Monday, 27 Jun 2022

Trek To Yomi Music Interview: “Imagine Everything You Know… Now Forget About 70 Percent Of All Of It”

“How do we convey anger, tension, sadness, anxiety, love, duty, mystery, et cetera with a fixed set of instruments?” Trek to Yomi’s co-composer Cody Matthew Johnson asks contemplatively. “A challenging exercise that pushed the limits of my neural plasticity for sure – how rewarding!”

Trek to Yomi’s imitation of particular shots, grain effect, and unique sense of movement might be the first things that might catch your eyes about the game. Hiroki’s samurai journey is basically a playable black and white homage to the film director Akira Kurosawa — you know, the only name that everyone seems to relate to when it comes to movies about honor, tradition, and other themes of the old Japanese warriors.

However, there’s another aspect in Trek to Yomi as important as (if not even more than) its visual identity: the music. Recorded and composed only with instruments used during the Edo period in Japan, when the game is set, composers Cody Matthew Johnson and Yoko Honda faced different challenges while creating Yomi’s sounds and tunes.

“I'm not an instruments expert, and due to Japanese instruments being very specific about their usage – occasion, region, played by what ‘class’ of people, et cetera, I had to conduct a thorough research of all the instruments we primarily used to score this game, including the ones I thought I already had enough knowledge of,” explains Honda, who was born and raised in Japan. Even if she had knowledge about Japan’s music and culture, Honda had to work out how to share said knowledge and her skills with the rest of the team.

“I couldn’t just give simple feedback like ‘that doesn't sound authentically Japanese, but pan-Asian’ or ‘please avoid this specific instrument when illustrating this scene because that's not appropriate,’” she says. “I had to explain in detail why, how, and what the solution can be using the Western musical theory as a common thread. In order to do so, I had to be 100 percent sure about the authenticity and the accuracy and that was indeed a challenge.”

This commitment to authenticity can be exemplified by one of Honda’s anecdotes. While composing songs, such as the villages’ and Aiko’s themes, the team used a Japanese flute called Shinobue. This was an instrument played usually by commoners in the Edo period. When they heard the recordings, however, another air instrument called Ryūteki sounded more similar to what a Shinobue actually sounds like. The problem was that the Ryūteki was part of Gagaku, “the Japanese royal and court music ensemble mostly played by and for upper-class people on special or religious occasions.”

“The question was, ‘dare I stick with absolute authenticity and use the Shinobue recording even though the other Ryūteki recording sounds more like it?’”, she asks. “It's not visible and most people couldn't tell the difference! Fast forward, we ended up recording real Shinobue flutes to keep it entirely authentic. My dilemma was as small as this story, and although it's a tiny detail, it had to be addressed correctly when we say ‘the music of this game is 100 percent authentic and traditional, honoring Japanese culture.’”

You might think that working with this level of detail and precision would limit the creative process behind the compositions. According to Johnson, that wasn’t the case.

“When equipped with an endless number of tools, often the possibilities of infinity become paralyzing,” he says. “In this case, knowing exactly what we were able to use helped us push not only the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding, but also to experiment with these instruments to find new, interesting, and uncommon textures to help convey the variety of emotional tones within Trek to Yomi.”

The composer illustrates this point with the sounds of one of the game’s most interesting moments: when the protagonist reaches Yomi, the land of the dead. “There was this idea I had early on of creating some pad-like sounds out of the Gagaku, inspired by an ambulance driving down the street,” he tells me. “As an ambulance passes a listener and continues down the street, you’ll notice the sound of the siren dropping in pitch – the siren gets noticeably lower and lower. This is called the Doppler effect.

“So applying this to Hiroki’s entrance to Yomi, as he progressed further and further down into the depths of Yomi, the sound of Gagaku becomes more and more stretched, distorted, mangled, and everything else I could think of to create wildly evocative and strange, often nightmarish, sounds from Gagaku as a source.”

Just as Trek to Yomi art design and themes are heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s filmography, the game’s music follows suit. Fumio Hayasaka, the director’s right hand man and the composer behind legendary films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Stray Dog, was the main inspiration for the duo. “Hayasaka and Kurosawa's combo work has a lot to tell, but what I always tried to keep in mind when I was scoring this game was to solidify a good motif for each important character and develop its iconic theme around the story,” Honda says.

“A great example is when Hayasaka and Kurosawa were working on the infamous Seven Samurai – they established five themes around the main characters at first and later developed each one of them around the story very effectively. In our case, we had themes for ‘Love’, ‘Duty’, and ‘Fury’ for the main characters, and each one of them keeps evolving as the game develops and unravels the ultimate meaning of the hero Hiroki's journey: Hiroki’s Trek to Yomi.”

Johnson recalls his most precious memory while recording the last piece of music from Chapter 6, in which Hiroki is trying to escape Yomi. During their last post-production day, the studio engineer told him that there was a functioning reverb chamber in the back of the studio.

“As an experiment, I sent one stem of that piece of music through the reverb chamber. Sounded cool enough, but to make it sound a little weirder we did it again with 20 percent feedback so the recording of the reverb chamber was being fed back into the reverb chamber,” he says. “The sound when the sound from your Zoom is being picked up on your microphone and played back to someone whose microphone is picking up their audio? That’s the vibe but much more controlled.

“Once we did that process with all the musical elements, I thought we might try sending the combination of those elements back through the reverb chamber with the same 20 percent feedback. [The result] sounded very interesting… So I did it again. And again. And again, until the recording of the reverb chamber started to take on this metallic scream – the very frequency response of the chamber itself was starting to coalesce in the recordings.

“For the last pass, I decided to open the massive several hundred-pound door of the reverb chamber – took my entire body strength and I’m a gym rat! – and lay on the floor while we did one last recording. The haunting chaos and abstract smear of gagaku and taiko drums swirled around me and enveloped my body in only what could be described as Japanese hellscape sound bath spa music. That is, if you can even call it music at that point!”

Trek to Yomi is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. It’s also included in Xbox Game Pass.

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