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Game Music's New Canon: The How and Why of Brave Wave

COVER STORY: A small, fan-driven music label is bringing newfound respect to game music by offering veteran composers a safe haven for the classic tunes they love making.

Profile by Jeremy Parish, .

The sun never sets on the Brave Wave empire

It's not only the label's pool of talent that's grown. In the four years since its inception, Brave Wave has grown from one man tilting at the windmill of his affection for classic game music to a proper business of four full-time employees. (Besides Taher and Aniel, the company also employs Associate Director and Mixing Engineer Marco Guardia, and recently brought on former Capcom USA Community Manager Brett Elston as an Assistant Director.)

The nature of the business, and the circumstances of its conception and realities, make for a remarkably international concern. While founder Taher is based in Kuwait, Aniel works from Tokyo (along with the majority of the composers). Meanwhile, Guardia hails from Switzerland, and the SF Bay-based Elston represents an American presence.

Aniel finds this global reach works to the company's advantage. "If it’s 12 p.m. here, it’s 7 a.m. where Mohammed is, so usually we’re able to get in touch by midday, and I can have him available even late, late into the evening," he says. "We have clients in the States, which is even further behind than Europe is, so if I wake up in the morning, I might be answering e-mails that I’ve gotten early, like 4 or 5 a.m."

Yet it also brings with it its share of challenges, he admits. "There’s also a lot of traveling that we didn’t anticipate, so I’ve been overseas every month for the last two years, and there’s no end in sight until maybe around April."

The Brave Wave team at the company's recent anniversary dinner, from left: Alexander Aniel (CEO, Japan Representative); Takahiro Izutani (co-composer of Bayonetta series and MGS4); Yoko Shimomura (SFII, Kingdom Hearts, FF15, Mario & Luigi series); Smoke Thief ("a new composer in the scene — we released his solo album"); Manami Matsumae (Mega Man, Shovel Knight, Mighty No. 9); Mohammed Taher (Founder, Creative Director); Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden); Kaori Nakabai (Ninja Gaiden III); Ryuichi Nitta (Ninja Gaiden II)

Even more daunting, Aniel finds, is the task of dealing with the different idioms and approaches inherent to a team of creators drawn from around the world. "Managing everyone’s expectations has admittedly been very challenging," he says. "Even minute details like payment schedules can sometimes be a contentious issue between Japanese composers and foreign companies, and vice-versa, so it’s all about trying to find a middle ground that works for everyone.

"Japan has its own way of doing things, and Brave Wave is a Japanese company, technically, even though it’s run by non-Japanese people. So we have Japanese laws, Japanese customs to follow... but then a lot of the people we work with are also based overseas, so they have their own expectations, and trying to get that all going smoothly is definitely a challenge. [We've worked in] like 10 different countries, and we expect that to get even bigger. Having that all rest on one person... it’s an arduous task, but I enjoy it."

Things grow even more complicated when the label's composers and performers begin to deal with international work rules and immigration agencies. The U.S. market in particular presents exceptionally steep barriers to entry, as Aniel and Matsumae have learned first-hand.

"Manami was supposed to perform one or two songs at PAX," he recalls. "A very small event at a clubhouse, nothing major – we didn’t even officially negotiate a payout for it, because it was supposed to be just a fun thing to do for fans, right? Two or three days before that, she was also scheduled to perform in Mexico, so there aren’t that many flights that go between Japan and Mexico, so usually people will transit in the States. So we booked one flight to L.A., and then one flight from L.A. to Mexico, and then during our transit in L.A., she was sent into what’s called 'secondary screening.'

"As soon as you’re sent in there, your own personal schedule takes a backseat to anything that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection might have. So basically, she was detained for five hours, we missed our connecting flight (which was coincidentally five hours later), and she was told that while she would be allowed to proceed to Mexico, she was not allowed to come back [to the U.S.] because she didn't have the proper visa to do a live performance that’s compensated. Even if you get your flight paid for or your hotel paid for, that counts as compensation that requires you to get a visa.

Matsumae performs "Treasure King" from Shovel Knight with co-composer Jake Kaufman.

"I don’t want to draw too much attention to this, in case anyone from the government’s reading this," he jokes, "but most people don’t get visas because, I don’t know, you wouldn’t think you’d need a visa for that, right? But evidently you do, and in Matsumae-san’s case, they did a follow-up and found out about her performance and PAX, so that’s when she was not allowed to come back into the country. But it’s very non-transparent – they didn’t give her any paperwork that makes the verdict official, so I’m only going by hearsay based on what the airline employee told me.

"It’s not a trivial process to get a visa; 99 percent of the time, getting a visa comes out to paying $50, maybe $100 for a three-day application process and you’re done, but with the U.S., it’s not that simple. It takes as long as six months, and in many cases you’ll need to hire an immigration lawyer, and that might cost up to $5,000. So for whatever reason, it’s really not an easy process, and part of me is saying, 'Maybe we just shouldn’t bother performing in the U.S.; we could perform in Europe with minimal disruption, we can perform in Canada and Mexico.' But the U.S. is also the biggest market out there, so ignoring it forever is not a practical solution. But you know, $5,000, multiple composers…."

Next ’Wave

Given its unconventional structure—not to mention unusual area of specialization—Brave Wave's greatest asset may be its flexibility. The label deals with each artist differently. While some artists have chosen to build a strong, exclusive relationship with the company, others prefer a more a la carte approach to publishing. And for their part, Brave Wave is fine with that.

"I mean, we're not like a traditional music label in the sense that [artists] are stuck only working with us," explains Aniel. "Signing with the label signals an intent to release something with us in the future. Usually it’s original albums, but these people are busy with other projects as well, and they also work with much larger companies.

"Take Yoko Shimomura as an example. She’s very close and tight with Square Enix, but she’s not actually their employee anymore. She was in the past, but now she’s doing freelance work for them, so that leaves her open to do work with other people as well. She wanted to join with Brave Wave because she doesn’t actually have regular representation for overseas-related projects, and she wanted to have us help her out with that sort of thing.

Street Fighter II: The Definitive Soundtrack represents many firsts for Brave Wave.

"So the first project that we’re actually doing with her is not an original album, but rather the Street Fighter II remastered album. She’s cooperating closely with us to make sure that the remaster meets the standards that were set by the original, that they’re not too different from what she imagined, or what she had wanted to make 25 years ago."

Street Fighter II: The Definitive Soundtrack may prove to hold the key to Brave Wave's future. When the album went up for presale early in December, the company rolled it out in multiple waves to account for fans in multiple global time zones—a practical acknowledgement of the company's own international nature—and each wave's limited vinyls pressings and signed editions sold out within seconds. (The company has since put additional pressings up for order.) More important than sales, however, is what the remaster portends for the company itself: Greater legitimacy for having been able to land the license to create the definitive release for a landmark piece of game history, and greater visibility within the music community.

"The idea is that if [this album] is successful, we could make more Generations releases," explains Taher. "We haven’t talked to Capcom about future releases – you know, for example, Mega Man, Bionic Commando, any of that – but when the news got out, when Capcom announced it, all the music websites, all the big ones – Red Bull Music Academy, Fact Magazine – all of them were talking about it. We've always struggled to get attention from music websites, because they just see us as this video game music label, and not all music websites take video game music seriously. But with something as big and impactful as Street Fighter II, everyone started writing about us, so [our hope is] to produce these soundtracks in the best possible way and sell through them. Then we could easily justify creation of these solo albums, and we’d be able to make money off of many of them.

"The idea is to just have these two lines of things, where we remaster old soundtracks and we also do new solo and collaborative albums. I think proving ourselves with the Street Fighter thing lent us credibility from the business point of view. If it sells well, and the quality of it — if people love it, if it gets reviewed well — I think we could go to, for example, other companies and tell them, 'Well, look what we did with Street Fighter II, and we think we could do the same with your games,' and if we started working on their old soundtracks, we would be working on their new soundtracks with their new games.

"So there is a rough plan... which is kind of funny, because labels usually don’t work like that. Labels just release albums and that’s it. But we've found a few ways to release different kind of projects and work with different kinds of clients, so hopefully all of that will pan out."

A Brave Wave-sponsored live performance of Crimson Dragon's Main Theme at BitSummit 2014.

Guardia elaborates: "We have talked a lot about the Generations series, and we’ve got something here that we do want to get into more. It was always planned as a lineup of soundtrack releases that were both about older soundtracks that we restore and try to remaster in the best possible way, and then also bring out new soundtracks.'

In keeping with Brave Wave's almost improvisational nature, Street Fighter II: The Definitive Soundtrack has been a learning experience for the entire team. The process of properly remastering 25-year-old video game audio from obsolete hardware has proven far more complex than anticipated, admits Aniel.

"When you make [game] music, you have the raw data, then you end up having that mixed," he says. "So all the multiple sound channels come together, and then they’re balanced – I’m not an engineer, but the mastering process is basically just making sure that every song in the album has the same balancing, one song in the album doesn’t sound too loud, the others doesn’t sound too low. It’s also meant to get rid of noise and other sound artifacts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be part of the song, but were included during the recording process. I’m not too intimate with the actual nitty-gritty details of it, but basically the purpose is to make it sound perfect, especially on good headphones.

"There’s actually a special extraction process involved with that album. It’s not so simple to just output the audio and record it. Even if you do it through an emulator that emulates the arcade board, you actually end up with a considerably different sound than you otherwise would have ended up with, so this project is unprecedented. We’re able to have very authentic-sounding music files in the sense that we got all the separate audio channels, and then we’re going back and putting them together to be as close as possible."

Still, while Brave Wave's pursuit of authenticity for the Street Fighter remastering process has resulted in a far more complex project than expected, the results have received almost universally positive reviews from those who have sampled MP3 versions of the new mixes. Furthermore, Brave Wave is going the extra step by allowing listeners decide which version of the soundtrack is truly definitive.

The two different renditions of Ryu's Theme: Via the CPS-1 (top) and the CPS-2 board (bottom).

"There will be two versions of the soundtrack: CPS-1 and CPS-2," Aniel says, referring to the two different arcade boards that Capcom manufactured the original version of Street Fighter II on. "Even I get confused sometimes, but there are two different arcade versions, and the music in CPS-2 is – I guess more advanced, there are more sound channels, so it’s the same general melody, but the arrangement is different. Both versions will be released, so we’ll let people decide whether they like one version better or the other. I think both versions have their charm, and I can’t wait to see what people think about the job we’ve done. This is our first time doing only a remaster. We’re trying to negotiate with Shimomura-san to make an original rearrangement of the Street Fighter album. So it’ll be one track per everyone’s theme, and a medley, and then hopefully we can include that as an exclusive album."

Despite the complications and setbacks involved in the Street Fighter II project, Guardia sees the value in it — not only for the resulting quality of the remasters, but for the doors it can potentially open for the company down the road.

"What we’ve seen with Street Fighter II is that the time and effort we’ve put into a single release is just much, much more than we expected at first, but we hope that it pays off in terms of the sound quality," he says. "I know for a fact that what we’re doing with Street Fighter II hasn’t been done before. The soundtrack has never sounded this good. We're hoping to do this for every single release, but we have to kind of find a way to maybe streamline that process a little, because it’s quite labor-intensive. But it’s nice if it finances Brave Wave in a way that we can also dedicate more of our resources to those other albums that are really dear to our hearts but maybe don’t find as big of an audience. Things like solo projects of composers, which we really love to do, but don't have the same size of an audience. We’re hoping we can strike the right balance with different kinds of releases."

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