Ninterview: The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Orchestrating classic gaming music
Earlier this week we told you about the upcoming Super Metroid Symphony, which will be formally licensed by JoyPad Records and available for sale. It's being produced by Blake Robinson's Synthetic Orchestra, a prolific project that's specialised in producing orchestral arrangements of popular music, ranging from retro and new games to TV and movie soundtracks.
Blake Robinson makes much of this music available for free, and ahead of this paid album we decided to catch up with the composer/software developer and learn more about his diverse range of work, as well as his passion for gaming.
Nintendo Life: First of all can you tell the readers who you are and what you do?
Blake Robinson: My name is Blake Robinson and I am a musician, software developer and graphic artist. In my full time work I juggle between composing for media and developing the software composers use to create their realistic orchestral music. In my free time I orchestrate well known video game music and release it through my Synthetic Orchestra YouTube channel and site. Before becoming a full time musician I was involved in games development, initially working at Electronic Arts and subsequently at smaller independent studios.
NL: Can you tell us about some of the original work you've done for games and other media?
BR: Over the years I've composed and orchestrated various soundtracks ranging from ambitious indie developments such as "Pirates of New Horizons" to simpler releases found on the apple/android app stores. Recently I've also had the privilege of working with 505 Games to compose lots of music for the trailers of their upcoming console port of Terraria. I'm also active outside the games industry and have written jingles for TV commercials, theme tunes for big brands and helped orchestrate music for movie trailers. Chances are if you live in the US or Europe and watch TV you've probably (unknowingly) listened to my music at some point over the past few years. I also write and release my own original music through my site and Bandcamp. I'm open to people using the music in their own games and media and so it also tends to feature in a lot obscure indie titles and around YouTube.
NL: You've produced a huge amount of cover content for free on your website, with a lot of different sources and genres. Can you walk us through how a typical track comes about?
BM:A lot of the time my covers are kind of interwoven with my work. Part of developing big orchestral sample libraries and software is checking that they're both problem-free and also capable of creating realistic sounding music. I'm a big soundtrack nerd and have a ton of game/TV/anime/movie soundtracks that I enjoy listening to regularly. I tend to pick pieces of music from this collection that I like or are nostalgic to me and that I feel I could do justice translating to orchestra.
Typically before beginning I'll listen through a couple times to familiarise myself with the song and then I'll completely close it and open up my workstation to begin orchestrating. From there it tends to be a kind of three-step process. Usually the first thing I'll tackle are the chord progressions and accompaniments that serve as foundations for the track. Sometimes it'll be a straight 1:1 translation of the original, whereas other times I'll fiddle with chords and change them to give it my own twist. Once the groundwork is done I go through and write the melody. I usually keep very close to the original as I like to preserve the theme of the music I'm orchestrating and the changes I tend to make are more based on the timbre and sound of the melody rather than its structure. The last part is to go through and add a bit more of my own personality. This is the point where I introduce my own counter melodies and harmonies, play with new ideas such as piano parts, bridges and endings and generally add decoration such as woodwind flourishes, string runs or harp glissandi.
I'm usually writing these either as part of my work, or in pockets of spare time so for most of my covers and orchestrations I only get to dedicate a couple hours on the process from start to finish.
NL: Do you have a favourite genre or era of game music for your orchestral adaptations?
BM: I really like having the freedom to build orchestrations from the ground up, so older music written before composers had access to realistic instruments tend to be my favourite. You can add a lot of your own interpretation onto earlier Zelda or Mario music, for example. I also enjoy adapting more recent work. It's great practice and rather satisfying to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct realistic orchestral music from the ground up, and you learn a ton of techniques and tricks in the process.
NL: You're currently working on the Super Metroid Symphony, licensed through Joypad Records. Can you explain how that came about?
BM: I love the atmosphere and eeriness that Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano brought to the original soundtrack. I had heard some incredible remixes and covers of the music from other talented artists and really wanted a larger project that I could sink my teeth into. Joypad Records have been a fantastic resource for me as a cover artist and a composer and with them offering to handle licensing and legal distribution it meant I could justify committing much more time, effort and money into the project than would be possible if I was just doing it for free in my spare time.
NL: Do you have a favourite track from the album, or an aspect of the work that pleases you the most?
BM: I've had so many favourites during the time spent composing the album, though a track that sticks out most to me is one of the first that I tackled - "Maridia's Rocky Underground Water". It seems to fit an orchestra really well and has a soft sound to it while still remaining atmospheric; I found it really fun to write. It was also satisfying to finish "Samus Aran, Space Warrior" as it has a lot of brass in it that is typically a nightmare to recreate with samples and software. It took countless hours and many rewrites but I managed to turn it into a piece that I'm really happy with. The whole soundtrack in general was a pleasure to orchestrate as it's all music that I am so fond of and it seems to translate so well. I think what will please me most is getting the music into the hands of other Super Metroid fans so that they can (hopefully) enjoy both the original music, and what I have brought to it.
NL: You've orchestrated quite a few Nintendo game themes, so do you consider yourself a big fan of the company?
BM: With the limited free time I get these days I'm not quite the gamer that I used to be so I'm more of a retro fan. I was primarily a Sega kid, but my younger brother always had as many Nintendo consoles as he could get his hands on and so I was always exposed to the classic games, their worlds and their music. It's the music from old Nintendo games that really sticks in my memory and so my orchestrations are largely nostalgic. That said, I'm a big fan of the way that Nintendo don't just focus on better graphics but investigate interesting technologies such as motion control, touch screens and 3D. I do follow what they're doing in general and I'm really interested to see them bringing older games such as The Wind Waker up to date for the Wii U.
NL: What is your favourite Nintendo character/series/franchise?
BM: I am a big fan of the Zelda franchise for its interesting stories and for the amazing music. The Mega Man series also has great soundtracks and some really simple but fun game-play. When it comes to franchise music, I love the Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie games. Grant Kirkhope and David Wise have come up with some fantastic music over the years. My favourite Nintendo franchise though is the Metroid series. It's fast and action paced while having such an interesting universe they've created and the series contains some of my all-time favourite video game music.
NL: What is your favourite gaming platform of all time?
BM: Nowadays in the cross-platform era I tend not to be so fussy, but the one gaming platform I could really consider a favourite is the Game Boy Advance. Back in the day when I was still in games development I really got into the home brew scene and experimented writing little quirky games for it. It's a really old school way of programming - there were no simple APIs, libraries or 3D shaders. Just old-school style programming, dumping data into certain areas of memory and moving bytes and bits around to make things work. It kind of felt like programming with it was a dark art and it made it fun and rewarding.
NL: What do you love most about video games?
BM: I love the immersive worlds they bring and the way you interact with the story you're experiencing. How sometimes you don't need a Hollywood cast, a billion polygons and epic music to get sucked into a world that someone has created.
NL: We were pleased when you contacted us with details of the album, so we must ask - what do you think of Nintendo Life?
BM: I especially like how it doesn't just cover the current and future, but also the retro. It's a great place to spend some time catching up on what's new whilst also reminiscing on the good old days.
NL: What do you think the future holds for Nintendo?
BM: It'll be interesting to see how they fare with the Wii U now that they have the capability to preset games in higher fidelity. I imagine Nintendo ports of popular games will be more common now that they've opened up that avenue for developers who usually stick to other more graphics-intense platforms. Based on their track record, I'm also interested to see what future innovations they come out with. With the increased hardware capability I'm also interested to see how the complexity and quality of music within the games evolves on the platform.
NL: What's next for you, can you drop some hints on what's coming up?
BM: After a short break catching up with work I'm wanting to jump into another big video-games related album. Not quite sure what it is yet but I'm always keeping an eye out for projects that I can put my musical spin on.
NL: Thanks for your time, how can our readers follow you?
BM: You can find my Super Metroid Symphony project over on http://metroidorchestra.com and the rest of my music on YouTube (http://youtube.com/dummeh), Twitter (@SyntheticOrch), Facebook (http://facebook.com/syntheticorchestra) or through my website - http://syntheticorchestra.com.