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Interview: David Javelosa (2008-07-02) by Sega-16

From Sega Retro

This is an unaltered copy of an interview, for use as a primary source on Sega Retro. Please do not edit the contents below.
Language: English
Original source: Sega-16


In the early ’90s, Sega invested millions of dollars in its Multimedia Studio in order to give the fledgling Sega CD the audio tools it needed to trump the amazing SNES sound chip. At its height, the studio’s ranks were filled with many talented composers and sound effects designers, and together they helped usher in the first wave of Sega CD games and thusly pushed the company towards optical media for its titles thereafter. Alumni like Spencer Nilsen crafted memorable soundtracks to some of Sega’s most popular games, and the group gave management all the reasoning it needed to make audio a major priority.

At the center of the Sega Multimedia Studio was David Javelosa, the group’s sound director. He oversaw the studio’s assembly of talent, and he was instrumental in several key titles like Sonic Spinball, Jurassic Park CD, and Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin. After many years at Sega, Javelosa took the talents he used on the Sega CD and headed over to Yamaha, eventually becaming a professor of interactive media at Santa Monica College in California.

Sega-16 was fortunate enough to chat with Mr. Javelosa recently about his time at the Sega Multimedia Studio.

Sega-16: You have quite an extensive musical background, dating well before you arrived at Sega. What was it like initially to make the jump from ensemble pieces to game music?

David Javelosa: I was trained as a composer and an electronic musician before I got into games. I did a lot of experimental stuff with synthesizers and computers, as well as toured with a new wave band in the ’80s. I also produced all the records and did production with other bands. By the time I came to Sega, I was actually composing and producing large performance pieces with thirty musicians at a time. I had just completed an electronic opera when I came on as full-time. Writing for the Genesis was like doing a small instrumental ensemble, musically speaking, because you only had six voices to work with. But when those six voices were FM synthesizers, I could really go wild in creating new and interesting sound within the context of the games. I enjoyed writing for the cartridge machine almost more than the tracks I produced for CD. I was never really a traditional commercial composer.

Sega-16: How and when did you come to work at Sega?

David Javelosa: I was first brought into Sega (and game audio) by LX Rudis, the godfather of Atari Lynx music. He and I had known each other from the new wave synth band scene in San Francisco around 1980. I was at CalArts in SoCal and he was working freelance in the bay area. He said that my skills editing FM synthesizers and sequencing on a command line Commodore 64 was the talent set that the Genesis sound tools required. He had more work than he could handle, so I came up to help out. I ended up taking home about nine months worth of work that I did long distance in L.A. Before I graduated from CalArts, I was working as a producer for the Voyager company’s classical music CD-rom series. That experience with CD production, along with my previous compositions and technical work at Sega on the Genesis is what got me hired as full time staff. They were just starting to ramp up for CD rom development.

I was hired originally by Sega by Ken Balthaser, who was the director of product development. So he had brought me in, and it was after a whole stream of freelance audio people including Mark Miller, Alex Rudis, and a number of other people; and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and available to go full-time, so they brought me in as the first full-time audio guy at SOA. As soon as I was there, I realized that I wasn’t just at Sega product development to do audio, but it was just so vague… what we were supposed to do. The first thing I realized that I was required to do was hire people, so the structure that built up around me what was becoming the Multimedia Studio, so we had a group of programmers, we had a group of artists, and I had myself and I brought in people that I thought would work out for the different disciplines. I brought in Spencer (Nilsen) as a music guy and Brian (Coburn) as a sound effects guy, and I was kind of like just a general facilitator. Later on I brought in a programming specialist, Tom Miley, who was both a musician and a programmer – he could create code and tools – and then I also brought in Barry Blum, who was a record producer and an engineer. By the time I brought Barry in, Spencer had already managed to create the studio in San Francisco, which he was using as a facility for the Sega Music Group, and this was a whole thing he had worked out with upper management to create a record label. So Spencer was kind of part of the studio, and then he moved on into his own group.

Sega-16: As sound director for Sega, what were your responsibilities, exactly?

David Javelosa: That’s the same question they used to ask around Sega! Seriously, everything was being made up on the spot in those days. Initially I was responsible for purchasing gear, consulting on studio construction and hiring a team. The transition from Genesis synth chip to CD and digital audio pointed to a lot of speculation. I was also expected to continue writing music; plus designing sound effects; and then produce voice over as the technology progressed. Eventually I went from managing the internal SOA sound team to heading the audio for the multimedia studio. A lot of what I did was actually music supervision; connecting titles and producers with internal and external musicians. When I left Sega, my title was Senior Sound Designer. It was always pretty vague.

Sega-16: The Sega Multimedia Studio had quite the group of great creative minds, with music composers like Spenser Nilsen and effects guys like Brian Coburn. Was it hard to get all these individual talents to work together?

David Javelosa: They were the first two guys that I hired! Spencer had been looking at the different game companies for work and had a background in nice quality studio recording. I knew Brian as an indie recording artist that used tons of samples and other lo-fi recording techniques. I needed a range of talent that spanned CD quality recording and really interesting sound design and these guys pretty much defined that. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. Spencer was focused on creating a music studio away from the game studio to eventually do a record label for Sega game music. He was also a great commercial composer as heard on several game soundtracks. Brian was into weird sounds; that made him perfect for effects and edgy music. He also continued as a techno recording artist outside of Sega. One of the frustrating things was that with so many divisions, departments and staff members were almost encouraged to compete against each other. Some have said that it was a management style that originated in Japan to generate higher quality production, but it did not create good morale in the studio.

Sega-16: It seems a bit confusing at first, because I’ve seen both you and Spencer Nilsen listed as the heads of the Multimedia Studio, and I wasn’t sure which one was in charge.

David Javelosa: He was part of my group originally. At that point, I was functioning as a music director, but they weren’t going to give me a “director” title, so they gave me a “manager” title. So I was basically managing the group of internal people, and Spencer was eventually brought up to another level, but his whole intent was to create a record label. He became the director of Sega Music Group. My group was basically split up and Multimedia Studio lost its audio group, which got rolled over into developer creative support. My title was then Senior Sound… something or other (I went from a manager to a senior), and Spencer went from senior to eventually director with his Sega Music Group.

Sega-16: So he was totally separate from you?

David Javelosa: It was separate. Once Sega Music Group happened, he had a completely separate facility. Originally, he was in the Multimedia Studio, and he actually lived in the control room of the recording studio, and then our engineer guy had the cubicle outside of the studio, and then our programmer, sound designer, and me had our offices around the corner. It was basically the five disciplines of game development: we had programmers, artists, designers, audio people, and the producer. I think the initial producer was going to be Ed Annunziata, but he realized that with an internal development group he wasn’t able to crack the whip like he did with outside developers, so he basically stuck to producing outside development.

Then Tom Reuterdahl came in – he was like the lead programmer, head of the technical group, and he, being the senior guy, more or less acquiesced to the director of the Multimedia Studio. It wasn’t until we realized that he was more on an administrative end, and our game designers were more focused on actually printing designs, that we didn’t really have a producer for the first title, which was Jurassic Park. So it turned out that our lead programmer ended up being the producer on it. At one point, Ed actually came to me and said “well why don’t you be the producer?”. Up to that point I had only produced music titles before. I had done classical music CD-ROMs before I got to Sega. I thought it was a very flattering offer, but I didn’t really want to stick my neck out for a high profile game title, doing something I had never done before!

But as a result, we had just excellent material to choose from. Between Spencer’s and my compositions, Brian and Barry did compositions for it, and then Brian did a lot of the interface and sound effect design, and I did a lot of the transition sound effects for the cinematics. We had almost an overkill team for Jurassic Park, which was the first multi-media title. In fact, it might have been the only multi-media title, when I think of it. So Jurassic Park was kind of the end-all, be-all for the Multimedia Studio, because by the time it had shipped, the studio was already being divided up into creative support, technical support, and Sega Music Group. Those were three areas that it split off into. At one point, I almost went over to the developer technical support because they had a music specialist position, but I kind of saw the writing on the wall and ended up moving back to LA.

When Sega was in this big, heavy spend mode of building up its market share, it was great because we had everything we wanted. We had expense budgets, travel budgets, and equipment budgets that were just astronomical. But the moment we started going into profit margin mode, everything started tightening up, and the politics started reorganizing the company. At one point I just realized that the reasons I came to Sega were no longer valid. I also realized that most of the freelancers that I was supporting in creative support were doing fine on the outside, so I thought I’d go on the outside and work as an independent developer. I had already started writing and teaching, so I took all those connections to LA with me and ended up writing a book and teaching at UCLA.

Sega-16: That seems to be the general vibe that I get from the people I’ve spoken to who worked at Sega during the mid ’90s. The attitude of the company shifted.

David Javelosa: It got a little arrogant. I think it got to just resting on its laurels too much, and what they didn’t realize, which is something that happens to every movement in the game industry, is that you kind of run out of the “oh wow!” factor as you hit the ceiling of the technology. We pretty much took the 16-bit processor as far as it could go, the 16-bit Motorola was not quite powerful enough to bring as much out of the CD-ROM as it could, and then the 32X accelerator just confused the market. The whole thing turned into what the Playstation was, but the Playstation was like a solid box. And the Sega brought out the Saturn to compete with that, it was just too many weird things to confuse the market.

Sega-16: Some games, like Streets of Rage 2 and M.U.S.H.A., were able to make the Genesis sound chip really sing. Do you think the hardware, which has a reputation of being very limited in that area, was capable of offering sound on par with that of other consoles of the era? It kind of gets a bad rap.

David Javelosa: It does because it’s hard to program for. The other thing about that was that the output amplifier on the Genesis made the chip sound even worse. On top of that, running through a lot of televisions, people would basically blow the speaker out on the television with the output amplifier, and that would make it sound even worse. So, half the producers on staff were playing the Genesis through blown TV speakers, and they were complaining about the sound only to find that it was the TVs that were messed up. When we got Philips televisions in there, all of a sudden our music started sounding better (laughs).

The Genesis had a great sound chip, the Yamaha OPL2. It could do real-time FM synthesis and play samples out of one channel. You also had the Master System’s PSG chip on board for a couple more sounds. Yuzo Koshiro and his team that did Streets of Rage, really put a lot of craft into their work. It was a production team of the composer, music implementers, patch editors, and programmers working with their custom tool set. They really did things with chip that no one else did. That’s why it sounded so perfect! Compared to the SNES, the Genesis sounded better because the tools were eventually easier and more wide-spread. There was a big music talent base.

The SNES sample engine could have sounded better but the system was too short lived. The SNES was a whole different architecture. It was like, sample playback. It had a completely different sound, but even still, the tools were really difficult. To do sample music with the limited storage resources was pretty difficult. I think the best you could have done was mod files, and even then you’d have to use way too much of the memory budget for audio. That’s something that Tommy Tallarico became famous for, basically using big audio budgets to create sample sounds. In the end, I think it just comes down to music, and there were just better composers on the Sega side. The people who did music for the SNES weren’t bad, but I just think that there were better musicians on the Sega side.

Any constrained system really does force you to become creative. I think that at the time when the SNES came out, there wasn’t really a big developer base for creating music from small samples. That was one of the first things I had to deal with with the Sega CD system. That had a sample chip in it too, in conjunction with the FM chip. If you listen to the original boot up of the Sega CD, there’s a piece of music that I wrote that incorporated both the FM chip in the Genesis and the sample chip in the CD unit, and the two of them would play like a mini orchestra, going back and forth. The drums and strings were on the sample chip, and the brass and bass were on the FM chip, and that was something the two worked together on.

Everything changed once we got into high end samples. By the time we got to the Saturn and the Dreamcast, the standard we had to compete with was CD. The CD quality was a whole other thing, it was that it was never interactive the way the chip music was. For me, that was the coolest thing about it, creating interactive music, having a live synthesizer in the gameplay was what that was all about for me.

I still use those FM synthesizers today. In fact, Brian used it. He would resample the Genesis and run it through the sample chips of the CD or even the Saturn, because he loved that sound so much. He would actually resample the Genesis chip.

Sega-16: Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin was an important title because it was one of the first super hero-based games to build the gameplay around the hero’s individual power, as opposed to being a generic platform or action title with a license. What challenges did you face in scoring a game like this?

David Javelosa: My biggest personal challenge on Spider-Man was that I was doing it long-distance. As I had said, Sega was in San Francisco, and I was in L.A. I worked a lot with Mark Miller, an SF-based freelancer at the time, who did a lot of the implementation on my tracks. I had devised a way to translate the patch information from a Yamaha synth to the parameters of the Genesis chip, so they would sound they way I heard it when I was writing.

Sega-16: You worked closely with Ed Annuziata on several titles, like Mario Lemieux Hockey, Ecco the Dolphin, and Spider-Man. Did he have a particular style in mind for scoring games, or were you given creative freedom for each individual title?

David Javelosa: I always loved working with Ed. He would have a very cinematic perspective when it came to the game score. We would discuss related materials and quote different music references back and forth, and then he would approve or comment on whatever I came up with. His favorite point of reference was Pink Floyd, which of course has a very wide musical language. We could nail the sound of a game level by just quoting a particular Floyd track on a particular album.

Sega-16: What was your role in Sonic Spinball? I’ve seen you credited as the composer as well as under the “special thanks” section.

David Javelosa: Mostly as a music supervisor. Spinball sound was Howard Drossen, a great composer and a great guy! He was with STI (Sega Technical Institute) that was an early version of Team Sonic. He needed help and our offices were near each other. My good friend and later staff hire, Barry Blum did some killer tracks on Spinball as well. I might have provided some instrument patches and sound effects, but I mostly functioned as cheerleader.

Sega-16: The one aspect of the Sega CD that most people tend to praise the most is the sound quality. After working with the Genesis for so long, how did it feel to finally be able to let loose on CD?

David Javelosa: The quality on the Sega CD system was simply the quality of a regular audio CD. The amazing thing was that you were playing a Genesis game to it! As I said before, I actually preferred the challenge of making good Genesis music over creating a typical CD level music track. Most of my CD music tracks were too weird for games!

Sega-16: Most people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to have a favorable opinion about the Sega CD in terms of programming. They argue that it was little more than a massive storage device that wasn’t easy to use. What’s your opinion of the hardware?

David Javelosa: I would describe it with one word: challenging. First of all, you’re dealing with something that was already installed as a hardware console, and then you’re adding this peripheral on to it. Even though the Genesis was engineered to have extensions, the way it was set up was that you had two separate computers; you had two different Motorolas in the boxes, and then they were basically synced together. It wasn’t really a true bus. It was like two game consoles that were just linked together, and then you had to kind of like synchronize the two activities at the same time. That was the challenging part.

The other thing is that you start the CD with music, and then you run the game that you have already in memory, so you had to have that switch back and forth. For me, that was kind of normal. I was working with classical music CD-ROM on the Macintosh, at the very beginning… two or three years before, and here you have a computer with programs in memory, and then you have this device that can deliver the content into the machine, but then you also use it as a playback system. The whole concept of making calls to the CD to play back specific tracks at a specific frame and at specific moments, was always a shot in the dark, whether it was working exactly in sync or not. So, I was always just used to working around the lag time, working around the memory deficiencies. So yeah, it was challenging, but I didn’t know any different. For me, it was just the job we had to do. And to tell you the truth, every system I’ve worked on – after the Genesis I did a lot of Internet stuff, I worked on the Nintendo 64, Playstation titles, PC RTS titles, and again lots of Internet stuff – every platform that you look at has its restrictions, and you basically learn what you can and can’t do, and the you start getting creative. You try and create a map of where you can go, and then how creative you can be creative within that area.

I think it’s all an attitude. You approach it with “this is something that needs to get done, and I’m going to be creative with it,” then you do it. Some people say “I like this system, I don’t like this system, and I’m glad that’s over.” To tell you the truth, working on the Sega Genesis chip is not unlike what people are doing right now on cell phones, because there are some cell phones out there that are actually using FM synthesis, and there are also cell phones that are doing very limited sample playback, as well as MP3 playback. So the technology doesn’t go away; it just gets smaller somewhere.

It’s a balance. Some people say it’s all about composing the music, and some say it’s about knowing the technology. I think it’s both. You have to have an understanding of both, and sometimes it’s a risk. You don’t find a lot of opportunities where that intersection meets, and you don’t meet a lot of people who kind of understand both sides of it.

Sega-16: The role audio plays in the gaming experience has increased incredibly since the 16-bit days, and it often receives the same attention that graphics do, what with celebrity voice overs and full-on scores (Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell). Today’s titles practically require a home theater set up. Do you think its reached its full potential in today’s industry, or are there still hurdles to overcome?

David Javelosa: This is a big question among the computer and game audio trade organizations that I belong to. Some have said that game music is over; meaning that there is nothing more that can be done, technically speaking. But because my background was in experimental composition, I’ve always looked for the next cool thing in music technology. The buzz about “procedural music” in EA’s Spore is an example. Using software to generate unique musical experiences is something I have pursued for a long time. Also creating “interactive” music and sound engines that change with the game play is something that has yet to be fully explored. Some composers argue that the audience really can’t tell the difference. But just listen to Halo whey you play it. You can’t put your finger on it, but you know that something different is happening.

Sega-16 would like to thank Mr. Javelosa for taking the time for this interview.