It’s been over two decades since Sonic made his name as the fastest hedgehog around, and for much of that time Crush 40’s songwriter and guitarist Jun Senoue has been a key figure at SEGA in charge of creating the sounds behind the popular blue speed demon.
He most recently spearheaded composition on Team Sonic Racing, which came out in May on multiple video game platforms, and brought a variety of new musical elements into the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack through a series of stylistic changes and collaborations.
Following the game’s launch and in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast this year (which he composed several game soundtracks for) -- as well as upcoming concerts in Tokyo and London by the Sonic Adventure Music Experience band -- Senoue spoke with Billboard about writing music for the sonic universe of Sonic games over the years.
How did you get involved with the Sonic gaming universe?
When I was a kid and a teenager, I was into video games and music, and began playing piano at 3 years old, since my parents wanted me to play musical instruments. Guitar in middle school, and then bass guitar around when I was 15. I joined Sega in 1993 after graduating from university to work on music for console games. Not only composing, but voice scripting and sound effects. I composed lots of music for Sega consoles, Genesis, Sega Saturn, and Sega Dreamcast since then, even some for the arcade games. My most recent project is Team Sonic Racing.
What was the first Sonic game that you worked on?
I was a big fan of the first two Sonic games, Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog 2. They were games for the Genesis, released in 1991 and 1992. They were released before I joined Sega, and they meant a lot for me because they already had something of an established musical style; they were the reason I wanted to join Sega to do something musically. The first Sonic game I worked on was Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and it was an honor to be one of the composers for it.
Do you feel that your work on Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s sound brought anything new to the game’s sonic style?
As for the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 or Sonic & Knuckles for Genesis, all of us -- meaning all of the composers -- we wanted to maintain the same feel, and tried to keep a similar sound to the first two Sonic games since it was so good. The music was very catchy and easy to remember. So we tried to preserve that.
Do you think the music has developed over the years, or do you feel like you’re still going back to that original sound set up in the original games?
A few years later, I worked on a game called Sonic Adventure, which was released for Sega Dreamcast in 1999 for American and European markets. That was my very first experience to join the project as a sound director and lead composer.
I changed the franchise's music style so drastically that a lot of fans said, "Whoa!" I know some love it and some hate it, but that's okay, because it's music. It's pretty hard to compose music that everyone's into. So I made something that I could be proud of through that project.
What did you change specifically? How has Sonic’s sound develop since you took the lead as sound director?
I brought lots of rock music into the franchise, because I was a “rock” guy. Still, am actually… I tried to bring more unique and new sounds to the world of Sonic because it was the very first 3D game for the franchise. The characters started having dialogues during the game, and it made sense to me to have vocal themes for each character to describe their attitude with lyrics, or some other vocal songs for the situation. With Sonic Adventure, I was able to establish a foundation for how future 3D Sonic games would sound, as it was quite different from the classic Sonic titles.
Most Sonic games have included vocal themes from its early days, which is a bit unusual for a video game series. But it makes Sonic music something special for everybody.
How has the process changed over the years regarding how you approach Sonic’s music?
Basically, the points remain the same. To make simple music, to have a good catchy melody, the song must be easy to remember and have good vibes…. Nowadays, the process is basically the same -- but I am getting older, so I’m enjoying teaming up with younger musicians, different generations, to make our sound as fresh as possible.
As for my latest game Team Sonic Racing, which was released in May, most of the musicians who I collaborated with were younger than me. I mean, they were in their 20s -- totally different ages, totally different generations. But it was so fun, and an exciting thing to work with them.
How does it feel to revitalizing your sound with these young artists? I saw you worked with TORIENA, which is quite different for you, considering you're in a rock band.
TORIENA is a Japanese chip-tune artist -- chip-tune sounds like something from the ‘90s or late ‘80s. I didn’t have any experience with chip-tune stuff myself before. When I thought about the direction of the music for the casino area courses on Team Sonic Racing, the idea came to my mind to do something together with a chip-tune artist. Blending chip-tune and my rock style to make something interesting. It was fun and very stimulating to work together with young and talented musicians. I am always open to any idea or any genre of music.
I like old-school music and classic hits, but I always enjoy looking for new music, something cool, something new, something people are passionate about. TORIENA wanted to bring her music to the world, not only for the Japanese domestic market, and I wanted to introduce her talent to the world. That was the reason why we teamed up and we could do something interesting and fresh for the game and franchise through this collaboration.
Do you take a different artistic approach to creating music to listen to, such as with your band, versus music to game to?
The experience of playing the game and the music that is playing at that time are linked and become memories for the players. They are linked with the scenes, and sometimes players have to spend a lot of time to clear the level, or sometimes they spend a lot of time playing again and again to enjoy one of their favorite levels. Always there is the music linked with their experiences, so it’s quite a different style.
Are there any soundtracks that you are particularly fond of?
Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, since they were the first two games I worked on as sound director and lead composer -- and they became so iconic for both the fans and the characters and the music, they are something that I could be proud of. And the latest game Team Sonic Racing is also one of my favorites.
What about Team Sonic Racing makes it one of your personal favorites from among all the soundtracks you’ve worked on over the years?
The musical concept I had for this game [is something I like]. What I first did was to plan what kind of music we should prepare for the race tracks we have in the game. When I first got the description about the game, I heard there were seven zones, 21 tracks in total. Although the game is a new title, most of the race tracks are utilizing the world of Sonic, from previous games. So there were places where we just can’t miss the past music used.
So, I decided to have both remixed music and brand new music. Some older songs are popular, and some are not, but they were all a good surprise for the fans. One big concept was the “Team” mechanics within the game. So, I wanted to put that into the concept of music production as well, so I teamed up with lots of talented people as I mentioned previously.
I enjoyed working on this game from start to end. It was so great to have another chance to provide a theme song [“Green Light Ride”] with my band, Crush 40. Also, it was great to prepare lots of remix versions of that song, the one by U.K. band called The Qemists is one of [my] most favorite tracks on this game.
What’s something you think will change in the future for video gaming music?
Gaming music is going to go in two different directions. One type of gaming music will become more similar to movie music, while the other direction will become even simpler and minimal in feel.
Do you have a preference?
[Laughs.] Since I grew up with games with simple melodies, I am interested in doing simple ones personally.
What else do you want people to know about your work within the video game world?
I work for Sega, but it was great, so I want to mention Super Smash Bros Ultimate for Nintendo Switch last year. I was happy to provide some of the music and promote Sonic. Luckily, I was one of the arrangers who provided the new remix music for the game. It was one of the greatest chances we've had to promote Sonic himself and Sonic related music. It was an honor to be a part of that project.