Over the past 21 years, during good times and bad, one of the most consistently well-regarded aspects of the Sonic the Hedgehog series has been its sound design. While a multitude of composers and performers are responsible for this, the man who holds the most influence in the modern era is Jun Senoue, who in recent times has acted as sound director for Sonic Generations and composed the Sonic 4 music.
He’s a man who likes to keep himself busy – if a quick peek at his production history on Sega Retro doesn’t show you that, then consider that at Summer of Sonic he didn’t appear to have a moment of rest between backstage interviews, two signing sessions, Jam with Jun and the Crush 40 set! Thankfully, before the day took its toll I was able to sit down with him to chat about his start in the business, Sonic Generations and the process of making Sonic music in general. Take a look:
Retro: How did you get into writing music, and specifically how did you get into writing music for video games?
Senoue: Actually I was a big fan of Namco stuff, arcade stuff like Mappy from the mid-80s. After that I was a little bit away from video games. In the early 90s I was surprised by Sonic the Hedgehog for the Genesis, the Mega Drive. I joined Sega back in 1993. I just submitted my stuff to Sega and they accepted. I was totally surprised, those were my favourite games! It was a great opportunity to join Sega and luckily I had a chance to be part of Sonic 3’s music in the first year of my Sega life.
Retro: Were there any musicians that inspired you as you grew up?
Senoue: I was a big fan of a UK pop band called Duran Duran, and that was the reason I got a bass when I was 14. The bass player for them looked much cooler than the guitar player! Also I played the keyboard for a long time, but I found that the keyboard player and the drummer stayed at the back side of the stage. The people at the front of the stage were much more active and I just wanted to be a part of that. So I purchased a bass, because of John Taylor from Duran Duran. But after that I found that some guitar players had nice guitar solos in the middle of the songs, and I thought “Oh, that’s what I want to do!” so I switched from bass to guitar when I was 15, 16? So yes, Duran Duran was one of my favourite bands when I was young and also lots of hard rock and hair metal bands.
Hit “Read more” to learn which game spent a year in production without any sound direction and find out Jun’s favourite Sonic songs!
Retro: When you’re making a Sonic game, how far into the project do you tend to join development?
Senoue: It depends on the project. Sometimes I work with the team from the top, from the very first steps and then sometimes not. When I worked with Sonic Team USA in San Francisco, we were in a very small team so I did work from the very first step, so I didn’t know everything about the games.
For Sonic and the Black Knight, I joined over a year after the project started, so that means the first year had no music, only placeholder music and sound effects for checking the engine. At some points it was good for me since I could see a much more focused project, lots of visual art was done so it was much easier to see what the world was like and I could imagine what kind of musical styles would work.
Retro: Are you ever asked to come up with music for a stage before you’ve seen it?
Senoue: I like to compose music after playing something. That means then I can feel the tempo, how easy or how difficult the stage is – I can get much more information. But sometimes I need to compose music just with concept art – just one screenshot, or even a simple illustration. It’s very tough for me but sometimes it’s a good inspiration for each other. Sometimes I need to provide the music first, and the artists, programmers and level designers can get inspiration from my music – how the tempo should feel, or about some structures. It’s a good kind of relationship with the team.
Retro: When you were composing music for Sonic Generations, you were working with musicians from all over the world – Richard Jacques, Cash Cash and more. How was the process of working together internationally?
Senoue: As for Sonic Generations, at first I heard about the levels we would have – Green Hill from the first one, Casino Night from the second – and then I heard about the different styles for act 1 and act 2. Then I just picked up the styles of music I wanted to get and I made a list of the musicians I wanted to team up with. I made some phone calls, dropped a line via email, and yeah, we had them. Actually, as for Nakamura-san’s music, I hoped I could team up with him to make an alternate version but he was not available.
Do you have any favourite tracks from Sonic Generations?
Retro: I thought both the Crisis City tracks were great, and I really liked the new version of Open Your Heart as well.
Senoue: As for Open Your Heart, I did team up with Julien-K several times, for the Team Dark theme from Sonic Heroes and for songs from Shadow the Hedgehog. Since Julien-K is a kind of side project for Amir and Ryan, also they’re busy working with Linkin Park’s singer, it’s really a project that supports that project, Dead By Sunrise. Amir and Fu started a remixing project called Circuit Frequency, so I teamed up with them to remix Open Your Heart. Originally they remixed with my original guitars that I tracked… 14 years ago? Back in 1998. But after I checked the remix, I decided to retrack it and I played along with that remix, so I retracked the whole thing from the top to the end. It was very fun!
Crisis City was by Tomoya, he was the person in charge for lots of stuff for 2006 and Unleashed, also Colours. He told me that he had ideas for both acts, Classic and Modern, so he did Crisis City by himself. He did a fantastic job. I like Rooftop Run too, both versions are great.
Retro: One last question since we’re running low on time – out of all the songs you’ve composed for Sonic games, which one is your favourite?
Senoue: Aaahh! As for Sonic music, What I’m Made Of was one of my favourites. It was the one I composed as a theme song for Sonic Heroes at first, but they denied it! I wanted to keep that song, so after composing the theme song for Sonic Heroes – a much more catchy, upbeat song, which is what they wanted at the time – that song did not fit with the last boss. I said “hey, this is my old stock but this is the best fit for the last boss” and re-presented the basic idea for What I’m Made Of. I thought “I will do this song for the last boss!” Lots of great memories for me, battling with the team!
Also Live and Learn and Escape From the City, those two are huge for me and huge for the fans too, I’ve had lots of good experiences performing those two songs in the States and here in the UK and I got lots of positive feedback. Sometimes I hear from people who couldn’t attend those events, saying “Hey, come to Brazil”, “Come to South America!”, “Come to Germany”, so there’s too much positive feedback for those songs!
Many thanks to Jun Senoue and the Summer of Sonic team. Please check back soon for a Summer of Sonic interview with Sumo Digital.
Cool interview Nik. I’d be interested to know his process making the Sonic 4 tracks, and what VSTs/software he uses.
I think he just bashes a Casio keyboard with his face while the same mega drive drum beat plays over and over.
Really liked reading about the collaborations he made for the making of Sonic Generations. Just looking at all the old hands returning to redo their old music makes one realize how unique the soundtrack for it is, and it makes the music one of the best parts of the game.
Wow, this was a great interview! I’m happy to know that he’s worked with people who have worked with a member of Linkin Park. This made my day!
Also, I KNEW “What I’m made of” had to have intentionally been the first theme song for Sonic Heroes. I guess they wanted to get rid of the “Badassery” that they so carefully developed for SA and SA2…and because the polar opposite game Shadow the Hedgehog, was coming coon anyway. I always felt the Sonic Heroes theme was a bit out of place here. I’m happy they let him put it back in. It still retained it’s meaning of Sonic explaining to Metal Sonic about what he’s made of…instead of also serving as foreshadowing. Oh well.