Still Crazy After All These Years
Marc Senasac is Senior Music Engineer at Sony Computer Entertainment. He has worked on Disney productions, engineered the critically acclaimed “Uncharted 2,” and recorded the thrash metal band Exodus. He is currently working with the Playstation music team on ”Infamous 2”, a large collaborative project involving funk band Galactic, drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia, Jim Dooley, and music director Jonathan Mayer.
MBJ: What do engineers need to know to keep pace with technology?
Marc Senasac: Some fundamentals never change, i.e. the speed of sound, how sound travels, or how electricity works. It also helps to keep an open mind. Movies and games are glamorous, but there are also podcasts, regular broadcasts, and news programs to mix for. Look at the production value of sports television. Every time I watch a sports game I am blown away by all the transitions and segues. Do not limit yourself by making your target market too small.
MBJ: What other traits are necessary for an audio engineer today?
MS: Music engineering, which is mostly what I do, is subject to trends, be they in games, CDs, or records. What sounds cool today, and what people want in their music production, is not what they wanted fifteen years ago. Being flexible and understanding this is very valuable.
MBJ: I understand that the music for Playstation’s “Infamous 2” is dissonant and heavily layered. Can you tell us more about it?
MS: I’m a facilitator of the project. Jim Dooley, for instance, would compose something, ship it to us, we’d mix it, and then we’d send it out to “Brain” or Galactic. There’s been a huge exchange of creativity. The music’s role is mostly to provide a structure for collaboration to happen. Not all of it was in person- some of it was Galactic recording in their studio in New Orleans, and some of it was us recording with a couple guys here in San Francisco, and Jim is in Los Angeles. So there is some travel, some stuff recorded live, and some virtual stuff.
I think this is one of the examples of a new product that didn’t really exist a while ago. They call it a game, but it’s really an adaptive movie/entertainment experience that reacts to what you do. It’s like a movie in so many ways, but you can control what you’re watching. The scores in games like this, or Uncharted 2, or God of War 3, have a production value comparable to a film.
We do record differently because in film, it’s a static medium, so they can get away with recording the whole orchestra only once, or they record the orchestra in passes. But the end result, the end target, is hearing the music all at once. In our case, we record the orchestra or other in layers, and then the game engine mixes that in real time. If there’s a high-tension moment in the game, like a fire fight, we can tell the game engine to bring in the brass. It makes things very complex. For me it’s very exciting and more interesting. There’s much more going on than a static medium, and we have to account for many events when we’re recording .We have to ask, “Hey what will this sound like when it’s played by itself? Will it sound cool?” In a 24 track tape or some kind of multi track piece, when you solo a track it may or may not sound interesting. In our case, we’re trying to create something that is always interesting when taken apart.
MBJ: In February, history was made when “Baba Yetu”, a piece by Christopher Tin from the game ‘Civilization IV’, won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists. What is the significance of the event?
MS: A change had already been underway in the industry. The Academy broadened this category to allow gamers to better compete. Beyond that, I mostly think the Academy’s decision will pave the way for a Grammy in Game Music. It doesn’t exist yet, but it will.
MBJ: Is there some new gear, hardware, software, or plug-ins that you recommend?
MS: I got cured from excessive spending on new gadgets working at Sony. I’m responsible for the purchases for 20+ studios. So whenever we want to try out some new plug-in, a $500 decision, for me it really becomes a $10,000 decision because it has to go in every workstation. So in some ways, I’ve kind of pulled back on technology and I’m trying to steer my purchases more towards the fundamentals.
You can do a great job with the default plug-ins of ProTools. And I don’t have time to learn to ride a bike when I’m on the freeway going at 65 mph. Right now, just because I’m in this ‘Infamous 2 ‘crunch, I think I’m in that freeway mode. If you call me in three weeks, I’d be trying out some new stuff.
MBJ: Advice for aspiring mixers/producers/engineers?
MS: I find that the more I focus on specific roles, the more successful and sharp I become. I’m a music engineer working mostly for Sony, and my discipline is really narrow. I’m just great at recording things. There are other people here who are audio programmers, sound designers, sound supervisors, and music supervisors. I would love to be able to do what they do, and there’s a tendency to want to pursue some of these activities—but I don’t. Hans Zimmer, for instance, has a collective of composers that are all good at a specific area. They all work together at what each of them does well, instead of trying their individual hand at everything. So my advice is to keep the target wide, but the personal discipline narrow.