Ro Panuganti: Becoming a Metal Trainer
Let’s get something straight. Ro Panuganti’s Pokémon tribute album, Metal Trainer, is one of the best VGM releases of 2019. If you need a full explanation of why, check out my full review, but if you’ve already heard the album, then I’m sure you probably agree. With his signature blend of prog rock and metal, Ro has transformed the Pokémon Red and Blue soundtrack into something bold and new, a difficult task for even the best musicians.
What makes Pokémon Red and Blue's OST so special in your opinion?
I have to start by acknowledging my massive nostalgia goggles for the early Pokémon games and TV show. In a time when video games and anime were not exactly normalized, Pokémon broke into the mainstream culture with huge hype and excitement everywhere. Seeing the first commercial for the TV show and even playing the game on my neighbor’s Game Boy for a brief day, I knew this was unlike anything I had seen before. From the triumphant title screen to each unique city, I was wrapped up in adventure and constantly immersed in the world of Pokémon.
Even with the limited Game Boy audio chip, I think Red and Blue had a great balance of elaborate, intricate music, keeping things very signature and simple. Almost every town has a theme that defines the mood of its people or locale, and every battle theme uses pacing and subtle dynamics to really inform the player’s feelings. I know that the Pokémon games have evolved quite a bit, especially musically, but there’s no denying that the first titles set up the world so well.
How did you choose the nine tracks that appear on the album?
I definitely had trouble with the track list. Given the full game has almost forty tracks, I wanted to carefully consider what kind of album I was making and pick the best songs I could.
Originally, I wanted to cover more tracks and market it as an “Exercise” album. New listeners could ease their way into hard rock and metal by relating it to EDM or more mainstream genres that people listen to when running or working out, etc. As I slowly moved back to the idea of a progressive metal album, like my previous entries, I decided to cut back and focus on the essential songs from the game.
Of the nine songs on the album, seven have already been covered in some form or fashion on my channel. Using those older arrangements allowed me to focus on bringing new elements. As for the new songs, I knew I had to cover the Title theme, and I felt the Pokemon Center theme might be a great relaxing track to buffer all the heaviness.
Did you have an overarching plan for the album when you started?
I wrote out general ideas for the album for a good few weeks, trying to see what kind of Pokémon album I could make. I wanted to fill in the gap I noticed in other metal Pokémon albums and also explore music styles I felt would stand out. As I moved towards a more “traditional” progressive metal album, I decided to fade all the tracks into each other to chronicle the journey the player goes through much like I did in The Temples album. You can hear a lot more ambience, Pokémon voices (impressions by me of course), and a little bit more lead-ins as a result.
I still can’t quite say this album was planned properly, as I constantly delayed it and changed my mind about how tracks would work out. Luckily, each arrangement feels fleshed out to me, and I always like writing out the big songs on paper to get some more detailed ideas out.
What were some of the challenges that you faced while making this album?
Timing was one of the biggest issues. I started the album in September 2018, with a plan to release that year, but that obviously didn’t happen due to running a variety of group albums and trying to keep up with my own release schedule of Youtube Music Videos. As a result, there were a lot of creative blocks and inconsistent writing/arranging periods.
One of the other challenges came from the mere fact that the Pokémon Red/Blue games are so well-known and frequently arranged. Within the VGM community, I have seen dozens of brilliant covers for each of the songs I chose. Focusing intensely on what I liked about my music, on what arranging styles I do more exclusively, and separating myself from the computer to write on “guitar” first helped me break out of these funks eventually.
Describe the collaborative process for this album.
Given the rocky schedule of the album, I actually didn’t plan to collaborate heavily on this album. Regardless, I worked on the songs as much as possible until I could see a clear need for outside help, and there are plenty of great moments on the album thanks to collaborators. For a long time, I had wanted to work with Torby Brand, a wonderful pianist friend and Pixel Mixer community member, so I felt his kinder tone would be appropriate for “Cerulean”. As a contrast, I invited my frequent collaborator David Russell to play a more blues-driven piano part over “Pokémon Hospital”, which filled out a lot of empty space.
I was also joined by GuitarSVD and Mark Autumn who provided some much-needed doctor impressions and voiceovers, helping to create ambience of a real Pokémon center from the game (where players can heal their team). Likewise, I had my friend Hells6Bells provide extra voiceover during the transition from “Cerulean” to “Lavender” to give a bit more diversity to the voices—otherwise it’d just be 20 tracks of me chatting to myself!
Having that full ownership and freedom of my own music feels so powerful to me.
Describe the mastering process for this album.
As with my previous albums, I entrusted Alejandro “AHmusic” Hernandez to master my album for release. Working with Alej is incredibly helpful, both as a mastering engineer and someone who can provide seriously helpful feedback. We ran through the album to adjust levels and tried to get the smoothest transitions between tracks to meet my progressive rock goals. The end result, in my opinion, hits way harder than my previous albums, but still feels like a more controlled, warmer mix than comparable metal albums today.
How did this album impact you as a musician? Did you develop certain skills as a result of this album?
I think Metal Trainer is a seriously important album for me. I had a lot of worries creating the album—how it would be received, the quality of mixing, whether my playing had grown stale—so it definitely pushed me to my most self-conscious state as a musician.
On a happier note, being able to overcome those challenges really proved to myself that I can be happy with what I’m creating. I ultimately got a better perspective on how I should be arranging “serious” music and how I can space out the work over time. I also found myself self-critiquing better and using a lot of references to get to that comfortable point. I envision this invisible line, a threshold or goal, where my music makes me as happy and confident as I feel listening to my own heroes’ music. Metal Trainer touches that line a lot more than anything before.
One significant takeaway from this album is that, while I absolutely adore video game music and plan to continue with the covers, I want to make an original abum for my next project. So much of Metal Trainer is me trying to write original riffs and layers—having that full ownership and freedom of my own music feels so powerful to me.
If you had to do this all over again, would you do anything differently?
I think I would probably add more songs and spend just a bit more time with other peers mixing the tracks. For the former point, I feel like a longer album tells a more detailed and lasting story, but I’m at peace with the time constraints I placed on myself. The production on Metal Trainer, while really solid to me, is definitely going to be overshadowed by the music I’ve gotten to make since finalizing the album. It might be a producer nitpick and inevitable, but I know that’s definitely the hardest part for me when releasing albums. Lastly, I think I would have chosen Pokemon Gold & Silver music since that generation is my all-time favorite to play, and the music has a flavor of its own.