Masato Nakamura interview by Sonic City

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This is an interview conducted by a member of the defunct website, Sonic City, with Masato Nakamura the music composer of Sonic 1 and 2 and also a member of the J-pop band Dreams Come True.

The Interview

Sonic City: So, you were picked to compose the music for Sonic the Hedgehog when you had only just debuted on the music scene?

Masato Nakamura: That's right. I had just started with Dreams Come True, and so when I was asked if I wanted to try composing the music for Sonic I was really surprised! I was happy at being given the opportunity to do the music, but the thing that really made me want to do the music for Sonic was that everyone at Sega was so intent on the whole 'This is going to beat out Mario!' feeling.

At the time, Mario pretty much dominated the game world. It was pretty incredible. And so I was really impressed by the fact that the development team for Sonic had real passion about being bigger than that. I figured that, sure, I'd do whatever I could to help with that goal.

Sonic City: Were you a bit lost, seeing as this was your first time handling video game music?

Masato Nakamura: The first thing to come to mind when I thought about game music was the blips and bleeps from games like Space Invaders, actually (laughs). But no, I think I knew where I wanted to go with things.

Also, that time was sort of the turning point for music-making, in that we really put our hearts into the idea of using computers to make music, and that's when all this started. So it was really perfect timing to be given the chance to do the music for Sonic when I did. Art, entertainment and computers all just came together and sprung to life, and that's where Sonic was born.

Sonic City: And so you really put your heart into making the music for Sonic, then?

Masato Nakamura: The actual music was done on an Atari computer.

The really hard part was the limit on the number of sounds available. At the time, the key point was the number of sounds that could play simultaneously, and so it was really hard deciding what sounds you could get out of it at once since that number was so limited. And unfortunately, with what I had to work with, I had a limit of only four sounds that could play at the same time.

Sonic City: So you couldn't create CD-quality sound like modern games have?

Masato Nakamura: That was my real proving point for game music! I had a sound limitation and I had to make it work anyway! (laughs)

For instance, since I only had four sounds to work with at once, I could have a bass drum line going, two chords and the melody, and that was it. Without having musical knowledge, or without having computer knowledge, you'd never be able to do it.

Making Sonic Music Theatrical

Sonic City: What sort of images did you have in mind when composing the music?

Masato Nakamura: I was given a demo kit and an in-progress ROM of the game, and so looking at that I tried to put together my ideas for music pieces but sometimes, you don't always have Sonic running full-out on the screen! (laughs)

The development staff took me through each stage and pointed out things like, "We have this sort of colour scheme; this is what the scenery looks like; it's sort of a near-future world," and from those explanations I was able to get ideas. Oh, and now that I think of it, there were times where I was only given storyboards or background displays! (laughs)

Sonic City: Did you have a concept in mind when composing for Sonic?

Masato Nakamura: I wanted Sonic to come across as cinematic.

I wanted melodies that the player would hum along with as they were playing, dramatic music for when the scenes were intense, climactic music for when bosses would show up, and then tie it all together with an uplifting theme for the end credits. That was what I knew I wanted it all to be like.

Nowadays, RPGs use this sort of musical technique a lot, but at the time, action games like Sonic didn't.

And so, from watching movies, I composed melodies that kept the game tempo in mind without sounding unnatural. I also wanted to make sure that the music didn't loose its groove. After all, one of Sonic's key elements lies in speed.

Sonic City: Which piece did you compose first?

Masato Nakamura: The first one was the music for the Green Hill Zone. After that, I did the opening theme.

Actually, when writing the music for Sonic, I was in the middle of recording an album for Dreams Come True.

Sonic City: This was in the same studio?

Masato Nakamura: Yes. When recording for the album would wind down, I'd write music for Sonic, and when working on Sonic would wind down, I'd go back to album recording. (laughs)

I'd be keeping in mind how I only had four or five sounds to work with for Sonic, and so when I'd come up with ideas for a piece that had really majestic strings involved to arrange those strings, it was a really nice change of pace to do the simpler music for Sonic. So I had two completely different and conflicting sources of inspiration when composing pieces. I had a check sheet done up for each stage, and each time I finished a track, I'd check it off, and that made me really happy with my work. (laughs)

Sonic City: How did you actually deliver the pieces when you were done with them?

Masato Nakamura: Nowadays, you'd just be able to send the data through email, but at the time I had to record onto cassette. (laughs) The sound engineer would then listen to them and reproduce them for implementation on the Genesis. Then they'd send me back a bare game chip and I'd listen to it and check it. It's sort of unthinkable now, but at the time we just did that over and over until we got to the finished product.

Sonic City: Have you played the finished version of Sonic?

Masato Nakamura: I was so happy when it was done and I wanted to play through the whole game and hear all of the music I'd done, but I'm not very good at video games so I wasn't able to do that. It took a lot for me just to get past one screen, and so I just wanted to ask SEGA to put in an invincibility code for me, or something. (laughs)

Since I was so bad, I hung all over Yoshida (Dreams Come True vocalist Miwa Yoshida), because she really likes video games. When she's playing something like Sonic or Mario, you just blink your eyes and suddenly she's already at the next screen! (laughs) I'm not exaggerating, either - you just blink, and she's done it! So I had Yoshida play through Sonic for me, and I got to hear my music while just watching her.

Sonic really means a lot to me.

Sonic City: Have you heard that the Sonic characters were supposedly first shown to the public at a Dreams Come True concert?

Masato Nakamura: I guess that was a Wonder 3 concert. We had an auto billboard and we also had this truck, which Sega had provided for carrying concert equipment, and that had Sonic plastered on the side.

Sonic City: I heard that they also handed out pamphlets on Sonic, which hadn't even appeared in magazines yet.

Masato Nakamura: That's right, yes. Thinking about it now, that was a pretty landmark event. I mean, we weren't even a really big band, and we had this billboard going around with video game characters on it...

I get really emotional when I think about how Sonic went from this Dreams Come True concert and spread all over the world.

Sonic City: I've also heard that some of the development staff were backstage at the concert, getting in the way, asking for sound checks. Is that true?

Masato Nakamura: I remember it like it was yesterday; it's definitely true. (laughs) I keep saying that the Sonic development team just seemed really young and full of potential - they really were amazingly enthusiastic. And for a while, they were everywhere! But, that was all the time we had together.

Sonic City: Going back to talking about recording sessions, is there anything you can tell us about what might have happened during the songwriting you did for Sonic 2?

Masato Nakamura: Sonic 2 happened while recording our fourth album in London. And so I ended up recording an album for Dreams Come True and writing music for Sonic 2 at the same time, just like before. (laughs)

When Sonic 2 went on sale, you'd keep hearing the Sonic 2 music out and about in London. We hadn't finished recording the album yet, and so when I'd tell engineers and studio staff, "Hey, I did this music," they'd go from having ignored me entirely to treating me with a lot of respect. And when I'd hear people in England humming melodies that I'd written for Sonic, I'd get goosebumps.

I was up for a Grammy, but what I really wanted was for people all over the world to experience my music. Video games are a worldwide thing, but it's hard for music that's born out of Japanese culture to really reach the rest of the world. And so even now, since Sonic has been so loved by the world, I hope that people get to experience our music.

Sonic City: Some of the songs by Dreams Come True are musical pieces from Sonic with lyrics set to them, right? Could you tell us about that?

Masato Nakamura: Yes, there's SWEET SWEET SWEET, which is the ending theme to Sonic 2 set to lyrics.

I got the idea from movies, where I thought that maybe you could have melodies within the game, and then after clearing it, you get to hear the same music with lyrics - or, otherwise, I'd be happy to record the song itself on an album with the band. That's where I got the idea that maybe I could collaborate with the group and have the sound put onto our album.

Maybe you can say it's for the game's sense of completion, but the ending theme was recorded for the Dreams Come True album, and it exists as an actual piece of work, and that's how I wanted it.

...That was pretty groundbreaking. (laughs)

There are other Sonic melodies besides SWEET SWEET SWEET that Dreams Come True have used. MARRY ME? has parts of it made up of Sonic music, and there's also SWEET DREAMS, which is the title for the English version of "SWEET SWEET SWEET," because Sonic is loved all over the world.

I really consider the melodies I wrote for Sonic to be important to works I've made, and even now I still get the feeling that I'd like to complete a full song along those lines. So there's the possibility that you'll hear more Sonic melodies in Dreams Come True songs in the future.

Sonic City: Next year marks the 15th anniversary of Sonic. Is there anything else Sonic-related you could tell us, about what's happened over the last 15 years?

Masato Nakamura: Wow, 15 years, huh... Sonic's really become SEGA's signature character, just like that team was hoping.

Over the last 15 years, Dreams Come True has done things in London and New York, and whenever I introduce myself, I always mention, "I did the music of Sonic". (laughs) Sort of in place of my business card. People seem to like hearing that. It helps with communication, and it psyches up the folks at the studio, because even if they're not familiar with Dreams Come True or whatever, they do recognize some music I've done that they love, and that can be really influential.

When I say, "I did Sonic 1 and 2," everyone starts singing, "Do-do-doo, doo-loo, do-do-do-do-doo-loo..."

So, because of that, thanks to Sonic, communication has smoothed out over the last 15 years. The power that music has is really amazing. I keep saying it, but it always feels really wonderful to hear people humming those tunes.

When I walk by arcades, I'll hear crane game machines playing Sonic music, and I'll just stop there and listen, and I'll cry a little bit from all of the memories.

Sonic City: Do you have any final words for Sonic fans?

Masato Nakamura: Because of Sonic, and the name Sonic the Hedgehog, I think more people know the word hedgehog now, but probably not as many as who know Sonic.

I think that Japan can be proud of that bit of culture. And it really is an honour for me to have had a part in that bit of culture. And so, in English, I can say, "I'm proud of it." In Japanese, I'd probably phrase myself differently, but I really do feel proud of what I've done.

Sonic is amazingly important to me. As a musician, the Sonic music is really important to me. And if someday down the line, I'm ever given a chance to work on music for Sonic again, I'd be really happy.and I'd get stuck when trying.

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