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Empowering Fans to Stand Strong Through the Power of Music – “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY” Interview

The ACE COMBAT series celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020, and now in 2021 the anniversary events are once again kicking off. We have taken the opportunity to hear from series brand director Kazutoki Kono, series main composer Keiki Kobayashi, and sound director Ryo Watanabe about just one such event—the “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY” concert!

*This article was originally released in Japan on July 22, 2021.

Since 1995, ACE COMBAT has left its mark on the history of the flight combat genre. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the series, 2020 was host to a variety of activities including; new DLC, anniversary videos on the official ACE COMBAT YouTube channel, and the launch of official clothing lines through collaboration with apparel brands.

Now in 2021, anniversary events are officially underway once again, with the “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY” concert, featuring orchestral performances of music from the series. We spoke with the team in charge of the event about some behind-the-scenes details on the music production process as well as about what the upcoming concert has in store!

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Kazutoki Kono

ACE COMBAT Series Brand Director

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Keiki Kobayashi

Conductor & ACE COMBAT Series Main Composer

Formerly from BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment, Kobayashi has been involved with composing much of the music for the series since ACE COMBAT 04: Shattered Skies. Since 2014, he has worked as a freelance music composer and arranger.

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Ryo Watanabe

Sound Director

ACE COMBAT 7‘s Hit Track “Daredevil” — Born in the 10 Days Before the Final Deadline

Kazutoki Kono,Keiki Kobayashi,Ryo Watanabe
From left: Watanabe, Kobayashi, Kono

In late April 2021, the ACE COMBAT series announced on its official Twitter channel that  25th Anniversary celebrations would be kicking off yet again. Can you tell us about how these anniversary event delays came to be?

Kono: The delays were the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was hard to put together events that would draw in people last year, and we weren’t going to be able to put on the show we wanted to. I’m sure the fans wanted to get together in person for it, too. Not being able to meet those expectations was really disheartening.

It’s hard to really say how much the situation has changed in 2021, but we decided if we did everything in our power to ensure the safety of our fans and staff and still host the concert we had planned, then we should go through with it. That’s the mindset we had when we decided on a reboot of the 25th Anniversary celebrations.

The very first of these events is the “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY” concert at the Ota City Residents Hall – Aprico on August 7th. What can you tell us about this concert and what it’s like making music for ACE COMBAT?

Kono: For the concert, Kobayashi and Ryo were extremely active in getting things prepared.

Kobayashi: I’ve been given the privilege of acting as conductor, music arranger, and orchestra organizer, really just handling everything. It’s been a bit overwhelming.

Kono: Are things moving along? (Kono is Kobayashi’s former boss.)

Kobayashi: In all honesty, there’s still much left to do… What has given me the most trouble is the arrangement for “Daredevil” from ACE COMBAT 7: Skies Unknown. It won’t be done in time if I don’t finish it this week, yet it’s a song I’m so passionate about I can’t settle on which direction to take it in…

Kono: Sounds like excuses to me!

All: (laugh)

Kobayashi: I’m sorry! I’m doing my best to finish it now.

Keiki Kobayashi

Watanabe: “Daredevil” is a song that was born from lots of complications, so I know how Kobayashi feels. It’s a song that wasn’t in the original development plan. I asked him to write it just 10 days before our final data deadline. Kono suddenly came to us saying, “This needs to have more impact.”

The dev team was already at their absolute limit, but he wanted this particular mission to be more exciting. It’s an important story scene that pits you in your final face off with a boss you encounter numerous times throughout the story, but I still couldn’t believe he was asking this of us. And so I contacted Kobayashi with a last-minute song request.

Kono: What was that conversation like?

Watanabe: Before officially approaching him with the request I tried to soften the blow by telling him “Kono says we need a song, see…” We both had a laugh at that. You know, the sort that comes natural when you’re faced with something absolutely unexpected. We exchanged a few exhausted laughs. It was unlike anything else in all my time in development.

Kobayashi: When I got that call from Watanabe, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s ACE COMBAT for you.” As a former member of the staff myself, I know what it’s like to be stuck flailing about in the quagmire of late development. So when Watanabe called me up, I simply accepted that this needed to be done.

Watanabe: I honestly wasn’t sure it could be done in time. There was less than 10 days left, and we needed to write a song, secure a place to record it, and gather a group of performers together. It felt like rushing to prep for big school events as a kid.

So the fan-favorite track “Daredevil” came to be under precarious circumstances, then?

Kobayashi: Absolutely. I’m usually rather slow at finishing off my work, to the point where I get push-back from the development side, upset that everything isn’t ready to go yet. But with this track, I worked at 100x my normal pace.

Do the songs give goosebumps? Do they bring a tear to the eye? They don’t get the go-sign until they do.

Watanabe: Kobayashi eventually sent me the score for the track, but the complications didn’t stop there. Next our narrative director, Kosuke Itomi, who single-handedly manages all our content, comes to me saying “We should make this into a dynamic music track.” Dynamic music seamlessly plays in sync with developments in the story and requires a lot of really intricate fine tuning.

Kobayashi: In order to create dynamic music, you need to write, arrange, and record the song in a very precise, calculated manner. Unless the song builds excitement in sync with story progression, it won’t have any lasting impact. We had less than 10 days left by that point, but Watanabe came to me so straight-faced with the request that I couldn’t refuse.

In a prior interview Kobayashi spoke about how everyone involved worked to the very limit, taking what was thought to be “finished” and pushing it even further to match the lofty ideals the team held. We heard how, no matter how pointless it might seem, pushing for the absolute top quality is what makes the music of ACE COMBAT what it is. The conversation offered a close look at the way the team aims high and works hard to achieve their goals.

Kono: The reason why we go this far is because I have a certain personal set of criteria for the work we release out into the world. I play our games to see if they give me goosebumps or bring a tear to my eye. I don’t sign off on them unless they do. I look at everything, the story, the music, the visuals all combined, and I don’t give the go-sign unless they meet my expectations.

Watanabe: All the Ace Combat staff work to provide their very best, but their work goes before internal scrutiny to determine whether it works properly as part of the greater picture. We end up switching up the order of the music, examining how we might play it, and make detailed tweaks to improve the overall impact.

Kono: I honestly believe that the music in ACE COMBAT makes up a full 30% of how it is received and reviewed. You have the visuals, the scenario, the gameplay, and then you have the music accounting for the remaining 30 percent.

Kazutoki Kono

There certainly are a number of scenes throughout the series where the music truly stands out. Do each of you have certain scenes that come to mind?

Kono: For me it would have to be the last mission in ACE COMBAT 04: Shattered Skies. Kobayashi came forward saying he wanted to change the song used in the scene where the Megalith, a massive enemy weapon, bursts into the fray.

This was back when he had just joined the team, and we didn’t have the level of trust we have now. He was so persistent though so I told him I’d give him a single chance at composing a song. But I warned him if it didn’t work, I’d pull him immediately.

Kobayashi: I worked to put together a quiet song that would help the radio chatter between the NPCs stand out. They say people see their lives flash before their eyes in truly desperate situations, right? I imagine it is like giving yourself so entirely to a moment that the world seemingly moves in slow motion. That’s the idea I had in mind while composing the song.

I think it was only five minutes after I uploaded a finished version to the server. Kono called me saying something like “Kobayashi, what is THAT?!” The plan at the time was to bring the scene to an end in as intense and exciting a manner as possible. My song diverged pretty heavily from what he had planned, and I think he told me to come down to his office. I still remember how nervous I felt walking down the hall to see him.

When I explained to him what my idea was, he told me that if that’s what I wanted to pull-off we’d have to match it up with the game footage first. He told me to pack up and go home that day. I didn’t really want to leave until I knew how things were going to work out, but I didn’t have much of a choice.

When I got a message from him the next day saying we were going to use my song though, I was ecstatic.

Powerful, emotional stories can only be crafted by pushing beyond all limits

Kazutoki Kono,Keiki Kobayashi,Ryo Watanabe

Kobayashi: Another song I remember being an ordeal was “The UNSUNG WAR” from ACE COMBAT 5: The Unsung War.

Kono: I remember that one. It started as two songs originally, but they didn’t give me goosebumps like they should have, so I had them combined into one.

Kobayashi: The order came after we had finished with everything. It was after we had made volume and quality adjustments to each track and put it in stereo and everything. Normally once we put a song in stereo it’s finished. So at first I didn’t really understand what he was asking of us.

He just said, “Don’t you think if we stick the second track into this phrase we can work them into a single song?” It took all of my might to hold it together at that point. Let’s call it a case of effective anger management. It turned out to be a hit with the fans, so all’s well that ends well I suppose, but I still remember needing to catch my breath.

Kono: It sounds bad, looking back on it, but since we got the reaction that we wanted out of our fans I’d say it’s proof of good direction on my part.

Kobayashi: I really wanted to push back at the time, you know. But as much as I hate to admit it, you’re right.

Watanabe: You’ve probably gathered as much already, but the ACE COMBAT series has these unbelievably high hurdles it has to clear in-house before anything makes it to the players.

Kobayashi: That’s probably more or less why the series has continued for so long.

Working on the ACE COMBAT team taught me that the only way to create believable emotional stories is with earnest commitment to crafting the scenes that make it up. The story, the music, every last detail is fine-tuned until the very end. That’s what it takes to make our fans happy.

If the story and the graphics don’t really hit the player, there’s no chance they will remember what music was playing. Focusing on all the small details is what led us to a place where we are able to organize concerts like this.

The concert arrangement was made by none other than Kobayashi himself. Crafted to follow the path he took through the series.

Let’s get back to the concert. The previous “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY” concert was held at Haneda Airport in July of 2019, but what are some things you focused on improving this time around?

Kobayashi: Last time we had to limit the number of instruments we included, but for the “ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY” concert we’ll be in a larger venue with a full orchestra.

We’re bringing back the folks we previously brought together for our studio recordings for 7. It’s an impressive lineup, and anyone familiar with classical music will surely recognize musicians from various symphonies and orchestras. They’re all true pros.

We’ll also have guitarists, drummers, and vocal performers to provide a truly impressive performance.

This time you’ll be hosting the event at the Ota City Residents Hall. Do you expect this will differ from the reception hall at the airport where you hosted the last concert?

Kobayashi: The acoustics will be a lot different. Performing in a concert hall provides reverb and lets sound grow, echoing off the walls and ceiling. This will allow us to offer a true orchestral experience in the manner we desire.

There’s a reason we chose a hall in Ota City, too. BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment itself grew out of Ota City. Since ACE COMBAT is a series that kicked off and grew with Namco (originally), we intentionally chose Ota over places like Ikebukuro or Shinjuku. We went with the Residents Hall to make it this sort of pilgrimage, in a sense.

Keiki Kobayashi

The perfect ensemble at the perfect location. Kobayashi, you were in charge of the arrangement (coordinating the songs, the composition of the instruments, and the way the music will be performed), I’m sure it must have been an emotional experience revisiting these songs you created over a decade ago.

Kobayashi: You’re quite right. It felt almost as though I was retracing my footsteps. I started down the path to becoming a composer for the game industry after getting my hands on ACE COMBAT 2 as a university student. 04 was the first entry I got to work hands-on with, and I’ve included music from it in the upcoming concert. Working on arrangements for songs I wrote myself and those written by colleagues I used to work alongside really brings back memories. It’s been a great chance to take another look at the roots of my own career.

We don’t have much of the original data from those days, and even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to access it with the tools we use today. So, I’ve spent time listening to the soundtracks, trying to remember why I arranged things in difficult ways and reflecting on what I was trying to accomplish (while also realizing how much of a hassle I made for myself). I’ve taken this opportunity to add in wind instruments, which we didn’t have back then, and update the brass parts to match my own personal style today. There are even some entirely new portions that I’ve added in.

I’m doing my very best to craft these tracks into music designed for a live performance, and I hope everyone comes to the show excited for what’s in store.

Keiki Kobayashi’s music is perfected through live performance

Is there anything in particular about the performance that you want people to pay close attention to?

Watanabe: Everyone should pay close attention to the accentuation! I was there on site for Kobayashi’s recording for 7, and it really left me amazed at what a live performance can offer.

Kobayashi’s music is, to put it one way, explosive. He holds things back in just the right way and really lets things take off at the most important parts. When performed live it offers an incredibly dynamic audio experience with distinct variations in volume. When we record for games, we make sure the experience can be recreated with home audio setups, which forces us to flatten out the music. This takes away from the sheer impact the songs originally pack.

Kobayashi: In games we have to intentionally cut out some of the finer details from the sounds we create. There’s nothing much we can do about it, as leaving the accentuation in would cause the audio to clip and distort in the louder parts, and become almost inaudible during quieter portions.

In a concert hall though, you will be able to hear these musical accents as-is. The finer details that were always meant to be part of the tracks will be present in their entirety in the performance, just as intended. We’re working to offer an authentic musical experience only available through this concert and of the flavor that live performances can add.

Keiki Kobayashi

Kobayashi, you will be acting as conductor as well, right?

Kono: All dressed up in a tailcoat and everything right?

Kobayashi: Absolutely not. I will not be wearing a tailcoat. (laughs)

Watanabe: You took up the conductor’s baton when recording for 7 too, didn’t you?

Kobayashi: I typically conduct whenever we record. I have an idea in my head of exactly how I want the music to be performed, so I conduct our musicians myself in order to directly convey to them what I am looking for.

There’s more that I look to get out of each song than I could ever hope to fit onto the sheet music itself. Even if I were to include the finer details like accentuation and tone, I doubt they would pay much attention, and it would take quite a lot of time for them to work through, anyway. It ends up being much easier to use my own motions and expressions to convey what I’m looking for.

Kono: You’ve really gone all out this time. This is going to be a Kobayashi-conducted performance by Kobayashi-selected musicians playing Kobayashi-arranged music. You won’t find a more genuine ACE COMBAT concert than this.

Kobayashi: That also means that if anything is off, it’s entirely my fault. I’ll…try and make sure that doesn’t happen.

Kono: I have faith you’ll pull it off. It’s not every day you get the chance to listen to the real-deal like this. You’ve done a good job putting this all together.

Back to the topic of what to look for in the concert though, I think people should pay attention to the expressions of the performers themselves. I always get the sense that it must be tough to be a violinist playing Kobayashi’s music. They’re constantly playing without much rest at all.

Kobayashi: That will be the case this time too, with the tough music score I’ve put together. They might be too busy with their own performances to have any time to watch for my cues.

Kono: Seeing the musicians so focused on their work offers a thrill you can only get in person.

Skipping game footage to focus solely on the performance

Kazutoki Kono,Keiki Kobayashi,Ryo Watanabe

Let’s take the conversation away from the music now, if we may. Concerts for video game music typically show game footage during the performances, right? Will there be any visuals like this during the anniversary concert?

Kobayashi: This time around we decided not to use any visuals or footage. I want people to enjoy the performance itself, and let the music stand on its own as much as possible.

I’ve seen a number of concerts for various games and films, and the vicarious experience the footage shown offered was incredible. They reproduced the stories from the original works, recreating the same emotional points. At some point in the future, I’d like to do the same with ACE COMBAT, but with this concert, I want the audience to focus solely on enjoying the music itself.

Because if you start running footage, people’s attention turns to that whether intended or not. Even though there is an orchestra putting on an incredible performance right before their eyes. Videos end up drawing attention away from the music.

Kono: Exactly. Once you start showing video footage, everything simply becomes background music.

Kobayashi: It does. It takes the spotlight away from the wonderful live performance. I want our audience to be solely focused on the music. We’ll be looking to impress with the music alone.

The event will also feature a panel talk, right? Fans love to hear behind the scenes stories about game development. What sorts of stories will you be sharing this time?

Kono: I’ll be getting together with some producers and directors to talk about parts of the game setting that don’t get brought up as well as stories from development.

In all honesty, we’re so intent on letting the music take center stage that I feel like our panel discussion only gets in the way. The audience will be fully immersed in the music, and then we’ll come bursting out on stage like “Hey!” and ruin it. But they kept telling me that people will want this, so we have to do it. It might be fun though, because you never know what might happen with a panel like this.

Kobayashi: It’s a bit frightening not knowing what the guests might say. The ACE COMBAT dev team is made up of real craftsmen who rarely come out in front of the public like this. So you might find they speak too softly, they go on lots of tangents, or that they simply talk endlessly once they get fixated on something. For better or worse, you’re bound to hear things you wouldn’t in any ordinary interview. We might even have to cut the mics if something happens to go in a potentially bad direction. (laughs)

The sort of experience you can only find at a live event. I’ve been told there will also be official merchandise available at the concert. What sort of products have you prepared this time?

Watanabe: Kono oversaw the merchandise we are putting together, but due to COVID-19 prevention measures we’re not officially sure if it will be available at the concert.

Kono: We won’t know until the day of the concert itself. But we’re putting together stuff that fans are sure to love.

This might be giving too much away, but we’re making a jacket decorated with dialog lines from the story. We asked fans on Twitter to tell us their favorite lines from the series and got tons of responses from all around the world. This jacket will be decorated with lines that any one should recognize, and I’m sure fans will be pleased.

ACE COMBAT is a tale of overcoming desperate situations. This concert aims to leave those who attend in high spirits.

Do you have anything you’d like to say in closing to everyone excitedly awaiting the concert?

Kono: First and foremost, we’re going to be absolutely thorough with our COVID-19 transmission prevention measures. The entrance will have temperature checks and sanitizing alcohol, and we’ll be placing safety concerns above all else so that our audience can relax and enjoy the performance.

So we hope everyone will consider coming to take part in this authentic ACE COMBAT experience in person. This concert is the only place where you can get a taste of the emotional intensity Kobayashi has packed into the songs and truly feel the impact of the music performed live. Our last concert left even me in tears. And it’s not every day that music can make you weep. So don’t miss out on this chance for a truly priceless experience.

Kazutoki Kono

Watanabe: It really is music that will leave you in tears. When I was on site for recording as sound director I had goosebumps and could feel my eyes starting to well up. Each and every time I couldn’t help but feel as though we should bring this experience to our fans, and now at last we have that chance. I hope everyone can make it out to experience the music performed live.

Ryo Watanabe

Kobayashi: In every entry in the ACE COMBAT series the story starts off with the heroes at a disadvantage. The characters are pushed to their limits, but overcome their situations by refusing to give up, flying full speed towards the future they hope to create. The series has continued to find support because these characters strike a chord with our fans and offer them emotional experiences.

In the real world, we all face moments when we are in a losing or unfavorable situation. Sometimes we may even get frustrated or give up. Yet despite it all, we get back up and try again, fighting tooth and nail to overcome the challenges that face us. I imagine the story of ACE COMBAT rings hardest in the hearts of people who go about their daily lives always striving to do their very best, who see themselves reflected through the characters.

This concert is a performance of music from ACE COMBAT, the very music used to add color to a story of overcoming adversity. Today, all of us are standing in the face of adversity with the COVID-19 pandemic. Which is exactly why I hope that everyone attends and lets the music of ACE COMBAT put them in high spirits.

Nothing would please me more than having the audience leave the concert feeling empowered to take things on once again—to feel excited again. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there at the concert.

Keiki Kobayashi
Kazutoki Kono,Keiki Kobayashi,Ryo Watanabe

Editor’s Note
Last time, after the ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY concert, it seems there were more than a few fans who sent in requests asking for the next event to be at a larger venue with a full orchestra. This time around everything has been ramped up in an attempt to do just that. It is a rare opportunity to have the composer Kobayashi, assemble a band, arrange the music, and even conduct the performance. This concert is part of ACE COMBAT‘s 25th anniversary celebration, and it will be exciting to see how it turns out.

Gaku Suzuki
Writer born in 1986. He’s written news articles on more than 350 people in the past. He covers a lot of fields, but lately he is writing primarily about the business field. His publications include “Kyoto no Koakinai: Shu-shoku Shinai Ikikata Gaido (Kyoto’s Small Businesses: A Guide to How to Live without Finding a Job)” (San-Ei Publishing Company). He likes consumer games, drinking, and bath houses.

Check out special footage for the ACE COMBAT™/S THE SYMPHONY 25TH ANNIVERSARY! Featuring portions of the concert, behind the scenes look at rehearsal and backstage, as well as interviews with the performers. It offers a great chance to take an even closer look at the concert. Be sure not to miss it.

*Interviews were conducted outside of state of emergency periods and with sufficient measures taken to avoid further spread of infection.