Howard Drossin interview by SageXPO (August 2008)
From Sonic Retro
This is an interview conducted in the irc chat room of Sagexpo.org, with Howard Drossin, a music composer who worked on Sonic Spinball Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and other Sonic games. The interview has been edited for readibility and the dialogue where Howard Drossin does not respond has been left out. Click the external link on the bottom of the page for the full text.
Shadix: Sorry about the technical difficulties.
Howard Drossin: Ok.
Prime_2: So Howard, you were involved in the Sonic 3 music...
Howard Drossin: Yes.
Prime_2: Now, the Sonic 3 final boss music was pretty much the best boss arrangement I have ever heard, ever. Did you have any involvement?
Howard Drossin: It was a long time ago. I don't remember all of the tracks. I'd like to say yes, but i could be wrong.
Kiddo: How was the music for Sonic 3 composed? I'm assuming it was not like the "Sonic Megamix" project's music hacking, of course. In particular Sonic 3 had some neat effects not normally done in Genesis games like most of the "Pops" and the "Heys"! Only other Genesis game I recall did that on a regular basis was, uh TMNT: Hyperstone Heist.
Howard Drossin: The music was composed separately and input for the genesis by someone named Setsu (I think). didn't do any sound efx for Sonic 3.
Kiddo: Setsu? Sounds like an alias....
Howard Drossin: Actually it was a Japanese name, shortened from a longer name.
Kiddo: Well, I mean. Some of the music has sound effects -in- the music. Like if you go to Launch Base you hear the Clap-like "GAO!" or something.
Howard Drossin: That was done separately while it was being programmed for the genesis.
Aquaslash: I'm gonna ask the question a lot of folks want to know. To what extent was Michael Jackson involved in Sonic 3 and how much of his work did you replace?
Howard Drossin: Originally he was involved but in the end he ended up with NO involvement.
SonicTweaker: Can I ask something about that?
Howard Drossin: Sure, if I can tell you.
SonicTweaker: Despite Michael Jackson having no involvement in the end, there have been certain similarities pointed out between MJ's music and some of the PCM samples used for percussion in the game. Namely, a sample used in Carnival Night Zone uses an excerpt of the MJ song "Jam". You can literally hear the lyric being spoken, upon closer inspection. Is there anything you know regarding this? In addition, is it somehow related to certain musical tracks being changed in the PC version of the game?
Howard Drossin: I did not do all of the music for the game. However, I know that SEGA wanted to distance themselves from him after the sex scandal. If MJ's tracks influenced some of the music it is a coincidence as far as I know.
Aquaslash: There's a song you did for the "Virtual Sonic" album called "Metal Sonic". Did you have the lyrics to that anywhere, it's kinda hard to understand?
Howard Drossin: I don't have the lyrics anymore, but I know the first line is -- He's going his own way. My lyrics were a bit subversive for the project and intentionally hard to understand when I sang it.
Aquaslash: I got that vibe as well. I guess the mystery remains lol.
Howard Drossin: I could probably remember if I heard them again. Its been awhile.
Turbohog: First of all thanks for coming, it's a real pleasure. And since the biggest question was already asked, I'll ask a pretty basic question. If given the chance to work on another Sonic game, would you?
Howard Drossin: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I may.
Turbohog: Fantastic! It would be great to hear some of your work on a future Sonic game.
Howard Drossin: Thanks. I won't work with Michael Jackson though!!
TriAttackHax: I wouldn't work with Michael either, Mr. Drossin. :) Thank you for your time, Mr. Drossin. My question is this: you worked on the music for both Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, but originally the two games were one larger project. When you were working on Sonic 3, were you in fact working on the sequel's music as well? Or was the project already "split" by the time you began on it?
Howard Drossin: They were separate projects for me. I worked on them at different times. Yes it was already split.
TriAttackHax: Alrighty, that answers it for me. I've always been curious about that, actually. Thanks, Mr. Drossin. :) Good luck on future endeavors. :)
Howard Drossin: Thank you :)
GeneXM: Thank you for coming to SAGE, Mr. Drossin.
Howard Drossin: Sure.
GeneXM: I have two questions: First, when you were working on music for the stages, how difficult was it to create music in Sonic 3 that fit the level's theme while maintaining the general hip-hop sound?
Howard Drossin: I didn't deal with the programming of the sound. I composed separately.
GeneXM: And second, have you worked on other projects post-Sonic?
Howard Drossin: Many.
Jeiku: Mr. Drossin, thanks for coming by and I really enjoy your work for the series.
Howard Drossin: Thanks.
Jeiku: Anyhow, are you still open to composing music for video games in the future, or are you solely focusing on working on film soundtracks at the moment?
Howard Drossin: Actually, I'm currently working on 2 games right now.
Jeiku: Are you in the position to disclose what they are?
Howard Drossin: Yes. Splatterhouse and Afro Samurai for Namco.
Jeiku: Wow, Afro Samurai - that'll be something to look forward to. Thanks for answering :D
Howard Drossin: Thanks. They have both been really cool to work on.
H Hog: Hi there, uhm... sorry for not asking something more interesting, but yeah... it's been burning in my mind for the last ... close to 10 years. I, as well as two of my friends all own a copy of Comix Zone for the Genesis, which came with a CD of vocal versions of many of the game's tunes. I must say I love the music you did for it! However, I'd like to parrot Aquaslash's question about the lyrics. I didn't understand much of them, and what I did seemed quite random. Are the original lyrics still available anywhere? And am I to understand that these are intentionally made hard to understand as well?
Howard Drossin: Uh...No...They just weren't very good lyrics. I had to write them really fast. I may have done some slurring.
[H Hog|H_Hog]: Ah... that... probably explains a lot, I suppose. =)
Howard Drossin: Sadly yes. I may try to dig them up. I've been asked a couple of times.
Night: Okay, what kind of limitations are there when composing for a cartridge system like that? I've heard that there's only like,  seperate layers available on the genesis or something to that effect.
Howard Drossin: That is correct, plus one sample channel to share with sound [effects]. It is very difficult -- i used a front end program called GEMS.
SonicTweaker: Howard Drossin, speaking of GEMS, your music is the only music that actually sounded GOOD with that engine. Was there something specific you did to make it sound better than most others?
Howard Drossin: I worked hard at creating and sequencing my own instruments.
Metal_Man88: Hello; nice to talk to you. I'm just wondering, Howard, what led to you working for Sega, and what was your favorite song you composed while you were doing songs for them?
Howard Drossin: I'm most proud of COMIX ZONE with reference to that. What led me to Sega: I was hired by Roger Hector. My favorite song-- that's tough, probably something off Comix Zone.
GeoffreyTaucer: Hey, Howard. Again, thanks for agreeing to this interview. My question has several parts. First, did you write the Lava Reef Zone theme for Sonic 3. Second, do you ever listen to remixes? Specifically, have you ever heard "Lover Reef," and if so, what did you think? And third (not so much a question as a humble request): I heard you will be attending MAGfest. Four of the five remixers behind "Lover Reef" will likely be attending. We would be deeply honored if you could find the time to stop by jamspace and allow us to pay tribute to your music in person with a live performance.
Howard Drossin: I didn't name the tracks. I'm not sure if I wrote Lava Reef. I'd need to listen to it. I just handed music to the Sonic Team and they named it. I haven't heard any of he remixes. I know I need to do that. I didn't realize they were there until very recently.
SonicTweaker: Do you need some sort of reference to remind you of tracks you composed? If so, I have a full mp3 listing of all the songs from the game. But for Lava Reef specifically, there's this.
Howard Drossin: I just need to hear them. Its been a very, very long time and I write a lot of music. I'm sorry.
Shadix: Hmm, so when you write your songs you do you not have a theme in mind?
Howard Drossin: I'll check. Yes. From Sonic Spinball.
GeoffreyTaucer: Do you typically play the games you compose for? Or just hand over the soundtrack? I guess what I'm asking is how much info do they give you before you have to start writing?
Howard Drossin: I never used to play the games. I was just writing music. Now, I play them a bit. Depends on the game. Some teams give a lot of information, some teams not so much.
GeoffreyTaucer: Somebody else can have a turn. Thanks again, Howard.
Howard Drossin: Sure thanks.
Kroze: 1. How would YOU pronounce the word "queue"? 2. This now kinda is a problem since you said you didn't name the songs you did but Ice Cap Zone (for refrence), one of the most remixed tunes from Sonic 3 [Note: Howard didn't actually compose this song]... and people come up with some really horrible stuff like this [Overclocked song remix] do you regret it now?
Howard Drossin: Maybe cause I'm on a mac. I can't go to the links anyway. Won't let me copy it.
SonicTweaker: I do have an interesting question, one which isn't completely random and without direction. e to the rather random methods in which you were told to compose music for the game, were there any songs you composed that never made the cut (in other words, music that never made it into the game)? This is referring to both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles.
Howard Drossin: Yes, a lot of my music never made it into the game. Likewise some of the tracks aren't mine.
SonicTweaker: Do you have any copies of this music laying around at all?
Howard Drossin: Probably in midi format.
SonicTweaker: Do you think you could look for them? We'd love to hear them.
Howard Drossin: Maybe at some point. Right now I'm slammed though.
Shadix: Like drunk? :o
Howard Drossin: Haha I wish.
Donnyku: I would like to start out saying, I loved your remix "Return to Toxic Caves" on the Virtual Sonic album. w, unrelated to that, Did you work on the Sonic 3 or [Sonic]& Knuckles Credits? Because, recently, a proto of the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles was found, and in it, it had a new mix for the credits that had the Sonic 3 Level music into the melody. Any reason why it wasn't kept? Credits.mp3 is the one I speak of.
Howard Drossin: Thanks. Now that track I remember. The first I wrote at SEGA. I can't go to the link you're pointing me to. Sorry. I don't think I had anything to do with this track.
Shadix: Oh, so you wrote the SONIC 3 credits or the fanfare ending? I wish I could link you to it because this would be something big.
Howard Drossin: I wrote a lot music for Sonic 3 but I don't know how much of it got in. I have never played the game (sorry). Afterward I was working on another game and didn't look back.
Shadix: How bout I email you the links real quick and we'll move on.
Howard Drossin: OK, email them to me.
zircon: Hey Howard, I'm one of the site staff over at ocremix.org, which is a community of mostly hobbyist musicians that do free arrangements and remixes of video game music. I thought you might like to know (first) that Sonic 3 is easily among the most popular games in terms of number of remixes. I know you said you haven't heard any of the Sonic 3 remixes yet (or not ours, at least), but I was curious as to what your stance is on fans remixing music of yours and your colleagues.
Howard Drossin: There were a lot of composers on Sonic 3. I was one. I don't want to take credit for anyone else's music. You should know that. I think remixing is great and I'm flattered by it.
SonicTweaker: Howard Drossin, you mentioned you'd be able to share that unused music at one point--when you do, would you be able to email it to Shadix or something similar?
Howard Drossin: This could be a while. I didn't ever think anyone would be interested and am not quite sure where it is anymore...
SonicTweaker: On the contrary--interest is quite high! You'd be surprised :) Butt sure, take your time.
Howard Drossin: I am!!! Wow.
zircon: Yeah, just to interject briefly, I'd estimate that remixes from Sonic 3 have probably been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times from OCremix.org alone. Only gets more and more popular :)
Howard Drossin: That's cool.
Shadix: (btw Howard I sent that email).
Howard Drossin: Sure.
ScarredSun: After your work on Comix Zone in 1995, it seems you had less involvement with Sega than you had been from 1993-1995; there was Dynamite Cop in 1997 and Alien Front Online in 2001. What did you do in these years between 95 and 01? Did Sega ask for your help in other projects? Were you working for other companies?
Howard Drossin: Also worked for Activision (Vigilante 8) and Interplay (Baldur's Gate) Did a theme park Universal Islands of Adventure. I left Sega in 96.
ScarredSun: Ah. Wasn't exactly clear when that was. Thanks!
Howard Drossin: FYi. Sonic 3 credits I did NOT write the music for.
jman2050: Thank you for your time Howard. I am wondering one thing... in Sonic and Knuckles (and Sonic 3 for that matter), each level basically had two versions of the same song, one for each act. Did you compose two different versions of a song, or was it just a single song you composed and was remixed later?
Howard Drossin: I only composed single versions.
SonicTweaker: Do you know who was responsible for creating the remixes?
Howard Drossin: On the genesis?
SonicTweaker: Well, in any form, really; I don't know if they were specific to the console itself or if there were MIDIs made for the remixes as well. I know you're not responsible for the sound programming.
Howard Drossin: That would be Setsu doing the remix.
SonicTweaker: Aha! Thank you!
Howard Drossin: Setsu was the genius behind the Sonic sound.
MrMAGFest_cellphone: Hey Howard, good to see you here! The easy question is: who did the Sega singing in the Comix [Zone] Boot screen? Hard question, is there any game composing horror story you want to share (other than the usual deadlines which I'm sure suck pretty hardcore as it stands)? Or perhaps, a composing gig you really wanted but didn't get?
Howard Drossin: Easy question = I did.
MrMAGFest_cellphone: Hahaha, I had a feeling about that..
Howard Drossin: I had to write and program a new theme for SEGA [Sonic] Spinball in around 1 hour. I thought that was cool :-)
MrMAGFest_cellphone: As in, the titlescreen or main theme music?
Howard Drossin: The title Spinball screen.
jman2050: It was originally the Sonic 1 main theme. They found out at the last minute that DCT owned the song and Sega didn't want to pay royalties so they had to make a new one.
Howard Drossin: That's right Jman.
H Hog: Heh. Well, for the time you got to make it, it's a pretty catchy title tune. =)
Howard Drossin: A bit. Thanks.
EV3: Ok, here's the question... The levels in Sonic 3K and most other games generally fit to a certain theme or element. Were there any musical elements you incorporated that helped to associate it with the theme?
Howard Drossin: Again, I handed music off to the sonic team. they were using a front end i was not familiar with that was the extent of my work on that game (for Sonic 3). Most games do follow a specific theme. I generally accomplish this by doing several before the project and then creating variations or work off of them.
Shadix: I'd presume you did the entire Sonic & Knuckles Soundtrack. As in the credits you are the only one credited.
Howard Drossin: No -- i did not do the entire soundtrack. Some tracks were from Japanese composers. I'm not sure if all were credited.
Shadix: Sonic 3's lists a bunch of people who ironically also worked with Michael Jackson. So I don't get it.
Howard Drossin: Sega didn't do the best with credits - hence Drossin Howard on one game.
Chris Senn Enters
- At this point Chris Senn enters the irc under the name "sentinent":
Shadix: Since you are here Senn, I'll ask while you're here.
Chris Senn: K cool... yeah shoot Shadix... (and what did I miss? Did Howard share some juicy goodness about his career and skills???)
Shadix: Supposedly you worked on a soundtrack to Sonic Xtreme. Did this ever come to fruitation and does any of it possibly recide anywhere? Correct me if I'm wrong Senn.
Chris Senn: Me? All I did was a bunch of conceptual music... quick little pieces... none of them finished. Howard's the one who did actual finished pieces (a couple, I think, right Howard?)... my crap is at the Xtreme site.
Chris Senn: You still have any of that Howard?
Howard Drossin: Yes, I did. have it somewhere... I actually may know where that is.
Chris Senn: Cool. Would love to hear it - I remember an orchestral piece of the snow level (Crystal Frost maybe)...
Shadix: And maybe if your a nice guy you'll release it on Senn's Sonic X Compenduem if you can find it. :3 I would LOVE to hear some of them.
Howard Drossin: OK.
Chris Senn: Or wherever you want
Chris Senn: So have you shared any bits about where your career path has led since STI, Howard?
Howard Drossin: A little.
Chris Senn: Hmm... did you do any music scoring before STI?
Howard Drossin: Before: WOLF true life adventure for Disney (someone else got my credit though) After: Vigilante 8, Baldur's Gate TOB, Shadows of AMN, a couple of movies, most recently The Protector (Tony Jaa).
Chris Senn: Hey - didn't that happen at Sega too? I remember your name getting snuffed or put in a corner when you did the work for something... Tony "JAAAAAA" (a la Comix Zone Joe Pencil imitation you used to do LOL).
Howard Drossin: I've always had bad luck with credits. lol.
Chris Senn: People don't appreciate how important credit is... people can work so hard for something... and to be recognized with credit is sort of a basic thing. =/
Howard Drossin: Yeah.
NeoHazard: I don't have a question, as usual. Count me outs. Hi though Howard.
Howard Drossin: Hi.
Shadix: If you composed the Sonic 3/Knuckles soundtrack in MIDI/GEMS, do you think it was used in Sonic and Knuckles Collection?
Howard Drossin: Haven't heard it.
Dyne: Thank you for being here this evening, Mr. Drossin. My question has to do with what equipment/gear you use when you are working on any of your composing projects, do you have your own home-based studio, or do you use a regular recording studio, and what gear do you use/prefer?
Howard Drossin: Yes, I have my own studio. I sequence w/ Digital Performer. I use Kontakt, Giga, and many other things. Live guitars.
Puto: Given that most of the music in Sonic Pocket Adventure are 8-bit versions of the Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles music, did you have anything to do with that game at all?
Howard Drossin: Nothing to do w/ [Sonic] Pocket Adventure. That sounds sick.
Chris Senn: LOL You did the soundtrack for that, remember? Using the Korg Skin Flute? =P
Howard Drossin: haha.
Puto: Also, do you still have the original MIDI compositions of the songs you did for Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles?
Howard Drossin: I may only have some midi files. I'll give them to Senn to sort thru. :-)
MagicMan_EXE: Greetings, Howard, it's an honor to speak to you. I was wondering what the conditions were like when you were working for/with the SEGA Technical Institute?
Howard Drossin: Nice offices, nice people. Steady pay.
Puto: Does that include the unused music?
Howard Drossin: To Puto - yeah, unused music.