Sonic Mayhem’s debut album a sound designer’s dream
By Stefan Trowbridge, October 16, 2015
Sascha Dikiciyan, aka Sonic Mayhem, is a Berlin-born, Hollywood-based producer of electronic synth and industrial music, sought-after remixer and award-winning soundtrack creator whose progressive blend of cutting-edge electronics and cinematic scores have driven some of the most successful videogame franchises of the last fifteen years including Mass Effect, Tron, Borderlands and Quake.
With his debut artist album Doomsday in summer 2015, Sascha continues to explore the outer reaches of sound. Representing his evolving journey as an independent artist, Sascha mashes and traverses multiple genres, never compromising his vision for an original, emotive soundtrack experience to a movie that does not exist… all processed through his own challenging, unique electronic punk voice that is Sonic Mayhem.
Sascha, you’ve been composing music for the gaming industry for the past fifteen years. What happened that made you want to release your debut album now in 2015?
After wrapping up music for Mass Effect 3 and Borderlands 2 in 2012 I just felt I had to take a break from scoring. And to be completely honest, writing music at that point stopped being fun. I think after all the years just writing music for other projects I felt I needed something that was just my own musical voice. So I started to work on some ideas for a possible EP, including the now infamous Doomsday teaser video. I spent the next two years just working on the record on and off experimenting with hardware and getting addicted to the Eurorack modular format. The EP turned into an album and you know, you could consider Doomsday a therapy record if you will. It was born out of the need to rediscover the excitement and joy of making music without any rules or limits. The hard part was meshing all these genres of music together I enjoy personally and mix them into something new and interesting. And while it’s easy to just ride the tail of some trend of the moment, it’s much harder and time consuming to do something that actually is interesting. I think the end result speaks for itself.
It certainly speaks for itself! So, are you planning on releasing further albums, or is this to be considered a one-off side project?
Doomsday just marks a new beginning for myself as an artist and not just as a composer. My current plan is to release an EP every few months, with new collaborations and remixes. I love to collaborate with other talents and there are quite a few people on my “collab bucket” list. The follow-up to Doomsday will have two to three original tracks and two remixes. There is no release date or name for the EP yet but hopefully sooner than later!
How did you go about writing the tracks? Seems to me that you took a similar approach to the tracks as you would when composing a soundtrack?
Yes absolutely! After so many years of writing music in the visual media I found it really difficult to just write stuff without any visual references. So I spent a good amount of time coming up with the Doomsday concept. After shooting that teaser video, we wrote a mini story arc around it, and I had my good friend and long-time art collaborator Steve Gerdes (Tron Legacy, Quake 3 Arena Noise) who’s done all of my art for the past 15 years start working on visuals pretty early on. It’s still not the same because of course when you’re scoring you are not really trying to write songs, you are more focused on a certain emotion for a scene or situation. But I think that influence is what made the Doomsday tracks so cinematic in my opinion. In general I’m really not a fan of the cliché song structure. Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse 2, etc. So getting these tracks to still be “songs” in a way but avoiding that standard form of arrangement was really difficult and it took a long time to get it right. If you listen to “Bleed Forever” for example, there is no real chorus until close to the 6 minute mark! But in the end, to me the tracks should always be like a journey. Evolve and morph into something. Give the listener some sort of payoff for listing already for over 5 minutes. It just makes more sense to me.
Talking about sound design, one can tell that you take a lot of care in detailing the sounds you use. How much time does it involve on average to create the sounds that we hear on your album? And how do you go about designing sounds? Is there one or many different approaches?
Yes, the devil is in the detail as they say! I probably spend way too much time on designing and tweaking sounds. After I decided to take a break I made it a mission to rethink my approach towards sound design. In the mid ’00s everyone got so into the “out of the box” thing that after a while it just got unthinkable to use anything but a computer and the mouse. For Doomsday in order to invent new sounds I had to dig into the past. Hardware was the key. I went onto a shopping spree on eBay and literally bought a bunch of gear back I used in the ’90s. It was quite funny. Also I caught the modular bug a few years back. It was the right direction because suddenly it all made sense again. I suppose the basic approach is: OK, you want some sort of pad, OK, let's make a pad. That can get quite boring because having so much hardware, there are already so many pads. I found it to be more interesting to maybe not plan too much and just let happy “accidents” happen. It will take more time to get what you need and you may get something completely different but I always record when I mess with stuff anyways so I will have a pool of sounds to choose from later on. I also do a lot what I like to call “post processing.” I will first write whatever musical parts any particular song needs, export for example the string parts and then move them over to my hardware FX chain. I will resample a lot of material and re-record it. For example, I have processed all of the guitars you hear on Doomsday through the Ensoniq EPS sampler, which I got off eBay. I think it’s from ’91? Crazy I know but it has a fantastic set of on-board effects and its filters/rate reduction sounds so unique. There are even companies like Waveboy who still make custom FX still using the floppy format! It’s that process that gives the sounds on Doomsday its unique flavor. And I actually use this process for all of my scoring assignments as well. Of course all of this ends up one way or the other back into Cubase. Which is fantastic because I know that software inside out. So the fun is just beginning assembling all the sounds and creating an actual piece of music. In the end, doesn’t matter how fancy your glitches or sounds are if they aren’t used in a coherent piece of music.
Thanks for the insights, Sascha. Turning to past projects, you did the music for Quake, Mass Effect and other top video games. Tell us a little on how you got started in the video game industry?
Around 1996 after finishing my music studies here in LA, I was on the search for what to do next. During this time the video game scene had a few evolutionary technological breakthroughs that caught my attention. One game in particular at the time, Quake, had my interest not only because of the artist that scored it but because the music was actually coming straight off the CD during gaming. I thought finally we don’t have to deal with the technical limitations anymore you know: MIDI playback, 8-bit sounds, etc. I got to work and produced my own music CD which I sold out of my bedroom pretty much, went to trade shows like E3, went to LAN parties and hung out online via MIRC (the major chat client at its time). One night someone from ID software was visiting the #quake channel and I immediately took the chance and hit them up asking if they had a composer for the just announced Quake 2 yet. Luckily for me they did not and so I submitted a demo. A few weeks later I got the call if I wanted to score Quake 2. And that was officially my entry into the gaming industry.
Based in LA, would you be able to do your work in other city?
I do have some plans to build another studio in my hometown Berlin in the near future. LA is of course somewhat unique. I mean everyone is here. I kind of grew up here, studied here. And the talent pool in this city is just mind-blowing. But in today’s world of Skype and fast Internet I think it doesn’t matter anymore where you are. The big video game conventions like E3 and GDC are becoming less and less relevant for us composers anyways. I currently work on a game where the company is based out of Montreal. I really don’t think they care if I’m in LA or Berlin. As long as I deliver good music, that’s all that matters in the end.
Can you elaborate on the importance of sound design and music production in the video game industry today?
Well, I think we have come a long way from the old school video game sounds. I think today’s scores could easily compete with some of the movie scores out there so that says a lot really. The only difference is that we have a much lower budget to make things sound good. So you have to really get inventive and work a lot harder. The same goes for sound design. Just as much work goes into it than you would do for a movie. And just like in movies, the sound experience can make or break a game. I really wish that accolades like the Grammys would think about giving us our own category. What this industry needs is more high-profile award shows to recognize that what we do is just as good as the other mediums and we work just as hard, if not harder. If would help us a lot to raise our profile and maybe help us ask for higher budgets. Of course that’s just my opinion.
How important is up-to-the-minute computing technology for your sound and music creation?
I’m usually always on top of what’s new right now but it’s also wise to understand what is worth the attention and what’s just white noise. There are just so many ways to get distracted, you know. Will another EQ plug-in really make your mixes sound better? Do you really need that $500 delay box? Most likely you don’t. There is so much hype created via social media and, to be honest, I fell for lots of hype myself in the past. Especially being addicted to the Eurorack format you can very easily get carried away. The great thing is that once you realize this, you will spend more time with the things you have and really get the most out of them. So yes, it’s important to keep up but filter out the hype noise and focus on what you really need. It will save you a lot of $$.
Are there other producers/composers that you work with? Or is there somebody with whom you’d like to collab in the future?
I’ve worked with a few people together in the past. I would consider myself a team player for sure. I really enjoy the cinematic works of Hans Zimmer for a long time now. I’d love to work with him on something one day. John Carpenter has been a huge influence on me and he is definitely on my bucket list of wishful collaborations. [laughs] I know he played a few games I worked on so you never know. Cross your fingers.
I’ll keep those fingers crossed for you. Now for the obligatory Why Cubase question?
Cubase has been my main tool since its early Cubit Atari days. I think that was in 1989? I just know it so well by now. It allows me to express my creative visions with ease. It just feels like home. Steinberg has always been innovating and that’s of course part of why I’ve stuck with Cubase for so long.
And what features do you enjoy using most of all?
I have been using Cubase Pro 8 for a while now and what I’ve seen so far is just awesome. I think bounce in place was one of the most requested features and it’s finally here. I also love being able to sort my own favorite plug-in list: it’s so awesome not to have to scroll through pages of plugs anymore. Of course being a Windows user I welcome the fact that we finally can now arrange the Cubase layout as we wish. Having the MediaBay browser right there is also huge. Overall, a massive improvement for my workflow. And getting more work done faster is what’s important. So, thank you Steinberg!