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Whispers of the Plains – Interviews With OverClocked Remix Project Leaders!

overclockedremixYesterday saw OverClocked Remix release “Summoning of Spirits”, a massive arrangements project that spans 4 discs (plus 3 bonus tracks) covering the Namco “Tales Of…” series focusing primarily on Phantasia and Symphonia. We’ll be bring a full track by track indepth review on Monday but until then we can simply say that it’s a class effort.

Until then we have our first double interview with OverClocked ReMix’s project leaders Aleah Baker and Kyle Crouse. With their collaboration, they work feverishly behind the scenes to ensure that these massive projects are organised and released. Here’s Higher Plain Music’s interviews with them both.

What made you choose the Tales series (and more specifically Tales of Phantasia) for the latest OCRemix album?

Kyle: While the games (particularly Tales of Symphonia) are quite popular and have developed a major following over the years, the music of the Tales series is extremely underrepresented in the game arrangement community. We wanted to change that, bringing attention to these games and their soundtracks, which are amazing. We narrowed the project down to Tales of Phantasia and Symphonia because they’ve both been groundbreaking games; Phantasia pushed the limits of the Super Famicom by having spectacular graphics for its time, as well as a fully-vocalized theme song and voice acting, while Symphonia propelled the Tales series to new heights in popularity. The two games are also connected in their storylines, so we decided to cover them both in Summoning of Spirits.

Aleah: The Tales series has been getting more releases and focus outside of Japan in recent years, and while its popularity is growing, it and its soundtracks haven’t had a lot of exposure, which is a shame because there’s a lot of great stuff there! Tales of Phantasia only recently got an official English release (though many experienced it earlier via an unofficial translation with some… well-remembered quotes), but when it came out on the SNES in 1995 it was pretty groundbreaking – huge for a cart, with impressive graphics and music, not to mention it had a full vocal track in its intro! As the first game of the series, with a lovely but under-represented soundtrack, we felt it deserved some recognition. While much of the series consists of stand-alone stories, Tales of Symphonia is actually the distant prequel to Phantasia, and its release almost a decade after Phantasia helped boost the series’ popularity outside of Japan.

As project directors, what are your main duties and biggest challenges in such a huge scale project?

Kyle: This project took nearly four years to complete, which is a long time, even for a project as large as this one. A lot of time was spent emailing and IMing the involved musicians, first to invite them to join the project, then to ensure that they finished their work. Luckily, many of the musicians developed a small community, providing feedback to each other on their remixes and collaborating where necessary, as well as helping out with some behind-the-scenes stuff. There were also some periods of time where the project saw almost no progress and I lost interest, and there were many times when real, non-internet life would step in the way. But we persevered and finally realized our vision!

Aleah: Personally I ended up with a lot of the artistic chores, so that was pretty time-consuming on my end. Beyond that, though, we had a lot to keep track of; which tracks were being covered, who was working on them, who was contributing what… we had to check in on various stages of progress, try to meet certain due-dates, provide feedback… it was a ton of stuff to keep tabs on, and because it took so long, everyone had to keep motivated. There was a lot of small-level organization to keep in order, even beyond the production of the music itself.

Summoning of Spirits is a huge collection. How did you get to the final collection songs you finished with?

Kyle: It wasn’t easy! Lea and I initially listened to both the Phantasia and Symphonia soundtracks in their entirety, attempting to pare down their massive tracklists into something more manageable. We took into account a number of things, such as songs played at notable moments in the games, songs that were popular amongst the fans of the series, and just songs that we wanted to hear remixes of. Battle themes and character themes in particular resonate a lot with those who’ve played these games, so we wanted to ensure that we fit in as many of those as possible. We brought down the list to about 36 songs, but over the course of 4 years, the project expanded into the 53 tracks we ended up with. A few remixers approached me with Work-In-Progress remixes of songs we hadn’t previously considered, and we liked them, so they were added to the project. We also invited a few more musicians after all of the songs had been claimed, so we gave them lists of new songs to work with. And of course Tales of Symphonia saw a sequel last year on the Wii, so we had to add in a few tracks from that game as a special bonus!

Aleah: We went through the entire soundtracks and tried to whittle our choices down – which was hard. Being that both games take place in the same world, there were a few tracks shared between the two that were pretty iconic… for example, Fighting of the Spirit, a battle track that’s hugely popular (there are tons of piano and guitar renditions on Youtube, for example – and when we first announced the project, it was literally the first track people hoped for), is featured for boss fights against various Summon Spirits in both games, so it was a given. We picked tracks that were especially memorable or unique, stuff that stands out when you’re playing the game, struggling through a particularly epic battle or experiencing a touching character moment. We looked at what was popular among the fans. Obviously we chose some personal favourites, though we tried not to be biased (for instance, a town theme I particularly like from Symphonia didn’t make the cut). Some tracks were added to the initial list because the remixers themselves were interested in covering them. Despite our efforts to condense things, the final track list ended up a bit bigger than we initially planned… which isn’t a bad thing, considering we’re covering multiple soundtracks.

Did you allow the artists complete free range on their arrangements or were there certain rules applied that they had to follow?

Aleah: The games themselves cover a wide range of styles, and for such a huge album I think variety is necessary, so we largely let everyone do what they wanted. Of course there was a lot of feedback and discussion with the works-in-progress, so we could see the direction a particular track was taking, but we didn’t want to limit anyone. These guys brought a huge range of talent and ability to the table; if a particular track appealed to them and they could see it working in a certain style, we weren’t going to stifle them.

Kyle: We did not have any limitations on the vision of the remixers. They were allowed free reign with their arrangements, and as such we ended up with a very diverse range of music. We invited musicians based on the quality of their previous work, like, “Oh, what if (insert artist here) remixed this? Imagine how awesome that would be!” So we wanted them to have freedom to do what they liked.


Are there arrangements that stick out as particular favourites for you both?

Kyle: There are so many, it’s hard to list just a few. Right off the bat, anything by Sixto Sounds (Juan Medrano) is a huge standout for me personally. The Unholy Wars in particular is exactly what Lea and I envisioned as the opening track to the project, and the others from him are no less than awesome. The collaboration of LuIzA (Luiza Carvalho) and CarboHydroM (Christophe Blondel) on Strike of the Devil’s Axes is also one that I love. TheDeath (Javier González Garcés) took the original Hydropolis theme from Phantasia and turned it into something truly grand and epic, and it’s quite a standout, I think. Altar Perception from Monobrow (Katie Kinkel), Protricity (Ari Asulin), AeroZ (Sebastian Freij) and injury (Starla) came together very well. The meshing of the organic cello and vocal harmonies with the electronic synths and percussion makes the track a highlight for me.

Aleah: I know it’d be a cop-out to say “all of them!” …but I really do enjoy the album as a whole. There’s not a single track I haven’t listened to countless times. But if you’re going to force me to pick a few examples… oh boy. Sixto Sounds and Dshu really kick things off with The Unholy Wars – Fighting of the Spirit was important to the project, and not only does the project start with it, it ends with Rexy’s softer Summoning of Spirits version, so it’s as well-represented as we’d hoped. Nick Tam’s Continental Divide takes an already pretty track and makes it magical, corny as that sounds, with some lovely woodwinds. Frozen Heart by Sir NutS and Usa features crisp piano over subtly energetic trance. Strike of the Devil’s Axes, LuIzA and CarboHydroM’s collaborative take on Symphonia’s popular Fatalize, is sure to knock some socks off. Rexy’s Gentry Is a Five Letter Word takes a nice but hectic town theme and makes it into something fun and delightful, like going to a fair. Horizon’s Walk by Tepid and PriZm has such a cool tone to it. Reuben Kee, who very sadly passed away in 2007, left us with the hauntingly beautiful My Secret Forest.

For budding artists looking to join in for future projects, what kind of advice would you give?

Aleah: Be aware of what you’re getting into! It’s easy to want to get involved with something you love, but make sure you know that it could be a very involved task and that you’re ready to give it the time and devotion needed. Don’t be afraid of criticism; working with others can really help you bring out the best of your ability, or take things in directions you hadn’t considered before.

Kyle: Don’t be afraid of criticism. Take it and work with it, and you can mould your works into something great. And respond to the project director’s emails! They hate it when you don’t do that!

I remember back when OCRemix was a small site back at the beginning, now its a bustling community releasing soundtracks for computer games! What’s your secret to success?

Kyle: Well, I have no official affiliation with OverClocked ReMix other than bringing Summoning of Spirits together, but I think their success is easily attributed to their dedication to quality. OCR has gotten a fair bit of criticism in the past, with its integration of a judges panel and a rigorous set of standards, but I think that is what has helped make OCR maintain and grow over the last 10 years. Video game music itself has also seen a boom in popularity recently, with game cover bands like The Megas and Powerglove becoming a staple in the underground music scene, so that certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Aleah: Not speaking in an official capacity, but I think part of it comes down to the increasing acceptance of video games themselves as an art form, in terms of art, music, storytelling and overall presentation. I remember when I was a kid, I’d hold a tape recorder up to the TV while playing games – I never imagined there’d be huge communities such as OCR devoted to game music, not to mention entire orchestral concerts! I think the remixing community as a whole helps contribute to that acceptance, helps push the medium as an art form, and in turn more people get involved.

summoningspiritscoverAre there any projects or artists you’d love to tackle in future projects?

Aleah: After this, I think I’m all project’d-out… for the time being, at least. I’d love to see the work of Yoko Shimomura, especially the Legend of Mana soundtrack, get more love! I’d also like to improve my own (meager) musical ability in the future.

Kyle: Well, Summoning of Spirits, although taking a very long time, was a good experience for me. I’ve thrown around a few ideas for projects that would be a bit smaller and featuring games close to my heart, like an F-Zero or Metal Slug arrangement, but if those come to fruition it will be far into the future. In the meantime, I’ll be looking at helping some struggling OverClocked ReMix projects like Around The World gain their footing and help them out.

What are the things you personally look out for in a good remix?

Aleah: I’m pretty easy going with my musical tastes. I’m pretty impressed when an artist can make a particular melody easily recognizable in an entirely new, different style. It’s like taking something familiar but getting an alternate perspective on it.

Kyle: I’m not much of a musician, so mostly just whether a song is enjoyable or not is good enough for me. I’m not a big stickler for remixes having to be major deviations from the source material (but I I don’t mind if they are), or if something is slightly off with, say, a sound sample or recording quality. I tried to keep a better sense of the OverClocked standards while working on Summoning of Spirits, but I don’t keep my personal bar that high, normally.

Who compiled the lovely intricate artwork the release?

Aleah: I did, thank you. Though because the project was so long in development, some of it’s a wee bit dated, I guess… oh well! I hope people enjoy it. A lot of the design was inspired by the games themselves… there’s a lot of fancy gold scrollwork, and many characters in Symphonia wear gems in such settings, so I tried to incorperate that into the visuals.

Kyle: She is extremely talented, which is one of the reasons why I asked her to work on this project with me and to create the artwork. OA (Andrew Luers) put together the final website design, but the graphical work was all Lea.

What do you do to relax once a hard days OverClocking is done?

Aleah: Video games, of course! I also like reading, drawing, photography, but there’s nothing quite like, say, arranging virtual furniture or mowing down hoards of the undead in a convertible while wielding a frying pan. And, of course, someone has to help that sword-carrying teen save the world from disaster, right? I like a lot of different genres, and while I don’t mind turn-based RPGs for the most part, the Tales series’ battle system is a lot of fun with a lot of interesting nuance. It plays almost like a fighting game, only there’s a ton of stuff going on at once and a lot of underlying strategy. It can get pretty intense!

Kyle: Play video games, what else? I’m more of an action-oriented gamer, so I’m a big player of the action-MMORPG City of Heroes, which I’ve logged countless hours into over the past several years. I also love racing game series, namely Gran Turismo, F-Zero, and Daytona USA, and classic platformers and shooters like Metal Slug, Mega Man, and Sonic games, and although I’m pretty terrible at them, fighting games like Guilty Gear are awesome. I actually am not a big fan of most Japanese RPGs (although I love their soundtracks), which might be a bit surprising considering the Tales series is one, but I usually dislike the battle system or some game mechanic, and they can be slow. The Tales series breaks those conventions with great gameplay and a battle system that works more like a fighting game, which is good enough for me!

You can download Summoning of Spirits for free at OverClocked Remix

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