ADreamer’s music instantly caught my attention, with its intriguing JRPG and anime influences. The amount of heart and care is so apparent in his compositions, and the emotional depth and complexity in development is truly moving. Here’s my interview with the Singapore-based composer Alvin (ADreamer), where he shared his thoughts and experiences about writing stories, creative freedom (and restriction), and being able to feel the heart that composers put in their music.
What is your music about? How would you describe the music you write?
Alvin: I actually only picked up composition about three and a half years ago, when I started my university life. My music influence is basically from Japanese culture, because I’ve been playing Japanese games since I was young, watching all those Japanese animations and stuff. I’m very heavily influenced by Yoko Shimomura, who did the Kingdom Hearts OSTs.
And actually most of my music influence comes from me writing my own stories. I’ve been writing stories since I was very young. So when I write music, I think about all those sceneries, backgrounds, characters. It helps me when I write my stories. I imagine what the characters are like, I imagine what kind of situations are happening. Then I start to come up with tunes, and melodies… So that is actually the source of inspiration for my music. So my music helps me write my stories, and at the same time my stories help me write music.
Yeah, awesome. What was the first piece of music you ever composed? And what inspired you to write music for the first time?
Alvin: The first time I wrote music was actually when I was overseas. It’s about a fantasy story I wrote, a battle manga, about a tragic character. I happened to be overseas, and I didn’t have anything but my laptop… The first time I composed music was using Fruity Loops. The song was called “Forward”. At that point in time I was just writing my story, I didn’t have anything to do. For some reason, the melody just came to my mind, so I wrote it down—that was my first piece. Ever since then, I realized it’s actually pretty fun to play around with the midi notations and sounds. So I continued writing music from there. But of course I have a background knowledge of music, since I was young, so I didn’t have much of a problem writing music at that point.
Okay, cool. That ties in with my next question. What sort of music training do you have?
Alvin: I actually play the electone, like an electric organ. I started playing the electone when I was about five years old. So I had music training until I was seventeen. Because I live in Singapore, we have to serve the army for one and a half years. So I actually quit my music training firstly because of time issues, but also because I grew quite disinterested in formal training. So I stopped.
But one and a half years later, I picked up music again, but in the form of composition. So that’s when I started to pick up the piano as well. I mean it was similar to an electone, because they’re both keyboards, just different because of the touch. That was also when I started to pick up digital composition.
All right. So on your soundcloud there’s a track “To Be Born Without a Heart”, a character theme from a game? What’s your creative process when writing character themes?
Alvin: So my brother and his group of friends are actually making a game on their own in their free time. Because they don’t have a formal musician—it’s all about hobbies, this group of guys—I decided to help them out in making the music. So “To Be Born Without a Heart” belongs to a character who is supposedly born a robot, without a heart. So when I write character music, I have to know the full profile of the character. What is he like when he makes his first appearance? How does he grow, how does he turn out to be? At least for this piece, my interpretation of a character without emotions is that they are at peace. While they don’t feel anything, they are at monotonous peace, you see? They don’t have any emotions, they don’t have any turmoil in their hearts, so they are very peaceful—which is how the song starts out. When the character grows to have emotions, that’s when the swelling of the music comes about. There are emotional turnovers and a lot of climaxes, when he actually feels something, the chaos in his heart. Then when he comes back to his peaceful self again, the music calms down again. So that’s how I write my music—it represents the character as a whole, how he grows, his turmoil, what happens in the end.
Right, awesome. The quality of your music is really good! What programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Alvin: Thank you! Currently I’m using Sonar Professional. I used to use Cubase, but I tried just the trial version. I’m still a student so Cubase is a little bit too expensive! But Sonar Professional has a good price! (laughs) I use East West Quantum Leap VST Libraries, because their promotional packages are usually very cheap, so I budget as much as possible! (laughs) Actually those are the only things I use. For $1000 USD, they actually offer you about seven libraries, so it’s pretty good. And the sound qualities are really good, even though they destroy your CPU because it’s so heavy!
But as for mixing and mastering, I’m actually still trying to learn. Because I’m in school, I don’t have the whole day to dedicate myself to composing music, so I can only do it during my free time. So as for any mastering technique, I’m still an amateur. Mixing… Not that good yet. So basically whenever I compose, I just mix whatever I think is right, then upload it just in case! So I’m still trying to polish my mixing and mastering techniques.
Oh, okay. What are you studying in school?
Alvin: I’m an engineer. I’m actually not going to stay in this field. I found a job with a game company, Koei Tecmo. So I’m going there!
Cool! What are you going to do there? Anything with music?
Alvin: Not yet, I’m starting off as a game designer. It’ll be my first step!
Yeah, congratulations! So what sorts of challenges come up when you’re writing game music? And how you do generally deal with those challenges?
Alvin: One of the most challenging things for me… Game music has a tendency to be looped—character themes may not be looped. But like stages, town music have to be looped. I do have a problem looping music sometimes. When I write music, there are occasions where I find it hard to loop the music back to the beginning. That is one of my bigger challenges. How I overcome them… Basically, trial and error. So the gist of the music I write based on what I feel or what I think the atmosphere of the music should be. Once you get stuck—artist’s block, right. I just take a break, take a walk, let my ears rest. By taking a walk, looking at sceneries, it kinda helps me calm myself, sometimes it gives me ideas. Let’s say if I really cannot get any ideas, I will just try to come up with something to fill up the gaps, with music theory… In situations where I really have no inspirations, I just do trial and error, see which are the best.
Okay. So in your opinion, how does video game music differ from other kinds of music?
Alvin: I guess what we really need for game music is the atmosphere. We want the players to feel like they are inside the world. The music has to have motifs, so as to constantly and subtly remind players that they are still within the same world. Of course, the music has to respond according to the changes in environment as well, like safe areas to boss battles, etc. So it’s interactive and always changing depending on the player’s decisions to move about places. I think that is one main distinction of video game music as well—the music describes the world and the adventure while it constantly responds to the player’s decisions.
I also feel that for video game music, there are a lot of instances where the composers are not given the freedom to make music as they wish. As we all know, music is a subjective thing, so you know, I may think this is suitable, but the director may think otherwise. So sometimes, if you are not given too much freedom to make the music by yourself, then the music tends to diverge away from the original intention. There is this game called NieR, where the composer was actually given the full freedom to make the music as he wished, with only one condition from the director: he had to put vocals in it. So with that freedom, he composed very imaginative and very exaggerated music. And the director even adjusted his game and characters according to the music.
Whoa, that is so cool!!
Alvin: Yeah, it’s so cool. So the music turned out to be amazing, and it even has a wikipedia page by itself! That’s what happens, I feel, when the composer is given the full right to the music, because we are able to express ourselves to our full potential, and not be restricted. I do hear cases where the director wants the music to be this and that way, but there are some times when the director is too insistent, and the composer feels very restricted, and it’s not in line what they think. So they end up arranging music according to the director’s preference. So it kind of becomes haphazard, because I write music this way, but the director wants it that way, so it’s not linear, and there end up being some discrepancies. I cannot say specific titles, per se, but those are instances where the music does not turn out to be the best quality.
One more problem, in regard to why some game music differs from other music, is the effort that the composer puts into it. He may be chased by deadlines, so he has no choice but to come up with specific music by a certain deadline. Sometimes, not all the time we have inspiration, but we just have to write. I think if you really put your heart into your music, and you really try to express something that you feel, I’m pretty sure as listeners, we can tell.
Yeah, definitely. Okay, so I have a list of very quick questions. Just give short answers as quickly as possible. Okay. Favorite video game protagonist!
Alvin: Well I guess that would be Xemnas.
Favorite video game series!
Alvin: Kingdom Hearts!
Favorite character theme!
Alvin: Xion’s Theme!
Favorite battle theme!
Alvin: Darkness of the Unknown, Xemnas’s theme!
If you had to make a weapon out of an instrument, which instrument would you use?
Alvin: (laughs) That’s very interesting! Let’s see… A tuba!
Okay, a tuba, nice! How about your favorite sound effect in any video game?
Alvin: Favorite sound effect… Wow. I can’t think of one right off the bat! Give me ten seconds… Maybe percussion effects? Oh, I know! Musical saw! The first time I heard the musical saw was in Tales of Zestiria. It was very subtle—I didn’t catch it until someone on YouTube mentioned it.
Oh, sounds interesting!
Alvin: Yes, very interesting. I don’t know if you’d consider it a sound effect, but I guess you play it like a violin.
I’ll definitely have to look that up, sounds cool!
Alvin: Yeah, please do!
All right, that’s the end of my quick questions. So what are your some of your future plans—what music are you working on now?
Alvin: Currently, I’m in my last semester at university. So being a year-four university student, I definitely have spent every single hour of my life doing reports! So recently I have not been updating my soundcloud because of my schoolwork. I think once I start my work as a game designer… I have a lot of songs that I have written, and sometimes, as composers, we tend to just leave the song halfway, when we don’t have an inspiration, and start a new song. So there are a lot of incomplete songs on my computer. So my future plans are to be to complete them. And also improve the quality of the songs I currently have on soundcloud. Yeah, so now that I’ll be starting to work on games, that will be in line with my music composition, and I think it will help me a lot. So I’m gonna start to do it all over again, and do it slowly this time, learn the proper techniques of mixing and mastering, maybe get a bit of formal education if I have to. At the same time, finish up the hundreds of incomplete songs that I have.
All right, awesome, that’s all the questions I have! Thanks so much for doing this interview! Hope you have a good day!
Check out ADreamer’s compellingly beautiful music on soundcloud.
Lovely photos courtesy of caterina.fabula.