Scoring TRON: Evolution with Cubase
TRON has seen many reincarnations over the years: a book, comics, and several video games are based on the arcade-game-style science fiction movie released back in 1982. A few days ago, the TRON machine started again to unveil the action-adventure video game Tron: Evolution. Video game composer and music producer Sascha Dikiciyan was in charge of scoring the game. Being a long-time Steinberg user, Sascha told us more about his first night with Cubase, production techniques and, of course, the project that made him feel like “a kid in a candy store.”
Could you give us a short insight into your main activities and production areas?
I have been composing music for video games since about 1997. Some of the titles I worked on are the well known Quake series, Splinter Cell 4, Prototype, Hellgate, Haze, Beowulf, Sony’s MAG and now TRON: Evolution. I also produce and write electronic music under my artist moniker, Toksin. I have done remixes for many other artists and bands such as Celldweller, Deepsky, and BT.
How did you get started in the music business?
After finishing my music studies in L.A., I was sort of looking for ideas to break into the business. My whole life, video games had been a bit of an obsession, but around 1996 a handful of games were released that featured real, recorded music utilizing streaming red book audio. I was intrigued by the idea and thought, wow, now we can have video games sound like movies. It was something of an audio revolution, and I remember thinking all night long about it, coming to only one conclusion: this will be the way of the future. So, after some brainstorming I came up with the idea to write my own custom soundtrack, that people could listen to while playing their favorite games. Well, it was really written mostly for Quake. I sold the CD out of my bedroom via a simple website. Within a month I sold around 2,000 copies, which was absolutely crazy. A few weeks passed and evidently ID Software, the makers of Quake, got a hold of a copy and were voicing their interest for me to work on Quake 2. That was a really big deal back then, especially considering that Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails scored the original game.
Your main production area is video game composing. What fascinates you most about scoring for games?
Having always been a gamer since the early 80s, it just felt natural to be working in this field. I think I was really driven by the idea that most people back then thought of video game music being these ridiculous annoying bleeps and beeps, which was true to a degree. So, when the technology of the CD-ROM was introduced — which made red book audio possible — I really felt I wanted to make a difference and was just fascinated by the possibilities of this new medium.
What are the major differences between scoring for films and scoring for games?
One of the obvious differences is that movies are linear while games really never are. A scene, when labeled as final in movies, will be just that. It will never change in length. So the music doesn’t need to either. In other words, it can be static. But to write music for games is a whole different bag. Depending on the game — let’s say a first person shooter — the player could roam a certain area for quite awhile and then become quickly engaged in action. Some first person shooters emphasize stealth and clandestine activity. That’s when interactive music comes in and really every developer usually has his own unique way of dealing with this. I’ve worked on games that have required many layers of music as opposed to just writing a two minute cue that loops over and over. In that case, the challenge is to write the music in such a way that it never really feels like that piece of music is repeating. It’s really an art form, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Do you see any changes or trends emerging in the video games industry (with regards to scoring and sound design)?
Firstly, it has become the norm to record with live orchestra. As an example, we have recorded our last five scores live at Skywalker Ranch. However, with the upcoming 3D technology it will change the way we will play games — even more then it will change movies. I think once the technology is ready, which it is not there yet, 3D will also open up a whole new universe for sound in general. While elements of music in games are indeed mixed in 5.1, the score isn’t written in surround sound. I would love to do something like Tipper’s Surrounded — which is still one of the best surround albums out there — but in a more cinematic way. I think these potential ideas will become reality, though hopefully sooner then later.
You recently worked on the TRON: Evolution video game. Could you tell us a little about that production?
Around May I received a call from Disney Interactive's audio lead, Jason Owen, who knew my work and thought I’d be a good fit for the TRON soundscape. Just thinking about being a part of the TRON franchise made me somehow feel like a kid in a candy store. Being a long time fan of the movie and its original composer, Wendy Carlos, I was at first a bit overwhelmed, especially considering just how good Wendy’s work on the original TRON movie was. She’s an amazing composer! But after spending some time studying Wendy’s score, we soon realized that we wanted something more contemporary with an edge, possibly a lot darker. I wanted the score to sound retro 80s in some ways, but without sacrificing more contemporary elements. I wanted it to have a very cinematic sound, but I didn’t want a constant lush orchestra playing all the time. But then getting into the actual songwriting, at one point I thought I don’t ever want to write anything else but TRON music. In a way, there was a sense of responsibility that made the entire project exciting. Jason Owen also did a great job of listening to my vision and then trusting me to deliver the goods. I think in the end the music for the game can hold its own — even played alongside the film.
"Just thinking about being a part of the TRON franchise made me somehow feel like a kid in a candy store."
— Sascha Dikiciyan
You were born and raised in Germany and later moved to the U.S. What was the main reason for moving to the U.S. — better career opportunities for video game composers?
I moved from Berlin to L.A. in 1993 mainly to study music. And to be honest, back then, there wasn’t such a thing as a ‘video game composer’. I think I wanted to escape Germany and the places I was familiar with. I wasn’t the best piano player at the time and I was terrified thinking about studying at the more serious music conservatories in Germany. While I grew up listening to a lot of classical music, my mother introduced me to the brilliant Berlin Philharmonics when I was a kid, but it just wasn’t for me. I guess you could say I just wanted to learn to be a modern keyboard player rather then a classical pianist. At the time there wasn’t really any music school in Germany or Europe that I knew of, who would offer anything else but a classical curriculum. And you have to keep in mind this was a newly unified Berlin. The city was crazy after the wall fell, and the consequences were still being felt in 1992. While that certainly wasn’t the main reason I left, it did motivate me to look elsewhere in the world.
How do your ideas for a composition come to you?
I’m a very visual composer, and TRON was the perfect visual gig. Disney had created a lot of amazing, beautiful art. Not renders of the final game, but almost images that looked more like paintings then anything else. So, for every area or level I had to write a cue for, there were tons of images available. As soon as I would see an image, I would have a sound in my head. Not in a sense that I knew exactly what that actual sound would be like, more a feeling of what it should sound like. This is something I love about working on game music. Everything is very visual and it’s incredibly easy to get inspired. However, I do experiment heavily with sounds — but only when I know where the music is going to go.
". . . the first night I spent with Cubase was mind-blowing — I will never forget it."
— Sascha Dikiciyan
How did you first get exposed to Steinberg products?
After using a ton of Tracker software all the way until the late 80s, I think it was in 1990 when a friend of mine told me about this amazing new software that let you move and cut MIDI tracks around in a visual way. At the time I already owned various Amiga models, an Atari 520, and a 1040 ST with a black and white monitor. I remember that the first night I spent with Cubase was mind-blowing — I will never forget it. Everybody at the time was talking about this software and its possibilities. It’s amazing to see how far music sequencing has come.
Which Steinberg products are you using? What role does Cubase play in the process of making scores?
Currently, I'm using Cubase 5.5 64-bit as my main writing and composing tool. I also use the new WaveLab for some mastering or stem editing. Basically, Cubase allows me to think creatively and lets me realize my musical ideas quickly and without limits. Especially now with 64-bit and having a lot of RAM, the sky is the limit, literally. I have been using Cubase now for 20 years, and a day not looking at its GUI makes me feel … weird [smiles].
". . . Cubase allows me to think creatively and lets me realize my musical ideas quickly and without limits . . . a day not looking at its GUI makes me feel weird."
— Sascha Dikiciyan
Could you name some of your favorite features in Cubase?
One of the really great features I use all the time is the VariAudio function. Especially for my remix work, it’s extremely useful being able to change a vocal without having to bounce and use some third party software. Also, I’m not sure how many people realize this, but there’s an Extract MIDI function within VariAudio which is absolutely brilliant in my book.
I’m also a big template freak and the new project assistant helps in that regard greatly. And finally, it was nice to finally be able to change even more colors of the GUI. However, ironically it turns out that the original theme is, and always has been the best to begin with.
Please tell us a good production trick.
Everyone knows the side chain pump sound that’s currently being used everywhere from drum and bass, dubstep to electro. Well, I use this type of pump effect on a lot of my more cinematic-style tracks, especially on a few TRON tracks. This may sound not really like a huge deal to some, and the Chopper plug-in certainly does this already, but I like to have a more visual control over its movement and to see it directly within the arrangement. Basically, I fake this side chain compression effect by simply creating constant volume automation for every beat on a group channel. I use this in all of my templates, simply called pump master bus.
Could you tell us a little about upcoming projects?
We just have started to work on our biggest title yet. Unfortunately I cannot give too many details about it just yet, but it takes place within the well known Warhammer universe. We will also be working on another Mass Effect downloadable content that will be huge. Besides the video game scoring, I’m hoping to finish up my own Toksin EP by next year — but don’t hold your breath on that one just yet.
Sascha, thanks for taking the time.
Please visit www.sonicmayhem.com for more info on Sascha's work.