I recently had a talk with the man responsible for a wealth of game music on popular titles. “Tron: Evolution“, “Mortal Kombat“, “Mass Effect 3“, “Borderlands“, “God of War 2“, and “Quake II“ are just a few titles that Sascha Dikiciyan, aka Sonic Mayhem, has been responsible for providing music for, and I was happy to ask him some questions about his work and the tools he uses.
How did you get your start as a video game composer, and why this field in particular?
Well, doing music for games as a career wasn’t an obvious choice at first, but I’ve always been a gamer and loved music. Growing up in Germany during the early electronic music movement, I was intrigued by the sounds early on. My love for computers helped, as my first venture into electronic music was through the Commodore 20 and 64, and later the Amiga 1000. It wasn’t until after playing “Quake” back in 1996 that I realized how music in video games was going to be the next big thing. After working on my first gig, “Quake II“, it just seemed logical to combine both of my passions and do this as a career.
In what ways did the music scene in Germany helped build your skills and awareness of electronic music?
I would say that growing up in Germany has definitely helped my awareness with electronic music. Acts like New Order, Depeche Mode, and Kraftwerk were on the radio all the time, and the 80s were synth-crazy. It was hard to ignore it as a musician. At the same time, Germany had a massive computer scene that furthered my curiosity about electronic music even more. Computers like the Commodore 64 featured a new way of making music with the advent of so-called tracker software. It was something I really got into, before I bought my first real sequencer, which was an early version of Cubase on the Atari 1040ST. So being into computers early on definitely helped build my skills quite a bit.
Any particular reason for the name “Sonic Mayhem”?
Right before I started to work on “Quake II”, I figured I needed a name of some sort. Besides the obvious nature of the meaning, it just sounded cool at the time and it stuck. While I have been composing mostly under my real name for the past few years, my upcoming EP is going to be released under the “Sonic Mayhem” banner. I’m very excited about that!
Some might find the job of video game or movie composer to be intimidating, given that it’s a lesser-covered part of music media. Would you say there’s anything to be nervous about in your profession?
I wouldn’t say that there’s anything to be nervous about, so to speak. However, certain situations might arise that can be challenging, especially if you’re just getting started today. The hardest part of this job for me has always been to keep up the innovation level. With each job, I feel like I have to reinvent myself. And when you’re busy scoring multiple titles a year, the pressure can be a struggle, especially if you’re facing tough deadlines on top of that. Basically, you need to always have your game on.
Since our job is such a seldom-covered profession, many people have no idea what goes into making a score. There are production expectations that can be unrealistic for the budget you have, but it doesn’t matter; you still have to pull through and deliver something amazing. And we compete directly with movie composers now, so you’ll need thick skin to succeed.
You’ve had a diverse range of employers, From Bioware and Sony to Disney and Ubisoft. How do these companies differ in their demands, expectations and creative atmosphere?
Well I can’t get into too much detail or it will get me into trouble (laughs). But seriously, each one of them has their own way of doing things. For example, Gearbox, who I worked on “Borderlands 1” and “2” with, have a much different, more relaxed vibe than Ubisoft. Not in a negative way, it’s just different.
Personally, Bioware is one of my favorites because they’re extremely passionate about their games, and whilst we always had to follow certain musical guidelines, they also let us do our thing.
Sony is another company I respect very much as well. They have an amazing in-house audio team that will make your music sound like a billion bucks. I’m usually never happy with my own mixes but after I heard what Sony did with my score for “MAG” I was blown away.
I like Ubisoft because they are very firm with deadlines and I have become friends with a lot of people who work there over the years. So it’s a bit of a family affair.
As a composer, who acts as the go-between for you and the video game company?
If you mean business-wise then it’s my agent over at Cool Music Ltd. If you’re talking music and the creative aspect in general, then it’s usually the Audio Director or Lead who works on the game itself.
When you talk about some of the artists that have influenced your soundtrack work, like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, it’s not often I see mainstream names pop up. Do you think underground genres offer up more to learn, in terms of creativity and production than the commercial ones?
Generally speaking, I think you can learn equally from both. The trick is to not get too influenced by what’s mainstream at the moment. Instead, maybe take a few elements and apply them to something new. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, people like Vangelis were on the bleeding edge of technology and pushed boundaries. To this day, if you watch Blade Runner, the music will blow your mind; it inspires me more than anything that’s out today. I think that’s exactly why lots of other artists these days look back to the 80s and early 90s for inspiration, including myself. With the rise of the modular synths lately, you can tell that there is some sort of analog renaissance happening, and a lot of that has to do with underground artists and how people created music in the past.
Game have remained something that the average gamer and even the media considers to be a default element of the experience. Does it bother you that game composers are somewhat overlooked by the game industry and fans?
I think over the last couple of years, music in games has gathered a lot of positive attention, and I like to think that most gamers value a good soundtrack these days. Of course, from a technical point of view I have no control over how people experience the game and its score, but I also think it depends on the game itself. Take the Mass Effect franchise for example. During “Mass Effect 3’s” release last year, my Twitter feed exploded with people saying how much they loved the score. Those people are very passionate about the music and it really makes you feel like all the work paid off.
Maybe in non-story driven games, music is to an extent less important to the average gamer, which I personally have no problem with. I play a lot of multiplayer games like “Battlefield“, and the music isn’t something that I’d want to listen to much anyways. It’s more about the shared online experience at that point.
Were there any major hurdles that you had to overcome in your career thus far?
After I realized that music for video games would be huge, everyone around me thought I’d lost it. At the time, very few people were doing work in this industry and it was extremely frustrating having to break the stereotypical image that game composers had. I remember being back home and telling people about my plans and goals, which were met with laughter and a pat on the back. They’d just say, “Good luck with that “. But I kept on going, and now looking back, landing my first gig with “Quake II” was relatively easy, since there wasn’t too much competition at the time. It was afterwards that things got more difficult.
I wasn’t really the type of composer that wanted to be good at all styles. I knew what I liked, and I wanted to write scores with my own sound. But my agent told me to try and be more diverse, otherwise I might not be able to make a living out of this. So I had to learn to adjust a little bit, which was not easy. But it’s just one of those things; in order to gain you’ve got to give a little. So I started to collaborate and include orchestral elements in most scores. I figured that at some point people will hire me for what I really want do. In retrospect, I think a lot of people will find out that just making your own noise might not get you anywhere at first. You have to be able to adapt, and then when it’s time, you can break out and do your thing. That’s where I’m at right now.
Were there times where you ran into issues whilst composing for games that required you to learn new things?
Looking back, when I started with “Quake II”, I had no idea about anything. Really, I was just out of school. I thought I was the best, even though I’d had never seen a real contract in my life, and a lot of mistakes were made. But it’s just one of those things; you have to make some mistakes in order to learn from them. Each project afterwards brought new challenges to the table. From “Warhammer“, where I had to learn a ton of mixing skills to make a 60-piece orchestra sound like it’s a 100 people playing, to “Mass Effect”, where I did a lot of research to find out how Vangelis got that “Blade Runner” sound. So on the production front, the learning aspect never stops. For my latest scoring gig, “The Long Dark” we’re actually building several custom instruments from scratch. So there’s a totally new set of skills required for that.
Can you talk about some of the frustrations that soundtrack composers have to endure, from deadlines to producer demands or odd requests from developers?
I think the most frustrating thing is when you get hired to do one type of sound, only to find yourself having to do something you really don’t feel comfortable writing. Sure, a composer needs to do many styles, but no-one is good at everything. And I have extremely high standards. So when I get a request for a Skrillex-style track, unless I could do it better than him, why even try it? It’s a risk to bring this up to the client of course, because in the end it’s my job. But I’m not doing this solely for the money, and if I feel I can’t excel at the task, then it gets rough.
Strangely, tight deadlines have never bothered me, as I tend to work better under them. I think the oddest request I had dates a few years back when we were working on “Beowulf” with Ubisoft. There’s the famous drinking song scene with a rather unusual set of lyrics. So they wanted us to record something for the game, sort of like a placeholder sound. While I was talking to the music director, he noticed that I could do the required accent quite well. So I had to bite the bullet and record it myself, singing the virgin’s song with an accent. But I had to make it sound like a party of 20-30 drunken people are doing it. I think everyone at Ubisoft died laughing when they heard the end results.
All musicians eventually fall victim to writers block. Does that look different when working on a soundtrack or score?
That’s an interesting question. I think everyone has writers block at some point. My brain is so used to writing music for visual media that I find it’s really hard for me to write stuff without any sort of visual reference, which may sound strange. Usually when I work on a game score, it’s very rare that I run into some kind of roadblock.
“Tron” and “Mass Effect 3” are two games that provided us with stunning artwork. I usually print out some favorites and hang them all over the studio. Just looking at them will put me in a certain mood, and I can translate the colors into music.
When I started to work on my own artist EP, however, it’s been anything but easy. I suddenly realized that writing songs was a lot harder just because the visuals were missing. But the solution was interesting: I came up with my own setting and story. If you will, my “Doomsday“ EP, is a soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist. The story is rather thin, but it really helped me get back into the writing process.
Whilst many up-and-coming producers are off chasing the DJ lifestyle of pumping out singles aimed at Beatport charts and touring off that, you work clearly shows that those same production skills could be applied to a variety of other uses with electronic music. Do you think that the other professions such as soundtrack composer could use more highlighting in popular media?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s very difficult for us to gain any sort of real notoriety. Video games were finally included into this year’s Grammy awards for the “Soundtrack In Visual Media” category, together with movie scores. That’s great and all, but I’d really like to see video games themselves having their own category one day just so more games scores have a chance to get nominated. But it’s a great first step that will allow today’s and tomorrow’s composers to gain a lot more attention than they could have had five years ago.
Also, I’d love to have a chance to build an intimate live show and take one of my future soundtrack projects on the road. I think it would help the game and the artist. I’m planning to do something along those lines with my own music next year. I think mixing unique scores with unique visuals is really something people would enjoy. Especially coming from a game composer.
How long did it take you to raise your sound design skills to a level where you were comfortable in creating the sounds you had in your head?
To be honest, it’s an ongoing process and I’m still somewhat struggling a bit with my own comfort level. I always push harder, trying to find more interesting sounds. For the past two years I’ve been getting deeper into modular synths, simply because I have always thought that things got so predictable with computers. I missed turning knobs and using cables, and waiting for musical accidents to happen. It’s cool and easy to come up with crazy sounds and all, but if you can’t apply them in a proper musical way then they’re useless.
In this world of abundant sample packs, many producers discard sound design altogether, perhaps out of fear, as well as laziness. How would you explain to a budding producer about the importance of learning sound design, and why it matters?
Well coming from the old school, from the days of limited sample memory and no VST’s, I can only say that I’m glad to have experienced all of that, and the limits that came with it. They really pushed you to learn every trick to get the most out of it. I still have my Juno 106 and it’s a very simple synth in my opinion, but you wouldn’t believe the sounds you’d still get out of it. So what I’m saying is, sure sample packs are cool, and I’ve used old samples of breakbeats like everyone else, but I could never see myself using pre-played basslines on my tracks. Even I have produced sample content (1999 Noize loops and in 2003 Toxic Textures) but the problem today is that technology allows everyone with a tiny bit of talent to be a ‘musician’. That’s fine if you’re just doing music as a hobby. But if you’re serious about making electronic music as a career, besides the basic music knowledge, knowing how to create new sounds or manipulate sound in a musical way, will be the most important thing you’d want to learn. The goal is to invent and find your own sound identity in the long run.
You’ve advocated the use of the iPad as a music-making device. To what lengths would you say that low-budget producers could use iPad plugins to create complete musical works?
Two years ago when I told people that I was using the iPad to create pads for the “Mass Effect 3” score, they laughed and called me crazy. But these days, when you see studio pictures of various artists, you will most likely see at least one iPad somewhere in their setup; it’s a serious tool now. From small-time musicians to some of the biggest names in the industry, everyone is using it because you can create very complex sounds in a much more intuitive way than with just the computer. Check out the NAVE synth by Waldorf; I made a Sonic Mayhem preset bank for it. It blows many serious VST’s out of the water, and I’m using it on all of my projects.
Speaking of plugins, I’ve heard that you’ve made heavy use of 2C Audio’s reverb plugins.
B2 from 2C Audio is what I use the most. Andrew (one of the founders) is also a good friend of mine and also helps me from time to time with some additional sound design. Their plugins are brilliant and I’m a big fan of algorithmic reverbs, so B2 is really amazing, and can do anything from crazy delays to extreme granular sound-mangling.
Are there any other go-to plugins that you use a lot?
Sonnox Inflator and Limiter. These two are built into my Cubase template. Inflator is great at adding some high end sprinkle without changing the dynamics drastically; it’s like a magic EQ. The limiter just adds a little more juice when needed.
I use most of the 2C Audio plugins for obvious reasons.
I still feel very close to Native Instrument’s FM8. It’s just very deep, and always has a surprise in store for you, which is why it’s one of my go-to synths.
You’ve stated before that you don’t like to use synth presets for your sounds. Does this mean you design everything from scratch?
If you find a preset, and it does it’s job and works well within the context, there’s nothing wrong with using it. After all, they are made for just that reason. Personally, however, I prefer not to use them, but it really depends on how much time there is for any given project. Like for “Tron: Evolution”, I spent a good month just creating sounds before I even wrote a single minute of music. Whether that’s synth presets, drum sounds or any type of other sound. That’s just the way I like to work.
For the past two years I’ve started to get deep into modular synths, as I mentioned earlier. The fun part about them is that after you pull the cables out, the preset is gone. I like that you never know what you’re going to create, and when you do come up with something cool, it’s always 100% unique Of course, it takes time and skill, but so far my efforts have been worthwhile, and currently there’s a huge uprise within the Eurorack modular world, so I suppose many others feel the same way.
Can you tell me what your work space looks like, gear-wise?
I use mainly a custom-built PC with Windows 7 running Cubase, Ableton Live and a ton of other software. I used to have several slave machines, but I hated dealing with them, so now I have only one PC doing it all with a better CPU.
My entire Digital I/O is made out of RME hardware, with my main speakers being the Focal Twin6 Be’s. Those speakers have really changed the way I mix. I also have all kinds of low-quality computer speakers to check mixes on. It’s not really an enjoyable experience, but listening to them tends to resolve issues pretty quickly.
I’m also using the Dangerous Music D-Box for analog summoning. It’s confusing at first, but it totally changed the way I work, and my mixes sound a lot better now.
All of my keyboards and iPads go through various pre-amps, like the Chandler TG2.
And what do you have in terms of synths?
I have the Korg MS2000, the Korg Prophecy and the Juno 106, which i still use everyday. The new Prophet 12 by Dave Smith is my new favorite one at the moment. But the biggest addition to my studio has been the Eurorack modular systems, which I started using about two years ago. It’s a rabbit hole once you start; you can’t stop buying modules.
I also use a proprietary sound design workstation with the Kyma X software.
Do you do all your mixing and mastering, in addition to composing?
It really depends on the project. For example; the “Space Marine” score was all mixed by me, including the live orchestra that was recorded at Skywalker Ranch. The “Mass Effect 3” score was mixed by me as well. However, some companies prefer to do the mixing themselves, in which case I bounce them the audio stems. For the upcoming “Dead Rising 3” score, Capcom Vancouver’s Music Director and composer, Oleksa Lozowchuk is mixing the entire score in-house.
As far as mastering goes, when I submit my music for review, I might add a bit of limiting to it. Most of the times, the final track gets delivered unmastered. Again, unless it’s requested of course, the audio team of whatever game will usually do that once the audio is implemented in the game.
As far as plugins go, what would you recommend to new producers who struggle to find tools they are comfortable with?
I think it’s easy to fall into the hype of plugins. “Oh, this new one will make your mixes sound amazing “. But, it’s all BS in my book. If your mix is crap, no plugin will save it anyway. I think it’s still important to try them out and get comfortable with the ones you really like, but don’t fall for the hype. If you’re happy with your EQ plugs, then use those. Just because the new ones are based off a hot SSL or Neve board doesn’t mean they make your track better. So try them out, and then find the circle of plugs that work for you and your sound.
Thanks for the interview Sascha. Anything you can about your coming projects?
I’ve been taking a bit of a break after working on game scores non-stop for the past eight years, but I’ve still been working on music. I’m currently finishing up my first artist EP. I have a few amazing collaborations on it, and while it’s not really a score per se, there are plenty of cinematic vibes all over.
Then there’s the new game score for “The Long Dark”. It’s an independently funded game, and the team is made out of industry veterans who worked on games like “Mass Effect”, “Space Marine” and many more. We’re in the middle of pre-production and preparing for a very unique score.
In addition, I worked on some music for “Dead Rising 3”, which is now out for Xbox One. It’s an awesome launch title and has hours of amazing audio!