Interview: Keiki Kobayashi's Orchestral Ace Combat Takes Flight

Ace Combat 6, Tekken 6 and Ridge Racer 7 composer Keiki Kobayashi talks to Gamasutra about musical scores for action titles, adapting in-game themes for the stage, and emotion in soundtracks.
[Ace Combat 6, Tekken 6 and Ridge Racer 7 composer Keiki Kobayashi talks to Gamasutra writer Jeriaska about musical scores for action titles, adapting in-game themes for the stage, and emotion in soundtracks.] Namco Bandai Games has recently released Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation Original Soundtrack on iTunes stores worldwide as part of their Namco Sounds series. A new installment of the series for the Playstation Portable, called Ace Combat: Joint Assault, is due out this summer. The downloadable soundtrack release follows a live performance in 2009 of the track "Zero" from the Playstation 2 title Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War at the 2009 Press Start Symphony of Games Concert in Tokyo. In this interview with musician Keiki Kobayashi, the composer of "Zero" offers his perspectives on contributing to musical scores for the series. Kobayashi also discusses the process behind adapting in-game themes for the stage and his collaborations with guitarist Takanori Goto. Having written for Tekken 6, Ridge Racer 7 and other intense, gripping game soundtracks, the musician's comments offer an informed perspective on the state of composing for action titles today. Kobayashi-san, thank you for taking time for this discussion on the subject of your music for the Ace Combat series. The music of Ace Combat is known for being written by a team of composers at Namco Bandai Games. How do you find being part of this collaboration? Keiki Kobayashi, Namco Bandai Games composer: It's very interesting, as each musician's personality is totally unique. This series includes music by Hiroshi Okubo, Tetsukazu Nakanishi and Junichi Nakatsuru, among others. Recently, Ryuichi Takada and Katsuro Tajima have joined the team. Each approach is different. Ace Combat has a dynamic storyline, so you find there's real variety to each scene. What's so interesting is that on the side of the sound team everyone is interpreting the scenes from a different viewpoint. As a music composer, what has attracted you to the storylines of the Ace Combat games? While this is a story that takes place in fictional locations, you can still imagine it playing out in real life. It’s a fantasy, but one that's not too far from reality. That's what I love about the story. There are some gritty aspects to the storylines, in terms of how people respond to wars between nations. That can compel the game's scenarists to choose their own stances and have them reflected in the ways the stories unfold. You find there is always the element of human relationships, though in Ace Combat you don’t get a glimpse of the main character's face. You're the hero of the story, an important factor decided by the design team. It can be difficult to design a plot around this convention. How do you convey to the player what the in-game surrogate is going through when you never see the face behind the visor? Ultimately it makes the music all the more crucial in portraying what emotions are stirring within the main character, his reaction to the events unfolding around him. The sound team has to consider the subtleties of the story and be in close communication with the director while also maintaining an independence of vision. Sometimes you are left to interpret the emotions of a scene on your own. Your song “Zero,” which was arranged for the orchestra last year, is characterized by passionate emotions, and there are many music tracks brimming with energy in the Ace Combat series. Do you need to make special preparations to get into the mindset of writing these high-energy compositions? It's enough for me just to take a trip to the airport. I am honestly just that excited about planes. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been inspired by the world of aviation, and never more than working on these games. I have gotten to go to military bases and talk with personnel during air training, soaking up the atmosphere of the real thing. It's all practice, but the tension is still palpable there, as if a red alert could sound out at any moment. As a man, it's kind of a fantasy occupation. While I can never say for sure that I've been one hundred percent successful at capturing the intensity of that lifestyle, I have gone through every effort of imagining what it must be like to live that kind of life. I guess that's also why I enjoy outdoor sports and exercising, climbing mountains even though I might be risking breaking something. (laughs) Do you a have favorite scene from among the Ace Combat games? Since we’re talking about Ace Combat Zero, there's a scene that takes place just after the song "Zero" plays. There are two pilots who have covered each other's backs their entire lives, until one is betrayed. Each character has certain ideals in life and they come into violent conflict. They face each other in battle, and you wonder what’s going through their minds in that moment. One of them is victorious and the other fails, but neither comes away from it without having been damaged. When did you first hear that "Zero" would be performed at the Press Start Symphony of Games Concert? I think it was around March or April this year. They asked me if I would have any objection to their performing the song on stage. It sounded good to me. (laughs) The 2009 Press Start Symphony of Games Concert Who was responsible for choosing the song for the concert program? The concert organizing committee somehow came to agreement on the decision. They did not provide an explanation for why "Zero" was selected, but one reason might have been that a successful stage performance had already been demonstrated at the Pacifico Yokohama in 2007. How would you compare this recent orchestral arrangement of "Zero" to the previous one? For one there was a considerable difference in scale. A greater number of musicians performed this time, and it took on more of a classical style. The use of percussion underwent some significant changes as well. For instance, the in-game track has more of a rock style, but at Press Start the woodwinds were emphasized in place of drums. Of course the biggest difference from the 2007 performance was the fact that the guitarist featured on the game soundtrack was present to reprise his role. That would be Takanori Goto? That’s right. To be honest with you, I became concerned as the concert approached that "Zero's" Latin flavor was in danger of disappearing completely. The drum set was being removed and a classical music formula was being favored. For that reason, I requested Goto-san be invited back. The organizing committee gave it some thought, Goto-san met with them and he later called to tell me everything had worked out. We went together to the studio and rehearsed before meeting with the orchestra. It had been years since the original recording, but Goto-san recalled every nuanced detail of "Zero's" guitar solos. We nailed it on the first take without a hitch, and since there was a little time to spare, we spent the rest of the rehearsal time in casual conversation. When did you first meet Goto-san? That would be on Ace Combat 4. What in your observation would you say are some of the distinctive features of his musical style? For one, he's proficient in a number of genres. The way his fingers move over the strings is simply amazing. However, perhaps the most extraordinary ability he has is his ear for music. Once he hears something, he never forgets, as was the case with “Zero." He can play anything without so much as glancing at the sheet music. That’s really a godsend in recording for game scores. Goto-san was required to memorize the guitar solo on “Zero,” and on the day we recorded we only had until the end of the day to finish everything. To tell you the truth, we were both dying of hunger from having worked ourselves without pause, but there just wasn't time for a breather. It was around 10:00 at night when we recorded his solo, both of us feeling the pressure to finish. Even in this state, he was able to incorporate all kinds of ideas from the demo tracks and the results came out perfectly. This experience convinced me that I can always rely on him to bring out the best in the material. What was your impression of conductor Taizo Takemoto and the performance by the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra? Takemoto-san is exceptional. As highly distinguished as the members of the orchestra are themselves, they could hardly be expected to have been led by a more capable conductor. When it comes to capturing the melody, harmony and fine-tuning all the minute details, his skill defies comparison. I learned a lot listening to his comments during the rehearsal. At first I thought that the style of "Zero" was too far removed from the specialty of the live orchestra, too rhythmic and percussive. But once they started playing, my skepticism was put to rest. It was fantastic, particularly the string instruments. The vocalists also had a much stronger presence than I was expecting. I guess I just went in believing I would be hearing a routine, conventional take on my music. However, as I was listening I couldn't help but think to myself that this was one brilliant performance. Outside of Ace Combat, were there any other game themes performed during the concert that captured your interest? Suikoden! I've always had a soft spot for that game. Honestly, when I listened to the main theme at the event, tears came to my eyes. (laughs) Having composed for multiple installments in this game series, what would you most like to see in a future Ace Combat title? That’s a hard question. First and foremost, I think capturing the sensation of flying is critical. The feeling of cutting though the sky is the first thing I look for in a game like this, and the balance between the real world and the imaginary is also important. Now that I've seen for myself how well this series has turned out, I’m confident that the same production team will be capable of creating another great game in the future. [This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current. Ace Combat Zero Original Soundtrack can be imported from Ace Combat 6 Original Soundtrack is now available on iTunes. Interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Images courtesy of Namco Bandai Games and King Records. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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