Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Video Game Music: Live Performances

I recently saw the video below of Tina Guo playing a medley of Final Fantasy VII pieces.  This is part of her album Game On! which has recently released on Sony.  There are links saying that she'll tour in performances of this this year, but on her website there aren't any tour dates listed.  Other game music fans may know videos that Tina made of The Legend of Zelda (the one I've seen before) or a massively popular Skyrim video she made with nearly 4 million views as of writing.  I didn't know this particular arrangement, but all my readers know I'm a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII and its music.  The production value with this video is really impressive and probably my favorite visual part is when she plays in the train station in an homage to the Midgar train system.  I love how much attention video game music covers are getting these days and the complexity of their production.  Check it out.




Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Review

Last night my partner and I had front row seats for the DSO's sold out performance of The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses.  This morning while it's still fresh on my mind, I wanted to write a review of the concert.  I've mentioned before that I find reviews of these types of game audio concerts lacking.  If they are covered, reviewers either have extreme disdain for the music being performed in the first place, or else they are super game enthusiast fans who love anything that has to do with that game franchise and often don't know much about music.  I suppose I'm somewhere in between.  It was only my second time in the DSO audience; most visits, I've been onstage performing as part of the pre-concert music.  The other time I attended a concert here, I was seeing Kathleen Battle perform Previn's Honey and Rue, and that was at least a decade ago.

The first thing I was struck by even as I entered the hall was the audience; most classical concerts can only wish for the diversity of patron that this concert had.  The audience was primarily young, I'd guess many close to my age or under, though there were also some blue hairs to be seen as well.  I saw folks of so many ethnicities and races as well; being from a mixed household, that kind of feeling walking into a concert is so uplifting for me.  And of course, folks were in costumes: I saw a few Kokiri outfits, a couple Zeldas, and even a King of Hyrule.  The audience enthusiasm was visible even just entering the hall.  Once inside, crowds overwhelmed tables with various Zelda merchandise.  (I bought a piano collection for some research I'm working on.)  I don't know how the DSO usually handles drinks in the concert hall, but I saw a number of audience members with beers and mixed drinks during the concert, so the atmosphere was definitely relaxed.  When you can sit in your chair and have a drink as you listen to the orchestra, that's my kind of concert!

The program consisted of the following movements, and this was given out as a printed page:

Overture 2017
Majora's Mask Medley
Breath of the Wild
Prelude
Ocarina of Time
The Wind Waker

Intermission

Temple of Time Intermezzo
The Twilight Princess
Time of the Falling Rain
Ballad of the Windfish
Gordon City Medley

The first half was about 50 minutes, intermission around 20, and I was walking out the door of the concert hall at 9:24, so the whole event was just less than an hour.

My favorite movement by far was the Time of the Falling Rain arrangement, which was a medley from A Link to the Past.  The LttP music ended with the credit music from the game-- something I show in my Video Game Music class most semesters-- and that connection was really powerful for me.  This was one of the best arrangements in the evening and acted as a natural end piece to the concert before two printed "encores."  The Goron City Medley at the end of the program really showcased the brass sections of the orchestra and the players gave all the character that the trombone and tuba can have as they play these themes.  Really awesome and the whole orchestra sounded great at parts like this!  I also very much enjoyed the Breath of the Wild material from early in the show.  I think that arrangement may have been literally from the game.  Although BotW was too short of a movement, perhaps to avoid spoilers?, I think that going forward actually playing direct music from cutscenes in games may be a better way to go than so many of these arrangements.  The arrangements depend so much on the quality of the orchestration and the skill of the arranger in stitching together various themes or making a theme have a different feel than one might expect.  That simply doesn't always translate well.  Now that game audio can be fully orchestrated, there's no substitute for hearing the original audio in much the same way as a film concert.

The conductor was Kelly Corcoran, who is based out of Nashville.  She is a regular conductor of these Symphony of the Goddesses performances and has numerous upcoming dates around the country in the next months.  It was a cool connection to read in her bio that she studied with Leonard Slatkin, currently the conductor of the DSO.  One of my favorite moments of the concert was when she held up -- to cheers and laughter from the audience --  and then conducted with the Windwaker before The Wind Waker movement in the program (although she held it quite awkwardly high, not by the base).  That said, I did wonder exactly what the purpose of the conductor for an event like this is.  Several members of the orchestra had ear pieces, so if everyone is trying to play to the click track, what does the conductor do?  Yes, perhaps someone needs to cue the various entrances of the orchestra, certainly the choir needed babying in tonight's performance.  However, Ms. Corcoran never indicated a musical phrase or shape, always beating very precisely in time and there was never an adjustment to the balance; there were several cases, between the percussion and the wind sections, whether through the arrangement or the overdone amplification of the orchestra, where the melodic theme was buried.  Furthermore, Ms. Corcoran would often grab her earpiece during the loud climatic sections, in what struck me as an homage to Mariah Carey, as she tried to hear how the tempo of the click track was changing.  Whether the audience is aware of it or not, there's nothing less satisfying than seeing a conductor freeze and bend over slightly, pressing an earpiece into her ear during a climatic musical moment instead of standing straight and embodying the sound confidently.  I wish that these concerts were able to tie the multimedia projections to the music instead of slavishly asking the musicians to sync themselves so metronomically to the visuals.  Isn't that the point?: a concert of this type should be a celebration of the audio over the visual.  

By far, the weakest part of the concert was The Community Chorus of Detroit.  They seemed unfamiliar with the music, under rehearsed, musically uncertain, and had terrible intonation and tone.  Think about where chorus is used in game audio: an epic boss battle, an ancient legend unfolding - something that takes the moment over the top.  Now imagine that chorus to be so weak that it actually feels anti-climatic.  Not pleasant.  Vince and I broke out in laughter a few times at the chorus singing.   Disappointing.

These concerts have a lot of things going for them:

  • Lighting changes - for instance, blue during Wind Waker and green during Breath of the Wild
  • Multimedia projections of game footage and the orchestra members playing live 
  • Short spoken statements from the creators of the games and music 
  • Incorporation of prerecorded sounds and sound effects.  
Now, I don't need these things to feel engaged at a concert, but I do appreciate how game audio lends itself quite naturally to a multimedia updating of the traditional symphony concert.  I liked very much being able to see into wind and brass sections of the orchestra from the camera shots.  But for everything there is a flip side, and hearing the piccolo struggle through the Zelda good morning cue is painful enough, much less to watch the player projected on the big screen in a delay.  I do often feel though that the orchestra players aren't fully into the music and there's a lack of excitement at concerts like this.  I think part of that is the arrangements/orchestration aren't always great.  I also think part of it is the players/singers may have a slight disdain for the music.  The average audience member may not notice, but when a section is played double time (as happen with the cellos early in the concert), or a wind cue is in minor instead of major, I'm really taken aback.  I understand mistakes happen and I'm certainly not perfect myself live.  Some of that is undoubtedly unfamiliarity with the material, or perhaps misprinted parts.  Maybe a concert like Distant Worlds or Video Games Live! works better because of the variety of music possible-- after all, how many times can you see an arrangement that progresses through a quiet beginning, a goofy character theme, an epic theme, etc, until a climatic boss battle plays Ganon's theme for the finale?  The same format and music gets tiring as the night progresses.  Whatever causes it, I hate always leaving events like this feeling "something's missing" and that happen again for me with this concert.

I did enjoy myself last night and I know I'm not the typical concert-goer at any musical event, much less this sort of concert.  However, when a concert can fill a 2000 seat house on a Wednesday evening, something is really, really right.  Then again, as I scanned the orchestra, I noticed the concertmaster was away as was the principle cellist.  Several of my UM colleagues were subbing in various sections as well.  If the audience can be this into the music, what can we do to get the top orchestra members to believe in it enough to play it as well instead of taking the night off?  Or should these concerts just be sold electronically, recorded perfectly, mixed, mastered, and synced up precisely to the visuals?  Is there a reason for the "live" aspect of this show?  I can say that for me there's "something missing" and I wish I could put my finger on what it is.  Overall though, I did enjoy myself and most of all, seeing this performance bolstered my desire to organize/perform in an all game audio concert.  

Bottom line: If you love game audio and The Legend of Zelda, I suggest you see one of these concerts if it comes close to you.  The sense of community is always great at a live event and for any fans of the games, this celebration of the music will be a treat.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

NACVGM at UM

I don't actually know that I've written this out on the blog, which is crazy, but the North American Conference on Video Game Music will be at the University of Michigan this January 13-14.  There are still some details that I'm finalizing, but I will be sure to update on here as the process continues.

Of most importance for today is that proposals for either virtual lightning talks and/or in-person papers are due one week from today.  I would love for the panel committee to have a terribly difficult time choosing among a wealth of amazing possibilities.  So please, if you're thinking of applying or know someone who might, share this information with them.


More information and the call for papers is available at the conference website:

http://smtd.umich.edu/nacvgm

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Game Music Online: Arnie Roth Reimagines 30 years of Final Fantasy Music

I recently read an interview by Brando Bui, editor in chief for the Gamer Professionals website about Arnie Roth.  I loved how in-depth the interview was and also was excited for the subject material because I have tickets to see Symphony of the Goddesses coming up in Detroit in a few weeks.

My favorite aspects of this interview were reading the history of the Final Fantasy concerts as well as how Arnie got into conducting these concerts.  The other fascinating part for me was thinking of all the behind the scenes collaboration that goes into selecting a piece of music to be part of these concerts.  Definitely enjoyed some unique points in this interview that I hadn't read before.

This interview is part of a promotional plug for upcoming Distant Worlds concerts on September 16th in Chicago.  Nobuo Uematsu is even going to be in attendance!  As I look at the webpage a few days later, I'm surprised that a great interview like this doesn't have more views.  If you're at all interested in live performance of game music, check out this interview and/or a concert in your area if you can.

The interview can be found here.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Game Music Online: 8-bit Music Theory

One of the old series I definitely want to bring back is the "Game Music Online" series where I highlight cool things that are game audio related on the internet.  I tend to like quite specific, in-depth analysis and explanation.  But, I can also like a viral fun video too.  In this case, I'm going with something a bit of both, but probably more in the first category.

Over the summer, YouTube suggested to me a video from a channel called 8-bit Music Theory.  This channel has incredible videos that are beautifully made and that have clear explanations of the musical analysis.  They are artistic and pleasant to watch, with a clear voice over game play as well as examples in western notation.  These videos are really fantastic resources that explain these music theory applications in a straight-forward, engaging manner.  I really wish more educators knew about these videos as resources when teaching.  Not only could they work well in a music appreciation sense, but also they would be great for AP Music Theory classes.  They could even to give ideas for how a college level teacher might incorporate using video game music in the teaching of a particular concept.

The channel isn't even a year old and has already gotten an impressive collection of videos and followers.  Having made some videos to teach musical concepts, I can't imagine the amount of time that it takes to create just one of these videos!  I'm also quite interested in knowing more about whomever is creating these.  I didn't notice a name or link on the YouTube site about the creator.  With a light bit of digging, I only find that the creator is from Canada and goes by "8-bit."  I'd love to know more-- if you do, leave me a comment.

One of the first videos I saw on the channel, and also one of my favorites, is the video on Nonfunctional Harmony in Chrono Trigger.  Chrono is one of my favorite games and I love the discussion of harmony presented here.


I also particularly enjoyed the video on the compositional style of Mega Man II.



There's a series on the music in Breath of the Wild that I enjoyed too.  Here, I link to the last video of the series on the music of Hyrule Castle.  I've planned to highlight the music on Hyrule Castle in my own post on BotW.  What the video misses for me is discussion about why the instrumentation changes between the inside and outside make sense for the player and the information that conveys.  Thankfully, it gives me a point to write about, since the other aspects of the theme are handled so well.  

I look forward to seeing what comes from this channel in the future.  Check it out and subscribe if you find it worthwhile, as I do.  


Monday, July 10, 2017

Behind the scenes: overdue update

Ok, so my New Year's resolution of blogging more regularly isn't exactly going well.  Clearly.  But, it's just the midpoint of the year, so there's still time to improve it.  (Like many, I could say the same of my weight loss goals, too, though I do love my lifting!)  I've been wanting to write about so many things here but the idea of getting started has been tough to overcome.  Plus, the fact that I have around 100 saved draft posts that I've never published.  Not exactly writer's block, but maybe writer's paralysis?  When I started this blog, it was a living document of my quest to learn all I could about game audio and become an expert in the field, beyond just my lifetime of playing games and knowing the material that way.  It was a way for me to keep track of what I was learning and access it anywhere, anytime-- before the "cloud" got so popular.

And then everything got real: instead of just writing whatever I felt and thought, I started to meet people whose work I'd written about.  The blog started getting a ton of page views and attention from folks both in my academic life and in the game audio world.  It became a part of my professional portfolio.  And that started to change everything.  I can still remember a conversation I had with my partner, Vince, about the blog a few years ago.  Should I really say what I thought about a book, an article, a conference, or a game sound, especially if it wasn't glowing?  Or should I just put on a smiley face about things since I was likely to encounter a lot of these folks in my career in person and wanted to foster relationships.  Luckily, Vince encouraged me to write my true thoughts and be real because that kind of work would make the writing more interesting for others and also keep it engaging for me, too.  But then, there are burned bridges.

Professionally there's become much more to juggle.  I'm writing grants, letters, petitions, to improve game audio research and equipment in my academic community.  I've Skyped and lectured at institutions talking about using game audio as a teaching tool.  I'm having meetings with people who have, or would like to, work in the field of game audio, be they scholars, sound designers, composers, or programmers.  (In fact, I'm headed to a happy hour now for one of these.)  I have former students working in all the major tech companies, some even in the field of game audio.  I was asked to contribute to an academic journal for the first time as well, something that left me unsure of how to balance writing here with writing other places.  I also started to meet people who love game audio and who had read different portions of my writing here.  Someone didn't like my review about his work.  Someone else was angry that I never reviewed her material but wrote about other people's.  Argh.  All of that made it seem even more difficult to come here, clear my mind, find myself, and continue to make time that I wanted to put in to this.  And, frankly, all the ways that game audio is now a part of my life take some of my early energy that I poured into here because it had no where else to go.

And yet, I know more than ever; I have more to say than ever.  Writing here can be both for me and of interest to others.  It can be separate from the work that I do during the academic year, when I'm really devoted to encountering my students' ideas and learning from their discussions.  Despite how much progress has been made in online game audio material, there is still a major lack of good online discussion about game audio.  So often it's mentioned very much in passing at the end of a review of a game.  Or an article about the music in a game will say "here are the 10 best songs from 'this' game or 'that' series," but no reasoning other than that the writer likes them.  (Not that I have anything against mentioning favorite sounds/tracks.)  But that's not the substantive discussion that people can learn from and that folks want.

All that said,  there is more great material than there's ever been.  I intend to chronicle it here and to continue the discussions.  So forgive my being away, and know that I plan to be putting something out here at least once a week for the rest of the year, maybe more, depending.  I'll make that commitment because this is going to be my best game audio year ever.

I know, not the most informative post ever, but I'm hopeful that simply acknowledging all this can help me feel like it's a tiny step in the direction of restarting a regular relationship with online writing.    I've got some great ideas in the works.  Hope you'll enjoy and follow along for the ride...  

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Playing Games: Audio of Final Fantasy XV (part 2)

One thing I've learned from my students is that I should qualify the study of certain games with: spoiler alert!  Interestingly, the consensus seems to be that this applies for modern games only.  I still do say spoiler alert before I play the ending of the original Mega Man in class, but that just gets a laugh.  However, I'm well into Final Fantasy XV now-- between a few different saves, close to 100 hours-- and am starting to think about my late game audio reactions.  While I haven't yet quite finished the story, I'm basically just messing around with side quests and hunts near the end game at this point.  In a way, it's to extend the game, but it's also for me to collect my initial thoughts about the long duration audio experience of the game.  So, warning: spoiler alerts -- at least in terms of the audio-- are probably inherent with these thoughts.  I can definitely say that hearing the musical ending to the story of this game is a delight I'm anticipating, yet delaying at the moment.  I'm such a nerd-- does anyone else really play with these thoughts in mind?  
 

Chocobo Theme 


One of my fascinations of game audio is the examination of themes and their development across games in a franchise.  It's such a powerful homage to use themes from previous games, and yet utilitarian as well.  While composers probably struggle with how to put their own stamp on these classic themes, they convey instant information to the seasoned player.  Consider the Chocobo Theme of Final Fantasy; this is obviously one of the most popular theme in the Final Fantasy universe.  Long time players of the series like me expect to hear a Chocobo Theme in a Final Fantasy game and look forward to discovering how it will be presented.  I mentioned in my previous Final Fantasy XV post that my first encounter with he theme was when Prompto sings it with made up lyrics just prior to when Chocobos become available to the player.  Now having ridden them for hours, I'm thinking more about the how this version of the Chocobo Theme relates with previous versions.  FF XV keeps the theme in G major, the most common of themes across the franchise, especially the early part.  In using strummed/picked instruments as well as fiddle/violin, the theme here has a very bluegrass-rock folk feel as well as a sense of improvisation.  In a way, it reminds me of music I would've heard at family reunions growing up in North Carolina.  This works well for riding an animal around outdoors.  Overall, it's a great Chocobo theme in my opinion.



Shimomura gives a nod to Final Fantasy VII and Uematsu...


One other musical moment that jumped out at me would be very much lost on a less experienced Final Fantasy franchise player.  As I was exploring, I immediately noticed that the town theme of Meldacio Hunter, called "The Hunters" in the FF XV soundtrack has a striking resemblance to Under the Rotting Plate (pizza) from Final Fantasy VII.  These are both in E minor, the and virtually the same tempo-- I clock FF VII at 79 bpm and FF XV's theme at 80 bpm and both have notable soft percussion along with a distinctive recurring bass motive.  In the FF VII instance, the piece has a second section that makes use of the main theme of FF VII that the main theme of FF VII.  In "The Hunters" from FF XV, I don't hear an explicit use of another theme in the game, but the noodling electronic guitar often uses the melodic B-F# interval and my ear is pulled to hearing a loose version of the B-F#-A-G-F#-E theme from Hammerhead.  This is certainly more obscure than the Chocobo Theme would be to many players, but no less strikingly obvious for those who know the series well.  What a meaningful audio tribute to Uematsu and the history of the series, but in a more subtle manner than a repeated theme like the Chocobo or Victory themes.  Compare them for yourself...



I could go on all day about these theme comparisons across the franchise... but for now two shorter thoughts just to finish this up.

Spicy Spoken Dialogue


I'm enjoying the voice acting of FF XV very much.  However, there are quite a few lines with a sexual innuendo that really stood out to me.  Consider first the female representation.  Cindy is obviously a sexualized character and when you approach her she often greets you with the line, "What can I do you for?" with a southern accent.  Makes me feel at home!  Or my favorite is when you make adjustments to your car and she's leaning over it in a mildly ridiculous fashion as the camera angle is from behind and says "And this goes... there!"  I've got nothing against a sexual joke, and a video game isn't supposed to be perfectly appropriate at all moments, but I suppose in my "old age" these really stood out to me.

Two others that have to do with male banter:  The most blatant line in the game came very early to me when I was fishing.  Gladious can say to Noct when he reels in a fish: "Puny, just like yours." This sort of male banter isn't unusual in any way, but left me wondering why the writers went with a putting down of Noct's member.  Why not reverse it?  Why couldn't the line be: "Wow, that one's a real whopper, just like yours!"  I guess it wouldn't be as funny that way, but the line left me wondering why the designers decided to diss his penis size rather than praise it.  Another example: one of the lines when you approach the Longawythe cafe worker about complete hunts is "think you're up to the task?"  Again, this is perfectly innocuous, but something about the way that the actor delivered the line in this particular take and the inflection of the word "up" struck me as another knock on Noctis' manhood.  "Ah yeah... here it comes!" is one of Prompto's lines possible when just about to eat.  Whew, Prompto, I'm getting thirsty myself...

The Radio


The last aspect I wanted to touch on in this second writing on the audio in Final Fantasy XV is the radio.  This is a really under appreciated part of the game in my opinion.  I love the ability to hear music of my choice from the franchise during the gameplay.  Now, I'm such a purist that I wish the tracks had been the original versions of the music, out of tune and clunky pieces from the first Final Fantasy, for instance, instead of the updated GBA releases.  But, that's probably just me longing for more nostalgia.  Since before the game was ever released, there were lists published of what music would be available to hear.  But not every track from another game is available, obviously; only certain tracks are.  How were decisions made about which tracks would be used from the various games and which would not?  How was the order of the tracks within each game album decided as well?  I'm guessing the first one was chosen to be a very iconic tune from the game that would help players to recognize it immediately.  Still, these are questions that I'd be interested to know more about and doubt there will be much discussion over.  I've also been fascinated to notice how the tracks are titled.  For instance, from Final Fantasy VI "Darryl's Airship" or "Second Airship" or something like that is titled "Searching for Friends."  Were these updates to the translations for these titles?  Or did I just never know these titles correctly?  More to investigate.



The interactivity of audio is still the most striking part of this Final Fantasy game to me.  For instance, the way that summons are announced as available is initially by a musical cue.  Before any other onscreen notice of the availability, the music changes and then summon command becomes visually available.  Also, the way to know that you're about to have a random encounter in the main world, Lucis, the music changes to an audio cue and Ignus says: "That Magitek Engine-- it's close!"  These are simply huge improvements.  I can't attend GDC this year, but if I could, no question I'd be at the talk about the music of Final Fantasy XV.  Below's a preview if you want to whet your appetite.  


I'm hoping to finish up my thoughts about the audio once I've completed the game in a third part to this Final Fantasy XV audio series.