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A man wearing a cap and a leather jacket is surrounded by keyboards and synthesizers.
Tom Holkenborg at a keyboard.
Photo: Dirk Kikstra

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Sonic the Hedgehog composer Tom Holkenborg is obsessed with updating vintage sound

“I call myself a full-contact composer”

What does Sonic the Hedgehog sound like? As it turns out, a cross between Leonard Bernstein and Tom and Jerry.

Though Sonic’s leap into live-action film pulls motifs from the original Sega soundtracks, the score has more in common with older film music than video games. Leading up to Sonic the Hedgehog’s release in theaters, composer Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road, Alita: Battle Angel, Deadpool) hopped on the phone with Polygon to discuss coming up with Sonic’s film sound. “You can listen to [the original music] for hours in a loop when you’re actually playing the game,” Holkenborg said. “This is something that would not work in a film.”

Over the course of the conversation, Holkenborg (formerly known by his stage name Junkie XL) also dug into emulating Darth Vader to give a sound to Robotnik, warming up for racing video games, and the sheer magic of synthesizers.

Polygon: You’ve composed for video games before in your career, but are you a gamer yourself?

Tom Holkenborg: I used to be, and then I got a career [laughs] and didn’t have any time for it anymore. I’m 52, so I started playing video games as early as ’76, ’77, the early arcade games, which was like a standard thing to do. You were done with school, and the little pocket money that you had was to buy french fries and to play video games. The next generation of video games that I played were very early Atari and Commodore games like Space Invaders and Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, these more problem-solving games. Then I got into the early PC games, so I really skipped the special, dedicated Nintendo boxes and the Sega boxes. I actually didn’t play Sonic when it came out in ’91. Also, at that point, I was 24 and I was already touring a lot around the world. Gaming became different.

The only game that I was mega excited about when it came out was Wipeout for the Sony PlayStation. It was spectacular when it came out, and the soundtrack for that was insane. All these electronic acts that, two to five years later, would all break out to be the biggest electronic acts that we know. It was very exciting. Then I got into Series Formula 1 racing. Not for real [laughs] but in the video game world. I took that very seriously. I had steering wheels and the pedals and the gear shifts, and I would do stretch exercises before I would start the game because it’s like a two hour and 20 minute event, so you’ve gotta be fit and ready. That’s my playing history. Obviously, I’ve worked on 40 to 50 different video games since ’95, ’96, until recently.

I read that you used the same sound chip that was in the original Sega machine to help score the Sonic film, and you’ve worked on video game music for a long time. Has the capacity for what kind of instruments you can use or what kind of sounds you generate changed over time?

Well, I call myself a full-contact composer. What that means is that I’m not a guy that writes music on a piece of paper and then that’s it, or sits behind a computer all day. I love playing with instruments. I love instruments in general and I’ve been collecting instruments since I was a teenager. If you walk into my house, which is a dedicated house to be like a studio, the whole house is a studio, and it’s one big museum. It’s not necessarily because I bought all these things for market value, what they are right now, but I picked these instruments up in the time periods where nobody wanted them.

Talk about the Memorymoog, which is a very, very classic, iconic synthesizer. But in 1982, you couldn’t give that thing away. [laughs] Nobody wanted this. People wanted the newer DX7 or the newer Roland Juno-106 or the Jupiter-8. So they would literally give these instruments away or for fairly little money as a trade-in in the store. Luckily, I worked in a music store for four years in that time period, and I was able to collect so many synthesizers in that time period. Now, they’re worth a fortune. I mean, there’s one synthesizer I own, which is — I’m sorry that I’m getting nerdy here for a second — which is the PS-3300 made by Korg somewhere in the ’70s. I bought that thing for 150 guilders, which is 50 bucks, 60 bucks in 1981, ‘82. That thing, right now, is worth 75,000 pounds. And it’s a really shitty synthesizer. [laughs] It’s not even that great. There’s only four or five operational in the world right now. Vangelis has one, Jean-Michel Jarre has one, I think Giorgio Moroder still has it, Hans Zimmer has one, and I have one. So they’re expensive boxes. It’s really great to make music with all those different things.

I also have a very technical brain, and I really love the technical aspects of a lot of different things. I built my own guitar amplifiers, distortion pedals, and even my own small synthesizers and radios and amplifiers. I did it all. So when the video games came out and when I got interested in video games, it was, for me, relatively easy to understand why things worked the way that they worked. For this particular movie, the original Sonic game came out in 1991 for the Sega machine at the time. This machine was equipped with a Yamaha YM2612 sound chip, which was specially developed for a game console. To get a little technical here, Yamaha had released, in the ’80s, the DX7, which was their flagship synthesizer. This had a sound chip that was able to produce FM synthesis with six operators, and you would actually be able to get relatively close to natural-sounding instruments, which was always the goal. It was not until later in the ’80s that synthesizers were actually being used as synthesizers, but the goal always was to imitate real instruments with synthesizers. That’s how it started. The DX7 was pretty good at that.

Now, in the late ’80s, Yamaha developed a cheaper chip, which is the 2612 that we just talked about, for game consoles. But then, for their own product line, they developed the 2151, which is very similar to the Sega ship. This is a four-operator DX, FM synthesizer. And it sounds pretty shitty. [laughs] But it was magical in those days, because this was a revolutionary new sound chip for game consoles and also for the cheaper line of Yamaha synthesizers. Now, you could buy a synthesizer for $200 instead of $10,000. Lucky bastard that I am, I have all these modifiers. [laughs] So when I was working on the Sonic score, I started really researching that sound chip of the Sega, and I was like, “Wait, this is almost like the identical brother of these cheaper Yamahas.”

Real enthusiasts and real hobbyists and real purists actually sometimes take the chip out of the Sega boxes or Nintendo boxes, and they turn them into uniquely-functioning synthesizers. And this is a whole separate music scene, where they do live performances with multiple Nintendo boxes, multiple Sega sound chips, and they’re super purist. You cannot put an effect on it. You cannot mix it. You have to compose music as if it was released in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It’s very funny. I do not own one of those customized sound chips. I did look at it, but it’s usually done by hobbyists, themselves, and they don’t really sell it. My technical knowledge does fail me when it comes to buying a used Sega box, taking the chip out, and then building a whole new synthesizer around it. So I didn’t do that, but I do have these Yamaha boxes. They became very instrumental in the synth sounds in the score, whether it’s piano-type sounds, bass-type sounds, guitar-type sounds, and even sometimes strings or brass, it would be derived from those cheaper Yamaha boxes that are basically the sister sound chips of the Sega box.

Holkenborg sits in front of a million knobs and dials.
Holkenborg in the studio.
Photo: Dirk Kikstra

The resurgence of old keyboards and synthesizers is fascinating. Why are old — and as you were saying, maybe not that great — synthesizers in such high demand?

I would say 99% of it is just the sheer magic when you sit in front of a keyboard that is bigger than the size of the crib that your [6-month-old] son would sleep in. It’s the magic of those big knobs, it’s the magic of the incredible design that they really had down in the ’70s and ’80s to make things really look amazing. And then the digital synths came out and that’s where hell started, because now they went to a system of a super-small display where you had to scroll through hundreds of menus, then hit enter, scroll through hundreds of parameters, hit enter, and now with the slider, you could turn that parameter up and down. It was really horrible to program sounds on these. These analog synths, everything is right at your disposal, right in front of you.

There were also companies that built half-modular systems like the Korg that I just mentioned, [and] the MS-10, the MS-20, the MS-50, and the ARP 2600. These are all half-modular synthesis where the synthesizer is there, you can play it immediately, but with cables, you can customize the sound even more. The magic that that has, sitting in front of it, is really, really amazing. I would say 99% is the magic that comes off it. Now, the 1% that is left is the actual sound, and the sound is incredibly unique. It’s derived from analog oscillators. In the greater scheme of things, like when you work on a big production where synthesizers are a part of it, you will not necessarily hear the difference between these very new, incredibly well-developed plugins by Arturia, for instance, or the original synths. In the greater scheme of things, for many producers out there, it will not make that big of a difference. It’s different when you do a synthesizer-only score, that’s when it all starts to add up.

I did this album for Red Bull, a documentary five years ago, it’s called Distance Between Dreams, and this is an album that’s made 100% with the original synthesizers. Now, all those few percentages per sound are adding up on top of each other. So now, if I would switch between the same song completely derived with plugins and then the song all derived with the analog synths, that’s when you will hear it. That’s why these Jean-Michel Jarre records still hold up in their production, or the Blade Runner score by Vangelis, because it’s only that. That makes it unique. Or Wendy Carlos, the scores that she did in the ’70s, early ’80s.

I think it really adds up when it’s 100% that, but if you mix it up with live strings, live brass, and with real drum kits or a bunch of digital synths or plugins, the role of using an analog synth gets diminished, but only in sounds. The role does not get diminished of you sitting in front of that keyboard, and you really feel like the best keyboard player in the world. There’s so much value to that. Again, we come back to the idea of full-contact composers. Sometimes I have to write a string adagio, and I sit behind my computer and I just can’t get the inspiration with the string sounds that I have in front of me. And then I fire up the Jupiter-8, the original Jupiter-8 released in ’83, with a bunch of reverb on it, and I dim the lights and I play on that original synthesizer that has a history of 40, 50 years, and inspiration starts to come for what to do with that string arrangement. The magic you get from that, you can’t put that in value.

The Sonic score makes use of a lot of different kinds of sounds, from orchestral to 8-bit. What was the starting point for coming up with how the movie was going to sound?

I don’t want to sell anything short of the video game because it is such a classic game and so many people enjoy playing it, but Sonic in the game is a relatively two-dimensional character. He’s very mischievous, he’s naughty, he’s super fast, and he has his nemesis, Robotnik. In the movie, there’s way more to Sonic as a character than just that. We’ll just have to see when the movie comes out, if the fans love that or not. Part of it is, without giving too much away, is that Sonic lives here and he’s this incredible creature that is so ridiculously fast that the U.S. Army is interested in grabbing that creature and using it as a lab rat and just taking him apart to see whether they can find anything there that they can use for the military. That’s where Robotnik comes in, at first, to find him.

I would say this movie is the whole setup for the first video game that came out in ’91, if that makes any sense. Because Sonic is like a real creature, but he’s so incredibly lonely because he cannot interact with humans because it’s too dangerous that some of them might actually want to catch him and just sell him out to the U.S. Army. Sonic is a pretty naive character. He’s naughty and he’s mysterious, but he’s also very naive. A lot of the movie is really focusing on the fact that he’s such a lonely creature and he wants to have friends. He wants to hang out with people.

That partly dictates what the music is then going to do, and I can’t emphasize enough, as a composer for video games and for films, it’s a completely different animal. No pun intended. [laughs] The movie is a very horizontal way of thinking. It starts and it ends. Video games are way more vertical thinking, where there’s interactivity with the player, multiple layers that come in and out, and also storytelling. But the approach is just different. The Japanese composer, Masato Nakamura, did this really well in ’91, especially with the theme song that I’ve loved the most, the Green Hills theme. [sings a portion of the theme] It’s such a beautiful melody and harmony, you can listen to that for hours in a loop when you’re actually playing the game. This is something that would not work in a film, where you start that thing and you just keep looping it through a two-hour film. It just wouldn’t work.

The other thing that we found out in the movie-storytelling sense, purely playing video game music with that character was actually not really helping with the storytelling. It would sound too small for the big action scenes, it would not cover enough emotion when Sonic is all alone in his cave and he has no friends. There’s a lot of that to it. Yes, I tried to infuse as much as I could, and also the studio allowed me to push it more to that other side. What I did agree with the director with is that anytime where we had a video game-type sounding track underneath something, we would mute it and then we would replace that with a piece of music from an old Tom and Jerry episode. It worked a hundred times better. That’s just the nature of film scoring, and you have to acknowledge that. That’s also the job as a film composer, you need to enhance what is in front of you, even though you have such a personal relationship with the sound of those old video games. I really love it. I’m really emotionally attached to that, but I also have to be honest as a film composer: “Yeah, it’s not quite working for the scene.”

How did you land on Dr. Robotnik’s theme, which definitely sounds a little more classical?

I wanted to create something that was actually dark, but at the same time, it puts a grin on your face. For instance, the Darth Vader theme [sings the “Imperial March”], it’s dark, but it puts a smile on your face. “Oh, there he is again.” That’s kind of what we wanted with Jim Carrey. If I have to compare his roles, it really brings me back to Pet Detective. He was so fucking awesome in that. Jim Carrey is not the kind of guy where you write a script and he just does what the script says, he takes this role and then he makes it his own, and then there he goes. He came up with so much funny stuff in this movie, what to do and what to say. It’s marvelous.

When you write music for that, you have to take that into account. Yes, he is the bad guy, and he is not a sound person in the movie, it’s Dr. Robotnik, but, hell, is he funny. You’ve got to play with that. Sometimes juxtaposition of things that you don’t see actually emphasizes what you see even more. There are so many examples of that in film scoring where you see in slow mo, hundreds of people getting killed in a war movie, but the music underneath is very sweet, and that juxtaposition makes the image so much more powerful. The Thin Red Line is a very good example of that, by Terrence Malick. That is part of the idea of creating music for Robotnik in this film. Something that is dark in nature, but it immediately puts a smile on your face.

I read that, in addition to being inspired by early Tom and Jerry scores, that you’d also taken a little inspiration from Leonard Bernstein.

A couple of things come into play here. If we just talk about Leonard Bernstein, we’re talking about West Side Story, and the “Overture.” This thing is rapid orchestration, really fast and so well-written. Leonard Bernstein was an absolute genius. Then Tom and Jerry. Tom and Jerry, it’s this marvelous working relationship between Scott Bradley and Fred Quimby. The music composed for that, it’s such a craft, and that craft has really more or less disappeared in the 2000s. It syncs up with the pictures, so detailed, and the sound effects really didn’t exist in those days, so the music has to do everything. So if Jerry yanks the hairs of Tom, you hear a bunch of violins [makes gulping noise], you know, just doing that. Or if they try to run away, you get a very Flintstones-style [makes fast, plucking sounds], just like a bunch of bongos going nuts. If somebody falls down the stairs, it’s a piano that’s [makes crashing musical sounds], and everything has to sync up absolutely precisely with the picture.

That was truly an inspiration to then go to Sonic with these really fast action sequences, to take the best bits of that, but then put it in a 2020 environment, because that music from the ’30s is absolutely great music. But that, in itself, is old-fashioned, so you’ve got to take the best bits from it and then just redo it. What really fits in a 2020 film? For that super fast stuff, I was able to use the sound chips very effectively because I’m able to program really fast arpeggios with it [sings a few ascending and descending arpeggios]. That will do pretty much what that Tom and Jerry music did in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. I’m not dwelling on things from the past, like we just talked about the sound chips or even Tom and Jerry music, but you have to admit that the craftsmanship in the last century, when it comes to inventing these new sound chips, inventing what the sound of Tom and Jerry was going to be like, that’s just mind-blowing. I wish we had a little bit more of that in 2020 when it comes to video game music or film music. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying I wish we had a little bit more of that craftsmanship.

Are there any scores from other composers that you’ve listened to recently that you feel hit that mark in terms of craftsmanship?

Well, craftsmanship is defined differently. That started basically when punk music started. We all can agree that the Sex Pistols is a brilliant band. We can all agree that U2 is an incredible band with an incredible career. But are these the best musicians in the world? Some people would say yes, because they bring so much character to it that was never there before. I mean, the guitar player, the Edge, or the singer, Bono, they only need to make one peep of a noise and you know immediately it’s that guy, which is so unique. Whereas we live right now in a world where I can listen to 15 hip hop songs or 50 pop songs, and I mix up who the artist is. That was very much impossible with the Sex Pistols or U2, but there would another group of people that would argue these are bad musicians, and they will compare them to a star violinist or a star concert pianist, who studied for 30, 40, 50 years, every day, six to seven hours, to become that athlete on an instrument.

I think from the ’80s on, craftsmanship has been defined slightly differently. In that sense, unfortunately he’s not with us anymore, Jóhann Jóhannsson, but I felt really, really close with him musically. Is he the best composer on the planet? People that are fans of John Williams or Leonard Bernstein would say no. But people from the other school, and that’s more where I come from, for me, Jóhann Jóhannsson was like a film composing version of the Sex Pistols. Everything that he made was unmistakably his, and he had a sense for sounds. He had a sense for drama. He had a sense for incredible writing. The other day I saw Arrival again, and what he did for that movie is so incredibly powerful. On that same token, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who is now [an Oscar-winner] for Joker: Is she the best film composer on the planet? John Williams fans would arguably say no. I would say, well, you know, she’s pretty up there, because she created a sound for that movie, which you can’t take that away from the movie. The movie would not be the same.

For me, composers that speak to me are people that do something in a very original way. I was so happy when Trent Reznor won the Oscar for The Social Network. So many people were like, “Boo, boo, it’s just a bunch of noise!” And I was like, “YEAH! But, you know, great noise!” These are the same people that really take a shit on the Mad Max score or Deadpool, and I say, “Well, you know, this is just controlled noise. It’s not just random noise. It’s really by design. But yeah, it is noise.” It’s not like Mad Max is full of melodies that you can whistle when you’re biking to work. It’s not that type of score. So I think that’s very interesting in the time that we live in, that these two different approaches to film scoring, where there’s the very traditional form and then the very modern form, and I feel comfortable in both areas.

While I was preparing for this interview, I read a rumor that Michael Jackson had worked on the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Did you hear anything about this?

Oh, that’s new to me. Say that again?

Apparently Michael Jackson was a big Sonic fan and they brought him into Sega to show him what they had done with Sonic the Hedgehog 3. And he apparently wrote some music about it or for it, but it’s been lost. Some of the writers corroborate the story, but Sega has denied that it happened, so I was curious if you’d heard anything.

No, I love these rumors, but I didn’t have any involvement with Sega on this. I think some people on a higher level at Paramount did, because it’s a Sega property, or whoever owns it right now, so I’m sure there has been some going back and forth about turning this into a movie. At a certain point I had to send MP3s to Paramount that would be listened to by whoever is the owner of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s a normal process. Similar things would happen if you would take any other very well-known video game and turn it into like a movie, I’m sure a lot of people are involved. I mean, people like Stephen King are always involved in the movies that are being made from his books. So, no, I can totally see that. But no rumors on my end about Michael Jackson. I wish I could confirm something, but I simply don’t know, it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.