Thursday, January 14, 2021

Q&A With Composer Ryuji Iuchi: Fan Questions (Part 2/2)


This is the second half of a Q&A held by composer Ryuji Iuchi on his special end-of-year Shenmue-themed livestream, a fun two-hour session that was filled with live music performances and chat. Ryuji has kindly given his permission to translate the Q&A into English and share them here on the blog.

Ryuji Iuchi's Q&A translation continues from here.


Q: Over the 20 years that have passed since Shenmue, what changes have there been in the way music is written?

RI: One thing that has certainly changed is going from chip sounds to streaming.

At the time I was working on Shenmue, being freelance I was also working at the same time on game music for the PlayStation, and the music I wrote for it was chip-based. There were some cases where the music would be recorded and played back on the PlayStation as a CDDA [CD digital audio] file, but in general it was chip music. I think the PlayStation supported about 24 or 26 simultaneous sounds or thereabouts, and the music was written using internal sounds.

It was a similar situation with Shenmue. I'd make a song on a synthesizer, and if it got the green light, it would be moved to the Dreamcast - only the MIDI data could be kept, while the instruments all had to be remade. The sound of each individual instrument used by a song had to be sampled one at a time in order to recreate the instrument inside the Dreamcast, which made more efficient use of memory. For example, you might record a single drum loop and import that into the Dreamcast to save memory. 

However later on, it became possible for music composed on a synthesizer to be recorded and played back exactly as it had been written. Shenmue may have been right on that boundary of the change from chip music to streaming.

So I think that the move to streaming is probably the biggest change that has affected the way game music is created since Shenmue. Since anything is possible with streaming, I have a feeling it won't change much further now.

Even earlier on, writing game music required a certain amount of programming knowledge, whether for arcade games or home consoles. It wasn't a case of simply playing music on a keyboard and having it play back inside a game. Back then, notes were entered as individual numbers: for example, those amazing FM-synthesized music pieces that Yuzo Koshiro wrote for the Super Famicom [SNES]. There were even times when you might have to create your own sound driver.

While very early on a programmer's point of view was necessary, nowadays it is more about things like orchestral arrangement, or one's artistic sense in mixing multiple songs. I feel that we have moved away from the world of programming over these 20 years.

Someone in chat has commented that having constraints made it more fun, and I agree! Making FM and PSG [Programmable Sound Generator] chip music was super enjoyable. I think it was when I was a junior high school student that I had my first paid job, making 3-voice PSG chip music. It could only produce simple tones, but the challenge was in creating the impression of harmony effects, and omitting unnecessary notes, in order to make the best use of the 3 sound channels. Sort of like with Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias*. It was a time when there was a lot of enjoyment to be gained from working within these constraints.

*Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias: this refers to a set of 30 musical pieces Bach which use a fixed number of voices. They are often studied by students of the piano.

Nowadays, with streaming, there is complete freedom: you can compose on a synthesizer and do whatever you like. But it may have become more difficult to achieve distinctiveness: orchestral pieces tend to follow a certain style, for example.

In the days of FM sound, you could hear music and instantly identify it as being something made by Konami, or by Sega, or by Namco, or by Capcom. I grew up in the age of Yuzo Koshiro, so I can tell his works immediately by the distinctive sounds of the tones. I think it's harder these days for the sound tones to distinguish music, compared to back then. The process of creating the music has changed so much, you see.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect about writing music for a game like Shenmue?

RI: I think Shenmue's music is quite different from conventional game music in many respects. We had a lot of sound staff, and I think a consistent feel to the music was achieved, but achieving the ambience was probably the part that everyone found most challenging for Shenmue. On top of that, the method of creating the music, as well as the sheer number of songs that had to be composed, differed from usual game music creation.

Q: Where did your inspiration come from when creating the music for Shenmue? Were you shown the story or illustrations, or did Yu Suzuki give you directions?

RI: Regarding directions from Yu Suzuki, this is quite well known, but I remember him asking for songs that were "like air". (I think someone else has mentioned this in an interview as well).

It's been 20 years but... as far as I can remember, I don't recall being shown things like illustrations. I think probably the people at higher levels would have seen them, such as Mitsuyoshi-san or Takagi-san* - those in overall charge of sound. They would have selected suitable songs while referring to various materials. But I don't remember seeing those. I do have a feeling there were various illustrations pinned up on the wall, but they weren't my source of inspiration.

*Shenmue Sound Director Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and Assistant Sound Director Yasuhiro Takagi

My inspiration would often come from keywords or phrases I was given: for example, "Bar Yokosuka", "music like air", "a feeling of vastness". I would write songs from those. That was how it was for me, although I think each composer had their own methods. I also remember that the song requests were rather willy-nilly: "one like this", "one like that"!

Q: Did the Shenmue main theme serve as a kind of yardstick?

RI: In the sense of the other songs being written so as to have a similar sound? No, that wasn't the case. The main theme was its own separate composition, although of course everyone took note of it, being the symbolizing song that had definite status.

Q: How did it come about that Yuzo Koshiro wrote an orchestral arrangement of your Shenhua's Theme song?

RI: Within the sound group, Yuzo Koshiro had experience at composing for an orchestra, and so was asked to write an orchestral version of Shenhua's Theme. (Although the version of Shenhua's Theme that is on the [orchestral] album is by Hayato Matsuo).

Two versions of Shenhua's Theme can be found on the Shenmue: Chapter One Yokosuka Original Sound Track, one of these being an orchestral arrangement by Yuzo Koshiro.

The Shenmue Orchestra Version CD contains a further orchestral arrangement of Shenhua's Theme; this one by Hayato Matsuo.

Q: I would love to see lesson videos on how to play Shenmue music. Do you have any plans for something like that?

RI: A lesson video, hmm... I wonder what kind of lesson videos they would be - explaining the chords and so on, I suppose? I don't have plans for any at the moment, no. Perhaps in the future there may be somebody else besides myself who was on the team, and may be able to do something like that on YouTube, unofficially.

Q: What led to you wanting to become a composer?

RI: What led me to start composing was when I was at a computer store, like today's electronic appliance stores but specializing in computers. I was probably halfway through elementary school at that time. And that's where there was a PC6001 computer playing a song called The Entertainer, using a 3-voice PSG sound chip. When I heard it, I was amazed that a computer could be programmed to play something like that. And just at the time, my father purchased a PC6001 personal computer for his work, and brought it home. I wanted to see if I could get it to play the same song, so I looked all over for a book that had the data for that song, The Entertainer, which I knew must be out there somewhere. And I found it! It wasn't completely identical, but I found one. I typed it into the computer, and got the song to play and was so pleased. That was the first time I programmed a song on a computer.

An NEC PC6001 was the first computer Ryuji used for playing music.

What started me off composing was the influence of Yuzo Koshiro and Ys [games series]. I heard Ys when I was at elementary school, and thought, "This is cool! I want to try composing something like this!". I played it over and over on the piano at my schoolfriend's house. At the time my friend and I used to play Famicom [NES] tunes on the piano, but Ys had a great impact on me.

Ys is considered to have one of the finest and most influential role-playing video game scores of all time, and has been released separately on albums such as "Music From Ys".

Then I received a PC program from a friend that let you create music on a computer. Using that I started creating songs for the computer. That would have been around the end of elementary school. That was the start of my composing. In fact, the very first song I composed on the computer went like this... [Ryuji demonstrates a melody on his keyboard]. I'm surprised I can still remember it!

Once I was in junior high school, a rich range of sounds become possible with FM sound generation, so using that I was able to emulate Ys while I continued composing.

So that was how I got started.

Q: From what age did you start playing the piano?

RI: I think it was from around my third year at elementary school, around the age of 9. At first, I wanted to play Japanese drums, like those at a Japanese Bon Festival Dance. However, for some reason, I told my parents the piano. We didn't have a piano at home though, and couldn't buy one so instead I got a Casiotone mini keyboard. My parents bought it for me, and I used that for piano practice. It's not pressure sensitive at all - no matter how softly or strongly you press the keys, the note sounds identical. It had quite a neat feature where you could read a barcode and have it play a song though!

An example of a 1980s Casio mini-keyboard (MT-70) which allowed a song to be input from a sheet using a barcode reader.

They bought me a proper piano when I was in my sixth year at elementary school.

Q: What differences were there between composing music for Super Monkey Ball compared to composing for Shenmue?

RI: Games usually have music for Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, a title song, ending song, a tune during stage selection, a tune for the continue screen and so on - a list can be made. But with Shenmue, rather than having a list of songs to be written, the songs that were needed increased in parallel with the game's development. This is the environment all the composers were working in, so that's why such a huge number of songs was produced. I didn't realize the number was 800; I heard that from Yu-san when I did my interview [for Shenmue III], but it's understandable given the way the game was made.

The story would progress further and further, and sometimes scenes that were originally planned would be cut. So we would write additional new songs, and in this way the number mushroomed, without clear visibility. Those in management would probably have been aware, but we in the sound team didn't really know when it would come to an end. I wrote hundreds of songs, and to be honest I felt I was going to wear out. It was enjoyable, though!

It really must have been a huge job at the end to take the project and compress it all down into a finished package. I'm sure Yu-san and the rest of the creative staff had tons of ideas they would have liked to fit in, but in the end the biggest constraint must have been media space. 

Q: How did [erhu musician] Hiroko Suzuki come to perform music concerts with you?

RI: Hiroko is a huge Shenmue fan, and it was thanks to the influence of Shenmue that she started to play the erhu.

Some years after the Shenmue project, around 2003 or 2004, I had moved on to musical performance work. At that time, I created my own CD, an album called "Silent Moon", which I distributed directly. Hiroko, who was a high school student then, purchased one from me and later sent me a fan letter. In her letter, she mentioned that she had started learning to play the erhu in earnest after being charmed by its sound in Shenmue, and hoped we might be able to play together one day. On reading that, I was amazed at the influence of Shenmue, and wished her the best of luck.

Years later, around the time when Shenmue III was announced, a fan sent me a link to a website that had an interview with erhu player Hiroko Suzuki, and in the interview she spoke of how Shenmue had influenced her. I thought, "Wow, she really followed through with it". I even managed to find the letter she had sent me before.

I was keeping a blog on Ameblo [a popular Japanese blogging site] as was she, so I very quietly gave her a follow, just to indicate I remembered her. She then got in contact and our various discussions about music and arrangements to perform together went from there.

Hiroko Suzuki can also be found on Twitter: @maruhironari. Shenmue fans, please give her a follow! We still do live concerts together from time to time, so if you're able, please come along.

Hiroko Suzuki and Ryuji Iuchi perform on stage at a starlight concert in 2018

Q: How does it feel to have created the Shenmue soundtrack for a game that has been beloved by fans for more than 20 years?

RI: It's a complete honor. At the time, I really thought I would keel over from writing so many songs. But looking back on it now, you'd be hard pressed to find a game that has been supported by so many fans for so long. So I really feel honored to have been able to participate in the project. I have the utmost gratitude towards Yuzo Koshiro, who got me involved, and everyone else at Ancient Corp. 

The fact I'm doing this YouTube livestream now with you all is all thanks to my being involved in the Shenmue project, and my albums have also been purchased online and downloaded by a lot of people overseas. There's a high percentage of Shenmue fans among my followers on Twitter too. All of this wouldn't have happened without Shenmue. I believe my life may have been completely different. (Although I should mention that I don't just compose Shenmue-like songs, I compose all sorts of others as well!)

I'm more than just grateful; Shenmue is a very important part of my life.

Q: Will you and Hiroko Suzuki be performing for Shenmue IV?

RI: When Shenmue III first came out on Kickstarter, it had the message of "by the fans, for the fans". Of course, I knew that Hiroko Suzuki is a big Shenmue fan, so I thought that if there was the opportunity for me to write a song then it would be wonderful to have her play the erhu, in the spirit of those words. You won't easily find a professional erhu player who has such passion for Shenmue.

Similarly, if Shenmue IV comes to be, although I don't have any inside knowledge, should I become involved I would love Yu Suzuki to have Hiroko play the erhu, which would be wonderful for the fans too.

Ryuji Iuchi on the keyboard was joined by Hiroko Suzuki (as Shenhua!) on the erhu for a magical rendition of Shenhua's Theme during the livestream.

Q: I believe that you became involved with the Shenmue project at Yuzo Koshiro's invitation. How did you get to meet him, for example did you become friends with him while you were a student?

RI: He was someone I really admired, and I was greatly influenced by Ys. The way I got to know him was through my "stalking" behavior!

He was really someone I looked up to. I used to type in YK-2's computer music from the Mycom BASIC Magazine*, and I was amazed at how they sounded just like the real thing - for example, the music from Konami's Bubble System [an arcade board].

*Yuzo Koshiro published a number of type-in computer music program listings in this magazine, under the pseudonym "YK-2." 

Mycom BASIC Magazine: this contained program listings you could type in yourself, including those that produced music.

At that time we had an acquaintance in common, and I somewhat forced that person to arrange for us to meet. When we did, I hammered him with talk of things like composing software, and all sorts of requests and questions - really just like I was a stalker. I obtained his contact number from the friend (of course, with Koshiro-san's permission, I'm sure) leading to his suddenly receiving phone calls out of the blue from some kid asking questions and blabbering on about this and that. Thinking about my bold actions afterwards, it's amazing that Koshiro-san was so accepting: he was a big name with the success of Ys and everything following. Despite that, he took me under his wing. He even gave me some of his software tools.

Another one I remember trying was [Konami's] Salamander, where Koshiro-san made use of a single "88" [NEC PC-88 computer] and synchronized it for a multi-recording that was split into stereo channels. That's the mind-boggling kind of thing he was doing back then to recreate songs.

Salamander is a scrolling shooter arcade game by Konami released in 1986 as a spin-off of Gradius.

I imitated all the music of his that I could, including Ys, Sorcerian and The Scheme. That was around the time I was at junior high school.

When I was at high school, I did some composing work for Koshiro-san, and then later after I graduated from college, he reached out to me about Shenmue. He has really done a lot for me over the years, and I'm very thankful to him.


That wraps up our translation of the Q&A part of Ryuji Iuchi's end-of-year livestream! Thank you very much to Ryuji for the permission to reproduce his comments here, and for putting together this event for fans to enjoy.

Make sure to check out past Shenmue musical performances as well as new video uploads on Ryuji's YouTube channel - and show him your support by subscribing!



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