It’s been a mortifyingly long time since we last checked in with Julian Kwasneski and Jared Emerson-Johnson of Bay Area Sound, but with multiple new Sam & Max projects happening, Mojo decided it was kind of an ideal moment to renew its vows.
I was a trifle alarmed to discover that the last time we talked was way back in early 2010, when Telltale’s third Sam & Max season was an upcoming game. That proved to be the last Sam & Max title for a good while, but now we’ve got several to get worked up about, including the recent remaster from Skunkape and the upcoming virtual reality game from HappyGiant. BA Sound is involved with both projects. Did you always kind of know the Freelance Police would come walking back through your door?
JEJ: I didn’t dare to expect it, but I certainly hoped they would. All of those scores are still among my favorite projects of my career thus far, and I always hoped I’d have a chance to dip back into those waters. Having an opportunity to do it on two separate new projects in a single year was more than I could have ever dared hope for.
JK: When Telltale closed its doors we watched a lot of long-time friends and collaborators face some really tough times. We also lost a lot of great games. There were several projects we were really excited to start/continue working on--and all that went up in smoke in an instant. To be honest, we were all in shock at the time and were more wrapped up in the human toll than on any one project--and I certainly did not expect to be working on Sam and Max anytime soon.
Let’s talk first about the Sam & Max Save the World remaster. How did you come to be involved?
JEJ: Early on, when they were first creating Skunkape Games, the founders of the company reached out to us to make sure we’d be on board for new audio content (and help updating and remastering some of the old stuff). In addition to being great work colleagues, all of those guys are good friends of ours (I’ve been great friends with Jake Rodkin since we were in 7th grade, nearly thirty years ago, and even officiated his wedding), so we were talking about it casually well before anything in the remaster was actively being built.
JK: It definitely started with a lot of casual “wouldn’t it be cool” conversations… and it was honestly very good news when the stars aligned and it came to fruition.
Jared, you contributed five brand new pieces to the score, most notably a new title track. Was there a particular opportunity you saw that led to these additions?
JEJ: I’d always been interested in taking a fresh stab at the main theme for Season One. The original theme was one of the first Sam and Max cues I ever made, and at that time, there was a good amount of caution from the developers about straying too far from the general palette of Hit the Road, so the original theme was somewhat limited in its scope, and, for lack of a euphemism, was a bit of a soundalike. On top of that, it was written before Culture Shock was finished, which means there were five episodes of content yet to come for which we didn’t really yet know the overall tone. I still like that original piece, but I think the new piece better captures the entirety of the season and Telltale’s version of Sam and Max. It was a hell of a lot of fun to have a chance to do it again.
I understand the soundtrack as a whole also received a little bit of sprucing up. Can you discuss what that entailed? I’m also going to remind the readership that the expanded soundtrack is now available from Bandcamp.
JEJ: Yeah! Aside from the new tracks, and remastering and re-encoding all of the original music, we did a ton of instrument replacement in various music pieces across the whole season. Instrument samples have improved monumentally over the past 15 years, and there were some really simple swaps that really benefited the overall fidelity and realism of many tracks. Beyond that we also made a number of alternate edits of a few pieces (like the “empty streets” track), to give more variety and provide an opportunity for more variation in the score, to better follow the flow of the action in the story.
The production values of the Sam & Max soundtrack have always been high, with a lot of live instruments involved. Can you introduce us to some of the musicians who participated in the arrangements?
JEJ: Absolutely. Number one is Jordan Wardlaw. He plays all of the saxophone parts and the clarinet parts in all three seasons, as well as the remaster, and he’s been the backbone of the operation from the very first recording session, all those years ago. Michael Whitwell, who passed away in 2009 (shortly after recording the parts for season two), was the main trumpet player for all of season one and two, and who really helped shape my own writing of the trumpet parts in those seasons. In fact, the “T.H.E.M.” piece was written specifically for him, knowing how well he’d nail that style—I really wanted to feature his virtuosity and creativity behind the horn. He was one of those “I’ve worked with everyone” players, who was humble, but proud, and incredibly easy to work with. Trumpets (and some flute parts) in season three and the remaster were played by my good pal Daniel Gianola-Norris, who has delighted the internet during the pandemic with many solo multi-tracked renditions of familiar and unfamiliar tunes, like this:
Jesse Wickman played drums for the first three seasons and the upcoming HappyGiant VR game, and Alex Aspinall stepped in on drums for the remaster. The trombones in season three were played by Chip Tingle, who has unfortunately moved out of the area, but we were able to get the incomparable Jason Thor to play trombones in the remaster, and his stuff blends perfectly with Chip’s fantastic playing.
I’d be remiss not to mention Jory Prum (who unfortunately passed away in 2016), and Will Storkson of audiosfx who engineered the recording sessions for all of the Sam and Max scores. Their attention to detail and knowledge of recording was a critical part of those high production values you mentioned!
The nature of the Sam and Max music really benefits from (demands really) the creative input from live performers, and I feel so lucky to have found so many great performers who “get” what this music is trying to do: the humor, the fun, and mood, all of it. It’s a great crew.
I’m always interested in the excavation work that goes into a remaster like this, which serves a preservational purpose as well. For me, it’s really hard to overstate how much Sam & Max benefits from the voice samples no longer being horribly compressed the way they were upon original release. That the higher quality sources were there to be used implies a well-kept archive of the original assets. Were you involved in the process of finding and restoring those sound files, and can you speak to it a bit?
JEJ: Absolutely we were, it was so much fun to dig back into our archives and find the original master files of everything. I’ll let Julian specifically speak to the voice, since he handled all of that.
I know a certain amount of replacement voicework was recorded, most notably for the character of Bosco. What’s astonishing is how you’ve managed to make new work recorded in 2020 coexist seamlessly with voice files fifteen years older. What kind of care was necessary to accomplish that?
JEJ: Take it away, Julian!
JK: Well, much like the process Jared went through to remaster and rework the musical score, the voice in this game was something that got a lot of new attention. Back in those days, Telltale was much smaller, and a little more like a dysfunctional family. There were many internal (often heated) debates about the amount of data compression on the dialog. The decisions being made were about trying to find a good tradeoff between data size/footprint and sound quality. Of course, we audio folk are always going to vote for higher resolution, but you have to consider that 15 years in video game time is a very long time. That said, as we descended back into that set of wav files, we discovered many files that were in need of some modern TLC. It really is amazing to see how far things have come in terms of the tools available to us to correct and master audio. For this release, the entire voice set received a meticulous mastering pass and gone is the quality-limiting compression that plagued the earlier releases.
As for Bosco - when the decision to re-cast him was made, it brought up many challenges, both creative and logistical. Of course, we knew there would be opinions on all sides of this one - which I will be honest I didn’t lose much sleep over. There was a lot of discussion about this and in the end we were all really happy with the selection of Ogie Banks as our new Bosco. Ogie was able to hear all of the lines in a given conversation and was able to really immerse himself in each of the various situations. On the technical side it was fairly trivial to weave the new recordings in since all of the voice had gone through a remastering process. When Ogie’s lines came in, they were treated the same as all of the other characters.
Could you elaborate on any other roles that BA Sound played on the remaster that might not be as obvious to players as the all-new material?
JEJ: In addition to remastering all of the voice and music, the new music, and the new edits and mixes of the music, we did a bit of additional sound design and provided the Skunkape team with the archival, full resolution versions of all of the audio for the season (music, sound, voice). It was covered a bit earlier, but I suspect that the work that was done to adjust and vary some of the music tracks is stuff that hopefully players won’t consciously notice, but that massively improves the immersion into the game. Since the Skunkape folks were making tonal adjustments, like changing the time of day for certain scenes, etc., having the music shift along with that was a huge improvement, and really make the world feel so much bigger than it did in the original release.
JK: I would add here that a lot of the work done to existing assets was about bringing their fidelity up to more modern standards as well as working to re-balance the mix levels.It’s not often you can go back to something you worked on so long ago and get to really get back under the hood. I will point out again that this game came out a long time ago, and we had to jump through a lot of hoops at the time to pull off the level and depth of sound scoring that we did. In many cases we just didn’t have access to some of the source audio… we had a lot of things archived but others were just lost to time.
Skunkape has made it clear that they hope to tackle the remaining two Sam & Max seasons over time. Anything you’re particularly looking forward to revisiting on the audio side? Those games only get wilder and more ambitious as they go on.
JEJ: There are a few things I hope will happen, but I don’t want to spoil anything. One lucky thing is that the level of audio detail in the games went up massively from season one to season two, and even more from season two to season three; so there are less “we must fix this” things in the subsequent seasons, but more “this would be really cool to do,” changes. More than anything, I’m just looking forward to the fidelity improvements that will come from re-encoding all of the audio without the harsh compressions of the mid 2000s!
JK: Definitely what Jared said here… it’s just nice to give everything a once-over. You want to maintain the original game and the vibe--it’s really a remastering project for a lot of what we end up doing.
When Telltale’s first two Sam & Max seasons originally came out, they received pressed soundtrack albums that were sold through the company store. However, Telltale dramatically scaled back on cool physical items by the time they made The Devil’s Playhouse, thus its soundtrack never got a CD release of its own to complete the collection. Is there room to hope that this situation can be redeemed someday?
JEJ: I assure you that nobody in the world is sadder about the shift in the merchandise policies at Telltale than yours truly. In fact, I was halfway through preparing season three soundtrack album masters when the policy shift occurred. Without making any promises, I will say that we will hopefully have something exciting to announce in a year or two.
JK: Jared and I have always been fans of soundtrack releases and we were certainly (no pun intended) broken records when it came to lobbying for them. To be honest we never understood the logic (or lack thereof) behind the policy shift, but the good news is, the sky's the limit now… we all are on the same page about soundtracks---we love them. Who knows what goodies are in store.
The interview continues on Page Two, where we discuss This Time It's Virtual and more.