Tee Lopes Lead Image NL VMGFest
Image: Tee Lopes

Fans of certain beloved Sega franchises should be very familiar with this composer's name by now. Tee Lopes started out on the VGM scene releasing remixed and reimagined versions of some of gaming's most beloved music, with a special focus on one blue hedgehog in particular, and his compositions and arrangements now sit alongside those of series legends such as Masato Nakamura, Jun Senoue and Yuzo Koshiro in the Sonic canon.

His talent and passion garnered the attention of the right people over the last decade, and in recent years he's supplied the soundtrack for the brilliant Sonic Mania (a game that's now four-years-old!) as well as the Mr. X Nightmare DLC for Streets of Rage 4, and his work will also be heard in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge and Metal Slug Tactics. If you've got a retro revival in the works and want to capture the spirit of a treasured series while also taking the audio to new and exciting places, it seems Tee Lopes is your go-to composer.

We kick off the Nintendo Life Video Game Music Fest — a season of VGM-focused features and interviews — with an email chat with Tee where we asked him about how he started out, how he goes about crafting new music for retro-inspired titles, and his first experience with the Sonic series...

Nintendo Life: How old were you when you began making music? Can you remember how you started experimenting?

Tee Lopes: I composed my first original song when I was 8 using a small arranger keyboard I owned. I remember the song well — slow and corny, but catchy! In 1999, when I was 12, I came across a very unique title for the PlayStation called Music 2000 [see below], which allowed me to sequence my music using a PS1 controller, and then save the project files on my memory card. I would then hook up the console to a boombox and record my songs onto cassette tapes that I’d give to my friends.

I took lots of inspiration from the games I played during that experimentation period. It’s curious that I started making game-inspired music using a game console, and now I compose for video games.

What were your biggest musical influences when you were starting out? Have your tastes changed over the years?

I come from a small town in Portugal, and growing up, my access to music was very limited. We only had four TV channels and a local radio station, which mostly played whatever was popular at the time, and there wasn’t a music store for miles. Because of this, video games were like a dimensional portal that allowed me to discover music I wouldn’t have heard anywhere else. Especially Japanese music, which I immediately identified with.

video games were like a dimensional portal that allowed me to discover music I wouldn’t have heard anywhere else. Especially Japanese music, which I immediately identified with

My list of influences is long, but I’ll mention a few names: Jun Senoue, Michiru Yamane, Nobuo Uematsu, Harumi Fujita, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Yuzo Koshiro, Shusaku Uchiyama, and many others. I can’t say my tastes have changed (and I’ve put that to the test), but they’ve certainly evolved and expanded. A lot of the stuff I find interesting nowadays probably would’ve sounded too odd to me some years ago.

What instruments do you play? Do you have a favourite?

I play the keyboard quite poorly at the moment — I’ve been training! Believe it or not, I sequence all of my music with a mouse and a QWERTY keyboard. My process involves lots of editing and automatization, and it’s a zillion times less interesting than playing an instrument.

If I could dominate one instantly though, I’d probably pick the guitar — everything about guitars is incredibly badass.

Can you talk us through your personal history with the Sonic series, as a gamer?

My fascination with Sonic began before I actually played the game. As a young kid, I loved the Saturday morning cartoons, the ads on TV, the merchandise… SEGA had a big cultural impact on Portuguese youth during the ‘90s. Sonic’s attitude and speed were the coolest thing in the world to me!

In ‘94 my dad bought me a Master System, which was SEGA’s budget console by then, but it came with Sonic 8-Bit in the internal memory. This was enough to make me burst into tears of happiness. That was the first Sonic I owned, and it’s still a wonderful game with an amazing soundtrack by Koshiro-san. I didn’t fully experience the Genesis titles until some years later, but eventually, I became familiar with those as well.

What was your first Sonic-themed musical project, and what inspired it at the time?

It was a quick arrangement of “Green Hill Zone” I made in 2006 to test out the sounds of a new arranger keyboard I bought. It wasn’t inspired by anything... it was just the song that came to my mind at the time. I showed it to a friend, and he thought it sounded really cool... and I guess that prompted me to make more stuff like it. I put it up on Youtube!

You gained a following and reputation not just through early work on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 HD, but through remixes of various soundtracks on YouTube. Can you talk about the role of social media and these passion projects in establishing your music career?

Social media played a defining role in my career. I remember, back in high school, I would burn my new music onto CDs and bring them to school to show my friends. Then, some years later YouTube came along, and suddenly I had access to this global stage that allowed me to share my creations with the entire planet... which was a gigantic step up from an audience of four or five close friends.

Without this platform to showcase my work, it would’ve been difficult for me to connect with the talented people I’ve met along the way; some who were key to many of the opportunities that would come my way.

When you’re writing music for something retro-inspired, how do you strike that balance between capturing the spirit of the originals while creating something that’s totally your own and not simply an homage? Do you need certain ingredients to make a great Sonic track, for example? A slice of electropop, a drop of jazz, a good pinch of new jack swing…

I believe a great Sonic track could be any style. Sonic music always came in many flavors. I think it’s more about attitude than it is about genre

Honestly, it’s not something I think about too technically. When writing for a project like that, I just try to create music that makes me feel the way I did when I played a game as a kid, and the ingredients I use just work towards fulfilling that vision. My retro-inspired work tends to mix well-established elements, characteristic of a different era, with my personal taste and influences, and I think the result is something new, yet familiar; kinda like what Bruno Mars does with pop music.

I believe a great Sonic track could be any style. Sonic music always came in many flavors. I think it’s more about attitude than it is about genre when it comes to the blue guy. If you’re familiar with Sonic music, this will make sense to you.

How important was working on Sonic Mania to you, personally?

Sonic Mania was the most important step in my career so far, in terms of exposure, in the sense that it shined a spotlight on my writing abilities, which had little visibility up to that point. That opened many doors for me professionally. I had composed my first original soundtrack for a game called Major Magnet In 2013, and although it won awards and lots of praise, it didn’t pick up the way we expected, so I remained known mainly for my game remixes until Mania came out. The experience also taught me a lot about the industry and the intricacies of game development. Before then, I knew little about that world. It was also a childhood dream turned into reality, which obviously feels amazing and carries a lot of emotions.

We’re huge fans of the Streets of Rage series and its music. Tell us a little about how the Streets of Rage 4 DLC project came to you and how you approached working on that series.

I’m a huge fan too! I aimed to make a soundtrack with elements allusive to the old-school themes, but with a fresh twist. Initially, my demos sounded more like what you’d expect from a SOR title (unused early demo found in the game’s data) [see below], but as I began experimenting with different genres, and as the frenetic pace of Survival Mode became more clear, the soundtrack evolved to accommodate that. These songs don’t have many breaks — they’re chaotic in nature and structure, much like the events on the screen, especially after a few waves of enemies!

When I joined the project, Olivier Deriviere and the other composers involved had already taken liberties that redefined SOR music, using more modern and even acoustic elements which were impossible to recreate on a Sega Genesis, so I continued further down that path by adding even more outlandish features; heavy metal, trap, dub, jungle and other elements we hadn’t heard in a Streets of Rage game before. I took lots of inspiration from classic SOR music, but also from old movies, modern music and pop culture media.

Each one of the five stage themes has two different arrangements, sort of like the “Act 1 / Act 2” deal in Sonic games, except the two versions alternate randomly in Survival Mode. This was a lot of fun to make, because I love rearranging and re-harmonizing existing music.

Do you have a set writing process or method for getting your musical ideas down? Does it involve recording ideas on your phone or jotting down notes on paper? What programs do you use when you work?

I don’t really jot ideas down outside of the studio, because my brain is usually in “receiver” mode... when it’s time to work, I just switch to “transmitter” and pour it all out

There’s not much of a method — sometimes I’ll start off with a catchy riff, other times with a drum beat, or a bass line, it really depends on the song. I usually write as I go, section after section, many times linearly. I don’t really jot ideas down outside of the studio, because my brain is usually in “receiver” mode, just absorbing my surroundings (or conceptual art from a game in the making), and when it’s time to work, I just switch to “transmitter” and pour it all out — whatever I’ve collected in my head.

My program of choice is FL Studio, which I’ve used since 2003, and several virtual instruments, depending on what the job requires. I also like to collaborate with other composers and performers if I feel the project calls for it.

From the outside (and especially as big Sega fans), you seem to be ticking off a bunch of dream projects, with fantastic Sonic and Streets of Rage games under your belt, and Turtles on the way. What other series or developers would you like to work with?

I always feel fortunate anytime I have the chance to work on a franchise I grew up playing; it’s like the kid in me feels accomplished. There are lots of properties I’d be excited to write on, like a new Castlevania, or Mega Man, or Street Fighter, to mention a few. Klonoa and Tomba! also come to mind, on the more obscure side.

I’d also love the opportunity to work on a traditional RPG one day, just to flex a more emotional set of muscles. With that being said, I’m always very keen on working on brand new, original titles as well.

Finally, your last name – we’ve heard all sorts of pronunciation from ‘Lo-pez’ to ‘Loaps’, but as we understand it, the correct Portuguese pronunciation is closer to ‘Law-psh’. Can you set the record straight?

‘Law-psh’ is absolutely accurate, but I don’t expect anyone to pronounce it that way. I always introduce myself as “Tee ‘Loaps'”, but understandably, I hear “Lo-pez” many times.

Many thanks to Tee for taking the time to speak with us. You can follow him on Twitter @teelopesmusic and check out his work at teelopesmusic.com, Bandcamp, and your streaming platform(s) of choice.