Our Song of Hope: A Look at the Arrangers of the Final Fantasy XIV Soundtracks
Since its early days, the music of Final Fantasy XIV has been handled by a team of people, rather than just one single composer. The name most associated with the game is Masayoshi Soken, the sound director for the game from the beginning, and lead composer of the game since A Realm Reborn. But in addition to Soken, there has been a shifting team of arrangers involved in large portions of the soundtrack, and even other composers for a handful of tracks, each leaving their own fingerprint on the soundtrack. As lead composer, Soken is responsible for the melodies, basic underlying harmony, as well as the general direction and idea of the music; arrangers will then develop these ideas, choose the instrumentation and textures, add counterpoint and accompaniment, perhaps vary the harmony, and put it all together. In some cases these arrangements will be more like remixes or even entirely new tracks. Many composers can arrange their own material, as indeed Soken still does for much of the soundtrack, but having other arrangers can be very helpful for genres or styles in which a composer has only surface-level experience, or else they are helpful simply for dividing up an immense amount of work. Both factors are likely present for a project as large as Final Fantasy XIV, and with the conclusion of the first major story arc in Endwalker, it’s worth taking a glance at some of the important players in the game’s soundtrack up to this point who have helped to shape its award-winning sound. No story spoilers appear in this article, though video links to songs from Death Unto Dawn and Endwalker show gameplay and may include boss names.
Nobuo Uematsu and Tsutomu Narita
Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the music of all the early mainline entries for Final Fantasy, returned to compose for the first release of Final Fantasy XIV, which is the 1.x content. Although Uematsu mostly arranged his own work for the earlier Final Fantasy titles, he began to collaborate with other arrangers as time went on. For this project, he had the help of Tsutomu Narita. The vast majority of the 1.x music, contained in the Before Meteor soundtrack, is composed by Uematsu and arranged by Narita. Although many of these tracks have not been used since (especially the area and battle themes), a portion of them are still used regularly in later content, and occasionally show up again on later soundtrack releases.
Thus even players who only played from A Realm Reborn onwards will likely be familiar with cutscene tracks by this duo such as the beautiful “Tranquility,” the sentimental “Fragments of Forever” (which accompanied a famous scene in 5.3), the grand “Twilight over Thanalan,” the warm “Where the Heart Is,” the spiritual “Canticle,” the tense “Inner Recess,” as well as the mournful “Sacred Bonds” and “Unspoken,” to name just a few. There is also the lovely “Behind Closed Doors” for inns, the dungeon track “Pitfire,” and the first Primal battle theme, Ifrit’s “Primal Judgment.” But the most significant of the duo’s contributions are the game’s first major vocal themes, two of which came even after Soken took over the lead composing role. These are the three themes performed by Susan Calloway: “Answers,” “Dragonsong,” and “Revolutions.” These would become motifs for tracks handled by Soken and other arrangers, even through to Endwalker.
Uematsu’s strength has always been memorable melodies, which is reflected here. Narita’s arrangements focus on bringing these themes to life and making sure the emotions are communicated, rather than providing variations or development, as will be the case with arrangers later on. Uematsu’s older Final Fantasy melodies also make appearances in later expansions, but they are handled by the new arrangers.
By the time of A Realm Reborn Soken had become the lead composer, though he had already been composing and arranging some of his own material for 1.x releases in addition to being sound director. To help him with his new responsibilities for 2.0, Soken had the help of a duo credited as FILM SCORE, consisting of Nobuko Toda and Yoshitaka Suzuki, helping for about a third of the soundtrack. Toda later dropped out during the 2.x patches, but Suzuki continues to arrange a handful of tracks for each expansion through to present day with Endwalker, in addition to composing and arranging for other titles such as Final Fantasy XV.
As one might suspect from the name FILM SCORE, Suzuki’s job is to bring in orchestral elements. Although he mainly uses sound libraries rather than actual live orchestra for the game, his sound is a fairly close approximation to a live orchestra (in contrast to other arrangers here who will go for hybrid or stylized approaches to orchestral sounds). In the early days of A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, his material (mostly together with Toda) was diverse: area tracks like “Sultana Dreaming,” “Serenity,” and “Nobility Sleeps”; the “Heavensward” vocal theme; battle tracks like “Footsteps in the Snow”; and the excellent Crystal Tower raid tracks like “Hubris,” “Ever Upwards,” “Shattered,” and “Out of the Labyrinth.” In later expansions Suzuki arranges fewer tracks, but they are no less important since he is often in charge of a portion of the climactic boss themes for each expansion, such as “Heroes Never Die,” “The Worm’s Tail,” “Invincible,” and even “The Final Day” for Endwalker.
For the early area and vocal tracks, I would guess that Suzuki’s involvement mainly revolved around realizing or augmenting the ideas of Soken’s composition with orchestral elements. But with the battle tracks, it is likely that Suzuki had more freedom and responsibility; these tracks are built from melodies that are established elsewhere, so that it is up to Suzuki (with direction from Soken) to vary and transform them into battle themes. This often means that a lot of new surrounding material needs to be written: new accompaniment figures, countermelodies, bass lines, harmonies, and so on. In some cases, the result might well be considered a new composition. In any case, it is a significant role that Suzuki plays in bringing us these bombastic orchestral themes.
Perhaps the most well-known of Soken’s collaborators is Keiko, who has frequently appeared and performed at Fanfests, including the famous Lahee moment. Her arrangements are all piano arrangements, though at first she did not work on the in-game soundtrack, but rather on the separate band and piano albums (From Astral to Umbral, Duality, etc.). She only started to arrange for the game soundtracks with Shadowbringers, when she took over the role of arranging the nighttime piano arrangements of area themes (like “A Hopeless Race” and “The Faerie Ring”). She has continued in this role for Endwalker, while still working on the band and piano albums. While her night themes are all on the quieter side, she is more than capable of arranging and performing challenging pieces, which she frequently does for the band and piano albums (eg. her arrangement of “Heroes”). She can also make arrangements that are faithful (like “Serenity”) or expansive and quite different from its original (like “Sands of Blood”).
Around the time of Heavensward, the music team began to expand. One notable addition from this time was Yukiko Takada, who would go on to arrange and even at times compose up to just before Endwalker. Her contributions were also wide ranging, from lighter material such as “Safety in Numbers” and “Hyper Rainbow Z,” to heavier material like “A Pall Most Murderous,” even helping on primal tracks such as “Metal” and “Unbending Steel”. Her compositions were just a few and were usually minor, such as the atmospheric “Shell-shocked” and “Parting Ways.” But for a while her main responsibility was in the nighttime piano versions of area themes, which she did for Heavensward and Stormblood, even while Keiko was already doing piano arrangements for the separate band and piano albums. She too was capable of making them both faithful (as in “Black and White” or “Painted Skies”) as well as transformative (as in “Westward Tide” and “A Mother’s Pride”).
Another addition from this period was Ken Ito, though he too was only present on soundtracks before Endwalker. One of his main areas was orchestral dungeon tracks such as “Roar of the Wyrm,” “Imagination,” and “Full Fathom Five.” Ito also relied more on sound libraries than live instruments, but he also used many percussion instruments and synths that would normally not be found in orchestral ensembles, creating an effective hybrid sound that often felt very punchy and impactful. With these tracks, Ito would mostly work from the melodies that Soken had written elsewhere, re-envisioning them as dungeon themes. His battle tracks could be similar in style, as in “Revenge Twofold.” There are also a few tracks that he co-arranged alongside Soken: “Metal – Brute Justice Mode,” “Insatiable,” and “Insanity” are the most prominent of these, and it is likely that Ito provided the brass or orchestral augments to the rock foundation laid by Soken for these tracks. His hybrid style made him very different from the more classical orchestral arrangers, like Suzuki.
The other new recruit from the Heavensward era was Kenichi Kuroda, and he too seems to have dropped out after Shadowbringers. Kuroda was also focused on orchestral arrangements, sticking to those sound libraries more strictly than Ito but also relying less on traditional sonorities than Suzuki. This usually resulted in a greater emphasis on melodies over texture or accompaniment, so that the tracks had more force but were less complex. At times the arrangements were for already existing themes and melodies, though not always. His work included a few area themes like “Painted Foothills” and “The Dark Which Illuminates The World”, but mainly covered dungeons and battles as in “Heroes” and “Moebius.” But his crowning achievement was perhaps “Shadows Withal,” the immensely enjoyable dungeon theme that impressively transformed the original Ascian melody “Without Shadow” into a delightful jazz track. Though Soken is responsible for the arrangements of other jazzy dungeon themes (“Ink Long Dry” and “Carrots of Happiness”), this one belongs to Kuroda.
With Shadowbringers, two new arrangers (who were also new to the video game music industry as a whole) would come onto the scene. Though they were only given a handful of tracks to start, they would take a much more prominent place with the remix album Pulse, and then also on Death Unto Dawn and Endwalker, taking over the roles of the older arrangers.
One of these new arrangers is Takafumi Imamura, who right off the bat gave us the incredible arrangements for “Blinding Indigo” and “Landslide.” Though these two arrangements, alongside his work on Pulse, suggested that he would be mainly responsible for electronic remixes and arrangements, his later work ends up being fairly diverse, which must have been a necessity in his expanded role. He is perhaps closest in style to Ito with with many hybrid electronic-orchestral tracks like “Garlemald Express” and “Miracle Works.” He is also responsible for many of the excellent Bozja arrangements (“Blood on the Wind” and “Wrath of the Harrier”), and his synth work really shines in tracks like “The Black Wolf Stalks Again” and “Twice Stricken.” He even has been given a small composing role, writing and arranging the lovely “Forever At Your Side.” It’s clear that he does have a talent for techno, but he does well in other areas too.
The other new arranger who came in for Shadowbringers is Daiki Ishikawa. His main testing ground in that expansion was the arrangement of Uematsu’s “Force Your Way,” which showed that he could operate well in the Final Fantasy XIV soundscape, but did little to showcase his own talents. As he expanded his horizons in the patches and then Endwalker, it was clear that he too is quite multi-faceted. On the one hand there are epic tracks like “Where All Roads Lead,” “Of Countless Stars,” “The Legendary Beast,” and “Finality,” but then there is also his piano arrangement of “Eternal Wind” and the relaxing “The Ewer Breweth.” He is also responsible for the excellent “Floundering in the Depths,” the other jazzy dungeon theme that is a very impressed reworking of the older “From The Depths.” Ishikawa seems to lean more on the orchestral side of things, but is also very flexible. Those interested in more detail regarding the arranging work in Endwalker should check out the detailed Reddit posts (here and here) by Famas_1234 on the matter.
Though we’ve covered all of the major arrangers, there are a handful of others who have had their parts in the soundtracks of Final Fantasy XIV as well. Naoshi Mizuta, of Final Fantasy XI fame, has composed and arranged a few tracks here and there. Tsuyoshi Sekito, Ryo Yamazaki, Hiroki Masutani, and Ryo Takahashi have also worked on minor tracks. Sachiko Miyano, who has orchestrated many things for Square Enix, also did much of the orchestral albums for Final Fantasy XIV, and these arrangements occasionally make it back into the game. GUNN, who plays with Soken in his band The Primals, has helped with some arrangements. Michael-Christopher Koji Fox was responsible for most of the lyrics up until recently when others began to become involved, and these have always been worth checking out for those interested in the game’s lore.
And then there is of course Masayoshi Soken himself. The majority of these soundtracks is still his work, and he still arranges much of the material himself too. But his collaborators certainly bring a lot to the table, and have even influenced Soken himself to grow and explore musically. It will be interesting to see how the next planned ten years of Final Fantasy XIV shape up in terms of music, and whether the new story arcs will also bring drastically different music direction and collaborators.
Posted on March 14, 2022 by Tien Hoang. Last modified on March 14, 2022.