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.”