Interviewing Mako Ray

Joining only a few years ago in 2017, Mako Ray has gained over 2.8 million views from followers following his artistic career. Now he isn’t just a musician and cover artist but also an artist, and designer. His YouTube channel consists of art, design, game development content, and of course music.

Music, for Mako Ray, is a means to an end, and the end is to listen to something you enjoy and “occasionally that end is supposed to have a specific stronger impact, attempting to elicit certain feelings from people such as happiness, sadness, fear, whatever the situation calls for, and I hope to be able to achieve that in my songs.”

Inspired by specifically video game soundtracks, and artists like Toby Fox, Mayo Ray aims to bring more out of the music than just sounds. Currently, he admits to being in the “Following stage,” and creating an audience through social media with the end goal of making a living as a full-time artist.

Below is an interview between Mako Ray and Switching Styles’s Dylanna Fisher.

How did you start in music?

I had a lot of free time as a teenager and ended up taking guitar lessons. Though I forget if it was my or my mother’s idea to do so. Either way I ended up enjoying it, and we eventually got an upright piano that I was very excited to teach myself to play. There were a lot of songs I wanted to learn that people hadn’t made sheet music to, for example, from certain video games. I had to also teach myself how to hear out notes and transcribe music. I ended up doing a lot of amateur piano covers and uploading them to YouTube.

What impact does music have?

For me personally, it’s mostly just some fun stuff to listen to. I’m not usually all that into treating songs as these hugely important sources of emotional impact. Though, I know many other people feel that way and I understand why. I’m very much an applied arts sort of person, so I typically view music as a means to an end, and that end for me is usually just something neat to listen to.

How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never been on the internet?

I suppose it’s sort of like…chill beats that are often bass-centric, with some occasional chiptune influence? I think it’s kind of hard as a budding artist to describe my own style, it just seems normal to me since it’s what I’m used to, like a visual art style or a spoken accent.

Who are the musicians that inspire your sound?

Toby Fox. Number one without a doubt. I’ve been a fan of his since he composed music for Homestuck which also featured several other artists I’d describe as influential to me. He really outdid himself with the Undertale OST. I’ll be very proud of myself if I can become half as skilled a composer as him one day.

As for other influences, I think there are four types of music that come to mind.

1: Video game OSTs in general, particularly older games. Back before video game audio technology evolved to be able to create any sound the composers wanted, the sounds they worked with were much simpler, and they had to rely on stringing them together in interesting and memorable ways with lots of catchy melodies in order for them to sound like, well, anything other than some weird noises. I’ve always found that style of song making much more interesting than other soundtrack methods such as orchestral walls of sound that do their job but aren’t really memorable or compelling to go back and listen to again.

2: Songs that aren’t afraid to put their bass line front and center. Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers immediately comes to mind, the bass in their music tends to act as both the basis of the song and a counter melody which adds a nice level of complexity that I enjoy for similar reasons as #1.

3: Atmospheric songs that take you to another world while you’re listening to them. I’m talking anyone from Akira Yamaoka (the Silent Hill composer) to Macintosh Plus (the vaporwave composer). If it makes me feel like I’m trapped in a half-lucid dream that I can’t tell is a nightmare or not, I’m down with it. Most of my music doesn’t fall into that category, but I still find it very important to be able to capture that atmosphere when needed.

And #4: Honestly, just those lofi hip hop chill beats to relax/study to songs. You know, the ones that often take no effort to compose other than taking some plundered piano loop and putting some drum samples over it? They just sound nice. I try to go for a similar feel with a lot of my songs but with extra complexity and memorability.

What appeal do you think covers have compared to the original songs to a general audience?

I think people just like seeing different versions of their favorite songs. They love it so much that they want more of it, and covers are a way to give them more. There’s also the novelty aspect of some of the more goofy covers like my Animal Crossing Africa one.

Do you think covers will continue to be popular?

Oh, of course! As long as people continue to find certain songs special they will continue to cover them and others will flock to listen.

How is making covers different from making originals?

Well you don’t have to go through the entire composition process for a cover, you just learn the notes that are already there for you and figure out how to play them properly. I suppose some mild composition is occasionally required if, for example, it’s a song that wasn’t designed to be played on your chosen instrument, at which point you have to make a custom arrangement that may differ from the original a bit but enables you to actually play it while still capturing its essence.

Why do you perform covers of songs?

There are certain songs I love so much that I want to embed myself in them, physically feel them, do everything I can to pay homage to them and just enjoy their composition first-hand. Learning how to play and sing them is the best way to do that.

What’s your favorite cover? Why?

My favorite cover I’ve done is a video on my channel called “Barrens, Glen, Refuge”, which is a cover of the three main area themes from a game called Oneshot. I used both a piano keyboard and its drum pad simultaneously and I’m just really proud of myself for managing to perform it in such a manner, especially the third song which was a challenge for me. I could have easily just played a drum loop while using both hands for the piano to make my life easier, but it wouldn’t have felt the same, it wouldn’t have felt like I was really experiencing the entire song.

What’s the process of creating these covers?

First I learn all the notes; usually someone will have already made a midi or sheet music for the song, but if not I’ll listen to it myself and discern all the notes by ear. Sometimes I’ll even do that if sheet music is available but a midi isn’t, since I’m so slow at sight-reading that it’s often faster to just hear it out.

Then I write an arrangement of them in FL Studio designed for whatever instrument I’m playing; if it’s for piano, I fiddle around with the notes to make sure they’re actually physically playable with two hands.

Then it’s just the process of practicing that arrangement until I’m able to play it decently enough.

Of course, you’re probably curious about my Animal Crossing cover, for which I obviously skipped those last two steps. Instead, I recorded a video of each character playing various random notes on the in-game instruments, brought those clips into Sony Vegas, then placed and pitch-shifted them throughout the timeline to match the notes of Africa. I then did that key frame transparency cutout thingy, I forget what it’s called, to position each character into the same frame despite being from different recordings. You can notice some visual discrepancies and incorrect perspective between each character. And voila. Very tedious, but it was well worth it for the reception the video got.

What are some of your fondest memories while making music?

I did a piano and guitar cover of a song called “Alphamatic Replacement” that someone made for a music contest. It didn’t win but I liked it enough to cover it, and the composer saw my cover and was really impressed I was able to match its speed on the piano, so that felt nice.

Other than that, just being able to play songs I loved on the piano, composing original music that actually sounded good to me, that sort of stuff was and still is really rewarding.

What are some obstacles throughout your music career? And how did you overcome them?

When it comes to covering songs, I’ve attempted several dozen covers over the years that never panned out because I was never able to actually master them. I don’t regret partially learning and never finishing them, though, because it was still fun, and the little practice they offered me still helped me improve my playing skills.

These days I don’t really worry about fully learning every song I love. I just learn little simplified tidbits. When a song comes around that I’m positive I want to cover, I just sort of drop everything and hard-focus in on practicing it until I’ve mastered it, before it slips from the fleeting grasp of my attention span.

As for composing? Having the sense of “I know what I’m doing” is an incredibly difficult thing to attain in digital audio workstations like FL Studio. There’s so much garbage everywhere on your screen that you have no idea the function of, you don’t know how to do anything other than make a short 2-second song loop that never gets extended. It’s totally overwhelming. It really just comes down to spending the time to familiarize yourself with everything; it WILL happen eventually, it’s inevitable, you just have to deal with the confusion until you get there.

What are your future plans?

My ultimate goal is to become a game developer. I’ve spent a lot of time since I was a teenager learning various skill sets such as art, music and writing. Now it’s just a matter of applying them to something, letting them all come together to finally create something big and proper.

In addition to that, I’m also currently trying to cultivate an audience for myself, on YouTube, twitch and twitter. I’d like to be able to make a living off this stuff as well as just be an internet personality weirdo in general. I’m working on a 3D model right now and considering becoming a vtuber. I do a lot of weird dumb nonsense and I’m currently collecting a fan base who is into that weird dumb nonsense.

How does game development compare to creating music?

It’s a MUCH more involved process that usually requires the creation of music but also visual art, coding, writing…in both cases, though, you’re creating a work of art for the purpose of a consumer to get something out of, whether that be a fun little time or a big emotional journey.

Also, composing music for games is often different from composing music for general listening, as you’re usually creating something meant to serve as the backdrop to the rest of the game, rather than be the center of attention.

Most songs in video game OSTs lack lyrics, for example, because they don’t want to distract too much from everything else going on. Unless you’re Persona 5, in which case you don’t care about that at all and will instead manage to get away with throwing lyric-containing jamming bops all over the place while creating one of the best video game soundtracks ever made. Though that game still contains many songs without vocals, during times where it’d be too distracting for those particular moments. You have got to know how much you can get away with and when to dial it back, I suppose.

What advice would you give to new and young musicians?

Just do something, don’t just sit there listening to the same short loop over and over trying to figure out how to continue it.

Throw a bunch of random notes all over the place and see what you can do with them. You’d be amazed by how much easier it is to work with some weird hastily-composed garbage than a totally blank slate. Don’t worry about those giant crazy synthesizers with the airplane control panels, just use their instrument presets to have a sound to start with. Maybe mess around with a knob here and there to experiment and eventually learn what some of them do. The most important thing is to just get something there regardless of its quality.

The quality will improve in time, but you can’t improve something that doesn’t exist.

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