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Interview: Game Musician Drossin, From  Sonic  To  Afro Samurai

Interview: Game Musician Drossin, From Sonic To Afro Samurai

September 22, 2009 | By Jeriaska

September 22, 2009 | By Jeriaska
More: Console/PC

[We talk to original Sonic & Knuckles soundtrack creator Howard Drossin on his game music career from Sega to Afro Samurai, just as the classic title gets republished for XBLA.]

Late last week Sonic & Knuckles was released on Xbox Live Arcade. The digital download includes lock-on functionality that allows for exploring Sonic 2 and 3 as the character of Knuckles. We took the opportunity to catch up with Sonic & Knuckles composer Howard Drossin, who served as music director at Sega in the days of the Genesis.

Since then Drossin has scored numerous game titles. Most recently he returned to the world of Sonic to contribute several tracks to Wii title Sonic and the Black Knight. He was also a central contributor to the soundtrack for Namco Bandai's Afro Samurai, together with long-time collaborator the RZA. Music from various conceptual stages of the game's development is available to listen on his personal website. The composer is currently working on the background music to Namco Bandai's reboot of Splatterhouse.

In this interview, Drossin offers his perspectives on such subjects as serving as music director at Sega Technical Institute, rumors regarding Michael Jackson's involvement in the soundtrack to Sonic 3, and the surprising impetus behind creating his classic "Sonic Boom" music album. The conversation looks at both the past and present of sound design through the lens of the composer's Genesis soundtracks like Comix Zone, and the Spaghetti Western-inspired hip-hop score for Afro Samurai.

While you were working as music director at Sega, where were you located geographically?

I worked for a division of Sega of America called Sega Technical Institute, based in Redwood Shores, which is where the Sonic team was based. I worked at STI with [Yuji] Naka, [Hirokazu] Yasuhara, Adrian Stephens, Peter Moraweic and Roger Hector.

What do you think convinced Sega to hire you as a music director in 1993, prior to the production of Sonic & Knuckles?

I had been in a rock band and had a major record deal but I was also getting into composing and had just done a game for Walt Disney software called Wolf: True Life Adventure. One of the artists at Disney was hired by Sega and right before he left I handed him a demo of my music and I said, "Listen, put this in the hands of the powers-that-be." I was just looking for work, not necessarily a job. A few weeks later I got a call from Roger Hector asking if I wanted to fly up there and take a look at the place.

Was it a difficult transition arriving at STE? What kind of process was involved in creating music for the Genesis?

The Genesis was definitely challenging to develop music for because of the limitations. I dealt with the Genesis directly on Sonic Spinball, Comix Zone, The Ooze and several other games that never crossed the finish line. On Sonic & Knuckles, there was a programmer named Setsumaru who would input recordings of my music.

Sonic Spinball was a little different in that it was not Japanese-produced. It had a bit of a different vibe. There were also a few slated Sonic games that never got off the ground that I wrote music for, including a 3D-looking Sonic. For me, though, Sonic will always be a side scroller.

Various sites on the web credit you with the music for Sonic 3 and Knuckles Chaotix. Was this primarily because of your role at the company?

I was music director at the time and so people assume things and then post them on the Internet as fact. There's a lot of Sonic music that I'm credited for that I didn't do.

Did you find working within the limitations of the Genesis sound card to be fun, interesting, frustrating?

I found it enormously fun and challenging. When you’re talking about developing music for the Genesis, you actually have this front-end synthesis with oscillators that you control. You have one channel of low-fi 8-bit samples that you can use for your kick and snare drum. Then you can make an FM bass sound, an FM keyboard and horn sound, and put them all together. I'll be honest with you, sometimes I miss those days. For me, it was like a puzzle that I had to solve.

Who did all those voices for Comix Zone?

Everything sound-wise in that game was done by me. The voices include myself and various other people that I pulled into my office and sat in front of a microphone. It’s not like now where game companies are calling the William Morris agency to get Bruce Willis to do the voice-overs. For instance there was a female fighting character, and I needed “Ah, ow, ooh!” so I asked a couple of administrative assistants, friends of mine, from down the hall. They were thrilled to be in the game and they were great!

How did it come about that you became involved in the soundtrack to Afro Samurai?

Around 2000, I moved away from games and went into films. In 2008, I'd just wrapped on a project and was looking for something to do. I hooked up with Roger Hector, who had gone on to be Vice President of development at Namco. He was working on Afro Samurai, which had a RZA connection. I've worked with RZA a lot on films, albums and commercials.

RZA is often credited for the soundtrack, but who was involved to what extent on the score?

RZA rapped on one of my tracks. I made my own beats, wrote orchestral parts and made them sound like old recordings, and also played guitar and bass. There were some other guys who contributed some additional music. The game credits are not very clear.

Your working with RZA goes back some years. Were you involved in the Wu-Tang Shaolin Style videogame released in 1999?

I did the cinematics for the Activision game, but I never worked with RZA then. I first met RZA on Blade: Trinity. I had the opportunity to meet with RZA a few times and we hit it off. I worked with him on several tracks, but only one of them made it in. It's over the end credits, a track called "Thirsty." We also worked together on the films Unleashed and The Protector.

You had originally envisioned the Afro Samurai game's entire soundtrack including lyrics?

Yes. I had put lyrics in as temp. It was my understanding that rappers were going to be hired, but that never took place. It was kind of sad to me, in that I felt my tracks were a lot stronger with rap, but we were never able to work it out.

There is a song called "Bow Down" on the righthand sidebar of your website and the temp vocals, which are not in the game, are Dr. Dre's. How did those lyrics end up on there?

That's the definitive Afro theme. My wife found this site where you can get rap lyrics separated out from the song as mp3s. She's good at solving just about any problem by searching Google, no matter what it is. Anyway, I took them into the studio, and I put one of them in that I thought might be around the same tempo, and it worked well. I'm a pretty good singer, but with rap it's not even close. And believe me, when I've tried, my wife and I both thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

"Bow Down" sounds a bit like Morricone on those classic Spaghetti Westerns.

Ennio Morricone is one of my biggest idols. The twangy guitar there is obviously in that style. For me, combining hip-hop with the Ennio Morricone trip and a little bit of an Asian flair all at the same time was the trick.

This Afro character had a screwed up childhood, and he's very much like a "Man with No Name" Clint Eastwood character. I'm really proud of the music I did on Afro. My only regret as a composer is that I wish I could have had more time to have been able to write additional tracks to give it a longer, more cohesive soundtrack.

You were working with a plugin to get that antique sound?

Absolutely, I did. On the "Bow Down" track, the inspiration was to have this score sounding like it was from an old martial arts film. I used a program called Vinyl, which is made by a company called iZotope. I downloaded this plugin for free and I used it all over the soundtrack.

How important is it to you to be able to test out your tracks in the game? You receive dev kits and a build of the game for this purpose?

Exactly. With the dev kit, I can't have my music start at a specific point, but I can set it to play, start up the game, and just kind of vibe it out. It helped a lot for Afro Samurai. It can be so important on a new game to analyze your work within the rhythm of the game.

Did you play any games when you were younger?

I was really into playing games as a kid, and I stayed a fan as the music became more relevant. I really liked Asteroids, and it was probably one of the only games I really got proficient at. I could actually line up enough of my ships that I could sell my game to some other kids for a buck. I liked Missile Command, Centipede and Defender... this is probably dating me, age-wise.

When did it hit you that the music you had been making for Sega had stood the test of time for many of those who had played those games back in the day?

I got invited to MAGFest this year and it was enlightening to see how many people were affected by this music, and how many people still cared about it. It was humbling. I had no idea that people even remembered this music I worked on such a long time ago. Also, at Magfest the whole issue of Michael Jackson came up.

In that he was rumored to be involved in making the soundtrack to Sonic 3?

When I first came to Sega, like right when I got there, one of the things I was told was that I was going to be working with Michael Jackson. Now, for me, when I grew up, Michael Jackson's "Dancing Machine" was the shit, so I was like "Cool!" Then the news broke about the strange things going on and I was told, "You're not going to be working with Michael Jackson."

Do you think there might be any validity to the rumors that he was involved in the making of the soundtrack?

As far as I know he had nothing to do with the project. But I know that there are people out there that are convinced that he did. I know that some fans have done an analysis of the Sonic 3 songs and they say it's the same song as something or other, but when you're analyzing some simple chords you can skew it any way you want.

When did you receive the request to contribute to the score for Sonic and the Black Knight?

In the midst of Afro Samurai, after I had re-entered games, Jun [Senoue] called me up and asked if I'd work on a project for Sega. It was great, I just wish I could have done more but I was too busy with other commitments.

Were you working off of any concept designs from the game?

He sent me a few clips to look at, so I did a couple pieces with rock guitar and one cut scene. It happened so quickly, all within the span of a week. He said "Sonic," and I immediately knew what to do.

Jun Senoue performed songs from Sonic and the Black Knight at the Tokyo Game Show last year. Would you ever consider performing your music at a live game concert?

Sure, if I was contacted. I'd love to go to Japan. I play guitar and bass on my recordings all the time.

Are you aware of the entire game album industry that exists in Japan? There's a foundation for it that does not really exist elsewhere in the world.

I have been aware of it. To my understanding, Sonic Boom in 1993 was one of the first game soundtracks. At least, I didn't know of any game soundtrack albums before this. That same year I did my own album of Sonic music called Virtual Sonic, which did not get released until three years later. I was told I had one month to do an entire album for sale at the Sega Store in the Luxor Hotel in Los Vegas. Can you believe that's what that was all about?

I remember I did the whole thing in a month. People ask me, you know, "Was this song from this level?" I don't know. Some of it was expanding upon the Sonic theme and the Knuckles theme, but for others I was grasping. I had a month to do an entire soundtrack because it had to be there in the Luxor Hotel, and I remember begging and pleading for more time. It had to be done for the grand opening of the Sega Store. Some of it is based on nothing but my impression of the Sonic world. Given the time that I had to do it, I think some of it is pretty cool.

[Read more about Howard Drossin on the musician's personal website. Images courtesy of Sega and Namco Bandai Games. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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