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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 power to believe

Game soundtracks have been slow to establish themselves as a viable product outside Japan. Where you can find rare and expensive LP records from the ’80s bearing music from 8-bit games like Dragon Quest in practically any Japanese secondhand game shop, it's only been in recent years that most Americans and Europeans have cottoned to the notion of listening to game tunes outside their original context. Perhaps not by chance, given their "retro" cachet, the mainstreaming of game music has coincided with the resurgence of vinyl publishing. These days, a number of boutique labels are producing vinyl releases and reissues of beloved game soundtracks (today's Axiom Verge launch by Ship To Shore Phono being merely the latest), and you can buy CD-based soundtracks from nearly any publisher.

Despite the rapid growth and proliferation of this market, Brave Wave nevertheless stands out by virtue of offering both game soundtracks and original works. This, Taher explains, has to do with the nature of the company — the entire impetus behind its creation.

"It was simply my love for the games that they composed," he says. "In Kuwait, we didn't have the NES, it was just the Famicom, the Japanese console. Also at the time, a lot of production companies used to re-dub anime in Arabic. One of the shows they did this with was Captain Tsubasa, because soccer is really big in the Middle East, the most popular sport. So I grew up watching that cartoon, and I loved it a lot, and once I owned the console, some of the first games that we had were Captain Tsubasa 1 and 2.

"Captain Tsubasa 2 was a very, very long game, but it had a password system, it could take you a lot of hours to get through, and one really cool thing about it was that you have your team, you play other teams, and you progress through the league, you play with different teams. It was kind of like Mega Man — every team has its own theme. Because we were kids, we had all the time in the world, we played the games a lot. For some reason, the music stayed with me. I only became aware of composer names maybe a few years before [starting Brave Wave]. The Internet gave me this epiphany of, 'Let’s look at what this guy did.'"

One of the many Ninja Gaiden fan covers that helped galvanize Yamagishi's desire to return to music.

Ultimately, Taher says, Brave Wave came about not with the aim of publishing soundtracks but rather as a medium in which Yamagishi and other forgotten composers could create new music. Maybe game developers and standard record labels had no interest in paying these industry veterans to continue creating the music they love, but Taher eventually realized he could do it. He didn't know how, exactly, but his ambition gave shape to a business almost by accident.

"As I was [working on the EP for my blog], I had one of those nostalgic moments where I suddenly remembered one track from Captain Tsubasa 2. I went to YouTube and listened to the whole thing, and I thought, 'Well, I gotta find this guy.' I just wanted more music by my favorite video game composer, and at the time when I signed the contract with Keiji, I didn’t know Marco, so I literally had no idea how that could happen. I only imagined that I would take the tracks, I would find an artist to make us an album cover, and that’s it. And only then did I realize that there’s something called “mixing,” and that after mixing you master the album, and mastering’s kind of like when you take the draft of a book and give it to an editor. And after mastering, you have manufacturers and all of that, and at the time, I just wanted new music by him.

"With Manami, I realized that I could contact anyone I wanted, so literally I just opened my iTunes and went through the soundtracks, and then saw Mega Man, looked at the name, Manami Matsumae, and I think it was the first time that I'd actually heard that name! I just Googled her from her Soundcloud page — she only had something like 20 or 30 followers — and I sent her a message. Later, she told me that she decided to work with me, even though she had never worked with anybody outside of Japan before, because she saw that I'm working with Keiji Yamagishi and Akira Yamaoka. She thought, 'Well, if those guys trust him, then maybe it’s not too risky to work with Mohammed.'

"At the time I had zero business sense. I actually had received a few rejections. Some of them replied, some of them didn’t, but yeah, I was really shameless at the time. Now I’m just a little bit more methodical, I like to research more and to plan. I think that’s just an actual phase of anyone making anything, be it a writer or musician or director or any of it.

With Street Fighter II: The Definitive Soundtrack in the can and shipping soon, Brave Wave is already looking ahead to its next challenge: Creating genuine chiptunes.

"With Retro-Active Part 2, we thought it would be neat to have a Famicom composer having his music 'demade' into something 'authentic.' The album would have two CDs, one with all the original tracks which are mastered fully mixed, and have these modern production sounds. Then the second CD would be an exact second-by-second demake, but it’s all authentic chiptunes.

A demonstration of the VRC6 chip's capabilities, comparing the U.S. Castlevania III soundtrack on a standard ROM to the enhanced Japanese version.

"We spent a lot of time looking for people who could actually make authentic chiptunes and eventually found the right fit: Alex Mauer and his friend Steve Lakawicz. Alex told me that he had previously released an album on actual NES carts, so I asked, 'If we hired you to do this thing and you ended up composing 13, 14 tracks, could we put them on a Famicom cart?' and he said, 'Yes.' That changed the prospect of the project from being just a two-CD thing into something bigger, which is the Famicom cart, because we have to hire a graphics artist who’d make the art that fit into the cart and we would have to find someone who would be able to implement this on VRC6 chip [an advanced NES chip developed by Konami and used in a handful of Japanese releases, including Castlevania III]. We want to emulate Keiji’s style from back then and to have those additional sound channels on the VRC6 expansion."

As with seemingly all of Brave Wave's ideas, the chiptune edition of Yamagishi's work has proven to be far more demanding than initially anticipated. Nevertheless, both the demakes and the Famicom cart edition are on track for a summer release, with cover art to be provided by original Ninja Gaiden illustrator Masato Kato. As the engineer responsible for the label's mastering, Guardia admits he has his work cut out for him.

"At first, we were thinking, 'Yeah, let’s just do the straight-up Famicom channels and be done with it,' because it felt like that would be most true to the experience, but then I came around. [Yamagishi's album] has such a layered sound. On some of his tracks, I was dealing with close to a hundred stems — they are so insanely intricate. There's so much detail. There are so many layers of harmonies and melodies and little touches and effects. We realized we have to somehow boil this all down to three or four channels. How is that going to work? And we came to the realization that you know what, maybe VRC6 is going to sound better. Now what we're listening to with the VRC6 — I think it's turning out fantastic. We've been able to get so much detail in, I think it's all been worth it."

Keiji Yamagishi and Eirik Suhrke's "Slime Crust," coming soon in demade form to a Famicom cartridge near you.

Taher also recognizes the challenges ahead — but, as ever, he seems excited by the hurdles that remain to be cleared.

"Alex Mauer will be the one handling the manufacturing. We'll have to buy games with VRC6 chips... I don't know where he's going to be getting, for example, the Famicom casing. Will he be buying a lot of cheap things and just replacing the labels and putting the chips themselves inside, or is it all new? I'm still not 100% sure. One of the games that uses VRC6 is Castlevania III, which has one of the best soundtracks on the system. I'm pretty sure Alex won't be touching that just because it's really expensive.

"I think we're looking into making maybe 200 carts, so it is a lot of work, especially when you consider the manufacturing alone — making one cart, for the soldering and everything — is like $40. So it's an expensive operation just because it's all hand-made and there is no actual factory that makes them. A small part of me is worried about if this will get up on Nintendo's radar, because [the album's director] mentioned it's technically not legal. You can get away with it when you're a fan group, but otherwise it might be tricky.

"I don't think Nintendo would give a shit, honestly. Who cares if some label is producing music on Famicom carts?"

Nintendo may not care, but given the enthusiasm with which the online community has greeted Brave Wave's efforts, it's clear that quite a few game music enthusiasts do.

Video game music will probably never become truly mainstream. And I don't personally foresee a future in which I can sit around in a bar with friends who barely play video games and chat about composers on a name-by-name basis. Nevertheless, Brave Wave is working hard to ensure that the men and women responsible for creating the electronic melodies of our childhoods don't languish in obscurity forever — and, even more admirably, that they enjoy to opportunity to continue their work, both inside and out of video games.

Note: Profiles of composers Manami Matsumae and Keiji Yamagishi will appear later this week here on USgamer, along with an exclusive preview of Retro-Active Pt. 2. Disclosure notice: Mohammed Taher has contributed to the author's game history documentary Patreon campaign, a not-for-profit effort; planning for this article predates those contributions.

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