One late March evening, I was at the MSD, otherwise known as the Machine Savior’s Den. For a number of years, the MSD has been a New England BEMANI community hangout. It is a tranquil place, where arcade rhythm games nest between the deciduous trees and crisp air of New Hampshire. This peaceful place has nonetheless been host to over a dozen hardcore music legends over the years, coming from near and far, East and West.
I met the headliners of that late March weekend — Akira Complex, Speedycake, and DM Ashura — as they were hanging out in the MSD’s guest room, two floors above the booming music of the basement. In this relaxed atmosphere, DM Ashura had a lot to say about their music career, their DJing, and their advice for young music producers.
Deft: How did you go from being a DDR fan to becoming a music composer?
DM Ashura: I started playing DDR and I saw all of these different artists, not really knowing that they were all just Naoki Maeda in disguise. I’m like, wow, there’s so many different people that make music for this game! Maybe that’s something I could do.
About the same time, I discovered FL Studio and started making stuff in it and that led to doing remixes of songs that I liked on the game, mostly Max 300 for whatever reason. What ended up happening was that Broadjam.com ended up having a contest where you could submit your songs and see if they would get into the next DDR.
A bunch of people entered and they liked my song “Go! [Mahalo Mix]”. So they put that in the game. But what ended up happening afterwards was I got in contact with the person who was in charge of going back and forth, his name was Stillwind. I let him know, “hey, I’ve done remixes here and there. This is something I’m really into. If you ever want me to do a remix of one of the existing DDR songs, let me know.” He said, okay, we’ll take you up on that. That led to a remix of Celebrate Nite. And then it just kind of kept going from there. We kept in contact with each other. So, it just kind of snowballed from there.
Deft: When you started composing in FL Studio, what VSTs did you use?
DM Ashura: I started out using the default FL sounds, which were terrible. But I think everyone starts out there. I mainly use software synths; Nexus is one of the big ones, Sylenth1 is another, Vanguard, I’ve used Zeta+ a couple of times. Vanguard is amazing. I love it when you can pick it out in the middle of waxing and wanding (by Ryu*, from beatmaniaIIDX 13 DistorteD). It is literally a preset sound.
I’m not too big on making my own synths from scratch. It’s something I wouldn’t mind eventually learning how to do, but I guess I’m more of a composer than a producer. So, I take the already existing sounds and try to find ways to make them work.
Deft: Now, you’re famous for deltaMAX, but what’s the story behind AAA (the mashup of A and AA)?
DM Ashura: I was listening to one and I started kind of humming the other at the same time and I’m like, oh geez, these could go together!
At this point, Akira Complex (who is in the same room) chimes in with a revelation:
Akira Complex: That was on Stepmania, right? I played that! I didn’t know you made that.
DM Ashura: Yep, that was forever and a half ago.
Akira Complex: That’s super, super sick! I played the XXXX out of that.
Deft: I know you got into DDR, but how’d you get into FFR (FlashFlashRevolution) ?
DM Ashura: There was the whole stepfile community, and people were like “hey, can we use your songs?” They got into games like O2Jam for the same sort of reasons.
It’s funny, because me and [fellow DDR composer] Sanxion7 were on a lot of the same forums at the same time; we were going back and forth a lot in the games we’d appear in. Sanxion7 would get me on this one, I’d get them on that one, and so on.
Deft: You also wanted to make your own Sonic fan game?
DM Ashura: A while back I wanted to do that, yeah. I did some tracks for that, like a [Robotnik] boss theme, that one I was actually happy with. It was just an idea, everyone’s nephew’s former roommate wants to make a Sonic fan game.
Deft: The Sonic fan community’s made a lot of cool stuff.
I mean, they’ve made Sonic Mania! There is no more purpose for me to make something because they already did it way better than I ever could’ve. Tee Lopes (Sonic Mania composer) is one of those producers that I’m just like, man, his sound is absolutely beautiful!
Deft: What inspired you to use VOCALOID for your remix of Narcissus at Oasis?
DM Ashura: The fact that I couldn’t afford a vocalist! It’s the classic reasons to use Vocaloid I suppose.
Now, to be fair, the first reason that I got into it was because one of my friends in college showed me this song called Melody.exe and I absolutely loved it. So I, you know, did my own little remix of it. And then I was like, I can use this when I have ideas for vocal songs and no vocalist.
I still kind of like the Miku sound, although you have to kind of play with it to make it not sound terrible. It’s too bendy on its default settings.
Deft: How’d you get approached to do music for NOISZ?
DM Ashura: I’ve known (developer) k//eternal for forever. I used to make music for his Dance Anarchy themes for Stepmania.
Akira Complex: Wait, are you friends with the guy who did Dance Anarchy?! Tell him big XXXXing thank you, because that’s how I discovered Amnesis, that’s how I discovered…just a lot of XXXX. Even the kind of music from [beatmaniaIIDX 15 DJ TROOPERS] that I used to skip over, I liked because of Dance Anarchy. That theme/pack is super attached to my lore. It had such super clean themes and banners. It looked just like DDR! And also, Sanxion7 super, super influenced me a lot with EternuS.
DM Ashura: EternuS needs to be on arcade DDR. It’s a travesty.
The two then talked about collaborating on remixing EternuS.
Deft: You made the stepcharts for your songs in DDR Universe. Did you ever do the stepcharts for your songs in Pump it Up?
DM Ashura: There’s a couple of songs I did steps for in Pump. I did Rave Until the Night is Over (Cyber Trance mix) I did a little bit of steps to Allegro Con Fuego and I think there might’ve been one other, I can’t remember. I also helped with the four-player Re-Rave chart.
Deft: From the games you’ve worked on, what do you consider your most emblematic work?
DM Ashura: For the DDR stuff, it’s probably deltaMAX, because, I don’t know why, but the MAX300 series just always kind of stuck with me. It was the energy behind it and the kind of ominousness of some of the tracks. I wanted to try to make deltaMAX ominous.
You said in the song comments of neogenesis (from beatmaniaIIDX 16 EMPRESS) that it represented a “new beginning for you and your music.” How do you think you’ve evolved as a musician since then?
DM Ashura: I started listening a lot more to some of the tracks that I love and thinking “how can I break this down? What some of the stuff that I haven’t been doing in my old music, what could I do to make it better?”
So, I’ve been learning little things like how to EQ, for once. That was for the longest time when I got started, I was just putting everything at whatever volume it needed to go and I didn’t understand things like EQing, layering, or things like taking things out in order to make things sound better.
Deft: What’s the Atlanta dance game scene like?
DM Ashura: I love the dance game scene with the southeast. They’re absolutely great people. Nobody’s a jerk. Everybody’s very friendly. Everybody’s pushing each other to get better. Nobody looks down on you if you’re a worse player than they are or something like that.
Deft: How would you describe your style of DJing?
DM Ashura: Well, in the past it’s mostly been me producing the music in order to play it. I tried watching Beatnation Summit (Konami concert series) and seeing all these different performers up there, performing stuff that they produced and it was more of what I wanted to do, at least originally. I’ve done a lot of sets that are like that. I’ve always been more of a composer than a producer, but also more of a producer than a DJ, if that makes sense. It honestly is weird sometimes because I’m wondering what I should be doing while I’m up there. You know what I mean? I remember before ACEN (Anime Central), I think I spent like two weeks straight producing about an hour’s worth of music and then it’s like, okay, now I’m up here and now I play it, now what? It’s been a learning process to find out how to also make the performance aspect interesting. I’m still trying to figure that out.
At this point, Sigma enthusiastically chimed in:
Sigma: But, the solution is the Sirius dog head!
DM Ashura: [laughing] The Sirius dog head, did help a lot in all honesty because it makes me less nervous. I should’ve brought it with me, but whatever.
Deft: What equipment do you use when you perform?
DM Ashura: I have my iPad which hooks into something called Numark iDJ Pro. It just kind of slides in there and I have a program I use by Algoriddim called DJay Pro. What the Numark does is it hooks into that and lets me control the stuff on the screen with something I can actually touch, which makes it a lot easier to use.
Deft: There’s been a lot of music game fan composers who’ve crossed over and become professionals. What do you think has changed since you started making game music?
DM Ashura: I think it’s gotten a lot more professional. The people that have been coming after me are just amazing. We were listening to music in the car, and it’s a bunch of people who started off as DDR fans, like onoken. And now he’s in IIDX and producing his own music.
Deft: Watching the people progress as they’re doing better and better music, it’s really kind of cool to go back and be like, “oh wow, I remember when they did this song and then now this is what they sound like.”
We spoke briefly about Akira Complex and how he got into BEMANI, getting the help of longtime BEMANI commission artist kors k.
DM Ashura: kors k helped me out, too. I heard heaven above (from beatmaniaIIDX 14 GOLD) and was like “hey, here’s (the DM Ashura song “Your Angel”), I produced it, would you sing for me?”, and he did, and he sent it to me.
Deft: It’s certainly a great time for fans to cross over and become part of music games themselves.
DM Ashura: I have to give it to Andamiro for having brought so many of the community producers in. When Konami was no longer doing stuff with me, Andamiro was right there being like, oh, sure, come on in, we’ll have you, we’ll have Sanxion7, we’ll have this person will have that person…
I will say: as much as DDR is my preferred game, Pump it Up has a really special place for me because of how community oriented it is. I’m more talking about the artists that are in it. You’ve got the fan producers over here, you’ve got people in Mexico that are making music for the game. You’ve got people in Indonesia that are making music for the game and they’re like, yeah, we’ll totally have different musical influences influences from a little bit of everywhere. And so it feels like you’re actually contributing to the game. It feels like a big global sort of collaboration rather than like Konami being like, sure, we’ll, we’ll let you do a song for us.
Deft: What would you say to an aspiring music game producer today?
DM Ashura: Learn everything you can from everyone you can. Be open to suggestions on how to keep getting better and don’t be discouraged if your initial stuff doesn’t sound like you want it to. You can keep getting better. I’m still working on getting better.
Deft: It’s a constant journey. It’s all a work in progress.