Written by Anadara on 21.06.2019
Originally featured in vol. 6 of STG Gameside
Toshiya Yamanaka was a composer for Arsys Software and Treasure, known among FM music afficionados for his work on Star Cruiser, Knight Arms, and other Japanese PC games. This lengthy interview offers a good overview of his work while also exploring his musical influences, approach to composition, and his hardware setup. Whenever possible I’ve linked to music samples of his work, but unfortunately, some of his more obscure stuff isn’t available online.
—It’s been 20 years since Star Cruiser II came out. This month you’re releasing a “sequel” OST to that game, titled “Star Cruiser ~Yamanaka Toshiya Works.” Can you tell us what led up to this?
Yamanaka: Well, releasing a cd was not the original plan. However, the current Star Cruiser copyright holder wanted to preserve their copyright and do something with this title, and after discussing the options we settled on the idea of a soundtrack. Of course, it would be best if an actual new Star Cruiser game could be made. Once we had decided on this course of action, I got started working on the music. I actually ended up throwing out all the first songs I wrote (and there were a lot, as many tracks as there are on the album now!) and re-writing everything. I had been on a very long hiatus from music, and I had writer’s block when I started this project, so I felt the quality of those first songs was lacking. All told, it took almost 2 years for this album to get finished. Even the songs that I did finish still had some problems, I thought, but thanks to Shinji Hosoe’s mastering, they came out good in the end. To be honest I’m not very good at mixing. (laughs)
A sampling of Yamanaka’s new cd:
—I noticed this album has that signature Yamanaka jazz-rock sound.
Yamanaka: Yeah. There’s one song on here, “to aggressive”, that’s really… aggressive. At first I was hoping all the songs would come out that way, but perhaps due to my age, all the songs I created ended up being much calmer. I still have that desire to make more aggressive music though.
—Right, these songs don’t have that head-on hard rock sound, they’re more jazz tinged. What’s your composing/recording environment looking like these days?
Yamanaka: It’s almost all soft synths now. Actually, one of the songs here uses a soft synth I created myself, a real nice sound for melody and backing lines. I only recently made the transition to soft synths, now that I’m accepting remix and arrange requests. Before this my workroom looked like a cockpit, a small seat completely enclosed by keyboards! All that’s left now is a MIDI keyboard and a Korg Triton, more or less… and I barely use the Triton. Before I had a lot of all-in-one workstation hardware synths that could use expansion sound modules. The most balanced of all, I think, was the SC-88 Pro, which I used a lot. Programming patches on those big units was very complicated, and I wasn’t very good at it.
—Your love of guitar shines through again on this new Star Cruiser cd. Were those sounds also recorded with soft synths?
Yamanaka: That’s right. The truth is I wanted to play those parts live myself. I’d wanted to do that for awhile, and I even practiced a lot, but it didn’t come out well. On the Star Cruiser II album there are some simple solos that I actually played, but that’s about the extent of my skill, I’m afraid.
—Where do your ideas come from, when you compose?
Yamanaka: Much of my inspiration is visual in nature. For game music, you get to see the graphics as they’re completed, and the concept art, but for this recording there was none of that and it was very difficult for me. This was actually the cause of the writer’s block I mentioned above. With no concrete imagery in mind I decided to just start writing and see what came out, but that wasn’t working either. In the end I pulled up some Star Cruisher-ish visuals from the internet for inspiration.
—Did you know Yasuhisa Watanabe, who did the arrange versions, before this project?
Yamanaka: No. I’m kind of embarassed to admit this, but this was actually the first time I met Hosoe and Watanabe, despite their game music fame. With Watanabe’s arranges, there’s a number of hooks where I feel like he wants the music to go with a STG game. It’s a slightly different atmosphere from Star Cruiser, but it sounded as masterful as I had expected. In fact, his versions came out so well that I was afraid they’d overshadow my originals. (laughs)
—What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Yamanaka: As a kid I didn’t have any particular favorites of my own, I just listened to whatever records my father bought. It was mostly classical music. The only one I can specifically remember from that time was The Ventures’ “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer“.
I started developing my own taste around 7th or 8th grade, I think. As you can imagine, it was the guitar that brought me in. It was an era when fusion was still called “crossover” in Japan. I listened to Santana and was really amazed, I thought it was so cool. That was the first time I bought a record on my own. After that, I saw Kazumi Watanabe playing guitar on some commercial for a cassette tape, and I was like, “Whoa! Who is this!” I went down and bought his record too. I only ever went to two concerts when I was young: Kazumi Watanabe and Casiopea. Seeing him play live on stage was so impressive to me, it gave me the nerve and courage to start learning to play myself. “I want to do what he does!” That was how it all began for me. That’s also why you can hear many phrases in my music that resemble parts from Watanabe’s songs. I was also very influenced by Larry Carlton. Fusion guitarists from that era like Carlton formed the base of my musical influences, undeniably. I also listened to rock guitarists like Gary Moore and Michael Schenker quite a bit. I loved Steve Vai too. His cd “Passion and Warfare” was great.
—When did you actually start playing guitar then?
Larry Carlton and Kazumi Watanabe, two of Yamanaka’s main influences. Yamanaka: I started playing accoustic guitar in 6th grade, and when I got to high school, electric guitar. I played in bands, but they were only temporary things for a single event or festival. I am a bit of a show-off at heart, but I don’t actually like to be on center stage that much. It was also around this time that I started multitrack recording. Multitrack recorders had just come down in price and I bought one. I started recording guitar overdubs, but I wanted backing tracks so I started learning keyboards. Because you had to bounce tracks with the recorder, though, the sound quality got worse and worse the more overdubs you added. I started to realize that, if possible, I should limit my backing overdubs to just one track, so I needed a sequencer. I bought the cheapest one then available, the Korg SQD-1, and I connected that to my Roland Juno-106. That was my first foray into sequencing. After awhile I bought a Yamaha DX-7 too, and went from there.
—I’ve heard that sequencing took a backseat to live performance in those days, for most musicians; you know a lot about synths, but how and when did you acquire that knowledge?
Yamanaka: For a very short time, I worked as a salesperson at a Yamaha music store. Their showroom had Yamaha synths as well as a whole host of rare synths from overseas. When the Prophet 5 arrived, I was super excited and spent a lot of time messing around with it. Sometime after that, I upgraded my sequencer to a Roland MC-500, and bought a bunch of keyboards and sound modules.
—When did you begin composing in earnest?
Yamanaka: When I bought that multitrack recorder. It was just before I started working at Arsys. I wanted to make something with that recorder, so I created a demo tape with four guitar-oriented songs. Those were my first compositions.
—How did you learn composition theory?
Yamanaka: I taught myself, using books and other things. I don’t think all my studies amounted to much, though. I know almost nothing about jazz or classical theory, in particular. A lot of what I do is based on intuition. When I listen to my older songs now, I hear things that sound weird and things I’d like to improve, but at the time that was what sounded best to me. As for that demo tape I made, I remember there was some telephone service or something that used music from demo tapes as their call waiting music. I don’t recall ever sending my demo tape to them, but somehow or other it got used by them. It turns out someone at Arsys used to call that line from time to time, and he contacted me to see if I would write music for them.
—Wow, then it sounds like your entry into the world of game music was a complete accident! At that time did you have a very clear picture of what writing “game music” entailed?
Yamanaka: At the time I was a member of an event sound company, and I used an MSX2 there. I bought the HIT-BIT model MSX2 which had just come out, and I remember the slow, painstaking process of sequencing music in assembler. I also played Ys and Shalom on it, and listened to that music. I liked the opening theme to Ys and even made a cover of it myself. Other than that, though, I didn’t think about other game music when I composed.
—At first you weren’t employed directly by Arsys, correct? You were a subcontractor?
Yamanaka: That’s right. I joined Arsys officially in 1992, around the time of the SFC Prince of Persia release. Before that, I just worked for them part-time as needed. With the early work, they would say “write music to this”, and they let me borrow a PC-8801 to view the game and any other visuals they had. I also borrowed a Sharp X1 to make the music… I’m not sure it had a sound editor on it at first, though. It was Seiichi Ikiuo who helped upgrade that system for me. He was one of the core developers of the Air Combat series, a really brilliant programmer. The very first game I made was Reviver for the PC-8801, I think. We converted the music data that I wrote on the X1 to a format the PC-8801 could use. Gradually the music editor software got better and better too.
—You were one of several composers for Reviver; what were the other guys like?
Yamanaka: Actually, I never met them. They probably wrote out actual scores, and someone at Arsys converted that into sequenced music data. When I borrowed the X1, they had already completed their songs. I believe I’m the only one who did both composition and the computer sequencing.
—I think the ending theme to Reviver is an early example of your signature style. Did you receive any feedback from listeners then?
Yamanaka: At that time I still wasn’t very close to Arsys, so no, I didn’t hear anything directly myself. But I will say that I definitely was thinking about people’s reactions! It really wasn’t until Star Cruiser that I learned what people thought about my work.
—Star Cruiser came after Reviver. The light, funky jazz sound you created matches its hardboiled sci-fi setting perfectly. Star Cruiser received many ports outside of original the PC-8801 version, and it was amazing how well its music translated to those other systems.
Yamanaka: Honestly, there was a lot of my own caprice involved in that work. Whenever it was ported, I’d have to convert the data and tables over to the music editor software for that specific system, then balance everything by ear. I also had to think about adjusting the texture of the individual sounds too. Sometimes I’d get too sucked into it, and end up changing things too much. I think there were even some versions that came out worse after my fiddling.
—Players have long argued over which version of Star Cruiser has the best music. It’s interesting to hear that your own opinion about what sounds were best appears to have changed over time. Take the PC-8801, for example. It has the Sound Board II with expanded FM and other channels, and the normal FM board which only has 3 channels. You’d expect the expansion board to sound better, but in my opinion the normal FM version sounds more balanced.
Yamanaka: Yeah, the Sound Board II version was kind of clumsy. I didn’t know how to get nuanced sounds out of its rhythm patches, or how to balance them with the other sounds. To be honest I didn’t want to use it, but once there’s more channels available, I had no choice.
—How about when different computers (the X1, X68000, 9801, 8801) used the exact same FM sound chip? Did you have to change the sounds then?
Yamanaka: Even though the chip was the same, the processor speed was different, so I’d have to make detailed changes to things like the vibrato and the “harshness” of the textures.
Star Cruiser (MD version):
—Looking back now, which version do you personally like the best?
Yamanaka: Maybe the Megadrive. It has the most detailed arrangement and sound patches, it’s full of surprises. The only drawback is that the PCM sound is kind of rough.
—By the way, there’s an arranged version of the unused song “Nineteen” on this album and the Star Cruiser II album. Despite being an unused track, it has a great musical theme.
Yamanaka: It was meant to be used for a scene in open space, but it just didn’t fit the game so I left it out. I also like it because I can play it on guitar!
—Your next project was porting the music for the IBM-PC version of Wibarm. Osamu Nagano, who was also the President of Arsys, composed the music. I understand you only did the arrangement?
Yamanaka: Well, I’m credited as “arranging” it, but I didn’t actually change the structure or flow of the originals. The IBM-PC only had a single port PSG capable of outputting one sound at a time. So I had to try and arrange the originals so it sounded like there were chords: this involved entering the different notes of the chord one-by-one, and switching between them at extremely quick intervals so it sounded like a 3-part chord when played back.
—To do all that by hand, it sounds insane! I noticed you’re listed as composer for the IBM-PC expansion board sound version too. That version has a lot of additional songs too, that don’t appear elsewhere. Why is that…?
Yamanaka: I listened to this the other day to confirm, and I too was surprised. It may have slipped out of my memory, but it appears I did, indeed, compose those 14 tracks. Listening to it really brings back the memories of those days. I still can’t quite recall making that battle theme, but the composition style is definitely mine.
—With Knight Arms and Cyber Armor Wer Dragon, your hard rock style comes out. This was the most aggressive period of your music.
Yamanaka: That’s the mood I got from the visuals of those games. I was able to decide the direction and style of the music myself (that’s true for Star Cruiser, too). Everything was left up to me; I was never asked by the developers to make the music a certain way. Even when I worked for Treasure, that freedom didn’t change. I think I was blessed to be able to work in environments free from the burden of detailed instructions.
—Your music for Cyber Armor Wer Dragon features sampled guitar, slap bass, choir, and organ. It really took full advantage of the Sound Board II expansion.
Yamanaka: I had obtained some good choir samples, so I wanted to get all I could out of them.
—Knight Arms is one of the best examples of FM sound. You used ADPCM for the opening jingle though; why is that?
Yamanaka: I don’t entirely remember, but I believe I wanted to use ADPCM for the other songs too. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time for all that. Getting ADPCM sounds to mesh with the other sounds took a lot of time.
—You considered using ADPCM for some instruments then, like drums?
Yamanaka: Yeah, but I had gotten used to composing solely with FM sound. There was also the fact that the sound driver development was done by the main programmers in their spare time, and they didn’t have the time to add that functionality.
—The majestic opening theme for Knight Arms is especially popular. It’s a shame that in the actual game, it fades out in the middle!
Yamanaka: I believe that was inevitable due to the programming.
—The sounds themselves are nice and meaty too. That FM guitar too! I think it reached a zenith in Knight Arms.
Yamanaka: I experimented a lot trying to get the right sounds. I never really did much research on sequencing tricks and technology though. Even today I don’t really know how to get FM to sound more real…
—After that you did the ports of Prince of Persia and Spindizzy II, both developed overseas and both featuring new music not found in the originals. Prince of Persia was released on the Super Famicom, and its music is completely different from the PC version’s FM soundtrack.
Yamanaka: The music had to be PCM for the Super Famicom, so I decided to take a completely different approach in order to make songs that would match a PCM, rather than FM sound. The stage layout on the SFC is different from the PC too, after all. By the way, Tetsuya Nakano also contributed songs to Prince of Persia. Crafting sounds for the Super Famicom was very difficult process. You had to work in this special UNIX environment, it was really annoying. Once I had created the sounds there, I transferred them back to my original music editor software and worked there. I used an in-circuit emulator to playback the data I had created, then finally burned it onto a SFC ROM.
—Around this time your music was featured on cd for the first time, with the Arsys Best Selection disc.
Yamanaka: That actually wasn’t spearheaded by Arsys—it was another company’s idea. That’s why it mainly features Prince of Persia, not Star Cruiser or Knight Arms. It was my suggestion to include arrange versions of some other songs. I was really happy to have a cd of my music that I went down to the store where it was being sold to take it all in. By the way, the Star Cruiser II album, in contrast, was mostly my doing. Arsys even gave me several days to really focus on the recording and spend time with it. The entire music staff punched in their time cards at Arsys, then everyone gathered at my house where we recorded the music. After that we’d head back to the office to punch out for the day.
—I think your crafting of FM sounds reached new heights with Spindizzy II. The harmonics of the guitar sound, the analogue synth-ish artificial legato, those tight drums and percussion, even those “oo!” voice sounds—this one has it all. Compared with the way other developers were using FM then, it really sets a new standard.
Yamanaka: At the time I was super into Larry Carlton, and really wanted to try recreating that guitar tone of his with those rich harmonics. The rest of the sounds were created in a burst of inspiration (as opposed to my usual trial-and-error experimenting). The song “Nice Day“, in particular, was one where I really got into the sound creation. There’s a lot of Casiopea in there.
“Nice Day” from Spindizzy II:
The original Amiga version of Spindizzy II only had a theme for the opening title screen. At first I was just going to do something in a similar vein for the Arsys version, but once I finished that, I suggested making songs for each stage, and we ended up with that bumper crop of music!
—Indeed, it’s almost 50 songs. It’s a shame that music never got recorded on a proper CD release. Your last music for Arsys was Star Cruiser II. You, Tetsuya Nakano, and Kenichi Yaguchi all three composed for it.
Yamanaka: Both Nakano and Yaguchi were in-house Arsys composers, hired around 1992. I believe Nakano started sometime between Star Cruiser and Knight Arms, while Yaguchi joined right when the Star Cruiser II development began. At this time Arsys felt they needed to expand the scope of their game developments, so they hired more people, Yaguchi included. We didn’t divide the work among us in any special way for Star Cruiser II; we all just started writing music for it, and added songs as they were completed. However, being the spotlight hog that I was, I reserved the right to create the opening theme song. (laughs) I focused on MIDI this time with Star Cruiser II, and I think the FM songs suffered a bit because of it.
—Do you still like FM?
Yamanaka: Yeah. I use the FM8 soft synth a lot, and my approach to it is pretty similar to how I used to work. FM saw waveforms have a nice warmth to them, and I frequently use them as backing tracks.
—What was your recording environment like during the Arsys years? I believe you used MML as a sequencer?
Yamanaka: No, I actually used something like Recomposer more. It couldn’t do chords in a single track, but it kept everything in memory and arranged the track info vertically, like MML. It had a sound editor too. This was the setup I used during my tenure at Arsys. It had a lot of excellent functions: you could change the sampling rate on it just by pressing the asterisk key, you could easily reference parts in other tracks, and you could record your FM sounds in a table for easy recall. I made a cool artificial reverb effect just by turning the sound down a little and shifting the playback start location by a small increment.
—I’ve seen that effect before in other developers’ games; did you take a hint from them when you did it?
Yamanaka: No, it was a trick I picked up from my days working with my multitrack recorder. Another technique I had was layering FM tracks to create chords. Probably anyone who has worked in FM knows how to do that, but I figured it out myself before I joined Arsys, when I was tooling around on the DX-7.
—Arsys also developed as a subcontractor for System Sacom; did you work on any of those games?
Yamanaka: Daisenryaku III ’90 (for the X68000) was almost entirely Nakano’s work. I did one song for it, but I can’t remember which one it was. For the Air Combat series, I ported sounds and worked on sound effects. I remember being handed a copy of the 9801 MML software and being asked to port sounds from it.
—The music X68000 version of Tenka Touitsu is a masterpiece that surpasses the originals. It features a thicker sound, and you added some very intricate vibrato.
Yamanaka: On this one too, I only did the sound porting and sound effects. The vibrato wasn’t something I did myself; I think it was a consequence of the sound driver and was added automatically.
—Did you do the sound effects on Arsys’ own games too?
Yamanaka: I did, it was something I worked on alongside the music. I used the same music editor to create the sound effects.
—What were you doing between the 6 year gap between Star Cruiser II and your work at Treasure?
Yamanaka: I worked as game/systems programmer. For example, at C.A. Productions in Oomura City, I worked on the motion programming for Hudson’s Playstation game “b.l.u.e. ~Legend of water~“. I went in for an interview for music work, but got handed programming jobs instead! Rakugaki Showtime, Bangai-O, and Sin and Punishment were all done before I joined Treasure too, as subcontractor work. A former graphic artist from Arsys worked at Treasure, and he got in contact with me. The only Treasure game I worked on as an official employee was Dragon Drive.
—Were you still using hardware synths at this point?
Yamanaka: That’s right. Although Rakugaku Showtime used the PSX’s internal sound chip. Norio Hanzawa did half the music for it. My songs sound completely different from his, I think you can tell right away: his songs have a comical mood and fit the game better, but I just wrote whatever I wanted, and hey, they said it was ok. (laughs)
“Risk One’s Neck” from the Sin and Punishment OST:
—I would say your work on Sin and Punishment for the N64 was another high point in your career. Its fierce, dense fusion sound makes you totally forget the limitations of the N64 hardware.
Yamanaka: That was PCM, accomplished thanks to a certain very talented programmer at Treasure.
—Streamed PCM was rare on the N64. It sounds great, you really don’t think you’re listening to an N64 game. Does that mean, by the way, you’ve got the higher quality, uncompressed music data lying around somewhere?
Yamanaka: Well, the only instrument I used to compose that music was the Roland SC-88 Pro. Since it turned out Treasure was able to do PCM streaming, it probably would have been nice if I’d worked in a more elaborate recording environment, but balancing a lot of sounds is actually very difficult for me. I use the expression “wall of sound” to refer to my own music style; I’m not very good at using space like some other composers are.
—The N64 version of Bangai-O uses the internal chip; the Dreamcast streams PCM. It’s a good game if you want to clearly hear the differences between the two sounds. The final game you did for Treasure, Dragon Drive, features an amazing synth funk score. What can you tell us about this one?
Yamanaka: It’s PCM too, almost the same techniques and recording environment as Sin and Punishment. For Dragon Drive, though, I switched from the SC-88 Pro to the SC-8820. I used a Korg Triton for some of the sound effects, too.
—This was your first time working with copyrighted source material; did you listen to, or draw any influence from the anime’s music?
Yamanaka: Well, all the music that accompanies the animation segments is from show. I did not pay any attention to it for my songs, which are all originals.
—After this you had a long period of inactivity, but recently you’ve been doing one-off arranges for Manabu Namiki, the Otomedius series, and others.
Yamanaka: I had never met Namiki or the other musicians at Basiscape before that. To be contacted like that by people you’ve never worked with—well, I was very thankful to receive their requests, and at the same time, it was also very mysterious.
—Well, I think there’s a lot of “hidden” fans of yours in the game industry. I also hear people say “I wish he’d make more game music again!” quite often. If there was an offer, would you be interested?
Yamanaka: Of course, if it was paid work. But because I’ve been out of practice for so long, it might take me more time than usual.
—Please give a final message for our readers today.
Yamanaka: I used to be someone who never played games, but now that I’ve grown distant from the game industry, I’ve actually gotten into them. (laughs) I like first-person and third-person shooters, especially. Gears of War 1&2, Dead Space, I’ve got a whole pile of games I’ve bought. I played Dead Space 2 enough to get the hardcore clear. These recent games have amazing atmosphere and great music, too. By the way, I (secretly) uploaded a single playthrough video to nico douga, of a certain famous horror game. See if you can find it! Here’s a hint: it has subtitles, and the video quality is crap. Will somebody please tell me how to encode better quality videos? (laughs)