Norihiko Hibino Interview: Ninjas for Westerners (April 2009)
Norihiko Hibino's name is well known to any fan of the Metal Gear Solid scores. Hibino has worked on most Metal Gear Solid soundtracks, and collaborated closely with Harry Gregson-Williams in the process. Of course, he's worked on many other games as well, but today he will focus on his latest work - Ninja Blade. The soundtrack for this Xbox 360 exclusive has been released on a 2-CD album that packs almost two hours of hybridised compositions that combine rock, symphonic, electronic and ethnic styles.
Interview Subject: Norihiko Hibino
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Greetings, Mr. Hibino. We are very glad to speak with you today. Ninja Blade is a very promising title, and we are not only looking forward to playing this game, but also to hearing its soundtrack composed by GEM Impact.
Norihiko Hibino: Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear that.
Michael: First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, particularly in regards to your background as a jazz performer? Also, have you had a traditional music education?
Norihiko Hibino: I started my career as a jazz sax player as you know, and soon I realized that I might not be able to support myself with just playing an instrument when I become old, so I decided to go to Berklee to study music theory and arrangement. While I was there, I also became interested in music production, and I was able to also learn sound engineering / synthesizer programming / film scoring. After working as a movie theater manager in the States, I came back to Japan to open my company's new branch there. After successfully starting a new theater business, I took a chance to get into Konami, because I didn’t have enough money to buy production gear. A video game company was the only way to have access to all the professional gear without having to buy it myself, and they would even give me a salary! It was 1999, and Konami had just started development on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It was a time when no serious composer wanted to work for a video game company, and Konami was looking for composers who could handle acoustic instruments for the PlayStation 2's specs. After I had done Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 and many more, I quit Konami to start my own music production company called GEM Impact, aiming for a better budget management system.
I started to learn piano at the age of 4 and I used to play in a brass band in junior high school, so that’s my traditional musical education, in a way. However, I never thought about making a career out of music until graduating college.
Michael: You became well-known for your work on Metal Gear Solid 2. You wrote the majority of music for the game and created quite a unique sound, distinct from Harry-Gregson Williams' more Hollywood-inspired contributions. How did this particular style of yours come about and how did you collaborate with Harry Gregson-Williams?
Norihiko Hibino: Oh, I’m very happy that you noticed that! Harry’s name is always upfront and I was a shadow player, but actually I did most of Metal Gear Solid 2, as well as Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In Metal Gear Solid 3, I was able to call upon the help of Konami composers, but on Metal Gear Solid 2, I was the only in-house composer, and all the in-game music was mine. My boss gave me a lot of tips about video game sound, including internal sound systems which I used for Metal Gear Solid 2’s in-game music. Mostly, the unique style I developed for Metal Gear Solid 2 came from these internal sound limitations. I couldn’t use long samples, so I created melodies through series of short samples, like staccato strings or sax one-shot phrases. Basically I was in charge of all things music on Metal Gear Solid 2, and I made a song list and gave direction to Harry, explaining the scene context. He gave me songs in several stems and I made a lot of edits in Pro Tools to change the track lengths to fit the movies.
Michael: Although Ninja Blade uses more ethnic instruments, some of its musical elements are reminiscent of your Metal Gear Solid style. Would you say there's something like a trademark GEM Impact sound?
Norihiko Hibino: Well, I used the Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 soundtracks to give our composers an idea of what I wanted to achive. On Ninja Blade, there are a lot of different genre elements like film music, game music, techno, rock, abstract, drum’n’bass, orchestral… but no existing music could match what I was trying to achieve this time, and the Metal Gear Solid music was the easiest way to explain what I was looking for in terms of tension and “crazyness.”
Michael: How did you collaborate with developer From Software’s audio director? What was the main idea behind Ninja Blade's soundtrack?
Norihiko Hibino: The main idea is “Ninja for Westerners.” From Software also has the Tenchu series of games, which is more focused on the Japanese idea of ninjas. Westerners think of the ninja as martial arts masters, so we decided to put in the following elements:
- Hollywood Action Styles
- Japanese Traditional Elements
- Sorrowful Moments
- Some “Crazyness”
As I recently wrote on "Ask Hibino", I think Japanese people have some craziness to them, even though they are conservative in many ways. If you think of the way the Japanese commit suicide for example, “kamikaze”... when Japanese people get angry, they become insane (this is called “buchigire” in Japanese). I understand this, and believe we were able to work so hard due to this “inner-hot blood.”
Michael: What were the deadlines on Ninja Blade? In other words, how much music did you have to write in what amount of time?
Norihiko Hibino: For Ninja Blade we had enough time. Usually composers finish one song in 1-2 days, and we spend 3-4 months developing all of the music. However, the toughest part is not just writing the music. We need to adjust it so that the music works well in the game, which includes checking a track's arrangement, the length of songs, the frequency share with sound effects… and we created expanded arrangements for the soundtrack release. We spent two years finishing everything.
Michael: Did you use live instruments or samples? If you recorded any live musicians, how did the recording sessions go and how were these musicians?
Norihiko Hibino: At first I did quite a lot of live recording, way before writing the songs. I recorded many improvisations and simple phrases, and built up a sample library for Ninja Blade. Our composers shared these samples to develop songs, and at the end I recorded strings and brass on top of the sequenced tracks. All of the live musicians are credited in the soundtrack. It was quite an efficient and effective way to use acoustic instruments. The reason I did not record everything live is that there’s always a chance for the music to be changed during the later part of a game's development. If I do not rely on live recordings, I can change a track's length or arrangement easily, up to the very last moment.
Michael: What were your influences on Ninja Blade - maybe particular Japanese ninja films?
Norihiko Hibino: My past work on Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid 3 and Yakuza 2.
Michael: Were there any funny moments while you were working on Ninja Blade?
Norihiko Hibino: There is one funny kids cartoon-like song that I made, but we didn’t get a chance to use it in the game, because of a change of scenario. The track was quite nicely done! I hope I can release this funny song someday.
Michael: What equipment do you use for writing music? What methods do you use to come up with a melody from scratch?
Norihiko Hibino: For composing I use Logic. For mixing I use Pro Tools. The reason for this is that Logic is easier when you think of music in measures, while Pro Tools is better when you do waveform editing. I used to spend a lot of time with chords, but recently I do not even think about chords and rhythm when starting from scratch. A good melody should be a good melody, regardless of chords and rhythms. Often I just create a melody, quantize it, and add just a little bit of harmony and pass it on to our composers. Many songs on Ninja Blade were done that way.
Michael: Could you tell us about your daily routine as a composer?
Norihiko Hibino: Well, I don’t just work as a composer, but I'm also the CEO of my company, and I run other businesses as well. I have a lot of meetings at day and night, so the only time I can compose is in the morning. Usually I compose very fast, because I know my goals very clearly, and I don’t mess around once I get there. Live recording is even faster. I record 6-7 songs in a day with bands. Efficiency is very important to manage budget and time.
Michael: Recently, GEM Impact did the soundtrack for anime series Blassreiter. Do you plan to continue working in the style exhibited on Blassreiter?
Norihiko Hibino: We quite enjoyed Blassreiter as well. We always get to write action and ambient music, but classical / bossa nova-like chamber music is something I hadn’t written much before. I hope to get more and more chances to write music in this chamber style.
Michael: What is the main difference between writing soundtracks for games and for movies?
Norihiko Hibino: The big difference is in movies, composers start working after most of the shooting process is done. On the other hand, game music needs to be done way before even graphics are done. This means in games, you have to establish your own concept and world which goes beyond the game’s scenario. In movies you are asked to follow whatever directors want, but in games you have to be able to produce the right tension at the right moment with your music, and must avoid adding unnecessary music, and you have to decide all of this. It’s a lot of fun.
Michael: Recently you wrote an anime-like opening song for Sho Chiku Bai - a personal first for you. What is the biggest difference between writing a main theme for a game and for an anime/movie?
Norihiko Hibino: Well, for me, it's the same process. I create music depending on whatever suits the project best. In the case of Sho Chiku Bai (surprisingly the game is produced by Marc Cellucci, an American), we targeted this game to people who are into Japanese culture. When you think of "Current Japan", it’s cosplay, anime, comics, ramen noodles, convenience stores, everyone’s busy, women who are strong and selfish, etc. However, I realized that there are some well-off ladies who understand the traditional Japanese way that women behave, which is actually quite attractive to Japanese men. That’s how they seem to do so well in their business and in their private lives! With the music of Sho Chiku Bai, I focused on this idea. It’s a message for Japanese ladies, as well as “Akiba” fans all over the world, by using their language.
Michael: We know you might not be able to tell us, but what projects are you currently writing music for?
Norihiko Hibino: Well, there are some big titles I’m working on, but I can't yet reveal their names… One thing I’m working on with Marc [Cooke, developer] is an iPhone application for "good sleep." This year I started the "Hibino Sound Therapy Lab", which examines sound therapy based on medical and psychological research. Soft music and relaxing visuals will hopefully induce a nice sleep. It will be released in early spring. All of the music is recorded live, and it’s quite relaxing yet exciting.
Michael: Do you plan to work on another solo album like the fantastic Akashi?
Norihiko Hibino: As I mentioned above, I’m quite into sound therapy now, and I plan to make a new album within that field this year, so stay tuned!
Michael: Thanks for answering our questions. Do you have any message for our readers in Russia?
Norihiko Hibino: Hello Russia! I’m so glad there are fans there who like my music, which I don’t usually see in Japan... I hope I can do a concert in Russia someday! Please let me know if you have a good location to recommend, and I’ll go and play!