an homage to Sly and Robbie. To be honest with you back then I had a lot of reservations about the use of music in games. I was sort of embarrassed by it. The background music would just keep on playing over and over. I thought it was annoying. My feeling was that the audio should be more in line with the sound effects that you had control over as the player, so that there was a more unified sound to the game. I was kind of in love with the idea of a game whose audio was totally composed of sound effects. This concept was on my mind while making Metroid. The idea was for there not to be a strong melody line until the game was completed, and that gave you as the player a sense of accomplishment. You were playing this game with its dark-sounding music, battling for weeks on end. Hearing this melody at the end of the game would then feel so rewarding. That's the kind of thing I wanted people to experience. Others were telling me it needed to sound upbeat, that playing games was meant to be entertaining. After Dragon Quest, people expected to hear beautiful melodies in games, so it was difficult for them to appreciate my perspective. These days there seems to be a general understanding that the audio design wasn't just about "game music," but creating an environment for the game through the use of sound, though it took twenty years for people to be brought around to my side of the argument. Your audio for Mother often sounds like experimental or electroacoustic "musique concrete." Even the effect for the telephone is distorted, as if the sound were melting. It offers a different kind of experience from what you find in other games from around that time. It was never a matter of approaching the task on the basis of "this is game music." The first step was to establish the rules that governed the audio for this world. There were considerations in terms of how time and space were related, how characters were associated with one another, and how the concepts of good and evil were represented. In Earthbound, Giygas is presented as the embodiment of evil. As a consequence, your proximity to his influence, for instance when you are face-to-face with enemies, is reflected in the sound effects and music. By contrast, I wanted there to be a kind of spiritual nuance to the "Your Sanctuary" locations. It's almost like foreshadowing the story through the use of sound? That's right. You can't expect the text to completely explain everything. Do you consider all audio elements together, including the sound effects? I’m always conscious of the interaction between the melody and sound effects. No matter how faint it might be, every sound has a certain pitch. The effects might be clashing with each other, but it's up to you to find the most pleasing combination. Because the NES had limitations to its memory capacity, sometimes an audio channel would fall out every time a certain effect sounded, for instance in shooting games. As a result I often left a short pause before the note to emphasize this effect. I both designed the sound and input the data myself, which was an unusual way of doing things. Most companies had an audio team and programmers handling separate tasks. It was surprising to me to hear that you were both writing music and managing the sound data. I did everything, from sound to programming. When Nintendo was in its early phase there were musicians doing both. Are there different requirements for an RPG game, where characters are expressing their emotions, when compared to a more straightforward puzzle game? They're very different. RPGs are dramatic, requiring you to create music that corresponds with the characters’ emotions. The music for an RPG can help make subtle emotions more pronounced. Puzzle games, while not so emotional, still need to provide a sense of excitement. It's comparable to riding a roller coaster, where one minute there's a feeling of danger and then you're at ease. An RPG might involve a kind of sound that complements complicated emotions that can't be expressed directly in words. Which do you find more fun? They're both a lot of fun. But making a career of writing game music, it's good to have a stab at games in that genre of RPGs. In fact, I wouldn't mind having another chance at it. While certain circumstances make it difficult, I've always loved creating this kind of game and I think it would be a lot of fun. In my own case, I often start off with the intention of expressing certain emotions. But making music for a puzzle game, I'm left wondering what to do. It feels weird imbuing the gameplay with emotions that are foreign to the game itself. I would like to try my hand at both kinds of games. I've only seen what you've done with PixelJunk Eden, so I think it would be interesting to hear your approach to a different style of game soundtrack. I'm feeling that it might be time for me to create music that goes beyond capturing an atmosphere, but also suits a dramatic context. It would be particularly fun to make sound effects for a game like that because it adds to the storyline. You feel sound effects have a direct influence on the gameplay as well? Yes, especially if the game director is involved in planning synchronicity between these components. I should mention that on PixelJunk Eden I collaborated with Q-Games president Dylan Cuthbert. For years he was at Nintendo, of course. I met Dylan just after he arrived in Japan, having developed 3D games in England. He had an immense interest in music. Even now as the president of a company he's still able to relate to everyone around him in a casual way. Let's say you were asked to create some form of music for your next project that nobody had ever heard of... what would you do then? A song that's completely unlike anything else? I think it's enough to make sounds that are fresh, that make your body move. Any sound that undergoes development from beginning to end is music as far as I'm concerned. If it's not clear that there's any beginning or end to it, then maybe it's better just to call it noise. Music is mysterious, and a simple rhythm can call back old memories, while the same song feels completely different depending on your situation. The possibilities are endless. [This article is available in Japanese on GAME Watch. Image courtesy of Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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