It’s Saturday night! Time for music!
Now, some would call me out on bias due to me being a pianist, but I would sometimes find myself enjoying piano renditions of Sonic tunes as some of the best things ever. So, for this week, that’s exactly what we’ve got for you!
One of a team of two, this week’s guest on the Sound Check has been covering Sonic music for quite some time already! They’ve been featured once before on Sound Test Saturday as well! With EspioKaos’ MIDIs, this man has breathed new life into old tunes through one of my favourite instrumentations around, and together they have brought over 50 tracks to the table! So, please welcome to the Sound Check from Sonic Paradox…
DR. MACK FOXX
Act 1 – A Foxx’s History
VizardJeffhog: First one up is the sizeable introduction! Tell the world of Sonic a bit about you and what you do!
Dr. Mack Foxx: My name is Philip A. Byard, I go by the alias of Dr. Mack Foxx and I like to create piano/electronic covers and remixes of songs from various Sonic the Hedgehog games in collaboration with John Weeks, who also goes by the alias of EspioKaos.
I also create original video game-themed tracks and occasionally do voice acting for Sonic Paradox.
VJ: So, what is it that got you into music to begin with? What inspired you to take the audial rein?
DMF: It all started back in 1992 when I was in 3rd grade. The first instrument I got to learn to play, which is one that I’m sure a lot of us started out with, was the clarinet.
I played in school bands for quite some time and became quite adept with the clarinet as well as reading sheet music. There were even times when I managed to out-perform the entire clarinet section. From there, when I was in 8th grade, I made a switch over to tuba of all things. It was quite the challange, but worth the effort and I was playing that instrument quite well within a year.
But, I would say, my curiosity in digital audio really got started in 1999, mainly because I had been given a fairly ancient laptop by my father. It only had 24 MB of RAM and a Pentium 1 processor running at 120 MHz (pretty weak hardware for the time) but it did have an internal microphone. So, I started tinkering around with Windows Sound Recorder and .WAV files.
Fortunately, I was given a better laptop computer the next year!
It was then that I got an interest in MIDI files when I got my hands on a software wavetable synthesizer called WinGroove.
A neat feature of this program was that you could actually change the instrumentation and several other settings when a MIDI file was loaded. So you could experiment with different instruments and such, just for fun.
It was 2001 when I got my hands on a MIDI file that had been sequenced by a very talented musician who would eventually become my collaborator: John Weeks [Alias: EspioKaos].
The song in question? Twinkle Cart from Sonic Adventure [AKA: Puppet Panic Zone Act 1 from Sonic 3D Blast on the Sega Genesis], which has been one of my favorites since playing SA:DX on Gamecube.
For a while, I just used WinGroove to experiment with different MIDI instruments on a variety of files. WinGroove did not save these changes, however. This worked just fine for me as I had no intention of posting any of these edited files without getting written permission first from the people who had sequenced the original files.
I didn’t think I had anything considerable, anyway. So, I just kept these MIDI edits to myself and never bothered contacting any of the MIDI composers whose work I had used for these little experimental tracks.
Fast forward ahead to 2006.
At this point, my younger brother, Aaron and I, began work on an amateur stop-motion cartoon series called Tales from the Toy Chest. This was a comedy series we put together using our own voice acting and a considerable collection of toys and action figures that we had collected over the years. Turns out, I can do a pretty good impression of the late Deem Bristow’s performance of Dr. Eggman from Sonic Adventure 1, 2 and Sonic Heroes.
While we almost exclusively used music from video games for the soundtrack, mainly as I was sure this would most likely not result in any problems with copyright violations, I had been kicking around the idea of using remixes or covers of our favorite video game songs.
2008 is also when I finally got my hands on MIDI composing software. I can’t remember what the program was called. Probably because I didn’t use it for very long. ^_^;
That same year, after figuring out how to make changes to existing MIDI files, I finally gathered up enough courage to E-mail John Weeks. I asked him if I could use his MIDIs as source material for video game music remakes for use in Tales from the Toy Chest.
Much to my surprise, he said I could! All John asked was that I give him proper credit for use of his original MIDI sequences.
However, Tales from the Toy Chest never really caught on, which did not surprise me as Aaron and I now hardly ever had the time for filming more of these cartoons. Not many people will wait a year or more for a new 4 minute or less episode of an amateur series, eh?
With that project put on the back burner indefinitely, I began toying with the idea [pun not intended] of possibly just posting the resulting creations of tinkering with John Weeks’ MIDI sequences.
In early 2010, I finally, again, gathered up enough courage to ask John Weeks if I could post the resulting tracks of my arrangements using his MIDIs in collaboration.
Once again, he said I could so long as proper credit was given to him.
A particular sound I had been tinkering with and had really liked was, at least what I think to be, is a fairly unusual combination of various types of piano mixed with synthesized bass, string and drum sounds.
I had not really heard anything close to this kind of sound in other remixes and covers, especially for Sonic the Hedgehog games.
So, on April 25, 2010, I posted John Weeks’ and my first collaboration to the Newgrounds Audio Portal: Sonic Adventure – Twinkle Cart Piano.
Since then, I’ve put together dozens of these piano/electronic covers and until recently, they were all of songs from older Sonic the Hedgehog games.
John Weeks has enjoyed the arrangemets I keep posting over the last 2 years and he’s been very supportive, even encouraging me to do more with his source material.
Thanks to John being so generous with his MIDI sequences, I would have to say that he is the only reason I have gotten into composing original songs.
Working with his source material, I have been teaching myself how to work a different MIDI composing program, called Music Studio Independence.
Using this program one day, I got inspired to create my first original song in under 12 hours, which I call Industrial Ruins: a video game-inspired piece with a bit of a dark feel to it. I imagnied navigating underground ruins from an advanced civiziation of sorts while writing this piece.
In 2011, after having made piano/electronic covers of most of the songs from the first Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Sega Genesis, I decided to try somnething a bit different.
Rather than remaking songs from random Sonic games, I decided to try putting together a complete album of all the songs and jingles from Sonic the Hedgehog.
The result was John Weeks’ and my first album: Sonic the Hedgehog [1991 Sega Genesis] Piano Redux.
[Vizard’s note: LISTEN AND DOWNLOAD HERE. DO IT, YA WUSSIES.]
While this album has been on SoundCloud for listening and downloading for over 8 months as of this writing, it really has not gotten much attention, in addition to all the track John and I have on Newgrounds now.
Despite this, I’ve continued my work and now have a few more albums that will soon be available: Sonic 2 – Piano Redux. There will be complete albums of both the 8-bit and 16-bit versions of Sonic 2.
As of this interview, all I need to do is finish the arrangement and additional composing that is needed to make a piano/electronic cover of the ending credits from the Sega Genesis version of Sonic 2 complete.
Hope this isn’t too wordy a response for just the first question..?
VJ: Well, it saves me the trouble of asking a few other questions, actually! In that case, what are your other tools of the trade?
DMF: Well, the complete set would be WinGroove, Music Studio Independence, Yamaha XG SoftSynth, Roland Virtual Sound Canvas and Nero Wave Editor. All but one of these programs has not seen an update since 2001, to be honest! Definitely gives you an idea of how old my composing and editing programs are.
I have to say: there was one thing that had scared me for years. Knowing that, at some point, I would need to get a better computer and would eventually have to start using a newer operating system than Windows XP. My experience with any Microsoft OS has been this: backwards compatibility tends to be awful and better wait about 3 years or so for bugs to get ironed out from a new release of Windows. Fortunately, the Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 has allowed me to continue using my programs of choice on a new computer!
VJ: Good to know!
DMF: Yeah. My previous laptop computer is from 2004 and has become increasingly-unreliable, so it was definitely time to upgrade.
VJ: So you’ve played the clarinet and tuba… Were they your first instruments of choice? What made you choose those two in your early years?
DMF: Well, the clarinet was, more or less, put in my hands to start off with. Certainly was a great building block and one instrument that I played very well for several years.
As for the tuba, my band instructor needed tuba players, in particular, to play sousaphone in the high school marching band. My band instructors in middle school and 9th grade were awesome, to say the least. And my one year of marching band was a lot of fun: being one of 5 sousaphone players and a band that was at least 120 strong. I forgot to mention that I did learn how to play piano, as well, in college.
Sadly, between living in an apartment with crummy insulation and numerous health problems, I am no longer able to play instruments. Fortunately, I can still operate a computer for hours on end with no problems.
VJ: Yikes… At least there’s that! So, to those who’ve never heard your music before, how would you describe its sound?
DMF: Ah. I would describe John Weeks and my tunes as being very faithful to the original songs many of us are familiar with from classic Sonic games: redone using the 6 varities of piano that are available with the General MIDI instrument set, electronic bass and drum set sounds with synthesized strings often backing up the lead or supoorting instruments.
For example, our cover of Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2 utilizes the old-timey sound of a Honky-Tonk Piano as the lead instrument.
More or less, our deal is trying to give many classic and well-known tracks from Sonic games a new feel with different instrumentation.
VJ: With that in mind, how does the creation process go, especially in your case as a tag team?
Well, more or less, John Weeks did his part years ago when he sequenced literally hundreds of Sonic game song MIDIs between 1998 and 2006. What I do, mainly, is figure out what instruments work best to this piano/electronic sound scheme, in addition to adjusting or even adding things like reverberation, chorus, adjusting volume levels and additonal composing in many cases. Some of John’s older MIDI sequences are actually very basic.
I assemble and modify the existing MIDIs and then send the resulting tracks rendered out as MP3s to John. One thing I want to point out is that while anyone can do a MIDI edit with a simple instrument swap, creating a good-sounding derivative work, especially with permission and the support of the original composer, is another matter.
If these tracks of John’s and mine were really as easy as an instrument swap, I would have gone through John’s entire MIDI catalog by now and I have no doubts that he would never have let me work with or post any resulting creations from his work.
Instead, it can take several days to get all my personal touches in order, sometimes even several months, to get one of these piano/electronic covers completed.
Our cover of Metropolis Zone would be a good example of how difficult and time-consuming one of these songs can be. It took the better part of 5 months between trying to find ways to get around all the pitch-bending and warbling notes that are present in the BGM of Metropolis Zone. Plus, add a hard drive failure to the equation and losing a nearly-complete version of that song in the process. It took another month to reconstruct the modified sequence. Because, let’s face it: pitch bending cannot really be done on piano in real-life and it sounds horrid when done through MIDI. Although you can intentionally have a piano out of tune to work with a given song, some fancy tricks just can’t be accomplished on piano very well. At least not yet.
More or less, I build off of John Weeks’ previous work and, to say the least, my collaborator has been very gracious. I remember in one e-mail how he told me that some tracks I had sent him at the time made him look forward to the release of Sonic Generations all the more.
I really try to make a point that these songs are a collaborative effort: they are not just me and I am certainly not going to take credit for John’s work. It’s even better now as Newgrounds finally allows you to credit multiple people in Audio Portal submissions; therefore, John’s alias, EspioKaos, is now finally in the Credits pane of every audio submission we have on Newgrounds. As it should be. I make sure I have his approval before releasing new songs to Newgrounds and YouTube.
The only issue I have come across is that John Weeks is a very busy man these days and hearing back from him can take a week or more… The funny thing is that I have yet to interact with him in any other way [IMing, Skype, video call, etc.] besides e-mail!
VJ: Besides covers, have you ever taken a given song in an entirely different direction?
DMF: Actually, yes. While just about everything John Weeks and I have posted are covers, I have begun experimenting with remixing some of his material. In particular, songs from the Master System/Game Gear version of Sonic 2. The original songs and John’s MIDI sequences are faily basic and do not have much depth to them. Therefore, I find that leaves a lot of room for additions.
Our remix of Underground Zone, in particular, is a good example. By adding things like a deeper bass line, more backup instrumentation and more varied percussion, I would have to categorize this and our other 8-bit Sonic 2 tracks indeed as remixes.
VJ: Off the record, but why are a great number of your remixes currently unavailable on YouTube? You and John have a great and expansive playlist, and I agree it’s not getting enough attention…
DMF: Yes, sadly, a lot of John’s and my songs are not on YouTube. The main reason being is that I use fan-art as a backdrop in all of my music videos on YouTube in additon to a waveform visualization so you don’t have just a still image with a title plastered to it.
The problem is getting permission from artists to use their work in my videos or even finding fan-art related to some levels from Sonic games is nearly impossible, especially from more uncommon games or stages that few people actually like. I actually had to ask someone in Sonic Paradox, Ashman, for the fan-art I used in John’s and my covers of Sandopolis Zone Act 1 and 2. I’m very glad he was so generous.
Simply as decent-quality fan-art on DeviantArt of these levels was practically non-existent… or infested with OCs…
VJ: Oh god, agreed. So the main problem is finding artwork and those willing to let you use theirs.
DMF: Exactly. I do not want to be an art-thief as I want to remain on the up-and-up. For example, there is one artist on DeviantArt in particular who does amazing artwork of Sonic boss battles and stages.
VJ: Amazing boss artwork… Hazard the Porgoyle, right?
DMF: That’s the guy. I tried to be as accommodating as I could, but because his work had been stolen so many times in the past, he would not give me permission to use his drawings.
The most common form of “Art Theft” on DeviantArt is people taking pictures and what not from random members on DA and then using them in YouTube videos for one reason or another without permission or even giving credit. This seems to be the case with Hazard, so he maintains an iron grip on his work: rightly so considering all the problems he’s had in the past.
VJ: I see… That does stink, I see that happening often too. Off the record though, why don’t you use screenshots from said boss or stage?
DMF: Because I really don’t like using a highly-pixelated image like that. Not to mention it’s a little less in the way of potential legal problems. Besides, it can also be a way to help get some artists on DeviantArt more exposure. It’s a win-win!
As long as you’re doing a song from a well-liked or well known Sonic game, then good-quality OC-free fan-art is fairly easy to find and most artists on DeviantArt are willing to give permission to use their work so long as you ask nicely and give proper credit.
For example, I put the artist’s name and the url to their DeviantArt profile right in the video frame of my YouTube submissions.
VJ: Again, it’s difficult though when it comes to obscure stages, right?
DMF: Or obscure games. Fan-art for Sonic Labyrinth is virtually nonexistent.
VJ: Haha, good point! So, who are your musical idols, and how have they helped/contributed to your work?
DMF: Let’s see… John Williams and Alan Silvestri are definitely my favorite composers, mainly as they have written my favorite movie soundtrack of all time between Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future… the list goes on. Since I was a kid, I wanted to compose my own music, but didn’t have the means or the knowhow until more recently.
But in all honesty, most of my favorite composers are the ones who’ve written the soundtracks to many of my favorite video games:
Hiroki Kikuta [Secret of Mana], Masato Nakamura [Sonic 1 and 2], Hajime Hirasawa [Star Fox], Koji Kondo [The many Mario and Legend of Zelda Games], Jun Senoue [Many Sonic the Hedgehog games], Yasunori Mitsuda [Chrono Trigger] and Nobuo Uematsu [Final Fantasy series] to name some of them.
Jun Senoue is the one SEGA composer I admire most, as he has written so many of my favorite songs from so many Sonic games!
In particular, I’ve always wanted to compose a soundtrack to a video game. It wasn’t until last year when that dream, in a way, became a reality, for a Flash tower defense game called Robots Vs Zombies.
[Vizard’s note: SOUNDTRACK HERE.]
Obviously, this game was made to try and cash in on the success of Plants VS Zombies, but from what I can gather, these games play very differently. Still, not bad for an amateur composer, eh?
VJ: Very good! Now onto the more hedgehogy questions!
Act 2 – The Hedgehog Zone
VJ: So, what is it about Sonic music that you enjoy the most?
DMF: To me, music from Sonic games always stuck out as unique, especially back in the day when Sonic the Hedgehog was a brand new game: there had never been anything like it.
I grew up with a Super Nintendo, but compared to Mario games in particular, Sonic game soundtracks had a completely different feel: more fast-paced and energetic music. The music in Sonic games has almost always come across to me as being very well-written and quite memorable, if I do say so myself! Glad I had some friends who had a Sega Genesis back in the early to mid 90s!
If there is one thing I’ve noticed about nearly all Sonic games, it is this: the music is almost always awesome, even if the games are sub-par themselves, such as Sonic Labyrinth, Sonic 3D Blast, and the ever-infamous Sonic the Hegdehog 2006! Great soundtracks, not-so-good games.
Heck, about a third of the game soundtracks I keep on my computer are from Sonic games!
VJ: With all of the tracks you and EspioKaos put work into covering, which of those tracks have been your favourites to bring to life?
DMF: That’s a very good question.
The ones that stand out the most for me would be the first cover John Weeks’ and I released: Twinkle Cart for Twinkle Park from Sonic Adventure. That song still is one of my top favorites from any Sonic game.
Next up would be Hydrocity Zone Act 1 from Sonic 3. I absolutely love how that one came together.
Oddly enough, despite being such a pain in the neck and taking so long, I really enjoy our cover of Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2, especially as I learned quite a bit while reworking this song.
Any of John’s and my remixes from the 8-bit version of Sonic 2 come to mind as well, mainly as there was a lot I could do to make those tunes really stand out.
Of course, there will always be a special place in my heart for the original songs I’ve composed on my own. I mean, Industrial Ruins, my first original song even received a review from ParagonX9, indisputably one of the most well-known audio artists on Newgrounds! My cover of the main theme from Space Harrier is another as it is the first remake I managed to make on my own.
Of all the songs John Weeks and I have created, those tunes are the ones that really stand out to me as the ones I’ve enjoyed working on the most.
VJ: Now, which Sonic game proves to be your most favourite and why, and which one was your first?
DMF: Those are some good questions. My first Sonic game was actually the first one released on Sega Genesis. I was 7 when Sonic the Hedgehog was released. Sometimes I miss the good old days when it was just Sega VS Nintendo.
As for my favorite Sonic game, it’s a tie between Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic CD.
Sonic Adventure 2 has, in my opinion, the strongest storyline of any Sonic game I have played. That, combined with great gameplay mechanics, excellent voice acting and a splendid soundtrack are why Sonic Adventure 2 is one of my favorites. In the case of Sonic CD, what’s not to love about a great platformer with unique gameplay elements that you don’t see anywhere else in the side-scrolling Sonic game series, such as the whole time travel mechanic and having to hunt down objectives when time traveling? Not to mention how Sonic CD has two very different soundtracks that I absolutely love!
VJ: Is it fair to assume that your favourite soundtrack is tied between those of SA2 and SCD?
DMF: Oddly enough, since I never had a Sega CD or managed to get my hands on the PC version of Sonic CD in the late 90s, I actually heard and ended up loving the music from Sonic CD before ever seeing any gameplay. In fact, the first video files I ever downloaded were the cutscenes from the PC version of the game which someone had posted online. I can’t remember which Sonic fan site it was at the time. Nothing like trying to get over 130 MB of video over a 56K connection in 1999. Man, those were the days…
I actually cannot narrow down which Sonic game soundtrack is my favorite. Let’s see… Actually, the soundtrack from Sonic Adventure is my favorite from any Sonic game. There aren’t really any songs in that lineup that I do not like. Big the Cat’s theme is even quite catchy! Not to mention some call-backs to a few songs from the Sega Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast. Twinkle Cart for Twinkle Park and The Air for Windy Valley: I love these tracks so much!
VJ: Currently, you’re working on the Piano Redux albums… You’ve completed Sonic 1, bound to complete Sonic 2, what will you do next?
DMF: Well, a Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles and a Sonic 3D Blast [Genesis Version] album are in the works. It will take quite some time to complete them all, but it’ll be worth it.
Not sure what I’ll do after those albums, namely as it’s going to take a good 2 or three years, maybe more, to complete all of them… Plus, an 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog [Master System/Game Gear] album is something I am considering.
VJ: Can’t wait to see those finished! What advice you would give to aspiring musicians and remixers?
DMF: Hmmmm… Well, I would say that you don’t need fancy tools to make great music. It’s what you do with those tools. Just look at me: all my music software is upwards of 10 years old and I paid a grand total of $50 for all of it. Keep practicing, trying and composing and you may create some great tunes, yourself.
Granted, nicer software and VSTs are great, but you don’t necessarily need them to create awesome music.
VJ: And before we leave, is there anything you’d like to say to the readers? Any shout-outs you’d like to get out of the way?
That, and Sonic Paradox has recently released a remix album called Sonic Paradox Remix Shorts, which features several very talented musicians and composers from Sonic Paradox and elsewhere.
Lastly, if you would like to browse John Weeks’ and my complete audio catalog, you can find it on the Sonic Paradox forum!
VJ: That should be it! Mack, thanks a bunch for your time!
DMF: You’re quite welcome, and thank you very much for this opportunity! See you later, Jeff!
VJ: You too! Later, Mack!
And another great Sound Check gone by! And it’s always great to have a chat with someone from a similar musical field!
Now, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard and read, here are the links you’ll have to keep track of!
- As pointed out in the end, Dr. Mack Foxx and EspioKaos’ complete catalogue is up on the Sonic Paradox forum! Updated for every new track!
- Elsewhere on the web: YouTube, Twitter, Soundcloud, deviantART, and Newgrounds (DrMackFoxx, EspioKaos)!
Stay tuned for our next Sound Check, as we have a special guest to come join us! You’ve caught a preview of his work on the Audial Assault edition of STS, so prepare to be fully acquainted with the talented Mike Meredith, a.k.a. Rocket Ship Resort!
See you all next week for another Sound Test Saturday!
Found an interesting remix, cover, or original Sonic tune? Have one of your own you’d like to see featured? Is there an artist out there who you feel should be on a future Sound Check? If so, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org!