Ken “coda” Snyder and Steven “surasshu” Velema are freelance composers who have made a name for themselves in the chiptune and module music tracking scenes for their consistent performance in 1-hour tracking competitions: timed contests in which composers are given only an hour to compose a full song with a set of randomly chosen samples.
Their latest project is Tree of Knowledge (知恵の樹) — a lovingly crafted tribute to the sound of PC-9801 home computing platform, which played host to a vibrant game subculture in Japan throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Its powerful FM synthesis-based sound hardware gave rise to numerous composers still working in the industry today, such as Ryu Umemoto — whose recent work includes Cave’s arcade and Xbox 360 shooting game Akai Katana and the recent Xbox Live Arcade release Nin2-Jump.
Tree of Knowledge pays homage to the PC-98 game soundtracks Umemoto and his contemporaries created for adult adventure game (eroge) publishers ELF Corporation and C’s Ware. That it’s coming from two Western composers is curious enough. The 13-track album goes one step further by presenting itself as the soundtrack to a lost game, with its own web site, cast of characters, and authentic 16-color graphics — an ambitious tribute to a hardware and history almost totally unknown outside of Japan.
I sat down with the two musicians — collectively known as yogurtbox — for a discussion about their inspirations and the collaborative process between musicians, web designers and graphic artists that gave birth to the album. Also discussed are the surprising methods they used to recreate the sound of the PC-98 on modern hardware, and how Ryu Umemoto himself feels about the album.
When did you originally come up with the album concept? What was your first exposure to the work of Ryu Umemoto and his contemporaries?
Steven Velema: Actually, we were fairly aware of the existence of awesome PC-98 music for a while, but we had one night in IRC where we set up Hoot, which is a multi-format music player for FM-based stuff basically. We had found some videos of Kono Yo no Hate de Koi wo Utau Shoujo YU-NO on YouTube and were blown away, so we spent a night listening to that entire soundtrack in Hoot. We ended up listening to a couple others — Desire, if I recall, most of the C’s Ware and ELF ones, too. It was at that point we sort of came up with the idea of making an album in the PC-98 style.
How long ago was this, roughly?
SV: Hmm, I dunno… Last summer, maybe?
Ken Snyder: I think it was probably around January this year, actually. That was the first time I’d heard Umemoto’s work. It wasn’t my first exposure to eroge music, though, which I’ve always been a fan of.
I had a discussion with friends recently where we lamented the fact that Hiroki Kikuta is doing music for eroge now, but that’s something of a fact of the industry at this point — there’s an established history of eroge with really excellent music.
SV: Absolutely. Some of them are barely erotic at all, and instead focus on these big stories with amazing art and music.
KS: Right. We were both big fans of the art as well, even though we’re not much of visual artists, so the “supplementary material” was an important component of the album from the beginning.
SV: Yeah, one of the reasons the album took as long as it did was because we went out of our way to find good artists that understood the aesthetic.
Diana Jakobsson and Jordan Chewning are the artists you ended up going with. How did you find them?
SV: Diana Jakobsson I’ve known for a really long time, and is one of my best friends. She’s one of the first good artists in Sweden who captured the Japanese style without being just a crappy copy of it — in my opinion, of course. Jordan Chewning was someone a friend suggested, and he’s been really great, too.
KS: I’m fortunate I could rely on Steven’s multitude of connections since I’m basically holed up on IRC all the time. (grin)
Yeah, the PC-98 had an incredibly limited color palette but fairly high resolution for the time. Interesting limitations, to say the least.
SV: Jordan is actually at the start of his career, but he’s done an incredibly good job capturing the style, especially since he’s never done PC-98 style stuff before. He was responsible for the title graphic, and most of the pixel art has been his work, as well. Ken converted the line art though, and rocked that pretty damn hard, too.
KS: I’ll brag a little bit about that. I did the line art for the characters based on Diana’s drawings and the whole design of the flash preview and website.
SV: Right. I’m incredibly inept when it comes to graphics. (laughs)
KS: I’m pretty pleased with how it all came out, anyway.
SV: Oh yeah, Jordan also designed the yogurtbox mascot character, which was based on Ken’s sketches.
Who wrote the “in-game dialogue”?
SV: The Japanese was translated by a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. (laughs)
KS: But the original dialogue was yours, right?
SV: I wrote the dialogue and the character descriptions, yeah, and Ken wrote all the trailer text.
KS: We seem to be pretty consistent about dividing the work up equally!
SV: Yep! Except for the website. That’s 100% your work.
KS: Well, I wouldn’t say 100%…
SV: The flash PC-98 frontend is Ken’s too. He’s secretly a professional flash dude.
KS: (laughs) I do some flash work for my day job, so it was no problem to create that interface (which sadly is not a real emulator).
On the subject of “supplemental material”, what can we expect from the packaged CD you’re offering?
KS: We included as much concept artwork as we could fit, but most of the supplemental material will be available on the website — for free, of course.
SV: To be frank, we’re kinda happy there’s a real CD at all. That took a bit of figuring out in itself, and the printing service we went with is pretty minimal.
Were there any struggles in making that happen?
SV: Well, I was able to ask souleye (who did the music for VVVVVV) what printing service he used, and he recommended Kunaki. They’re really good, but they don’t provide any “extras”. I would have loved to include an art book or something, for example, but that just wasn’t feasible.
KS: There was a bit of a panic as we realized we needed to get it set up, get review copies back and make sure everything worked before the 1st, so the CD was finalized before a lot of our art was finalized.
SV: Right. (laughs)
KS: But in the end, I’m very pleased with how the CDs came out. Kunaki’s printing looks very nice.
How long did it take to put the project together, from start to finish?
KS: Well technically, the project isn’t done since we’re still making artwork! But we started at the beginning of February, 2011, so about 3 months from conception to release.
SV: When we came up with the idea, it took us about a month to actually start. It was one of those “we should do that someday…” things at first, but then we just did it.
KS: Right. February was when we actually started.
SV: Honestly, we’re maniacs when it comes to making music. We’re super fast, so that was the first thing that was finished.
KS: Yeah, I believe we were finishing, on average, 1 song per day.
Thanks to your experience doing 1-hour song writing competitions online?
SV: Pretty much. We’d go back later and tweak things, but mostly they were complete after that first day.
KS: Yes, it’s definitely because of the compos.
SV: Absolutely. Even for full-production stuff, if I can’t get it together in a couple hours, it’s not worth pursuing to me. It’s kind of an intuitive thing — if it takes too much pain and effort to do, the result won’t be that good since it’s too belabored… or so I tell myself.
How many songs did you make each, and were you tweaking each other’s work during that time?
SV: I think it just about comes down to equal division. Ken might’ve done 1 or 2 more songs than me, though.
KS: Yeah, that sounds right. On some songs we did our own thing, and a few were made section-by-section collaboratively — like “I’m stuck, can you add on the next part?!” — and there were some others where we just went “you should change this single chord!” and that was it. There’s the whole of cross-pollination between our styles.
SV: Yeah, plus our styles are very close already.
KS: I’d say they’re compatible, but distinguishable. (laughs)
SV: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think people can probably pick out which song was made by who if they know our styles very well.
You mentioned on Twitter that you used Impulse Tracker and VOPM (a plugin for modern-day sound production software that emulates Yamaha’s YM2151 FM sound chip, a ubiquitous piece of sound hardware in arcade games and home computers during the 1980′s) for composition.
SV: Correct. Well, technically it was Chibitracker, which is an Impulse Tracker clone made by our friend reduz.
KS: I used MODPlug Tracker. but we used the Impulse Tracker format so we could easily edit each other’s files.
I have to admit, I was shocked when I heard that. I didn’t realize you could use VOPM with an old tracker to begin with!
SV: Well, we cheated and created samples with VOPM. You actually can use VOPM with MODPlug Tracker, but I don’t use that, so we met halfway and went with a slightly different approach.
KS: Right. In the interest of collaboration, we decided to forego VSTs in place of high-quality samples. Steven put an excellent pack of samples together using both VOPM and Hoot, and we just used those.
SV: We made the samples ourselves, so they’re all super high quality. There are a few presets from the Yamaha DX-21 in there too, I believe.
KS: And I added some samples using Native Instruments’ FM7 — solely in 4-operator mode of course.
Any plans to release those samples to the community?
SV: That’s our little secret, I think.
KS: Well, they may find their way onto the internet eventually.
SV: Yeah, we don’t have anything to hide in particular. (laughs)
You mentioned YU-NO as a specific inspiration — were there any other major influences to your work on the album?
SV: A lot of my songs can be traced back to specific YU-NO tracks, honestly.
KS: Not an eroge, but I was listening to the Sailor Moon anime BGM albums on heavy rotation for about 3 months prior to the album… So that was a bit of an influence. (laughs)
SV: Noriyuki Iwadare’s work on the Lunar soundtracks is another big influence on my music.
KS: Umihara Kawase and its PSX sequel were both a big influence on my tracks. I really love that style.
SV: I also have to say a lot of 80s anime openings made their way into this album. Creamy Mami, for instance… Or at least, I’d like to think so.
KS: I tried to listen to a lot of other ELF games besides YU-NO when writing the album. Kakyusei, another ELF game, sticks out in my mind as having some great tracks, too.
Was Ryu Umemoto or anyone else from the PC-98 scene aware of this project while you were working on it?
SV: Umemoto knows about it. He’s kind of an acquaintance; we have mutual friends.
Oh, yeah. There was that interview by “Audi” about Umemoto’s recent visit to Europe.
SV: Yeah, that’s Audun Sorlie. He’s a good friend of mine. Anosou, who also features in that interview, is another good friend. They’re how I got into contact with Umemoto to begin with. Well, through twitter technically, but…
Did Ryu Umemoto have anything to say about the album?
SV: He praised the tracks we sent him, so that was exciting in itself. He’s a total fanboy, and he has like 5 jobs. Apparently he only sleeps 3-4 hours a night, so it’s pretty amazing how he manages to even survive.
Any memorable moments, good or bad, from your time working on the album?
SV: It was a rush, but I especially liked working on the two tracks you hear in the trailer. The “Opening” track was pretty elaborate and we both worked on it a great deal, and the second track — “First Day of School” — was a track I had discarded as being terrible, and Ken basically saved it.
KS: I think my favorite moment of writing the album was when I came up with the idea for the finale track, and it turned out even better than I expected. I don’t want to give too much away, though. (laughs) We’ve had tons of moments where we’d be brainstorming something — from the album writing to the trailer and the character descriptions — and we’d suddenly come up with an idea where we are both giggling like “that’s perfect!”
SV: I also really got a rush from the whole website and art design process. Especially the website! It really tickles my nostalgia, since i remember trying to find Japanese art on websites that looked a lot like this back in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
KS: It felt great to just go all-out on the trailer and the art and character stats. Like, who would do this for a music album? It’s crazy! But hopefully some people will find our level of determination admirable. (laughs)
Did you model your website off of a specific page?
SV: The closest example for comparison was ELF’s site, I think.
KS: I didn’t model it off any one site in particular, but I dug into archive.org for some popular doujin houses and eroge publisher sites in the ‘90s… and even current ones. Since I do web stuff for my day job, it was really great to try and make a “retro” design as backlash against web 2.0 principles. Sometimes I wish all websites would go back to those days and eschew the fancy crap. (laughs)
Forgot to ask this: Why the name “Tree of Knowledge”?
SV: Oh, god. Do you remember why, Ken?
KS: I do.
SV: Thank god for that. I retroactively came up with a whole game concept around the title.
KS: So when we started the album, even before we started writing any songs, I wrote a sort of sketch of our game’s “story”. I think we’re just sitting on the story to leave it up to people’s imaginations, but in general, it involves the protagonist becoming possessed by a spirit that lives in the tree you see in the title graphic.
SV: Pretty much. The retroactive thing is too absurd to explain without making the whole game. It involves a lot of fourth wall breaking, and is a little silly for a game that doesn’t even exist. That said, we might write just a little bit of the story on the website.
KS: In addition, we wanted to evoke the sort of kabbalistic symbolism that was popular in the late ‘90s due to stuff like Evangelion, so “Tree of Knowledge” went quite well with the tree theme, and seemed like a suitable title for both a game and an album. Our working title was “Touch Wood Project”, which doesn’t have the same enduring quality.
SV: It’s certainly more hilarious, though. (laughs)
KS: In fact, the story came from the working title, rather than vice versa.
SV: And the working title came from a discussion in IRC about the expression “touch wood” or “knock on wood,” so there you go.
KS: Oh, really? I didn’t know that. (laughs) So the whole thing is just a lucky coincidence!
SV: Yeah, I think you weren’t even around for that discussion. Small seeds and all that (oh, hey, that’s a tree metaphor).
For people who don’t know anything about FM synthesis, don’t know anything about the PC-98, chiptunes, anything like that — if you had to sum up the driving force behind the album, what would you say?
KS: I’d say it’s driven by a kind of nostalgia that not everyone will be able to pick up on, but regardless of that, it’s still an album full of soothing synthesizer melodies, jazz fusion and progressive rock sensibilities that I think can be appreciated on their own merits.
SV: I agree with Ken. (laughs) Yeah, it’s somewhat a nostalgia thing, but I showed my dad the album, and he was surprised at how accessible it was.
KS: My mom thought the album was great. The fact that it has characters and stories really helps sell it too… So I guess that settles it. We’ll always have at least two big fans. (laughs)