Interview with Norihiko Hibino - Ninja Blade soundtrack composer
Interview with Norihiko Hibino - Ninja Blade soundtrack composer
Norihiko Hibino... That name surely known by any Metal Gear Solid fan. He was responsible for the soundtrack to MGS2-4 and was closely collaborating with Harry Gregson-Williams. There are many good titles which he wrote music for but today we will talk about his latest work - Ninja Blade. Soundtrack for this Xbox360 exclusive consits of 90 minutes heavy ethnic-sympho-electronic and selling as a separate 2-CD pack. So, if you want to know how it was made, join our discussion! Also, there you'll find demo-samples from the soundtrack.
Greetings, Mr. Hibino. We are very glad to speak with you. Ninja Blade is a very promising title, and we are not only looking forward to playing this game, but also to hear its soundtrack composed by GEM Impact.
Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear that.
I started my career as a jazz sax player as you know, and soon I realized that I may 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 was also interested in music production, and I could also learn sound engineering / synthesizer programming / film scoring. After working in movie theater manager in the States, I came back to Japan to start their branch. 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 and the video game company was the only way to have access to all the professional gear without having to buy it myself, and they even gave me a salary1 It was ’99, and Konami had just started development of MGS2. It was a time no serious composer wanted to work for a video game company, and Konami was looking for composers who could handle acoustic instruments for PS2 specs. After I did MGS2 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 career with music until graduating college.
You became well-known with the release of Metal Gear Solid 2. Truly, we believe you created the majority of the soundtrack. Your compositions have a very unique sound, not like the Hollywood sound that Harry’s tracks have. Who was responsible for that unique MGS2 music style that you implemented? How did you collaborate with the Harry Gregson-Williams?
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 the MGS2 music, as well as MGS3. In MGS3 I could use some Konami composers but in MGS2 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 still used in MGS2’s in-game music. Mostly the unique style I did in MGS2 came from this internal sound limitation. I couldn’t use long sample, so I created a melody with a series of short samples, like staccato strings or sax one-shot phrases.
Basically I was in charge of all things music in MGS2, 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 on Pro Tools to change the lengths to fit the movies.
Some music elements of Ninja Blade soundtrack that we heard are similar to the MGS2 style. There is a big amount of ethnic instruments used, but the MGS2 influence is still present. Can we call this your unique GEM Impact sound?
Well, I used the MGS2 & 3 soundtracks to give an idea to our composers about what I wanted to do. In Ninja Blade there’re a lot of elements in terms of genre, like film music, game music, techno, rock, abstract, drum’n’bass, orchestral… but none of existing music could match what I was trying to do this time, and the MGS music was the easiest to explain it with, in terms of tension and “crazyness.”
This text will be replaced by the flash music player.How did you collaborate with FROM SOFTWARE’s audio director? What was the main idea of Ninja Blade soundtrack?
The main idea is “Ninja for Westerners.” FROM has “Tenchu,” which is more focused on the Japanese ninja. Westerners think of the ninja as martial arts masters, so we decided to put in the following elements:
-Hollywood Action Style
-Japanese Traditional Element
As I wrote recently in “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, like “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.”
Our site visited by amateur composers and they are wondering what was deadlines for Ninja Blade? In other words, how much music did you have to write in what amount of time?
For Ninja Blade we had enough time to write. Usually composers finish 1 song in 1-2 days, and we spend 3-4 months to develop all the music. However, the most tough part is not just making music. We need to adjust so that the music works well in the game, including arrangement, length of songs, frequency share with sound effects… and we created expanded arrangements for the soundtrack release. We spent 2 years finishing everything.
Did you use live instruments or samples? If you recorded any live musicians, how did the recording sessions go? Could you name these musicians so we can add them to album credits?
At first I did quite a lot of live recording way before making the songs. I recorded many “improvisation” and “simple phrases” and I made 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 the musicians are credited in the soundtrack. It was quite an efficient and effective way to use acoustic instrument. The reason I did not record everything live is there’s always a chance for game music to be changed in the later part of game development. If I do not rely on live recordings, I can change the length or arrangement easily until the very last moment.
What were the influences for the soundtrack? Maybe you had a Japanese ninja film in mind, or something else?
My past work on MGS2, MGS3, and Yakuza2.
Were there any funny moments while you were working on Ninja Blade?
There is one funny kids cartoon-like song that I made but we didn’t have chance to use it in the game, because of the change of scenario. This is quite nicely done! I hope I can release this funny song someday.
Another question to help our composers: what equipment do you use for writing music? We’re also interested in what methods you use when you write a melody from scratch.
For composing I use Logic. For mixing I use Pro Tools. The reason is 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 of chords and rhythm when starting from scratch. Good melody should be good melody, regardless of chords and rhythms. Many times I just create a melody, quantize it, and add just a little bit of harmony and pass it to our composers. Many songs were done in that way.
Could you tell us about your daily routine as a composer? We personally think that it is very hard to sit over the computer about 8-10 hours everyday and write music. Music composition is a very creative process.
Well, I don’t only work as a composer, but also as a CEO of my company, and run other businesses as well. I have a lot of meeting during the day and night, so the only time I can compose is in the morning. Usually I compose very fast. Because I know my goal very clearly, and I don’t mess around once I get there. In live recording it is even faster. I record 6-7 songs with bands in a day. Efficiency is very important to manage budget and time, and to do that you need to use your different brain.
Not so long ago, GEM Impact made the soundtrack for the anime Blassreiter. Do you plan to work in this direction in the future?
We quite enjoyed this work as well. We always get to write action and ambient music, but classical / bossa nova like chamber music is something I haven’t written much. After Blassreiter, I hope to get more and more chances to write music in this chamber style music.
What is the difference between writing soundtracks for games and movies?
The big difference is in movies, composers start working after most of 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 you should not add any unnecessary music to wherever it is not necessary, and you have to decide all of this. It’s a lot of fun.
Japanese culture like anime and J-Pop has become very popular in Russia. Many people watch anime and some of them perform at cosplay events. Recently you wrote an anime-like opening for “Sho Chiku Bai.” This is your first approach in this role. What is the difference between writing a main theme for a game or an animes/movie? Could you us tell about the experience you received while working on such different type of project?
Well, for me, it is a same process. I create music for whatever necessary situation. In this “Sho Chiku Bai,” (surprisingly this 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,” as you say, 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 the lady, as well as “Akiba” fans all over the world, by using their language.
We know that Japan’s top secret agents will surely try to kill us but could you tell what current projects you are writing music for? :)
Well, there’re some big titles I’m working on but I cannot say yet…
One thing I’m working with Marc on 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 background. Soft music and relaxing visuals will hopefully induce a nice sleep. It will be released in early spring. The music is all recorded live, and it’s quite relaxing yet exciting.
Do you plan to work on another solo album like the fantastic Akashi? Or maybe you’re already working on something?
As I mentioned above, I’m quite into sound therapy now, and I plan to make new album within that field this year, so stay tuned!
Thanks for answering our dull questions :) You can say “Hi, Russia!” or something else to our readers - they like this!
Hello Russia! I’m so glad there’re fans 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!
And, again thanks for the interview. We are looking forward to hearing your (and GEM Impact’s) works in the future.
Be sure to visit GEM Impact official site for latest news and upcoming projects!