Meet Josh Mancell, the composer and multi-instrumentalist who revolutionized video game soundtracks with his synth-pop and electronic sounds. A versatile and talented musician who has also scored for film and TV, Mancell is a two-time Emmy nominee for Clifford the Big Red Dog. He has also played in various bands across genres, such as punk rock, acid jazz, surf, and psychedelic rock.
Can you briefly share your journey into the world of music and how you started composing?
I began studying composition during my sophomore year of college. I mostly wrote for small ensembles but I also composed a one movement orchestral piece that was performed during my senior year. If only MuseScore had existed back then, I most certainly would have used it instead of transcribing all the parts by hand!
I also studied the fundamentals of audio recording and studio technology. Learning the basics of MIDI sequencing as a compositional tool was fundamental to starting my career path.
Your Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter soundtracks are beloved in the gaming world. What was your creative process working on these iconic games?
Before I began work on each game, I was given pre-production artwork and was often able to play through certain semi-completed levels. This gave me a lot of inspiration for the initial demos for each theme. Of course, getting to the final versions involved a fair amount of revising and refining as I went along. It was extremely helpful that Naughty Dog assigned Dave Baggett as a dedicated ‘music producer’. We would meet weekly and listen to my demos before submitting them to the rest of the Naughty Dog team. We’d regularly make tweaks in real time and Dave would leave our meetings with a CDR of music to listen to throughout the following week. He would also relay any Naughty Dog comments or revision notes from the previous week’s submissions and I’d have updated versions ready by the next meeting.
One of your most acclaimed pieces is “Rock It”, which plays in the space station levels of Crash Bandicoot 2. How did you compose this iconic piece?
It took a few attempts before we agreed on the final version. My initial inspiration came from 2001: A Space Odyssey yet it was deemed too abstract a reference, and didn’t cover the challenge of completing the level. Next, I tried a fast tempo paying vague homage to science fiction films such as 2001 and Star Wars but it turned out to be too stylistically different from the established Crash Bandicoot ‘sound’ and also a bit TOO dangerous for the gameplay intensity!
We settled on a theme that starts out at a medium tempo and gradually accelerates to match the energy of the gameplay. I retained the orchestral flavor and added an instrument sound resembling a theremin – a very early electronic instrument used in many classic sci-fi films. The attitude of the music attempts a heroic/epic quality – which is simultaneously humorous because ultimately, Crash Bandicoot is not a serious fantasy/sci-fi action character or game.
Listen to Jessica Williamson’s stunning orchestral arrangement of “Rock it” here.
You’ve also scored children’s TV shows (including Clifford the Big Red Dog ), documentaries and films. How does your process change crafting music for completely different audiences?
My goal with every scoring project is to create music that feels like it belongs there. There are so many elements to pay attention to; storyline, visual design, physical environments, emotional moments to name some.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is geared towards very young kids (age 3-5 yrs) so reinforcing the storyline and subtly addressing the characters’ emotional moments are just as important as highlighting all the humorous content. Another goal with Clifford was to have music that’s warm and friendly rather than overly childish or silly. The instrument palette was mostly ‘organic’ (piano, acoustic guitar, timpani, vibraphone, etc.) and that established the ‘sound’ of the show.
Music for film is often used more subliminally. Filmgoers become quite aware of underscore music when it comes on too strongly and it feels like they’re being manipulated to feel a certain way. To me, an effective score weaves its way into the other film elements and, subtly addresses and supports what’s being presented. Of course how nuanced or deliberate a music cue is depends on many factors. This is where being a good creative collaborator is essential.
You’ve cited electronic artists like Aphex Twin as key influences. How have you incorporated electronic music elements in your soundtracks?
Only when it’s entirely appropriate! Aphex Twin (specifically his Ambient Works) have a very unique and evocative quality. The old cliche of ‘soundtracks to an imaginary film’ definitely applies here. I listen to a lot of electronic-based music because there’s so much variety and experimentation within the genre. It also features a lot of technical innovation – which is always exciting!
I scored a short film where I was directed to compose one lengthy electronic/techno-influenced music cue that plays throughout the film. I utilized multiple evolving and intertwining musical lines that shift and change as the story progresses. Composing in ‘layers’ with lots of build ups and strip downs feels very natural in electronic music. The film uses a lot of flashbacks and also replays certain scenes based on which character is telling their version of events that leads to the climactic conclusion. By having a single cue score, the music unifies the non-linear editing and becomes part of the storytelling. It’s fun to write film music that’s very upfront and drives the action (much like a video game).
You’ve also been a member of various rock bands and are now part of Exploding Flowers. What’s your role in the band?
We’re currently recording our third album and have been performing a lot this year! We, like everybody else, are thankful to be emerging from our pandemic hibernation. I’m the drummer, and have been playing drums in bands since my teens. I love the process of collaborating, rehearsing, refining, performing, recording and releasing music to the multiverse!
Are there any challenges you overcame while composing for a particular project?
Coming up with the music for the second Jak & Daxter game (Jak II) was extremely challenging. There were a lot of technical limitations as to how the music was composed and delivered. I was not able to simply deliver final mixes as audio files. The music had to be exported as MIDI files and every instrument was reduced to a single note that’s pitched up or down based on the MIDI programming. Additionally, each instrument sound file had to be downgraded to a very low sample rate to accommodate the limited memory allotted for music. This is how the music for the first four Crash games, and the first two Jak & Daxter games was produced.
What made this score even more challenging is that we attempted an ‘interactive’ score in which I composed extra parts for each theme that would become unmuted based on real time gameplay. If a player chose to use a vehicle or a weapon or entered into a certain level of danger, the extra music parts were there to address these gameplay elements. I’m not sure that I overcame all these challenges completely but with a LOT of trial and error I was able to come up with reasonably effective solutions. One in particular was incorporating areas in the game where there’s no music at all. Naughty Dog was able to program the music to start at certain points that felt appropriate and intentional - usually as the gameplay intensified.
How do you stay inspired? Are there any rituals or routines you follow to keep yourself inspired and motivated?
I’ve been following a dedicated meditation practice for about seven years. It allows me to slow down and recharge everyday. I’m also an avid and curious music fan. Sometimes I’m attracted to a certain melody or a particular instrument sound. Other times I’m drawn to how a piece of music is mixed in the studio. There’s so much innovation and passion which leads to music creation, it’s impossible for me to not be inspired in some way!
What do you believe are the key elements that make a memorable soundtrack that also complements the visual experience?
That question embodies the paradox of soundtrack scoring. It’s about finding that middle ground of being interesting enough to be remembered, yet nuanced and holistic with the context of where the music exists. There are so many different and unexpected ways to create effective soundtrack music. I believe the ‘memorable’ aspect is usually drawn from how memorable the entire project is. If a film is well-received and talked about years later, chances are the music played a part in that.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
I think it’s important to cultivate your own ‘voice’ and also embrace being part of a project’s larger whole. Remember, your ‘voice’ has to adapt and be somewhat of a chameleon. Try to compose music that becomes OF the project rather than something that’s disconnected and calls attention to itself.
Now for some rapid fire questions… who’s your biggest musical inspiration?
Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith
Gong (all varieties & sizes)
Man Ray (this would require a time machine)
Most memorable project?
For me, Eat the Sun (documentary), For the rest of the world, probably the game with that little crate smashing orange maniac!
And finally, how can fans make sure they don’t miss your next project?