The Interview: Sascha Dikiciyan, Part 2
With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s fantastic soundtrack now available on digital and 2-CD, Paul Weedon caught up with composer Sascha Dikiciyan again to discuss the intricacies of producing expanded versions of one of 2016’s finest video game scores.
Read Part 1 here
Here we are again! We previously touched on the fact that you worked on the music for Prague in the game. In terms of scoring locations, how do you go about conceptualising the futuristic sound of a city like that? Do you look at contemporary music from the city today and work from there, or is it a more conceptual process than that?
That really depends. There are times when we do mix contemporary sounds of that part of their world with the Deus Ex sound - the Dubai missions for example. Personally, I was purposefully trying to stay away from the cliché - i.e. using any sort of contemporary sounds based on Prague and their history. Deus Ex music is really, at its core, a mood score. It all comes down to the vibe and what the player’s mission or directives are and how does it all fit into the overall story arc. And you go from there.
So tell me a little bit more about the process of working on an album version of a soundtrack. How do you go about condensing a series of tracks that tend to be somewhat non-linear in terms of the way they’re heard, and not only rework them so they work in isolation, but also make them work as a cohesive standalone listening experience?
Good question! I initially struggled a bit with how to approach this for the soundtrack. The music in Deus Ex is implemented in layers. There are many layers that adjust to the interactive behavior of the gamer. For example, if a player decides to play the entire game just by stealth and avoiding combat, they would never even hear any of the actual combat layers.
I mean, I've been writing music for games for many years and while I'm fluent in writing cues that require a lot of technical thinking, I’ve never felt comfortable just putting the layers on a soundtrack and calling it a day. So, for Deus Ex, we really wanted the tracks to stick to their original in-game idea but at the same time enhance the pure listening experience.
So how does the process start?
First, I had to go back and extract all my favorite parts from a cue. I would then start from scratch basically importing stems into a new arrangement. From there I’d work more like I would when I’m writing a record. I mean, on one hand, you need to give the players the in-game tracks but I also want non-gamers to enjoy the music. So we added new parts not present in the in-game cues and of course created the arrangements from scratch with a proper start and finish.
Going back to the combat cues, it was great to implement them into the soundtrack cues so that we could present all of the music from the game. Part of the reason why it took us a while was because of these new arrangements. There just isn't a magic formula for them and it really needs to feel right. We also elevated the mixes for the soundtrack by using my mix engineer Sonny DiPerri, who also mixed my artist record “Doomsday” last year. We mixed everybody’s tracks to give the soundtrack a sense of brotherhood, if you will.
We have Michael McCann’s music of course and some tracks from Ed Harrison, so we wanted to make sure the quality is the same throughout even though we had different composers for different parts of the game. I hope people enjoy the album and appreciate how much work went into the soundtrack. In the end, I’m very happy with how it turned out.
And, when you’re producing an album like this, how important is it to pull in outside support?
I used to think, “Sure, I can do it all,” when, in reality, if you’re reaching for a certain level of quality you just can’t do it alone. It’s impossible. I had a kick ass team - Sonny DiPerri mixing and Dave Cooley mastering on my record last year. They took the whole project to another level and we wanted the same for the Deus Ex soundtrack. Sure, composers master and mix as well but when you hire someone whose only profession is mixing then you know you are raising the bar - period. It also allows me to focus on the creative aspect, which is the actual composing and creating the arrangements. Every top score you hear out there is a team effort.
What, for you personally, is one of your proudest moments on the Extended Soundtrack that didn’t make it in to the game itself?
Well, I was happy to use some of the melodic content we didn’t use for the in-game tracks simply because it would have been too distracting. Yes, scores need melody but again, Deus Ex is about vibe and mood. This isn't Star Wars where every character has a leitmotif. There are a few sounds and chord progressions that are typical for the Deus Ex sonic universe but overall melody is used pretty sparsely.
For the soundtrack, we wanted to implement a bit more of that because you don't have any visuals when you listen to it. So it just made sense to bring those elements back. Arrangements of the in-game cues are also somewhat restricted because of the technical requirements. We have proper beginnings and endings now plus the arrangements flow much better.
Obviously, an electronic soundtrack like this also lends itself to remixes, which is something that seems to be happening even more with video game soundtracks of late. Is that something you’re interested in exploring more of – taking your own work and reworking it in to a format that could find an even wider audience?
Well, I love remixing but the soundtrack versions, I wouldn't call them remixes per se. They are different but still at their core the same tracks.
Actually, one thing I didn’t think to ask you about previously was Quake. You were heavily involved with the franchise for years, picking up the mantle from Trent Reznor, and you were integral in shaping the sound of that franchise as it developed. What did it mean for you to be involved with a franchise like that over such a prolonged period? Is it a franchise you’re keen to revisit?
Oh man. Quake. It’s where it all started for me. I was very young at the time and it was an intense experience. Obviously, landing Quake II as your first gig in 1997 was… mind blowing. I mean, how do you follow up the iconic work of Trent? It was tough. Also, back then the community was very tight and protective. Just because we were not Reznor was reason enough to question everything. We did shape the music a bit more into our direction with Quake 3 but it wasn’t until maybe 10 years later when Quake II and Quake 3’s music reached cult status. I mean, there are still hundreds of YouTube videos of fans playing the riffs. That’s pretty cool. I have composers who come up to me today and say, “You know, I do what I do because well, you inspired me.”
While that’s making me feel somewhat old, it’s actually pretty cool! Having just had the chance to play some of Quake’s music live together with DOOM composer Mick Gordon during The Game Awards, I felt like it would be very cool to revisit that universe again. It’s sort of come full circle. Maybe if id were to go and make a story-based Quake game again. Until then we’ll have to wait and see I guess.
Sascha, thanks again!