Behind the Groundbreaking Sound of SSX and SSX Tricky

When I think about SSX, the first thing that comes to mind is the sound. It’s the noise the board makes as it cuts through the snow; the electronic mix that plays as you make your way down the mountain; and the beatboxer Rahzel’s larger-than-life commentary that hypes you up as you land yet another gravity-defying combo. SSX and its sequel SSX Tricky redefined how sports games could sound, with EA Canada licensing artists, hiring voice artists, and experimenting with interactive sound systems to bring the audio to the forefront.

The result ended up appealing not only to snowboarding fans, but to music buffs and audiophiles as well. But this wouldn’t have been possible without the ragtag group of producers, musicians, and coders who worked at EA Canada in the late 90s. They were constantly fighting against marketing and top executives within the company who wanted to change the audio ahead of release, and had to overcome technical challenges and unforeseen circumstances to perfect the game’s sound. Over the last year, I interviewed many of the people responsible for creating the sound of SSX, as well as its sequel SSX Tricky. They told me about the project’s beginnings, the lengths they went to in order to license music, and why they believe the game still stands the test of time all these years later. 

SSX

King of the Hill

When former EA staff talk about SSX, one name comes up in conversation before any others: Steven Rechtschaffner. The creator of SSX, Rechtschaffner was the inventor of a snowboarding competition called Boardercross, and worked as a producer at EA on FIFA 1996 and the successful Triple-Play series of baseball games. He got SSX off the ground at EA and brought onboard producers Larry LaPierre and Adam Mackay-Smith to help make the game a reality. At the time, Mackay-Smith was working on the Need for Speed games inside EA, but he leapt at the chance to join this new team.

“I left Need for Speed and the team weren’t happy about it,” he says. “EA Canada wasn’t happy with it either. They were mad at Steve for pulling me out of that role, but I refused to go back. I still love those guys and wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. But looking back, I’m so happy that I went off to work on SSX.”

Mackay-Smith became an important figure in the development of SSX. While EA credits him as a producer on the game, his role would perhaps be more accurately described today as lead designer. He helped bring Steve’s vision to life and was integral in defining the game’s sound, alongside the audio lead Frank Faugno and the sound artists Ken Newby and Johnny Morgan. Like the other producers, Mackay-Smith was heavily ingrained in snowboarding culture, making regular trips out to Whistler Blackcomb — one of the largest ski resorts in North America. As a result, he and Rechtschaffner were responsible for bringing newcomers like Faugno, who had never snowboarded or skied in his life, up to speed.

“We drove up to Whistler and Steve asked me where my skis were,” says Faugno. “I said, ‘I don’t have skis, I’ve never skied before in my life.’ I had no idea that to see boardercross events you’d have to ski down or snowboard to them. You couldn’t just walk down to them. But that’s what I did! I got off the ski lift and I went hucking down the mountain by foot to where this event is. I think people were wondering, “Who the hell is that guy?’”

While the first trip to the mountain was a bust, Faugno ended up making a number of subsequent trips with the producers to the hills around Vancouver. He was much better prepared on these trips, putting mics on Mackay-Smith to record the ambient sounds of snowboarding. They got reference material for everything they could think of, from the sound of the board cutting through different types of snow to the sound it produces when grinding on rails. Not everything ended up making it into the game, but these experiments show just how dedicated the team was to getting things right.

A Musical Battleground

Of course, listening back to SSX today, it’s not just the sound effects that stand out. The producers and audio team at EA Canada also put an incredible amount of effort into creating and assembling a memorable soundtrack, with Mackay-Smith leading the charge when it came to the musical direction. He handpicked a number of the artists who appeared on the soundtrack, including Rasmus, Space Raiders, Politika, and Aphrodite, wanting to have a playlist for the game full of fun basslines and big breakbeats. 

“When we started SSX, EA had just started their music acquisition department,” says Faugno. “And they generally made the call with the relationships that they had with the types of music that we would be exposed to. What was unique for us was Adam had some favourites of artists that he really liked, and a lot of them came from the UK.”

MacKay Smith adds, “I had some favourite albums at the time – FSUK 2, FSUK 3, the WipEout soundtrack — all that stuff was kind of what imagined was the best video game soundtrack, so when we started that game, I obviously listened to a lot of that music and would go out every weekend and dance to it and stuff. And I started giving it out to the team. Especially the world builders.” 

The musical direction of the game was often a battleground. Marketing as well as top executives constantly wanted to change the music to feature other genres and artists. EA had also given Mackay-Smith a small budget for the music for the game — he estimates the entire music budget for SSX cost around $100,000, roughly the same amount of money EA’s other sports game FIFA paid for a single track. As a result, the team had to stretch the budget, approaching a number of smaller, independent labels in the UK, including Skint Records. 

“I remember we wanted freestylers as well, but we couldn’t license them because they stole so many samples from other people,” Mackay-Smith says. “We had to go after all these samples. Even Fats Domino is in one of the songs on the soundtrack — a song called ‘Song for Dot’ by the Space Raiders. So we had to call Fats Domino’s agent. He said, ‘You know, Fats doesn’t talk to many people. He doesn’t approve his music for much. But here’s what you can do, here’s his home phone number, you can call him and ask him yourself.

“Fats Domino is like a legend. He’s one of the originators of rock. So I was with the lead lawyer at the time and she had to call and be like, ‘Hi, is Fats there?’ The next day his agent called back and said, ‘What did you say to Fats? He liked you guys…’ He hadn’t agreed to anything in decades, but he let us have the sample.” 

In spite of the budget, the team managed to bring together an incredible list of artists for SSX. But they also wanted some original tracks too. As a result, Faugno hired sound artist Johnny Morgan, a heavy metal musician and DJ who had just come back to Vancouver after touring with the heavy metal group Fear Factory. Crispin Hands, one of the composers for Need for Speed and a friend of Morgan’s, had let him know that EA Canada was looking for musicians at the time, so he met with Faugno and gave him a mixtape of some of his music that he had recently played at a rave. Morgan was hired almost on the spot, and became an integral part of the sound team moving forward. He provided some of the funkier tracks on the soundtrack like “Gin and Sin,” “Speed Freak,” and “Top Bomb.”

SSX

Special Guests

As for SSX’s theme song, “Slayboarder,” that came from another set of sources. Not content with simply having Morgan at his disposal to write new tracks, Mackay-Smith also invited legendary beatboxer Rozell “Rahzel” Brown and turntablist Mike Schwartz, AKA Mix Master Mike, to EA’s studio to write some additional material. At the time, Rahzel had just recorded his debut album Make the Music 2000, while Mix Master Mike had just come off a collaboration with the Beastie Boys on their 1998 album, Hello Nasty.

“Mix Master Mike and Rahzel was an easy choice,” Mackay-Smith says. “I wanted the Beastie Boys, but the Beastie Boys didn’t license their music to anything commercial. So I went after Mix Master Mike because of the Beastie Boys connection. And he and I have been great friends ever since. I see him every year pretty much. Then Rahzel, he was a no brainer, as he had worked on NBA Live 2000 [with] Traz Damji, the audio producer on that game…”

According to Morgan, the pair didn’t take much convincing to get involved.

“We basically called them up and said, ‘Do you want to come to Vancouver and hang out with us for a week while we make some songs?’ So they came up and hung out and we booked the big studio at EA… So we had Mix Master Mike and Rahzel, and then Ken Marshall, who was our mix engineer, who came and ran the session with us.”

“I thought, if we’re going to do this, let’s create something from the ground up,” Schwartz adds. “Let’s play these Moog riffs and press it on vinyl. Let’s take some of Rahzel’s vocals and press it on vinyl. Let’s make a master vinyl with all the shit that we love and put it all on one A side/B side and we’ll hit the record button.”

Morgan and Mackay-Smith set up some turntables and a mic, and Mix Master Mike and Rahzel came in and recorded a ton of ideas for music. For “Slayboarder,” Mix Master Mike put down an instrumental, and Rahzel came into the booth to record a vocal. There was a little problem, however. Similar to Faugno, Rahzel had little experience snowboarding and didn’t know much about the culture surrounding it. To make up for this, Mackay-Smith gave Rahzel a list of words to work with, and within twenty minutes the rapper had written all the verses.

“It was one of those environments where it made you want to come to work…” Rahzel tells me. “It was just one of those things, you’re working with someone you’re super cool with and you gel with, and the guys that were producing the game were super cool. It was a great working environment.” 

These sessions not only produced “Slayboarder,” but the Mix Master Mike solo track “Slaybreak’,” which serves as the intro to Pipedream — a stage filled with ramps and rails that are perfect for ridiculous combos. It also led to Rahzel getting a more involved role as a commentator. 

While you’re racing down the mountain or earning points through tricks in SSX, Rahzel comments on your performance. This involved a ton of additional recording, as Rahzel had to account for every single possible variation or trick that the player could potentially perform. He wasn’t the only special guest commentator, with “Mean” Gene Okerlund (who was working with EA on WCW: Mayhem at the time) providing introductory dialogue before each stage. But he certainly had the more challenging of the two roles. 

This combination of celebrity cameos, licensed music, and original tracks put SSX above many of its contemporaries. But those weren’t the only factors that set the game apart. Just as important was how sound was actually implemented into the game, with the audio team making huge strides when it came to interactive and adaptive music design. 

SSX

Free-Falling

The early 2000s were somewhat of a transitional period for video game audio. With more and more games switching from MIDI to real sound recordings, it became much harder to create interactive video game scores. If you wanted the music to react to something that had happened on screen right away, you’d typically have to wait until the sample had finished the bar that it was on, creating a latency between the action and the change that you wanted to occur.

To solve this issue, EA Canada and Frank Faugno hired Kenneth Newby, a musical artist with experience working with generative music. It was Newby’s idea for SSX to get the stems or masters for each licensed song prior to mixing. This way he could play a multi-track piece of music, and then add or remove music based on some lines of code he had written. This aimed to eliminate the latency problem they had been experiencing completely, as the music would be able to change on the next beat instead of waiting until the next bar. 

“Ken was the first person we hired outside of myself,” says Faugno. We wanted to get somebody with a background in music that understood the strategy for getting interactive music into the game. EA had a tool called Pathfinder. That was somewhat dormant because some of the games we were shipping were not using it, but when we brought Ken onboard, he kind of looked at that technology, reawakened it, and worked with the tools team to bring it alive for SSX.” 

“My background was in interactive music systems,” Newby tells me. “I did that as an artistic practice, and that was why I got hired at EA… Basically, my code knew where the beats were so it could make musically intelligent choices to bring in or cut out multiple layers of music, so we beat the latency problem immediately.”

In instances where they couldn’t get the multi-tracks from the artist, Johnny Morgan was pulled in to remix existing tracks and create additional stems. This was the case for many of the tracks that Rasmus provided, like “Superwoman,” “Chartertrip,” and “Peaktime,” and allowed for some neat audio tricks. 

For instance, you typically won’t hear the bassline on a song in SSX unless you’re in first place, with different instruments in the game layering on top of each other in various ways depending on your performance. Additionally, there’s also a filter pass that occurs whenever you jump off a cliff or gain height from a ramp, which aims to evoke the sensation of falling. This occurs because the audio system is filtering out certain frequencies from the song being played. It’s these sorts of touches that make for a more physical experience, and provoked plenty of praise from publications like Gamespot upon release

EA published SSX in October 2000 as one of the launch titles for Sony’s new console, the PlayStation 2. The game went on to sell astonishingly well and received widespread critical acclaim, so EA Canada got to work immediately on finding a way to capitalize. It greenlit a number of other extreme sports titles under the moniker “EA Sports BIG” and set about creating a sequel to SSX, SSX Tricky.

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SSX

It’s Tricky!

In between SSX and its sequel, Mackay-Smith and Newby left the company to pursue other opportunities. What remained of the team, however, pushed ahead on the sequel, casting celebrity voice actors for the competitors (like Oliver Platt, Macy Gray, and David Arquette) and licensing a number of additional music tracks to join the material from the last game. 

One of the most notable additions this time around was Run DMC’s 1986 track, “It’s Tricky,” which inspired the title of the game. Whenever a player maxes out the trick meter in the game by performing stunts, a sample from the track will play for a short period of time to let players know they can perform their special. It was a genius touch and one that came unusually late in the development, just weeks before the team were locking down the code.

Faugno recalls, “Steve was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fucking cool to put Run DMC in the game? I love that ‘It’s Tricky’ line. I’d love to use that hook in the game.’ I thought, that is fucking brilliant. So when I mentioned it to Johnny, I said, ‘You know, Steve really wants you to make this happen. You have to do this, because Steve thinks this is a great idea, hoping he would bite. Hoping he wouldn’t go, ‘Oh my god, this is an impossible task.’”

“That actually came really late,” says Morgan. “He was like, ‘Yeah, why don’t we put Run DMC in when your Tricky meter maxes out?’ I was just like, ‘I don’t know, that’s pretty crazy. It’s bombastic.’  Eventually, I told him, look, I’m into it as long as you can turn it off at the menu. And I don’t think a lot of people know this, but in Tricky I do believe there’s a menu item that you can actually turn it off. So that was like my concession to him because I was like, man, this is going to dominate the sound experience.”

Getting the track into the game was by no means an easy feat — and not just because of the deadlines involved, as even accessing the tracks proved difficult. Morgan had expected Warner Bros to send over a disc with some .wav stems, but instead he opened the mail one day to find a big box containing the 2-inch masters on magnetic tape. 

“I was like, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do with these?’” says Morgan. “And there was only one studio that I knew in town at the time that could do this. So I went down to Bryan Adams’ studio, The Warehouse, and Ron Obvious, the engineer there — he’s legendary. We opened up the tape boxes and there were hand-written notes from Rick Rubin from the day they actually boxed them up. We opened it up and it was like a crypt.”

Together, Obvious and Morgan baked the tapes and managed to extract the necessary tracks, even uncovering some material that didn’t make it into the original recording like a Rick Rubin guitar solo. With the material finally in hand, it was then up to Morgan to find a way to get the sample to work with the adaptive systems in place. 

“Johnny had to take the Run DMC lyric ‘It’s Tricky’ and break it up. It was a heroic effort to bust that thing up — and I think we had like 30 tracks in SSX Tricky — he had to time-sync everyone of those samples. He had to do it over 30 times to time-sync and be in the right key as well. So whenever you’re playing the game and you get, ‘It’s Tricky’ it’s in-sync with the beat.”

“We got the vocal part isolated,” says Morgan. “But then we actually got it pitch-shifted to time-up to any song that was playing. So depending on the song that you had picked it would pick that version of the sample, which was pitch-shifted to that time. And then it would again, using our sync technology, sync it to the beat and play that sample out. It wasn’t easy to do.”

SSX Tricky was a victory lap for the team, with the follow-up receiving almost unanimous praise from the games press. It took what the original game had established and added some additional touches to give the game some added flair and a slightly more outlandish tone. 

All these years later, I still find myself fishing the PlayStation 2 out to boot up SSX and its sequel or looking up the soundtracks on YouTube. And I’m not alone. Fans have been outspoken about their wish to see EA produce a remake or a remaster of SSX for modern consoles. The games had a lasting impact on the sports genre and changed the rules when it came to video game audio. But while all is quiet on the remake and remaster front, SSX producers Rechtschaffner and LaPierre are currently working on a spiritual successor at their new studio SuperNatural Games. Here’s hoping for more music to grind to. 

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