Sounds of Duscae: Behind the scenes with Final Fantasy XV's orchestra

When news broke that an outside studio would be handling the music for at least part of Final Fantasy XV, we were obviously intrigued. While there's been a few similar occurances in the past, it has never been the case for a game as vital and as massive as FF15.

In a sense, this seems to be a strong sign that Square Enix is becoming more comfortable with others touching their work again, likely driven in this case by a strong desire to see that work through to completion by adopting large-scale use of live-recorded music in their games. For that purpose, composers contracted to the company such as Masashi Hamauzu and more recently Yoko Shimomura have turned to the expertise of the Video Game Orchestra – a rising star not only on the concert scene, but the recording world as well.

The Video Game Orchestra started back in 2008, coining their signature “rockestra” style with the presentation of video game music blended together with both rock and orchestral symphony sounds. The VGO also recently launched its own recording division known as SoundtRec Boston and has been involved in the score recordings for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX, and now Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae.

Shota Nakama is the creator and producer of both entities, having jump-started both through his love of video games and music. Heading up the time before the launch of Episode Duscae, we had an opportunity to catch up with him through email correspondence to chat about it all.

After working with Shimomura and Square Enix on Kingdom Hearts 2.5's remastered tracks, the VGO was invited back for Duscae.

Beginning With a Return

“The first Square Enix game we worked on was Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII back in August 2013,” Shota explains. Indeed, that was the first time the VGO got involved with recording music for the company, with the legendary Masashi Hamauzu – the composer responsible for music from Final Fantasy X and the Final Fantasy XIII series - the one to kick off the collaboration and invite the.

“Masashi Hamauzu, who is one of the most talented composers I have ever met, approached me and asked if I want to be involved in ‘a project’ he was working on. We were already friends back then and had been talking about everything – our life goals, personal stuff, and many other things. Of course I said yes to his message, and later he revealed that it was for FF.”

The VGO and SoundtRec Boston have taken on a number of recent projects, working with composers to funnel their music into a final product. The process is fairly involved when it comes to taking original sheet music and arranging it appropriately for a video game.

“Once we receive the music, I take them and arrange, or orchestrate them so they sound the best in the recording setting,” Shota explained. “We assemble our orchestra, choir or any type of ensembles the composer requests to do the recording. Once the recording is done, my engineer Falk Au Yeong and I work together to mix the tracks. Then we send them to the composer to get some comments and fix them until everything is finalized.”

Recording and arranging isn’t all the VGO is up to lately, either. “We are working on another game right now and that involves the composition side. So basically we, SoundtRec Boston, combined with VGO, can take care of everything from composing to mastering.”

Enter Final Fantasy XV

Jump forwards a couple of years, and it's now public knowledge that Shota and his team have been putting in work on Final Fantasy XV. Starting from the new track heard in last year’s Tokyo Game Show teaser, they’ve been hard at work at the behest of composer Yoko Shimomura, who like Hamauzu personally invited the VGO to come on board for this massive project.

Members of the VGO staff oversee every area of the music you find in Duscae, from orchestration right through to the sound mix.

“I have known Yoko Shimomura for a while, and over the years, the trust and friendship grew between us as well as with Square Enix,” he said. “So she asked me if we would like to work on Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX, and I simply said yes. Then that took our collaboration further to FFXV stuff.”

As with any high profile project, it’s natural to express a feeling of excitement – though Shota admits he tries hard not to show too much of that around his clients. It’s when he’s home does he really feel those “Hell yes!” moments that he’s working on something truly special. Those feelings certainly have extended beyond trailers to the full-fledged Final Fantasy XV demo.

Much of the music in Episode Duscae has actually already been heard in XV’s trailers over the years and in recent ones, where fans were treated to entirely new compositions after what’s been years of limited themes such as Somnus and Omnis Lacrima.

The VGO’s public work on XV prior to the demo’s release included two specific arrangements that have since been converted for use in the playable game. According to Shota, “Shimomura-san did alter some of the trailer songs for the demo and we did work on them too.” He stresses you should find out how the trailer tracks have been slotted into the demo by playing and listening for yourself.

Shimomura has a lot to say, too

Because Shimomura is the composer of the game, it’s natural that she’d be involved to some extent with the recording even though it happens so far away from her home location in Japan. Shota explains that the bulk of her communication with him and his team is done through email, though during recording sessions it wouldn’t be unusual for her to monitor performances online.

“She would send me files and I send back the orchestral scores I finished,” he elaborates. “Once she approved, I would move onto another piece. For the recording sessions, she monitored it entirely on the Internet along with the Square Enix music team. If needed, she would comment after a take to get the right sound.”

Getting the right sound is definitely important, both for Shimomura and the VGO. Having had the opportunity to now work on two different games of hers in both Kingdom Hearts and now Final Fantasy it’s clear there is a distinct aesthetic difference between the two. Kingdom Hearts has always had that whimsical Disney feel to it, while Final Fantasy carries a darker and heavier tone in all respects. As a result, Shimomura has crafted different styles going from Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX and Final Fantasy XV.

"You want the music to be big and dramatic at the same time. I think all FF fans can tell 'that FF sound'."

“The KH music is more intimate and you don’t hear as much massive, explosive orchestral sound. However, in FF, that is totally what you expect. You want the music to be big and dramatic at the same time. I think all FF fans can tell 'that FF sound'."

Working with such a famous composer isn’t without its own challenges, however. “Yoko Shimomura is very particular about her sound, even compared to the other composers we worked with,” Shota said. “She would tell us to fix the slightest things that we would not even know unless she pointed out – but I consider this a good thing.” 

Because of this, it took the team a bit of time to really understand the interesting ways Shimomura describes things. “Sometimes she would say something like ‘I am not liking this 'pheeeew' sound. Can you do something about that,’ or ‘Can you turn down that fluffy noise?’ After spending a lot of time working with her, now we do understand what she means when she says things like that.”

The Modernization of Music

As somebody on the front lines of video game music, how does Shota feel about the rise of live, orchestrated music compared to tradtional synths and chip sound? Has anything been lost in the transfer?

“I think the ‘traditional video game scores’ aren’t necessarily what the composers had in their mind originally," Shota replies. "It was just the technological limitations that forced them to sound like that, but then the music evolved to become so iconic even with the limitations. I love the old school sound as well.

“I think the live orchestral scores are as important nowadays, especially since the current games look so realistic. Recording live ensembles always make the game better and is absolutely incomparable to just using MIDI. The music technology has gotten much better over the years, but I still consider that a compromise unless you utilize it creatively. A real good live recording can multiply the emotional impact and expression in the way the visuals can never do.”

Every aspect of the score is carefully scrutinized and discussed with Shimomura as it's arranged & recorded.

Whereas Final Fantasy games of the past relied on at first on-board sound chips, then synthesized recordings, and later still a blend of live music and synth, FF15 will, like many modern games, be far more driven by live music. The VGO is helping to lead that charge, actively participating in arranging and even creating lyrics for scores. According to Shota, the story behind the creation of these arrangements can be pretty involved:

“I actually hand over the lyricist work to our singers. If it is a choir project, Jose Delgado, the director of our in-house choir, Força, writes them. He is multi-lingual and even fluent in Latin. If it is like a solo vocal project, I ask whoever is singing the song to write the lyrics. I think the singers speak more to your heart when the lyrics are written by them because they literally came out from them too. I provide them the keywords, story synopsis and the description of what the song is for to start working on the lyrics.

“For arranging, I spend time thinking about what is it that the composer wants to express through his or her music. When it comes to arranging and orchestration, the job is to maximize or you could even say “enhance” the musical intention. As long as you keep that in mind, you won’t go too far from the original idea – which probably will cause a redo, and you don’t want that.”

For the Fans

With the VGO’s success, Shota Nakama has a lot to be excited about. With Episode Duscae now in the hands of fans and many people praising Shimomura's score, it's a milestone for both SoundtRec Boston and Video Game Orchestra - as well as a successful proof of concept for Square Enix's vision of a more live-driven sound for the game. 

"I understand that the expectation level is very high for the FF franchise especially when it comes to music…"

“We recorded the total of nine cues that you can enjoy listening to throughout the game,” he reiterates as our time comes to a close.

“I understand that the expectation level is very high for the FF franchise especially when it comes to music, but we are very confident that no one will be disappointed. We love how it sounds and we are sure that you will too.

“VGO and StR are working on a lot of games currently and, of course, planning on our signature concert series. Please stay tuned for more announcements! We love you all.”

Those interested in the Video Game Orchestra, upcoming concerts and SoundtRec Boston can visit their respective homes on the web. The VGO recently performed in Boston alongside Video Games Live in a collaborative effort featuring the most popular video game music of all time.

This article has been adapted and syndicated from a piece on Nova Crystallis, another Mist Network website and RPG Site's Square Enix-dedicated Sister Site.

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