An Interview with Video Game Music Arranger and Remixer Sean Schafianski
Sean Schafianski is a video game music arranger, composer and remixer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He creates arrangement albums and remixes of beloved video game soundtracks that have received critical acclaim from the gaming community. I talked to Sean about where he developed an interest in music, his creative process as he arranges and remixes as well as how he recharges his creative batteries.
Interview with Sean Schafianski
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in music in general?
Sean Schafianski: I was brought up with video games and music. From my earliest memories, I remember listening to my father's record collection and singing along to Disney films. My father frequented arcades in the late 1970s and early 1980s, playing everything from Pac-Man to Space Invaders etc; and he brought that interest home with him. I was introduced to video games with the Atari 2600, the Apple II, and Commodore 64, playing the same games that he did. When the Nintendo Entertainment system was released, my father and I would play it together, mainly RPGs. That's when I caught the bug.
Back then, stories that seem simple and linear by today's standards were a wonder. Final Fantasy, Wizardry, Destiny of an Emperor - I played them all. And the music stuck with me. I was always amazed at the kind of music that could come from those simple sound chips. When I was older, I joined band, learned how to read music, taught myself piano, and was generally immersed in music. My band directors encouraged me to keep going and never stop learning, for which I am eternally grateful. Neither of my parents were musicians - my father played a little guitar and my mother was in choir when she was in school - but that was it. They never discouraged me from going into music, however. I always knew I wanted to grow up in the music industry in some way, and now that I'm in it, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else!
KM: What are the factors in video game music that you find so compelling?
SS: Video game music exists almost in a different realm compared to popular music. It's eclectic, interactive, and (like all good music) stands the test of time. People are still listening to new arrangements of old video game music, which is amazing to me. The fact that video game music can tell stories and one can remember the feelings they had just from listening is astounding. I think that is what is most compelling to me - I still remember how I felt playing the first Final Fantasy game, the game that got me started on this wonderful fever dream train of JRPGs. Video game music also has the power to change; we are in what is essentially a golden age of game music, and that is changing how other genres are being made. It's also a fantastic gateway to classical music as well. With everything that video game music has going for it, I'm surprised that more people aren't listening to it!
KM: Walk me through the process of arrangement and how it works for you.
SS: I have different workflows depending on the kind of arrangement I'm working on. The most simple is probably jazz arrangements - I transcribe the melody of the piece I am working on for the "head" of the lead sheet. Then I listen to the original again to figure out the chord progression. If the chords are simple (A, E, Fm, etc), I'll switch up the voicings and add notes to create extended tertian chords (Amaj13, F#7b9, etc). This makes chord transitions easier and creates a more smooth/jazzy sound. I'll finish out the lead sheet and then send it out to players if I'm collaborating, or I'll play the instruments myself through software. Then all I need to do is mix everything together, master it for an album and poof! Finished remix. This kind of arrangement emphasizes improvisation and usually only plays the original theme once or twice.
The other types of arrangements require significantly more work to finish. I still transcribe the melody (or find sheet music to lessen the workload), but I'll completely change how it is presented. Entirely new sections of music are composed based on the main theme and the pieces end up being quite a bit longer than the original track. These are usually created with two or more collaborators (many more for huge arrangements), so that means a lot more time is taken with mixing, mastering, and the like.
KM: What is your approach to doing remixes?
SS: I have a very purist view when it comes to remixes. I want to stay as close to the original as possible while still adding in some of my own flair. I'm very much a classically trained musician; my emphasis being minimalism and post-minimalism (think David Lang, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, etc). I feel like that style is fantastic for remixes because it stays with one idea or theme and gets a ton of mileage out of it.
For my jazz remixes, I am a bit more adventurous, completely changing the character and genre of the music. Though I still make it a point to play the original melody in its entirety at least once. The music that we arrangers are working with is (in some cases) extremely popular and dear to a lot of people. I want to make sure that I do not go overboard with my creative ideas and create something that is unrecognizable. My arrangements are also an homage of sorts to the original composers. If they ever listen to my material, I want them to feel like I've done their music justice. I respect them immensely and only want to pay tribute to the amazing themes that they have created.
KM: Where do you think video game music fits in the broader world of contemporary music?
SS: I think video game music is still in its own little niche in the music world - not that it's a bad thing. Though I still feel like there are people who still think game music should sound like Super Mario Bros. or big, bombastic, Hollywood-type scores like Call of Duty with nothing in-between. I've shown people orchestral arrangements of Dragon Quest music and they think that it's Bach or Beethoven, and are then amazed to find out that it's game music! However, video game music is still extremely accessible to whoever is willing to listen. It's probably one of the most accessible music genres out there as there is a little something for everybody. When I set out on this musical endeavor of mine, I wanted to help bring video game music out of the woodwork, sort of speak, and help more people start to actively listen this genre. Wouldn't it be wonderful if "video game music" was a standard, widely accepted answer to the question "What kind of music do you like"?
KM: Who are some of the musical artists/composers who have inspired you and why?
SS: I mentioned that Final Fantasy was my first RPG and what started me on this path, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention Nobuo Uematsu-san here. The man is a musical genius who inspired me to get into video game music in the first place. I have a lot of admiration and respect for a multitude of JRPG composers (Mitsuda, Iwadare, Hamauzu, Sugiyama, Okabe, etc;). I grew up with the music of some of these composers and their music never left me. I still write in references and quotes to different JRPG themes in my arrangements! American composers like Garry Schyman and Jeremy Soule hold a place in my heart as well! Bioshock is one of my favorite scores of all time and I still have the original soundtrack to Secret of Evermore by Soule.
I respect and admire film composer Danny Elfman as well; his orchestration skills are top-notch and I'm still learning new things by listening to his scores. I'll admit that I am a bit of a progressive metal nut, so I'm consistently inspired by bands like Dream Theater, Opeth, and the like. I'll even quote sections from their music in my arrangements!
All of the friends that I have made in the Materia Collective are tremendous sources of inspiration for me. Dale North is a constant source of positivity and encouragement, Fredrik Häthén is down-to-earth and a fantastic mixing engineer, and John Robert Matz is probably one of the most friendly, genuine men you'll ever meet. All of these people are supremely talented composers and they inspire me to keep going and never stop honing my craft. I believe that I have made lasting connections within the Collective and I know I will continue to glean inspiration from them for a long time. And I hope I can provide the same!
KM: Tell me about some of your future plans musically speaking.
SS: I have a secret project I'm working on right now that I can't really say much about, but it is definitely ambitious and based on NieR Automata. I am also finishing up an album of Final Fantasy IV jazz remixes, which will (hopefully!) be released in the coming months; no timetable for now. An album of remastered music from Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is in the works, as is an Octopath Traveler album and a Persona 5 EP. Some of these move on and off of the back burner depending on what I want to get done. Whenever a new Materia Collective album is announced, I usually partake in that as well. There’s lots of work to do!
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
SS: It's very easy for me to get burned out, working on music every day while working a day job. When I feel like I'm not being efficient with my time or work, I usually walk away from the computer for a day or two. I'll play video games (I'm obsessed with Octopath Traveler right now), listen to music, have a beer, etc. But within a couple days of doing that, my brain fires up again and has all these ideas, so it's back to work! Even when I'm taking a break to recharge, my brain won't shut off so it can be a challenge to try and force myself not to work. I recently moved to Arizona, so outdoor activities will be a great way to relieve stress once the weather is, you know, not in the 110s every day.