Data Discs has only been around for a few months, but have already managed to release three LPs in fast succession. Their vinyl reissues of the music for the video games Streets of Rage, Shenmue, and Shinobi III have garnered acclaim from all who've heard them. Add into the mix upcoming releases Outrun and Streets of Rage 2, and Data Discs can readily be said to be the premiere label for video game scores. We were lucky enough to ask a few questions of the label's founder, Jamie Crook.
STARBURST: How closely have you worked with the composers of the music?
Jamie Crook: It varies. When you’re developing licensed products such as ours, it’s a little idealistic to believe that you’ll always be working directly with the composers. Sometimes, no matter how much we admire the composers and would love to have them more involved, it just isn’t possible. Licensing historical titles from large companies doesn’t really work that way. We worked closely with Yuzo Koshiro on Streets of Rage and will be continuing to do so for the rest of the trilogy. We’ve enjoyed collaborating with him. He supplied the original NEC PC-88 files of Streets of Rage (or Bare Knuckle, as it is known in Japan), which opened up many avenues for us to explore during the mastering process. In the end, after consulting with him, we opted to use a mixture of the PC-88 tracks and a direct capture from a modded Mega Drive in order to achieve the best possible sounding masters, based on the specific requirements of each individual track. Of course, he also had approval rights over the final version.
What has their response to these vinyl releases been?
It’s very important to us that both the composers and rights holders are happy with our products and I believe we’ve achieved that so far.
Given that video game music has been getting re-done, be it the Minibosses' or Powerglove's progressive stylings or the ‘Video Games Live’ orchestral treatment, what do you feel the original music has to offer?
People have been revisiting and adapting game music ever since its inception, including live performances (for example, both SEGA and Taito had their own in-house live bands – ‘S.S.T. Band’ and ‘Zuntata’ respectively). The influence of video games on popular culture has been immeasurable over the past thirty years, but it does seem to have peaked in recent times. It’s a confluence of many factors, not just nostalgia. The children of the ‘80s are all grown up and realising just how influential, whether subconsciously or not, the games of their childhood have been on their identity. In that sense, we feel it’s the perfect moment for a project such as ours. There’s something very satisfying about revisiting the original music, separated from games they were designed to accompany, and consider it as an artistic creation in its own right. There’s something strangely comforting about it all too.
An interesting point was recently raised on the Damn Fine Podcast by composer Disasterpeace that releasing electronic music on an analog format is somewhat contradictory. Where do you stand on that?
The vast majority of contemporary music is recorded using some form of digital process. To start with, a purely analogue recording has to be recorded to tape, which is (for better or worse) an increasingly rare thing. It’s far too simplistic to view ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ as binary oppositions; they’re simply different sets of tools for artists and engineers to use as they please. Some of the most interesting music, both past and present, is based upon the interplay between the two.
What has the response been to the three LPs you've released thus far?
Overwhelmingly positive, I’m very happy to say.
Do you feel that waiting until the records are at the plant, being pressed, has alleviated some of the initial problems had by other labels as they got up and running? Some labels do pre-orders before records are pressed, meaning months upon months of waiting, whereas your records are shipping on time…
The pre-order thing is a difficult issue and I think every small label struggles to find the right balance. We always ensure our releases are at the plant before even considering pre-orders, which means that we essentially have to guess the level of demand and order enough records accordingly. It was more uncertain with our first two releases, Streets of Rage and Shenmue, since we had very few reference points on which to gauge potential interest. At the time, no-one was releasing classic game soundtracks on vinyl so it was a bit of a leap of faith. We were never too worried though, since we were launching the label with two really strong titles, each thoroughly different from one another, but equally amazing in its own way. As far as pre-orders go, they’re pretty much unavoidable these days, considering the current state of vinyl manufacturing (although we are extremely proud to have offered our third release, Shinobi III, without any pre-order period whatsoever). However, we do think it’s somewhat unfair when labels consistently use them to fund releases; it’s effectively treating customers as a credit facility, when really pre-orders should be used to allow people to reserve copies in advance if they wish.
The obi strips has both the ability to lend all of your releases a unifying element, but was that intended as such, or was it to nod back to the music's Japanese roots? Is the record jacket design aesthetic meant to echo the way video game packaging used to have a similar standard? I'm thinking things like the original PlayStation CD covers and so on.
Our releases are designed to work as a series, so certain design elements always conform to our ‘house style’ (mainly the Obi strip, spine and label designs). The inspiration behind it has much more to do with Japanese ambient records than it does with video game packaging.
Is there a reason you opted not to include any liner notes?
No particular reason, but personally I don’t think they’re very important. In general, we try not to overload our releases with too many extras; we prefer to focus on producing great sounding records in elegant, distinctive sleeves. Too much hype, extras and marketing nonsense can spoil a release really quickly.
What exactly is the process of taking purely digital music and mastering it for an analog format? Is there anything gained or lost in the process?
Our audio sources (consoles, arcade boards etc.) are captured at high resolution samples rates and bit depths. This is then sent to our mastering engineer (in most cases, my brother) who prepares the material for the vinyl format, which involves taking care of the dynamic range and timings, phase incompatibilities and possible problematic areas in the frequency range. Then there are the creative choices we will make to the overall sound of the material. We intend our records to be played, to be an enjoyable listening experience and standalone albums in their own right, so we need to consider how to bring the best out of the material (for example, perhaps reducing some of the more grating sounds that you wouldn't notice on a TV, but suddenly become overly apparent when played on hi-fi equipment) and generally bringing together the body of the sound.
I wouldn't say that anything is lost in the process; after all, we are capturing the audio at a far higher resolution than source was created in. The main purpose of what we do is to have the music gain the characteristic and aesthetic benefits of the vinyl format. If our records were to sound indistinguishable from their digital counterparts (many of which are readily available to buy), then the whole endeavour, in our view, would be pointless. Personally, we really enjoy the unusual marriage of these two very different formats and the new sonic characteristics the process can bring. It’s not simply about producing the most ‘authentic’ or ‘definitive’ editions of these soundtracks, it’s about presenting them in a new and interesting way. Furthermore, we hope that these soundtracks will act as a gateway through which people can start discovering more about the vinyl format in general and the many amazing labels working with the medium today.
You can find information and purchase Data Discs' releases at their website, data-discs.com.