Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson

Blake Robinson is one of the more fascinating music artists I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for Fine Tuning. His ecclectic range of talent extends beyond music composition, developing epic symphonies as a one person ensemble thanks to the magic of synthetic instruments which he blends together to create awe-inspiring pieces. You’d be none the wiser listening to his hundreds of remixes and tracks without knowing what kind of work is involved in creating them.

Already amassing thousands of fans who have listened to his work millions, upon millions of times, Blake’s love affair with classic melodies throughout the history of video games has resulted in the ever-popular Super Metroid Symphony and Banjo-Kazooie Symphony albums.

His latest efforts has a distinct J-RPG flavour as he re-imagines the music of Chrono Trigger in grandiose style, recently launching the first volume soundtrack to much acclaim.

We’re fortunate today to have Blake share with us some details about his music career, from his early days as an upstart programmer, to his more refined talents as a respected composer who single-handedly crafts amazing audio for gamers all around the world.

Hangie: Tell our readers a little about yourself, such as your musical background.

Blake: My name’s Blake and I’m a programmer, graphic designer and musician that really enjoys video-game music. I primarily spend my days creating commercial software that many of the professional movie, tv and video-game composers use to produce their music.

I’m completely self-taught when it comes to composing and the only formal education I had was in music classes at school. When I was younger, my parents bought be a second hand Atari ST and I would scour magazines for mod trackers and music apps and spend hours making rather bad sounding remixes of popular songs. It was just a hobby to me though, and I ended up with a career in video-games development. I worked as a programmer at Electronic Arts and just kept up my composing as a hobby until the past few years.

Recently I left the video-games industry and now work with companies such as Cinesamples and Spitfire Audio, creating sample libraries and virtual instruments that allow composers to produce realistic sounding orchestral music. It’s a lot of fun and I get to work with orchestras, creating tools that I could have only dreamt about owning while I was growing up.

Hangie: What lead you to get involved in producing music and video game soundtrack covers?

Blake: I was always tinkering with my own little video-game projects outside of work, and I would end up writing the music for them myself. I think it was this, mixed with my obsession with orchestral sample libraries that really got me interested in composing soundtracks. The more I wrote music for my games, the harder I’d try to create realistic sounding orchestrations. I’d scrape together money to buy as much software as I could and when I hit the limits of what was commercially available, I started to create my own. Over time, the music slowly became much more interesting to me than video-games development, and a few years back I left the industry to go freelance.

Video-game covers began as a way to test out the software I was developing. When I’m creating virtual instruments I don’t get a lot of time to compose my own music and re-orchestrating existing pieces not only ensures the software sounds realistic, but also squashes many of the bugs it picks up along the way. I also find it really interesting to deconstruct my favourite music and find out what makes it sound so good. I think it’s the best way to learn new techniques and figure out ideas for your own music.

Before long I had posted hundreds of orchestrations and amassed quite a few subscribers on YouTube. I’m close to releasing my 300th remix now and hope to make many more over the next few years.

Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)

Hangie: What’s your favourite piece of audio equipment to produce on?

Blake: I’m mainly a manually-click-the-piano-roll type composer so I don’t tend to use much hardware (I only own a single MIDI controller), but my favourite piece of software is Native Instrument’s Kontakt. Nothing comes close to how powerful and flexible it is, and with its scripting system you can make really powerful virtual instruments. Over the past few years it has really progressed in terms of functionality and features and I can’t wait to see what they bring in future updates.

Hangie: Walk us through a typical work day in the life of Blake Robinson.

Blake: As a freelancer covering so many areas of expertise it can be pretty varied depending on the people and projects I’m involved with. I also tend to juggle a lot of projects at one time and working from home means that my hours and days are never consistent. This past week, for example, I’ve been composing original music for an upcoming video-game, mocking up music for a TV commercial, helping to plan recording sessions for an orchestra, developing an update for a popular piece of music software and designing wallpapers and album covers for my upcoming Chrono Trigger Symphony album.

In terms of a typical day composing a soundtrack, I usually begin by listening to the music I’ve already written. I think listening with fresh ears always lets you pick out parts of your music that could be improved, or tweaked. If it’s a game or movie, I also tend to regularly play it back while overlapping my music on top to see how it fits into the scene. A lot of my time’s also spent making changes based on feedback, making sure it’s exactly what the client wants.

Some days it’s easy to forget that it’s work. Yesterday I was sat here for a few hours doodling pictures of a cartoon character playing a flute. It’s very different from sitting in an office, working on the same video-game project for 12+ months.

Hangie: As with any vocation, there are positives and negatives that come with it. What are aspects of your occupation that you love, and what do you dislike?

Blake: I’m one of those people that really loves their work and so the only real negative I can think of is that there are never enough hours in the day to get as much done as I’d want to.

I love how varied my work is. There’s always something different to do, so I don’t tend to get bored or tired of what I’m doing. Developing your own virtual-instruments is particularly rewarding when you finally get to sit down, use the software and find that it’s exactly what you need to create the music that’s in your head.

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with video-game developers that have been really open to me writing music in my own style. It’s quite common nowadays to be expected to emulate or replicate the sound of popular composers so I really appreciate when people want me to create ‘Blake’ music for them.

Hangie: What would you change about your profession if you could?

Blake: I seriously just wish I had more time, or a ton of clones of myself! There are so many things I want to do but just can’t find the time or money to work on.

One thing I do want to change is how much original music I write. I’m working on some exciting projects this year for some established video-games that people will definitely get to experience. I’d love to have the opportunity to work on more original music like this.

Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)

Hangie: Which video game music artist if any; inspires you and which are your favourite video game soundtracks?

Blake: I have a lot of respect for the older generation of composers. I find a lot of the soundtracks by musicians such as Koji Kondo, Masato Nakamura, Yuzo Koshiro and Kenji Yamamoto really inspiring to listen to. It’s interesting to see what they could achieve with such limited hardware and I learn so much from deconstructing their music. I think that’s a big part of the charm of orchestrating older video-game tunes. I think my all-time favourite retro soundtrack is still ‘Super Metroid’ as it has such an eerie, ominous feel to it.

In regards to more modern composers, I’m a massive fan of Joris De Man for his Killzone soundtracks. They really nail the John Williams Star Wars sound while standing on their own, stylistically. My favourite is the original Killzone score, back before hybrid elements began creeping into the music, but the second and third games are still some of my favourite soundtracks.

I also love the music of Kevin Riepl. I couldn’t get enough of his original Gears of War soundtrack, as it really reminded me of some of the action movies I watched growing up. It has its own feel, while pulling elements from Silvestri’s ‘Predator’ to Horner’s ‘Aliens’ to Poledouris’ ‘Robocop’. I was really excited when it was announced he was scoring the ‘Aliens Colonial Marines’ game and I think his final soundtrack is incredible.

Hangie: I’ve had a chance to listen to a few tracks from the Chrono Trigger Symphony Volume 1 album and it retains the ‘feel’ and tone from the reference material. When producing a orchestral cover of a well known tune, what kind of difficulties are involved in balancing the original melody with digital techniques?

Blake: I think the most difficult aspect is figuring out how to realistically translate the original music’s blips and blops to an orchestra. Soundtracks such as Chrono Trigger hold a lot of nostalgic weight with people who grew up playing the game, so I like to stay as faithful as possible when orchestrating. Sometimes bass-lines or melodies written within those kinds of limitations are challenging to transpose onto real instruments in real halls and spaces.

Also, even with the fantastic tools I get to utilise, virtual instruments are still incredibly limiting at times. As someone who’s always critical about the realism and quality of his work, I find that I can wrestle for hours with the simplest of melodies and never achieve something I’m happy with. At times like this, it’s frustrating to hear the music sound so great in its original context and to know how it needs to sound with an orchestra, but just not be able to achieve it digitally.

Hangie: You’ve already orchestrated some amazing music from Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Uncharted series, and countless others from retro to modern titles. Interestingly, plenty of these tracks are available for free to the public which is a generous gesture given the amount of time that goes into creating them. What lead you to make them freely available when there is clearly a market of gamers willing to pay for your work?

Blake: I’ve always enjoyed writing music and so I’ve never been too worried about recouping the costs of my time or tools. One thing I’ve never felt too comfortable with is taking money without paying royalties to the original composers and when I started releasing orchestrations there wasn’t really an easy way to license video-game covers. However, I still wanted to share my music with fans of the original games and with sites such as OCRemix and VGMix being popular, posting my music for free on YouTube and SoundCloud seemed like a good way to go.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to utilise the legal talents of the guys over at the Joypad Records label and officially license some of my bigger projects. This means that the albums are completely legitimate and the copyright holders receive a share of each sale. It also has the benefit of allowing me to spend some money making the music sound.

Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)

Hangie: Prior to the recently released Chrono Trigger Symphony Volume 1, you’ve also produced Banjo-Kazooie and Super Metroid Symphony albums. Why did you to choose Chrono Trigger as your next Symphonic album, and what challenges did you face taking on Yasunori Mitsuda’s masterpiece?

Blake: After the dark, moody atmosphere in Super Metroid Symphony, and the bouncy, happy sound of Banjo-Kazooie Symphony, I really wanted to try orchestrating something a little more varied and diverse. I was a big fan of the Chrono Trigger soundtrack, and it has an interesting mix of several genres and styles. It seemed a good challenge to try to translate it to the orchestra and bring it up to date, while hopefully retaining what makes Yasunori Mitsuda’s original music so great.

The biggest challenge with Mitsuda’s music so far was translating the jazzy bass-lines and ambience to the orchestra. You have a lot of reverberation in a concert hall and so bass-heavy or nimble melodies can end up sounding a little muddy and blurred. Scaling these back or transposing them to other instruments without sacrificing the sound was challenging. On some of the tracks I didn’t want to lose the feel of Mitsuda’s original music and so I opted for a less-traditional ‘strings/brass/wood’ approach to the orchestration. For example, ‘Secrets of the Forest’ features an upright bass, acoustic guitar and close-mic’d piano, as well as more ethnic percussion than I normally use.

Other challenges were down to the limitations that still exist in virtual instruments. Part of the philosophy behind ‘The Synthetic Orchestra’ is to achieve as realistic a sound as possible and I’m always incredibly critical of the realism of the final result. It can be quite hard to transpose from older PCM MIDI sound modules and hardware where realism wasn’t so important.

Hangie: Final Fantasy is an obvious Square Enix series that comes to mind as a potential Synthethic Symphony album, which I imagine would be an enormous task to take on given the countless remixes, covers and renditions already out there. Is this something you’ve put some thought towards as a future project?

Blake: Final Fantasy was on the list of possible franchises when I was working out what should follow Banjo-Kazooie Symphony. However, with the sheer quality of the original music and with the amount of outstanding live concerts and recordings already available from groups such as the Eminence Symphony Orchestra, I felt like the bar was raised a bit too high for me to meet with my samples and virtual-instruments at the moment.

It’s the kind of project that I think would require world-class musicians in a renowned scoring stage to produce to the quality I’d be happy with. ‘Final Fantasy Symphony’ is definitely something I’d love to do when I’m at a stage where I could spend a lot of time and money on such a project.

Hangie: Hiroki Kikuta’s Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) soundtrack is a personal favourite of mine and many other JRPG fans old enough to remember this classic title. Are you familiar with the soundtrack, and could I put a request for a Synthethic Symphony album please!?

Blake: Secret of Mana is a soundtrack I’m familiar with through listening to albums such as Symphonic Fantasies and concerts by Eminence Symphony Orchestra. I grew up with Sega consoles and missed out on a lot of great Nintendo-based RPGs. It’s only been through virtual-machine and mobile ports released over the past few years that I’m getting to experience them.

I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard of Secret of Mana’s soundtrack so I’ll definitely be investigating it to give it a play through and potentially orchestrate in future projects!

Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)

Hangie: Are there any tracks that you’ve produced throughout your musical career which are particularly meaningful to you, and why?

Blake: Working on Banjo-Kazooie Symphony was particularly meaningful to me. As a long-time fan of Grant Kirkhope, I really appreciated his response to the album and was so glad that he enjoyed what I did with it. I’m hoping that he’ll have some time to help out on a track or two for the eventual ‘Banjo-Tooie’ sequel. The feedback I’ve received from Banjo-Kazooie fans has been phenomenal too, with many of them saying that it takes Grant’s soundtrack and improves on it.

I was really happy to work on the official Terraria XBOX/PS3 commercials too. I love Scott Lloyd Shelly’s original soundtrack and being asked to orchestrate and compose some of his tracks specifically for the commercials was a highlight of the past year for me.

I always find it particularly nice when the original composers, whose work I’ve orchestrated, take the time to listen and fire me a tweet or message about how much they enjoyed it. It’s nice to know that the people who made the original piece approve of how I handled their music.

Hangie: What’s a little known fact about Blake Robinson?

Blake: I think one little known fact is that in my day-job as a sample developer, I get to work with some really interesting people, developing custom sample libraries and software. For example, last year I had the privilege of working with Danny Elfman and his team, developing some bespoke virtual-instruments for use on the ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ soundtrack.

Hangie: What are your future goals?

Blake: Ultimately I just want to be writing music for a living, whether it’s orchestrating my favourite video game music, or scoring original soundtracks for video games and movies.

One goal I have set myself is to record an album with a live orchestra in the future. While I work with them regularly at the moment to develop samples and software, I would love to record a live orchestral performance and not have the restrictions of technology that sometimes hold back my music.

Fine Tuning Interview: Blake Robinson (Synthetic Orchestra)

Hangie: If you weren’t producing music for videogames, what would you like to do instead?

Blake: That’s a tough question as I find so many different fields and disciplines interesting. One aspect I love about my current work is how it brings graphics, programming and music together, and I think it would be hard to find that in another career.

I think the closest thing I’d be doing would be back in the games industry, developing the tools and apps that artists and programmers use to create games. It’s really satisfying to be part of a large team of creative individuals and create amazing stories and worlds for people to experience. There are still aspects of that in writing music, but I do miss video-games development.

Hangie: Do you have any suggestions, advice or pearls of wisdom for those looking to make a career in video game music? Is it an occupation you would recommend?

Blake: I don’t feel like I’ve reached a position yet where I could offer amazing advice, as I have so far to go still, but as a musician who has worked professionally I would say that the biggest piece of advice I can give is to keep making music! Make it to learn and practice techniques, make it to show your talents, make it to relax. It’s like all other art – you’re always learning and improving. The more you make it, the easier it will become and the better you’ll get at it.

If you’re dedicated and focused to writing music, it’s definitely an occupation I would recommend. It’s a very saturated industry nowadays so it’s the kind of career that you have to persevere with. You’ll be working a lot of hours for relatively little money at first, but it does get easier as your music becomes more well-known and higher quality.

Hangie: Any closing comments or thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

Blake: Just thanks really, to anyone who has taken the time to check out my music, left me a comment or even purchase an album.

Massive thank you to Blake Robinson for taking time out of his very busy schedule to chat with us. To listen to more of his work, visit The Synthetic Orchestra website, Blake on iTunes or jump to his dedicated YouTube channel for a range of audio delights.

To purchase Chrono Trigger Symphony Vol 1 via digital download, head to Blake’s Loudr profile. The soundtrack is only $7.99USD for all 23 tracks! The Super Metroid Symphony and Banjo-Kazooie Symphony albums are also available via the link.

Connect with Blake on Twitter @syntheticorch and Facebook to stay up-to-date with what’s happening, especially if you’re eagerly awaiting Chrono Trigger Symphony Vol 2. like I am!