Sascha Dikiciyan on creating video game soundtracks and using iZotope Iris

Sascha Dikiciyan on creating video game soundtracks and using iZotope Iris

Sascha Dikiciyan, also known under the professional name Sonic Mayhem with collaborator Cris Velasco, is responsible for numerous high profile projects including the soundtracks for video games such as Quake II and Tomorrow Never Dies. His music ranges from huge orchestral scores to the harsh digital sounds heard in Tron, highlighting his ability to create a unique voice for each game.

Sascha, who is a user of iZotope’s Ozone mastering software and the recently released Iris, got his big break into the world of video games when the Quake producer heard Sascha’s alternative soundtrack to the game, and it´s there that we kick things off…

Hi Sascha, so you were asked to score the soundtrack to Quake II after the producer heard your ´alternative´ Quake soundtrack ´Methods of Destruction´ - that must have been a huge deal for you, how did it feel to get that call?

Given how huge Quake was at the time (1997), it was indeed a big deal and the start of my video game music career. While the self-produced CD caught their attention, we still had to submit a demo piece to secure the gig. Luckily, back then there were very few people even interested in scoring games so our chances were pretty good. When I got the final call in the summer of 1997, it was a massive moment that I still remember very well to this day!

Given that experience, there´s little doubt that you would recommend producing ´alternative´ soundtracks not only as a way of enhancing one´s composition skills but also as a means of trying to get work within the industry - what other tips could you offer potential video game composers?

Today’s composer landscape has changed drastically from when I started. Pretty much everyone these days is a composer. So the important thing is to not sound just like someone else but to stand out in a unique way. During my early days, you could run around (which I did) at the Electronic Entertainment Expo or Game Developers Conference and hand out CDs but you’re lucky today if someone is willing to take your business card. I would suggest using the social media power today. Create a SoundCloud page. Score well-known trailers with your own music and put them on YouTube. Seek out film schools. There are a ton of shorts being made which need music. There will be no money at first but if your talented people will notice, no matter how hard the road may be.

Your earlier solo scores were well known for their epic synth soundscapes and electronic beats, and in 2005 you partnered with symphonic composer Cris Velasco which, at the time, to others must have seemed to be a strange collaboration. How did the partnership come about?

Yes, I was at a point in 2004 where I wanted to expand my soundscape. I love electronic music, always will, but I also have a deep love for symphonic scores. Growing up in a mostly classical German house, music from Beethoven, Wagner etc. was always around. Cris and I met after I put out a call for a collaboration on an upcoming game pitch. I had a few submissions but Cris’ work stood out and he was also with my agency (Four Bars Intertainment) and lives in LA. We met and clicked musically right way, and even though we did not get the game job we pitched for, it obviously still turned out pretty well.

Your style of music as a duo really pushed the boundaries of music in games, how do you work as a partnership? Do you both work on a track at the same time, or do you individually see what you can come up with, or perhaps work on different tracks at different times?

You know, when we started, people just looked at us and said, “Why do you need 2 people?” “Hybrid sound?” Why not combine the work of two people who are good at their craft, especially when each of our skill sets is so different, had always been an idea in my mind. It wasn’t easy at first but I think we now have a ‘sound’ if you want to call it that. We usually work on separate cues at all times because the schedule is always very tight. Cris comes up with a certain melody, when he is done I will take over and add electronic elements, and mix other elements. Other times, I come up with something melodic, then create a rough outline of my idea which I will then send to Cris. And usually, for the main theme, we always get together and sit in my studio, brainstorming the theme together.

We read recently that you use iZotope Ozone for mastering, which of the modules and features within this plugin do you most rely on for game soundtracks?

I do use Ozone 4 on my master out but I really only use the EQ and the limiter. The EQ is just so easy to use and it’s been part of my arsenal for years. I’m looking forward to trying out Ozone 5 very soon!

We hear that iZotope´s most recent release ´Iris´ can be found amongst your software set-up, which features of this synth are you enjoying and using the most?

Iris is definitely one of my new favourites, very intuitive. I’ve pretty much-used everything it has to offer from the first day I got it. Some of the presets are already very inspiring but it’s the ease of its workflow that’s so much fun. The added Sub waveforms are absolutely brilliant, as well as the reverb and distortion.

Have you been importing and manipulating your own samples or using the inbuilt presets?

Obviously, I would want to always create my own custom materials but sometimes the time is up and it’s easy with Iris presets to come up with something that’s very useful and will sit in a mix right away. It’s like giving your track a final sparkle if you will.

What types of sounds have you been creating with Iris?

Of course, I wanted to mangle my own stuff right away. I usually record material with my portable recorder all the time, so Iris is the perfect sampler to turn all sorts of organic sounds into something very cool. For example, my fridge makes this very weird hum, I recorded it, used it in Iris as layer 1. Next, I sampled some chimes that are outside in my garden. For the final layer, I recorded just talking to myself. Suffice to say that the end result was truly something different. Iris really lets you find music in everything. It’s brilliant!

You also incorporate live orchestral recordings into your soundtracks - do you use any plugins/virtual instruments to mockup the scores prior to the recordings?

Yes. We have a few slave machines here running Vienna Ensemble Pro 5. Currently, I use a lot of string stuff from Project Sam Symphobia 2 among others. Of course, we also own our own custom library, all running within Kontakt as well.

Moving on to hardware, can you run us through the key pieces of gear within your set up?

I use mainly PCs, running Steinberg’s Cubase 6.5. My audio IO is a RME fireface. I just added a Dangerous Music D-Box to my setup so I’m finally enjoying the advantages of summoning mixing. Before the audio goes back into my DAW, I run everything through my Obsidian Compressor. It’s a simple but solid and good-sounding chain. I still use real keyboards, like the Korg MS2000, Korg Prophecy, Juno-106 and I’ve used a real CS-80 for my score on Mass Effect 3. I love the newer, more experimental synths like the OP-1 and all of the synths from Dave Smith. There are tons of other hardware gems I use, like Metasonix pedals and the Moog Froggers to name a few.

Game music has been compared to movie soundtracks for some time with the general consensus that the former is never as good. These days however game soundtracks are just as powerful and emotive and achieve great acclaim - what would you say has been the reason behind this leap?

Well for one, game developers and publishers now realize more than ever before how important the music/sound aspect of their games is. And of course, the gamers want more. Better music, better audio, better visuals. Just overall people want and enjoy the complete cinematic experience these days! And we are happy to oblige!

You´ve just released a teaser video for your forthcoming EP ´Doomsday´ which is due for release in the Autumn, can you tell us more about what we can expect from this album?

Yes! I am very excited about this release. I pretty much felt that it was time to do something on my own, something non-game related but I wanted to keep the visual aspect since I’m so used to writing to moving images. So I got together with some people and we came up with this concept for ‘Doomsday’ which is not only a teaser but a short if you will for a movie that doesn’t exist. For the final release, I have a whole backstory prepared to give the entire record a sense of purpose. Since I’m a visual artist, it was exactly what I needed to get inspired.

I don’t want to give it all away but when people listen to the final release, I want them to feel like they’ve listened to a soundtrack and not just some random music. Musically, it will reflect all my influences and where I originally came from, i.e. from ‘80s to the original industrial revolution in the ‘90s to some futuristic soundscapes. While the teaser may give you the impression that it’s mostly guitar-driven, it’s not the case. In the end, I wanted to create something musically, that goes against what’s hip today. I want some people to hate this record. Only then, have I done my job, if you know what I mean. :) There’s also a live aspect planned for the release but I can’t comment on that at the moment. Find out more at

What else have you got coming up for 2012?

Earlier this year we finished music for the upcoming Borderlands 2 game as well as a new Mass Effect 3 DLC called “Leviathan”. Then there’s a huge title I worked on during the summer for Capcom. I cannot mention the game yet but it’s very cool and I got to enjoy writing a lot of ‘80s Carpenter-like tunes. :)

Keep up to date with Sascha´s work by following him on Twitter