Interview: Michael J. Sokyrka, NHL ’94 Music Composer

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for The Hockey News about NHL ’94 for the video game’s 25th anniversary. One of the people that I interviewed was Michael J. Sokyrka, who composed much of the music for the different versions of NHL ’94. We had a great conversation, but because of the sheer amount of information that I had to cover, as well as space limitations of a magazine, I was only able to quote Mr. Sokyrka once in my article. So, I decided to publish our conversation here, as it gives a fascinating look at how video game music — and specifically the music for NHL ’94 — was made back in the early 1990s. 

Sokyrka is a musician and a music teacher. One day, he transcribed some blues riffs for two young students to learn, which impressed their father, Rick Friesen — who happened to work for a company in Vancouver called Distinctive Software. The company needed someone with Sokyrka’s talents to make music for video games. Sokyrka took the job, and several years later the company was purchased by Electronic Arts and became EA Canada. NHL ’94 was the first of several hockey video games that Sokyrka worked on. 

Sal Barry: Had you worked with computers much prior to joining Distinctive Software? 

Michael J. Sokyrka: I had zero computer experience at the time. The first time I saw a mouse, I thought I had to speak into it. Everybody [at Distinctive Software] seemed to be having a good time. I was hired on the spot. I walked out of there thinking, what have I done, I just took on a job, and I got my teaching studio, how am I going to handle all of this? Needless to say, for the first seven years or so, I worked two jobs. I’d start my day at Distinctive Software at 7 a.m., and then teach piano lessons, and my day would finish usually around midnight. Then on the weekends, I was gigging.

SB: Are you a hockey fan?

MJS: I’ve always been a hockey fan. Never a super-avid hockey fan. I played hockey as a kid and grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada. That music had some inspiration from the instrumentation and orchestral approach to the themes in NHL ’94.

SB: What were the challenges of making the NHL ’94 music for Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo and Sega CD?

MJS: Sega Genesis was capable of playing one channel of digital auto, which could play 11 kHz 8-bit samples. It’s not like you can play a long sample, like a piece of music, because it would just eat up the memory. You had a really small window of what you could capture on that channel. Often times, it would be just as small as a snare drum. And then you had a bunch of different FM synthesis channels. You had to program those sounds. It was really restricting. Not only that, but the tools to be able to make the music play back was very challenging to work with. You’d get it working so it sounded good when playing back on the computer in the development system. But after the graphics and AI chew up the CPU, all of a sudden the music falls apart or bogs down. There were all these challenges to get it to work on Sega Genesis. 

On Super Nintendo, it was basically several channels of digital audio. But even with that, your samples were really short. And if you wanted to do something that sounded really good, it would bog the system down. Really, both of those systems were challenging to get any decent quality audio coming out of them. But that was the fun part of it. 

When we went to Sega CD, you probably noticed the music sounded more together, because that’s an actual WAV file playing back. It was leaps above Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. You were able to play one piece of music that was a full sample. 

SB: What did you enjoy about working on a hockey video game?

MJS: Well, I love hockey. That’s part of being Canadian. Hockey is a big part of our culture. That was just fun to do. Not only that, but as the NHL games evolved, so did my career in some respects. I ended up being an associate producer on some of the later NHL games. Then I got into doing motion capture. It was fun to go to arenas and set up motion capture facilities on the ice, and going to games and recording crowd sounds. I did do quite a bit of organ music. I did more sound effect work with the Triple Play Baseball video games. That’s where my career went after working on the NHL games. I worked on Triple Play Baseball for quite a few years. 

Michael J. Sokyrka in 2018.

SB: You did some motion capture for the later hockey games?

MJS:  Yes, for NHL 2001 for the Playstation 2. I was doing quite a bit of overseeing the front-end design, the graphics, working with the team. 

After NHL ’94, I went over to Triple Play. I was on that for about five years, from being a composer, I was promoted to audio lead. For Triple Play, instead of being focused solely on the music, I was overseeing the entire audio for the PC and PS2 versions of Triple Play. As the hardware capabilities grew, so did the elements that went into the game. So, there was more to think about.

Then I had to hire people to do specific parts of the audio. And there were elements like anthem singers, and all of these fly-in videos. There was a lot more to it at that point. And then, at the end of my Triple Play stint, there was a fellow executive producer who said, “why don’t you get out of audio and move into production? I think this would be a good career move.”

So, I worked for a few years as an associate producer, and to be honest with you, it was not my forte. I didn’t enjoy the whole experience. I just wanted to be doing music, because that’s in my blood.

At that time, our budgets were getting huge, and we had to have all these big-name artists in the game, so I was doing a lot of music licensing. Hiring different talent for doing different aspects of the game. Voice talent. That was probably the best part – working with guys like Jim Houston [for NHL 2001], who did play-by-play, so I was doing scriptwriting at that point.

SB: What do you think about video games using licensed music these days instead of having original music composed for games?

MJS: Oh, well it was a bit of an ego thing. It’s like anything. This is your baby. You’re making music for games, you put your life into it, and then all of a sudden, a producer or director decides that we need to spend $100,000 for a piece of music by a famous group, and that’s going to create a marquee value of our intellectual property or brand. That was sort of their reason behind it. I don’t know if that helps sell units, having a famous rock band associated with a product. 

From a musician’s standpoint, to be a manager of the audio, and not a creator of audio any more, that’s sort of how the industry was going. And that’s why started calling us audio leads or audio producers. It did take you from a creative, hands-on thing, to where you are pushing paper, hiring and firing people – hiring, mostly – and stuff like that.

SB: What can you tell me about the NHL ’94 intro theme for Super Nintendo, because I freakin’ love that. Sometimes, I’d let the whole tune play before hitting start because it was the music that I wanted to hear. 

MJS: I think it’s still a catchy tune. It sounds like your favorite song on the radio, but on an AM station while driving through the mountains with poor reception. The real version — the version I composed — would have been on better-sounding hardware. The studio version would have sounded fairly decent. But extracting samples from the original and downsampling it to make it work on the Super Nintendo is a few steps backwards. I think when I hear it, in my mind, I can remember hearing the original studio version, which sounds pretty decent. When I hear it on the Super Nintendo, I kind of cringe. But it’s the old story. Say your favorite guitarist picks up a crappy guitar and plays it through a terrible amp, and you’re hearing it through a terrible set of speakers. You still love it, because it’s the essence of the music that gets you. It’s not all the technology, right?

SB: Is that cowbell that I hear in the background there?

MJS: Yeah (laughs). For sure. More cowbell. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit with Christopher Walken, and he’s the music producer, and his thing was “more cowbell.” So, yeah, cowbell.

SB: What can you tell me about the menu screen music for Super Nintendo?

MJS: Inspiration-wise, the Hockey Night in Canada theme, because they used certain instrumentation that I was inspired from. The electric guitar and the cowbell and drums, that was part of the instrumentation. I tried to use some horns, but but the sample sounds pretty horrible there. I used that palette of instruments to create those melodies. It wasn’t a groove track, where it’s just drums or background stuff. It was very thematic, very melodic. And those instruments were a big part of that. That’s where my head was with that. 

SB: Was this part intended to be the horns?

MJS: That is correct.

SB: That’s strange because I never inferred it as horns when listening to it.

MJS: Right, yeah. Because they didn’t sample well. But then again, they weren’t real horns to begin with. At that point, we wouldn’t have the budget to get a horn section. And if you remember the early days of MIDI, the horn sounds on keyboards were always really cheesy to begin with. Using that, and then downsampling it, well, that’s what you got.

SB: The same tune, but for the Genesis (and which was used for the pause/menu screen) sounds vastly different than the SNES version? 

MJS: Genesis was a challenging platform to develop for. I remember after all those years of working on these platforms, I finally did make a piece of Sega Genesis music that I liked. It was for FIFA ’97 Gold. It was something I was proud of for Sega, and I thought it sounded good. 

SB: What about the Playoff Bracket theme for Super Nintendo?

MJS: I don’t even recall doing that, to be honest with you. That was probably a quick throw-together. I remember what we called the “Win Song,” which would have been on the Sega CD.

SB: “Win Song?” Could it be this? 

MJS: Yes, that’s the “Win Song.” That’s the one I was thinking of. We wanted something that made you feel like you won, you won the game, you are the champion, and that song came on.

SB: So, you orchestrated this theme, and then Rob Hubbard re-did it for the Sega Genesis? 

MJS: Yes, I wrote the theme, and then Rob Hubbard would have taken the MIDI file from my studio composition, and made it work on the Sega Genesis. But that is my theme. That was a common thing. Sometimes, that would happen. Credits were funny that way. He would have been credited as the composer, but he would have been more of the arranger of the piece. 

SB: How come this piece was not used on the Super Nintendo as well?

MJS: I’m trying to remember now. Too many years ago. Stuff like this would happen. It could have been a programmer simply deciding that he didn’t like a piece of music and deciding to do his own. That would happen from time to time, and that would really cheese the composers and audio guys off. We didn’t have total control over the audio. We’d hand our stuff over to a programmer. You’d have it sounding how you’d intend for it to sound, and then the programmer would take his own liberties with it, and you’d hear it back in the game, and you’d go What? That’s not what it was supposed to be. Stuff like that did happen in the early days.

Maybe that’s why I don’t remember composing that [Super Nintendo Playoff Bracket] song at all. There seems to be elements of my music in there, a couple of riffs and things. That could have possibly been what happened there. You didn’t always have the luxury to control your own audio.

SB: Of all the NHL ’94 music, which tune are you most proud of?

MJS: The one that goes duh-duh-duh- duh-duhhhh, duh-duh-duh! (laughs). (NOTE: He is referring to the SNES intro).

SB: Why?

MJS: It brings back good memories of where I was at the time. I remember the little studio I had at EA. I felt so good going to work. It was about the space and the people that I was around at the time. And that’s why I have the best memories of that.

Michael J. Sokyrka (back row, second from right) and his EA coworkers at an awards banquet in 1994. [Photo courtesy of Michael J. Sokyrka]
SB: Why did you quit the video game business? 

MJS: For that period of my life, I was really busy. But I’ve always been a driven person, so I continued doing that, and long story short, I stayed with Distinctive Software, which became EA. I was there for about 13 or 14 years, until our first child was born. When he was about a year old, I looked at my life and said, you know, I hardly know this kid. I looked at his birthday cake, with one candle burning, and went, I got to figure something else out, because I hardly ever see him

At that point, my wife and I decided to pack it up and move out of the Vancouver area and move to Vancouver Island. I was always an avid surfer, and wanted to be closer to the waves. I kind of had this different way of thinking how to bring up our kids; a more rural, country lifestyle. By moving away, I kind of disconnected myself from the video game industry. I thought I would continue in the business, which I did for a while. I did some contract work, and then worked for a local, small developer here on the island. But it became more and more evident that if I wanted to continue, I’d have to get closer to a major urban center, like Vancouver or San Francisco, and that wasn’t really in the cards for me or my desire at that time.

SB: Do you find it cool that NHL ’94 is still popular today?

MJS: It kind of baffles me. It’s kind of funky. Some rock band from Germany asked me if I would write them a song similar to the NHL ’94 Super Nintendo intro theme. I didn’t have the time to do it, but it was kind of a funny request. It’s interesting to see that people are still into that game. 

Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.

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Author: Sal Barry

Sal Barry is the editor and webmaster of Puck Junk. He is a freelance hockey writer, college professor and terrible hockey player. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk

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