Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Beta Test Presents: HEROES! Part 3

This is Part 3 of my blog posts on arranging the music for the new Beta Test Music concert, Beta Test Presents:  HEROES!  In this entry, I am going to talk about “Sonic the Hedgehog”.  In case you missed it, here’s links to Part 1 and Part 2.

First Impressions:

I don’t care what has happened to the gaming industry.  I don’t care how Sega collapsed down the stretch in the war.  There was nothing more important to me as a kid than the rivalry between Mario and Sonic.  I found myself on the side of Sonic even though I did not own a Genesis until way later.  I guess it was something about the grass being greener.

But let’s face it.  Sonic had attitude and a personality that really fit with the 90s.  He didn’t just walk and jump and smash bricks- he ran into walls.  He wasn’t some plumber cleaning turtles out of pipes- he ran around huge landscapes and spun up and down 360 loops.  And Sonic wasn’t trying to save a Princess, he was trying to liberate the world from Dr. Eggman’s evil plans of robotic domination. Sonic the Hedgehog was Sega’s show piece- a game that utilized the full capabilities of the Genesis.  Genesis’s “Blast Processing” allowed Sonic to fly through levels with superior vertical/horizontal scrolling.  This lends to the idea of speed- something that NintenDON’T.

(credit:  gmechfan)

I mean, this represents the darker version of the animated series (there were a couple series) but this is a lot more epic than say, this.  And please click that and please remember that we watched and it was okay.

Ellis arranged “Day and Knight” which features music from the Batman and Superman.  So I figured if we have the Batman and Superman rivalry, let’s have the Mario and Sonic rivalry.

Musical Selections:

We’ve played music from Sonic before.  Doug arranged Emerald Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 for a concert last summer.  We played the music in our smallest ensemble form (clarinet, sax, trombone, and tuba).  We could have played that again with some tweaking but I had started a project LONG AGO to play music from Sonic 1 and wanted to finish it.

Sonic the Hedgehog, composer:  Masato Nakamura

So, the soundtrack to Sonic is peppy, bass driven late 80s new pop inspired electronica.  And this makes sense as Nakamura is a fairly accomplished session bassist in the 1980s.  Here’s Nakamura on bass with his group, Dreams Come True:

(credit:  dissident93)

So I think my description is pretty accurate.  I mean, I’m still waiting to hear Paula Abdul come in during Spring Yard Zone.

My approach, again, was to pick well known and nostalgic pieces from the soundtrack.  Sonic 1 has very little in terms of music (18~ tracks including the intro, game over theme, continue theme, etc).  There’s a lot of great tracks but I felt like our ensemble would not be able to perform them due to the massive amount of polyphony that is requires to actually make the melodies.

I eventually settled on this as my playlist:  Green Hill Zone -> Special Stage -> Dr. Eggman’s Theme -> Starlight Zone

I really wanted to include Scrap Brain Zone but I wasn’t sure how I’d play that on tuba.  Labyrinth Zone was a good example of something I would have added had a had a little more time.  I wanted the piece to be about 5 minutes long and adding another track would have put me over the limit.  I still have it arranged so maybe someday we’ll play it.

Performance Considerations:

So, for Sonic, I wanted to use the regular ensemble with drums and piano.  We already had a pianist and a drummer for “Super Mario Land Medley” so it wasn’t like I’d be dragging them to come out and play just one song.

Tuba presented a problem.  The bass lines did NOT sound clear on tuba.  Since I’ve been using a bigger tuba in the ensemble, it’s been very difficult to accurately portray octave leaps.  I decided, after much debate, to simply cut the tuba out and pick up the bass.  I know that our ensemble generally tries NOT to be one of those guitar+bass+keys+drums video game cover bands but c’mon, this is Sonic and these are some of the best bass lines ever written.  I wanted to make sure that the original fidelity was intact.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Green Hill Zone

(credit:  truesonic1)

Now keep in mind, I covered this music directly from Sonic 1 and not Sonic Generations.  I know the Sonic Generations arrangement lends more musicality as it has real instruments and what not.  I felt that using the original allowed me more imagination.

Very simply, I just put the bass in the bass and moved all the other instruments into slots.  There’s a couple lines I had to leave out due to the lack of instruments to cover them but I don’t think I lost too much fidelity.  You’ll hear the bass, that’s for sure.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Special Stage

(credit:  SonicKAI)

This presented a challenge.  There’s really really heavy and dense chords in the wave parts that need to be accurate.  It took some time for me to pull the music apart.  I assigned the delicate chime sound to piano and the melody to clarinet.  Trombone and sax attempt to fill in those chords in the background as best as possible.  The drums sit out.  I think it works.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Dr. Eggman’s Theme

(credit:  Frokenok3)

I figured the Special Stage music would end, I’d count out 3-4 and then do the octaves in bass along with the drums.  I assigned the very high synth part to Justin on clarinet as… well, I like to torture clarinet players and the other incidental parts to piano, trombone, and sax.  The only thing I’m disappointed with our lack of timpani as the this track has pitched drums.  I tried to fix that as best as possible.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Starlight Zone

(credit:  truesonic1)

There’s no question that this piece of music from Sonic 1 is best for a small ensemble.  There’s technically only one melodic line played across two instruments- one that emulates a marimba and one that sounds like a trumpet.  There’s a driving bass line and electronic piano chords. Getting to the work, the piano, bass, and drums arranged themselves nicely but the melody…

My take was to assign ALL the melodic material to tenor sax and play through the form twice.  I’m hiding this late in the post but this will be Ellis’s last performance with the group.  I figured since Sonic was his favorite and he’s leaving, he should go out playing something he really likes.  The result is so cheesy and perfect that during practice, we all started laughing.


Well of course you want to hear the results.  This piece will be premiered at  Beta Test Presents: HEROES! on Saturday, March 3rd at First Unitarian Church- Chapel.  You better be there.

This concludes Part 3.  Parts 4 and 5 are just around the corner and will talk about The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past.


About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

2 responses to “Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Beta Test Presents: HEROES! Part 3

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