The Interview: Sascha Dikiciyan
When composer Sascha Dikiciyan, otherwise known as Sonic Mayhem, first came aboard Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the follow-up to Square Enix’s masterful continuation of the much-loved gaming franchise, it was no small undertaking. Assisting returning composer Michael McCann, whose moody score perfectly captured the tone of Deus Ex’s bleak dystopian universe, Dikiciyan, perhaps best known for his extensive work on the Quake franchise was able to plumb his back catalogue for inspiration. As the duo prepare to release the long-awaited expanded edition of the Mankind Divided soundtrack, Paul Weedon sat down for a chat with Dikiciyan to discuss his work on the series and the process of creating an expanded soundtrack from an otherwise non-linear body of work.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Sascha. At what stage did you become involved with the project?
Thanks for having me! I became involved last summer after the release of my artist record “Doomsday”. We sent a copy of that record to Steve Szczepkowski, one of the coolest audio directors in the business, and started a conversation. While Doomsday was never really intended to have anything to do with Deus Ex, it shares a similar ‘future retro’ aspect musically, including lots of arpeggios and synth work. Since I was a fan of the Human Revolution game and score, I knew the soundscape very well and had no problem to fit right in. So I was hired to write music in addition to Mike. Since the game’s scope was so massive, they needed a lot of music.
I understand you originally came on board as the team at Eidos Montreal were familiar with your work on Tron: Evolution, is that right? How did your experience on that franchise inform your work on Deus Ex?
Yes, my score for Tron was referenced a few times. While Tron’s biggest similarity is of course that it’s a synth driven score, Deus Ex is a completely different beast. It’s more emotional and less technical musically, if you will, than Tron was.
When you were brought on board, what sort of things were you working with in terms of reference materials? I suppose this was quite a unique project in that not only did you have Human Revolution to refer to, but also Michael and his experience to bounce off of.
Yes. Both Mike and Steve were very helpful and shared a lot of insights into what makes up the Deus Ex sound. There was the reference material they had originally used when they started Human Revolution and of course I had many phone calls with Mike and talked about the music and ideas in general. The pool that Deus Ex draws from is very, very much what I grew up with and still listen to. There were a lot of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis references, so nothing really came as a surprise to me.
On that note actually, talk me through how the collaboration between you and another composer works on a project like this. Do you generally get assigned different sections of the game to work on, or themes perhaps?
The soundtrack is a collaboration in the sense that we shared writing music on the same project but we actually did not work on tracks together. We each had our own set of areas in the game to work on. For example, while Mike was working on Dubai I was onto Prague. We did exchange some musical ideas but really we each did our own thing while still staying within the universe of Deus Ex. Especially since each of the sections of the game are so unique, they each needed their own identity. So we did not share really any thematic content.
How challenging was it to build on Michael’s previous work to create something that still sounds distinctly Deus Ex, as it were, but also has its own unique identity?
Well, obviously Mike created a monster with Human Revolution so the pressure was definitely on when I started. But I knew the sound very well and, being a synth head all my life, it wasn’t too difficult to get in sync with the Deus Ex sound. At some point it became clear that I should expand on what Mike had already established and give the Deus Ex sound a bit of my own DNA. That wasn’t easy, especially when you have a franchise that has a ton of fans that really identify and love the musical soundscape that was established with Human Revolution. So the differences are really in the details.
However, I did take some risks especially with the combat tracks. They are vastly different than in Human Revolution simply because I thought that Mankind Divided needed something different - darker, yet more organic and less synthetic - maybe more of a hybrid sound. Since Mankind Divided’s story is ultimately about the struggle of the Augs, which are also still human, it just made sense to develop that musicially. So all the combat drums are live and recorded at the wonderful East West Studios here in Los Angeles. Our engineer Sonny DiPerri, who also mixed the soundtrack and drummer Ron Marinelli did a great job.
Before we touch on the soundtrack release, how did you work with the game’s systems to ensure your music was employed in the best way possible? Talk me through the process, if you can.
Gosh, the audio system in a Deus Ex game is quiet complex. We basically have to write in layers. Imagine it as a DJ set of tracks that play at the same time. We have one main ambient track, the so-called ‘core’, that will always play when ambient music is needed. Other layers play onto but are muted until they are needed. We have a melodic layer that contains all the thematic composition. There is a so-called ‘proximity layer’, which basically are the now well-known Deus Ex arpeggios which will tell the player how close he or she is to danger.
Then we have a “suspicious layer” which is mostly a percussion bed that elevates the sense of tension when dealing with enemy AI. And on top of that, all these layers need to be a) the same length as the main core track b) follow the same harmonic structure and c) have the same tempo and loop perfectly. The same system applies to the combat cues. So yes, it’s complex. It not only requires you to compose just music, you need deal with a lot of technical stuff. It maybe seems limiting but really when you hear it finally working in the game, it’s pretty awesome.
Actually, on that note, is it quite a daunting prospect for you to hear your music at the mercy of the game’s systems and, to some extent, the player and their actions?
Yes, that’s true. I mean our ambient cues are the longest - between 2 1/2 - 4 minutes - just because you never know how long the player will be just exploring the environment without engaging in combat. So the trick is to write these tracks in a way that they never really sound repetitive. It’s easier when you have 4-5 minutes to write, but much more difficult with a 2 minute cue. The cool thing is that the layer system basically enhances these tracks so they seem longer. So even if the, let’s say, Prague Hub ambience is looping after 2 minutes, we might play the melodic layer on top which makes it seems like a longer, 4 minute cue. On a side note, it totally hit me after a few Twitter comments that players who will finish the game just by sneaking around will actually never get to hear the combat cues. Luckily, the soundtrack will feature most music from the game.
Speaking of the soundtrack, what can we expect from the extended edition?
As of right now, I can say the extended version of the album will include all the trailer music Michael and I have done, plus more tracks from the game that didn’t make the cut for the Original Soundtrack. It will be worth the wait.
Is it a particularly challenging process to take the music you’ve created for a video game and rework it in to a linear soundtrack release? If so, why?
So glad you’re asking. We’ve been working on them a lot, and let me tell you it’s a lot of work, simply because all the cues exist in layers and it’s a much different beast to make them sound and flow in an interesting way just for a listening experience without visuals - more like a real album experience… Steve, Mike, Ed and myself are taking the soundtrack really to heart and trying to make it the best it can possibly be. We have my Doomsday album mixer, Sonny DiPerri, working on all tracks and Dave Cooley from Elysian Mastering, who worked on M83’s last releases, will provide the final magic touch. We can’t wait for fans to hear these new arrangements.
Just finally, what were some of the greatest challenges this project for you personally?
The biggest challenge at first was to trust myself. It’s always an exciting challenge to jump into a well-established franchise like Deus Ex. Luckily, I’ve done it before with Quake II and Mass Effect 3. The other challenge was that I, of course, did not want to simply copy Mike’s brilliant work but enhance it and build a new soundscape foundation for future Deus Ex games. And finally, I had to force myself stop giggling like a girl every time I realised “I’m working on Deus Ex.”
It must have been a trip. Generally speaking, what is it about the sci-fi genre that makes it such a compelling genre to score?
Personally, to me, visuals are everything. There are other genres of course that offer interesting visuals, but even current day or near future sci-fi can be more compelling to score. Obviously it’s all a personal preference. I tend to like the darker side of things. It just sparks my imagination easier and I’m a huge sci-fi nerd to boot!
The Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Original Soundtrack Extended Edition is available to buy now on digital download and Special Edition vinyl: