Film, Game Music

GDC 2010: Osamu Kubota’s Past and Philosophy on Videogame Music

June 3, 2010 | | 4 Comments Share thison Facebook GDC 2010: Osamu Kubota’s Past and Philosophy on Videogame Musicon Twitter

Remember when I told you there was more to come from our busy time at GDC 2010 this past March? Well, this is the last of it! Sorry that it’s taken so long, but I think it will be worth the wait. We talked to Osamu Kubota a couple years back, where, yes, we ran that fateful photo of him wearing lipstick. When we saw him at GDC, however, he was without the lipstick, and looked rather professional.

This time we sit down for a chat about his work on Granado Espada, his interactions with IMC Games director Kim Hakkyu, his philosophy on music in games, his history with a J-pop band in the 1980s, and what his plans are for the rest of 2010. He has a lot of interesting things to say, so join us in our interview with Osamu Kubota after the jump!

OSV: We’re here with Osamu Kubota from Japan here at GDC.

Kubota: Yes, my first trip to GDC!

OSV: First time at GDC, and a long time since you’ve been in San Francisco, I think you said. Tell us about your trip here, and why you decided to finally make it out.

Kubota: Yes, well, I rather wanted to see you, actually. We’ve known each other through online communication for quite some time, and I wanted to meet you. And also my wife has been telling me she wanted to go to the Unites States, so that’s a good reason.

OSV: So you have your wife with you and you’re here for the whole week. Are you going to see any sights?

Kubota: Perhaps we’ll go see some things this afternoon.

OSV: It’s a really nice place, so I hope you enjoy it. So we haven’t really heard any new music from you in a while. The last thing we heard in gaming was Granado Espada, which we know is continuing to be updated, but what projects have you been working on lately, and are any of them related to games?

Kubota: Actually, for the last two years, I’ve been off game music. I’ve been working mainly on film scores and original compositions for other people’s projects. But in November, IMC Games contacted me, and I resumed working on the game. I wrote a couple new songs.

OSV: It’s been 5 years since it was released, so that’s awesome that they’re still bringing you back to write music. Will S.F.A. or soundTeMP be providing any new music?

Kubota: I know S.F.A. will, but I’m not sure about the others.

OSV: So the bulk of your work is in film, and not in games, so tell us about these projects you’ve been working on these past two years. Is it similar stuff in style to the work you did on Granado Espada, or is it different?

Kubota: It’s very different. When I compose for film or TV, it depends on the director. Film and TV series belong to the director, and the music is just helping the story. When I compose for games I can focus on my musicality and my music character. In films, I have to support the director’s intentions. It’s completely different.

OSV: So in the West when developers make games, the soundtracks are typically very Hollywood style. It’s interactive audio, and it’s like in film where the music is matched to the game and it’s hard to stand on its own outside of it. Do you feel there’s room for individual musicality when working in games versus film?

Kubota: Games have more liberty and more room for the artist to express themselves.

OSV: And you think it should be that way?

Kubota: Yeah. When I worked on Granado Espada, the director really understood my music. It was almost like working on a solo album, as I was able to create whatever I wanted. Only one of my new songs is currently added to the game, only in Japan. But hopefully the songs will be distributed outside of Japan as well.

OSV: So I guess in the sense of film, the composer has a supporting role to enhance the impact of the visuals on the screen. Shouldn’t it be the same in games?

Kubota: Partially, yes. In film, the story, actors, and music are combined into one. In games, it’s totally different. The player is the hero. Only the player can conduct the game. The music is somewhat behind the center stage, and is more of a background element.

OSV: Do you have a preference for films versus games?

Kubota: I like both.

OSV: Maybe games are more satisfying as a musician?

Kubota: Definitely. It’s challenging for me. Maybe someday both of these elements should be unified in my mind. I think my music should be one.

OSV: So you’ve been telling me that you do most of your music writing with sheet music, and write most of the score before you record or start making MIDI mockups. So your background is in piano. Is it hard to translate that into other instruments when you write?

Kubota: Not really. I wanted to be a composer when I was young. First I learned piano, but I didn’t want to be a pianist. My hands often sweat, and that’s not good for a pianist. Now, when I write a soundtrack, I try not to use the piano. I save the piano for the important parts. Other than that, I use orchestral strings mainly. I like strings. I play the violin too.

OSV: You’re very fortunate that you’ve been able to work with an orchestra so frequently. Even in games. It’s kind of rare to get the chance to do that.

Kubota: Yes, orchestra is expensive, and it’s difficult to find a perfect orchestra to meet the composer’s intentions, and clients often don’t have the budget and time to include an orchestral recording in their game. But I’ve been lucky because I used to work in China where I worked with superb orchestras, and my manager is able to find the best players in Beijing. Even on short notice.

OSV: We’ve also been talking with you over the last couple days that you often retain the rights to your music. Maybe this comes from your background in film. You’ve been able to do this even with Granado Espada?

Kubota: Yes.

OSV: That’s very rare. When you negotiate for a project, the developer can say, “There are fifty other composers who want to score this game, and they’re not going to ask for the rights to their music.” So has it been challenging to keep the rights to your music?

Kubota: Yes, it is challenging. But fortunately Kim Hakkyu, the director of Granado Espada, was a fan of my music thanks to Beatmania. He knew my music, so he sought me out. They used my music in the most difficult part of the games, so gamers should struggle to play hard to hear my music. When I make new tracks, they’re putting them in for promotional purposes in free listening zones.

OSV: So did you write this music with this in mind? That they’d be playing through the hardest spots in the game?

Kubota: I actually don’t think of the players when I compose.

OSV: [Laughs]

Kubota: [Laughs] Actually, yeah. But Kim Hakkyu said many things to me…

OSV: Many angry things?

Kubota: Well, so many directions. He doesn’t compromise at all. He’s always pinpointing parts of the music that need to be changed, so it’s very difficult.

OSV: Wow.

Kubota: But my family plays Granado Espada, so I can understand the effect of my music. I can imagine. But I don’t think about it much. That’s what Kim Hakkyu wanted, he just wanted a cinematic sound that sounded like film.

OSV: That’s very unique in games. It’s great that you were able to write what you wanted.

Kubota: Yes.

OSV: The track “Odyssey” sounds very different. Tell us about the vocals and how you recorded them.

Kubota: It includes some secrets, but I guess I can share. If other musicians use the same technique, it will sound different, and it’s not patented or anything. For “Libra Negra,” an original track I did with TaQ, I recorded multiple vocal tracks, and it worked out well. So for “Odyssey,” I recorded 8 vocal tracks with my voice. I thought it would sound interesting. It’s the same skill I applied to a Beatmania track I did called “Sanctus” in 1999, and “Doigts de Fatima,” it wasn’t my voice, but I did the same thing. When you record 8 different vocal tracks, the lip sounds need to line up. But when you build up all these recordings, it’s hard to get rid of it, or it doesn’t sound human.

OSV: For the words themselves, did you write them down? How did you come out with those sounds? It’s not a language, right?

Kubota: Right, it’s a phonetically invented language. I did that because when I was a kid in elementary school, I listened to American work. I listened to Queen from England. But I didn’t understand the lyrics because I didn’t understand English then, but I loved the sound of the lyrics. I didn’t have to understand the meanings to enjoy the sound. So I really wanted to do that to everybody. It sounds like it has meaning, as I scattered some Latin elements in it, but that was my motivation.

OSV: Interesting.

Kubota: For one of my new Granado Espada tracks called “Discipline,” there are actually 24 takes.

OSV: Wow, that sounds intense. So you also have a background in linguistics. Were you a dual major in music and linguistics at university?

Kubota: No, I studied linguistics at university. I learned piano through private lessons. I stopped studying piano when I entered university, but when I went to France to continue to study linguistics, I met my piano teacher and started studying in the academy at the same time. I was lucky. But I left Paris to make a debut in a J-pop band in Japan.

OSV: Oh, you were in a J-pop band?

Kubota: Yes, but it was in the 80s, so it didn’t sound like modern J-pop.

OSV: What did you play? Synth?

Kubota: Yeah. The band was called 21st Centuries Gang. I was in my 20s.

OSV: How many albums did you put out?

Kubota: Three albums and five singles.

OSV: Wow. I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting.

Kubota: I ended up leaving the band. It was musically boring to just play on stage. Most of it was written by the vocalist, and I just did arranging, so I left to become more of a global composer. I was born in J-pop, and was bored with Japanese lyrics. I made one demo track and sent it to a publisher in France, and the guy there, I was very lucky, because he’s famous now. He’s in the Gotan project. It’s sort of an ambient jazz thing. Philippe Cohen-Solal is the leader. He used to be a producer, and he liked my music, and asked me to come to Paris to join and write some songs, and I decided to go and become a soundtrack composer. He was working on the very films I loved at the time. Then I learned to score films on my own. It took years because at first, it’s hard to get film scoring jobs. So it took years.

OSV: So do you feel this background in linguistics, and knowing so many different languages helps you get projects in other countries?

Kubota: Yeah. I took Korean, so it helped me.

OSV: With Granado Espada especially?

Kubota: Yes. I actually didn’t expect it, because I learned Korean in the 1980s before gaming got big there, but it has helped me.

OSV: So your biggest project in games, like I said, is Granado Esapda, and it’s been out for five or so years now. I know you’re still working on it, but looking back and reflecting on the project, how do you feel about it, and what has it meant to your career?

Kubota: It’s my house. [Laughs]

OSV: It’s your house?

Kubota: Yes, I feel at home with Granado Espada. Now I can compose freely. Of course Kim Hakkyu’s direction can be severe, but I am very comfortable, and feel like I’m back home.

OSV: Do you think you’ll be working with him on future projects?

Kubota: Yes, I will be working with him, but I can’t say much about it right now.

OSV: And how about the other composers from Granado Espada? Do you keep in touch, and will you work with them?

Kubota: Yes, especially with Sevin at S.F.A. We drink together. We both like traveling.

OSV: Will you two be working together in the future?

Kubota: Actually, we did. Not recorded work, but we performed a live gig at a Granado Espada event. We played on stage together. Me, Sevin, and a vocalist.

OSV: Wow, a live Granado Espada event? You should have told me about it.

Kubota: Hm, I know we played “Ice Symphony,” and one of Sevin’s tracks that is only available in Korea. We played others, but I don’t remember the titles.

OSV: That’s interesting. I would have never thought that they’d play that music live.

Kubota: It was very good. Sevin came to my studio, and we worked together and thought about music. So we thought we’d definitely have to work together either for another game or maybe some new tracks for Granado Espada.

OSV: Have you heard any of the music from the Granado Espada Volume II music that came from Blackhole Recordings? Do you know how they went about putting this together?

Kubota: I actually don’t know much about it, and haven’t heard it.

OSV: Interesting. But it sounds like they’re bringing you and S.F.A. back, so maybe they didn’t like how it turned out. I don’t know.

Kubota: Well, you know, my works are like my children, but I don’t care about that. I let them grow up on their own. I actually don’t think much about my past works, actually. I’d rather move forward.

OSV: The 4-disc soundtrack that was produced, was it ever put on sale?

Kubota: No.

OSV: And why was that? It’s very popular among fans.

Kubota: I mentioned that to the team, but I’m not sure. The reason is very complicated. It includes some delicate issues caused by the difference in concepts of copyrights between Korea and Japan.

OSV: So they’re not willing to put it out there for sale?

Kubota: I think so. But I’m not sure. But I’m negotiating to release just my tracks.

OSV: The other game project you’ve worked on outside of Granado Espada is Beatmania. We haven’t seen any of your tracks in this game for a long time?

Kubota: I’m waiting as well. Waiting for an offer. They have new versions, but they haven’t asked me for new music.

OSV: When was the last time you worked on the series?

Kubota: I provided “Avant-guerre” in 2007. So three years ago.

OSV: How did you come to work with Bemani on those games?

Kubota: I was brought in by TaQ. TaQ knew dj TAKA, me, and Good -Cool, who was also my good friend. I introduced Good-Cool to TaQ, who introduced me and him to dj TAKA, so we’re all friends.

OSV: So TaQ did some tracks for Granado Espada. Did you bring him on to the team?

Kubota: Ah, yes. One day when I was in Seoul, TaQ came to Seoul for vacation. I picked him up and said, “Okay, TaQ, let’s go to IMC.” He wanted to meet some local people in Korea, so I said okay, let’s work! [Laughs] So IMC interviewed TaQ about game music, and TaQ agreed to work. So he created one track, “Akashic Record.”

OSV: He wrote it on-site, or he wrote it when he got back to Japan?

Kubota: It took him a couple months because he was busy daydreaming. But usually IMC is very understanding with musicians. Sometimes you need to compose on a deadline, and if the music is not good, they have to work endlessly until Kim Hakkyu is satisfied.

OSV: Wait, so Kim Hakkyu, the director of the title, was responsible for approval all of the music himself?

Kubota: Kim Hakkyu is the boss. And he always checked everything, including music, voice acting in all languages.

OSV: Wow, so very hands-on. It seems like most companies hire a audio director to handle that.

Kubota: Yes, well, they have a good product manager, Kim Seyong, who supports busy Hakkyu, but Hakkyu likes to check everything himself, not in a dictator’s manner, but to make the directions clear and consistent.

OSV: You know all these languages and travel a lot. So you probably have a more encompassing global perspective than anyone else I know. Do you think all this traveling influences your music?

Kubota: Not only music. But my whole life. Eating, cooking, everything.

OSV: How has it affected your music?

Kubota: I don’t like picking up direct elements. Like, for example, picking up traditional elements. It’s too direct that way. I like to digest, take some time, and integrate it into myself. When I was in France, I didn’t want to adopt French music styles. When I played piano in France, I was told that my sound was very strange, and I think it was because of this.

OSV: In your travels, do you feel game and film music are becoming more accepted in the world?

Kubota: Yes, thankfully the audience is getting bigger. Ten years ago, I felt my music was less understood in the world.

OSV: What will you be working on for the remainder of 2010 and into the future that you can talk about?

Kubota: I’m scoring a Japanese film that will go to a big film festival. I can’t say the title, but the director is a very interesting guy, and it’s been really challenging. It’s very exciting, so wait for a few months for some information.

OSV: Do you have any games lined up? I know you said you’ll be working with Kim Hakkyu in the future on a project you can’t talk about, but is there anything else?

Kubota: Yeah, my next soundtrack is almost completed, so I’m just waiting to be able to announce it.

OSV: Are you doing any solo work?

Kubota: I should do that. I have a lot of ideas piling up, but I’ve been too busy. I really need to do that. I have an idea for an album title, but I don’t want to pronounce it yet.

OSV: Well, thank you for your time, and enjoy the rest of your time here in San Francisco.

Kubota: Thank you.

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