Interview with Compyfox
Name: Roland Löhlbach
Contribution: Audio Engineer
Compyfox took up the arduous task of mastering the final editions of all the songs, ensuring the highest quality aural experience for fans.
1. When did you first play Chrono Trigger?
Uh... you seriously got me there. I never really had the oportunity to play Chrono Trigger while it was first released, as Germany didn't have access to it. I later had the chance to actually "look" at it via emulation, but to be honest I didn't play further than the trial. Then I had the luck to get the game for PSX (again, no EU version but the US one) and I finally had an official version. But even here, I didn't play that far as I didn't have the time for it. So it was forgotten a bit.
I'm sometimes really late (not to mention slow) on playing games. It was around last year or so that I played "Secret of Mana" after I had luck to find a used version at my local game store, including box and guide (which is rare in Germany). I had a deal with a friend of mine however that he gets the box, and the next one we'll find is mine. Since then it's been a little game we play if we go to the game store, but I had no luck finding my own copy so far. Anyway...Secret of Mana was the reason to finally hook me up on Chrono Trigger (I told you I'm a late in such things). I was in the middle of playing Secret of Mana (emulation) while my friend was getting deep into Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.
I couldn't resist digging out Chrono Trigger by myself and take another deeper look at it. After watching the Anime "Time and Space Adventures: Muumamjona" and the video sequences of the PSX game (with proper tools of course), I always thought "sometimes... sometimes I'll crack myself through you". I wouldn't say it was a mistake to stop in the middle of Secret of Mana and start Chrono Trigger on SNES (emulation again, I simply wanted to play the original). Well... it sucked me into it like a demon feasts on your soul. And I guess that's the best what ever happened.
I played Chrono Trigger within a couple of days. I was drawn into the storyline, the music, sidestories of the characters. Short said, I was drawn into everything. I used a guide to get all hidden scenes, background stories and I so enjoyed it. After playing Chrono Trigger I really thought: "That's one of the best RPGs that Square and Enix ever made". And at that time, nobody even knew that this was a Squaresoft and Enix co-production. Only those who digged a bit deeper into it knew, as Squaresoft and Enix were the biggest rivals at that time. Who would have thought that they'll eventually fuse together.
This is how I got into the Chrono Series - the hard way.
2. When did you first become interested in audio engineering?
Actually that's also a fault due to OCR. Before 2000 I was more active as musician, but took a very long break due to an incident I had in my life in losing someone who was very dear to me to someone else. It totally threw me out of my regular life circle which also withdrew me a bit from the "outside world" and my points of view in terms of music. I couldn't touch the keyboard for over a year and write any type of music. In 2000 another friend of mine who was into DJing hooked me up on some gigs. He was the one who gave me new perspectives in terms of making music and also involved me a bit with engineering. I was also a part of his gigs one time as "live artist" (throwing in effects into techno tracks, playing a baseline, mixing, etc.) and he gave me inspirations for new tracks, too.
In 2000 I found OC Remix by chance via P2P filesharing tools. So I visited the page, read myself a bit into it and thought "if others can remix, I can too". Said and done. I arranged a track from Kenji Ito (Final Fantasy Adventure) and it got featured on OCR in 2001. This is where it all began.
You get popular, get new friends and there are always the ones that are way longer in the community and are like "yeah I mix like 10 songs a month, you're nothing compared to me". The whole thing went worse as someone threw at my head "you f*cking stole a MIDI, you're no remixer! So jack off!" It threw me off guard again. And once again, I drew myself back into my own little world like a snail hides in his shell.
Steve Pordon (also known as Legion303) was actually the one who got me hooked on engineering. He was working on his Parasite Eve remix and was like "this track misses something". And I was like "maybe I can help... take a look at it". He agreed and so I started working on it, added a more smoother ending, compressed it to a certain loudness and also "semi mastered" it. The track got on OCR. But I got a lot of laughter to hear at that time "this is engineering?! BWAHAHAHA!". Again, from the same people who told me that I stole a MIDI to get on OCR.
I took a longer break this time and departed the community. In the same year I also was in charge of holding the on-stage area of an event where I was badly critiziced afterwards that I was better off training as a bakermaster. This was the point where I drew a line; I was so sick and tired of destructive critism, I got back into making music and wanted to release a CD. After going through several mastering studios, I was like "80-100 bucks per hour on mastering a track that was actually just compression, a cheap effect and nothing more?! Hell no, I can do that way better!"
It was this fated hour somewhere in 2002 that got me into audio engineering.
3. Who taught you the ropes and what other education have you received?
After visiting several mastering studios where I could also take a look at how engineering (in terms of mastering) was done, I started to read myself into it a bit. However magazines that covered this topic weren't that informative, so I started to read books, tutorials, etc. and talked to musicians and engineers about what to improve, etc. In other words I sucked up every bit of information I could get.
I also lost my job in 2002 (I'm a trained communication electronics engineer). That was kinda the break I needed; I dedicated most of my time for engineering (testing stuff, doing my first real mastering, etc), reading books to gather even more knowledge on that topic, gathering new contacts in that section (professional engineers) and doing more or less a major reset in my life.
I never attended a mastering school (unfortunately), so it's all self-education with a little help from friends who either gave me material to work with or were the "judging ears". And of course I was assisted by helpful guidings from the engineers I had (and partially still have) contact with.
4. Is this your first site project that you've mastered?
Well depends on what you see as "site project". In 2003 I mastered tracks from John St. John (also known as Trenthian) for OC Remix, did some engineerings from live recordings of a german "J-Rock" band called Psychommunity, was involved in the SoundTempest project "Aura and Omen" (that was unfortunately postponed to an indeterminate time), mastered the whole "Hits & Misses" CD from Joe Cammisa ( www.joecam.net ), and of course the one or another engineering/mastering job for friends.
But if I've mastered a site project as in the form of "Soundtrack Project" like OC Remix -- I didn't have the chance before.
5. When (and why) did you sign on with Chrono Symphonic?
I signed on to Chrono Symphonic in July this year (2005). OC Remix already had a couple of projects released at that time: "Relics of the Chozo", "Kong in Concert", "Sonic 2 - Hedgehog Heaven" and "Kirby - Rise of the Star". The Doom Project "Dark Side of Phobos" was about to be released at that time too.
All projects on OCR were really interesting, but they also had some major flaws that killed the fun on listening to them. Please don't get me wrong here. It wasn't the arrangements as most of the tracks were really outstanding, it was the mixing that troubled me.
You might have discovered this for yourself: You listen to your Winamp playlist and there is this track running that you really like. So you turn up the volume to really get the groove on. After the track is done another one blasts in with an instant, way louder than the track you listened to before. And you're like "ACK! DAMMIT! Way too loud!" so you have to turn down the volume again. But after this particular track runs another one that you like and it's even more quiet than the one you got your groove on. So you turn up the volume again. The result is that you constantly have to do volume regulations.
This doesn't happen for professionally mastered audio CDs (pop music, rock, soundtracks), well unless you change the album. That's due to the fact that the tracks were balanced out to each other in terms of loudness. And this is where I stepped in. I found the Chrono Trigger soundtrack project pretty interesting myself and didn't want it to suffer the flaws other projects had, so I contacted Andrew Lee Triplett (Claado Shou, the project coordinator) to offer my services.
6. What's the hardest thing about mastering all the tracks? How did you manage to "unify" the project?
I'd say finding the right balance is one of the hardest things. Each musician has an own style of mixing and writing their music. One uses more bass in the lower sections, the other one goes wild in the higher frequency section. One loves to give more emphasis on the orchestra percussion, while another one pushes the piano up front.
If you listen to an orchestra based soundtrack you always hear the same instruments coming from the same positions in each track. Not in the case of "Chrono Symphonic". Each track was individual in it's own way and that had to be balanced out for the project. The idea was simple, but the work behind it wasn't. The idea I had was to have a more unified sound. Everyone uses a different arsenal of orchestra instruments and pannings. So I had to set up a couple of rules, like "Piano has to be in the middle, percussion in the back, bells on the left side, gongs on the right, brass in the middle", etc to have a "unified sound".
Then I listened to each track carefully, wrote down what are troublesome parts, what the artist had to change. I wanted the tracks as clean as possible to have a good core to work with and take the sound "even further". If you have each tracks individually, you can balance everything out for yourself, much less even change the mood totally. But in this case I mostly got stereo mixdowns. And you can't go in-depth on them to just raise the piano or a specific instrument. These were the most troublesome parts on Chrono Symphonic.
7. Mastering seems to be very difficult; how many manhours did you contribute to the project in this regard?
I'd say that I sacrificed a lot of of my spare time and stopped counting after I put a couple of days and nights through. The postproduction of the tracks took a while as each mixer had their own working speed, knowledge of his/her tools, brought in their own ideas or simply didn't have the time to work on it. This was the most time intensive part. I would ask the mixer to do the changes and get the track back to me; then I'd listen to it, write down what could still be changed, ask them to get back to work, wait again, do a little chit-chat at the same time, wait for the master files, etc.
The in-depth engineering of a couple of tracks also took quite some time, like the complete reconstruction of SirRus' track "Manifest Destiny" for example, or the vocal tracks "Schala and the Queen" and "To Far Away Times". It's not like that you can sit in front of them and say, "okay here an effect and there one" and it's done. It needs careful engineering so that the vocals don't drown in the mix, but aren't too loud either. The right effect for them is also touchy (delay, reverb, compression, etc). The cleaning up took a bit of work too as one vocal part was recorded on a Macintosh (iBooK) built-in microphone and another one on a semi-professional setup. So there was a lot of editing going on to remove the noise of each recording, brushing them up and put them into the mix. But the time working was worth it!
There were also a couple of other problems going on that delayed things even more. At the time I joined Chrono Symphonic and wanted to go more in-depth on the tracks (postproduction), a couple of mixers weren't simply available and couldn't be contacted. A couple tracks couldn't be recovered due to HDD crashes and other difficulties. It was very time consuming and nerve-racking contacting each remixer, getting them back to work (or at least a lifesign), and asking what's up. Tyler Heath (Unknown) for example was in a hurricane region and wasn't available for a couple of weeks, Chris Elliot (ellywu2) wasn't available either, as if he had completely vanished. We even started a searching for him at all the boards he went to. (a very big thank you goes out to Bev Wooff aka Rexy in this case!)
And of course there was "Murphy's Law" involved. If you think everything will work how it should, it won't!
8. Did you have to master any .mp3s, and how difficult were they?
Some tracks couldn't be recovered, so I indeed had to use a couple of MP3s as source material. The editing is almost similar as having a stereo mixdown in WAV format, only that I have to be more careful in certain sections. Filling the holes and getting back the missing frequencies is a bit more difficult than with WAVs due to the data reduction of lossless formats like MP3. Of course you can't really get back the "very same sound" as you'd get with a mixdown before the mp3 encoding, but you can get close. And I'm pretty sure most of the listeners won't really hear what was an once a mp3 and what was not.
9. Do you plan to stay involved with the site project scene?
To be honest, I really don't know. I had a couple of ideas in the first couple of weeks while working on this project, but the more I worked on it and the longer it took, the more distant I grew from the ideas I had. Not to mention that projects this size are very time consuming (time that you often don't have).
One thing is for sure though - I will take a longer break. I'll do a major reset, try to focus on own material again and maybe even try to earn some money with engineering (as friends suggested me to do so, too). At this moment I really can't tell what I will do in like...3-6 months or so. Guess I'll have to wait and see.
10. Thanks for doing this interview
A pleasure, thanks for interviewing me.
Chrono Symphonic ExtravaganzaProject Summary
Other Staff Interviews
It's been a wild ride, everyone. If you'd like to check out other avenues for celebrating Chrono Trigger's tenth bithday, remember that the Compendium has a celebration page set up here. Enjoy it everyone, and be sure to grab the special edition! We've waited a long time -- happy listening!