MGSO Interview with Alyssa Menes

When did you decide you wanted to start conducting music? What was your original inspiration?

“I actually wanted to be a drum major in high school senior year, but my family moved away from my old band so I couldn’t do it. I took a conducting class in college, but I was very shy and had some confidence issues. It was tough to stand in front of the class. Later on, UMDGSO (University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra) was playing my Kid Icarus piece and asked me to conduct a run-through, but I chickened out and couldn’t do it. I still think about that to this day, but over time, I’ve gotten over my fears and just said: ‘There’s nothing I can’t do! Screw it! I’m gonna do it!’ So I forced myself to start conducting and get over my fears.”


Why did you decide to focus specifically on game music? Was it mostly because gaming was a personal hobby?

“I love video games and game music. It has some of my favorite music in the world. I was inspired by University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra, so I wanted to bring that to New Jersey. I also saw a strong bond that people had over games and game music, which I’ve seen happen now with MGSO.”


How was the process of starting up MGSO?

“It was very difficult at first. I was one person with an idea, but it was a matter of getting people together to play so I could realize this idea. I started with friends I knew from MSU and got a few of them on board. In the beginning, I had around ten to fifteen people interested in performing with the group, but no place to rehearse! That was the toughest part. When I met Chris Erickson, that’s when we were able to find a place to rehearse. Our first show was at Digital Press, where we did a small ensemble performance. We had to sneak into some of the music rooms at Montclair to try and practice, but thankfully the school was on summer break at the time!”


What are some common misconceptions that people have about conducting?

“Some people wonder if it’s necessary to even have a conductor. So I always have to explain that yes it is. The conductor is the bridge from the music to the musicians. Also, the conductor helps keep the whole group on the same page about how the music should be played, thus unifying the group and their artistic intentions.”


How long have you been arranging music for? Was it before you started conducting?

“Besides a few little things in college, I didn’t start until 2012 with arranging game music. I was learning about orchestration a lot more and started with my Kid Icarus arrangement, and kept going from there. This was well before I started conducting seriously.”


What is your favorite part when arranging music?

“I really love reimagining music in different ways, such as orchestrating chiptune music, or interpreting a piece presented in one genre as something completely different. It’s fun to think of new parts to add when you’re arranging, while making sure you don’t take away from what made the original so great.”


Do you have any advice for upcoming arrangers or composers?

“Learn a lot about orchestration. I got a great book on orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Start small and arrange with an instrument family you are familiar with so you can begin understanding the basics of arrangement and how to voice a melody, chords, bassline etc. Then, begin incorporating other instruments. Learn about their range, learn what’s idiomatic on each instrument, so you can figure out which melodies are best suited to which instruments. Then, as you learn more and more about each instrument family, try to incorporate all of them into a fully orchestrated arrangement.”


Are there any instruments you wish you could play?

“I have a lot of trouble with violin. I can work my way around the other instruments in the string family, such as the contrabass, but I can’t play the violin yet.”


What is your favorite video game? How about favorite game soundtrack(s)?

“My favorite game and soundtrack is Kid Icarus: Uprising. Some of my other favorite soundtracks include Phantasy Star Online, Sam and Max, Shovel Knight, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), Journey, Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Pokémon X & Y, Until Dawn, and more.”


What was the last game you played that had an impact on you?

“There are two. Smash 4 is a big one, since I started competing in it. I was having some trouble in my life, and Smash 4 really had an impact on me. I learned a lot about myself and how I could develop more confidence and a positive mentality. I’ve also met a lot of wonderful people through playing Smash. It’s really fun to see how good you can get at the game and compete with people.

The other game is definitely Kid Icarus: Uprising. The story was really touching and the characters were all so vibrant and well-developed. At that point in my life, I wasn’t too happy with myself and where things were going, but the game really made me excited and got me to study music again. The music in the game was so inspiring. It made me want to make music for games, because at the time I wasn’t doing anything like that. That’s why I started studying more, and decided to start seriously pursuing a career making music for games.”


If you could meet one video game composer, who would it be?

“I would love to meet Hip Tanaka. He made a lot of classic NES music. He is my favorite game composer. Also, Yuzo Koshiro’s music really inspired me. We follow each other on Twitter, and he has even complimented my music before, so it would be so awesome to get to meet him and maybe even work with him!”

MGSO Interview with Sean Kelley

What was your inspiration for arranging and composing music?

“OK, that’s an easy one. My biggest inspiration is the Touhou Project series. The music in the series has a really unique ‘Japanese’ sound to it that doesn’t sound like any other game. In Japan, there’s an entire community of musicians that make arrangements and remixes of Touhou music. I’ve been a Touhou fan for a long time, but I really got inspired to make music in college when I listened to lots of Touhou bands. I even had a radio show on the college radio station where I DJ mixed electronic Touhou songs. Though the first game remix I ever made was a Kancolle remix. Don’t listen to it; it’s pretty bad. I haven’t arranged Touhou songs for the orchestra yet though, because it’s pretty complex and above my skill level for now.”


How long have you been arranging for?

“I made my first remix in 2014 for a monthly song contest called Dwelling of Duels, where you have one month to make a video game arrangement, and then people vote on the best one. I didn’t get last place that month, so that’s a good thing! I made another remix for Dwelling of Duels in 2015, but that was bad also. Then in 2016, I joined MGSO, and everyone there inspired me to arrange more. I completed my arrangement for Natsukage from Air for the orchestra in 2017, and that’s the first arrangement I’m satisfied with.”


What is the arranging process like? Do you have a favorite part?

“I’m not ‘classically trained’, so my process may not be the ‘correct’ one. First, I look for sheet music online to get a rough idea of the song. I then use Ableton Live and Kontakt to arrange the song using software instruments. The sheet music I find isn’t always accurate, so I do a lot of transcribing by ear also. I also add instruments that weren’t in the original song, mainly strings. When I’m finished arranging the song, I transfer the MIDIs from Ableton into a score writing program such as MuseScore to create the actual sheet music itself. My favorite part is creating the sheet music, because it’s a fun challenge to communicate as much information as possible to the instrumentalist, who you may or may not ever meet (if my music gets performed by other people besides MGSO).”


Do you have any advice for upcoming game arrangers and composers?

“I said I wasn’t classically trained, and I still have a long way to go, so I don’t know how valuable my advice would be, but I do have one piece of advice. Reading about music theory is great and all, but nothing will help you get better music than actually putting in the time and ‘gitting gud’ at your instrument. Playing (and also listening to) a wide variety of songs will help a ton with inspiration and ear training.

Personally, I’ve made huge progress in my musical abilities, both playing and arranging, in the past 2 years after joining MGSO and having a reason to play frequently. My recommendation is to learn the basics/intermediate amounts of music theory, then spend the rest of the time playing and arranging/composing as much as possible, since you’ll figure out what does and doesn’t work through experience. This is partially self-deprecating, but you shouldn’t get too bogged down in reading books about music.”


What instruments do you currently play?

“I got my first bass in 2012, but didn’t start taking it seriously until 2015, when I started playing Rocksmith. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically Guitar Hero except with a real guitar/bass. I’ve also been playing violin for about a year now.”


Are there any other instruments you want to learn?

“I would like to get better at guitar since I have a really nice one, but I’ve been concentrating on orchestra stuff. I also would like to learn traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi and shamisen because I like traditional Japanese music a lot, but those instruments are hard to get outside Japan.”


Have you ever traveled to Japan before?

“Yes, I have been to Japan before! I first went as a high school exchange student in 2007, then again a year after that, and I didn’t go again until 2015 and this past year. It was so much fun. Everyone I met there was so nice and polite, and I never felt shunned because I was a foreigner. I want as much people as possible to experience visiting Japan.”


Did you play in any bands before MGSO?

“No, MGSO was the first time I played live since my piano recital when I was 10 years old. I still want to someday form a more traditional rock band that plays video game remixes though.”


What is your favorite video game and favorite game soundtrack?

“There’s no way I can choose just one. FF7 is pretty up there, because I played it at my cousin’s house, and the story, battle system, music and graphics absolutely blew my mind and opened my eyes to games on other consoles besides Nintendo. Touhou 8: Imperishable Night and 14: Double Dealing Character are good also, since they’re the easiest ones to get into if you’re new to the series. For my favorite soundtrack, it would be a tie between Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom and 8: Imperishable Night. The music in both of those games is just amazingly beautiful and otherworldly.”

What was the last game you played that really had an impact on you?

“The most recent game that I liked is definitely Persona 5. I’m not that far into it, but so far, the story and characters are really good, the music is GODLIKE, and it makes tons of improvements over the previous Persona games, like better dungeons and social links. There’s no way I would be able to actually play the music on bass though, because they can really shred.”


What is your dream arrangement you’d like to work on?

“For MGSO, my dream arrangement would be a song or two from BlazBlue, which has an absolutely incredible symphonic metal soundtrack. I don’t think any of us have the chops to actually play it though. In terms of songs that are actually doable, I eventually want to arrange the title screen theme from Mega Man 2 for NES, and ‘Aoi Tori’ from the Idolmaster series. For non-MGSO stuff, I want to release some solo electronic remixes from the nerdier, more otaku/obscure side of video game music, such as Touhou, Kancolle, and idol games.”


If you could meet one video game composer, who would it be?

“I went to Shinji Orito from Key’s panel at Acen in Chicago last year, but didn’t really ‘meet’ him, so he and Jun Maeda (the composer for Natsukage, among others) are up there. I also really want to meet ZUN, the creator of Touhou, of course.”


MGSO Interview with Jorge D. Fuentes

What was your inspiration for arranging and composing music?

“I grew up with the NES and 8bit music, which was very limited at the time. When I went to college, I wanted to start enhancing the music with real instruments. I asked myself ‘how can I make this better without changing it?’ A lot of my pieces stick to the source material, instead of changing genres.”


What is your favorite game and game soundtrack?

“You may have heard of a little series called Castlevania. It just turned thirty not too long ago. When I was younger, I really liked old monster movies, so I was very interested in the game since you fought different monsters. The games sometimes change composers for each one. For instance, Castlevania IV has a lot of baroque and pianoforte, which sounds different from the traditional piano used in a game like Symphony of the Night. Every stage has a unique sound in SotN, with rock, hip-hop, and piano used. The old games had similar instruments with limited hardware, but became more iconic with the medleys. It’s a lot different from something like Zelda, where you’re guaranteed to get a similar sound each time. In Castlevania, you don’t really know what to expect.”


What was the last game you played that had a big impact on you?

Lost Odyssey has music that drives me to tears. In the game you find these scrolls that you can read to get additional story. While you’re reading, music plays that takes you on a journey. The game really just made me want to keep reading, but sometimes the music was so sad that I would feel discouraged from playing more.”


What is your favorite piece you have arranged?

“I do love my Castlevania medley, but I feel it needs some work. Lately, my favorite has been ‘Clash on the Big Bridge.’ Everyone really enjoys playing it and it really stood out at our last concert.”


How long have you been arranging for? Was it something that you always wanted to do?

“When I was growing up in Ecuador, my dad had an old reed organ that took a long time to build up sound. I used to press different chords to try and make music. At the time, gaming wasn’t really a thing. When I came to the US, the NES music really inspired me. My dad got me a Casio keyboard, so I used to try to play Nintendo music on it. In grammar school, my music teacher would play the Super Mario theme on the piano, which helped inspire me too. When I got a computer in college, I began arranging for real and used Noteworthy Composer, which I still use today. I started with Mega Man and Castlevania, and then moved onto different RPGs on the Super Nintendo. Now, I don’t need to use samples anymore since MGSO can perform the music! I’m really proud of that.”


What’s the process like when arranging? What is the hardest part? What is your favorite part?

“I’ve always learned to play by ear, but had music teachers help me read when scoring music. Back in the day, I had a lot of plug-ins that could isolate voices and then mimic the sound on a keyboard. It trained my ear to pick up tempo changes and dynamics. I could then use that as a framework. The hardest part is hearing individual parts in each tune. I use a wave editor to notice the lengths of waves to get each part in a measure for each instrument. Some pieces take a very long time if the waves are difficult to pick up on.”


Is there an instrument you wish you could learn to play?

“I want to learn guitar. I have no idea how it works, but I always wanted to learn it. I have about ten cousins that are efficient at guitar, but I have no idea how to play it! I don’t own one either, but would love to get one.”


What is your advice for upcoming video game composers and arrangers?

“If you’re going to be doing video game composing, I’ve noticed it’s very important to develop a motif, one key idea to repeat. For instance, in a game like Super Mario Galaxy, the same few notes appear in many songs on the soundtrack. There’s also ‘Terra’s theme’ in Final Fantasy 6, which is used a lot throughout the game in different songs. It’s a lot easier to tie everything together in a song if you make motifs first. When arranging, do something you really like if you can; something you’ll have a lot of fun with and learn from it. If someone asks you to arrange a piece you aren’t familiar with, try to find the parts you like the most from your first listen and start with that.”


What is your dream arrangement you’d like to work on?

“I want to do an orchestral arrangement of ‘Dancing Mad’ from Final Fantasy 6. I haven’t heard a completely orchestral version done, even from the Distant Worlds Final Fantasy Concert. I would also like to do a Zelda mash-up of the overworked themes, with A Link to the Past, Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks, and the original Zelda. I’m also looking into a Bowser medley, with the airship armada theme from Super Mario Galaxy, Bowser’s road from Super Mario 64, the castle theme from Super Mario World, and the Super Mario Galaxy 2 final Bowser battle theme.”


If you could meet one videogame composer, who would it be? 

“I actually met the composer for the original Castlevania and Mega Man X3, Kinuyo Yamashita, but I would also like to meet the modern Castlevania, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night composer, Michiru Yamane. I’ve also met Nobuo Uematsu at one of the Distant Worlds concerts as well.”