Interview: Braxton Burks - Pokémon Reorchestrated: Kanto Symphony
Posted by Mike Mason
Clearly we're not the only ones that love orchestrated game music, as Pokémon Reorchestrated: Kanto Symphony has just been released to a positive response. The fan project reinterprets the 8-bit music of Pokémon Red / Blue in full orchestral form and has been cleared by Nintendo through Joypad Records, a company that specialises in licensing video game music for commercial release.
Kanto Symphony has climbed high on the iTunes soundtrack charts so far, so we caught up with its composer Braxton "Skotein" Burks about how the project came together, his favourite Pokémon music and his future plans.
Nintendo Life: What initially inspired you to put together an orchestral version of the Pokémon soundtrack?
Braxton "Skotein" Burks: I felt that the story of the original Pokémon games would have made for a fantastic film adaptation, so I decided to weave a cinematic, orchestral narrative based on how I thought it would really feel to be a young Pokémon trainer setting off into this world of wonder and adventure. I’m into deep exploration of emotion in music, and by doing so with Pokémon’s music, I feel I’ve gotten a lot closer to the first generation of games.
NL: Please could you describe the process behind creating the tracks? Talk us through how you'd compose a piece.
BB: I’d usually start by figuring out an overall concept for each piece. ‘Red’s Journey (The Road To Cerulean City)’, for example, was about all about Pokémon Trainer Red, the silent protagonist of Pokémon Red and Blue. Next, I’d mentally start to flesh out a cinematic cutscene for the music — as if I were watching a clip from a real, live action Pokémon film. As the story played out in my head, I’d adapt the original melodies of the music to fit specific moods — scoring the track scene by scene.
A lot of people have been fooled into thinking that I record with a live orchestra when in reality, I write my music with high-end sample libraries. These sample libraries are typically used by film and game composers to either generate mock-ups of their score to show directors, or provide the score itself (especially on low budget productions). All of the instrument sections you hear on the album were basically played by me in realtime with a MIDI sequencer and controller, then programmed by hand to sound super realistic! In this way — I am the orchestra.
NL: How long did it take to create Kanto Symphony in its entirety?
BB: Off and on, about ten months. There were definitely slower periods as I was juggling jobs and school, but I’d be in my studio (AKA my tiny half-bedroom with a desk and some speakers I bought at Goodwill) almost every day writing, experimenting with musical ideas, studying the source material, and immersing myself in the world of Pokémon.
NL: How did the collaboration with Joypad Records come together?
BB: I’d caught wind that Joypad Records, a group of devout game freaks such as myself, were helping my friends at Zelda Reorchestrated to release their upcoming album Twilight Symphony. I became curious and contacted them. Copyright clearance is their big focus and wasn’t something I had given much thought to with regard to my own music. In retrospect, I felt it was the best decision I could make for my album as I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes at Nintendo or The Pokémon Company for promoting and releasing it.
NL: Were there any problems acquiring the Pokémon licence?
BB: Not really! It was surprisingly easy. Game Freak, the game studio behind Pokémon, had already uploaded several original game soundtracks from the main Pokémon series to iTunes. Joypad Records, a subsidiary licensing group with a focus on video game music covers, were then able to find and contact The Pokémon Company directly and arrange to have me pay royalties based on whatever I sold.
NL: Have you had any comments from Nintendo and / or Game Freak on the finished article?
BB: I have not. The other day I saw someone tweeting in Japanese about Kanto Symphony to Jun’ichi Masuda, the original composer of the games, but I never checked back to see if Masuda-san responded. I imagine they’re all very busy folks, but if they were to take notice of me and my project, I’d be elated to talk about it with them! Masuda-san’s music, after all, had a huge influence on me when I was younger and was the main inspiration behind my album.
NL: It's done well on iTunes so far, standing near the top of the soundtrack charts in a few countries. Are you surprised by the success? What was your initial reaction when the sales started coming in?
BB: I knew it would be fairly popular among my followers, but I never expected it to blow up as much as it has! I was in class when I saw the first number of sales from Joypad via phone text, and my heart skipped a beat. To know that there were that many people listening to my music and sharing it with their friends…it was unbelievable. I’m just so happy that my interpretation of Pokémon’s music has resonated with Pokémon fans and the broader gaming community. For a lot of people, I was really able to evoke that little bit of Game Boy nostalgia with Kanto Symphony.
NL: Can we expect to see more Pokémon orchestrations from you in the future? We notice that you've released some tracks from other generations before; are you planning on creating a symphony for each?
BB: The format of my releases will be a bit downsized for a while since I’ll be attending school for music composition full-time, which is something I’m very excited about. Nonetheless, I would love to arrange more music from other regions! I’m no genwunner [somebody who only likes the first generation of Pokémon] — I love all generations of Pokémon, including their music. Expect to see more Pokémon music from me in the future, for sure.
There is, however, one full album I’d like to save for writing after I graduate…
NL: Which one are you looking forward to composing the most?
BB: Johto Symphony. I don’t have a timeline for when it’ll be done, but it’s going to be big and ambitious — even larger than Kanto Symphony. Pokémon Gold and Silver were my first and favourite Pokémon games, and incidentally, they contain my favourite music from the series in general. Once I have even better writing chops, I want to make it happen. An orchestral Johto. Without a doubt.
NL: Is there a particular piece of Pokémon music that you regard above others?
BB: I am personally fond of ‘Route 26/27’ from Gold and Silver, an inspiring and heartachingly nostalgic track that plays when you take your first steps into Kanto after defeating the Elite Four in Johto. I would spend hours on that route alone just to listen to its music.
NL: Are there any other game series you'd like to reorchestrate?
BB: I’d like to arrange music from the EarthBound / MOTHER series, my second favorite game franchise of all time. The composers, Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka and Shogo Sakai, wrote some mind-blowing music for those games, and I have a feeling the EarthBound community would be ecstatic to see them done the same orchestral justice as my Pokémon covers.
NL: Do you have aspirations to move into the video game industry as an original composer in the future?
BB: Absolutely! In fact, I currently have a Facebook Page set up for those who wish to contact me about writing original material, or anyone interested in following my pursuit to become a game composer! You can find it here: http://www.facebook.com/Skotein.
Thanks to Braxton for taking the time to answer our questions. Pokémon Reorchestrated: Kanto Symphony is available to purchase now either on iTunes or directly from Joypad Records. Check out the video below to catch a preview of the album.