OutRun, Fantasy Zone, After Burner; for each of these legendary games, there was also an astoundingly catchy soundtrack that accompanied it. Today, in celebration of SEGA’s 60th anniversary, we sit down and interview Hiro, the man behind these legendary soundtracks and who has laid the foundation for their current sound, to ask him just what that “SEGA Sound” that a lot of fans recognize is.
OTAQUEST: You joined SEGA in 1984, and have been with the company for over half of its life. Just what was the reason you decided to join?
Hiro: I first became interested in video game music when I was in high school. I heard the music for New Rally X by Namco and thought to myself “this is amazing!”. When I graduated high school and was looking for places to work, I thought that making game music would be fun and decided to interview at SEGA. At the time I had also made my own game, VIC-1001, for the Commodore64, so during the interview I mentioned that I could program as well, although I would prefer to do video game music. Thankfully I was hired, but I was initially assigned to the programming department (laughs). Some of the people that joined at the same time as me are Yuji Naka of Sonic the Hedgehog fame and the composer for Quartet, Katsuhiro Hayashi (Funky K.H.).
OTAQUEST: How did you transfer over to the sound division?
Hiro: One day Yu Suzuki, the man that would one day be behind Virtua Fighter, came to me and asked me to make music that sounded like band music for his game, Hang-On. I had been in an instrumental band as a hobby and had made copies of songs by people like Masayoshi Takanaka, Cassiopeia, and Naoya Matsuoka (the “leader” of Latin fusion music in Japan), and Yu had known that. Apparently he also knew that I had wanted to be on the sound team, so he offered that to me. The song I made was used, and until the next game, Space Harrier, I worked on both the composition and the programming (at that time I worked on the programming for consumer games).
OTAQUEST: After that, you worked on the soundtracks for numerous popular titles such as OutRun, Fantasy Zone, and After Burner. How were you making music at the time?
Hiro: I used to make music with traditional instruments, transcribe it to sheet music, and give it to the person in charge. When I joined, there wasn’t a department specializing in sound yet, so the team related to sound was in the hardware development department. Since around when I joined, sound chips such as FM chips for arcades and PSG chips for the consumer market were installed and made available, so full-scale music was able to be added to games. The sound team was made following that.
OTAQUEST: What was the concept behind the music for OutRun?
Hiro: Originally the game was made with the idea of driving around a course on the west coast of the US, so the music was themed around music that would come out of the speakers of the car, with there being three songs from three different genres. I was told to make the first song rock and the second song fusion, and to do whatever I wanted for the third song, so I chose Latin music. That song ended up being Magical Sound Shower, which was 1000% influenced by Naoya Matsuoka’s work. If I had never heard his music, that song would never have been made.
OTAQUEST: How was production on Fantasy Zone?
Hiro: At first, the songs of Fantasy Zone were originally overseen by a senpai of mine, but one day one of the programmers came to me and said “this song is a bit different from what I envisioned”. So on his request, I decided to make one song for him. When I first looked at the game screen it left this very pop impression with me, so I decided to make a fun and lively samba song to match that. That became the song Opa-Opa!. When the programmer heard it he said “Oh wow! Sounds nice. Do you mind making the other songs too?”, and so I ended up making all the songs for the game (laughs). Up until that point I had only made the songs and transcribed them, so for the first time, I also inputted the music into the game.
OTAQUEST: At the time game soundtracks were becoming more popular, and there were releases left and right. Did you ever attend the recording sessions for them?
Hiro: We brought the development board and debugging equipment to the music studio, and we played the song from the board and recorded it. It was mostly analog at the time, so I have memories of dealing with the noise from the equipment. Also, and this is a story of us messing up, but since we were making a recording we wanted the music to sound better than in-game, so we added reverb that wasn’t present originally. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe we put something other than the original sound in there (laughs).
We also surprised those who listened to the After Burner record with a melody part that wasn’t in the actual game. You see, when I first wrote the song, the melody was in there. However, when I was putting the song into the game I got rid of the melody because it matched better without the melody, so when we were recording the soundtrack version I thought “We don’t need the version without the melody, I’m putting the original in here”. From a consumer standpoint, it must have been like “Huh? Isn’t this different from what’s in game?”. At the time I was young and stubborn so….. (laughs)
OTAQUEST: Were there any changes to the environment that you were making game music with?
Hiro: The one that had the biggest impact on me was when we started using MIDI. MIDI had been around since I was a high schooler, but I only began to start using it for work once Hayashi, a colleague of mine, created an interface for it to be used during development. Up until then I had been making music on a piano or a synthesizer and transcribing it to sheet music, only to then input that music into the computer manually, so the end result would often change dramatically from what was originally written. However after I started using MIDI I was able to create a tone using the FM sound chip on the dev board and play the song on the board directly, so I could make the music I had envisioned. This was a great breakthrough, and since then the hardware design team has added a MIDI interface to every dev board from then onwards.
OTAQUEST: How was making music on the FM chip in the ’80s and early ’90s?
Hiro: When I was working with the FM chip, any time I made a sound or tone that I liked I would save it and share it with the team so we could use it on our next game. It’s often said that the songs from that era sound “SEGA-like”, but at the time we weren’t really aware of the fact. When making a sequel we would try to make it still sound similar to the prequel, but for new games, the majority of the staff, including myself, would want to try something new. Thinking about it now, I feel that sharing the sounds created by the FM sound chip within the sound team was what made the songs sound “SEGA-like”.
OTAQUEST: At the time, were you a part of the arcade development teams?
Hiro: At the time I was part of the “8th R&D Department”, which was an arcade game development team headed by Mr. Yu Suzuki. However, I was also working on games for the consumer market. I didn’t change how I composed songs depending on the hardware, but I did want to use the sound efficiency of the hardware to its fullest potential when making a song. For example, for Vermillion on the Mega Drive, I programmed the sound driver myself so that a distinctly long thunderous sound could be produced. It’s all just self-satisfaction, but that sure was fun (laughs). I also used the same driver for Rent A Hero afterward.
OTAQUEST: After the Mega Drive, by the middle of the ’90s, game music moved to the era of streaming playback using CD-DA. How was this?
Hiro: There was a big difference in production between a built-in sound chip, which had a limited number of usable sounds, and streaming, which allows you to compose songs in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and add an unlimited number of sounds. At the time I thought it was absolutely necessary to have a built-in sound chip in the game, so I was against making songs on a DAW (laughs). I used an ST-V arcade board compatible with the SEGA Saturn to play music in a DAW like everyone else, but I was particular about the built-in sound chip up until the end. However, it was difficult to keep using sound chips because of the changes of the times, so the skateboarding game Airtrix became the last game to have a sound chip before I switched over to the streaming method.
OTAQUEST: After that, from the late ’90s until around 2008 the number of songs you made fell dramatically, why was that?
Hiro: Making the sound driver for the Mega Drive was fun and made me want to go back to programming (laughs). I started making sound drivers for arcade boards and got a little removed from composing. The songs I made during that period were… Well, I made an arrangement of the song Hang On for the sound test screen of the system H1 board that was used for the game Cool Riders… And I think that’s about it. After that, I continued on the sound programming team until 2008, when I returned to the sound team, which is where I’m still at today.
OTAQUEST: And now, the generations that were influenced by the music you made are now actively playing a role in the music industry. How do you feel about that?
Hiro: Recently, I’ve become more motivated to create my own original music genre. Party of that is because SEGA has started to recognize side work, and is producing original albums… I’m quite happy, and at the same time find it very interesting that the music I made for games like OutRun and Fantasy Zone, at a time where I didn’t think about any of this, is so respected now. If I ever have the opportunity, I’d also like to collaborate with someone who was influenced by my music.
OTAQUEST: Last but not least, how do you feel about Sega’s 60th anniversary?
Hiro: I’m deeply moved that I’ve been able to spend 35 years with SEGA, which turns 60 this year. I really like the phrase “Creativity is Life” in SEGA’s company motto, and even now, 35 years after joining the company, I feel that the heart and soul of SEGA hasn’t changed. If you’re creative, then everyone, all the employees and staff will work creatively and have a good time, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. It’s precisely for that reason that I was able to work for SEGA for the last 35 years. I myself have been able to make music beyond just the realm of game music, and I hope to continue to expand my horizons moving forward.
SEGA CORPORATION, Chief Creator, Sound Section, 5th Development Division, SEGA Asia & Japan Studios Headquarters.
Joined Sega Enterprises, Ltd. in 1984.
Games he has composed for include Hang On (1985), Space Harrier (1985), Fantasy Zone (1986), OutRun (1986), After Burner (1987), Power Drift, etc. An original member of the SEGA original band S.S.T.BAND, he played the keyboard.
He has been playing music for SEGA and as an individual.
Released the single, OUTRUS (Beyond the horizon) and the album ATOM first on June 2nd, 2020.
You can find and follow Hiro on Twitter for more updates on his activity!