Here, There, Everywhere

Shota Nakama: Video Game Music and More

As cosplay attendees dressed as everything from Wonder Woman to Ewoks roam the corridors of the San Diego Convention Center for this year’s Comic Con, they’re greeted by live renditions of music from the classic video game Sonic the Hedgehog—familiar to gamers with enough years to have been playing in the early nineties. The live Sonic tribute comes by way of Berklee and Boston Conservatory alumnus Shota Nakama B.M. ’08 M.M. ’11, a regular at such gamer gatherings and the founder of two successful businesses: the world-touring Video Game Orchestra and the Boston-based production company Soundtrec.

As Soundtrec’s CEO, Nakama specializes in recording, producing, mixing, mastering, and voice over work; fellow alumnus Falk Au Yeong ’14 runs the international company’s Malaysian operations. Soundtrec does film and anime work, but is best known for its work on video games. On Final Fantasy XV, for instance—which quickly sold a staggering 6.5 million copies—Nakama took on composition, arranging, and orchestration work, conducting sessions recorded live with orchestra, choir, and rhythm section.

Sitting in a studio at Boston public media station WGBH, where he recently recorded the anime soundtrack to Netflix’s Little Witch Academy with composer Michiru Oshima, Nakama says, “For video games, you don’t know how much time a player is spending at a certain stage.” Unlike a film score, he says, the video game score must be interactive and thus “involves more technicalities.”

Nakama’s second business is the popular Video Game Orchestra (VGO), which he founded during his last semester at Berklee. The VGO has carved out a sizable niche with its brand of “rockestral” video game music, drawing capacity crowds in its initial tour of China. The VGO combines the bombastic stage antics of 1980s-era metal bands with Nakama’s skillful arrangements of music from popular video games performed by a rock band, orchestra, and choir. (Nakama also plays guitar with the group.)

He generally stays true to the original video game pieces, but takes some artistic license in order to present them in large concert settings. That’s especially true if his source material originated from an early 8-bit video game, which disallowed the complexity of modern game scores.

Various professors supported Nakama’s experience at Berklee, including Sheldon Mirowitz, Michael Sweet, Dave Fiucynzki, and Jeanine Cowen. Nakama subsequently earned his master’s degree in classical guitar performance at The Boston Conservatory.

After many years studying and working as a musician in Boston, Nakama is a vociferous advocate for Boston as a world-class music city and he has hired several other Berklee and Conservatory graduates for both his recording and live performance work.

Under his leadership, the VGO has become a global touring force in the U.S., Mexico, Taiwan, Japan, and elsewhere. For Nakama, the work that goes into it—from securing licensing permissions from video game publishers to hammering out contracts with venues—is all worth it when he sees the interaction between the ensemble and the crowd.

“You’ll never see musicians smiling so much on stage,” Nakama says of the VGO’s delightfully over-the-top shows, which often round out the video game music with an ’80s rock encore. “We have a lot of fun on stage.”

Such an outcome was far from guaranteed when Nakama launched the VGO, piecing together a 26-piece ensemble (mostly student friends) for a project that, he says, some saw as “subculture stuff.”

Now, the VGO is a concert ensemble with an international fan base, and the success of Nakama’s two businesses vindicates his persistence in traveling a non-traditional path. Video games and anime have exploded in growth alongside Nakama’s career to the point that he says, “You can’t really call it ‘subculture’ anymore.”