For the past few years, composer Eiko Nichols has been working on a rendition of the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack with recorded acoustic instrumentation similar to the sound of Distant Worlds. With it finished, she released it on March 20th as Final Fantasy VI Acoustic Rendition.
Nichols is hoping that this album will prove successful so that she can work on more “Final Fantasy Acoustic Rendition” on an annual basis. She spoke to Siliconera about this in the interview below, in which she also talks about her love of Final Fantasy VI and the whole series, what she learned about the songs as she remixed them, and also explains the technical side of doing it.
First of all, could you introduce yourself and what it is that you do and have worked on?
Eiko Nichols, composer: Sure, my name is Eiko (Ishiwata) Nichols and I’m a freelance composer trained in classical music and sound engineering. I’ve been working in the film and game industry for around 7 years but recently narrowed down my specialty in mostly games. I still work on the odd film from time to time. Some of the notable films I worked on are Recoil and A Night for Dying Tigers.
I’ve worked on several small game titles but I’ve had the honor to work on a couple of bigger game titles recently, SnowCastle Games’ turn-based fantasy RPG Earthlock and Flying Carpet Games’ third person action/adventure game The Girl and The Robot. I’m based in the Greater Vancouver, BC area and I work from my home studio. I have a passion for turn-based JRPGs, game music, and electronic music. During my spare time I try to practice all the instruments I own, compose personal music, cover some of my favorite game pieces and dabble a bit in Unity.
How did you get into music composition in the first place? Were you encouraged by your family at all?
Before even playing my first game, I was coming up with my own piano pieces. The first instrument I learned was the piano at the age of 5. I don’t remember too clearly but my mom recalls that I came up with my own pieces from a very early age. I would neglect to practice the assigned curriculum and would only practice my own piano pieces. At the time my mom scolded me for not practicing the assigned music, she wanted me to focus in piano performance rather than in composition.
I come from a family line of classical painters and I also dabbled in visual arts. My mom wanted me to pursue a career in visual arts and encouraged me to go into classical animation but my desire for composition took over. But I’m very lucky, I’ve always had encouragement from my family no matter what my pursuits were. I was given my first soundtrack cassette tape from Myazaki’s Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa when I was around 6 or 7 and fell in love with it. I wanted to produce music like the film from Nausicaa even before I knew what the profession was called.
I spent most of my childhood years back in the late 80s and early 90s playing games with my older brother but it wasn’t until I was around age 11 when I was drawn to game music. That was the time when my friend introduced me to Final Fantasy II (IV) and to the genre of RPGs. I immediately loved The Prelude and figured out the piece on the piano. The year after, I received a copy of Final Fantasy III (VI) and became completely obsessed with the whole soundtrack and I knew I wanted to compose music for games. I later mail ordered the soundtrack to Final Fantasy III (VI) and also The Secret of Mana along with it.
I love the music composed by Joe Hisaishi (Miyazaki’s composer) but I personally find that game music leaves a longer impression on me since a game is usually played for hours on end as opposed to watching a film for around 2 hours. Every time I hear a piece from one of my favorite childhood games, it immediately takes me back to that time and brings back many memories.
What’s the range of instruments you can play? How would you describe the style of music that you tend to produce with these?
I can play a little bit of mostly everything but I wouldn’t claim that I’m extremely efficient in every instrument that I own or would be confident in preforming all of them professionally in front of an audience. I’m usually busy with many different projects and I don’t have a lot of spare time so I have to brush up on practicing one instrument for a week before I start to record. I focus on an instrument at a time so my lips or embouchure won’t get confused. I would say I produce more of a classical style for game music related projects, but have more of a jazz, Latin and Spanish style of playing for my personal work.
It says in your bio that you’re able to produce a recorded orchestra using your engineering skills? Speaking technically, how does this work?
I guess I should reword my bio since it’s more like an instrumental band sound. I use layering techniques to add a denser sound to the recorded instruments. Many of the instruments are usually played once but for sections such as strings, chorals and brass, I play, record and layer them several times. In addition to having many acoustic layers per section, I also layer a virtual instrument section underneath it such as Sonic Implants, Symphonic Strings and Brass. This way my pieces have human elements to the virtual sections while having a larger sound than just myself playing.
In order to get a good recorded take, I use various professional microphones (Shure, AEA, Audio Technica) and different miking applications within my small isobooth (WhisperRoom). Then the signal is directly inputted into Apogee Duet audio interface and into my Mac computer. I use Logic Pro for recording, editing, mixing and mastering as well as use a variety of third instruments tend to get tricky within a small dead isobooth space so I need to do a lot of post editing with effects to make it sound right.
Moving on to your latest project, your acoustic version of the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack—why did you decide to remake this OST in particular?
Final Fantasy VI was the third Final Fantasy I played after FFIV and Mystic Quest, but I liked it more than the other two. I guess third because I associate it with a very special time in my childhood. Even after playing it recently I find that the characters, story, artwork, setting, music, pacing, game play etc to be the strongest out of all the of the series I’ve played. It’s minimal and simple yet detailed and rich.
I really liked the music from FFIV and I purchased the album Celtic Moon when it was released. I loved how the album was minimal and raw due to it’s solo performances and felt somewhat similar to the original IV soundtrack. I used that album as a reference for mastering my album. After Celtic Moon was released I was hoping that something similar would be released for FFVI, but I was disappointed since nothing did. There have been some remix albums but I found that the original quality of the soundtrack was lost.
So after I put together my studio for my composition career, I covered my favorite piece from VI “Forever Rachel” for my own personal listening entertainment. I was encouraged by my friends to post it up on YouTube and after I did, it did surprisingly well and got quite a bit attention. From then on, I covered more of my favorite FFVI pieces and it just escalated into making this album.
How did you select the instruments you would use for each track? And how did using effects help to realize what you were after?
Selecting the instruments wasn’t a very difficult process. First I found a random MIDI of the piece online and opened it up in my audio program as a reference. I then compared it to the original OST piece and edited the MIDI. Most of MIDI files I found had errors such as missing sections, wrong notes and different tempos. Then I analyzed the original piece to try and gauge the type of instrument Uematsu was trying to convey. Many instruments he used have similar sound qualities so I choose the right instrument depending on it’s natural playing range. For example, his flutes, clarinets and oboes sound fairly similar to each other so I choose the low parts for the clarinets. The oboes and flutes usually fall within similar ranges so my decision was more of a personal choice.
Has being so close to the music during the acoustic rendition taught you anything about it that you may not have realized before?
I’ve learned a few things about myself and how story affects the way I feel about the music. For example, the piece “Kids Run Through The City Corner” never struck a chord with me; I neither loved it or hated it. I received many requests to cover that piece and I was always wondering why it was so popular. I associated it with wandering around towns, something very neutral. But after I finished the piece, I found a new love of the song since it had such a pleasant and peaceful vibe.
I then realized that the piece “Aeris” (FFVII) was similar to “Celes” and “Forever Rachel.” I love the two pieces from FFVI but was never too crazy about the piece “Aeris.” However, after my realization of “Kids Run Through The City Corner” I found out it had nothing to do with the piece itself. I’m probably going to get flack for saying this but I was never a fan of the Aeris character so I didn’t appreciate the song due to its association. “Aeris” is now one of my favorite pieces from Uematsu’s work.
Now that I’ve learned more about how I related the story with the music, I’ve found myself listening to music in a whole new way by ignoring the aspects of the game that I didn’t really like.
Does your love of VI and its music extend to all of the Final Fantasy games? What does this series mean to you?
Of course I like all of Uematsu’s game works but I do have favorites over others. I tend to like his pre-PlayStation work a bit better. It feels a bit more intimate, jazzy, somber and solitary but it’s more of a personal preference. His post-SNES music is amazing too. Two of my favorite pieces from the entire series were composed post-SNES – “You’re not Alone” (FFIX) and “To Zanerkand” (FFX). I was a bit disappointed when he moved on away from the FF series but his co-composers on the series are doing an amazing job.
Even though he is a behemoth in game music and can retire any time, I’m glad he’s still passionately involved in game music. Moving on to the series as a game, I played FF on the SNES when I was at an impressionable age so the old sprite games will always have a special place in my heart. Plus it was my only sanctuary when I was attending boarding school for highschool. I didn’t really have a good time there so I escaped through playing SNES Square Soft games. I was in college around the time the PlayStation came out so I was in a better environment and didn’t need to escape in games as much.
The latest FF I tried was Final Fantasy XII. I enjoyed the artwork, music and story but I just couldn’t get used to the game play. I find something very therapeutic or maybe addictive about turn-based grinding so I gave up midway through. However, I did love their old-school sprite games they released recently such as After Years and Dimensions. I’m hoping that square will release more games in that style.
What’s coming next from you? Can we expect more original takes on game soundtracks from you?
I have many personal music projects on the go but nothing’s set-in-stone. So I don’t want to announce anything just yet but you’ll definitely see me releasing at least one other Final Fantasy Acoustic Rendition album. This time it will be a collection of pieces from I-IX. If my albums are successful, I’m hoping to release one on an annual basis.
For my professional work, I’m proud to say I have two games that I worked on coming out later this year – The Girl and The Robot and Earthlock. The soundtrack to The Girl and The Robot is completed and is available for purchase but Earthlock is still on-going. I’m looking forward to playing the finished versions of both games very much. I’m also talking to several game studios for future music work, writing music for an upcoming art festival in Vancouver (CG Movement’s Anomaly), possibly working on a few indie films as well as thinking about forming a VR game company.