Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco Interview: A Spectacular Collaboration (September 2011)
Despite coming from contrasting backgrounds, underground DJ Sascha Dikiciyan and classically-trained orchestrator Cris Velasco have formed a high-profile collaboration in recent years. Their hybridised sounds have featured in high-profile games such as Borderlands, Prototype, Tron: Evolution, and Mass Effect 2 in recent years. In addition, they have separately worked on franchises such as Quake, God of War, James Bond, MAG, Section 8, and Darksiders.
In this interview, Sascha and Cris discuss their respective backgrounds and how they collaborate. They highlight landmark scores in their careers — both collaborations and solo works — before going into more detail about their latest work, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Through the interview, they reveal how their overlapping passions and unique focuses allow them to produce a true and successful collaboration.
Interview Subject: Sascha Dikiciyan, Cris Velasco
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read
Chris: Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco, many thanks for speaking to us today. You both come from quite different backgrounds — Sascha as an underground DJ, Cris as a classically-trained orchestrator. Could you tell us more about your backgrounds?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Well yes, I come from the European underground scene. I studied the piano early on and was playing the drums at about 12. Our entire house was always filled with music. Growing up in Germany, you get to appreciate a lot of classical music too. It was always around. Of course the biggest impression on me was when I heard the likes of Depeche Mode, New Order, Devo etc. These bands were playing on the radio back then and it made me curious about electronic music. Together with my other passion, video games, it was obvious to put them both together.
Cris Velasco: I've been an avid gamer since Space Invaders hit Atari in 1980. However, I never really considered writing music for games as a career until I graduated from the music composition program at UCLA. When I was done with school, I wanted to write the kind of epic orchestral scores that I fell in love with from the movies. At that point, I hadn't really heard anything in games that led me to believe that this was a viable path. But a few months later I heard the score to Outcast by my (now) good friend Lennie Moore and I realized that games could offer me the creative outlet that I was looking for; now I am able to really fulfill my dream as a composer. Not only do I get to write the kind of music that inspires me, but I also get to record with amazing orchestras and choirs around the world.
Chris: What led you to form an unlikely collaboration?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Fast forward to 2004, having worked on titles like Quake II, Quake III Arena and more, I was ready to look for the next level. I had some experience writing for orchestra but I knew plenty of people that could do it better and I would much rather focus on electronics and melody anyways. So an opportunity came up to pitch for a game that needed a hybrid of both, orchestra and electronic. Cris was under the same management (Four Bars Intertainment) so we met up and understood each other musically, immediately. I think our body of work can speak for itself today.
Cris Velasco: Working together with Sascha has given us both some amazing opportunities as well. I can honestly say that I would not be half as successful in my career without this unique collaboration.
Chris: Through scores like Dark Messiah and Prototype, you developed a unique approach to music production. Could you elaborate on how you went about creating tracks for projects like these through a joint effort? How do you achieve almost factory-like efficiency without losing attention to detail?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Very good question. Back when we started, the 'hybrid' sound wasn't really a genre just yet, so plenty of things were done by trial and error. Mixing live orchestra with important electronic elements is not easy. You don't want anything to stick out yet everything should be heard. What I learned was that if something is in the mix that's barely audible, it will have to go. The detail is really trying to keep a 'minimalist' approach and mix in a dynamic way so that at some point each element will have their moment.
But usually the way we work is that I work on one idea and Cris on another. Later we will discuss these ideas and Cris will do his thing and then send me stems. From there the tracks will take shape. I always mix as I go so, when I'm finished adding my elements, it's pretty much done.
Chris: Another key to your success in recent years has been the cutting-edge sounds you use. Could you elaborate on the hardware and software set up you use? How do you powerfully blend orchestral and electronic sounds in your works?
Sascha Dikiciyan: It takes some time to train your ears for what works and what doesn't. I do really pride myself in creating a lot of custom sounds. I call it 'musical sound design'. Sometimes I create material that I don't even know how or where I will use it. Tron: Evolution recently was like that. I created a lot of custom sounds and then used what inspired me at any given moment. My main software is Steinberg's Cubase. It has been my main weapon of choice since 1990.
Hardware-wise, all external gear will have to go through my Chandler TG2 pre-amps. They always add some analog 'warmth' to the sound. From there we go directly into my RME Fireface 800s (which I have two of). I really mix as I go. I cannot work on something that requires an 'imagination' so to speak, like, "oh yeah it will sound great later on". No, for me to stay inspired, it has to sound great while I compose.
It's sometimes a frustrating process as I will be handling multiple roles at the same time: composer, engineer, mixer, sound designer. But that's the price you pay for wanting control over everything. Especially layering orchestra with electronic music, it really requires a lot of skill so that in the end it sounds cohesive and natural. General rule — less is more. We learned that the hard way really. And I am always in research mode to stay ahead of the competition, musically and technically speaking.
Chris: Borderlands stands out as a recent landmark among your collaborations. How did you create the feeling of an industrial wasteland on this score? How did your respective talents hybridise in the resultant music?
Sascha & Cris: For Borderlands, we actually used a lot of organic source material. It was a mix of our own samples and some library samples. Lots of the percussion was actually trash sounds, like hitting on a broken car door with a huge hammer. We took that, processed it in the Kyma workstation, and then used it in Kontakt, just like a sample. We also used instruments like the GuitarViol, which is a guitar-like instrument except you play it with a bow. It added a nice, ethnic vibe to the score. Of course there were other crunchy sounds, but all that is then glued together, so to speak, by the orchestra. The orchestral side was rather minimal but really helped to give it that cinematic sound.
Chris: One of the creative highlights of your careers is Tron: Evolution, where you worked largely separately. Could you elaborate on how far you asserted your own approach to this score and how far you were influenced by Daft Punk and Wendy Carlos? Is it safe to assume you're both fans of this franchise?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Yes, I'm a huge fan of the original Tron and Wendy's work of course. When I first got the call to score Tron, I felt like a kid in a candy store. The possibilities were endless. Then I listened to Wendy's score again and was blown away by her deep knowledge of writing really amazing melodies yet at the same time on top of odd time signatures. So I was a bit intimidated at first, thinking how can I do that justice? Well, you can't really. So I figured the best approach was to do my own thing. I still paid homage to Wendy's music from time to time. If you listen closely, you can hear a few riffs that do just that.
Cris Velasco: I'm also a huge Tron fan. It was definitely one of my favorite movies that I grew up with. It's such a great feeling to be able to work on something now that was such a huge part of your childhood. On this one, Sascha got to write all the in-game music while I did all the cinematics.
Chris: You further explored a retro-futuristic approach further on Mass Effect 2's downloadable content. Can you elaborate on your influences here? How do you think these pieces will bridge the gap between Jack Wall's Mass Effect 2 and Clint Mansell's Mass Effect 3?
Sascha & Cris: Well it was definitely important to Bioware to keep the same elements that people have gotten used to, musically. So we have the orchestra mixed with this awesome retro sound incorporating musical influences from the '80s, most notably the works of Vangelis and Philip Glass. Of course we added our own flavor on top of that.
It was a real challenge to do the Mass Effect name justice. When people love something you don't want to push your luck that much by being too experimental. Yet adding a few new elements can make it much more interesting. For Mass Effect 2, in particular, we were on a mission to find that perfect reverb. Yes, that Blade Runner echo/reverb. It took a lot of time and research getting that sound right without it sounding like a copycat score.
The last DLC was also very strong thematically, and it was actually hard having to stop writing for it. Overall, the Bioware team knew what they wanted but gave us enough freedom to let us do our thing.
Chris: Cris Velasco, focusing on you for the moment, your rise to fame was through the God of War franchise. Given the series has always been scored collaboratively, how did you ensure your contributions were outstanding yet fitting? How important do you feel your contributions were in defining and developing the series' sound?
Cris Velasco: It is an honor to be a part of this groundbreaking franchise. As you mentioned, there are four to five composers working on each title. We're all working independently though. It was never an actual collaboration like what Sascha and I do. Normally, this would make for quite a disjointed sound I would imagine. However, the guys at Sony were really great at managing all of us and getting a cohesive sound. They allowed each of us to play to our own strengths while still falling within that God of War sound. My contributions to the score grew a bit with each new title.
Chris: One of the most memorable moments of your career was A Night in Fantasia, where you presented music from God of War II and Darksiders in Sydney. Could you share your memories of this event? What do you feel the live experience brought to these dark scores?
Cris Velasco: Yes, that was a great concert. It really proves how popular video games are becoming. The fact that hundreds or thousands of people would attend a concert to listen to the music from some of their favorite games just blows me away. It's a great feeling. It's the ultimate dream for every composer to have their music played live, at least for me it is! Also, both of these pieces received some fine-tuning for the show. My orchestrator (Tim Davies) and I arranged new "concert versions" of the music for this event. It was so cool to bring these brand new versions to Sydney and to premiere for all those people.
Chris: You also recently inherited the lead composing duties on Section 8: Prejudice from Jason Graves. How did this shift in composer come about? Did this reflect a change in musical direction too?
Cris Velasco: I'm not really sure why they decided to go a different route. It seems to happen all the time in this industry. I am very grateful that it happened though. The guys at Timegate were all really cool and I had a blast working with them!
Chris: Sascha Dikiciyan, you have a longer history in the video game industry than your partner. Looking back, do you think scores such as Quake III and Tomorrow Never Dies were responsible for your rise to prominence? Or do you think your current works pioneer an altogether different sound?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Yes, my first official gig was Quake II, back in 1997. I was very young and, looking back, I really just have to laugh. It was so crazy being called in to score a sequel to a game after Trent Reznor had just worked on the first one. I mean, I'm a huge fan and really, who isn't? So I think I was a bit in over my head (laughs).
I think what we are doing today is very different. However, you'd be surprised by how many people still love the Quake music. I get lots of fan mail 'complaining' why we don't use any guitars anymore, haha. Well simply put, times have changed and developers want their games to sound as good as your Hollywood movie.
That said, sometimes I wish the industry would grow in a different direction instead of copying the Hollywood sound; I wish they would rather try to innovate more. I mean, this is video games we are talking about. Shouldn't it be the perfect playground for more experimental music?
Chris: More recently, you were solely responsible for portraying the Raven faction featured in MAG. How did you uniquely characterise this faction? How do you think your approach complemented those of Apocalyptica and Tree Adams for the other factions?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Well, since the Raven faction was supposed to be high-tech with their Elite Soldiers, I tried to mirror that with my score: harsh sounds, mixed with precise electronic beats and acid synth lines. I think it turned out rather well, especially because it sounds very different from the other two factions. Overall, it was a fun gig. I'm hoping that there will be a sequel!
Chris: You're also active as a dance music producer and remixer under the pseudonym Toksin. Could you elaborate on the highlights of these roles? How do your tracks differ from those you create for video games?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Yes, Toksin is something I started just for fun. I didn't care about making money or anything. I just needed another outlet to do something else musically. The tracks are very different than the music I create for video games. The genres range from Drum and Bass, Breakbeats to Progressive House. There are a few remixes I'm very proud of, a couple of them being Celldweller's "So Long Sentiment" and BT's "Communicate." Unfortunately I haven't had much time to do anything with it lately as all of my focus is currently on Sonic Mayhem projects.
Chris: For the final part of the interview, I'd like to focus on your latest collaborative score, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. Why do you describe this score as your most cinematic achievement? Was the project musical exploration ground for you?
Cris Velasco: There was definitely some new ground covered here for us. For starters, most of our tracks really had a chance to develop. As a composer for games, we get so used to writing 90 second tracks that need to loop seamlessly. On Space Marine, we were writing 3-5 minute tracks. This gave the music a nice arc and gives a much more cinematic feel, I think. It was also an interesting challenge to write a mostly linear score compared to a non-linear format.
Chris: We noticed form the soundtrack preview that the score for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is filled with emotions. Given this approach, how far do you think the music drives the gameplay and storyline?
Sascha Dikiciyan: When we started to work on Space Marine, we knew we didn't want it to be another typical game score. I don't like the term "video game score" anyways. These days, we use live orchestras just like movies so we thought why not give the game a more emotional edge than just action cues? I think it's brilliant when you slaughter Orcs and you have these long notes playing; it almost gives the Space Marines a majestic feeling.
Cris Velasco: Yeah, the guys at Relic really wanted the score to help push the story and emotions. With this game, we tried to score the story more than the actions. The game itself may be a huge orc-killing fest but there's also a pretty epic story going on. Our music often acts as a narrator to this story rather than just pointing to what's happening on the screen in real time.
Chris: The soundtrack for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine has been celebrated with an album release by Sumthing Else Music Works. Now you've told us about the contextual experience, could you elaborate on how the soundtrack will serve as stand-alone listening? What major highlights should we expect?
Sascha & Cris: Yes, we are super stoked that Sumthing is doing a release. The soundtrack itself is a bit different than what's in-game. Most of the cues are in the game, but we extended and added a proper flow so that when you listen from top to bottom, it's really a musical journey! It took a lot of extra work doing that, but we think in the end it was worth it.
Chris: In future, fans can look forward to the sequels to three games scored by you: Darksiders 2, Borderlands 2, and Prototype 2. Would you be interested in returning to any of these sequels? Do you think there is room for you to explore the sounds of these franchises further?
Sascha Dikiciyan: Well, we are certainly not against working on sequels. We can't comment at the moment. To be honest, we have become more selective in our projects simply because it takes so much time and effort to deliver great work these days.
Cris Velasco: I think that sequels offer a great opportunity for composers to expand on their own material and I'm definitely not against doing them. There's that great quote that I think all composers can relate to, "Art is never finished, only abandoned". I think that working on a sequel can sometimes help fill a creative void by allowing you to pick up something where you "abandoned" it before.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan. Is there anything you'd like to say about your collaborations? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to readers across the globe?
Sascha Dikiciyan: I hope that everyone is enjoying our work for Space Marine and, really, we are just getting started!
Cris Velasco: Thanks so much for your interest in our music. We have a HUGE announcement coming soon that we can't wait to share with everyone!