Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

By Jorge Ba-oh 14.08.2013

Well loved and criticially acclaimed RPG Chrono Trigger is being reborn in intricate orchestral form thanks to Blake Robinson's Synthetic Orchestra. We caught up with Robinson on the release of the first volume of Chrono Trigger Symphony, composition, inspiration and Nintendo music.

Visit the Chrono Trigger Symphony website »

Cubed3: Hi Blake, Please tell us about yourself and your career so far?
Blake Robinson: My name's Blake Robinson and I'm a composer and music software developer. Most of the time I'm developing orchestral software and sample libraries used by many of the composers working on TV, movie and video game music. A few years back I began working on my own music, initially as ways to test out the software I was developing, but more recently as professional work.
I've scored various indie video-games and written music for several trailers and TV commercials. When I'm not working on original music, I create fully licensed albums and symphonies of my favourite games and TV shows and release them through my label, Joypad Records.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3: What other game albums have you been involved in to date?
Blake Robinson: My most recent video game album was Banjo-Kazooie Symphony, a 30 track album that orchestrated much of the music from Grant Kirkhope's amazing soundtrack. Before that, I created Super Metroid Symphony, an hour long album that orchestrated every piece of music from the original iconic SNES game. Both albums really take an 'HD' philosophy where I stayed very faithful to the original to make sure they retain their charm and nostalgia.

Cubed3: The leap from Banjo-Kazooie to Chrono Trigger is an interesting one! What made you choose the classic SNES RPG?
Blake Robinson: I'm a huge fan of Yasunori Mitsuda's original score which has an amazing blend of themes and styles, from upbeat 'off on an adventure', to gloomy melancholy tracks and jazzy bass-driven melodies. Mitsuda also seems to have this minimalist approach to the music where each track conveys a lot of intricate details without feeling overburdened. I've orchestrated almost 300 pieces of other people's music over the past couple of years, and I find that every orchestration is a learning process. I really thought it would be interesting to de-construct Mitsuda's work and find out what makes it tick.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Also, after the dark and eerie Super Metroid Symphony and the incredibly happy, bouncy Banjo-Kazooie Symphony, I really wanted to push myself to try something a little more diverse. Chrono Trigger it seemed like an interesting challenge to use the Synthetic Orchestra to bring it up to date while hopefully retaining the aspects that make it great. Hopefully I've done it the justice it deserves.

Cubed3: You certainly have so far! Chrono Trigger is known for its toe-tapping bass-lines and ambient sound. How hard was transposing this feeling into an orchestral setting?
Blake Robinson: This was one of the most difficult aspects I encountered while orchestrating the soundtrack. For a large majority of the album I try to stay very faithful to the original music, closely transposing the bass-lines and ambience to an orchestral equivalent.
On some tracks, due to the restrictions of the orchestra, as well as limitations in software, I had to improvise a little bit. Sometimes it would take me a good seven or eight attempts to get something I really felt worked, while retaining the music's existing mood. For certain pieces such as ''Secret of the Forest", I felt that I couldn't sacrifice the ambience of Mitsuda's, and opted for a slightly less traditional 'brass/strings/woods' approach, adding acoustic guitars and upright basses.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3: What songs in the first volume are you most proud of working on?
Blake Robinson: I'm particularly proud of "Wind Scene". It was the first piece of Chrono Trigger music I ever orchestrated and still remains one of my favourites. I was also really happy with how "Secret of the Forest" turned out, retaining a lot of the charm and ambience of the original and purely polishing the quality of the instruments. Quite a few of the tracks from the original score are these 3-4 second long pieces. One idea I had early on was to improvise a little to extend them. I really like how they now stand on their own as music, rather than just 'jingle' sound effects from the game.

I'm really proud of the album in general, though. With the variety of musical styles on the first volume and the quality of the original music, I think every piece fits and I'm really happy with how they turned out.

Cubed3: Would you consider another classic Square RPG, say one of the earlier Final Fantasy games or, dare we say it, Final Fantasy VII?
Blake Robinson: Having previously orchestrated several pieces from the Final Fantasy series, it was on the list of ideas I'd floated before deciding on Chrono Trigger. Ultimately with so many incredible live performances of the franchise and with the sheer quality of the soundtrack in games such as Final Fantasy VII, I felt a little bewildered at taking on such a project. Concerts such as Play! and Video Games Live, and Symphony Orchestras such as Eminence have set the bar really high for orchestral interpretations of the franchise.
I feel like I'd need to be at the stage where I could spend a lot of time and money working with a live orchestra to create Final Fantasy Symphony. It's definitely something I'll consider for the future.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3: Final Fantasy Symphony would be incredible! What tools do you use for composing your work and do you prefer to work as part of a team or alone?
Blake Robinson: In regards to software, I exclusively use Image-Line's FL Studio as my main workstation. It fits perfectly with my workflow and lets me get orchestrations out of my head and onto the computer extremely quickly. I also utilise Native Instrument's Kontakt software. No other sampler comes close in terms of the amount of sounds available, the performance of its engine and the flexibility of its editing tools.

When it comes to orchestral sample libraries and sounds, with my primary work being that of music software development, I'm really lucky to have access to many of the latest high-end commercial tools available. Regularly working with the company 'Spitfire Audio', I tend to use a lot of the products in my orchestrations. Their 'Albion', 'Sable' and 'Percussion' series feature heavily in Chrono Trigger Symphony. On top of this, I've also been involved in several private sample library projects, and have created a considerable amount of custom virtual-instruments for myself. I would say that around half of the sounds within Chrono Symphony are from these non-commercial libraries.

I think working as part of a team and alone both have their advantages, though I tend to work alone on a majority of the projects I'm involved in. When you're working alone you really have absolute freedom to experiment and try anything. It's a much more streamlined composing process and lets you spend more time worrying 'What will people want in this album' than 'How are we going to integrate everyone's work together?'. I think it's this approach, and the fact that I custom-develop a lot of my toolsets, that allows me to release music frequently and to a high standard. On the flip side, it can be really beneficial to have a bunch of talented musicians to bounce ideas back and forth off. Music is such a subjective thing that I find there's always something to learn from other musicians.

Cubed3: When producing tracks from Chrono Trigger, which have so many intricate layers, how do you begin?
Blake Robinson: With Chrono Trigger's music, I would tend to listen to the source material repeatedly, breaking down the different layers and figuring out how they interact with each other. Once I was familiar with each aspect I would work out how to translate this to an orchestra. I'd work out the equivalent instruments of the orchestra and make small changes or additions to fit them accordingly. Sometimes it just wouldn't be possible to transpose a layer; Orchestras tend to play in a very 'ambient' environment with notes decaying and sound building up. Lots of faster, nimble passages or heavy bass lines can blur the sound and so I would have to scale them back or cut them out completely.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3:  Chrono Trigger Symphony sounds fantastic so far, it's difficult to remember that it's digitally produced. Do you feel a synthetic approach has any limitations?
Blake Robinson: Thanks! I think the holy grail of sampled, synthetic instruments is to get the point where people don't even question whether it's real or not, and so it's great to hear that you found it realistic. Sometimes I wish I could step back and just listen as a gamer; as a developer and someone who has experience with live orchestras I think I tend to be hyper-critical towards the realism of my music.

Virtual instruments have come a long way in the past few years and you can mock-up some incredibly realistic music with the kinds of tools I help create. We're at the point nowadays where a lot of the scores you hear on video games, TV and even movies are at least partly synthetic, sampled instruments. The biggest downside to synthetic instruments is that even the best tools available now can limit exactly what you can write. Sometimes you'll spend hours and hours trying to get a specific violin passage to sound realistic only to have to scrap it, or switch it for a flute, or change it to suit your tools. It's this inability sometimes to realistically recreate the simplest of musical ideas that is the most frustrating thing about using samples and software.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3: Would you consider a limited-edition physical release for the entire Chrono Trigger Symphony collection once done?
Blake Robinson: In a world of online and digital releases, I'm a sucker for nice packaging; I have this amazing beige plastic box that came with Run 10's C64 Orchestra that is shaped in the style of a Commodore 64. If I had the opportunity to offer a physical release, I'd love to do something special like that (though obviously Chrono Trigger themed) that would make it worth it for fans of the game.

Physical copies are actually one of the most common requests I get about my previous albums. It's difficult because as an independent musician it is a lot more costly than distributing through iTunes and Loudr, and there are lots of things you have to factor in such as production batches, designs and trademarks. It's definitely something I want to investigate for the finished collection.
Cubed3: Would you ever attempt deconstructing an already orchestrated work, for example Super Mario Galaxy, into a 16-bit/midi sound instead?
Blake Robinson: I've done this a few times in the past for individual tracks. It was really fun taking Fallout 3 and Breaking Bad's themes and converting them into something that sounds like an authentic 16-bit track. To get truly realistic you have to stick to the limitations of the hardware of the time, and it can be really challenging to translate the music of a 60 piece orchestra down to 4-6 channel chip-sounds.

It would be interesting to try this with a full soundtrack and the pixel/retro thing is quite popular at the moment. I imagine music from games such as Gears of War or Killzone would sound amazing emulated as SNES or Genesis games.

Image for Interview | Blake Robinson Talks Chrono Trigger Symphony, Synthetic Orchestra

Cubed3: Which composers in the industry do you look to for inspiration?
Blake Robinson: I have a lot of respect for the older generation of composers. The work that musicians such as Kondo, Yamamoto, Nakamura and Uematsu did with the limited hardware at the time is a big inspiration. With today's software and tools I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to have music in your head but a very limited way in which you could express it. I think it had the advantage of forcing them to think about how to compose simpler, well written melodies.

Other, more modern composers that inspire me are Joris De Man, Kevin Riepl and Grant Kirkhope. I love working with brass and so really enjoy what Joris De Man and Kevin Riepl did with the Killzone and Gears of War soundtracks. Lots of their work reminds me of the music from great Hollywood movies I watched as a kid. Grant Kirkhope's music is so bouncy and fun and really reminds me of Danny Elfman's Beetlejuice soundtrack.
Outside of video games, I find the works of Danny Elfman and the late Basil Poledouris to be inspiring. If I'm ever stuck while composing I'll go back and listen to their music to see if it gives me any ideas.


Cubed3: Are there any other classic Nintendo titles you'll be orchestrating on the pipeline?
Blake Robinson: I have some ideas for Nintendo titles to tackle on future albums though nothing concrete yet. I'm definitely still interested in working on a Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Symphony, though the logistics of licensing it still remain a bit tricky. I also want to extend on existing titles I've already orchestrated. There are plans for further Banjo and Metroid albums once Chrono Trigger is out of the way. As always, I'll also be releasing the odd Nintendo Orchestration here and there on my YouTube channel.
Cubed3: If you could compose the soundtrack for an official Nintendo franchise, which would it be and why?
Blake Robinson: I'd love the opportunity to compose a Metroid soundtrack. Working officially on something that captures the sinister feeling of the original two games would be a fantastic opportunity. Also, working on a franchise such as the Legend of Zelda, weaving in my own style with the Koji Kondo's iconic sound would be really interesting.

Box art for Chrono Trigger





Turn Based RPG



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

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