Foreword:

I have personally become a huge fan of Patrickís over the years, as an avid visitor of RPGFan, where he has reviewed a plethora of video game soundtracks. His thorough and insightful reviews have assisted me as a consumer of video game music, but most importantly, the enthusiastic nature of his writing and his sheer knowledge base, has helped me develop a better overall appreciation of VGM. And I know that Iím probaly not the only person who feels this way about Patrickís work at RPGFan; I mean he definitely is one of the most knowledgeable people out there, when it comes to VGM.

I recently contacted Patrick, who was kind enough to accept my request to do an interview with him. I was ecstatic about getting this opportunity, so I enthusiastically concocted 6 thorough questions to ask him. The result, is the most in depth interview that Flash Frame Omake has done to date. Patrickís articulate and engaging answers surprised even me, as I found myself looking through the interview over and over, just after it was finished. Anyone who is a fan of video game music or is interested in learning more about the VGM industry will find this interview both informative and enjoyable to read.

Interview:

FFOmake: I think I started to get into video game music when Final Fantasy II came out here for the Super Nintendo. I was a kid back then so I always enjoyed listening to the background music as I played the game; I was too young to actually realize that there was a consumer market our there for video game music. When I was in high school I bought my first soundtrack, and if Iím not mistaken I believe it was the Original Sound Version to Final Fantasy IV. I think I must have listened to the battle theme from FF IV like a thousand times when I first got the CD. Patrick, you have obviously been an avid listener and fan of video game music for many years now. How did you get into video game music? What were some of the first soundtracks that you ever bought?

Patrick Gann:
For me, getting "into" VGM was simultaneous with my love of gaming. My elder brother introduced me to games when I was very young. I was formally trained as a pianist since the age of six, and I would regularly learn classic themes (Mario, Zelda) by ear. My first RPG proper (since many people don't like to count Zelda) was Final Fantasy. Everyone knows the prelude, the "Main Theme" of FF, and the intro bass-line to the battle along with the victory jingle. These songs were etched into my mind, like so many other young RPG Fans, so they have a certain ring of nostalgia.

I also loved the music produced on the Super Nintendo (Super Famicom). Even at a young age I recognized its complete superiority to its predecessor. I loved the music in Secret of Mana (SD2) and Chrono Trigger. In fact, I still have a little poster advertising the US release of the Secret of Mana soundtrack, as well as Jeremy Soule's Secret of Evermore soundtrack. I think I remember asking my mom for these as a possible birthday gift, but this never came to fruition, so no, those weren't my first VGM albums.

The very first soundtrack I ever bought was the soundtrack for Alundra. The album had a limited print from Antinos Records, and is now considered quite a rare gem. I purchased it on a whim from Animenation.com (which now, unfortunately, seems to be fazing out its stock of VGM). I played the PlayStation game a few months after Working Designs released it, and had an instant attraction to the music. The overworld theme, the main town theme, and (especially) the last dungeon music had me addicted.

Sample track from Alundra - Adobe Flash Player required.

It wasn't long after I purchased the Alundra Original Game Soundtrack that I joined RPGFan and started writing soundtrack reviews. As many people know, the hobby of collecting can quickly turn into an addiction, and for me, those early years of collection had me riding the fence. I remember spending entire paychecks (from my early job at the local Dairy Queen) on orders from Gamemusic.com, Animenation.com, Otaku.com, as well as eBay purchases and deals made at the Soundtrack Central message boards (still functioning @ http://altpop.com/stc/).

Some of my early purchases include Final Fantasy Tactics OST, Chrono Cross OST, the first two Wild Arms soundtracks, and a slew of Squaresoft-related stuff. It took me a year or two before I would truly discover Falcom's JDK Sound Team.

FFOmake: RPGFan has one of the most extensive video game music databases available on the internet today. You guys have reviewed countless soundtracks over the years and what is even more impressive, is that RPGFan provides streaming song samples for every video game score you review. So from a fan and consumer perspective, RPGFan has established itself as one of the most resourceful websites for the latest in video game music news and reviews. How did you get involved with RPGFan? Can you please tell us a little bit about your experience as a soundtrack editor at RPGFan over the years?

Patrick Gann:
I had a little fan site as a subsection of a larger site started by a friend of mine in middle school (and on into high school). The "Monkey's Nest Gaming Section" covered primarily RPGs, but also some other classic titles (Metroid was one I simply couldn't ignore). Not long after RPGFan made its name change from LunarNET to what it presently is today, I used my copy of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete to rip every single movie file from the discs and onto my computer. I encoded MPEG and RealVideo formats of these movies (which, thanks to Game Arts and Working Designs, were left virtually unencrypted and extremely easy for a novice like me to locate and rip). I put the whole 50-some movie collection up on my site, and then contacted Rudo (Eric Farand) of RPGFan and told him I'd be willing to give the movie files over to their site. Eric made me an even better offer: to join the staff as a movies editor (a section that has long since died, though it may make a resurrection in the future).

So that's how I got started at the site. The Soundtracks section was started up as a collaboration effort between a few staff members, though I clearly remember Jason "Parn" Walton taking the lead from day one. He was a Sega fanatic, and quickly got reviews up for Azel (Panzer Dragoon Saga), Shenmue, Albert Odyssey Gaiden, and some other really great rarities. I had so much respect for the guy, and he taught me a lot.

But, as it often occurs on online-driven news & media sites, Jason had to step aside, which left me (the obsessive-compulsive soundtrack-importing guy) in charge. I loved doing what I was doing, though if you look back, some of my early reviews are really pathetic. It's hard to come up with objective statements on some of the classic albums (say, FF or DQ), but some of my earlier reviews are just a one-paragraph broken record that says "hey I like this! I like that! Yippy!"

My writing skills improved, particularly in regards to soundtrack reviews, thanks to Lucy "Chudah" Rzeminski (now Maser, she's a married woman!). This dedicated young lady started out by submitting loads of reader reviews to the site: Falcom, Nippon Ichi, and Squaresoft were her three big targets. It wasn't long before I suggested she join staff, which she did. Then, I took an 18-month hiatus and left the Soundtracks section in her care. She did a fantastic job during this time! Our number of reviews doubled, the writing quality was better, and Lucy helped big time when the site went through a style-reformatting, as her suggestions were implemented to make the soundtracks section much more informative (things like disc time, back cover images, and links to purchase were added and made standardized).

As many people know, Lucy's love for the VGM scene led her to create her own site, Chudah's Corner (chudahs-corner.com). You said that RPGFan has an extensive music database, but in truth, I think that title goes to Lucy's site. Our site is exclusive to RPGs (though we branch out to cover Japanese love adventures as well). To date, RPGFan has about 850 soundtrack reviews, complete with audio samples, cover images, English track lists; the works. Though the Corner may not have *all* of these things for every album, her database (which includes individual track times and a lot of details our site intentionally lacks) is presently over 2000 albums strong! In my mind, that is a real feat. Also, other database-oriented sites have even more information, though they may be lacking in authentication (i.e. - some info is bad). One popular site in this style is gmronline.com, the "Game Music Revolution."

A note regarding the audio samples: it used to be (when we were a small site) that we were essentially pirates. Low-bitrate pirates, anyway. We would rip ENTIRE albums and encode the whole thing into low-quality RealAudio. It didn't take long for us to realize that this was both unethical and impractical, so we changed the standard to five tracks per disc, each track having a minute-long sample. We rarely deviate from this norm.

Sample track from Thousand Arms - Adobe Flash Player required.

FFOmake: I personally own quite a bit of video game soundtracks myself and because of that, over the years I have racked up a decent amount of debt. The fact of the matter is that original Japanese video game soundtracks can be very expensive and the costs of shipping them over here make them even pricier. So naturally a lot of VGM fans have looked at other alternatives to getting video game music. One of these alternatives is obviously buying bootlegged versions of the original Japanese soundtracks. Iíll be honest, I personally own a few bootlegged soundtracks which I purchased simply because I was just not educated enough to realize that what I was buying was in fact pirated merchandise. That was early on though, when I was just getting into video game music, because now I only buy the original Japanese versions. What is your stance on bootlegged video game soundtracks? And how do you think they have affected the market?

Patrick Gann:
This is a perennial topic, isn't it?

There's no doubt that bootlegged albums are morally reprehensible. I can understand the hows and whys behind people pirating music, since it's so expensive, but bootlegging is a form of profiting off of someone else's work. There exists no decent argument or justification for this problem.

In recent years, the two biggies in pirating (SonMay and EverAnime) seemed to have lowered their production rates. There used to be a time when SM and EA bootlegs had *flooded* the market. I can remember in 1998 through, maybe, 2001, Gamemusic.com was selling bootlegs, and they didn't have the sense to say they were bootlegs until around 2000. If you couldn't tell (by the short catalog number and small price tag), you would likely be fooled into buying one.

I've purchased approximately five bootlegs in my life, always by accident. The first was the Final Fantasy Tactics OST, which I got from the now-defunct GameCave (which sold bootlegs without advertising them as such in any way!). I didn't know about bootlegs until someone educated me at Soundtrack Central, which is usually how we Westerners learn about the evils of imported bootlegs: word of mouth.

Today and probably since about 2003, the number of bootlegs sold (at least to Westerners through sources like eBay or other online shops) has severely decreased. I don't have a statistic for that, but you can tell just by scouring the sites that offer VGM: they're offered less and less. I think this is due to the work of the VGM purchasing community, and their desire for authenticity. I credit the community at large, as well as sites like my own and Chudah's Corner, for getting the word out. It's made a difference.

Today, the market is less and less plagued with this sort of problem, but it looks like new contenders are cropping up. It's happening in more of an underground way, rather than these standardized Taiwanese operations we saw in the 1990s. For example, there's a seller on eBay, "custom specialists" or something, who claims he's taken discs out of busted packaging and re-sells these "original" discs in his own DVD-sized box. It's a complete fraud; people have tested multiple products of his with simple PC tools that can determine whether the CD is legitimately pressed or burned (i.e. a CD-R). Each and every one of his products are well-masked CD-Rs, but eBay has turned a deaf ear to all complaints. This sort of happening troubles me, especially because the guy seems to be profiting very well from this operation. I hope to see it stopped soon.

FFOmake: What are some of your favorite composers in the video game music industry? And can you tell us some of the video games they have scored music for?

Patrick Gann:
Like many "veteran" fans, I could give you multiple paragraphs about over 30 VGM artists out there, and it would all be very opinionated and very boring. So I'll do my best to keep this short.

I think there's a lot to be said for Masashi Hamauzu. The man, as far as we can tell, got his start with Squaresoft, and has continued with them up to this time (at present, he is finishing up the score to Final Fantasy XIII!). Hamauzu's better-known works include SaGa Frontier II, Unlimited SaGa, parts of Final Fantasy X, Musashiden II, and Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII. Among these, my favorite is SaGa Frontier II, especially the arranged piano/rhapsody album that was released for it. Also, Hamauzu just released a solo album on May 30, 2007 called "Vielen Dank." It includes original compositions and new, exclusive arrangements to work he's done with Squaresoft (now Square Enix). I highly recommend it.

Sample track from UNLIMITED:SaGa - Adobe Flash Player required.

Everyone today talks about how Yasunori Mitsuda's skill has waned since the glory days of Chrono and Xeno. I wonder about this claim a lot. First, it makes me think that we don't give enough credit to the sound designers, synth manipulators, and others who do not actually compose the music but rather work with the sound design and compression. Squaresoft's team during the 16- and 32-bit eras was excellent. They really knew their stuff. Maybe Mitsuda sounds less impressive to people now because he's freelance and is thus left to his own devices. Even if they are live instrumental recordings, there is something lacking, I'll agree with that. Works like "Hako no Niwa" and "Sailing to the World" simply don't compare to Chrono Cross in my mind. However, Mitsuda's latest foray into the VGM universe, "Armodyne," is really good...so maybe he's making a comeback? That, and, everyone's been waiting about a decade for a Chrono Cross arranged album, which Mitsuda's been talking about on his official site for ages.

Then, of course, there's the king of VGM in the Western World, Jeremy Soule. Seriously, the guy is a genius. And to think he got his start with Squaresoft (doing Secret of Evermore)! My two favorites from him are the scores for Guild Wars and Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. But honestly, everything this guy touches turns to solid gold in an instant. I've spoken with many small-time Western composers who immediately look up to Soule as an example of true compositional genius. Honestly, I think he's on par (or even better) with the big names of film score: not just Williams and the like, but even Japanese film score gurus like Joe Hisaishi.

(Note also that I probably don't have the right to say that, since I don't know film score as well as I ought to. But I've seen lots of films with lots of good music, and I think Soule has them beat in many ways).

Finally, I have to give props to the Gust Sound Team. The team has had some personnel changes throughout the last decade, but one of the top guys who have been there virtually from the start is Akira Tsuchiya. Tsuchiya himself was and is the "main man" in charge of the Ar tonelico franchise, and he also has a lot of sway with the Atelier series. Today, Ken Nakagawa and Daisuke Achiwa are the two that score most of the recent stuff (the three Atelier Iris games, Mana-Khemia, Ar tonelico). I'm pretty much addicted to their style. It's just great!



FFOmake: I love the diversity of video game music. The Japanese composers really have an appreciation and keen ear for different genres of music from around the world. When you sit down and listen to a video game soundtrack, what are some of the things that you keep in mind when you are judging the overall quality of the musical score? Like do you have a set criterion that you follow when you work on a review of a soundtrack?

Patrick Gann:
We do not have a set of criteria for judging a soundtrack and I think this is really important. Some people would like to see us attach grades to our reviews (as we would with game reviews), but I have time and again denied this possibility. Yes, people who submit reviews are allowed to give some sort of score in their review to try and rate it alongside their favorites, and even I am guilty of calling a score "A" or "B" level work. But at the end of the day, we have no standardized scoring, and I think that's important since so much of judging music is subjective: more so than with the games themselves, anyway.

As for me, however, there are plenty of things I'll keep in mind and be looking for when reviewing a soundtrack. You yourself said you love VGM's "diversity." When I first listen to a soundtrack, that's one thing I'm listening for: diversity. Even if the soundscape is limited to a certain format (be it the 8-bit Famicom chip or a live orchestra), there are ways to diversify the sound. One such way is to draw from various ethnic sources. In the last decade, I've noticed more and more of this; I don't know if that's me getting smarter or composers getting better, but I think it's a positive trend either way!

Here are a few "tests" I do. Usually, when I listen to a soundtrack, it's while sitting at my computer. I have a wife and a son, so there's a lot to distract me. However, if the music is commanding my attention (or, better yet, commanding the attention of my family!), then that's a sign that the music has a powerful attractiveness. If I find myself humming particularly themes from a soundtrack after two or three listens, that means the music was "memorable" or "catchy." If I find myself wanting to listen to the album over and over, but I can't remember how the song went, that means the music was technically complex and very appealing to my intellectual side (this is the case with a lot of modern compositions, those that use atonal patterns and other 20th-century techniques).

Also, sometimes I'll listen to VGM while driving. If I have a road trip, and I also have a rock-influenced album, y'all know the two go hand in hand!

Sample track from Chrono Cross - Adobe Flash Player required.

FFOmake: Can you please tell our readers some of the things they should expect from Patrick Gann and RPGFan? What I mean is what kinds of things should we look forward to in the soundtracks section of RPGFan? Are there going to be any changes or additions to this section?

Patrick Gann:
Yes, yes, and yes. Let's see...

Some of this may already be live on the site by the time you post this interview, but I have three "themed" updates in the works. One is for Wizardry, another is for the Shining series, and the third is a massive "boxed set" update (which will include, among other things, the recently-published FFXI 7-disc set and Kingdom Hearts 9-disc set!).

Recently, I got a complaint from a reader who said we spend too much time covering old stuff and we ought to focus more on new releases. I was initially offended at this: I mean, who doesn't love the classics? But from a business standpoint, he's right. Our site does make and receive some small funding from affiliations with sites like Play-Asia and VGMWorld, and covering newer albums usually results in high sales from those albums. And believe me, if I could review every new release myself, I would. But there are three reasons why I can't: 1) I don't have the money, 2) I don't have the time, and 3) I don't have the interest. This third point is very important: it's not wise to just listen to everything hot off the press when you know nothing about (and care little about) the music, the game for which the music was written, and/or the composer. Trying to keep up with the weekly releases will quickly lead to one jaded reviewer who's suffering from severe burn out. I know this from experience, and I think people like Lucy (Chudah) and our respective staff know this feeling as well.

As for changes and additions...it's a bit of a "secret" project, but RPGFan is currently undergoing huge maintenance. It's happening "backstage," so to speak, so there won't be any down-time. But one day, a few months from now, you'll go to the site and be like "holy heck, it's completely different!" When that happens, there will be a few changes in the soundtracks section as well. Here they are:

1) No more RealAudio. Personally, I think RealPlayer does a great job with compression and audio quality, but that doesn't excuse Real of its RAM-and-resource-hogging issues. Lots of people loathe the software, and I don't blame them. I know the "Real Alternative" codec for Windows Media Player and Winamp has worked for some people, but this is an obscure little patch and it doesn't always work. The new audio format will be something recent, and something built-in with most operating systems and their respective media players. Whether it will be mp3, flash, or something else, that isn't determined. I do know, however, that it will play within the browsing window, and it will be mighty convenient! The logistics are a little overwhelming, particularly when considering that we have a few video files scattered in there as well (limited edition DVDs being released with soundtracks, that sort of thing). But we'll get it sorted out, trust me.

2) Using this media player, we will be replacing the old "RPGFan Radio" section with a simple "shuffle" feature. The shuffle will include every single audio clip we have on the section, and you'll just randomly get stuff, and that'll be our new-and-improved Radio.

3) Search and sort by name, release date, artist (composer/arranger), and maybe publisher as well. It'll all be incorporated into the new version of RPGFan. Furthermore, each soundtrack review will have links to its respective game(s), and games will have links to their respective soundtrack(s). It will all be very intuitive and VERY helpful for those seeking more knowledge on a game, series, franchise, etc.

Parting Words:

I want to thank Patrick for making the time to do this interview with me. Even though I personally have quite a bit of knowledge about video game music already, I found that I learned even more about VGM after doing this interview. I look forward to some of the changes to the soundtracks section of RPGFan that Patrick mentioned in his interview, as Iím sure that it will definitely enhance an already superb website. If you are interested in contacting Patrick, about any video game music questions, I have provided his e-mail address below. Oh yea! And donít forget to stop by RPGFan to check out any updates that Patrick might post, concerning any related VGM reviews or news. Sayonara!


Official Website: RPGFan
Contact Patrick at: pgann@rpgfan.com

Interview conducted by: A-run Chey


- June 24, 2007





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