Spencer Nilsen interview by SageXPO (July 30, 2009)
From Sonic Retro
- Thanks to BlazeHedgehog for the log.
Spencer Nilsen: Hi everyone. Spencer here, finally logged on and figuring out this chat thing! :-) Thank you and I appreciate how passionate everyone is about their game music. It's truly amazing how opinions differ over the decision to create a new, "American" version of the Sega CD version of Sonic.
Hero Chao: Yes, I would like to personally thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Spencer. Regrettably I have to leave but I look forward to reading the record of the chat! I will be in contact with you by e-mail soon. Have a great time, everyone!!
Spencer Nilsen: I'm honored to be here and hope I can answer some questions for you FANTASTIC fans.
BlazeHedgehog: Since he was quick on the draw, our first question will be from Kiddo.
InstantSonic: Before I go to work, I have my own question for you, Mr. Nilson... What inspired you to create the boss music for Sonic CD? It's very different, and always reminded me of the theme from Unsolved Mysteries.
Kiddo: Ah, hey Spencer. Can I ask what inspired most of the Sonic CD USA Music? Did you get to check the original Japanese music and get any inspiration either to go with some of it or to purposely be different from it?
Spencer Nilsen: I was looking for a theme that would maintain intensity, but be a little playful at the same time. It's funny you should mention Unsolved Mysteries because I always liked that theme a lot. Just before I went to work for Sega, I had met the composer for that show, who asked me to compose a few cues for the show.
Spencer Nilsen: Hi Kiddo. I did have an early opportunity to hear the score from Japan, which I liked very much. I was under a tremendous time crunch, as the decision to do a new score came at the last minute from the higher ups. So I locked in on the idea of featuring female voices, contacted my friends in the group Pastiche, and immediately began to write themes that could feature their voices, but not have to include lyrics.
Kiddo: What was it like doing a last-minute rescore?
Kiddo: If I recall, some review copies of Sonic CD had the Japanese audio. It must've been, well, really abrupt.
Spencer Nilsen: It was exillarating and exhausting at the same time. But what I like about rediculous deadlines is that you really have to trust your instincts and go with it! That's usually when I produce my best work.
BlueEmerald: Hey, Spencer. Nice to meet you. Before I ask my question,
Spencer Nilsen: Nice to meet you too!
BlueEmerald: I'd like to say that I found Sonic CD's US music to be very ambient. Really made the game feel more immersive. So, here's my question: How did you come up with the tune for Stardust Speedway? What music inspired you when you were working on that track?
Spencer Nilsen: That was the intent from the start, because there were so many cool environments, unlike anything else up to that point, which gave me a lot of inspiration. Stardust speedway was completely inspired by the look and speed of that level. I like to be inspired visually and then figure out how to make it :musical."
BlueEmerald: Good advice. Well, thanks for answering my question.
Spencer Nilsen: My pleasure!
SOTI: Hi Spencer, it's awesome that you're taking the time to come here and answer some questions.
Spencer Nilsen: I'm having a great time.
SOTI: I was wondering, out of the soundtrack you composed, what was the best song you composed. I have a few.
Spencer Nilsen: That's a hard one! And, unlike you fantastic fans, I have trouble remembering all the names! Hahaha! But I really like the underwater level themes, some of the darker mus, etc.
SOTI: yeah, I liked Stardust Speedway Present, Quartz Quadrant P and Sonic Boom. In fact myself and SonicTweaker imported the credits to Sonic 1's sound engine :P
Spencer Nilsen: I also really had fun with SONIC BOOM! I think the girls did a great job on the vocals, and I remember sitting around in a circle on the floor at 3AM writing the lyrics. I have a lot of fond memories about the Sonic CD scoring/recording sessions.
BlazeHedgehog: Tweaker himself has a question for you, now.
Spencer Nilsen: Great!
SonicTweaker: Hey there Spencer! Thanks for coming out today :)
Spencer Nilsen: My pleasure!
SonicTweaker: I've got a question regarding the process you used to go about making the soundtrack; in particular, do you remember exactly what parts of the music were synthesized and what were recorded live? I've had a hard time working out whether or not the percussion in particular was authentic or if it was simply sampled. In addition, do you remember what kind of hardware, softwarte, etc you used to put the music together? Synthesizers, sequencers, et al.
Spencer Nilsen: Great question, Tweaker! All of the drums were samples, but the cymbals, hand percussion, congas, shakers, etc. were tracked live by drummer/percussionist extraordinaire, Brad Kaiser. That was an approach I use quite often, and I really like "hybrid" scores, using electronics for what they're best for. And I'm a synthesist and keyboardist by trade, so I tend to have a lot of electronic textures in my work, but love to collaborate with live p
SonicTweaker: Oh, your message cut off.
BlazeHedgehog: That got cut off. The chat has a limit to how much you can type in to it. It got cut off at "but love to collaborate with live p".
Spencer Nilsen: Sorry, I'm being long winded. I like working with live players for their unique perspective.
SonicTweaker: Thanks for the insight! You know, I'd swear to the end of days that those drums were live due to their dynamic feel, so you did a great job on that one :) Do you remember any of the equipment that you used and the like?
Spencer Nilsen: Let me see - I used a lot of E-Mu, Kurzweil, Korg and Roland synths/samplers. The drummer was also triggering samples on his Akai S-900, I believe.
BlazeHedgehog: A quick little follow up here from Shadix in the chat - not worth voicing him for it, but any specific models on that equipment?
Spencer Nilsen: My close friend and colleague from Cleveland, OH David Young, was a big part of the programming of sounds and textures, especially when it came to the Kurzweil systems. He's a leading authority and a fantastic musician in his own right.
Spencer Nilsen: Shadix- I used Emu Proteus Orchestral modules and MPS keyboard, Roland D-550 modules, Korg Trinity, M1, and a bunch of other stuff who's model names escape me.
BlazeHedgehog: Okay, well, next up, NikJam's got a question.
Spencer Nilsen: Howdy NikJam!
NikJam: Hi, it's nice for you to stop by, I'm actually looking into going to an art school after I graduate from Cal, and I'm seriously considering Expressions.
NikJam: Anyway. Was the fact that you had to make the songs so short (and i think they had to match the JP times) make it easier or harder to compose?
Spencer Nilsen: I think whenever you have specific guidlines, like a time constraint, it actually makes it a lttle easier. You know you have to tell a story, and you've only got so much time to do it.
Spencer Nilsen: NikJam, you should stop by Ex'pression and let me give you a tour!
NikJam: cool, and maybe related, were the extended versions on Boom what you always had in mind or were they thought up later? Thanks, I should do it sooner than later.
Spencer Nilsen: I always had in mind the long version of BOOM - I really like the different tempo, and how the vocals change and become more story-like.
NikJam: Thanks so much for answering!
Spencer Nilsen: My pleasure and hope to "meet" you in person sometime soon.
Sik: Hello Spencer. Nice to meet you :)
Spencer Nilsen: You too!
Sik: In your personal opinion, why do you think Sega wanted to make a new soundtrack for the US release?
Spencer Nilsen: We at Sega of America were looking for ways to differentiate our products, and since the rapid beats-per-minute, fully electronic "dance" scores were prevelent then, we liked the idea of trying something completely different. It was a huge risk, but the public generally reponded positively.
Shinginta: Thanks Blaze. Spencer, you've been one of our more energetic guests. lol.
Shinginta: I've got a question to ask about your multiple projects. Was there anything [aside from the rushed deadline] that set Sonic CD apart from the other soundtracks you've made? Was there anything different to consider in that it was a different franchise from, say, Jurassic Park, or Spiderman?
Spencer Nilsen: All of my scores have something unique about them, whether it's a tight deadline, a cranky director, or lack of a budget! (HA!) We usually determine the direction for a score, musically and emotionally, prior to beginning a project. On Jurassic Park, we wanted to differentiate our score from the movie, but keep it intense and foreboding. Spider-Man was a rock guitar driven score from the beginning and when I met Eric Martin (singer) and he agreed to write a theme song with me, I knew that direction was going to work nicely.
Shinginta: I fondly remember playing Jurassic Park back in the day, and recently started playing Ecco with a friend, and I love the sort of dangerous foreboding and atmosphere that the Ecco tracks had.
Spencer Nilsen: Hi Shinginta! Thanks for joining. I REALLY enjoyed the entire Ecco process. That score is DEEP ( no pun intended) with so many layers, textures, voices, etc.
Tongara: Hey there, Spencer, I'm glad you're having a good time. I just wanted to ask, when you write music, what processes and/or rituals do go through before sitting down to write music, and during the writing process, and what makes you work the way you do in the studio? Also, just wanted to say that I loved the guitar work in the opening/closing versions of Sonic Boom. :)
Spencer Nilsen: Thanks Tongara! I usually panic for a few days, and think to myself, "I can't possibly do this...again!" Ha! But seriously, I usually allow myself time to absorb the characters, the worlds, the storyline (when there is one) before I attempt to write any music. But sometimes I'm inspired immediately upon hearing a concept. like with Ecco. I've always had an affinity for the ocean and her creatures, so this was a no-brainer, as far as being inspired by the idea of a humanless underwater world. That's also why the Ecco score sounds so unique and different. There really are no human sound/instruments in the entire soundtrack, except for a few percussion sound. Every sound was designed specifically for the score.
BlazeHedgehog: We'll go with Prime_2 next.
Prime_2: okay. So, a few of the guests we've had in the past have never so much as touched: a videogame... and I'm wondering if you're one of them. More to the point, if you've ever tried one of the games you've composed for.
Spencer Nilsen: Thank you SO MUCH everyone for chatting with me today - I had a BLAST! Unfortunately I have to sign-off now, but if anyone would like to ask more questions, email me at [email protected].
Spencer Nilsen: Yes, I've played all the games I've scored, but I'm definitely not a hardcore gamer. Rock on everyone, and hope to hear from ou again in cyberspace. CHEERS!