Music / Technology

Playstation Classics: The People Behind the Music – Part 1: Josh Mancell

The Sony Playstation changed the way we played video games forever, its legacy still very much an integral part of the global gaming industry. 18 years after the release of Sony’s debut gaming console, the Playstation 4 hit the shelves in late 2013 and became the fastest selling console in UK history, shifting over 250,000 units in it’s first 24 hours. More importantly though it outsold the Xbox One, it’s main eighth generation competitor by around 166,000 consoles over the same time frame.

The outstanding success of the Playstation wasn’t something that was always guaranteed to happen, Sony executives stood firmly against the idea of releasing a games console stating, “we are NOT a toy company and we will not get into this business.” However as we all know they not only ended up in the business but have dominated it for large periods, particularly the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the company has never looked back. A constant stream of high grossing, critically acclaimed releases meant the Playstation was an instant and sustained success across the globe.
I spoke with Josh Mancell and Tim Wright, two artists who created music for some of the most successful and iconic Playstation titles, asking them about their processes, their inspiration and their pathways into creating video game soundtracks.

Part 1: Josh Mancell

ImageEarly on, the Playstation lacked a mascot, Sega had Sonic and Nintendo had Mario, among others. When Crash Bandicoot was released in 1996 the void was filled and the character rose to the task of capturing the attention of young gamers across the world, especially in the West. Josh Mancell was behind the soundtracks for the original Crash Bandicoot series which sold over 20 million units worldwide, becoming a household platforming name for those of us born in the early 1990s.

Josh’s pathway into creating soundtracks started in the world of advertising and he began working at Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzika studio shortly after graduating from college, “my first opportunities came in the form of writing music for commercials like Kraft cheese, and helping out with some of the kids TV shows that Mark was scoring like Rugrats, Adventures In Wonderland and Beakman’s World.”

“The first project that I spearheaded under Mark’s guidance was a game called Johnny Mnemonic: The Interactive Movie. It was a massive job that included not only background music but also building room tones, sound effects, foley effects and even re-recording some of the dialogue. After successfully completing that project, I was able to secure my unofficial title within the company as the ‘game guy’.”

Mark Mothersbaugh then came into contact with Universal Interactive, who asked to have Mutato Muzika provide music for the first Crash Bandicoot game. “Because I had just finished the Johnny Mnemonic game, Mark thought I’d be the right fit for the job,” Josh recalls. “He offered a lot of advice during the demo stages of the Crash music but once we were up and running he delegated the remainder of the work and the next six Naughty Dog games to me.”

The original Crash Bandicoot soundtrack revolves around tribal, tropical and surf style sounds to accompany the beach and jungle type settings that Crash, the main character finds himself exploring through. A strong, driving beat is key to the soundtracks, often a combination of both conventional modern drum kit and a variety of exotic percussion instruments. While working on the game, Josh wasn’t aware of just how big and influential the project he was working on would be, “I knew it was stunning visually and the soundtrack was unique but I had no idea it would turn into such a big franchise.”

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“I was listening to a lot of kind of left-field electronic/techno at the time such as Mouse on Mars, A Guy Called Gerald, Aphex Twin, Juan Atkins. I think they influenced how I handled some of the simple but kind of off-kilter melodies. Mostly I tried to derive inspiration from the game itself and therefore shaping a signature sound that people would associate with the game over time. I also was able to see a lot of the conceptual art which definitely sparked a lot of creative ideas.”

The music featured on the second game in the series, Cortex Strikes Back, was slightly faster paced and had a heightened sense of urgency and danger, with levels set in new environments such as polar conditions and deep space. The variety of level types extended even further in Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, with the game set aboard a time machine allowing the player to travel through from a wide range of settings, from exploring tombs in ancient Egypt to diving in the depths of the ocean. “Each level was so rich visually that the inspirations came quite naturally,” Josh explained, as he reflected on his creative processes. “More often than not, my instincts for writing music that was fused to the look and feel of the level were accurate. Although, not always. On the Crash 2 level where he’s sliding around on the ice I wrote this goofy piece of retro ice skating rink music complete with a wheezy out of tune organ. Nobody thought it was funny but me.”

Discussing the new found processing power the Playstation possesed, Josh told me how this affected his compositions, “the scope was wider in that I was not restricted to a General MIDI sound palette. I was able to use my own samples which meant I could really go deep into creating a signature Crash ‘sound’. The only real drawback was that because the games were so graphic heavy memory-wise, the budget for sound effects and music was relatively tiny. That meant that although I was using my own sounds, they were required to be fairly short in duration and sound decent enough after being considerably down-sampled in order to fit in the game.”

“I had a Mac Quadra 800 running Opcode’s Studio Vision MIDI sequencing software. The sound sources are a mix between MIDI boxes (EMU, Yamaha, Korg, etc.), various sample libraries loaded on to Roland S-760 samplers and custom samples of real instruments that I made myself.”

As the levels in the games progress, the themes become more intense and the levels become much more difficult (the first Crash Bandicoot being notoriously difficult). The games all start in fairly familiar settings for Crash, on a beach or in the jungle, but end up in distorted futuristic worlds. The soundtracks reflect these changes consistently, with music becoming busier and more tense in feel as the player progresses. Josh spoke about his favourite levels and themes to compose for, “I particularly liked composing for the boss rounds, because I could really sink my teeth into more thematic music. They were necessarily more intense because of the inherent danger element. It was fun to try to capture the personalities of each opponent – Dingodile being my favorite.”

After Naughty Dog released Crash Team Racing, the fourth and final Playstation installment of the series, the company moved onto creating Jak & Daxter for the Playstation 2, which again Josh was selected to work on. The Jak trilogy sold over seven million units worldwide, receiving critical acclaim and even higher ratings than the Crash Bandicoot series. Like the Crash series, Jak & Daxter was a platformer at heart but with a new more powerful console to utilise, the Jak series took a step further than Crash Bandicoot in terms of audio and visuals, with open, expansive worlds as opposed to being level based. This however meant further limitations to Josh’s work for the first two games. “When I began working on the Jak series, I tried to adjust the overall tone of the music to something much more cinematic. Jak 2 was particularly challenging because we attempted to bring in an interactive element to the soundtrack. Depending on which environment, weapon or vehicle was in play, new instrument layers would be added. This however meant an even leaner sound palette, as far as the basic music for each level was concerned. Jak 3 was quite liberating because the soundtrack was streaming audio mixes – which meant I wasn’t restricted as far as how many instruments were playing or their duration or sample rate.”

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The second and third installments in the Jak trilogy were more serious and took dark and unexpected turns. Protagonist Jak is subject to experiments involving ‘dark eco’, a substance thats formerly harms him in the first game, but these experiments enable him to use it as a source of power for special attacks in the second and third games. The task of creating music to fit the changing feel in the series is something that Josh had to overcome, “it was challenging on Jak 2,” he explains, “mainly because I was receiving a lot of un-distilled comments from Naughty Dog. Some wanted a more epic orchestral-type score, which was tough to pull off as a MIDI soundtrack. Some were content with a darker, more eclectic and percussive style – which worked better with all the interactive soundtrack elements that also needed to be addressed. Because the technical restrictions were lessened considerably on Jak 3, I felt like it was much easier to get into a darker, more serious style.”

Josh’s last outing as a composer for a video game was for Jak 3 in 2004, since then he has been focusing on film and television scores but hinted that there is a possibility of him returning to the Playstation soon, “I’m writing music for an app, an animated tv pilot, both which must remain nameless for now, and rumor has it that I’m being considered for an upcoming PS4 title. You can also hear my TV music on Clifford The Big Red Dog (PBS) and The Bite-Sized Adventures of Sam Sandwich (Disney Channel). The best part of creating all that Crash and Jak music is now that many years have passed, I’m constantly being approached by people and thanked for how much the music has meant to them. It’s very gratifying to know that they paid attention to the music and it stayed with them in some way.”

Coming Soon… Part 2: Tim Wright

 

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