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Phantasy Star Online’s music has defined the series for 20 years

With 2020 being the 20th anniversary of Sega’s Dreamcast role-playing game Phantasy Star Online, we’re looking back with a series of interviews featuring key team members who worked on the game. Over the past two weeks, we’ve posted chats with producer Yuji Naka and director Takao Miyoshi, and now we move over to composer and sound designer Hideaki Kobayashi.

Kobayashi’s trippy electronic music is one of the most notable elements of Phantasy Star Online, and from the original PSO onward, Kobayashi has been responsible for the majority of the series’ sound design and soundtrack work. Below, Kobayashi shares his thoughts about the substantial body of music he’s created, the collaborations that have occurred on the series, PSO in concert, secret fan service, and the music he composes in his free time.

Can you please explain your role on the PSO team? I know you were responsible for the theme songs, but were you responsible for all the sound in the game?

There was a sound director who decided the overall mood of the game. Originally, I worked under him to create various sounds and pieces of music. There was another creator on the team who I worked with to create the background music and sound effects. I came up with the sounds that I felt fit well in the sci-fi environment that PSO was going to be set in.

Were you a member of the Wave Master team [an audio group at Sega] at the time?

It’s a little complicated. At first I was at Sega Enterprises. In the early 2000s, I switched over to Wave Master, and that’s where all the sound creators were. Wave Master still exists today, but at one point all the creators moved back to Sega, and now we all work at Sega Games.

How long would you say you were at Wave Master?

I’d need to look it up. I was there for a few years.

You were a part of Wave Master during the development of PSO?

For the first PSO title, I was working under Sega Enterprises.

Was Wave Master always a publishing label, too?

Initially, they were a label and also did sound production. I worked for Wave Master during the development of Phantasy Star Online Episode 3: CARD Revolution.

Wave Master published their own game at one point, right?

Yes, they did. It was called Roommania #203.

Hideaki Kobayashi stands in front of the Sega logo on a wall

Hideaki Kobayashi
Photo: James Mielke for Polygon

How did you get assigned to the PSO project and become the soundtrack composer?

The reason why I was chosen probably had to do with the timing of the project, and the sound director at the time must have thought I would be a good fit. In addition to that, though, there was also the fact that I personally really liked the original Phantasy Star. I learned how to play the [Yamaha] Electone, an electric organ, in middle school and created my own arrangements of the music of Phantasy Star. That’s how much I like the game, and it’s one reason why I got into Sega in the first place.

One day, my boss came around to my desk asking if I knew about Phantasy Star. I’m like, “Of course!” To which my boss responded, “We’re making a game in the Phantasy Star universe. Would you be interested in giving it a shot?” And I told him “yes” on the spot. So, that was how I got the position. I was still a rookie, only about two years since joining Sega, so the team probably didn’t know anything about me. I can only guess that their response to having me was probably like, “Well, let’s give this guy a shot.” That was the first time I made a demo tape for a theme song and the music for the first few stages. Fortunately, those pieces I wrote matched well with what the development team had created, and they approved my work. That’s, I think, when the development team accepted me and I was able to be involved with the full project.

Phantasy Star Online is coming up on its 20th anniversary. This was one of your early projects, looking back, but how do you reflect on the development of the game at this point?

I joined the Phantasy Star Online franchise in the year 2000 with PSO and have been involved with almost every version of the game since, for 20 years. It’s become my life’s work, really. At the same time, 20 years has gone by in a blink of an eye, from my point of view. Right now [at the time of this interview in 2019], we’re working on Phantasy Star Online 2. We’ve been working on this title for over five years. It really feels like the years flew past.

Were you involved with Phantasy Star Nova on PlayStation Vita?

I wasn’t involved with Nova directly, no.

Because it was developed by TriAce?

Yes.

What are your favorite musicians or influences?

That’s difficult. In regards to BGM, when I was in college I was in a jazz band. It was big band jazz. I was heavily influenced by that style. After that, I went to a music school for two years. It was the late 1990s and I was exposed to fusion music … Brecker Brothers. But Chick Corea, also. Also, French composer Michel Legrand, who passed away recently.

That’s interesting, because PSO has a very synthesized feel, and that felt like a deliberate choice for the sci-fi element. Some of the music is kind of trippy, like an acid trip, because the sounds were modulated a lot. What were your goals while making the music?

[laughs] Yeah, I started with, “What kind of music would fit the PSO world?” I thought that ambient music would work. I really wanted to use ambient music, especially in the scenes that weren’t battle scenes. For the battle scenes, I added more rhythm and beats with more melodic songs. The way the music changes is a little unique in PSO. The music is seamless between the battles and non-battle scenes. Maybe that transition comes off as sounding a little trippy.

If you were to reflect on your body of work from PSO to Blue Burst and Phantasy Star Universe and PSO2, what would you say are the common elements across your work?

I think the element that unites the PSO games is that they’re sci-fi. I wanted to really embrace that and reflect the sci-fi element in the music. Other than that, there really isn’t a theme that [unites the music in the game]. I wanted to maintain the structure of music that I originally composed for PSO, which I think has become the “color” or essence of PSO music. Other than that, it’s music that I like and fits my style.

Can you talk about what your favorite equipment is?

I like to play trombone, and that’s what I used in the big band group back in the day. My favorite hardware synthesizer is the Roland JV-2080. It was a famous synthesiser at the time, and all the Phantasy Star Online songs were created on the Roland JV-2080. Nowadays, all the synthesizers are on the computer in the form of software, so we stopped using hardware for music composition, but the PSO sound was possible because of that Roland hardware.

So none of the PSO music was composed on the trombone?

Nope.

You also used an orchestra. In the credits, there’s the orchestra producer and arranger, who rearranged your original music. Can you describe how they were involved?

I asked someone else to work on the orchestra pieces. Originally, I composed the theme song and orchestra songs, and then had someone else arrange them for the orchestra. But the songs I composed were also used in the first level, so there’s a little bit of both, my compositions and orchestral arrangements.

Can you tell us why you decided to have orchestral arrangements in the game?

Honestly, I can’t remember. I think it was the sound director who wanted the opening music to be an orchestral piece.

Have you collaborated with lyricists and vocal artists frequently?

I haven’t written too many songs with lyrics. Traditionally speaking, the opening theme songs have had lyrics, but not so much within the game. That has changed for PSO2, which has a few songs within the game that have lyrics.

How do you collaborate with the lyricists and vocalist when you work with them?

I usually meet with the lyricist, and provide direction and information about what I have in mind. I only meet with the vocalist at the recording sessions. I’ve usually provided them with the demo tapes in advance, and then give them direction as we record.

Is the vocalist also the lyricist?

No, they’re different people.

We’ve spoken with other members of the team about the technical challenges of PSO. Can you talk about some of the challenges of writing music for the Dreamcast, if any, for this game?

Where should I start … I mentioned earlier that the PSO sounds were a little different. To elaborate on that, the music data exists as one stream with a bunch of short pieces that are connected together. Each melody is constructed in four measures. Those four-measure pieces are connected together in-game, according to the gameplay. So, if an enemy appears on screen, the music shifts to play the pieces associated with that enemy, or when you’re in combat.

We were able to implement all that using the CRI [CSK Research Institute] sound libraries — you might have seen the ADX logo in the game. That’s all related to the sound. What the programmer had to do was insert the specific numbers, like 3.76 seconds, for example. And, every 3.76 seconds, a new melody would play. All of that programming to match the gameplay had to be done from scratch, and that was a very difficult process. What ended up being a failure for the project was that there wasn’t enough memory available on Dreamcast for the number of sound effects being played at the same time.

We chose direct streaming to play back the sound of the game, but we didn’t realize just how much data there was going to be at the end. We decided that the game was going to have a continuous stream of music, but what ended up happening was that it used so much of the Dreamcast’s hardware resources that we encountered a lot of crashes related to that. The phenomenon even gained a reputation as “The Crasher” because of how often this would crash the game. That was definitely a failure in our approach to that. For the GameCube version that came along later, we changed the system so that the game would run within the memory allocation of that hardware, and the music would be read from the hardware.

Does that mean the system was constantly reading off of the Dreamcast GD-ROM?

Yes, so when streaming the music from the disc, there were some sound effects that didn’t fit in the memory, so we had to also stream those effects from the disc. There were parts of the game that used an influx of those particular sound effects and caused the game to crash.

The GameCube had more onboard RAM, so were you able to load most of the sound effects directly into the memory?

Yes, the GameCube sound memory was bigger. I think we were able to load all the sounds into the GameCube memory.

So when making the version for Xbox — which came with a hard drive — was that a huge resource for storing the sound effects and the soundtrack?

I think all the sounds fit into the memory for the Xbox, as well, but I don’t think the sounds were installed onto the hard drive.

Nobody used that hard drive. Can you remember the first track you composed as a test for PSO?

[It was] the boss track that plays in the first level with the dragon, and the title screen background music.

Which one is the song that got the orchestral treatment?

The theme song, and there were a few tracks where some sections of the song used non-synthesizer instruments, particularly the strings sections. The Vol Opt boss fight was partly orchestrated. There were various other songs that also had strings layered throughout the tracks. And the last boss, Dark Falz, was another track that had strings layered into the track.

So, those are real string instruments.

Yes, that’s correct.

When you were composing the soundtrack for PSO, were you aware of or trying to avoid being influenced by any other RPGs or action RPGs?

I think so. Yes.

In hindsight, are there any game music composers that you admire?

Taito’s sound team. I love Zuntata. I actually wanted to work there and applied for a job position at Taito, but didn’t get the job. But I got accepted to Sega so, you know, no regrets. I wanted to work for Sega, as well.

12 Phantasy Star Online characters stand side-by-side

Phantasy Star Online artwork
Image: Sega

Nobuo Uematsu does live performances of his compositions. Have you done live concerts with the PSO soundtrack?

We’ve had three PSO concerts. But they were all concerts after the release of PSO2, so it was mostly music from PSO2. I think the first or second performance had a medley of the PSO songs. I didn’t perform [at the concerts] myself, though.

Are these concerts that were organized by Sega?

Yes. There have also been small gaming events where I was asked to perform the theme song to PSO. For these events, I hired a vocalist to do the vocals and I performed on the keyboard.

That’s really fun to hear. Were these official events?

These were events organized by Sega. Every once in a while, Sega organized small events for consumers where they could come and compete onstage. The winner won prizes, etc. We decided to do a mini-live concert at one of these events.

With the 20th anniversary coming up, maybe it’s time for a big celebration? How about at the Budokan? Maybe Tokyo Dome?

[laughs] That would be awesome.

Of all the soundtracks, which one is your favorite?

It’s a hard question. I like all of them. I especially like the first two. The first album was recorded on a “CD extra”; it was a CD that could store data. But once you stored data on it, the remaining storage capacity couldn’t hold the rest of the tracks. CDs fit about 74 minutes of music. But it could only store about 45 minutes of music, not enough to fit all of PSO’s tracks. That’s why I wanted to release [the second] CD. But, if I recall correctly, it took awhile before we were able to release the second CD. I was pleased when we were finally able to release it with the remaining tracks.

What was on the CD-Extra?

It had additional content, like screenshots, that took up space on the CD and prevented us from including all the music from the game. For the second release, I wanted to make sure all the music was included, so we released it as a two-disc album.

Working at Sega has allowed you to see multiple albums’ worth of music released on CD. How do you feel about that?

I’m quite happy that my music has been released on CD. Sega probably wasn’t sure how many would sell, so we tried including screenshots and “extra” material to make the product more appealing. They’ve released a soundtrack CD for every game released, and I’ve strived to write music that would make people want to buy the soundtrack, so I’m happy that I’ve been able to accomplish that.

If you were recording your own music, a solo album, outside of gaming, what kind of music would you release?

I have released my own original music in the past. Not through a publisher, but as an amateur artist. I used to burn my own CDs and sell them at small events. Nowadays, I don’t have the time to write my own music.

Hideaki Kobayashi carries a large pile of CD cases

Hideaki Kobayashi with many of his Phantasy Star soundtracks
Photo: James Mielke for Polygon

What type of music was it?

Some of the songs were similar to the music of PSO, using the synthesizer. I also wrote some string quartet pieces, too. They were made on a synthesizer, but it was recorded with a string quartet.

Did you also do the composition for Phantasy Star Online Episode 3: CARD Revolution?

I did some, but not a lot. Specifically, the title screen and the last boss.

Do you remember trying to maintain a certain style?

At the time, I was already working on Phantasy Star Universe, and I wasn’t in charge of the music for PSO3. But, partway through the project, they asked me to come onboard and write some music for PSO3, so I took the music I was writing for Phantasy Star Universe and used it for PSO3. So the music for the title screen was originally something that I was writing for PSU.

Why didn’t you use it in PSU?

When it came time to go back to work on PSU, the universe was very different from the other Phantasy Star games, as you know, so my original ideas for PSU didn’t really work for that game. So, I decided that I needed to come up with a new style for PSU.

The Phantasy Star Portable games were basically ports of PSU. But the final game, Phantasy Star Portable 2 Infinity, had a lot of new, original content. Were you involved with writing the music for that, as well?

Yes. For Infinity, I basically wrote all the new songs that were needed for the game. I think it was one stage, one boss stage, and one vocal song, as well.

Any interesting stories for the readers?

I don’t know if this is interesting for the readers, but I joined the project mid-development and was a hardcore fan. I’d play at my desk and had two Dreamcasts just so I could play PSO.

Have there been any fan service types of things that you incorporated into your music?

In PSO2, the music is randomly generated, and I included jingles from the original Phantasy Star. So players would randomly hear jingles from the original game while playing. In Blue Burst, there were new Rappy characters and I was asked to give them new voices, so I recorded voices of people in the office — and one of the women whose voices that I recorded is actually now my wife.


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