Inside Data Discs, the M2 of Video Game Vinyl

Inside Data Discs, the M2 of Video Game Vinyl

As the vinyl resurgence overtakes video game soundtracks, a small UK-based label aims to set the standard with classic SEGA music, much as developer M2 has done with classic SEGA games.

Yesterday Data Discs announced the upcoming fifth release in its growing line of SEGA game soundtracks on vinyl: Classic Genesis beat-'em-upStreets of Rage 2. Data Discs — whose website describes the company as "the first record label solely dedicated to releasing video game soundtracks on vinyl" — has already set a high bar with its initial releases over the past year, and Streets of Rage 2 could easily set a new standard not only for the company, but for premium game soundtrack releases in general.

This soundtrack release's potential comes in part from the material itself; Streets of Rage 2 remains one of the high-water marks in the history of video game soundtracks. Legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro extracted unbelievable magic from the notoriously inconsistent Genesis sound chip. Audiophiles tend to look down at later Genesis hardware revisions for their lower-grade sound hardware, but Koshiro's work sounds incredible regardless of the console model. However, with his work on the Rage series, he didn't simply create great game music; he practically redefined what game music can be.

Drawing heavily on the club scene that had developed throughout the ’80s, Koshiro turned out soundtracks that could easily have been mistaken for house music of the era. He broke from the simple 30-second loops of contemporary soundtracks in favor of laying down a driving dance beat and using the Genesis' sound chip — which was based on the popular Yamaha synthesizers heard in so many electronic albums of the ’80s — to build shifting layers of sound over top. Given their dance club lineage, the Rage soundtracks make more sense as vinyl releases than your typical game music.

But even the best music can be diminished by poor mastering or a shoddy release, and it's here that I see so much potential for Data Discs' Rage 2 remaster. I've been impressed by the mindfulness and effort that have gone into the label's initial releases — expect a full review tomorrow — and I'm confident that the upcoming record will more than do justice to what many consider the finest soundtrack of the entire 16-bit era. Much as with Brave Wave's forthcoming Street Fighter II soundtrack release, Data Discs' team takes each soundtrack on a case-by-case basis. Each of the company's game releases has been mastered differently, the result of a conscious effort to ensure the highest fidelity to the source material. While Super Hang-On came entirely from the game's original arcade board, both Rage soundtracks use a combination of Koshiro's original files from the Japanese microcomputer platform he preferred to work on (NEC's PC-8801) and various Genesis (aka Mega Drive) systems.

The Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack will include high-quality prints of the game's original promo art in all its ’80s-looking, to-hell-with-proper-perspective glory.

"It depends on the requirements of each release," says Data Discs cofounder Jamie Crook. "We master the majority of our releases in-house, which is a very time-consuming process. For example, we spent over two months mastering Streets of Rage 2, using a mixture of sources depending on the requirements of each individual track.

"In general, for tracks that required more emphasis on the bass we used the PC-88 files, but for ones that needed more high-end frequencies, or which we felt benefited more from the rather distinctive sound of the YM2612 sound chip (which in itself is essentially a miniature Yamaha synth), we used Japanese Mega Drive captures. We used two different Mega Drive motherboards, each with their own slightly different sound... there were many, many different motherboard revisions released for the Mega Drive, of varying quality. We feel that wherever possible, game soundtracks should be sourced from the original hardware. We like to master everything from the ground up, ensuring it suits the vinyl format and sounds as good as it can be.

"For both of the Streets of Rage soundtracks we worked directly with the composer, Yuzo Koshiro. He gave us the original NEC PC-88 files, which we used in conjunction with audio captured from Mega Drive consoles. He was involved throughout the mastering process and signed off the final version. For other releases, SEGA sometimes liaises with composers on our behalf. It depends on the rights situation and the composer’s relationship with SEGA — which, for the most part, seems very positive.

"Too often with soundtrack releases, labels don’t specify the source of the audio. When it comes to vinyl, the source and the engineer are everything. The rest is just decoration."

The Streets of Rage 2 OST would have torn up the charts if Sega had ever thought to push for airplay.

Indeed, Data Discs soundtrack releases include very little text — meaning no essays on a game's history or notes from the original composers. ("I understand why people want essays and these kind of things, but it’s not really our focus," says Crook. "Our focus is on the audio, the vinyl format and presenting this music in a new and interesting way... There seems to be a trend at the moment to make every release ‘definitive’ or ‘deluxe’ — it’s all just marketing nonsense to me.") What little copy you can find on the label's record jackets mostly concerns copyright information and composer credits... plus a brief description of that record's sound sources.

As music on vinyl continue to increase in popularity (33rpm LPs have represented the only growth sector for music sales for two years running now) the source of vinyl "remasters" has become vital information. Every label in the industry is rushing headlong to cash in on the vinyl trend, with many taking questionable shortcuts to get valuable back catalog releases into sales racks. Many music fans suspect unscrupulous publishers of simply mastering records from CD versions, resulting in degraded sound quality, and thus undermining the entire appeal of vinyl.

Crook describes Data Discs' staff as "lifelong fans of the vinyl format" who "enjoy the interplay between analogue and digital processes, the results of which can be hugely satisfying and often unexpected." While the company is but one of many vinyl-focused labels to have sprung up in response to the format's recent resurgence, Crook describes it less as an endeavor of opportunism and more a matter of personal passion. "Our hope is that our products capture some of that fascination," he says.

"When we started the label in late 2014, there wasn’t anyone else doing this kind of thing, so there was a certain element of risk involved. We often joke that the reason we started was because we’d grown tired of waiting for someone to release Streets of Rage on vinyl — I remember discussing it with friends about 10 years ago, and nothing happened since then. So in the end, we just decided to do it ourselves."

Data Discs record jacket artwork always combines the best of European and Japanese design aesthetics.

While Data Discs may have been the first company to focus entirely on both vinyl and video game soundtracks, Crook admits the market has already grown competitive.

"The single largest threat is from over-saturation of the market, which has sadly already begun," he says. "Inevitably, there are a lot of new labels moving into this area in 2016, some of whom will be great of course, but others will be exploitative. Bootlegging is a problem too, albeit a lesser one. But in general, we just try and focus on the releases we have in the pipeline and not get too tied up in anything else. We’ll continue to release stuff as long as we and our customers are enjoying it. That’s all we can hope for, really."

Audio fidelity looks to be a key element of Data Discs' efforts to differentiate its releases from the competition. The company's FAQ makes clear an aversion to the picture discs some labels have used for their game soundtracks, a gimmick notorious for resulting in sound degradation. Furthermore, the company determines its approach for each release in a case-by-case fashion, which goes beyond the mastering process and extends to the nature of each record. For example, Streets of Rage 2 will be the first Data Discs 2LP set, with the fourth record side containing several unreleased and demo tracks. That makes it a much more voluminous release than its immediate predecessor, Super Hang-On, which shipped as a single 12" 45rpm disk containing barely more than 20 minutes of music.

"We felt that Super Hang-On suited 45rpm because of the audio benefits it has over 33.3rpm," says Crook. (At 45rpm, audio information is packed less densely than at 33rpm, resulting in lower playing time but also higher-quality sound, as well as less sonic degradation as the needle moves into the inner portion of the record.) This also stemmed from practical concerns, he notes: "The music, which was sourced from the arcade machine sound board, was too long for a single side. Combining it with another title wasn’t an option due to licensing costs."

The Super Hang-On cabinet sounded as impressive as it looked. Image source

Cost is definitely a valid concern. Data Discs releases tend to fall into the upper-middle range of the pricing spectrum; at current exchange rates — the company is based in the UK and direct sales through its website are priced in British pounds — its releases sell at around $30-35. Gamers have proven to be quite sensitive to cost (one might even say they're notoriously stingy), and while Data Discs caters more to a collector's market than the gaming mainstream, the label's releases bump up against the upper ceiling of what many fans will bear.

To compensate for the price tags — an unavoidable side-effect of publishing relatively small runs of a boutique, licensed product — Data Discs ships its records in impressive, high-end packaging. The simple anti-static inner sleeves that contain the records may want for intricate liner notes, but they excel in every other area. The records themselves have a fair amount of heft, pressed onto trendy 180-gram vinyl, but the protective jackets are equally solid: They're thick cardboard, produced in a clean, attractive, European graphic design style complete with Japanese-style obi ribbons.

On top of that, most releases have included one or two 12" reproductions of classic game promo art (sourced directly from SEGA's archives) on heavy paper stock. Again, Super Hang-On has proven the exception; rather than come with illustrative prints, it shipped in a heavy cardboard sleeve emblazoned with a crisp screen shot, which slipped into an outer sleeve bearing a die-cut see-through window in the shape of the game logo.

The packaging, Crook says, "is entirely determined by what source material is available from the archives in Japan.

"Some of these titles are decades old, and finding the material can be very challenging. We handle the graphic design in-house too, and sometimes, if there’s a lack of material available, you just have to get creative. For Super Hang-On, for example, only the logo was available, hence why the die-cut design was chosen.

"There’s always a delicate balance to be made between elaborate packaging and affordability. These are licensed products with very high legal costs involved, so we’re somewhat restricted in what we can do, whilst keeping the retail price at a level we feel is fair to our customers. Packaging is an important factor, but it’s always secondary to the audio quality, which is our priority."

The limitations and complications involved in trying to dredge up high-rez art for 30-year-old video games has led to some creative, and classy, packaging design workarounds.

While the label hasn't announced any releases beyond Streets of Rage 2 (due for release in April, with preorders going live this coming weekend through the company's website), they've made it clear they have long-term plans in place. Not coincidentally, their release schedule to date has reflected both a measured pace and a sense of the company's larger mission. The first pair of Data Discs releases comprised two very different records: The danceable Streets of Rage, and the more orchestral and cinematic Shenmue.

"We deliberately released those two titles at the same time," Crook acknowledges. "They were chosen because of how different they are to one another. Between them, we felt they showcased the variety of music that games have to offer. This was an important factor for us, as one of our founding intentions was to bring game music to people who might otherwise never encounter it, or hold a narrow view of its possibilities.

"The order of releases can only be planned to a certain extent," he adds. "Some releases are more complicated than others and can just take a really long time to finalize. And that’s all before production even begins, which in itself can be extremely lengthy and problematic. For example, we had to produce three sets of test pressings for Streets of Rage 2 before we were satisfied enough to proceed."

The lengths to which Data Discs goes in order to remaster and present these soundtracks puts me in mind of the effort developer M2 invests into its remastered classic game productions. Fittingly, perhaps, both M2 and Data Discs have focused their efforts on SEGA properties.

Data Discs record releases are about as close as you can get to the SEGA 3D Ages experience in musical form — though the audio sounds a lot better on vinyl than on YouTube.

"SEGA are really easy to deal with, and we enjoy working with them," says Crook. "We’re lucky enough to hold the rights to their catalogue, which is why we’re focusing on their stuff, at least for the time being.

"Theoretically, [no SEGA properties are off the table], but everything is subject to the approval of our partners in Japan. They have to be happy with whatever we propose; and, equally, we have to be confident about the audio quality and commercial potential of any given title before going ahead. Often the composers themselves are consulted too. Everyone has to be happy, otherwise it’s not happening. It can be a very complicated process, but ultimately a very rewarding one."

SEGA may have lost in the console wars; yet with partners like Data Discs and M2, they're miles beyond any other publisher in the race to preserve their classic heritage. I'm looking forward to seeing what high-profile game soundtracks make their way to vinyl in the coming year — expect our review of Ship to Shore Phono's new EarthBound/Mother 2 record as soon as it arrives — but Data Discs has set a high bar for the rest of the industry to aim for.

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