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.  
  

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Playing Games: Audio of Final Fantasy XV

It's a snow day in Ann Arbor today and I've enjoyed much of the day doing some research playing Final Fantasy XV.  I am, of course, am taking notes as I play.  The backstory for me is that I finally got a PS4 on Black Thursday because the system came with a number of games: Ratchet and Clank, The Last of Us, and Uncharted IV with the promo, and I also purchased Star Wars: Battlefront (won GANG's 2016 awards for Best Interactive Score and Best Music award last year) and World of Final Fantasy and have been messing around in those as well.  I've been playing FF 15 for about 35 hours since then and thought I might write some reactions and thoughts.

Overall, Final Fantasy XV represents a major upgrade to the audio of any previous Final Fantasy game I've played (FF 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 13).  The implementation seems to me to be very much more clever and well-designed than any of its predecessors.  Final Fantasy XV has a car radio and a Portable MP3 Player that allow for player choice of music during much of the gameplay.  This isn't the first time that a Final Fantasy game has had the ability to play the soundtrack in the game; Final Fantasy Legend II had an in-game jukebox.  Soundtracks from the previous Final Fantasy games are available for purchase at a relatively cheap price (100 gil) compared with many of the other stores' wares.  Listening to these soundtracks is one of my favorite parts of the game and at times I have to remind myself to listen to the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack!  (PS- Driving around in a car listening to Final Fantasy soundtracks is literally my life turned into a virtual game.)  While putting on these older tracks stirs up nostalgic properties, it also changes the feel of the gameplay dramatically.  The intensity of tracks like Jenova from FF VII or the emotion of FF VI Celes Theme change the feel of gameplay in virtually opposite directions.

Interestingly though, these soundtracks aren't complete.  For instance, the Final Fantasy Original Soundtrack in-game in FF 15 has the following tracks: Prelude, Opening (I think of this as the main theme), Main Theme (I think of this as the Overworld theme), Matoya's Cave, Battle, Mount Gulg, Airship, Sunken Shrine, and Castle Cornelia.  Missing are numerous themes including Garland's Castle, Town, Ship, Floating Castle, Ending Music, Castle Shrine, Menu Music, Sleeping, and Game Over music.  I can understand why several of these wouldn't be included, for instance game over, sleeping, and menu, music would be out of place.  However, I wonder if some of these are missing because of gameplay mechanics.  For instance, while there are a few airship themes included, perhaps there's no sailing ship theme because there's no sailing ship.  Also, I must note that despite the in game listing these as "Final Fantasy Original Soundtrack," these are not truly original, but rather updated soundtracks from more recent remakes of the games.  I do miss those true, old school, out of tune sounds.  Here's a list of all the music you can hear on the Final Fantasy car radio/ MP3 player.

Another standout audio moment for me was nearly immediate in the gameplay.  As the heros push their broken down car down the road while Stand By Me plays, although it's not the classic Ben E. King recording we all know, but rather a 2016 version recorded by Florence and the Machine.  As far as I'm aware, this is the first time licensed music has appeared in a Final Fantasy game I've played.  I wonder: is this the first time for licensed music in an FF game, ever?

Another of my favorite audio moments happens after some battles when Prompto sings the Final Fantasy victory fanfare on a nonsense syllable.  The victory fanfare also plays when the player levels up by resting overnight, but Prompto occasionally sings it out on the field immediately after battle.  When the victory fanfare plays in Final Fantasy XV, it's in the key of C, the most commonly repeating key for this fanfare in the series; Prompto sings it in the highest key for Final Fantasy yet to date, E.  I wonder if there was a given starting pitch for the voice actor, Robbie Daymond's, singing or just a direction the voice actor to "sing the theme" without giving a starting note and consideration of how this line would fit into the game's tonality or the franchise's musical lineage?  Prompts also sings "I want to ride my chocobo all day" to the tune of the Chocobo Theme.  Not only is it a clever throwback to use this famous theme again, but in my gameplay, Prompto began singing this shortly before I had access to the chocobos, making it a teaser for what was to come.  I'm fascinated at the idea of players making up their own lyrics to game audio, something I've done since a young child, and love this homage to the many fans who have created their own words and sing their favorite game audio.

Am I gushing too much?  Another favorite: the way that the designers implemented musical layering into the gameplay.  I don't recall that being a trait of previous FF games I've played.  For instance, in previous games, there's no different in the musical sound depending on the speed of your chocobo.  But in Final Fantasy XV, when you ride the chocobo fast, the music is in a much fuller mix than if you're just standing on your chocobo in place or walking slow.  These aren't groundbreaking techniques, rather similar to a variety in the audio depending on your racing position in Mario Kart 8.  FF 15 uses the same technique again in the towns, with different areas having slightly different mixes of the same theme as you wander around.  In fact, my favorite audio in the game so far is in the town of Lestallum.  I love the Lestallum theme!



But of these variations that are heard as the player meanders about, my absolute favorite is when you really get into the thick of the market in Lestallum.  The music here sounds like a Mariachi band is playing during a night out at a Mexican restaurant and I LOVE it!




That said, the audio's not perfect.  There's a pretty clunky implementation issue at times when the player dismounts the chocobo-- an awkwardly long silence and then a jarringly loud restart of the music.  But that's a small, technical point.  And making up for it are clever moments like the "'Professor's Protégé" side quest where you have to capture frogs and the easiest way to find them-- at least for me with a surround sound set-up-- is following their sounds.  Overall, this is by far the most impressive audio implementation I've ever seen from the Final Fantasy series and a much needed upgrade for the franchise.  Given all the music there is to hear, I can say I'm about 35 hours in and beginning to hum a few of Yoko Shimomura's melodies.  Am really hoping more of them grab me and become memorable hits of their own on the radios of future Final Fantasy games.

Are you playing Final Fantasy XV?  I'd love to hear your thoughts about the audio.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy in Ann Arbor

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a former video game music student about a concert in Ann Arbor called A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy.  The email included a promo code for a discount and, without any other information, I immediately bought tickets for myself and my partner so that we could attend.  Finally-- I got to see a live video game music concert!  Before the event, I searched briefly for some information about the concert online, what to expect, reviews, and found very little, so I wanted to contribute in that regard.


First of all the venue was a good choice for a chamber music concert.  Rackham Auditorium is a really beautiful space on the UM campus and is a place I've played several times.  I snapped the above picture as the musicians were warming up and the concert was about to start.  The auditorium seats about 1000, and my thought was that there were at least 800 or more in attendance, based on how filled it got.  Many came in right at the last minute, so it looks a bit more empty in this photo than it was by the time the concert started.

There were no physical programs handed out, instead Eric Roth acted as MC, announcing the pieces and introducing the musicians from the stage, and he was also conductor for most of the numbers, unless it was a very small instrumental group like Troia, which was just cello and guitar, or for the piano solos played by Benyamin Nuss, who was exceptional and easily one of the highlights of the evening.  Several of the pieces he played were from Final Fantasy Piano Collections that I myself have played, never in a concert, but just for study or fun on my own.  His tempos were smoking and his playing was technically and expressively brilliant.  Really delightful to hear him and I hope to again.



Overall, I enjoyed the experience.  I wasn't sure at first how I felt about the concert being as intimate as it was; for a moment, I missed the big screens, projections, pyrotechnics, etc, from an event like Video Games Live.  Another question I grappled with was whether or not I wanted the instruments to be mic'd.  But that passed quickly and I enjoyed hearing these unamplified chamber performances.  When I saw my students in attendance, they related the same thoughts of being glad to focus in on the aural aspect of the music.

Of course, I took notes on the concert.  Below is the program list from the 10/28/16 concert in Ann Arbor.

FF VI- Decisive Battle
FF- Victory Theme
FF XI- Sarutabaruta
FF X- Battle (piano solo)
FF I- Town Theme
FF VIII- Fragments of Memories (string quartet)
FF XI- Selbina
FF IV- Troia  (cello, guitar)
FF V- A New World
FF IX- Final Battle (piano solo)
Chocobo Medley
***Intermission***
FF I- Chaos Shrine
FF V- Home Sweet Home
FF IV- The Red Wings
FF XII- Ivalice Landscapes
Moogle Medley
FF IX- Danger in the Forest
FF VII- Those Who Fight (piano solo)
FF II- Rebel Army
FF X- Zanarkand
FF VIII- Force Your Way
Encore: FF VII- One Winged Angel

Before the concert, I was already wondering how the loops would end.  This is one of the inherent problems of translating non-linear media into a concert setting, right?  On a game soundtrack or in gameplay, the music simply loops until it fades out and the next track plays, or in a game, the player's action triggers a new audio situation.  The ends of the pieces were sometimes handled by speeding up a bit toward a climax or by taking a small musical phrase and repeating it a few times at different dynamics to create a musical button.  A few of these endings made Vince and/or I chuckle with the predictability, but I suppose there's no way around it.

I also left the event wanting to know more about Eric Roth.  He was obviously instrumental in coordinating the concert and did a great job as MC.  However, I wondered at times why he was conducting.  For instance, he conducted the string quartet as they played Fragments of Memories, which struck me as unusual since string quartets are usually self-sufficient and led by the first violin.  I would describe Mr. Roth's conducting at this event as perfunctory.  He definitely brought the group in and set the tempo clearly (though the Chaos Shrine number had to restart because of an instrument playing at double time), but he never adjusted balance (for instance, the drums were far too over powering in the Red Wings), and never seemed to conduct phrases or expressively, merely beating time.  Seeing that made me realize that he must've had a larger behind the scenes role than what was immediately evident in the concert.  Indeed, when I check out his website, I see that he does the arranging for the group and I wonder if he also handles some of the administrative portions of the concert logistics.  I didn't really think much about it, but Vince pointed out afterward that when Mr. Roth announced the players on stage he didn't know some of them, struggling to pronounce their names as he read them.  Been there myself!  But still, less than optimum, particularly when it's a small chamber group.  Overall, though, I thought he served as a good guide through the event for folks who may not have been accustomed to attending a chamber music concert that was largely classical in format.  

The event was just under two hours with intermission and a late start.  And because it was the Friday before Halloween, ushers handed out candy on the way out!  Yay Skittles!  Vince and I both enjoyed it a lot and I'd definitely attend again if it comes through Ann Arbor in the future.  Maybe I could even bring some of my students!  For a big Final Fantasy fan like me, it was perfect, though when I consider a broader group of attendees, I'm struck by the fact that the diversity of music that plays at a concert with a wider range of genres and games would obviously attract more gamers.

Bottom line: If you love the music of Final Fantasy, you'll probably enjoy A New World if it comes close enough for you to attend!  Check it out.  And if you do so, I'd love to hear about your impression and experiences in the comments below.