An Interview With Video Game Music Composer/Musician Stephan Seguin (ModalModule)
Stephan Seguin (who goes by ModalModule) composes video game music and film scores. He's also a piano and keyboard player as well as a drummer, synthesist and music program technician. In short, he defines himself as a music maker.
Interview with Stephan Seguin (ModalModule)
Karl Magi: How and why did you first become interested in creating music?
Stephan Seguin: For as long as I can remember, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had music dancing around in my head. It could be a simple melody or an entire orchestra, but it seemed to just about always be there. My parents are both musicians, so perhaps it’s in my blood, who knows? Regardless, I had a desire to bring it out somehow.
When I was about nine years old, my mom got a music program for our computer with the intention of using it herself to put down her songs (she was and still is a singer/songwriter), however she had no idea how to use the program. To be honest, I don’t recall ever seeing her try to learn it. My brother (who is a couple years older and also a musician) and I started fiddling around with it. Before long we were both making music with it, so at that point I literally pointed and clicked, note by note, to attempt to put down what I heard in my head. That’s where it all began. I’ve been more or less doing the same thing as well as playing physical instruments like the keyboard and drums ever since.
KM: Tell me more about what has drawn you to video game music?
SS: My brother and I have played video games since we were really young. Most of my favorite games were such largely because of the music, so it was only natural that a lot of the music I heard and hear in my head is very “video gamey”.
The funny thing is that I never actually thought of becoming a video game composer when I was young because I didn’t really connect the music itself with a person who would’ve made it. It wasn’t until years later, when I played Final Fantasy VII, fell in love with the soundtrack and learned about its composer Nobuo Uematsu that I had the epiphany that, “there’s one person that made this music. I could be the one person that makes the music for a game like Final Fantasy VII!”
I still didn’t have the confidence to really pursue it and I was only a teen at the time. It was only after graduating music college, after years of composing and after the mobile game revolution when I played these games that honestly had terrible music that I thought “I may not be the best composer in the world, but I could damn well come up with something better than this!” so I decided to try to find a way into the scene.
KM: What's your approach to composing and producing new music?
SS: Not much has changed since those days of pointing and clicking on notes! If I’m composing for a game, specifically for a certain part of a game, I usually like to have the visuals of that part in front of me or even better yet to have a playable demo. It really helps to immerse myself in that world. I just ask myself, “What would the music be here?” The crazy thing is that, nine times out of ten, I start to hear the answer to that question in the form of the music in my head. I know it sounds airy fairy but it’s true. It’s like a visual artist who envisions some bizarre or beautiful creature and then brings it to life in a painting or as pixel art.
Similarly, I’ll start to put down what I hear by playing it out on a keyboard, on the touchscreen instrument built into my music program, on a drum pad-like device or by pointing and clicking each note. For the times when the musical answer doesn’t come right away, I will either think conceptually about the kinds of instruments that would make sense, load them up into a project and maybe just improvise on the keyboard. If I stumble upon something I like, I record that and elaborate on it, but that’s pretty rare.
Sometimes I’ll be walking my dog, which is a great place for creativity, thinking about the area I’m composing for or maybe the section for it that I’ve already written, and new parts start to play out in my head. I use the voice memo app on my phone a lot for times when I hear something, but I’m not near my “rig” (computer, keyboard, speakers, etc;). I just sing out the parts, including really dumb-sounding “drum speech”.
When I hear the music in my head, it’s usually on specific instruments as well. If those instruments are real instruments, like violin, bass or a drum set, I’ll choose that sample. If it’s not a real instrument or I don’t have a sample of that particular instrument, I’ll design the sound using synthesis.
KM: Who are some of the past/ current video game composers that you find inspiring and why?
SS: That’s a long list and growing every day, thanks to the Super Marcato Brothers video game music podcast. They showcase all kinds of video game music and for every song they play they say who composed it.
Admittedly, before listening to the podcast, I probably only knew the names of a few composers and I still don’t remember most of them off the top of my head, but I’m slowly learning the names of those whose music I’ve loved all of my life. I’m also learning about new composers/music I’d never even heard and have loved at first listen!
Nobuo Uematsu composed the Final Fantasy series music. He writes incredibly memorable, moving, emotional music, especially on the orchestral side. Motoi Sakuraba, the composer of the Star Ocean series and Valkyrie Profile is similar to Nobuo (Uematsu) in the beauty of his melodies and chord changes, but adds super progressive, groovy, heavy stuff.
Yasunori Mitsuda composed for the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross series. He has incredible melodies and chords, but adds really unique chord movements.
Virt, whose real name is Jake Kaufman, composed Shovel Knight and oh my god, where to begin with Virt? You want groove? He’s got you covered. Chords? Forget about it! You want something really sweet and emotional? In his sleep. How about something that melts your face? Um yeah! There is nothing this guy can’t do and he does it all in spades. If I can be half the composer he is, I’ll die happy.
Disasterpeace whose real name is Richard Vreeland is the composer of Fez. He’s the person I first asked about how to break into the scene and he’s a super good dude Remember how I said Nobuo makes memorable, moving, emotional music? Disasterpeace is the next generation of exactly that, except with contemporary-sounding synths and really unique production, making him inspiring on multiple levels. If you just want to vibe out on something, play Fez and just focus on the music as you play it. Stop and let that world become your world for a moment thanks in large part to his beautiful music.
Hiroki Kikuta who composed Secret of Mana wins my award for originality. Everything he wrote for Secret of Mana was unlike what his peers would have done or would do now. He inspires me to be myself.
All of the Megaman/X composers had straight up groove and melodies you could hum while playing. If you just wanna rock, there’s nothing better than Mega Man X.
Everything I mentioned about all of the composers are things I strive for with my own music. It’s music that feels so good to listen to. I just appreciate it so much that it wouldn’t even matter whether I was a musician or not, I would still love them!
KM: Has video game music reached the point where it can stand alongside any other well-regarded music as an art form?
SS: From a compositional perspective, it reached that point in the NES days, in my opinion. If you took a classic song from Mario, Megaman, Final Fantasy or even Ninja Turtles, Battletoads, Contra or Batman and you played it on the instruments the composer had originally envisioned, it would be better than 90 percent of what was on the radio at the time. There’s a reason that there are orchestras that play video game music (even songs from back then) and it’s not just nostalgia. Although I would also point to the incredible amount of nostalgia any VGM lover has as evidence of its artistic value. Would you not measure art by the impact it has had?
Like any other art form or genre of music, not everything is gold, there’s plenty of silver, bronze, and even a few lumps of coal. The biggest hurdle that VGM will always face is people who stigmatize games or think that their music is somehow lesser for that association. I think that mentality is getting harder and harder to justify with full orchestras and real instruments being utilized for game scores and with famous film composers being hired on to score games. A lot has changed in the lifetime of VGM, and the line is definitely being blurred between all the visual media categories, but it’s all art in one way or another.
KM: What are the current projects on which you’re working?
SS: I recently finished the score for a short film called Tradition out of Vancouver. It’s about descendants of the native peoples in that area trying to keep their old culture alive. It’s a touching story and I have a bit of native blood in me, so I felt personally connected with the work. I composed for a full orchestra using samples with the addition of some native instruments. It turns out that they are going to send the film to somewhere around 40 film festivals which I only learned about afterwards! As a result, though I have nothing to show from that yet, I’ll get a copy after the festivals are done.
What I’m working on at this very moment is a pixel art based RPG called Ftali being made by L Zippo of Apartment 404 Games. It’s still really early in development, but he wanted to get the music started now. This is the opposite of immersing myself in the world to make the music; instead I had a couple of characters, but otherwise had to envision the world around them and write to that. The developer will then have the music to inspire the artwork, so that’s cool. I’m eager to see what he creates. The game is intended to be “creepy cute” which is an interesting combination and it’s fun to develop music to accommodate that.
Other than that, I am just flowing where my mind takes me. I did a mashup of sorts between Chrono Trigger and Meshuggah (a metal band that I’m a big fan of) which I thought turned out pretty badass. I’ll probably do more in that style since it was really interesting to explore. All in all, between composing for someone and composing for myself, I keep myself pretty busy.
KM: How do you keep your creative batteries recharged?
SS: I wish I could remember the writer that I first heard this from, but I find it to be very true at least for me: when you’re a professional artist, you don’t wait for inspiration or have some ritual to build up the energy, you just sit at your desk and get to work. That’s what it’s like for me. I set aside a time, say Thursday after drumline (which I teach), and when that time comes, I sit at my “desk” and get to work. As I said in the beginning, I’ve always had music dancing in my head, so maybe that’s why, it’s just constant. Maybe I’m unique in that way, but one thing that I definitely know from experience is that, if you wait until your batteries are charged or until inspiration strikes, it may never hit. You may die before you write that song or that book or make that painting.
In the words of Shia Labeouf: just do it. Less thinking, more action. Take it from me, a guy who thinks way too much about everything all at once, sit down with the tools you need to do the thing and just get to work. The beauty of that is, even if it doesn’t turn out how you wanted, you can just sit down the next day and do it again. The more you do it, the better you get, automatically. That is the single most powerful thing I’ve enacted in my life and it’s only been a few years since then. Just do it.