Yesterday we profiled Data Discs, a music label dedicated to publishing game music exclusively on vinyl — specifically SEGA music, having released LPs for four classic SEGA games over the past few months, with the fifth (Streets of Rage 2) due in April.
Today, I'd like to shift down into first gear and take a more in-depth look at the soundtracks themselves. (I told you it was going to be a musical week.) Data Discs has produced an excellent series with its SEGA records, each with its own distinct personality and a different approach to mastering and packaging. For die-hard fans of the games, they're each welcome labors of love; for music aficionados, they're excellent examples of how thoughtful production can elevate a musical genre most people tend to dismiss into something worthy of attention.
Data Discs' releases share a few factors in common: Most records ship as one of three different versions, all of which are identical save for the color of the vinyl. Besides the standard black vinyl, Data Discs also produces its records in a transparent or translucent colored variant, as well as a more elaborate limited edition available only through their website.
(Disclosure: For these reviews, the label provided samples of the basic, non-limited colored versions of all but Super Hang-On, which only ships in the spattered limited edition and basic black.)
Each record comes in a heavy cardboard jacket wrapped with a Japanese-style obi — though unlike any Japanese obi I've seen, these feel integral to the packaging design rather than disposable, probably because of their clean graphic design. Data Discs presses to 180g vinyl, which experts agree doesn't have any real impact on sound quality but does help make the disks themselves more durable. And finally, every record comes with an "extra" of some sort, usually artwork drawn from SEGA's archives and reproduced on high-quality paper stock.
001 | STREETS OF RAGE
A perfect choice for an inaugural release, Streets of Rage and its sequel command a well-earned reputation for being perhaps the best music ever made for SEGA Genesis, and arguably during the entirety of the 16-bit era. (Feel free to fight this particular dispute on your own time.) In any case, this record offers a stunning rendition of legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro's pioneering compositions. It definitely sounds like synthesizer music, but not necessarily what you would think of as "video game music" — it's more like a series of brief club music tracks.
Part of this is down to the quality of the drum track, which Koshiro generally produced on the Genesis' sound sampling channel for a more authentic, "live" sound (a trick he continues to use — check out the boss themes in Etrian Odyssey III for a more recent example). Koshiro composed during the ’80s and ’90s on a Japanese home computer called the PC-88; it offered similar musical capabilities to the Genesis, so his compositions carried over with few compromises. Sharp-eared listeners might be able to tell a difference between the two systems on this release, though, as Data Discs recorded from a PC-88 for some tracks and a "model one" Japanese Genesis (Mega Drive) for others. According to the label's co-founder, the PC-88 is better for tracks with a strong low end, while the Mega Drive yields best results with higher frequencies, like the "whoops" and sirens in certain stage themes.
In any case, Data Discs appears to have gone for an idealized recreation of the soundtrack rather than holding completely true to the sound your game cartridge output back in the day. Even the music sourced from Mega Drive hardware uses a stereo mod. The overall audio quality definitely represents a step up from the original game, especially if you only know it from playing on later Genesis hardware revisions. Streets of Rage blurs the line between game, dance, and pop music, avoiding the cheesy butt-rock typical to contemporary fighting games in favor of drum loops, staccato bursts of piano, and, at times, some surprisingly laid-back grooves. (Clearly, it was a slow-burning form of rage.) The sheer variety of styles Koshiro managed to work into the game while still creating a consistent, unified sound is quite impressive.
This release includes two 12x12" lithographs, one of the game's American cover art (which also adorns the outer jacket) and the other reproducing the Japanese and European cover.
002 | SHENMUE: CHAPTER 1 - YOKOSUKA
Data Discs' second release, Shenmue sits in a very different place from the label's other SEGA projects. Where you can more or less fit the entirety of the Streets of Rage or Shinobi III soundtracks onto a single record, that's not the case with Shenmue. The original version of the soundtrack shipped on two CDs back in 2000, yet Data Discs has gone with a single LP. How do you condense more than two hours of music down to 40-odd minutes? Through meticulous curation.
The Shenmue vinyl soundtrack excises literally two-thirds of the original release's content — it comprises 13 tracks versus the CD set's 39. Granted, many of the culled tracks were small, gameplay-related ditties, but even so the process demanded a certain degree of editorial discretion. I don't know if the record company made the final call on the track listing, or it was determined by SEGA, or by the composers, or simply by the realities of licensing costs, but whatever the case a clear and consistent theme definitely emerges as you listen to this record: It's meant to resemble a film score.
Data Discs' Shemue selection emphasizes slower, more atmospheric pieces, with a particular focus on Chinese-style violin. It's a slow, emotional collection, sometimes somber, sometimes sweeping, but always majestic. Anything resembling an action theme — be it combat accompaniment or the upbeat tune that played as Ryo worked jobs at the warehouse — has been cast aside in favor of a cinematic sound. The record makes some surprising omissions in working around this central theme; I can understand that, say, the strident "Hip De Hop" was left off, but the exclusion of Nozomi's theme seems odd given her central role in the game. Still, it does result in a very consistent and unified collection of music, which sounds like it could very easily have come from a Chinese drama but simultaneously makes me nostalgic for Dreamcast. (It's the audio samples SEGA used, I think.)
One subtle feature of this soundtrack helps sell it as something more than your typical game soundtrack: Nearly every track comes to a hard stop rather than looping and fading. It feels like a collection of "proper" music as a result, with compositions that feature a standard structure of beginning/middle/end, which you rarely hear in game soundtracks.
The record includes a single print: The same cover art used on the game and album, minus the typographic clutter. Curiously, Data Discs decided to use the game's Japanese logo for the outer packaging. I suppose that's the kind of stylistic choice you can get away with when you're primarily selling to fans of a property online and don't have to worry about fighting for Best Buy shelf space, but it definitely reinforces the notion of these records' obi ribbons being an essential rather than disposable element of the package; Shenmue's obi contains the English-language title of the record. Also, to make up for the lack of a second lithograph in this package, Data Discs gave the game logo on the front of the jacket a spot application of varnish to give it a glossy appearance that pops from the artwork.
003 | SHINOBI III: RETURN OF THE NINJA MASTER
The first release of Data Discs' second wave of SEGA records sounds much more like a "typical" retro game soundtrack release. The Super Shinobi features the sort of energetic action themes that you'd expect from a 16-bit platformer: Fast, driving, with a heavy emphasis on 4/4 rock drums. Shinobi III's soundtrack has a quintessential late ’80s arcade sound to it, filled with electronic instruments that sound close enough to the real thing to get the point across without being authentic enough to be mistaken for a live recording.
Listening to Shinobi III's soundtrack — recorded from a similar setup to that of the Mega Drive tracks of Streets of Rage — you better appreciate the wizardry that Yuzo Koshiro worked with the other game's music. Especially the drums; Shinobi III's rhythm track has that soft, staticky percussion sound that appeared in seemingly every Genesis game. It's not bad, but it definitely has a less timeless sound than Streets of Rage, and is less able to exist outside the context of the game it accompanied than Data Discs' first two releases.
On the other hand, the Genesis sound chip's ability to produce rich sounds in the lower registers is the MVP here; many tracks on this record feature deep, meandering bass lines that nicely serve as a counterpoint to the higher-pitched synthesizers meant to emulate traditional Japanese instruments such as koto and shamisen (you know, for that "ninja master" feel). The combination of hard rock, piercing synthesizers, fuzzy drum sampling, and classical Japanese sound motifs could make for a pretty hard sell, but the composers — Hirofumi Murasaki, Morihiko Akiyama, and Masayuki Nagao — pull it off. Equally impressive is the fact that despite boasting three different composers, Shinobi III sounds like a unified work; there aren't any tracks that feel badly out of place here.
In terms of packaging, Shinobi III comes with a single print, but it's double-sized: The 12x12" reproduction of the cover art folds out to reveal a wraparound image with the back cover illustration. On a more incidental note, the alternate LP color is my favorite of the entire Data Discs set: A slightly translucent (rather than transparent) form of vinyl in a muted red ("oxblood") color that looks classy and ever-so-slightly luminous.
004 | SUPER HANG-ON
And finally, the most unique entry in this collection: Super Hang-On. While each record has its own distinct physical and musical personality, this one definitely stands out the most. It's the only album recorded from arcade hardware rather than a home console, and it's by far the briefest collection of compositions; altogether it comprises only about 25 minutes of music. That's really to be expected, of course, given that Super Hang-On was an incredibly brief, fast-paced arcade racer.
The brevity of the Super Hang-On soundtrack allowed Data Discs to put this record out as a 12" 45rpm release — a fairly atypical format, though certainly not unheard of. On the contrary, some audiophiles prefer it, since it's the analog equivalent of compressing digital data at a higher rate. And whether it's the playback speed or the the more expensive arcade hardware that generated the music, you can hear a difference in sonic quality between this and Shinobi III: The bass lacks Shinobi's punch, but overall the music sounds much brighter and clearer.
Still, the 45rpm process does make this album a challenging value proposition; Data Discs releases already hover in the $25-30 range before shipping, and in this case you're getting a little more than half the amount of music for $27. That may be too steep a price for all but the most avid SEGA music fans. It's absolutely top-notch mid-’80s electronic rock, and it sounds spectacular on this pressing, but it's not exactly pocket change.
Super Hang-On's packaging also sets it apart from its fellow vinyl releases. SEGA didn't produce much original artwork for its arcade releases in this era, preferring to let the game's ridiculous high-end motorcycle cabinet speak for itself. The lack of worthwhile archival art meant Data Discs had to take a different approach for the jacket art, so they played up the game's best assets — its logo and its in-game artwork — by creating an interesting interplay between the two through a die-cut window in the outer jacket. When the inner sleeve is removed, the art printed on the inside of the jacket shows through the cut to complete the game logo in its proper coloring. The inner sleeve is made of heavy paper stock, and it features an in-game scene striated with orange and blue stripes. When inserted into the jacket, the stripes line up to create a sort of sun-faded effect on the logo, with the player's biker appearing in the word "ON" and the word "HANG" bisected by the game's horizon. It's a clever workaround, and the thoughtfulness evident in the artwork really makes it work.
While this album's price tag makes it a tough sell, there's something fitting about Super Hang-On being the premium release of this set. The original arcade game was prohibitively expensive, too, due to its elaborate cabinet — but the premium cost was worth it for the physical experience. Similarly, the Super Hang-On album is painfully sparse for such an expensive record, but it sounds (and looks) as luxurious as its price tag would suggest.