EIDOLON Interview: The Dynamic Duo
At the end of last month, Materia Collective released EIDOLON: Music From Final Fantasy IX. With over 60 tracks and three hours of music, EIDOLON sets a high bar for VGM, and I was astonished by the quality, consistency, and cohesiveness of the album. Having some experience with album production myself, I felt compelled to reach out to the album producers, Joe Chen and Emily McMillan, to hear their thoughts on the album.
Who came up with the idea for Eidolon?
Emily: I was the one who came to Joe with the idea. It had been about a year since we’d produced our last album, and it had been a while since Materia Collective had done a Final Fantasy album. Both of us love Final Fantasy IX—the roster of characters is probably my favorite in the series, and Joe’s online musician handle is based on Vivi.
Had you produced anything on this level previously?
Joe: Back in 2017, we actually co-produced SPIRA: Music from Final Fantasy X, so we already had some experience with leading a large community album for Materia Collective. Our previous experience definitely helped us manage EIDOLON. However, every album is a different experience, and we realized we had to be flexible enough to adapt the process to the new challenges that EIDOLON presented.
How did you pitch the album?
Emily: We have a formal proposal process for albums in Materia Collective that requires outlining the scope of the album, a timeline, any relevant themes for the album, and so on. The proposal process helps to confirm that the people leading it will be able to see it through until the end. It also helps ensure that each album is marketable. Because we sell these albums, there is an upfront investment required for things like album art and licensing fees. We want to make sure that those costs can be recouped once the album is released. So, we put together a small packet with our plans, and sent that along to Sebastian & co.
The entire process from inception to release spanned about a year.
What has been your experience with Materia Collective?
Joe: Although I do produce my own covers, my primary role in Materia Collective has been as a recording musician on viola for others. I think that’s one of the coolest things about Materia Collective: it’s an organization that encourages collaboration. I am not as versatile of an arranger as many of the other members, but I still get to contribute my strengths (viola recordings) to a lot of different tracks while indirectly learning how to be a better arranger via observation and discussion.
Emily: I originally arranged a couple tracks in Materia Collective (Joe actually pulled me in for the very first album), but I’ve recently been helping out with the community album production system, and have been really enjoying it. I love working with all the people who produce albums, helping where I can, and learning from the experience.
How long did the album process take?
Joe: The entire process from inception to release spanned about a year. We have been planning the album since around August 2018. Actual production of tracks by the general members of Materia Collective began at the end of January and ended in March. April through May was spent doing quality-assurance checks and mastering, and most of June was spent completing metadata and making marketing plans in preparation for a July release. It’s definitely a lot of work, but thankfully, Materia Collective has a good leadership team that helps mentor album producers on how to approach the intricacies of marketing, metadata creation, video editing, etc.
Describe the album process in a single word.
Describe the recruitment process for this album?
Joe: We have a formal track proposal process where members pitch one or more ideas for how they would produce a track, and then we approve members for specific tracks before any music production work actually begins. It’s a tricky process because we always get tons of great ideas, but we can’t approve everything, or the album would be 2 to 3 times longer than the final product. When selecting which tracks to approve, we’re trying to balance the goals of inclusivity (distributing opportunities to both new and old members alike), the consumer’s listening experience, and fitting in unique ideas/styles that you otherwise wouldn’t expect.
After that, we leave it open to the track producers to decide who they would like to recruit as recording musicians. The selection procedure for recording musicians can vary from producer to producer. Sometimes, producers have specific musicians in mind that they would like to work with, and other times, producers will use Materia Collective’s internal social media channels to find musicians for their track.
Did you have quality control or a check-in process?
Emily: Yes, every album has a check-in process so we can make sure the tracks are on target for the final deadline. This helps the track producers keep their track production moving forward in a timely process, and also helps the album producers stay tuned in with what the tracks are sounding like. We try very hard to let track producers flesh out their own visions for their tracks; however, because this is under the Materia Collective label, and because album directors always have some vision of their own, occasionally we’ll need to request adjustments to tracks along the way. Check-ins help us prevent someone completing an entire track before we find something that needs to be modified, which is a massive pain for everyone involved.
They proposed a jazz arrangement of “The Final Battle”, and we thought, okay, we have no idea what this’ll end up like, but let’s try it.
How did you arrange an album of this size with so many genres of music?
Joe: The credit for the genre variety on the album goes to our members! They are usually the ones who come up with crazy or interesting ideas. We always get way more proposals than we can accept on these large community albums, and when you get that many proposals, that gives us the flexibility to craft an album with a variety of styles based on which track proposals we approve and reject.
Which tracks surprised you the most?
Joe: “Mysteries of the Marsh” by Earth Kid and Jorito surprised me. The track is based on “Qu’s Marsh”, which was a relatively sparse track driven by timpani and staccato vocals/some electronic elements. “Mysteries of the Marsh” completely flipped the script and turned the theme into a smooth and epic track that takes the listener on an entire mini-arc.
Emily: The surprises are honestly one of my absolute favorite things about these albums—a track proposal includes the artist’s end goal for the track. Sometimes we have a clear sense of how that’ll turn out, and sometimes we don’t, and we accept the proposal because we’re excited and curious to see where it goes. I think ConSoul’s and Thomas Kresge’s arrangement of “The Final Battle” is one of those tracks. They proposed a jazz arrangement of “The Final Battle”, and we thought, okay, we have no idea what this’ll end up like, but let’s try it.
We’d worked with both arrangers in the past and knew that they regularly churned quality content. The end result works shockingly well. The original track is heavy, dramatic, and almost morose at points, but you would never guess that from the arrangement alone. It’s a really, really cool track. (Editor’s Note: I concur whole-heartedly, and this is my favorite track on the album!)
I don’t think there will ever be a project that involves 200 people where at the end of it you think, okay, I’m now a master project management, I have nothing else to learn!
The final few tracks on the album seem to be an audio drama. How did that come about?
Emily: We got a proposal from Jeff Swingle and John Robert Matz about doing an audio drama of “I Want to be your Canary” from Final Fantasy IX. (For those who are unfamiliar with the FFIX, “I Want to be your Canary” is an in-game play that is referenced and performed multiple times throughout the game; the base concept is not unlike Final Fantasy VI’s “Maria and Draco”). We were not able to put together the whole play as a single track, but we agreed to allow them to have multiple tracks that we would then put in sequential order on the album.
Like ConSoul and Thomas Kresge, we had an idea of John Robert’s and Jeff’s past work, having worked with them previously. It’s not that older Materia Collective members get priority on tracks, but when we have track producers propose a more unusual or ambitious arrangement, we do take into account their previous work. They had a number of performers they wanted to work with, and we were confident in their ability to complete it on time, and to a degree that we would be satisfied with. We were very glad to hear the end result! It made for a wonderful natural finisher on the album.
Do you have any personal favorites on the album?
Joe: Andrew, Ruby, and Patti’s piano trio, “Battle 2: Triple Concerto,” is one of my personal favorites because all three musicians on that track are extremely high caliber, and they really went all out with creating an ambitious arrangement. For classical music fans, you can actually hear quotations from the Rachmaninoff #3 and Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante in the track!
Emily: Oh boy. I have so many that I listen to regularly. One that I really enjoy is Harpsona’s and Psamathes’ arrangement of “Terra”. The second half of that track especially, with vocal line after vocal line being added as the arrangement toys with the source material, just transports me to another place entirely. It’s a beautiful, haunting arrangement of an already amazing track.
Dean Nguyen’s and Justin Levine’s arrangement of “Over the Hill” was another one that I loved. That one kind of came out of left field for me—the original track is great, but not something I often take the time to go back and listen to. Something about their arrangement, however, really captured the warmth of the game to me. I think FFIX is one of the warmest games in the series as it’s all about these characters learning who they are and supporting each other in this kind of existential journey. I just really appreciate the softness of this arrangement, which I think reflects the nature of the game so well.
Have you enjoyed the audience reaction?
Emily: Of course! It’s been great seeing people listening to it and responding so positively. I think FFIX is a game that resides in a lot of people’s childhoods, so it’s great to see all the nostalgia it brings. That being said, audience reaction is a kind of tricky subject with video game music covers. As someone who is a part of the VGM community, I know you’ve seen conversations on platforms like Twitter where people are talking about properly driving their audience. With these albums, which ultimately, regardless of how popular the soundtrack we’re covering is, is targeting a fairly niche audience, we have to strike a balance between reaching a target audience we’re hoping to reach, and creating something that we’re happy to create.
So, in short, yes, we’re absolutely delighted. Every reaction we get means so much to us—please keep them coming! But we’re also incredibly happy with the product itself and are so proud of the music that has been created by the insanely talented artists of Materia Collective.
For an album of this size, do you expect people to split up their listening sessions?
Joe: Yes and no.
Yes, in that if you are intentionally focusing on listening to the album, it can be a lot to listen to it entirely in one sitting.
No, in that one of my favorite uses of long albums like EIDOLON is to listen to it start-to-finish while I’m at my non-musical day job. I do occasionally get distracted by how much I am enjoying parts of the album; however, I think listening to albums while working generally nets positive in terms of my own productivity, and I see those moments when I pause to focus entirely on the music as a healthy mental break from working.
Having a partner that you know and trust implicitly for these projects is essential, and I honestly can’t think of anyone I’d rather work with.
If you had to do this again, would you do anything differently?
Joe: I think I would probably add another 2-ish weeks to the production schedule. For EIDOLON, we compressed our typical production cycle for track producers to ~2 months. Everything ended up being fine and worked for most people, but we got feedback from the producers of the larger collaborative tracks (with 20+ contributors) that the shorter timeline was a bit tight for the number of people and parts they were juggling.
Emily: Hah, probably a million things. Album production is a learning process—I don’t think there will ever be a project that involves 200 people where at the end of it you think, okay, I’m now a master project management, I have nothing else to learn! That being said, we do regularly revisit old albums to look at what went right, what could have been better, and what we can take with us to the next album.
Joe, what's your favorite thing about working with Emily?
Joe: When you’re working with someone that you don’t know very well, there’s a lot of time spent with making sure interactions are very cordial and professional and in making sure that you understand what the other person is thinking. Emily and I have actually known each other for a long time. We both went to the same university and have continued to be really good friends with each other since then. As a result, I think we’re able to read each other really well and are able to be direct with each other, which makes the process pretty efficient.
Emily, what's your favorite thing about working with Joe?
Emily: I think Joe’s answer is the right one here. These projects are immense and draining, and you really end up seeing the best and worst of your project partner over the course of the album. I like working with Joe because he’s already seen all that—whether it’s been on previous Materia Collective albums, or simply on arrangements and performances we’ve done together in the past. I can message him with a frustration that I have, and two seconds later message him about something I’m excited about, and he doesn’t bat an eye when responding to both as we’re making our next project plans. Having a partner that you know and trust implicitly for these projects is essential, and I honestly can’t think of anyone I’d rather work with.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
Emily: For Materia Collective stuff, you’ll just have to wait and see :)
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, here’s a second EIDOLON interview with the album’s mastering engineer, James C. Hoffman!