Takenobu Mitsuyoshi x Masayoshi Soken Interview

Soken and Mitsuyoshi - Pose
Magazine: Denfaminicogamer
Date: 01/15/2020

An Interview With Japan’s Best Singing Company Employee, Sega’s Takenobu Mitsuyoshi & The singing game developer of FFXIV, Masayoshi Soken – “Under The Weight” Wouldn’t Exist If Not For Daytona USA!

Takenobu Mitsuyoshi is Sega’s “Best Singing Company Employee”: A game music composer having worked on such things as Daytona USA and the theme song for the anime version of Virtua Fighter, a band vocalist, and he’s even made his solo debut singing other anime theme songs. Many have probably heard him singing songs such as “Kimi no tame nara shineru” and “Akachan wa doko kara kuru no?” in games such as “maimai”, “Chunithm”, or even “Phantasy Star Online 2”.

He held a dinner show for Sega employees back on 10/28/2019, which became highly talked about on Sega’s official Twitter account. Someone replied to that tweet with “Can I transfer over to your company by 7:30 tonight?”. That someone was Square Enix’s Masayoshi Soken.

Soken is in charge of all things sound and music on Final Fantasy XIV, a game that holds the Guinness world record for video game title with most original songs. He also serves as vocalist for The Primals, the official band of Final Fantasy XIV.

Unfortunately Soken was not able to participate in Mitsuyoshi’s dinner show, but we were able to get them both together for an interview for the first time. We call it “The Singing Developers” interview since both composers incorporate vocals into their game music. We’ll find out just how they’ve influenced one another, and what they have in common.

Interview: Kaze no Iona, Koudai Kurimoto
Text: Kaze no Iona
Photography: Yusuke Masuda
Editor: Koudai Kurimoto

Thank you both for agreeing to this interview!

(Soken) I’ve been hoping this day would come, so I’m very happy to do it!

(Mitsuyoshi) If meeting me in person has crushed your dreams, I apologize! (Laughs)

When we proposed this idea to Mr. Soken, he said “Mr. Mitsuyoshi is one of my biggest influences”. But Mr. Soken, when did you first hear about Mr. Mitsuyoshi?

(Soken) He’s been on the front lines of the industry since long before I even became a game sound creator. I was playing a lot of games back when the Model 2 was Sega’s newest arcade board. Through his work, he introduced me to cutting edge games in the arcade as opposed to at home. I’ll never forget the first time I put some coins into the 8-seat Daytona USA setup at a bowling alley in Shinagawa and heard…vocals! (Laughs) I was so excited about that though! Of course I’d been excited by the sound in home console games before, but this was so different. How do I put it…it was a very profound feeling of “What IS this?!”. As soon as the song started I really felt that this was elevating the game experience for me to the next level. It had the same impact as games moving from 2D to 3D. It’s only natural that I wanted to know the person responsible for that song! And when I looked into it, that person was Mr. Mitsuyoshi. I used to mimic the music from Daytona USA back then, by the way! (Laughs)

Mimic the music? (Laughs)

(Soken) Back then there wasn’t much memory capacity for including vocals in music, so the connection between the loops was disjointed. It sounded like “Rolling Sta-a-a-art”, and I loved that (Laughs) But in researching how that looping worked, I got really into learning about the techniques. So I’d like ask Mr. Mitsuyoshi, what was the process of putting vocals in game music back then like?

(Mitsuyoshi) I’d say it was about what you’re thinking it was. We actually used the same MPEG boards used for the licensed Star Wars game that Sega worked on to reproduce the original soundtrack into the sound source as it was.

(Soken) I didn’t know that.

Soken and Mitsuyoshi - Conversation

(Mitsuyoshi) But they weren’t that versatile. Daytona USA was created with the Model 2 board, but it had no ability to playback compressed sound. We used a technique that involved reading the song in as MIDI data with an extra sound chip on the board. That technique was first developed and used in Virtua Fighter, but was also re-purposed for Daytona USA. We’d had no experience with implementing a song that included vocals, so the “a-a-art” that you mentioned was really the result of trial and error! (Laughs) Listening to it now, it’s definitely disjointed. Another example is how the “Daytona-a-a” loops with the vibrato. But I wondered if that disjointedness actually made it sound more raw. More like someone was actually singing it. The boards back then didn’t have any sound effects built into them, so we shifted the layered vocal tracks to make it not stand out quite as much.

(Soken) There wasn’t really DSP (digital signal processing) back then, after all.

(Mitsuyoshi) Because it just eats up memory. As far as the sound quality goes, it was 16 bit: The same as CD audio.

(Soken) Huh!? Really!? It wasn’t 4 bit…that’s amazing. Ahh, I actually worked on arcade games before I joined Square Enix. I loved playing them quite a bit, so it was the first thing I tried in the industry. 8 megabit was largest ROM chip size we had to work with at the time, but it was even smaller for you. The thought of a 2 megabit ROM chip must have seemed amazing!

(Mitsuyoshi) That’s how long ago it was! (Laughs)

(Soken) That really takes me back. At the time ROM data would get wiped when it came into extended contact with UV light. I definitely fell asleep and ended up ruining some ROM data when I first started! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) I did the same thing (Laughs) There was a timer on the chip that would go off too, right?

(Soken) Right!

We’ve been talking about your music Mr. Mitsuyoshi, but before you worked on Daytona USA you were the vocalist for Sega’s S.S.T. Band. And your first recorded vocal track was on the Virtua Fighter album released under the name “B-univ”.

(Soken) What made you even think to include vocals in game music in the first place?

(Mitsuyoshi) I’m from the YMO generation, so instrumental music was king and I didn’t care too much about music with vocals. I was also in fusion bands during college, so my musical history has pretty much nothing to do with vocal music.

(Soken) In short, performance technique was your background.

(Mitsuyoshi) Yeah. I played keyboards, which meant needing excellent technique and quick improvisation. After joining Sega, at first it was just an extension of my current musical composition style. But after being there for a couple of years, Namco released Ridge Racer. The soundtrack was sort of a Rotterdam techno stu;e, a genre completely different from any game music up until that point. Then everything within Sega became all about beating Ridge Racer. I’d taken on the soundtrack for Daytona USA, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. After thinking about it, I realized while Ridge Racer’s music had voice in it, it didn’t really feel like singing. It was a relatively simple idea, but something that hadn’t been done. When it comes to music I think along the lines of “If there’s no precedent for it, I’ve just gotta do it first!”. So I just told myself “Put real vocals in!” (Laughs) I didn’t necessarily need to be the one singing, but the industry being what it is I just thought “I’ll put my voice in here for now” and it went to production that way! (Laughs)

(Soken) I know what you mean! (Laughs) Back then you were using meeting rooms to record, and that kind of thing.

(Mitsuyoshi) Yeah! (Laughs) There was a soundproof room in the office where I recorded the “Daytona! Let’s go away, Daytona!” part and put it into the song, made the music loop and left it for awhile. But then I got a complaint from someone on staff…

(Soken) Huh?!

(Mitsuyoshi) When I thought “I guess I can’t do this after all then?”, they just told me “I won’t be able to get this song out of my head even after I leave, so please stop it!”. It was a victory for me! (Laughs)

(Soken) A victory for a sound designer, for sure! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) I didn’t even give any thought to putting this on a CD after that, so Daytona USA was released with the music as it was. But I think during a location test afterward, I heard that a native English speaker thought my pronunciation was weird (Laughs) He said it sounded like I was saying “Don’t Play Me” in English, so we had to make it sound less like “Don’t”.

(Soken) So in other words, you didn’t intentionally sing it that way, it just happened through process of elimination.

(Mitsuyoshi) Depending on the part, yes. For all of the parts without lyrics, I applied the skills I already had to create them. It was more like DJing than creating a melody though.

(Soken) You’re a big influence on me. I’m working on Final Fantasy XIV currently, and when I was asked for something that sounded punchy…for example something with an assault of orchestral strings…it’s the standard to just go for the intense orchestra sound the first time around. But I form the ideas on guitar first, since rock is my favorite genre. Maybe it was influenced by all the games I played that you worked on since I was a Sega kid, the experience of playing Daytona USA really did take things up to the next level because of the music. And I’ve thought a lot about wanting to do that same thing in the games that I work on. These days I think the image of the Final Fantasy series rests totally with the players, and it’s gone from us developers. I also think that orchestral is what comes to mind when you think of music from that series. I tried to make a song that was more punchy, something that would defy players’ image of what the music of a Final Fantasy game should be. So that’s when I made the Titan boss battle song.

It feels like you’re just constantly screaming and shouting “Titan!” in that song (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) I’ve heard that song! And I’m very happy I had some part in giving you the influence you needed to overcome expectations…

So then I think it’s fair to say that if not for Daytona USA, “Under The Weight” wouldn’t exist…

(Soken) It definitely wouldn’t, if I hadn’t had the experience of playing Daytona USA. Though FFXIV felt so majestic up until that point…and suddenly a giant rock enemy appears, and you lose all your health since you can’t recover when he suddenly smashes the ground. The next thought that comes after the shock and thinking “I can’t do anything about this?!” is “Wait, someone’s singing now?!” (Laughs)

Now that you put it that way, vocal songs really do take the game play experience to the next level, don’t they?

(Soken) Then there’s the Chaos battle too.

(Mitsuyoshi) That’s right, Chaos. That song was definitely impactful. I learned quite a bit from it!

(Soken) You’re being too kind! (Laughs) But having a gap is important. Not just in games, but in general.

(Mitsuyoshi) Seriously. I think of them as gaps in life! (Laughs)

Going back to something we mentioned earlier, it was a hot topic on Twitter when it was announced that Mr. Mitsuyoshi was performing at a dinner show for Sega employees. And you replied to that tweet Mr. Soken! (Laughs)

(Soken) At that point I thought the only way I’d get to go was to resign from my current job! (Laughs)

(Both) (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) When I saw it I unconsciously laughed, thinking it was just like you to say something like that. I’ve known that you like Sega quite a bit, and the reply you made to our Twitter account was quite good (Laughs)

(Soken) Even I amused myself with it. I was wracking my brain for ways I could get into that dinner show, and it wasn’t until afterward that I realized I probably should have just reached out to you. I mentioned this earlier, but I was a Sega kid. Today is the first time I’ve come to Sega’s offices for anything, but I’m a bit disappointed they aren’t the ones that used to be in Ootorii (Laughs) But strangely, Yuji Naka of Sonic the Hedgehog fame is working with Square Enix currently. And with the conversation we’re having right now, I’m happy that it seems easier to speak with Sega employees nowadays. Up until recently I considered Sega to be completely untouchable.

(Mitsuyoshi) I’m glad to hear it (Laughs)

Mr. Mitsuyoshi, how was it putting on that dinner show?

(Mitsuyoshi) We did the company dinner show first, but we’d actually decided even before that we were going to do one for the public as well. It was just a matter of doing our dry run for the company first. The atmosphere there was great…but even though those attending would be affiliated with Sega so they were likely fairly familiar with me, I was still worried that no one would really show up. But the seats were pretty packed, and all I could say was “Ooh!”.

(Soken) Of course they’d want to hear it. Naturally Sega Sammy employees have played Sega games, or else they wouldn’t be a part of the company. And of course there’d be people there who, like me, have played games like Daytona USA and Burning Rangers. I really want to see this!

(Mitsuyoshi) Of course I assumed that would be the case too, but personally I was still anxious about it. Ginza wasn’t decided as the location for the public dinner show until after we determined how well the company one did…so there was a bit of pressure there. But thankfully it turned out to be a great success.

Where did the plans to put on a dinner show even come from?

(Mitsuyoshi) I don’t really remember doing this myself, but apparently I started telling various people about having this idea around 10 years ago. This is one of many times that my own enthusiasm for wanting to do something has been so strong that it convinced others! (Laughs) But after we moved the Sega offices to Osaki, the amount of people who took interest in the idea of a dinner show increased. And then before I knew it, I was doing the company dinner show. It may be that distance between me and other employees from other groups within the company was just that much smaller at that point.

(Soken) When Sega was still in Ootorii, there were two different Sega buildings pretty separated from one another. The area around them was called “Sega Village”…wait why am I the one explaining this?! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) But Square Enix is getting offices in the same building, so doesn’t it feel similar?

(Soken) I guess so. We’re involved in a great many things as a company, but I think what’s been going on within my department is one of the more interesting ones. We have quite a bit of music entertainment focused around the Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy series.

But you don’t often hear about someone who’s been in bands ending up doing dinner shows! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) That’s me diversifying! (Laughs)

(Soken) Wh…what do you mean?

Takenobu Mitsuyoshi

(Mitsuyoshi) You may feel the same way Mr. Soken, but there are a lot more game music concerts these days, and a more pure way of listening to this music is being established. My personal history is with being in bands, but even if I were to hold a “Takenobu Mitsuyoshi Live”, I feel that it wouldn’t have much of an impact and not many people would be interested enough to come. But since of the three necessities we have as human beings is food, I thought that maybe even if people going thought the live performance is a bit iffy, at least they might think the food was good. Be that as it may, we can’t have the performance being iffy. I believe that people will be happy with it (Laughs)

(Soken) I see! (Laughs)

So your aim was to make people coming for the performance even more happy by combining it with food! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) I guess so! (Laughs) And this is the sort of costume that I wanted to wear. I wanted it to be sort of a tribute to Elvis Presley, and the staff got really into that. They made it for me especially to wear at the company dinner show. It could also be concerning that people would be like “Huh, what are you talking about!?” when they heard the word “dinner show”, because it has a bit of an old fashioned feeling to it. A game music dinner show may also not make any sense, but I fit in well with the idea. And everyone just kept on saying things that suggested it just might work.

This is related to the idea of gaps that came up in conversation earlier.

(Mitsuyoshi) Yes. Also, I’ve never been to a single dinner show in my life. But I feel like someone who’s never been to a dinner show creating a brand new one is a very game company appropriate thing to do! (Laughs)

Now that I think about it, no one in the games industry has ever done one before. It makes me realize what an amazing plan this is all over again.

(Mitsuyoshi) If I didn’t hurry up and do it first, Nobuyoshi Sano (composer for the Ridge Racer series) might have gotten the idea first! (Laughs) I think he’s the most likely person to be broadcast on the radio that’s working in game music today! (Laughs)

Now I’d like to ask Mr. Soken some questions about his experience being in bands. Have you been in them ever since you were a student?

(Mitsuyoshi) I want to hear about this!

(Soken) Yes, that’s how I got into music. I played keyboards, but someone I knew wanted to start a Deep Purple cover band and asked me to play in it because they didn’t have a keyboardist. So I acted as a support member for a bunch of different bands. I’d played piano and electric organ since I was young, so keyboard was my main instrument. Gradually I started switching over to recording everything myself on computers (desktop composition), but I couldn’t play guitar. So I had to bring in a guitarist whenever I was writing songs: I’d tell them I want things to be this or that way, and we’d make the track. But little by little, that started to get to be more of a pain. I wanted to get what I was thinking down right away and wasn’t always good at conveying what that was, so I’d have to call them and ask “Can you come by?”. Thinking that I’d be able to get rid of this annoyance by just being able to play the guitar parts myself, I started learning how to play. So desktop composition was the start of that.

I feel like getting into guitar through desktop composition is a pretty rare case.

(Soken) I started out only being able to play power chords, and never looked at a practice book or anything. So my style was very self taught. I’ve always liked rock and was going to a lot of music festivals and such, so that ended up leading to The Primals. The FFXIV Fan Festival started out as a big two day event, and I wanted there to be a concert at the end of each day. Wrapping up the day with music seemed like a good way to end things, and it would feel even more satisfying for the fans. I was asked to handle that in a way that was flexible and didn’t cost a lot of money. What came to mind was to have a piano concert on the first day with the music presented very calm and beautifully, then have a crazy and exciting rock concert on the second day. When I proposed this on the basis that it could be done with many fewer people and a lot less cost than bringing in an orchestra, I was told to make it happen. And that’s how The Primals were formed.

(Mitsuyoshi) By the way, how did you determine the members for The Primals?

(Soken) The members aren’t all Square Enix employees: The guitarist, bassist, and drummer are all professional musicians. The rest of the band is made up of myself and Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, a native English speaker who works for the company. We even had a Zepp tour back in 2018…

(Mitsuyoshi) The Primals go overseas too, right? I thought about how nice it would be to do that when I heard! (Laughs)

Masayoshi Soken

(Soken) Now hold on a second Mr. Mitsuyoshi, let me tell you about how that works. The overseas trips for FFXIV have incredibly strict schedules: We leave Japan and arrive in the evening, then go straight into rehearsal. We spend all night preparing, then meet in the lobby at 8 AM the next morning. Also the screen at the venue show music videos, so as a sound designer I have more prep work to do outside of just the concert. Just when I think I’m done with it all, there are dress rehearsals in the afternoon, etc. It’s a very hard task. This continues on until about 1 AM when we eat, then start all over again at 8 AM the next morning. We’re on our feet all day doing a job we’re not used to doing, with our legs shaking. And then at the end of it all we gather up our strength to do the concert, so we’re completely worn out before it even starts! (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) But after the concert is over you have the whole next day to have fun, right?

(Soken) No! We just go back home! So my legs are just stiff as boards on the plane going back (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) Ahh, I see (Laughs) But in a way, that’s typical for a musician.

It’s very rock star-like! (Laughs)

(Soken) No, don’t rock stars get like a week off after having to do that? (Laughs) I don’t!!

(Mitsuyoshi) That’s the life of a company employee, isn’t it? (Laughs)

(Soken) It is! That’s why I wanted to talk about that today! (Laughs)

(Laughs) I think the level of pressure was about the same for you back when you were a part of Sega’s S.S.T. Band, Mr. Mitsuyoshi, but how was it? I seem to remember the tour dates being on weekends since you had your regular duties as company employees on weekdays.

(Mitsuyoshi) When I was a part of H. (another Sega in-house band) more recently it was very tough: I had to do the arrangements at work in addition to my normal duties, so I was very tired a lot of the time.

(Soken) Since we’re game sound creators, we can’t just slack on our main job after all. So anything to do with bands always ends up happening in our free time.

The answer would probably be the same if I asked just about anyone who made a game music band within a company.

(Soken) I really would like to do more of it, and the amount of feedback we get from fans saying they want me to is very great. But I just can’t make it work…My priority is working on games.

But with the concerts being that popular and CDs selling so much, I feel that it should turn into something where you have more time and money for it.

(Soken) I don’t think so!

(Mitsuyoshi) But you had help from other people within the company for the music videos, right? I was amazed at how cool they were!

(Soken) That’s because we have a music publishing department. Slightly different from Sega, we also sell out own music. So those were created as promotional videos for that purpose. I was so thrilled when I heard that we got number three on the Oricon charts, but nothing changed as a result! (Laughs)

But getting a taste of being a musician while still being a company employee is kind of an amazing position to be in, thinking about it.

(Soken) I wonder about that. How was it for you back then, Mr. Mitsuyoshi?

(Mitsuyoshi) Well I did get to go on stage at places I wouldn’t really have been able to otherwise, like Budokan and Nakano Sun Plaza. And since my main job was working on sound at Sega, I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d have been in bands, made CDs, and sung as well.

(Soken) And there are big merits to doing game and sound design as a part of a company. They’re just different for everyone.

A big game music boom began back then among young game fans, starting with S.S.T. Band. It feels to me like The Primals are a new form of that, inheriting from the previous generation of game music bands.

(Soken) It definitely feels like history repeating itself, and I also feel like that same trend is now coming back around again. Also regarding music composition: When you’re making a game, all you can see in front of you is that game. I prioritize what’s right for the game, without giving much thought to The Primals. When someone tells me “Wouldn’t it be cool if The Primals did this?” afterward, that’s when I get that feeling that maybe it would be, and completely cut loose. That’s why I think The Primals represents my own rock style, which I feel is pretty cool.

(Mitsuyoshi) I’m not sure if this is the right way to put it, but The Primals don’t feel like a game music band to me. In a good way. When I first heard them, I thought “Has something happened to Mr. Soken?” (Laughs) That’s how I saw it anyway. I do dinner shows and sing game music these days, but I sometimes think that a long time ago I would have wanted to present it all in a different, more cool way.

(Soken) The way we sound is actually very much on purpose.

(Mitsuyoshi) I knew it. Wow, I’ve actually wanted to do something more like that myself!

(Soken) You should do it then!

(Mitsuyoshi) For me, I guess that’s dinner shows! (Laughs) Of course I sing game music, but outside of the games themselves…I guess I wanted to put on a show in a more different way.

(Soken) I definitely understand what you mean. The way that game music concerts are perceived in the entertainment world is just that they have substance to satisfy the people who are coming to see them. But people who aren’t involved in that scene sometimes put themselves on guard when they hear the word “game”, when in fact I’d like to convey to all people who don’t know anything about it that game music is a wonderful form of entertainment. But isn’t game sound design amazing these days? This is just my opinion, but it’s far more amazing than any other form of entertainment. I think even more so than sound in film, since it’s interactive and compelling.

(Mitsuyoshi) Game music is very compelling. There’s definitely impressive music in film, but it’s a bit different in games. It leaves its own particular impression.

(Soken) Film isn’t multi-directional, so the person watching it is only watching. But since you control a game yourself, you can feel the game’s sound moving. That’s where it’s so different, and leaves a completely different kind of impression. That’s why these songs have made such an impression on me! And back then, I absolutely thought people should buy Saturns instead of PlayStations (Laughs)

(Mitsuyoshi) Please print that in bold! (Laughs)

(See the original Denfaminicogamer article for more photos)