Let’s Interview: Father of Chiptune, Chip Tanaka!

If you’re familiar with the sounds of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Game Boy, you’d likely recognize the ‘bleeps’ and ‘bloops’ that produced the simple “8-bit” music that each game utilized to play back their memorable melodies. Here at Gaming Reinvented, we’ve had the amazing opportunity to talk to one of the engineers and composers behind some of the most beloved games of all time, including Earthbound, Super Mario Land, and Metroid. This of course refers to none other than Hirokazu “Chip” Tanaka, who was a composer and sound designer at Nintendo for around 20 years and now serves as the president of the game developer Creatures.

If you’d like to hear about Tanaka’s projects old and new, stick around and read this interview we conducted last November.

Caption: Tanaka performing (right) with MOTHER composer Keiichi Suzuki (left) in 2015. Image courtesy hirokazutanaka.com

To start off, what is unique about the ‘Hirokazu Tanaka’ musical style in your own words?

I’d say it’s two things: first would be the fact that I play an actual instrument (keyboard) and write my songs that way, and I mix in “mistakes” and unpredictable “accidents” into my compositions. The second is that I like to combine elements from a wide variety of different genres, and my love of reggae, in particular, sets me apart from others, I think.

In the late 80’s, video game music began to receive respect and interest from the public. Did this have an influence on your view of video game music, and did this affect your approach to composing for video games?

While I had some sense those changes were happening, for me personally, I can say it had no influence on me whatsoever. If I did change, I think it was simply the result of writing more and more music, and that accumulated experience translated naturally into personal growth.

Back when creating music for games, it seems you were capable of writing music in various different genres such as rock, classical, reggae, as well as many others. Were there any cases where you had to learn to write in a new style or genre for a specific game project?

I never did anything you could properly call “studying”. I do remember reading a number of jazz books in my late teens, though. Also, while I love classical music, I don’t think I’ve ever written any music that incorporates elements from that genre in any significant way.

The music for the beginning stage of ‘Hikari Shinwa: Palutena no Kagami’ [localized in the west as ‘Kid Icarus’] contains an upbeat and energetic feel despite the scenery being dark and filled with monsters. What was the inspiration behind choosing this tone of music for the game?

I’ve said this about Metroid as well, but I wanted to make sure the music at the start of the game was catchy, and had an atmosphere that would invite the player in.

“Tetris” for Game Boy was an incredibly popular release, with ‘A-TYPE BGM’ becoming a well known theme from the game. What led you to base it on the folk song ‘Korobeiniki’?

The original creator of Tetris was Russian, and the BGM for the version of Tetris I played on the Apple computer was also based on a Russian folk song, so it was only natural that I had the same Russian folk music on my mind. A lot of people don’t know this, but Tetris on the Game Boy was actually a port of an existing game, and I wanted to make sure I honored the atmosphere and mood of the original.

Caption: Type-A BGM, which is based on Russian folk music.

For ‘Super Mario Land’, a game from a series with a previously established sound on the Famicom, what kind of consideration was taken when designing the sound for this game? Were you influenced by the earlier works from the same series?

Super Mario Land was a launch title for the Game Boy. At this point in time, in addition to my music composition duties, I was also simultaneously doing research on the sound capabilities of the Game Boy hardware. That research included deciding what kind of speakers should be in the Game Boy, evaluating the characteristics of the various amplifier waveforms, deciding the sound specs of the Game Boy hardware, creating the actual hardware, and verifying the specs… and on top of all that work, I also did the sound programming for Super Mario Land. As such, I wasn’t thinking at all about questions like how much the music should carry over from Super Mario Bros. In other words, the music for Super Mario Land wasn’t the result of any deep thinking on my part, and the decision to include this-or-that musical element from the previous games came down more to the natural flow of things and all the work I was doing then.

It seems that by the end of the Famicom era, your sound design became more elaborate and detailed, pushing the sound chip to its limits. In what ways do you feel like your sound design improved by the end of this period?

In the early days of the Famicom, I often had to work on two games at once, while also doing hardware research and development, so I didn’t have a lot of time. In the latter days, though, I had more time to focus on game development and was able to pack each game full of the different ideas I had.

Moving onto the era of the Super Famicom, the sound capabilities of video games greatly increased. When designing the music of ‘Mother 2’ [localized in the west as ‘Earthbound’], what was your experience when adapting some of the music of ‘Mother’ to fit the new instrument samples available? Was this a freeing feeling, or perhaps was it a bit overwhelming?

It was neither. As time goes by, interviewers have tended to see those of us who wrote game music as “composers” and “artists”. However, personally I saw myself as an employee of Nintendo, as one member of a group of developers who were making a commercial product for Nintendo. So whether the polyphony increased or decreased, I saw it as my duty to produce the best, most attractive product possible within the hardware specs available to us.

For Mother 2’s battle themes, there’s an eccentric feel to the melodies and instrumentation. Were the characters and backgrounds a source of inspiration when writing the music for these scenes?

I wrote those battle themes first, before seeing the graphics and characters. When Mother was made, RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were very popular in Japan. Music-wise they all featured what I would call a “symphonic” sound, and were very conscious of classical orchestration. So with Mother, I wanted to go against the grain and create a game soundtrack that would feature the genres I personally liked, such as reggae, rock, and techno. I created a number of different battle themes in advance for Mother, and then chose the one that best fit with the image of the enemies.

A game with a full music editor, ‘Mario Paint’, was released around this time on the Super Famicom as well. What was your role in developing this software?

Programming and sound effects. The music creation part was the realization of my own ideas. I actually had a lot of other input on Mario Paint, but I can’t go into the details here.

It seems that for you, writing music for video games was focused on guiding the player and presenting an appealing sound rather than just exploring an artistic vision. Compared to your time at Nintendo, did writing music for your reggae group, ‘Shampoos’ feel like a different process?

The purpose of game music is to help build up and flesh out the world of the game, and create a more fun experience for the player. With my band, it’s all about us enjoying making music together. They’re completely and totally different things.

Caption: “Thunder Dub”, a song written by Tanaka in the late ’80s for his reggae band “Shampoos”.

For ‘Super Smash Bros. for Wii U’, you provided remixes of some of your older music including ‘Chill’ and ‘Balloon Trip’. What was it like revisiting this music after all of these years? Was this a chance to include new ideas?

Those songs for Smash Bros were arranged according to Sakurai’s wishes. They weren’t necessarily done to my own taste, in other words.

Regarding your recent releases titled ‘Works Gaiden’, there seems to be a lot of influence from your past work on video games. Songs such as ‘Flee Dub’ and ‘Madagascar’ feature many sounds reminiscent of your work on the Famicom. Are you filled with a sense of nostalgia when writing music in this style?

There’s certainly some nostalgia, in that the sounds remind me of those early days, at the dawn of game music… but the rhythm and bass in the songs on Works Gaiden–that all-important bottom end–is completely different, so while they do give me an impression of the old days, they also feel new and fresh to me.

With the recent release of ‘Lost Tapes’, many of your old demo tapes have been preserved for new listeners to enjoy. How did the idea for this collection come about? 

The idea for this came from the label which produced the CD. I’ve still got a lot of demos lying around, from different eras… there may be a Lost Tapes 2.

On this topic of lost tapes, it’s inevitable that some media will be truly lost over time as physical cassettes and CDs become unusable. Is the idea of preservation something you are conscious of?

I suppose it’s only natural to want the music you’ve created to be preserved in some shape or form for the future, right? Back then, though, I never thought I’d be saving these to be converted to CD later or anything. Even after Lost Tapes, I’ve still got a hoard of unreleased demos nested away in my home.

Soon, your next solo album “DOMANI” will be released. This time, what new ideas are you bringing to the table that distinguish this album from the others?

In terms of the quality of the songs themselves, I don’t think there are any big differences. When I was making Django and Domingo, I was also doing a lot of live shows and concerts with young DJs, so that had an influence, namely that the sounds I created on those albums were made under the premise that they be listened to at a loud volume. However, with Domani, owing to the pandemic, lately I’ve hardly done any shows at all, and have spent most of my time indoors at home. So I think those differences in my lifestyle are very much reflected in the sounds here. I’d definitely like listeners to compare them and see what they think.

The official album description mentions that the music is filled with existential themes relating to dreams and life changes. How did you approach representing these ideas with music?

It’s all about how the music makes the listener feel. Once written, the music itself becomes the entirety of whatever I want to express: no further comment from me is possible. The music must do that alone.

In Japan, we didn’t have the same strict corona lockdowns and mandates that other countries experienced, but our freedoms were curtailed for an extended time, and many people died. This album’s themes are connected with my feelings living through these days… all the news I heard from around the world, the disorder and chaos in Japan, and the disruptions to families.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to mention to our readers about “DOMANI” or other upcoming appearances?

As far as live shows go, I’ve got nothing planned at present. I don’t normally do a lot of shows in any event, but given the chance I would like to perform at a venue where my music can be played on a nice, loud system. It’d be awesome to do more shows overseas too, especially in America. Doing shows in America, on a nice sound system to boot, that’s the little dream I keep inside. Thank you for this interview.

Thank you very much for speaking with us, Mr. Tanaka. Your time is greatly appreciated!

That concludes our interview with Hirokazu Tanaka, who has been very gracious and generous with his time. I hope this interview provided some insight into the career of a composer who was one of the pioneers of what is now known as “VGM” (video game music). If you are interested in his new album “DOMANI”, check it out on Bandcamp or at the links listed here. Here’s where you can continue to follow Tanaka’s work:

https://www.chiptanaka.com/

https://chiptanaka.bandcamp.com/

Translation by Alex Highsmith @ Shmuplations

For a Japanese version of the interview with Tanaka’s untranslated answers, use this link.

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