Sascha Dikiciyan [Composer]

Our series of video game-themed interview continues. We recently had a talk with the man responsible for a wealth of game music for some of the famous titles on the planet. Tron, Mortal Kombat, Beowulf, Mass Effect 2 and 3, Borderlands 1 and 2, GI Joe, God of War 2, Splinter Cell, Quake, and Dead Rising 3 are just a few titles that Sascha Dikiciyan, aka Sonic Mayhem, has been responsible for providing music for.  What wouldn’t we give to learn about the business from the man himself? Thankfully, he obliged us at little expense, and the pay-off was an enjoyable interview that should be informative to anyone who’s eying the music side of the game industry.

How did you get your start as a video game composer, and why this field in particular, when there must have been other things to choose from?

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 then later on the Amiga 1000. Using tracker software, I really fell in love with that side of technology early on.

It wasn’t until after playing Quake back in 1996 that I realized 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 would you say that the electronic music scene in Germany helped build your skills and awareness of electronic music? Did you have any indispensable learning experiences there, which you haven’t had since?

I would say that growing up in Germany has definitely helped my awareness with electronic music. Acts like New Order, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk were on the radio all the time. And the 80s were synth-crazy. It was hard to ignore it if you were into music. 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 vast and new way of making music with the advent of so-called tracker software. It was something I got really into, until I got my first real sequencer on the Atari 1040ST, an early version of Cubase. So being into computers early on definitely helped build my skills quite a bit. Things were a lot simpler back then, but it was a great foundation to build upon that simply today doesn’t exist anymore.

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 SM banner. Very excited about that!

We imagine that many might find the job of video game or movie composer to be intimidating, given that it’s a lesser covered part of music industry media. Would you say that there’s anything to fear about your profession?

I wouldn’t say that there’s anything to fear so to speak. However, certain situations might arise that can be challenging, especially if you’re just getting started today. I think the hardest part and most challenging aspect 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 are busy scoring multiple titles a year, the pressure can be a struggle, especially if you’re facing tough deadlines on top of that. You basically have to always have your game on!

I think since our job is such a less covered profession, people really 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 now with movie composers, so you’ll need a much thicker skin to succeed.

From Bioware, Sony, and Gearbox Software to Disney and Ubisoft, you’ve had a diverse range of employers. How do these companies differ in their demands, expectations and creative atmosphere? Do you have any preferences?

Well I can’t get into too much detail or it will get me into trouble, haha. 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 are 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 its a bit of a family affair.

Working on Tron with Disney was great. Despite being very protective of their IP, they let me still push the envelope a little bit further then the movie’s score.

In the end, I love collaborating with all of them. Some of these people who work for them devote sometimes years of their lives to create a single game. You’ve got to respect that no matter what.

As a composer, who acts as the go-between for you and the video game company? Is it the game publisher, the developer, the music manager, writer, etc?

If you mean business-wise then it’s my Agent/Agency over at Coolmusic LTD. If you’re talking music and the creative aspect in general, then it’s usually the Audio Director/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 we see mainstream names pop up. As a soundtrack composer, do you think that the more underground genres of music offer up more to learn, in terms of creativity and production, than the commercial ones we hear on the radio?

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. At least that’s how I look at things. Back in the late 70s/early 80s people like Vangelis were on the bleeding edge of technology and pushed boundaries. Still to this day, you watch Blade Runner and it’s music will blow your mind. That inspires me more than anything that’s out today. I think that’s exactly why lot of other artists these days look back to the 80s and early 90s for inspiration, including myself. And with the rise of the modular synth’s 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. I always said, in order to create something new today, just look into the past.

Whilst a soundtrack plays an essential role in creating the mood throughout the game, it’s likely to remain something that the average gamer will consider a default element of the experience, which he may never stop to appreciate to its full extent. Does that ever bother you?

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 it’s score. But I think it also depends on the game itself. Take the Mass Effect franchise for example. During ME3’s release last year, my Twitter feed exploded with people saying how much the loved the score. And they do take the music very seriously. They are very passionate about it 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 music wouldn’t be something that I’d want to listen to too 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, that were unavoidable in order for you to be where you are now, scoring big games?

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 music for video games 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. Y’now, “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 you know, 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 gotta be able to adapt and then when it’s time, break out and do your thing. That’s where I’m at right now.

Can you share some the eye-opening moments that you’ve had working on these famous video game soundtracks? Were there times where you ran into issues that required you to learn new things, or taught you something about your line of work that you felt was necessary, in retrospect?

The learning aspect is constant, as each project brings a new challenge to the table that you must conquer. 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 shit, had never seen a contract in my life, and a lot of mistakes were made. But it’s just one of those things. You have to make some in order to learn from them. Each project afterwards brought new challenges to the table. From Space Marine, 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 are actually building several custom instruments from scratch. So there’s a totally new set of skill required for that.

Of course, on the business side of things, you may just be too naive, or don’t see things clearly. I only learned from making mistakes. While that can be frustrating, my mentor always used to say, “It is what it is and tomorrow is a new day”.

Could you tell us any one thing each about what you took away from each of these soundtrack projects which was the most valuable experience for you?

Mass Effect: We wrote over 90 minutes of music for it. I could have easily written 90 more!

Tron: I have the most fun doing what I do when people trust in my talents, and let me break the rules!

Borderlands franchise: The humor in the game must be a Texas thing, haha.

Can you talk about some of the frustrations that soundtrack composer have to endure, from deadlines to producer demands and even odd requests from your employer? Have you ever reached your breaking point when working on a project?

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. I mean, sure a composer needs to do many styles, but no one is really 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 then the master of the genre himself, 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 for the money only, and if I feel I cannot blow myself out of the water, 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. 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 virgins song with an accent. But I had to make it sound like a party of 20-30 drunken  people are doing that. I think everyone at Ubisoft died laughing when they heard the end results.

We would assume that all musicians eventually fall victim to writers block. Does that look different when working on a soundtrack or score? Whilst other forms of music may focus more on hooks and bridges, does the ambient nature of a lot of soundtrack music make it easier or harder to get stuck?

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 its 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. I translate the colors into music. It’s like i can ‘hear’ the music in my head before I write it. Just like a movie scene would dictate the mood.

When I started to work on my own artist EP however, it’s been anything but easy. I suddenly realized that writing more song-like tracks was a lot harder just because…well, 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. So to answer your question, for me, it’s a lot harder to get stuck when writing for games, simply because the epic canvas of art we have makes it easier to not get writers block.

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 say 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 score work 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.

We’ve seen you heavily advocate the use of the iPad as a music-making device, and even heard your “Momentum” track. To what lengths would you say that low-budget producers could use iPad plugins to create complete musical works?

It’s funny. 2 years ago when I told people that I was using the iPad to create pads for our 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 now. 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 actually 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.

As some of us are producers, we’re big fans of various audio plugins, and hear 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 at that and can so much more than just reverbs. From crazy delays to extreme granular sound mangling.

Are there any other go-to plugins that you’ve found yourself using a lot lately. Why these in particular?

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.

Of course most of the 2C Audio plugins for obvious reasons.

I still feel very close to NI’s FM8. It’s just very deep, and always has a surprise in store for you, and that’s the reason why I use it as one of my to go synths.

Of course, the Fabfilter plugin’s are built into my template, as well as most of iZotope stuff like Ozone (I still use 4, sadly) and Trash 2 being my favorite distortion tool these days.

You’ve stated before that you don’t like to use synth presets for your sounds. Does this mean you design everything from scratch? What if you like the preset?

Well here’s the deal. 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, 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 sound really. 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. I like that you never know really what you can come up with, and when you do come up with something cool it’s pretty much always 100% unique. You can’t beat that. 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.

As far as studio setup goes, we would imagine that yours isn’t exactly the run-of-the-mill KRK speakers and a Macbook laptop. Can you tell us what your work space looks like, gear-wise?

I’m no “laptop musician”. I use mainly a custom-built PC with Windows 7 running Cubase, 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 Twin Be’s by Focal. These speakers have really changed the way I mix. I have also all kinds of low-quality computer speakers to check mixes on. It’s not really an enjoyable experience, but listing on them will resolve issues pretty quickly.

I’m also using the Dangerous music Dbox for Analog Summoning. Trust me, it’s confusing at first but it totally changed the way I work (thanks to the Heavyocity guys) and my mixes sound a lot better now.

All of my keyboards and iPads go through various pre-amps, like the Chandler TG2.

Besides all the computer stuff, I also use a healthy amount of hardware tools. Synths like the MS2000, Korg Prophecy and the Juno 106 (which i still use everyday), with the new P12 by Dave Smith being 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 2 years ago. And trust me, 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? If so, what does that process look like for you?

It really depends on the project. For example; our Space Marine score, including the live orchestra that was recorded at Skywalker Ranch, was all mixed by me. Our Mass Effect 3 score was mixed by me as well. However, some companies prefer to do the mixing themselves in which case I will have to bounce audio stems, and that’s it. For the upcoming Dead Rising 3 score, Capcom’s Music Director and composer, Oleksa Lozowchuk is mixing the entire score in-house, which is a good thing, as he does amazing work! So it’s nice to sometimes not having to worry about that.

As far as mastering goes, I always believe in the “less is more” way. That goes for everything; EQ, compression etc. Usually, when I submit my music for review, I will add a bit of limiting/comp to it, but most of the times, the final track get 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.

In this day of excess music tools, there’s seems to be an interesting balance between the quantity of plugins that people strive to collect, and the quality of music they create, with one not necessary having to influence the other. But at the same time, most successful producers will say that they have a set of favorite synths and effects that they feel contribute greatly to their sound, which they would not like to be without. What would you recommend to budding producers who struggle to find the tools they are comfortable with?

I admit that I try every plugin out there. The difference is that I will throw out anything I don’t like immediately. Having said that though, my plugin page in Cubase is about 10- 12 pages long…But it’s true; do we really need 20 different EQ’s? What about compressors? I mean, of course they differ in sound and what not, but in the end they are just tools. The built in compressors in Cubase for example are plenty good enough.

I think it’s easy to fall into the hype of plugins. “Oh this new one will make your mixes sound amazing” or “this one with only one knob will make magic”…But, it’s all BS in my book. If your mix is shit, no plugin will save it anyway. I think it’s still important to try them out and then get comfortable with the ones you really like. 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 is better. So try them out, and then find the circle of plugs that work for you and your sound.

What projects are you currently working on? Anything you can share with us? We haven’t seen much from you this year.

Well yes, I’ve been taking a bit of a break after working on game scores non-stop for the past 7-8 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’s plenty of cinematic vibes all over.

Then there’s our new game score for a game called “The Long Dark”. It’s actually 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, over the last year I worked on some music for Dead Rising 3. It’s now out for Xbox One. It’s an awesome launch title and has hours of amazing audio!

I have more stuff planned for 2014 but i can’t talk about it right now. Be sure check my Twitter and my blog for all the latest news!

You heard the man. Make sure to keep up with his news various feeds, such as Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud for up-to-date news about his future projects! Make sure to check out his website too.