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Composing Music for Visual Novels— Interview with Tim Reichert

Jan: Hello Tim, thank you so much for being on this interview! For starters, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Tim: Gladly! I’m Tim Reichert and I’ve been a composer, sound designer, and audio director for over a decade. For several years, my specific focus has been on visual novels. Additionally, I’m a musicologist specializing in video game music studies. I’ve had the opportunity to speak about (visual novel) game audio at the Visual;Conf, a visual novel-focused online conference and I have also released several visual novel-centered audio packs!

Jan: Please tell us more about your involvement with visual novel games. How did you find out about visual novels, and what piqued your interest to work in this field?

Tim: My first exposure to visual novels was through mystery games on the Nintendo DS, for example Ace Attorney, Time Hollow, 999, Hotel Dusk etc. But I’m not actually sure if I knew the term “visual novel” back then. While I had watched anime adaptations of visual novels, such as Fate Stay/Night or Steins;Gate, my direct experience with visual novels was limited to aforementioned DS games.

Around 2013 or 2014, I unexpectedly received a DM on SoundCloud. Someone had heard my music and asked me if I wanted to compose for a visual novel they were involved in. It wasn’t until 2016 when I worked on another visual novel project. I had learned that there was a whole forum centered around this genre where people would look for composers: Lemmasoft. Prior to that the RPG Maker community was my main niche but armed with the experience I had gained, I decided to try my hand at composing more music for visual novel.

Jan: When looking at your portfolio, there’s not one, but four different services you offer! Is there a skill you specialize in, and how did you acquire all of them?

Tim: Music composition is what I have done the longest. I started branching out due to Aaron Marks’ advice in his book “Game Audio,” where he recommends not confining oneself to either composition or sound design but learning both to increase job opportunities. As such, I practiced sound design and started creating sound effects for games. Some later visual novel projects I worked on had voiceover, and since there are overlaps between mixing music, sound design, and voiceover editing, I took on that task as well. Over the years, I gathered experience in how audio in games works, and decided to dabble in audio direction as well. I figured my musicological knowledge would help if any research needed to be done.

Jan: Which visual novels and anime did you grow up with, and how did they shape your musical taste?

Tim: I mainly grew up with anime that were available on German television, as I didn’t have access to the internet for a long time. Pokémon, One Piece, Digimon, Beyblade, and Yu-Gi-Oh were among the ones I still remember. Typical Shonen anime. I also really enjoyed watching Studio Ghibli movies whenever they were on TV! Regarding visual novels: As mentioned, Nintendo DS visual novels were my first points of contact. I’m not sure if they highly impacted my musical taste, though. Although, I did become a fan of creating darker pieces, so maybe the darker soundtracks of said mystery visual novels did influence me in part. Way before I had actively sought out and listened to video game music, I had listened to metal. So perhaps their sometimes energetic, sometimes brooding tones influenced me more. Other than that, I also quickly became a fan of Joe Hisaishi’s music, so maybe those Ghibli movies I had watched had influenced me as well.

Jan: When it comes to getting the task done, every composer has a different workflow. What is a thing about you that you’d consider pretty unique? Do you have a certain routine when scoring for visual novel games?

Tim: This is a difficult question to answer, especially considering that I don’t know what workflow other composers usually have. I personally like doing research before starting my composition process. If a game is inspired by other media like other games or series, I usually look into said media. I’d start watching the series or playing the game, for example, to get a feel for it. Or if a game has a specific geographical or temporal setting, I’d research what kind of music could authentically represent said setting. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that!

Jan: What projects are you currently working on? What are your future plans?

Tim:  At the moment, I’m working on an update for our visual novel Mycorrhiza! We’ve partnered up with a mangaka who has drawn a manga short for us and are currently implementing their work into the game. But it’d be boring if it was just a simple manga in digital form. We wanted to make full use of the game engine and are, as such, adding animations and syncing audio to said animations.

I’m not quite sure what the future holds for me. I’ve been quite busy finishing my degree. Though I’d love to free up some time for participating in some game jams! I saw an awesome-looking project last Spooktober Jam (a visual novel game jam) but couldn’t participate due to time constraints.

Jan: When composing for games, which musical genres do you prefer to indulge in? And where do you gather your inspiration from?

Tim: I like researching all kinds of genres and trying my hand at composing them. But my favorites are probably sad and dark tracks. I don’t mind composing happy pieces; there are a bunch on my demo reel, but I usually have an easier time coming up with a sad and brooding melody than a happy one.

Overall, I’d oftentimes feel inspired by games and movies. Whenever I’d finish one, my creative juices would start flowing.

Jan: What is your biggest wish for the future?

Tim: Regarding my music career? To work with nice people on cool projects.

Jan: In September 2022 you released a game called Mycorrhiza. Would you like to tell us more about this project?

Tim: Sure! Mycorrhiza is a horror manga-inspired visual novel that draws inspiration from the works of Ito Junji and Nakayama Masaaki. It revolves around Scott, who finds himself in strange places without any recollection of how he got there. The narrative unfolds through three arcs, each with a distinct plot. One arc explores a peculiar plant that transforms animals into monsters, another delves into a horrifying comedy trend, and the third centers around a mysterious building trapping people.

There are a few reasons why I started working on this project. First, no one had hired me as a composer for a larger horror project yet, and I wanted to create a horror game soundtrack. So, I just decided to develop a horror game myself. Second, I aimed to gain experience in leading a game development team, anticipating that this experience would be valuable for my future audio direction endeavors. And third, I wanted to create a visual novel with more intricate dynamic audio. Typically, dynamic audio in visual novels involves swapping one audio track for another or adding/removing audio layers. However, there are more interesting ways to manipulate audio, such as applying effects like reverb in real time or randomizing the order of audio snippets. But I digress, I’ve written a whole article on that topic!

Jan: Why did you choose that specific title? And what role does said title have within the game?

Tim: I wanted to choose a name that would be easy to find and that would sound mysterious, perhaps even a bit scary, especially since not many people are familiar with that term. Mycorrhiza refers to a symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants, where the fungi reside inside the plant’s roots. While playing the game, you might not encounter many direct references to mushrooms, but once you finish it and unlock and read all the extra background lore, the reason for choosing that name will become apparent!

Jan: Adaptive Audio can help bring a game to whole new levels of immersion. How did you come up with the idea to implement adaptive audio into visual novels/your game?

Tim: It’s important to note that there were visual novels that came out before Mycorrhiza that made use of dynamic audio beyond just completely swapping out audio tracks. As I mentioned, it was usually restricted to adding or removing audio layers, but this can still have a significant impact, in my opinion!

I had been learning how to use Wwise and Fmod for some time, which are essential audio middleware used in conjunction with, for example, Unity or Unreal Engine. These tools make it easier to implement dynamic audio in games. So, I was familiar with the typical techniques used for creating dynamic audio. Due to my research into video game music, it was also apparent to me that dynamic audio is a crucial aspect of video games. Considering that I wanted to leverage my audio knowledge, which was probably my biggest asset when creating Mycorrhiza, I didn’t shy away from making use of more complicated dynamic audio concepts. But it was Alfred, our programmer, who made those concepts a reality. This wouldn’t have been possible without him!

Jan: What is your take on the future of audio implementation for vns? Do you think we can expect to see a lot more projects with Adaptive Audio?

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Tim: I hope that more (indie) visual novels consider implementing dynamic audio. There might be a reason why not even bigger, well-known visual novels make use of more complicated dynamic audio techniques, likely due to the limited interactivity compared to other types of games. However, my aim was to demonstrate that dynamic audio has a place even in games with limited interactivity. I hope that the mentioned document on dynamic audio for visual novels, as well as the corresponding Visual;Conf talk, can make a difference. Neither Alfred nor I mind people decompiling the game and looking into the code to learn how the dynamic audio was implemented. So, I hope that these resources can assist future visual novel developers who want to use dynamic audio in their games.

Jan: With Mycorrhiza, what music boundaries did you want to break, and which unique features are you most proud of?

Tim: I don’t think the music itself is hugely revolutionary. It’s mainly the dynamic way it was implemented that makes a difference. My personal highlight is the horizontal rearrangement we’ve done. Horizontal rearrangement is the act of seamlessly leading one music snippet to an alternative music snippet. In the first arc, for example, we have a piece of music with multiple layers and different 30-second long snippets for each layer. These snippets are recombined dynamically, meaning we get new combinations every 30 seconds, and the order in which they appear is totally random. This helps combat repetition, as the piece is continuously reconstructed instead of it consisting of a specific sequence that keeps looping.

In the third arc, where the player can freely explore and revisit four doors to find a way to escape the structure, an insanity variable is increased each time a horrific scene is encountered. And each time this happens, the music seamlessly jumps to a more distorted version, on beat. As mentioned, both of these ended up being quite complicated to implement, and it would in no way have been possible without Alfred!

Jan: You mentioned that Ito Junji and Nakayama Masaaki were huge inspirations for your game. Did you grow up reading horror manga? Was it a long dream of yours to make your own horror manga inspired game? How long was the game in planning/development?

Tim: As I’ve been a big fan of horror for as long as I can remember and enjoyed reading manga, it was only natural that I’d start reading horror manga eventually. However, I’m not entirely sure when I started. It might have been later into my teenage years or perhaps even later. But it must have been some time before I started working on Mycorrhiza. When I thought about making my own game, it just made sense to pick what I was currently enthusiastic about as a reference. Additionally, there weren’t that many horror manga inspired visual novels out there, so I was hoping to find success by choosing a less explored route.

Development started in 2018. Writing the script took around a year, mainly because I’m a slow writer. In 2019, I got our editor Sam on board to help make the script more enjoyable to read. Two years later, in 2021, we got some art done by Black Wing and missyozart for the first demo. This might seem like an odd way of handling game development, considering that oftentimes all of this is done simultaneously instead of in sequence, but I wanted to ensure I could actually finish the biggest part of the game—the script—first, before getting anyone else involved. Though, I still added some new small alternative routes to the first two arcs later. In any case, the game was fully released in 2022, so it took about 4–4½ years to complete.

Jan: Looking at the credits, there seem to be a lot of people involved on the project. How did you find the right people for your game, and would you like to tell us about the process of how you managed and recruited your team members?

Tim: I found them in many different ways! I sent out a call for an editor through various channels such as Lemmasoft and Reddit. I’m not sure through which Sam found me, but we did already follow each other on Twitter back then, so perhaps that way! He had made a DDLC fan game and had some experience with horror writing, making him the right fit. Cipher I already knew from past projects, and he is probably my go-to editor whenever I can afford it. He’s really fast and reliable! Tristan I also already knew from past projects, specifically through the development studio Watercress (which’s games I recommend checking out). I don’t quite remember how Alfred and I got to know each other. I remember that he sent me his (in my opinion really impressive) Ren’Py coding demos sometime, and I thought that it would be awesome to have someone of his skill on the team, so I asked him directly! As for the artists: missyozart I found through Fiverr, and Black Wing through Artstation. Finding the right artist was quite difficult, as there weren’t many easily available artists with experience in creating art you’d expect to see in a horror manga. I was also being a bit picky since I felt that the art direction would be quite important for this game. Missyozart had experience drawing black and white horror art, which was close enough! Black Wing was also a really lucky find, as they had actually drawn horror manga before! Without them, the art direction would have been less authentic.

Jan: I assume your experience as an audio director really helped in that regard, huh?

Tim: I didn’t have too much experience in audio direction before I started working on this game. So, it’s more accurate to say that this game project provided me with the necessary experience to work as an audio director!

Jan: Tell us more about your musicology studies in Tübingen.

Tim: It’s lots of fun! When studying musicology, you essentially learn the basics of music analysis and interpretation, but the end goal is to learn how to research, speak and write about music, specifically in an academic setting. This has helped me a lot whenever it came to doing research for audio projects!

Jan: You wrote your master thesis about pseudo-language songs in the game “NieR Replicant.”  Would you like to tell us more about your fascination in that research area?

Tim: It isn’t actually done yet, but it’s coming along pretty nicely. I really like Yoko Taro’s games. Their dark settings and oftentimes questionable morals of the protagonists, as well as the music, of course, interest me a lot. So, I decided to use it as the main example of my paper. I’ve also enjoyed combining musicology and linguistics in past papers, so it made sense.

Jan: I heard about your fascination with Russian music. How did you find your passion for that genre?

Tim: It was mostly a case of favorable circumstances. My second subject aside from musicology was Slavic studies with a personal focus on Russian studies. It made sense to combine the two and research Russian music.

Jan: Do you implement elements of Russian music into your own compositions?

Tim: I haven’t had much opportunity to, yet! I have created some tracks that were directly inspired by Russian music: For example, my brass piece “Samowar,” which can be found on my demo reel. But I haven’t been hired for a project that would benefit from me incorporating stereotypical Russian elements yet. Maybe I’ll have to create my own game centered around a Russian setting, similar to how I had to create a horror game myself!

Jan: Looking at your personal projects, there seem to be a lot of passion projects you made over the years. Would you like to tell us more about “Hope and Despair?”

Tim: Of course! I’ve always been enthusiastic about creating music in diverse styles. “Hope and Despair” was a music album that was released in 2018 and combined two complete opposites: Happiness and cuteness vs. darkness and sadness.

Jan: You mentioned a key element of your album—the musical split, inspired by two inspirations of yours: Danganronpa and Snail House. What made you want to incorporate those extremely different styles within one project, and what was the motivation behind creating a project that would have this recognizable two sided split?

Tim: I think that was around the time when I wanted to, on one hand, practice making more energetic and upbeat music, and on the other hand, more dark and brooding music. And so, I decided to create an album concept that would allow me to fulfil both desires!

Jan: I’ve also stumbled across solo projects such as “soda” or “captive”, where you collaborated with artists in order to make songs. Is this a direction you’d like to delve into in the future as well? Where did you find these people? Were they colleagues from college?

Tim: I believe I found the singers for “Soda” by posting a recruitment post on Casting Call Club. Some other singers I have collaborated with before I found through Fiverr. I also still have some Vocalizr, YouTube, and SoundBetter bookmarks saved with people I would like to possibly collaborate with in the future. Other people I have worked with I knew through Twitter – like Isaac who played the violin on one of the tracks for the visual novel LoveSick Darlings – or because they saw my visual novel audio pack recruitment post and wanted to participate in creating said audio pack. And again, others because the team lead of a project had scouted them. I enjoy working together with other singers and instrumentalists and would love to continue doing so!

Jan: Let’s take a look at your sheet music project “Dreams”.

Tim: Sure!

Jan: There seems to be a title called “A Silent Voice”. This seems to be a homage to the iconic movie “Koe No Katachi”, right? Would you like to explain the key role/the importance this movie played in your life as a composer or even as a person?

Tim: That’s correct! I’ve always been someone who would have to get their creative energy out after watching an awesome movie or after finishing a great game. Those would be the moments I’d feel the most inspired. It wasn’t any different when I finished “Koe no Katachi”. I wouldn’t say it really changed me as a person or my music; it was just a really great movie. But the composition/improvisation that I had created somehow started making its rounds. Soon it became one of my most viewed videos on YouTube with over 300k views. There were people coming from pottery videos or Call of Duty compilations that were receiving lots of views and which had used the music. I’d like to think that more people were made aware of my work thanks to the movie and the inspiration it gave me to create that piece of music.

Jan: What was the experience like, writing sheet music and actually selling a physical copy of what you created?

Tim: I had quite a bit of experience creating sheet music before, as I had long created arrangements of other pieces. But it was a special feeling, holding an actual physical copy of the sheet music in my hands.

Jan: Say, when talking about video games, there’s a whole research field for it called Ludomusicology. Looking at Forschungsgemeinschaft VideospielMusikWissenschaft, it seems like you created a scientific research group for that exact matter?

Tim: That’s correct! There is a more international and interdisciplinary research group out there, the Ludomusicology Research Group, but we wanted to facilitate networking between people interested in this topic in German-speaking countries, specifically.

Jan: What research projects are you currently taking on there? And would you like to talk about Ludocon?

Tim: At the moment, we are preparing a collaboration with the DVSM (roughly translatable to “umbrella association of musicology students”), which is an association that aims to connect and represent musicology students in German-speaking countries.

The Ludo Conference is essentially an academic conference where scientists present papers and talk about video game music. We don’t have much to do with Ludocon, though; it’s organized by the Ludomusicology Research Group! But I have been there as a spectator for several years now, and last time someone from our research group held a presentation there.

Jan: Looking at some of the game projects you were involved with, there seem to be a few titles from the gamedev team Watercress, such as “Ah! My Girlfriend is a Demon Summoned from the Depths of Hell!” and “Cautionary Tale”. Would you like to tell us more about your involvement/history with Watercress?

Tim: I joined their Discord server in 2017 and had previously been involved with some of the people who were also present in the server. I was then coerced into joining them for NaNoRenO pretty quickly. Working with them was a joy! They have lots of really talented people. “Cautionary Tale” was an especially interesting case. The team was split in three and each was tasked with creating a different game. Those were then combined into one game collection. I was mainly part of the “Let Go.” Team but I ended up also creating the other game’s credits themes, which all shared the same composition, rearranged in different ways to create a musical common thread between the three stories. They culminated in a final credits theme called “It’s Goodbye” that featured singing by Sagittaeri (he’s an awesome singer), which can be found on my YouTube channel.

Jan: Speaking of which, I saw that Wolf, the CEO of Watercress, was also involved with Mycorrhiza?

Tim: Correct! We had already known each other from past projects, so a collaboration made sense.

Jan: For everyone that wants to gain a foothold in the visual novel dev industry, is there any advice you’d like to share? Are there any things you wish you would have known/done earlier?

Tim: I definitely would have participated in more game jams! There’s some common advice for composers that’s something along the lines of: At the beginning, creating many small pieces is way more beneficial than creating few big ones. The same is true for video game projects. The risk of games being canceled also seems smaller when it comes to game jams, and even if they are cancelled, you won’t have invested too much time into them. When I started composing for games, I was confronted with a ton of canceled projects. All in all, you can likely fill up your portfolio more quickly. You’re also usually more involved in the game creation process. You’d help out here and there, interact with everyone more, learn how they work, and have greater control over the game’s audio. I personally had more time and was less independent from being paid for my work when I started out, so game jams would have been a more viable option back then compared to now. Though, as I’m answering this question, I’m considering participating in game jams more in the future.

Jan: Aside from composing and working with DAWS, are there any additional skills you’d recommend people to learn in this field?

Tim: Communication, dealing with criticism, and reliability are, in my opinion, some very important aspects! You’ll usually have to adapt to the vision of the one in charge, so learning how to actualize the (constructive!) criticism is important. This also includes filtering criticism for important information and knowing what follow-up questions can help clarify uncertainties. And since you’re working with other people, communication and reliability are key! If you know that you have to quit or take a break from a project or if you know that you won’t be able to hit a deadline, then it’s a good idea to let your teammates know. If you’re reliable, then you’re more likely to get more work in the future. Though, there are definitely circumstances where keeping in contact isn’t a possibility and where one’s teammates can hopefully show understanding, like medical emergencies or geopolitical circumstances.

Jan: We all know that visual novels can get pretty steamy sometimes. Some people might not be sure whether they’d feel comfortable working with NSFW projects or being involved with these games. What is your take on that matter? Looking at Lovesick Darlings , a game you composed for, there are no explicit sexual scenes to be found, but rather sexual references. For people that are uncertain, would you recommend that kind of approach?

Tim: I think everyone should do what they’re comfortable with. Fortunately, there are a ton of visual novel projects out there without sexual content! Though, depending on how dependent you are on the income you get from these projects, you might not be able to be too picky. Using an alter alias for NSFW games is also always an option.

Jan: When working on NSFW games, is it legitimate to have concerns about potentially closing doors of your future career? Would people limit their career options, or even endanger any opportunities if they decided they didn’t want to work in said field anymore?

Tim: I unfortunately can’t comment on that due to a lack of experience.

Thank you for sharing your opinions on that matter! Let’s talk about passive income.

Tim: Gladly!

Jan: As a freelance artist, it never hurts to diversify your stream of income. Would you like to share some insights on that matter? Which passive income do you see as the most crucial?

Tim: To be honest, I don’t really make much passive income! Album sales or streams rarely cover the cost if you’re a smaller artist. One aspect I haven’t tried out yet is passive income by selling audio packs. All my audio packs are freely available. Perhaps that would be an option worth testing. But I’ve also received some commissions because people used my free audio packs for their demos before wanting to spend money on audio. They later wanted to replace them with new, commercially usable tracks for the full release and contacted me. So, either option can be viable.

Jan: Tim, thank you so much for being here today! I appreciate you taking your time and sharing your expertise. Any final words you’d like to say?

Tim: No problem, thanks a ton for having me! If anyone reading this has any further questions, then don’t hesitate to contact me! I’m always happy to help!

Jan: Great! Thanks again, and I wish you good luck on your future endeavors!

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Hello, my name is Jan, but you can call me YanYan! I’m a freelance composer/producer with a knack for cute things. Passionate about visual novels and indie games. And pineapple on pizza.

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