Interview led by: Keiji Dragon
Questions by: Keiji Dragon, HP Zoner, and TyUnlimited.
Anyone who's ever played Naughty Dog's Crash games will surely get a sweet feel of nostalgia when it comes to the music. Composed by Josh Mancell, it was always fitting, catchy and very memorable. Our big thanks to Josh for kindly answering all of our questions.
Q: What inspired you to become a musical composer?
A: I grew up learning piano, drums and guitar as a kid and I'm also a rabid record geek. I suppose the exposure of playing music in different types of bands (punk, jazz, marching band, orchestras, etc.) plus being a huge music fan of many genres led me to composing. I also had a lot of encouragement from one of my college professors who suggested I move to Los Angeles and have a go at writing music for film and television. Fifteen and half years later, I'm still here cranking it out.
Q: How did you become involved in Crash? What did they first tell you about the game?
A: At the time, I was an in-house composer at Mark Mothersbaugh's Mutato Muzika studio. I had recently completed the music for the Johnny Mnemonic game and Mark thought I would be a good fit for the Crash project.
The first information we received about Crash Bandicoot is that it was going to be a platform game and that the graphics were going to be something spectacular. We had no idea it would evolve into such a massive franchise.
Q: Was making music for a video game any different from what you did before Crash? If so, how did you compose the music for the PlayStation console, and what kind of limitations did you encounter?
A: The game music I had written for Johnny Mnemonic was either underscore to the narrative scenes or writing short action music loops. I simply delivered pre-mixed audio files. The original Playstation was not equipped with enough memory to handle a streaming music soundtrack so after I'd write a piece, I'd deliver a general MIDI file plus one note samples of each instrument I'd used. Naughty Dog would then do all the necessary conversions to the internal Sony player. The big challenge was that because a large portion of the game's memory was allocated to graphics, only a small amount was leftover for music and sound effects. It was very limiting in that I could not have a lot of sustained notes, complex chords or reverb effects.
Q: How long did it take to come up with a song? What kind of inspiration did you get, if any?
A: I recall it taking about a day or so to write each piece of music sometimes more depending on which level. The boss rounds were a little more labor intensive.
As far as inspiration goes, I would visit Naughty Dog and play through levels they were working on to get a feel for environment and intensity. Inspiration also came from electronic artists such as Mouse on Mars, A Guy Called Gerald, Aphex Twin, Juan Atkins, Richard H. Kirk and Kraftwerk. They all have interesting rhythmic elements and melodically they're simple but kind of leftfield too.
Q: Each character had his/her own theme song, but those songs were usually remixed for the next game. Was it your decision to stick with the character themes?
A: It was a mutual decision. It was all about creating and solidifying the Crash universe from game to game. If a character returned in a game, I'd either try to improve upon the previous game's version (like Cortex or Ripper Roo) or reinterpret based on what environment the character was placed in (like the old world colosseum that Tiny inhabits in Crash3).
Q: Why did certain tracks of Crash 1 had to be altered for the Japanese release? Whose idea was it?
A: That was an 11th hour decision made by the Sony people in Japan. They felt that the boss rounds needed to sound more "video game-like". The only reference they gave was music from the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. I only had a day or so to write all those themes. My favorite comment was about the original Tawna bonus round music. It roughly translated into 'the sound of the guitar mixed with the tree imagery is too nostalgic-sounding'. I'm still scratching my head on that one.
Q: Was it gratifying to see the finished product with your music sounding in the background?
A: The first Crash game was a mixed bag. I like the way the music blended with the visuals but the mixes coming out of the Playstation really suffered. That was the only game in which I was not involved in any 'final mix' session as far as adjusting instrument levels and panning once the music was in the game. In subsequent games, I was able to do a proper mix at Naughty Dog using my original full fidelity mixes as a reference.
Q: Did you have a personal favourite track you made from the games?
A: The 'Hog Wild' track from the first game still makes me laugh (file under: ‘hillbilly mambo'). I also thought the 'Dingodile' theme from Crash3 was a winner.
Q: Were there any tracks that you pulled and didn't make it to the games?
A: Yes, there's a handful from the first game. The original direction given to me was 'ambient jungle' – literally - lots of bird noises and such. Actually, not too far off from what the first Jak and Daxter soundtrack ended up sounding like. There's a ridiculous retro-ice skating rink outtake from Crash2 and alternate themes for the bi-plane and pirate ship levels in Crash3. There are also four demo tracks that were written before I saw the first game - none of which were used. There's probably a few more lurking in the vaults.
Q: Do the soundtracks seem "complete" to you? In other words, if there was one thing you could have changed, what would that be?
A: Apart from not being able to use full fidelity mixes - which was not an option - I would have liked to use variations of the main title themes in each game. The reality is, the graphics for the main title sequences weren't done until very late in the schedule and therefore, I didn't write the main title themes until late in the game (so to speak).
Q: Do you own the rights to the original Crash soundtracks? If so, have you ever considered officially releasing those soundtracks?
A: Mark Mothersbaugh and I have the rights to release the music if certain legalities are honored with regard to Sony and Universal Interactive. We never wanted to take on a 'self-released' version seeing as the manufacturing, distribution and promotional budgets would be coming out of our wallets. I have all the master mixes archived and have thought about doing an iTunes release; I'm not sure how many legal hoops I'd have to jump through though.
Q: Did you have any part in composing the famous Japanese Crash song?
A: No, but I remember watching the video when it came out and thinking it was pretty great. I also love all the Japanese artwork for the games.
Q: How did you feel when you stopped composing for the Crash series?
A: It was a lot of fun doing the Crash titles but I was ready to switch gears and start working on ‘Jak and Daxter' (or ‘Project Y' as it was called for a long time).
Q: How do you feel about other people composing for other Crash titles?
A: I think it's great that the franchise lives on. I haven't heard much of the other Crash music but what I've heard sounded pretty cool.
Q: Would you consider composing for another Crash title?
A: Yes, I think it would be fun to return to the Crash universe and hear what materializes.
Q: You continued to work with Naughty Dog after Crash when the Jak series arrived. Was there any difference in doing music for Jak?
A: Absolutely. The Jak and Daxter games were much more challenging. They wanted a more epic sounding score but I still was trapped in MIDI one-note sample world. Jak II was particularly difficult. We tried to have the music more interactive by having different instruments enter and exit the main music bed depending on what environment the player inhabited or what weapon or vehicle was chosen. A very bizarre and confining way of writing music that didn't really allow for much musical progression - harmonically or melodically. On Jak 3, I was finally allowed to submit full audio mixes without any MIDI-related constraints. I had fun on that one.
Q: Would you look back at your past work for inspiration?
A: It's inspiring in that I think the music holds together conceptually. I tried hard to come up with a signature 'Crash sound' that runs through each of the 100+ pieces of music. I've definitely referenced some of the same sensibility writing music for animated television shows over the years.
Q: Finally, what's your opinion about Crash Bandicoot?
A: I've never met the guy but I've heard he's got the skills to pay the bills.