Echoes of Final Fantasy with Eiko Ishiwata Nichols

Canadian composer Eiko Ishiwata Nichols has been making waves as this generations' Nobuo Uematsu. Since 2002, her compositions have evoked a nostalgia only possible through her experience as a sound-engineer and ability to play 20 different instruments. FLAREgamer caught up with the musician, who is currently making remixes of Final Fantasy tunes by replacing the MIDI samples with live instruments.

Eiko Ishiwata Nichols' Profile
EikoPseudonym: Ayco
Nationality: Canadian of Japanese descent
Fave instruments: All, depends on mood

Fave soundtracks:
The Fountain, Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (and all the other Joe Hisaishi's Miyazaki collections), Amelie, Final Fantasy IV, V,VI, IX; Chrono Trigger; Secret of Mana; Shadow of the Colossus; Silent Hill 2, Sleepy Hollow, Prince of Egypt, Pan's Labyrinth

Most Influential Artists:
M83, Tipper, Autechre, Chris Clark, Colleen, AIR, The Cinematic Orchestra, Tortoise, Apparat, Notwist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Eno, Jaga Jazzist, Muse, Mogwai, Steve Reich, Sigur Ros, The Knife, Explosions in the Sky, Biosphere, Christian Fennesz, Squarepusher, Eluvium, Royksopp, Gas, Iqtu, Venetian Snares, Clint Mansell, Akira Yamaoka, Joe Hisaishi, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Yann Tiersen, PVT, Nobuo Uematsu

Eiko's Early Life

Sheila: The things we enjoyed during our youth, like music and videogames can shape one's life, and for you it literally did. What was it like growing up in St. John's, Newfoundland?

Eiko: It was fairly isolated and laid back in terms of social activities and networking. I played games for a large chunk of my childhood when I wasn't doing art or music. There wasn't much to do unless you liked being out in nature which, I luckily did.

I left St. John's in my early teens to attend boarding school in Toronto, Ontario (The Bishop Strachan School) so I only experienced Newfoundland through a child's eye. Boarding school didn't allow video games but I illegally snuck in a small TV and a SNES. I wasted valuable study time playing Final Fantasy VI and other Square Soft games.

Sheila: What was it like when you first started playing instruments and videogames?

Eiko: I don't quite remember what it was like when I first started playing the piano. I was 5 years old when I started so it's hard to remember. My mom did say that one of the first things I said when I learned how to talk was how much I wanted to play the piano. I actually started playing before I learned English; Japanese was my first language but unfortunately I lost most of it.

I do remember what it was like playing video games. Having an influential older brother, I was introduced to video games when I was about 8 or 9. The first console I played was either the Nintendo GameBoy or Sega Genesis. I used to play many of the two player platform games such as Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Altered Beast and Forgotten Worlds. I was exposed to many 8-bit games with simple melodies so I'm still very fond of the old-school genre rather than the realistic games with complex gameplay.


Eiko's acoustically performed and recorded version of a Terra's theme from FFVI.

Sheila: Did ideas for composing constantly come to you?

Eiko: Composition always came naturally to me. Coming from a Japanese family, they always encouraged me to focus on concert piano performance and finish classical training. I got punished a lot since I didn't like to practice the set pieces and just kept writing piano music.

I started writing short piano pieces a year or two after I started taking lessons. I used the piano as a tool for creativity and self expression rather than interpreting something that was already composed. I liked visual arts as well, so I was using the instruments as blank canvases and painting a picture with sounds. People tell me that my music is very visual, I guess it's because I always have a visual picture in my mind of what to represent through music.

“People tell me that my music is very visual, I guess it's because I always have a visual picture in my mind of what to represent through music.”

Sheila: When did things change and you realized "this is what I need to do" in life?

Eiko: As I got older and naturally wondered what to do for a career, I was certain I would compose music for a living. However, it wasn't always like that, I was slightly discouraged against pursing a career in music, especially in composition. I come from a family of doctors, business entrepreneurs, visual artists and teachers, so my parents were always pressuring me to either go into the visual effects industry or the medical industry. My mom was apprehensive about my goal of being a composer until I started showing signs of success, which is understandable, since it's extremely hard to get established.

After highschool, I attended Sheridan College for classical animation but quickly dropped out to pursue music. I then attended the music program at Queen's University but quickly withdrew from there as well, since they focused too much on performance and teaching. I eventually found the right school for what I was looking for - The Art Institute of Vancouver, where I graduated with a Professional Recording Arts diploma.

The Final Fantasy Soundtrack Remakes

Sheila: Your remakes are enjoyable to listen to because they're so close to the original melodies, not because they're full remakes. That closeness evokes a sense of nostalgia and it's what we fell in love with. With so many other remixers of Final Fantasy songs out there, were you ever tempted to take more liberties with your approach?

Eiko: The pre-PlayStation Final Fantasy games were very nostalgic for me. I probably started playing the games at an age when things were most impressionable. Final Fantasy II (now FFIV) and Final Fantasy III (now FFVI) allowed me to escape into a fantasy world during my youth, at an age when my imagination was at its peak.


Eiko's acoustically performed and recorded version of Daryl's theme from FFVI.

The music in those games was what truly enhanced my imagination. I've always wanted the original score to have better sound quality without using MIDI. I was hoping someone would end up recreating the score while maintaining the exact arrangement. Some pieces were remade but it just didn't sound right. Most remixes sounded so different from the original pieces that they lost most of the nostalgic feeling. So I took matters in my own hands and tried to recreate the pieces as closely to their original midi arrangements. Initially, it was just for my own personal listening.

FFIV and FFVI allowed me to escape into a fantasy world during my youth, at an age when my imagination was at its peak.”

Sheila: What did you take into consideration when selecting the instruments? Sometimes it's hard to tell which instrument was intended for certain midi sounds and effects.

Eiko: I was fortunate enough to have one of the early YAMAHA MIDI synths, the W7. I used to compose tons of MIDI instrumental pieces back when I was in my early teens. With that experience, I could easily tell what instruments Uematsu used for his pieces. Sometimes it's a bit difficult but I always try to find the correct instrument.

I also use a lot of mixing tricks that I've learned from engineering school to warp some of the acoustic recordings to further match it with MIDI. Sometimes I layer a solo acoustic performance with a sample library/virtual instrument orchestral section to mimic the full orchestral sound. This allows the piece to still have human touch and color the section with the recorded instruments while having the impact of dozens of performers.

Theme of Celes

Eiko's acoustically performed and recorded version of Celes' theme from FFVI.

Sheila: You seem to have a personal preference for delicate and classic sounds. Did this influence your preference on which tracks to remake?

Eiko: I guess I have chosen a lot of delicate and classical sounding pieces to redo, but I think the reason was just a coincidence. I usually redo the pieces that are highly requested by people.

Sheila: Did working on these remixes change your feelings about certain scenes in the games where they are used when you replay it?

Eiko: In a way it has, in terms of music. I found that many pieces that I don't really like are the ones from neutral scenes. I realized it after I redid "Kids Run Through a City". That piece was probably one of my least favorites from the game. The number of requests I was getting for that piece baffled me, I assumed many people didn't like that piece. After I redid it, I realized the beauty of the piece and it became one of my favorites from the game.

Kids Run Through the City Corner

Eiko's acoustically performed and recorded version of a town theme from FFVI.

Sheila: What made certain original tracks of yours "FF Inspired"?

Eiko: Many of the "FF Inspired"pieces weren't purposely composed in the Final Fantasy style. They just naturally turned out that way. It might be because of my Japanese heritage as well. Before stumbling on Final Fantasy, I was listening to a lot of Miyazaki (Ghibli Collection) music composed by Joe Hisaishi. I was exposed to Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa OST since I was around 4 years old. Hisaishi and Uematsu's styles are very similar; many people who know Miyazaki but not Final Fantasy say my music sounds like Hisaishi; and the same goes for people who know Uematsu but not Hisaishi.

Most of my Final Fantasy Inspired pieces were composed from the years of 1994-2004 and my style is quite different now. So while the Final Fantasy Inspired pieces have only been released recently online, they were actually composed years ago. However, I do purposefully compose in the Final Fantasy style for my recent professional commissions when requested.

Waltzing Anticipation

An original Final Fantasy Inspired track composed and performed by Eiko.

Eiko's Future Compositions

Sheila: You're currently composing for several games and films. What would you say are your strengths when composing?

Eiko: In terms of music composition, my main strength is that I can create catchy unique melodies. In terms of the industry, I'm versatile and can compose in any style requested. I get a lot of repeated clients since I compose music to their liking and don't impose my own opinions on the music unless asked.

Sheila: What kind of emotive qualities do you think the use of real instruments bring?

Eiko: It adds human flavor to the pieces as well as improves the sound quality produced by using different mic techniques and mixing techniques. Sometimes I use the top virtual instruments in the industry but the sound quality is still incomparable to real instrumental recordings. Since I've had training as a sound engineer, I value sound just as much as the composition.

“Since I've had training as a sound engineer, I value sound just as much as the composition.”

Sheila: Are there any unusual instruments that you'd like to get a hold of and use?

Eiko: Right now I'm trying to get my hands on a hang/hank/tongue drum. I'm thinking about purchasing the 1tone Eclipse drum. My past personal music focused much on post rock guitars, acoustic strings and woodwinds so I've been wanting to change my direction.

Anomaly 2012 Promo Music

An original composition for the Anomaly 2012 art event by Eiko.

Sheila: Could you tell us about your next project or projects you want to do in the future?

Eiko: I'm working on game projects for Snow Castle Interactive. I just started working on Arcademy, a colorful and friendly puzzle game. I'm due to start working on Festival of Magic soon, a turn based RPG that's similar to Final Fantasy IX, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. The music will be Final Fantasy influenced but fused with a Victorian twist. The music will be similar to the Hogworld: Gnart's Adventure soundtrack. That game/book is available for download through the iTunes store. You can also check out the music of Hogworld: Gnart's Adventure from my website. I also have films and games lined up for the coming months but in different music styles from Final Fantasy. Many of them decided to commission me based on my solo style or my electronic style.

I'm in the process of releasing my personal solo album which I've been working on for the past 5 years. It's taken me very long to complete since I've always been busy working on commissions but it should be out as soon as the artwork is finished. The music is a fusion of post-rock, acoustic and electronic highly influenced by Clint Mansell's The Fountain soundtrack and M83. Although I tend to get final fantasy influenced work, my personal style is quite diverse and experimental from what I've been releasing, it's much darker, ambient and contemporary. You can hear a short preview of my solo album titled 'Chrysalis' on my website. I'm also just about to release my Fantasy Collection that includes all the pieces I wrote from the past 12 years that were highly Final Fantasy influenced.

As well, I'm starting a collaboration side project of an electro-acoustic ambient album with my good friend and colleague Fridtjof L. Olsen, who is currently one of the senior artists and music director from Snow Castle Interactive. We're still in very early stages of development so we haven't decided on a solid style yet. But it will be a fusion of acoustic instrumentation and sound design.

My 2nd solo album will be an experimental Mariachi/Latin/Tribal/Jazz album which is the reason why I'm planning to purchase a hang/hank/tongue drum. It'll still be more ambient than my Fantasy work but less dark and somber than my 'Chrysalis' album. I've been highly influenced Mariachi El Bronx the past few years, an LA punk band turned Mariachi. But the music I'm writing is quite different from Mariachi El Bronx, it's a fusion of electronic such as Apparat, Jazz such as The Cinematic Orchestra and Latin and Mariachi styles. The goal of the album is to focus on the frequencies of each acoustic instrument to emulate sounds similar to highly engineered and produced ambient electronic works.

Sheila: Thank you, Eiko and good luck on getting a hang drum! I know someone who owns one by PANart, it's a great instrument and I know you'll make amazing tracks with it.

More Information
Eiko Ishiwata Nichols - Official Website
AycoMusic on YouTube
Eiko's Facebook Fan Page

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