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Interview: Mega-Alpha Smashes The Lid Off  Trash Panic 's Soundtrack

Interview: Mega-Alpha Smashes The Lid Off Trash Panic's Soundtrack

July 10, 2009 | By Jeriaska

July 10, 2009 | By Jeriaska
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[In this interview, the composers of Trash Panic's soundtrack share their fascinating process re-using, re-cycling and re-sampling audio for the unique green-themed PSN puzzler.]

Trash Panic (GOMIBAKO in Japan) recently debuted in Western territories for the Playstation 3's Playstation Network. The addictive refuse-themed puzzler was previously featured alongside PixelJunk Eden at last year's Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show.

A product of Playstation CAMP, a training ground for independent game creators in Japan, the title strikes a balance between high production values and modest ambitions. The benefits of the decidedly compact downloadable title are in its affordable cost and the instant accessibility of "smashin' stuff"-based gameplay.

The score to Trash Panic is by Fujikado Taro and Tomoyuki Kato of Mega-Alpha Inc. The Tokyo-based music studio, headed by composer Noriyuki Asakura, has participated in writing music for the Tenchu and Way of the Samurai game series, along with animated films and television series.

In this interview with the composers of the soundtrack, the musicians discuss how they re-used, re-cycled and re-sampled audio for the green-themed puzzle game. The conversation offers a glimpse into how Mega-Alpha scavenged found audio objects from sound sample libraries for an upbeat mix of dance music and orchestral, supplemented by live recordings by Tokyo-based musicians:

Fujikado-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion of the music of Trash Panic. Playstation CAMP was created with the purpose of getting innovative game ideas developed for the PSN. Do you have an idea of how this initiative first got underway?

Taro Fujikado: There was an event in 2000 where Sony Computer Entertainment gathered the independent game creators of Japan to celebrate the turn of the millennium together. Playstation CAMP kind of emerged out of this. Trash Panic is a good example of the aims of the project, but there will be other more innovative games to come in the near future.

How was the work on the score divided between you and your co-workers at Mega-Alpha, and what were some of the software tools you were using on the soundtrack?

I wrote about 60% of the soundtrack for Trash Panic. There is a total of about thirty minutes of music. While I wrote the dance tracks, my partner Kato wrote the orchestral style songs. I was using the host sequencer Digital Performer by Mark of the Unicorn, Reason by Propellerhead Software and Ableton Live. I spent a lot of time working on the bass for the music, and for that I was using the program Trilogy from Spectra Sonic.

Did you receive any guidelines from the developers in setting out to write the soundtrack to the puzzle game?

Sony sent us some suggestions to refer to, and they were in the style of dance music. You might think dance tracks would be wholly instrumental, but I included numerous vocal samples. I assembled these various sounds, looking for patterns that would fit together, so that the finished result sounded coherent.

Were you at all interested in the themes of the game being reflected in the way in which the songs were constructed?

That's right. The game is titled "Trash Panic," so I wanted the music to have a certain quality of messiness to it. It doesn't sound completely clean, you know? The dance tracks are sprinkled with sounds. They are not pure, but have lots of sound fragments mixed in. If you listen closely you might find them interesting. Try using headphones and see if you can pick them out.

How about musical influences that inspired the score? Is there any sound styles that you were emulating in your approach to the background music?

There's a French group called Justice, and I love their music. I had their sound in my mind when I was working on the game. It's too bad that most game players rely on their TV speakers, because it does not do much service to the bass track.

In terms of the actual gameplay, what stands out to you about the title's disposal-based puzzles?

One thing that is interesting about the game is that you are not likely to clear it with a rating of "Eco" the first time through. If you clear the stage of trash without using dynamite, it's more ecological and less egotistical. You receive points for that. I'm not that good, so I always get the "Ego" rating.

What do you feel are some of the advantages to developing games on the Playstation 3ís downloadable service?

There is not a difference in terms of the quality of sound between retail and downloadable titles. They both feature 16bit, 44.1khz sound. My feeling is that download services will only expand more over time, the same way the music industry has been shifting toward digital media.

Kuniyoshi Ohmura of Playstation CAMP and Hidehito Kojima of Sony Computer Entertainment at the Tokyo Game Show

How did it come about that you began working at Mega-Alpha?

All during my twenties I performed in a rock band, then starting around the time I turned thirty I began thinking more about music as a profession. I wrote a song for a Bridgestone commercial called "We'll be there for you," which premiered both in Japan and Europe. I also wrote several tracks for the Xbox 360 title Zegapain XOR.

At that point I began looking beyond freelance work and decided to join a production studio. That was when I met Noriyuki Asakura. I made a video called "Tokyo Swing," featuring jazz music. Asakura liked it and invited me to join Mega-Alpha.

How did Mega-Alpha become involved in the GOMIBAKO project?

Asakura-san worked with Yamamoto-san of Sony Computer Entertainment on the original Tenchu. He was the one that introduced us to Kojima-san on Trash Panic.

What would you say are some of the defining features of Mega-Alpha as a sound design studio?

One major benefit to working here is Asakura-san's unique personality. He has his own outlook on life, which is reflected in his music for Ruroni Kenshin and the Tenchu series. To samurai action he brings western musical styles and creates his own fusion of influences. I admire his savvy as a musician and businessman, and his professional mentality is easy to learn from. He has a concern for the musicians he works with, like me and Kato. Mega-Alpha also receives offers for anime and game projects, allowing for the chance to work with a variety of talented musicians.

What would you say have been important steps in Mega-Alpha's having developed an international focus for its music projects?

Mr. Asakura previously lived in the States during his three-year contract with Sony/ATV. Back then he was looking to write Hollywood music. He had gotten to know John Woo during that time.

For Ruroni Kenshin we receive fan emails from all over: North and South America, even from Russia. There is also an animated short that I worked on which was submitted to the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival, called CannibAlien. It won the award for best animation and best international horror.

Kato-san, what would you say have been some of the major positive aspects of your joining Mega-Alpha?

Tomoyuki Kato: In terms of the benefits, working with talented musicians is always a plus. For instance, for the soundtrack to Trash Panic we were joined by keyboardist Yoshihiro Tomonari, guitarist Kiyotsugu Amano and violinist Gen Ittetsu. A number of talented musicians participated.

In your approach to the orchestral side of the score, what features were you looking to bring to the soundtrack?

Naturally in my approach to the sound design I was taking into consideration the title and the impact of the theme of "Trash Panic." The producer suggested orchestral style sounds, which were selected from the Quantum Leap sample series. In addition to the samples we included, Gen Ittetsu can be heard on the violin adding a layer of timbre to the soundtrack.

Are there any specific details of the soundtrack game players might want to pay special attention to?

The music in the opening scene, staff roll and ending revolve around a shared motif. They include the same melody but the arrangement is different. You have to finish the game on Main Dish in order to hear the ending theme, so please try your best.

Do you both have a favorite type of trash that appears in the game?

Fujikado: I'm a guitarist so my favorite is the guitar. Naturally it feels a little weird destroying a musical instrument, but I'm sure every guitarist has the urge every so often. It burns well too.

Kato: One of my favorite types of garbage is dynamite, when it comes along. There are a lot of humorous elements to the game. Just watching the array of refuse fall from the sky is a simple pleasure. By now I have completed the game on easy. You don't have to smash the bosses, so it's not too difficult. The fifth stage boss is particularly tough.

Fujikado: Main Dish is brutal.

Kato: On Sweets mode, though, you cannot see the ending. There's not a 6th stage either. If you want to hear the music for Stage 6, you are going to have to give it your all.

Fujikado: Was there anything you had in mind when arranging the melody found in the main theme?

Kato: Kojima-san suggested expansive orchestral sounds to give the ending a wide open feel. That's me on the piano, too. How did you go about writing your Staff Roll track?

Fujikado: It's got kind of a 1980's Miami Vice vibe to it, almost like a classic Sega game ending. There are still a lot of people out there who aren't really on board with the idea of download games. I hope that for those who are new to the service, Trash Panic might be just the kind of game that helps popularize digital downloads.

Nobuoooo 6.09: Trash Panic from Jeriaska on Vimeo.

[Interview conducted by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This article is available in Japanese at Game Design Current. Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment. Photos by Jeriaska]

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