Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Crystalline Resonance Final Fantasy Piano Concert: (Detroit) A Review

 Last night, March 21, Vince and I headed to Detroit for Crystalline Resonance.  Since I'm finishing up my book on piano arrangements of video game music, I thought it was both fitting that this would come at the end of that process as well as be critical for me to see.  It is the first all piano concert of video game music that I've seen sanctioned by a publisher.  According to an interview with the creators of the concert, this is the first piano concert of Final Fantasy sanctioned by Square outside of Japan.  

So far online, I've only seen a few reddit threads here, and here, as well as one more extensive review here.  For the most part I agree with these reviewers and will share my thoughts below.  

The Detroit venue was the Crystal Ballroom in the Masonic Temple.  I'd never been before and can see why the name might have especially appealed to the Final Fantasy team when booking the space.  Upon entry, the audience was younger than a typical classical piano concert would draw, although there were few truly young people/children.  I would guess that 20-40 was the main age group at the concert.  Unlike other concerts where a number of people may appear in cosplay, I saw only one white mage.  Otherwise, folks were generally dressed casually at the event.  By my estimate, there were about 360 seats set up in the room and about 2/3rds of those were full.  Soft drinks and water were available for purchase before the concert and could be brought right into the room for consumption during the event.  

A table outside the performance space sold only the Final Fantasy Piano Opera CDs.  I have the sheet music for those collections and know them well, having assigned some to students before to play and played some of the arrangements myself.  This choice makes sense after reading the linked interview above, since the previous all piano concert of Final Fantasy music was to celebrate these Piano Opera arrangements.  

I had been extremely disappointed in the early marketing about the event that there was no mention of who would be performing.  It struck me very strange that we would be listening to a pianist for two hours and to never learn his name.  I was reminded of the early era of video games when the composers and others who worked on the game were not listed in the credits.  It's a shame that was how the concert creators chose to handle acknowledging the pianist.  

The other major disappointment for me was the piano.  There were cameras that alternated between gameplay scenes and showing a closeup of the pianist's hands or face.  Visually, the first thing to see on the piano was how dusty and fingerprint smeared the instrument was.  It would've only take a couple of minutes to wipe it down.  I've done this before recorded performances and don't know why the team didn't take a moment to make this small change.  Even worse, the piano was extremely out of tune.  The instrument was a small grand and simply sounded old and not well maintained.  The space was already a muddy one for a piano concert, and this piano did not allow for much clarity.  It had a boomy bass and weak high register.  I understand as a pianist that the quality of the piano is at the mercy of the venue.  

Also, I wasn't thrilled with the playing.  To be clear, two hours is a long time for a pianist to play a solo program and I fully understand that he is in the midst of a multi-city long term tour.  But if I had played that inaccurately, I would not have felt positive about the performance.  It could be that playing to the click track was difficult to maintain the sync between the video and the live music.  It's a shame that there couldn't be more flexibility for the solo performer rather than having to keep everything so timed out.  At moments, I wondered if the pianist had gotten lost in the click track as he simply rushed through the ending of some pieces and was concerned about taking too much time.  Furthermore, the programing was not thoughtful.  Too many of the arrangements sounded, in Vince's words, "as if we were shopping at Nordstrom's."  There could've been much more variety between them; more uptempo selections would've helped.  As it was, we went from ballad to ballad.  

There was no program for the event, so I can't be exactly sure of what I heard.  However, the game that a particular piece was announced on the screen.  So for instance, the screen may have read "Final Fantasy XV" before a certain piece, but no mention of the name of the piece, the composer of the piece or the arranger.  That would have required zero effort to improve and is a curious omission as well for me.  If we are truly celebrating the music and composers in the 35th anniversary, why not acknowledge them in some way?  Even if pieces change from one performance to the next, it wouldn't take any effort to have added this information on the first screen of each piece.  

Here are the pieces that we heard:

FF prelude (montage of the games 1-15)

FF 13 - Prelude

FF 4 - Overworld Theme

FF 11 - no idea the piece

FF 12 - no idea the piece

FF 12 - no idea the piece

FF 8 - no idea the piece 

FF 9 - Melodies of Life (from FF Piano Opera) 

FF 7 - Aerith's theme

FF 5 - Chocobo Theme


FF 7 - Opening into Bombing Mission (from FF Piano Opera)

FF 6 - Dark World Theme (from FF Piano Opera)

FF 11 - no idea the piece 

FF 10 - no idea the piece 

FF 9 - no idea the piece 

FF 15 - Somnus (from Piano Collections)

FF 10 - To Zanarkand 

FF 8 - Liberali Fatali (from FF Piano Opera) 

FF 14 - no idea the piece 

FF 1 - Overworld Theme

FF 14 - no idea the piece 

FF 15 - no idea the piece 

Overall, I felt this was the weakest performance of video game music I've ever attended.  There was no charismatic MC to lead us through the evening.  There was never a video from an arranger or composer or producer thanking the audience or explaining any significance of the program.  The pianist was never mentioned by name.  If I hadn't been there for research purposes, I would've left after the first half.  Members of the audience milled in and out, one notably walking in very loud shoes right down the main aisle in the middle of the performance.  I wonder if there could've been some way to keep people more captivated.  That said, everyone jumped up and gave a standing ovation as well as cheers to the pianist at the end of the program.  I think there would've been some ways to make the event more engaging and can only hope that if this kind of program happens in the future that these changes might be incorporated.  

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Playing Games: The Music of Final Fantasy VII Remake Part 1

I've been playing Final Fantasy VII Remake since it came out and I've simply got to do some analysis of the music.  This will be a multi-part series, though I'm not yet sure how many parts.  I have enough ideas and questions written down to last several months, some of them very extensive, so we'll see how far I get with everything.

I wanted to start today with some outside information that exists about the creation of the audio for the game before jumping into my own thoughts about it.  Here are three excellent videos that have a ton of useful, direct from the source information.

First of all, and this was the first video about the audio I encountered, a video from Playstation Asia about the creation of the theme, Hollow, for the Final Fantasy VII Remake.  Here, Yosh from Survive Said The Prophet and Nobuo Uematsu work to record the vocal version of the track.

As of writing, this video has just under 3000 views.  I'm really uncertain why it isn't of more interest!  I first saw this in February, around the time it came out, and at the end of it I burst into tears.  Not so much because of the theme, which is growing on me, but more because I was imagining how amazing it would be to be in a recording studio with Uematsu on the other side of the glass thanking you and applauding the work you'd just done.  As I've rewatched it, a couple of the most outstanding quotes in this come from the singer, Yosh, who calls FF7R "an iconic project that represents Japan" and "a historical collaboration of Japanese music and Japanese games."

The second video I saw, and most illuminating for the kind of work I do, is a video from the Final Fantasy YouTube channel, Inside Final Fantasy VII Remake Episode 4: Music and Sound Effects.

Again, I'm really stunned at the low number of views.  As of writing, there around almost 57000, which just seems so low to me!

This video interviews a number of people involved in the project, producer Yoshinori Kitase, music supervisor Keiji Kawamori, composer Mitsuto Suzuki, composer Masashi Hamauzu, and sound director Makoto Ise.

Kitase explains how he watched a video of the gameplay of the entire game of Final Fantasy VII as he prepared for this project, before any music was written.  He took tracks from the original game and put them over gameplay for the new game to create an overall image and director for the remake's sound.  Kawamori, Suzuki, and Hamauzu describe one of the most notable features of the game music: the decision to make various arrangements of the same theme that match with the game's scenes, sometimes being more cheerful or sad.  In more active scenes, these tracks may react, cross fading between them seamlessly, thus increasing or decreasing the aural intensity depending on the player's actions.  Kawamori explains how the design team stayed faithful to the original melodies that players would've heard hundreds of times playing the original and "enhanced them with a more modern sound, arrangement, and technology."  I was also impressed when Kawamori explained that the spoken dialogue allowed the storytelling to happen better and this made them want to make the music even better.  (Although I'm keeping my feelings mainly in the coming entries, I will say I would think of spoken dialogue as stepping on music, rather than helpful for it.  I must say that I think the design team handled this very eloquently!)  Suzuki and Hamauzu describe the difficulties of staying faithful to the originals but creating with your own voice.  Hamauzu reveals that not only had he played the original FF 7, sang in the Sephiroth chorus, but also that Uematsu recommended him to work on the Remake.  In a more technical turn, Ise describes the sound management system created for the game, MASTS, that allowed "AI to automatically generate all the sounds for character movement, based on things like the angle of their bone structure and the speed they are moving."  There are also some shots of recording sound effects (12 min- 13 min).

Finally, I'll leave you with the most recent video I watched about the audio in FF7R.  Although it's not a video that describes any technical aspects or has informative interviews, I do think many players would be interested to consider more about the voice actors in the game.  This video, from PlayStationGrenade, Final Fantasy VII Remake: The Voice Actors Behind the Characters details where you've heard the English voice actors before in tv, film, and games.

At the end of the second video linked above, Kawamori says that he thinks "one way to get enjoyment from the game is to see how your actions affect the changes in music as you play."  And that's exactly what I'm doing now as I play a second time through.  I'm also replaying the original FF7 to compare the music and sound in this case.  Illuminating!  I'll be back with more thoughts about the process soon.  Would love to hear any thoughts you have about the sound and music as well!

Monday, November 18, 2019

North American Conference on Video Game Music 7 (NACVGM) Call for Papers

We're just under one month out from the call for papers deadline for the 7th annual North American Conference on Video Game Music.  This year, there will be a concert as part of the conference as well.  The conference will be at Ithaca this year and I'm very excited to travel to a place I've heard so much about, but not yet been.

Here is a link to the conference call for papers and concert information.

This year, after having hosted the conference at U-M in 2018, I'm program chair, meaning I'm collecting and anonymizing the entries for us to read and select.  It's a fun task so far (though there's not been much work yet), and not one I've done before.  You can read more about the conference or feel free to ask me either in a comment below or an email if you have any questions.

Monday, November 4, 2019

GameSoundCon 2019

I had a blast at GameSoundCon 2019. Once again I was honored to serve on the advisory board and to co-chair the ludomusicology/sound studies track, this year with Dana Plank.  Dana did a great job live tweeting the academic conference, if you want to catch up on what we were doing.  GameSoundCon really is my favorite conference of the year for a number of reasons, and I wanted to share some of my highlights from this year as well as encourage anyone reading who has any interest in the conference to consider attending in the future.

While I was of course excited to hear the talks Dana and I selected for the academic track, hearing Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey speak about the music of Metal Gear Solid, watching Martin Leung transcribe from Super Mario Galaxy live, Ryan Thompson discussing about the sounds of the SNES, and many others.  But honestly, my favorite day is the other day of the conference, where I can dart from room to room and hear any variety of presentations on very different topics.

Below I list some of my favorite quotes from GSC 2019 with some of favorite people I met.

With Elizabeth Zharoff

Elizabeth Zharoff speaking about upcoming AI developments in voice commands and video games:  "What if you yell at someone when you should speak to them normally?  Imagine yelling a spell incantation when you should simply speak it normally and thus the enemy is able to block it."

Marc Strait speaking about audio accessibility in gaming: "Why can you adjust the brightness on your TV to optimize your gameplay and suit your eyes the best, but not alter the audio profile to suit your ears?"

Hearing Tom Salta speak about his use of leitmotifs in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon

Gender and Safety panel: "How do we ourselves act once in positions of power if we never had good role models as we came up?"

Will Roget's inspiring keynote with a cameo by U-M alum Nico Millado as Scorpion 

Will Roget: "Long term commitment in people and projects is more important than short term networking and gain.  Invest in people and connections and you'll reap dividends over the long term."

At the speakers dinner with Marty O'Donnell and Video Game Pianist Martin Leung

And I loved what Marty O' Donnell said to me: "I'm a big fan of yours!  It's great to have you working in and around this field."  Excited to have some of his music recorded and coming out later this year.

All in all, GameSoundCon is such a great time.  I hope that I might see some of you at one in the future.  If you have any questions about it, be sure to ask away.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

GameSoundCon 2019: a month away

I'm getting really excited to head to GameSoundCon 2019 in just about a month!  This will be my third GSC and second time working there as co-chair for the academic ludomusicology/ sound studies track.  I'm joined this year by Dana Plank as co-chair, who will be presenting along with a number of other long time colleagues and friends including Ryan Thompson (who presented with me last year "The State of Game Audio Studies in Academia"), Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey, Martin Leung, and other old friends as well as soon-to-be ones!  I'm looking forward to all of the presentations in the studies track at GameSoundCon, but one that I'm really excited about is Kris Maddigan's presentation on the music of Cuphead.  While it's a game I've only seen others play (it'd probably be too hard for me!), I do love the soundtrack and am so excited to hear more about how he made the music for it.  Cuphead recently became the first game soundtrack to reach number one on the Jazz Billboard charts!

If you're wanting to know more about the game audio industry, I have to say that GameSoundCon is an awesome place to start.  It was one of my first deep dives into the profession years ago and I continue to love being involved with it.  And note that above, I'm selfishly just mentioning others in my track - there are whole other tracks of activity with celebrity game audio creators, including a keynote by Will Roget II.  Brian Schmidt has really created something beautiful and special in this conference.  Join us in LA October 29-30 if you can; hope to see you there!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Video Games Live (Dayton) 2019: A Review

A week ago today I attended Video Games Live in Dayton, Ohio at the beautiful Schuster Center.  This is the fourth video game music concert I've attended, and I took notes in order to blog a review of the event, as I have already with the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour, The Symphony of the Goddesses, and A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy.  There were many aspects that I was prepared for having seen a DVD of this, portions of which I typically show when teaching Video Game Music class: a costume contest and gaming out in the lobby before the show began.  Merchandise (recordings, posters, hats, and shirts) was being sold at tables before the show, during intermission, and after; beer, wine, and other drinks were allowed in the theater during the show.  The audience was pretty young, I'd guess mainly ranging from teens through 40s-50s, many seeming close to my age.  

I walked in to the theatre right at the end of the costume contest.

The lights were a much more pronounced part of this program than the other game music concerts I've been to.  While I was expecting multimedia, like game footage and perhaps interviews with composers, there were aspects, for instance, cute mid-concert videos of spoofs like Sonic vs Pac Man and Frogger vs Grand Theft Auto, a video showing the Top 10 worst Voice Acting moments in Video Games, and some humorous/risqué Worst Video Game Titles, that had not been part of a game music concert I'd attended before.  Between the lighting design and the fog machine, the concert has a stronger rock and roll feel than the other three concerts I'd attended.  Another example of this was when giant, blowup Pokeballs were tossed into the audience for people to hit around during the final number.  (And they let people who ended up with the balls keep them!).

I had just settled into my seat here right before the start of the show and snapped a picture before we had to turn off recording devices.

One of my favorite aspects of the show was the hosting by Tommy Tallarico.  What a personality!  He acted as MC and occasionally played along on his guitar during certain numbers, perhaps three or four in the night.  He had a good rapport with the audience, able to respond very well to comments and also educated us meanwhile, providing a history of the concerts and an explanation of why he created VGL.  His goal was to "usher in a new audience to enjoy music at the symphony."  The concerts started in 2005 in the Hollywood Bowl with the first ever concert having 11,000 in attendance.  Now VGL is the longest running video game symphonic show, with this concert being number 494.  I enjoyed his costume changes throughout the show and also noted his wearing an Amico shirt for some Intellivison promotion.  So many details were so well done; for instance, the screen before the encores was a continue screen from a video game with a countdown-- genius!  The orchestra and choir sounded great, although knowing that VGL uses pre-recorded music to augment the live sound, I did wonder how much of what was heard from the audience was live playing versus a pre-existing mix.  Honestly, this was one of my favorite of the game concerts I've been to.  What worked so well in some ways was that there could be Mario, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Chrono Trigger, Undertale, etc-- a huge variety of music and game styles that a one franchise concert can't encompass.  But it wouldn't be fair for me to not mention my critiques, too.

One of the main detractors for me about the show was that occasionally, the metronome track that the orchestra was playing to was audible in the audience.  Granted, I was not so many rows back from the front, and I doubt that many people were even aware of this, but it was obvious to me particularly in transitions that went from very loud to suddenly soft.  The only other thing I disliked was when TT mocked the classical concert atmosphere, of people shushing each other for making any sound, even opening a cough drop.  It's great that he presents an explanation of the expected decorum for this concert as one where audience reaction/interaction is desired, and while I think there's plenty that classical music needs to adjust about their concerts, there's simply nothing gained by putting down another genre.  Conductor Emmanuel Fratiani told personal anecdotes about Jason Hayes, to make the point of the composers being alive and relatable, which was great, but again this was held as "unlike classical composers who are all dead."  I agree totally with the sentiment and get it, but would prefer if it were presented as: "wouldn't it be great if we could call up Beethoven?-- but we can with video game composers."  A small, semantic criticism, but one that's important to me.  The only other slight criticism I have is regarding the Kingdom Hearts segment, during which original Disney footage of the characters is shown instead of footage from a Kingdom Hearts game.  For me, this just didn't make sense-- I wanted to see the video game footage!  And while Tommy explained that this was "his idea, something special that he proposed to Disney," I couldn't help but wonder how much of this brainstormed proposal was out of necessity because the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra probably has the rights to show KH gameplay footage in concert, and square won't give it to Video Games Live.  That said, I think the nostalgia factor of this kind of thing wins over the audience and most folks didn't even think about it.

As explained by Tommy Tallarico, VGL has created over 140 segments (in individual greetings after the show, he said 190 segements-- I'd be curious to know which number is more accurate) and because they use social media to allow the audience to choose some of the pieces that are played, "no two VGL concerts are the same."  He said there are about 18-19 segments per evening, and this was true for this night, which had 17 pieces including two encores.  When you consider that there's a choir and an orchestra, in this case TT said 140 musicians were onstage, that's an impressive night of music making!  This particular night is going to be featured in an upcoming Netflix documentary, so I was glad to have been at this event.  Maybe I'll have a cameo in the audience sitting there, taking notes for this review.  The program for this historic night:

Mass Effect
Phoenix Wright
World of Warcraft
Metal Gear Solid
Earthworm Jim

Kingdom Hearts
Super Mario Bros
Okami HD
Chrono Trigger

Final Fantasy VII: One Winged Angel

I hung around late into the evening because my former student Andrew Lipian was working with "the Merch" and it took a while to close out the sales.  This gave me a good amount of time to meet and chat a bit with both Tommy and Emmanuel and grab a picture with them.  Awesome that they're willing to speak to so many who attend!

All in all, Video Games Live was my favorite of the video game concerts I've attended.  I think the broad nature of the concert and variety of artistic and musical styles that are possible just makes for a more diverse and interesting program.  If you can catch VGL on this year's tour, or in the future, I recommend it whole-heartedly!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Behind the scenes: NACVGM 6

I wanted to take a few moments to reflect about my experience at the 6th annual North American Conference on Video Game Music, which I’m flying back from right now.  NACVGM 6 was held at the University of Hartford, Hartt School, in their beautiful Millard Auditorium.  

One of my main takeaways after seeing four NACVGMs (1, 4, 5, and 6) now is how the quality of presentations has grown.  To me that showcases the importance of a conference like this: by seeing and hearing other scholars’ work, there is a general elevation of the research and knowledge.  The conference has also grown physically as well.  I’d guess that keynotes at the first NACVGM had about 70 in attendance and that keynotes in the last two broke 100 attendees.  

Some of my favorite papers included the very first one, by Elizabeth Medina-Gray, analyzing the talking sound from the first Dragon Warrior/Quest.  Really interesting to consider this short sound that I’d only thought of as noise in relation to the key of the game, and as a musical entity.  I’ve often asked my students what the sound in the first Legend of Zelda is meant to represent— typing? talking?— so this was right up my alley.  Elizabeth's presentation really set a standard for the conference.  Two other highlights for me were Steven Reale and Isaac Hraga’s joint presentation about their work over the last year having composition and implementation lessons at Youngstown State.  Very inspiring and I’m hoping to implement some aspects of that work at U-M in the coming year.  Also, William Ayers had a paper that I found very fascinating about echolocation in video games.  While he started talking about games where players play as dolphins, most interesting to me was when he turned to the matter of horror games where the player’s in-game sight is restricted.  I show Lurking often in Video Game Music class if the students want to do horror games and I love how this sort of game design ties in the importance of sound to the gameplay mechanics.  Really awesome. 

Steve Reale and Isaac Hraga presenting

Of course the Wilbert Roget II’s keynote address was really amazing.  He presented on a history of using middleware in his game experience.  I loved this because the technology is relatively new, has changed a lot through time, and also no one has really focused on that before in a talk that I’ve heard.  Instead, usually the compositional process is the focus or how that process has changed through time more than the implementation aspect.  

Will Roget's keynote

This NACVGM was definitely memorable in another way: a lockdown on campus during lunch on the second day, related with a stabbing incident in the dorms.  Sadly, many of us are familiar with lockdowns from instances at our own institutions, so we were able to handle it fairly gracefully.  The lockdown lasted a couple of hours, and after a bit of frantic texting and communication, Elizabeth Medina-Gray and I were still in the auditorium— we never left for lunch— and as members of the conference committee, were able to restart the conference a bit late and catch up by the end of the day, still ending on time.  Ryan Thompson was a huge help too, coordinating many matters and even allowing the other members of the NACVGM committee to watch over Skype.  One issue that presenters worried about was the topic of the afternoon presentations, which had to do with first person shooters and other violence and horror in games.  However, we persevered and gave appropriate content warnings ahead of these presentations.  The lockdown was soon lifted and folks were able to return to campus, get their luggage and belongings, and rejoin us in person.  While luckily none of the NACVGM participants or attendees were hurt, our thoughts went out to the students who were injured in this incident.  

When I return to GameSoundCon in the fall to co-chair their academic branch with colleague, Dr. Dana Plank, we hope to continue to spread the word about NACVGM there and drum up more interest.  It’s clear that the conference’s future is looking strong.  Next year, NACVGM 7 will be held at Ithaca, hosted by Elizabeth Medina-Gray.  Hope you might attend!  I find NACVGM to be inspiring and motivating, making me want to move toward some publication goals I have upcoming.  Beyond that, it’s simply fun to dork out with a community that loves video games and game audio.  

Let me know if you have any questions about NACVGM.  NACVGM 5 was live streamed and many portions of it are hosted on YouTube.  A few of the virtual talks from NACVGM 6 are available as well, and were excellent: both Kaitlin Saari’s video on Breath of the Wild (she really set a new standard for these!) and Ryan Thompson's video’s on Esports were stand outs that you might be interested in checking out.