Writing a Game Concert Suite - The Prophetic Chronicles
I've long been a fan of video game and film concerts, with some of the first ones I saw being 2011's The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses, and 2004's The Lord of the Rings Symphony, and Tour de Japon: Music from Final Fantasy - I do have a thing for fantasy orchestra concerts! With that background in mind, I set to work on a concert suite of my own, which I just completed last night. The project has about a year's worth of history; and in this blog post, I'm going to mainly cover the composition and production aspects that made up the final video. This will be available on the site in about a week. On my violinist.com blog, you can read about the performance and recording aspects of the project, as I played four violin parts myself.
At the start of 2020, before the pandemic, I was planning a piece for the Illinois Modern Ensemble to perform, as they typically have a couple concerts dedicated to student compositions every year. I had just been sharing tracks I had put together for the VGM Academy's #21DaysofVGM challenge, where we would write music based on prompts every day in January, with my composition professor at the time, Dr. Rick Taube. He asked me why this music couldn't be used for a concert, which before that point, I had never thought about mixing my concert music and my growing interest in video game music. However, I became quite excited by the idea, and set to work in GarageBand trying to fit the original sound files together to see what arrangement they would be in.
As a quick aside, you can listen to all the tracks I submitted for the challenge here. The prompts were given in 5 levels, and I went through and picked a new one to work on each day. There were several composers I was inspired by when I was composing this music. The strings direction of the samurai music definitely came from Masashi Hamauzu and blending his style with Maurice Ravel and my own. Other melodies or orchestration elements were inspired by Nobuo Uematsu and Yoko Shimamura; and the "Evil's Bane" track included nine notes from a tone-row that became the central motif of that theme. Koji Kondo was certainly in my mind when it came to writing for the Mario fan-game over the summer, but also for melodic writing for this challenge. I did take Junichi Masuda's heroic Main Theme for the original Pokémon Game Boy games in a jazz direction, which was at one point part of my GarageBand tracks but was ultimately cut from the final piece. I don't remember much of the process of composing these tracks, other than I had a special notebook I would sketch all my ideas in, then set up a Finale file with a specific instrumentation, and use the Finale playback for the submission. It was a lot of music to write every single day, but it helped being on holiday break before I went back to campus.
Of course, in March, the pandemic hit, and the future of this piece became uncertain. I was finishing other projects at the time, and when the summer started I composed an original soundtrack to Super Mario Advance: Factory Subspace, which is available on the site, for my own fan-game. I then created a new Finale file for my VGM Suite, still opting to write it for the IME's requirements for now. I changed a few of the tracks from before to the new ones from the Mario game, and the medley formed as a blending of different music tracks I had composed throughout the year. In the fall, it started to become apparent I would not get a proper performance of this piece, and the project was side-lined for other things like my Horn Trio for the first New Music Collage Facebook recital. Just a finished score collecting dust on my computer.
In late-November, my colleagues were starting to come up with a plan for a second Facebook concert, and after giving it some thought, I figured now was the time to bring back my VGM Suite. Because we had a slightly longer winter break, I knew I'd have plenty of time after Christmas to work on this. I decided the best thing to do would be simply to record the project myself. I first had to re-arrange the parts to fit violins and piano, as at the time I was thinking that would be it. This meant transposing up the octave the viola and cello parts as needed, and adding some divisi. It was hard to tell from the Finale playback if it would work or not, so I just had to set about practicing and recording it in early January. I gave myself the synthesized instruments (winds and brass) from the original orchestration to listen to as I recorded alongside the metronome; I also had Logic Pro now from Apple's Education Suite. With it, I could record multiple takes, which made the process go smoother.
Additionally, while I was practicing, I came up with the idea of recording with a green screen and having screenshots from a fake game appear in the background, like what I've seen YouTubers like StringPlayerGamer do in their videos. It was fun to create some backstories for the characters and world, and while I don't share any of it, there is meant to be a big quest going on for the game! It isn't just arbitrary screenshots I threw together. The idea is all of this music is actually a part of the game's soundtrack, even if it's not a real game.
I have since spent the last several weeks mixing the music and putting together the video in Final Cut Pro. Doing most of my final touches and exporting everything with the new M1 chip MacBook Pro really sped up the production. It took a lot of time sorting through all the takes, picking out the best recordings from each attempt, especially with the piano! I recorded both hands separately in the hopes it would be easier to mix. I did my best to line everything up and focused on minute details. During the process, as I realized what would be lost removing the synthesized instruments, I decided to create synthesizers that somewhat simulated the sounds in a more electronic way, similar to the SNES 16-bit sound chip. The game screenshots use a font that would be common in '80s arcade games, blending that with "realistic graphics" and a more modern-looking menu system and UI (again, doctored together by me). It made sense for the music to follow that, thus justifying having live recordings be the core of the sound, with the electronics in the background for the orchestral color I had originally used when arranging.
Right at the last minute, especially realizing the fake drums didn't quite work for the "final boss" track, I asked some of my friends if they wanted to help out for the project. Logan Tsuji played a little trumpet for my "Evil's Bane" track, which originally took four days to write and orchestrate during that #21DaysOfVGM challenge. I had Kellen Myer's mix the ending (and he wanted to play bass for the finale, too!); and Logan Myers played the drum set. That really helped liven up the finale, especially with the cymbal roll leading to the last chord.
And that's the piece! It will be available in the "Original Soundtracks" tab of the site, as well as both my YouTube channels. I debated putting it in my "Compositions" tab, but it made more sense to be a part of the soundtracks. I hope you enjoy! ...And more on my fantasy influences coming in a future post...!