A look into the music of Sonic CD

An editorial piece delving into the background behind Sonic CD’s soundtracks.

“If you’re strong, you can fly, you can reach the other side of the rainbow.”
“Toot-toot Sonic warrior, deep in space and mind.”

What an impression the opening themes for Sonic CD must have made on audiences who’ve only ever played video games with chip-tune audio. The revelatory transition from the Mega Drive’s YM2612 six-channel FM sound chip to the SEGA CD’s Redbook audio was a technical boon for game composers and a cultural boon for consumers. Level themes now sprang to life with a wide breadth of real and synthesized instruments, allowing composers to fully realize their ambitions in terms of game sound design.

“…the Mega CD, which could use CD-DA, really broadened the horizons of what was possible for us as sound creators. Sega was keen to capitalize on this new functionality, and allocated generous budgets for the sound on these Mega CD games, aiming for CD-level quality far beyond “normal” game music.”

Naofumi Hataya, Sonic CD composer

With increased budgets and an eagerness for utilizing this newfound freedom, composers went to work creating some of the most technically impressive soundtracks of the 16-bit era. It wasn’t long before the blue blur himself would receive the same treatment with the upcoming Naoto Ohshima-directed Sonic CD, with Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata being entrusted compositional duties. After several unsuccessful attempts at creating theme tracks, the team decided to draw on their house and techno influences to develop the basis of Sonic CD’s sound design.

“Mr. Ohshima, the team director,” said Hataya in an interview with Keith Stuart, “wanted a sharp feel for the theme, so we presented a composition that took in a lot of club music like house and techno, and he liked it. After that, he entrusted us and let us take care of the work.”

Sonic the Hedgehog in Sonic CD, popularly known by fans as “Junio Sonic“, and formerly “Toei Sonic“. It is in reference to Studio Junio, the animation house that worked with Toei Animation Co. Ltd to produce the animated cutscenes featured in Sonic CD. (SEGA)

In The Club

Among Hataya’s proclaimed influences were C+C Music Factory, Frankie Knuckles, and The KFL, some of the most famous names in house music. Tracks like “Wacky Workbench” and “Metallic Madness” are clearly based on the industrial, grimy soundscapes of songs like The KLF’s “What Time is Love?” and “3 AM Eternal”, while some of the more famous tracks like “Stardust Speedway” and “Cosmic Eternity – Believe in Yourself” draw their starry-eyed and glimmering sound from songs like Frankie Knuckles’ “Rain Falls” and “Get over U”.

Naofumi Hataya was one of the composers behind the soundtrack of Sonic CD. (File)

A major factor in Hataya and Ogata’s decision to take Sonic CD’s music in this particular direction was the increased prevalence of the Sonic brand in European club culture. “At clubs, DJs were using images of Sonic for their turntable slipmats, and stylish, fashionable magazines were using Sonic for their front covers,” said Hataya in the liner notes of the 2011 re-release of the Sonic CD soundtrack. The 90’s also saw several club music compilations released, such as the Sonic Dance Power series in the Netherlands, and the “Wonderman” single by Right Said Fred which promoted the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in the UK.

A notable aspect of Sonic CD’s soundtrack is the use of sequenced audio for the Past versions of level themes rather than Redbook audio. According to Yukifumi Makino, sound director for the project, the sound team “…used cheaper sounds and tried to evoke the sound of a prehistoric religion.

However, with the recent discovery of the v0.02 build of Sonic CD (dated 04/12/1992), we find that perhaps using sequenced audio for the Past tracks was not going to be the plan in the beginning. The prototype includes an early version of the stage Palmtree Panic called “Salad Plain”. The music is largely the same except for one glaring difference: the Past music is on the disc as Redbook audio with higher quality instruments. The general consensus is that CD-quality Past tracks may have ultimately been relegated to sequenced audio due to CD space constraints, though the definitive reason has yet to have been clarified by any individuals who worked on the project.

The iconic opening and ending themes of Sonic CD (“Sonic – You Can Do Anything” and “Cosmic Eternity – Believe in Yourself”, respectively) were produced as vocal tracks with singers Keiko Utoku and Casey Rankin (from the Japanese-American band SHOGUN). The acquisition of these singers was made possibly by SEGA’s collaborative efforts with the hugely popular music production company, Being. It was also in Being’s production studios where Hataya and Ogata recorded the entirety of the Sonic CD soundtrack, which proved to be a valuable learning experience according to Hataya.

Coming to America

Casey Rankin wrote the lyrics for “Sonic – You Can Do Anything” and “Cosmic Eternity – Believe in Yourself” for Sonic CD. (File)

With the game’s release in Japan in 23 September 1993 and Europe in the following month, American audiences eagerly awaited the release of the game. However, according to Spencer Nielsen, the game would not release for another month due to SEGA of America’s decision to replace the Japanese soundtrack with a “…more musically rich and complex” score that would appeal to American audiences more while also standing out amidst the house music scene, which had been gaining popularity in the U.S. by this point.

This included replacing the opening and ending themes with tracks sung by the vocal trio Pastiche. In my interview with Sandy Cressman, a member of Pastiche, she states that the U.S. soundtrack was recorded in-house at SEGA of America’s studios in San Francisco, with Pastiche themselves writing the lyrics for the game’s vocal theme, “Sonic Boom”. Veteran composer Spencer Nielsen would compose the soundtrack with Bobby Vega, David Young, and Erik Frykman providing additional instrumentation. The result was a wildly different soundtrack that would ease off the techno aesthetic and take on a more worldly, subdued soundscape.

Sonic Made A Good Future

That there exists debate to this day regarding which soundtrack is “superior” is a testament to the strong compositions present in both versions. The tonal discrepancies serve to give the player an aesthetic choice, an option to decide what kind of experience they want to have with Sonic CD.

The story of the game’s music would not end with the game’s release, however. Commercial albums reworking both versions’ music would appear in the following years. “Sonic the Hedgehog Boom” would release in 1994, containing versions of U.S. Sonic CD tracks with additional musical sections by Nielsen. More notably, however, was the release of “Sonic the Hedgehog – REMIX” at the tail-end of 1994. This album is notable in that it’s a remix album created by the original composers, Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata.

“[We] had a lot of ideas about what kind of CD we wanted to make, and since a studio had just opened at SEGA, we ended up “reconstructing” the songs using the originals as a base and putting them together ourselves…” stated Hataya in a commentary posted on the album’s official SEGA page (graciously translated by Windii). Three new vocal tracks were also recorded with Hitomi Momoi and a vocalist only credited as “yasu” (many speculate that Takenobu Mitsuyoshi sings on the “yasu” tracks, but Hataya’s comment on passing up Mitsuyoshi in the aforementioned commentary seems to refute the claim).

An advertisement for the Sonic the Hedgehog – REMIX album reading:

A fantastic and powerful remix of Sonic Music. Genuine Sega Music, featuring two new tunes.
First Edition Bonus: Special Sticker.

Translated by Windii

Ultimately, Sonic CD’s music would gain a lasting legacy permeating throughout many Sonic games. The vocal themes for both versions would be reworked in future compilations and games, and various level themes would find new homes in games like Sonic Generations, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II, and Sonic Mania. The 2011 remaster of Sonic CD would also bring together the best of both worlds, allowing people to choose which soundtrack they want to accompany them on their adventure. The decades following the original release of Sonic CD have not diminished the longevity of the scores, and it doesn’t seem its popularity will diminish any time soon.

I’d like to give my sincerest thanks to the following individuals and news sources for their invaluable help in offering the information used for this piece: Windii, Shmuplations, Sonic Retro, Sega Retro, Keith Stuart’s “Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Collected Works”, and Sandy Cressman.

Disclaimer: EmerlForgotten has contributed to Sonic Retro and has linked one of their interviews in this editorial piece.

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