Turn on one of Sega's recent games for any system: Sonic Adventure (and part 2), or perhaps the new Sonic Heroes. You're instantly greeted by a blast of borderline-metal rock that sounds as if it's straight out of the 80's. In the game's stages, the musical variety ranges from synth-heavy pop to all out, guitar-solo infused rock.
The music you're hearing is the product of Japanese Sega employee Jun Senoue, and his team of music specialists at WaveMaster, Inc.
Jun came on with the company in 1993, producing a few songs for the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Before long, he was an official "employee" of Sega, and now runs an entire studio at their bidding. But how did Jun get into such a position? Where did he learn to do what he does? And what does any of this have to do with video games?
I was given the opportunity to ask Jun a few questions about his history and his current projects, and these are his responses.
Style Factory: Tell us a bit about your personal background, where you were raised, your childhood interests and such.
Jun Senoue: I was born in Matsushima, Japan, in 1970, but due to my dad's occupation, moved all over the place, so I never really had a 'hometown' per se. When I was a kid, I really loved my die-cast toys I collected, and I was crazy about trains.
Style Factory: When did you first begin expressing a musical interest? When did you obtain your first instrument? What was it?
Jun Senoue: Since my mother worked for an FM radio station, we had tons of vinyl records all over my house. At the age of three, my 'first' favorite singer was Michel Polnareff. That's when I started learning the piano.
Style Factory: When did you make your first real recording?
Jun Senoue: My first real recording was at the age of 12 or 13 with the good ol' 'boombox'. As for my first band recording of an original song, that was when I was 17.
Style Factory: Your guitar skill and technique are pretty incredible. Did you ever take a guitar or musical course, or was everything self taught?
Jun Senoue: I learned to play the piano at the age of three, and continued that until we moved to Panama when I was 12. Talking about my guitar playing, I taught myself.
Style Factory: You've mentioned in the past that you personally like the band "American Hi-Fi". Though you live in America, do you have any thoughts on why excellent bands such as American Hi-Fi, Ben Folds, and others get so much attention in Japan and so little attention here in the U.S.?
Jun Senoue: Yes, American Hi-Fi is one of my favorite bands, and I think Marvelous 3 is awesome too. I don't quite understand all of the reasons, but there's lots of differences between the audience in Japan and the States.
"One thing that is really interesting in Japan, the audience tries to experience the whole performance, and you hardly see the motley behavior of state-side concertgoers. Plus the prices for the shows in Japan are really expensive!"
Style Factory: Most of your musical work has been in the area of video games. How did that come about?
Jun Senoue: I really had plans about where I'd be going while attending college - all I wanted to do was play and become a success with my band.
One of my friends suggested that it would be a great idea to become a video game composer, and I agreed with him. I sent my band's demo to Sega and they hired me in 1993.
Style Factory: You worked at the same time as Howard Drossin on Sonic The Hedgehog 3 for Sega's classic video game system, the "Genesis". How would you compare his musical style to yours? Did you actually collaborate with Drossin, or were your works separate from his?
Jun Senoue: Our styles are totally different, and I've never personally met him before.
Talking about Sonic 3, I did two songs for it in 1993, my first year at Sega. I wasn't the main composer for Sonic 3, since I was busy doing another project. There were a lot of people composing on that project, and they needed some additional songs, which I wrote, and the development team picked them to use in the game.
Style Factory: What was your songwriting process for creating music on the Sega Genesis? The system worked entirely on FM and PSG synthesis with DAC samples, so were you initially working with guitars and keyboards and then translating it over, or working entirely from scratch on their development kit?
Jun Senoue: I used MIDI keyboards and sequencers for composing then programmed it directly into the game.
Style Factory: Sega's Sound Team took over the music production for the Sonic The Hedgehog series when Japanese band Dreams Come True's production became too expensive. Howard Drossin was a relatively accomplished guitarist who had worked on games already, and I assume you were the same. Still, how did you feel knowing you were working on one of the most important sequels of all time (in the game world, anyway), and that you would have to live up to the musical legacy of bassist Masato Nakamura's worldwide-famous soundtracks?
Jun Senoue: I really don't know much about that background story. I was only a greenhorn in Sega at the time having just come on. I was just really excited for the chance to compose music for the Sonic series, since I was really crazy about the Sonic games.
Style Factory: How many games have you worked on? Did you ever have the disappointing experience of writing music for a game that was not released?
JS: No. I know that's a short answer, but I've been really fortunate to have worked on games that were all released to market. Here's the list:
Dark Wizard, Beyond the Limit, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Victory Goal (series), Metal Head, In The Hunt, Sonic 3D Blast (Genesis Version), Daytona USA CCE, Sega Rally 2, Sonic Adventure, Nascar Arcade, Sonic Adventure 2, and Sonic Heroes.
Style Factory: When and how did WaveMaster come about, and what role did you play in the creation of the company?
Jun Senoue: WaveMaster is the sound design group of Sega, and our history started back in July 2000. This is when all the development studios, (WaveMaster included), became separate entities under the Sega corporate umbrella. We have our own studio, music publishing section, our own record label, and major distribution channels. We also employ lots of composers, each with their own distinct style and personality. I don't know of any other company like us.
Style Factory: What role do you play in WaveMaster now?
Jun Senoue: Same as before. I am a sound producer, composer, and guitar player. Talking about WaveMaster itself, we did only videogames when we were one department of Sega. Now we do work for many other formats - TV, film, radio, cellular, not forgetting the music-related stuff, too.
Style Factory: How important do you feel a sound production is to a video game? Is it as important as the visuals? Moreso?
Jun Senoue: I think sound is a key element of the game, it's one of our five senses. Try playing a video game without sound and tell me if it's the same experience as with sound. As far as which is more important, visuals or sound, that really is the question... Both need to rock...
Style Factory: What equipment do you currently use in the studio? Your recent "Crush 40" project with Johnny Gioeli and others has a glisteningly clean production. What are some secrets or pointers of your production technique?
Jun Senoue: Using good sounding and well maintained guitars, basses, and amps. Playing with good friends with a great vibe and chops is also a plus. Keeping good relationships with the engineers for tracking and mixing sounds is also paramount. That's all, and there are no other secrets.
Style Factory: What do you think of some game fans' reactions to your productions? Some love it, some hate it. Do you feel your music will change based on fans' reaction or will you keep doing what is best to your ears?
Jun Senoue: I can't really be thrown off by what others say or do. I create music that sounds best to me, while trying to create the best sounds for our products.
Style Factory: What kind of evolutionary path do you think your own music will take as you continue your career? Do you think you will stay in the music field your entire life, or explore career alternatives?
Jun Senoue: I want to be an active composer as long as I can. Currently, I'm working on several music projects, and I like to keep myself busy with music-related stuff. And yes, I want to stay in the music field for my entire life.
Style Factory: Do you ever regret having ended up a game soundtracker, rather than a world-famous rock-and-roller?
JS: Never. It was a right choice to become a game composer back in '93. I learned lots of invaluable 'how-tos' during my early Sega days - how to compose better, how to use sequencers, how to use wave editors more thoroughly, how to make my sound richer, and how important my role in the studio as a sound producer comes into play. I love playing live, though... That's always a rush.
This magazine is about design. So where are we going with this article about a musician, anyway?
The key thing to recognize is that Jun's work lends life to the games. Some criticize the "hair-metal" style that the Sonic series has taken lately, while others are keen on it. It's inarguable, however, that the style is appropriate for the feel that the series has shifted.
I should not neglect Jun's other work, either. His work for several racing games for Sega has given them a heart-pumping edge that really pushes your playing to the limits.
While not all can appreciate the 80's-infused style of the 34-year-old producer, a single listen to selections from "Crush 40" might incline you to agree that Sega's choices were not unfounded. Jun's guitar skill and melodic writing ability put him in the same frame as many famous guitarists.
But Jun is not famous! Perhaps there is a secure glory in the relative anonymity of being a video game composer - You can come into the studio, play however you want, whatever you want, so long as the corporate heads give it the go-ahead, and at the end of the day, the recipients of your finished music don't even know who you are. Some never even read the credits.
And where the design skills really shine - in the production room, is where Jun really stands out. Jun's skill as an audio producer - the man who makes everything sound just right, is what likely lead to his becoming the key producer at WaveMaster.
My speaking with Jun has confirmed one thing in my mind: as long as Senoue is around, video games are going to rock, and rock hard.