[Continuing his series of interviews with leading video game musicians for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska sits down with Masato Kouda to discuss his contributions to Capcom's Japanese smash hit Monster Hunter series, including a recent tie-in orchestral album featuring music from the franchise.]

Part of the success of the Monster Hunter franchise in Japan has been the immersive depth of its creature-inhabited fantasy locales. Another draw has been the music.

Built on a mixture of classical and regional instrumental styles, the foundation for Monster Hunter's signature sound was developed by composer Masato Kouda. His contributions to games scores range from Devil May Cry titles to the Wild Arms series.

Kouda's inventive approach to composing has led to his music being selected for the Press Start Symphony of Games and Monster Hunter Fifth Anniversary Orchestral Concert. As part of the Star Onions band, he has performed live renditions of Final Fantasy XI themes. Their album Sanctuary was released last May, on CD and iTunes.

Just as Capcom attempts to secure for Monster Hunter in the West the heights of popularity it has enjoyed in Japan, Kouda finds himself in a new transition: building his Tokyo-based music studio, called Design Wave.

In this music interview, Kouda offers insights into his multifaceted musical projects, from the arcade brawler Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters to the Greek mythology concept album Istoria ~Musa~ and Monster Hunter.

Kouda-san, thank you for joining this discussion on your music for videogames. Something people outside Japan might not know about the Monster Hunter series is that it is frequently the subject of live orchestral performances. How have you found the experience of witnessing your music from the series performed in front of concert audiences?

It's actually been a dream of mine since I started composing to hear my music performed by a full orchestra. Being able to attend the recordings for the first Monster Hunter at Victor Studio and later Press Start in 2006 was very meaningful to me, but because I had to perform at that concert I was required to be offstage much of the time. Press Start in 2008 was my first chance to join the audience, and I could hardly believe it was my music I was hearing.

Who has been responsible for orchestrating your songs from this series?

Shiro Hamaguchi adapted the original Monster Hunter themes for the orchestra. I'm a fan of his orchestral work for Final Fantasy and the Sakura Wars series. He places tremendous care in the treatment of my original compositions. Beyond that, he invents devices that I would never have come up with, which accentuate details of the piece. Especially with Monster Hunter he was careful to preserve my choice of chord progressions.

Monster Hunter themes in the key of E Flat are difficult for musicians to perform. If you lower the key, it becomes much easier to play. Now, there is a huge difference in the sounds of a D and E Flat chord. The way I might describe their textures is that D is like a primary color, while E Flat is like a mossy green. Hamaguchi-san respects this subtle distinction and he chose to keep the arrangements in E Flat.

That's an interesting observation. Have you always held these associations?

I guess I do. I'm not sure for how long, but it tends to make me particular about the differences between sharp and flat keys.

What roles are you interested in pursuing at your new sound design company Design Wave?

In terms of my position at the company, that might vary according to the situation. However, what I would really enjoy doing more often is performing live.

Are there any live venues that have left a strong impression?

When I performed in Santa Monica for a Final Fantasy XI fan festival in 2008, the reaction from the audience was extraordinary. It was totally different from what you see in Japan, where usually the audience listens quietly. In Los Angeles, the cheering and the energy was incredible. Even when the music we were playing was somber, or a jazz fusion piece totally unlike what The Black Mages perform, the audience had this enormous reaction. Being around that kind of energy motivates me to play live.

Would you be looking for another opportunity to play overseas?

I'd like to tour. That would be fun.

In terms of Design Wave's focus, do you see it as exclusively a videogame music studio?

The company is not limiting itself to games, but that's our main focus at this stage. For one, I am joined by composer [Masakazu] Sugimori, who arrived at Capcom a little later than me and has composed for the Phoenix Wright series.

What kinds of difficulties have you encountered composing for games?

Sequels have their challenges, but I find embarking on a new game project to be particularly tough. I first think about what kinds of themes would be appropriate to the musical style, for instance whether to focus on regional or orchestral style music. Along the way I get to see more of the game and often times it turns out to be different from what I had predicted.

For Monster Hunter, originally I had underestimated the impact that the title would have on the game industry. My perception was that it was a modest idea for a game. When I saw it in motion, I was deeply impressed and I knew the soundtrack needed more of the intensity of a feature film score.

Are there film composers whose style you admire?

John Williams, for sure. I've learned a lot about composition and arrangement from him. When I first heard the music for Jaws and Star Wars, I was blown away. I got excited every time a new film of his came out.

The first Hollywood movie I ever saw in the theaters was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that movie of course there is this UFO flying around, communicating with people telepathically. Do you remember how the film ends? It starts with that simple melody emanating from the saucer and then grows more and more elaborate until the ship flies away. It's just perfect.

Seeing as you have previously worked as a staff member for Capcom, how did it come about that you joined the Star Onions, a music band comprised of Square Enix composers?

Masato Kouda: I've been friends with Naoshi Mizuta since he joined Capcom in 1994, the same year as me. We continued to keep in touch after he became an in-house composer at Square Enix. Our musical tastes have so much in common, and this might explain why he felt at ease with the idea of my being a member of the Star Onions. On the album Sanctuary, "Griffons Never Die" and "Wings of the Goddess" were arranged by Mizuta-san, and I added further arrangement in addition. The tracks are in his style, and in fact he's the one on electric bass on those recordings.

What is your impression of the world music influences that Kumi Tanioka has brought to her music scores?

She definitely has a distinct way of expressing herself. For instance, on Final Fantasy XI her theme for Gustaberg is full of ideas I never would have thought of. I was the arranger on “Awakening” from the previous Star Onions album, and I was fascinated while studying this song's structure. She knows how to offer variety to the composition and has ideas about how to bring out feeling in rare instruments.

Tanioka is said to have drawn inspiration from working with Roba House on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. This is a group of musicians that specializes in Medieval and Renaissance instruments. Are you familiar with them as well?

While I've never worked professionally with Roba House myself, I graduated from Kunitachi College of Music, and the college is in the city of Tachikawa. Roba House is located close to the Tamagawa-Jousui station, so I used to go and see their live performances.

What was your experience working on the arrangement of the song "Distant Worlds"?

Of course, this song was composed by Uematsu-san, and he was perhaps the greatest influence on my decision to enter the field of videogames. When Final Fantasy IV came out, it made me realize that the world of game music was unique. I had never before had the idea of becoming involved in it.

All in all the Super Nintendo changed my perception of videogames entirely. It was the start of conveying orchestral sounds in games. Just around that time I was in a band playing keyboard, so I was starting to learn how to write electronic music. When I heard the background music in this game, I started thinking about a career in the game industry.

What do you recall from your experiences playing Final Fantasy IV?

I remember the scene with the Red Wings and their airships at the very start of the game. Also, the "Theme of Love" is a great song. Then there is the incredible opera scene in Final Fantasy VI. Kefka's theme is great, too, especially how it pops up again in the final battle. Doesn't the battle theme switch to a major chord midway through? That really made a lasting impression on me.

Was this experience at all reflected in your treatment of "Distant Worlds"?

In terms of "Distant Worlds," I had no difficulty approaching this arrangement. Even before getting started, I could already hear it playing in my head. If you listen to the original arrangement, which incorporates the orchestra and features a soprano singer, it has a jazzy approach to the chords. I wanted to bring that element of the composition to the fore.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to give a string section a recognizable jazz cadence. As a consequence, I felt that if I changed the arrangement to a quartet, using instruments like the vibraphone, I could emphasize the quality of jazz latent in the material. For that reason I have kept the original chord progression. Just by changing up the instrumentation the music becomes totally different in its feel.

By the way, the arrangement for the original was done by [Takahito] Eguchi. That means that previously Uematsu-san composed the song, Mizuta-san arranged it, and Eguchi-san did the orchestration. You can see it went through an elaborate process. Finally, for this album I arranged the track once more.

In addition to your participating in the Star Onions albums, you contributed a track to the image album Istoria ~Musa~ which includes nine songs dedicated to the nine muses of Greek mythology. How did it first emerge?

I forget how long ago it was, but the videogame musicians who were involved in this album got together around a table one night to have dinner and talk music. Kenji Ito, Yoshitaka Hirota and Akiko Shikata were present. That was how I became involved. When I heard about the concept behind Istoria ~Musa~, it sounded like it was well suited to Shikata-san's personal style, based on my impression of her music.

While the theme of the Muses informed my arrangements, just as significant was the need to complement the character of Shikata-san's style. The Muses whose themes I was given were those of history (Kleio) and tragedy (Melpomene).

How would you describe the style of your piano arrangement on the album?

The piano piece is reflective of the tragic theme. Rather than having it be energetic or passionate, I wanted the piece to sound cool and subdued. To that end I intentionally placed spaces between each note. I wanted the listener to be aware of the negative space in the piece, so I was sparing with the sound that you hear on this track.

You were also responsible for arranging several tracks for the arcade fighting game Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters?

Yes, three of the stage themes.

How were those three chosen?

I was asked if I would work on the game and accept the tracks that had not already been taken. I was happy with the songs, so it was my pleasure.

How did you go about arranging them?

The chords found on "Dive Man's" stage have been modified. I took the existing melody line and altered the harmony which accompanies it to be more in line with my tastes. For "Pharaoh Man," I went with a Latin rhythm, which I think worked to its advantage, while on "Stone Man" the first passage is downbeat in the image of a saxophone.

Was it a good experience to collaborate with other musicians?

At that point I had only been in the company a couple years, so the others had more experience. I was able to observe their work patterns and learned a lot about arranging. It was a chance to come to understand their various styles and creative processes.

You've mentioned that you would like live performance to be part of your work at Design Wave. Do you feel that playing in a band is important to becoming a composer?

For the purpose of arrangement, it's very useful. You come to understand things like the range of a guitar or what the drums can do to create a particular atmosphere. Playing in a band you pick up these kinds of skills.

Is this something you might recommend to aspiring musicians who are interested in becoming game composers?

I would. These days it's common to make music all by oneself, from the composition to the arrangement. For videogame music it's natural to go about doing all the encoding and mixing alone. However, that way you never come to understand what actual guitars and other instruments are capable of. Having an in depth knowledge of various instruments' characteristics can be essential to fulfilling your potential as an electronic musician.

[This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current and in French at Squaremusic. Interview conducted by Jeriaska. Translation by Takahiro Yamamoto. The Monster Hunter 3rd Anniversary Commemorative Best Track album can be imported from Amazon.co.jp. Images courtesy of Capcom, Vagrancy and Square Enix.]