Sascha Dikiciyan, a composer who has contributed to a number of noteworthy video games including Quake II, Borderlands, Tron: Evolution, and Mass Effect 3, has made a living off of using experimentation and unconventional tools in his music over the last 15 years. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that the iPad caught his attention when it launched in 2010; since then the iPad quickly found a place in Dikiciyan’s vast array of music-making tools. However, while in pre-production for what would become the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack, the iPad became an indispensable tool, with a wide variety of apps that helped him create the game's signature soundscape.
We had a chance recently to ask Dikiciyan a number of questions about the music creation process, what other sorts of unconventional tools he’s used while writing soundtracks, and who influenced his style over the years — and he’s also shared with us his favorite iPad music creation and composition apps. If you’re an iPad-toting musician, this list should provide you with an extremely wide variety of tools for making your own masterpiece — for a lot less money than building your own studio. To hear more of Dikiciyan’s creations, visit Sonic Mayhem, check him out on SoundCloud, or follow him on Twitter @sonicmayhem.
Below, Dikiciyan takes us through his top 11 iPad apps and tells us what makes the iPad such a unique creation tool. You'll find our Q&A with him in the sidebars.
"Does your dryer make a cool noise? Why not sample it and use it as a bass?"
If you're at all interested in electronic music, I'm sure that by now, you're aware that the real revolution in music software is not happening on traditional desktop computers but on the iPad. When the first iPad was released, there was a feeling of skepticism that it could be used for content creation. However, interesting music apps with lots of potential quickly followed. The release of the iPad 2 a year later brought me to a sudden conclusion that surprised even me: this is going to be the next big thing. It's not so much about the variety of sounds — in many cases, desktop plug-ins are still far more powerful — but more about the way that we interact with music.
During early pre-production for the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack, I was already playing around with a variety of apps to see if I could really use some of them in a real work scenario, and not just as a toy in a coffee shop.
The results blew my mind.
Since the release of Mass Effect 3, people have often come to me to ask: what are my favorite music apps? This is my list of essential, must-have music apps that I’m currently using on a variety of projects.
No question about it: this app is, in my opinion, the best, most creative sounding music app out there right now. I used it all over the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack, and will continue to use it on upcoming projects. Its remarkable playability, performance and sound quality make it the best music app on the iPad, in my opinion. Check out my track "Momentum," which I wrote specifically for Moog with nothing but Animoog patches from the great Atlanta-based electronic musician and producer Richard Devine
What were some of your biggest inspirations when making the soundtrack for Mass Effect 3? Are there any specific pieces of music, composers, performers, or bands you listened to that influenced your writing?
Aside from the past soundtracks that established the "Mass Effect sound," the biggest influence on my writing came from composers such as Vangelis and his work on Blade Runner. Another influence was [German electronic music group] Tangerine Dream, who scored various movies in the 80s (such as Sorcerer). However, I didn’t study their particular style of writing; rather, I was interested in how they created their scores from a technical point of view. It takes more then a bunch of synths to achieve that sound. I did a lot of research what effects they’ve used — such as what reverbs, delay settings, and so on. I used a lot of this newfound knowledge on some of the more ambient tracks in Mass Effect 3. When you listen to the character creation theme, for example, (it plays at the start of the game, when you create your own personalized Shepard) you can hear it all right there.
How do you balance creating something memorable and thematic with also needing to make something that players can hear for a few hours straight while exploring the game?
That’s a common challenge for us video game composers. It’s actually kind of hard to explain — I’ve been doing it for 15 years now, and for the most part I don’t even think about it anymore. A lot of in-game music needs to loop, which is the first challenge. I think the trick is finding a place within the arrangement for any recurring theme or melody to work. Often times, I would loop the piece I’m working on in my sequencer and just walk around the studio, write emails, do different things. I would sometimes do this for a whole half-hour,. and you’d just know if it felt right. It’s something that becomes somewhat of an instinct after doing it for so many years.
What current music do you feel most resembles the music you’ve composed for the Mass Effect series? Do you consider that music futuristic?
You mean like music you’d find on iTunes, for example? I don’t think there’s anything out there that sounds like Mass Effect’s music, besides the obvious influences the score owes its sound to. If by "futuristic" you mean unique, then yes — I’d consider the Mass Effect soundscape to fit that description.
In your view, what defines "futuristic" music?
Even though the term would imply music that sounds like its from 2050, that’s not really the case. Take The Matrix soundtrack: that, to me, was "futuristic" music, because it was a unique mix of new and old. It became its own genre, and was a bit ahead of its time. People would always refer to The Matrix soundtrack (not to be confused with the movie’s score — I’m talking about the song-based album) like it was a genre. I think Mass Effect 3 is a bit of the same — people refer to the "Mass Effect sound." It’s also a mix of old and new, combining the 80s synth elements with more modern orchestrations and other new sounds. I think if a sound or style becomes so strong that it becomes its own thing... that, to me, is "futuristic" music.
What are five of your favorite game soundtracks of all time?
Number one has to be the original Doom Soundtrack. While just a simple MIDI track, any hardcore gamer will remember the kick-ass music from E1M1. Next is MechWarrrior 2: 31st Century Combat. I loved its orchestral / industrial hybrid score — it was a game changer for its time. Then, what really inspired me to score game music was the original Quake soundtrack by Trent Reznor. It was also one of the first scores that had Red Book-standard audio. Then there was Outcast, which was scored by my good friend Lennie Moore. It was one of the first games to use a real live orchestra, with a performance by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and choir. Lastly, I really love the Indigo Prophecy soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti, who is probalby best known for scoring a number of David Lynch films.
It’s amazing to finally have the power of the legendary MIDI / OSC multitouch controller for the iPad — and you should be thankful, because the original hardware controller was very expensive. I also have a few custom Cubase templates, for quick controls and such. It’s also useful in combination with custom control patches with the Native Instruments Reaktor software and my Kyma workstation.
This complete recreation of the legendary Korg MS-20 analog synth has a huge sound. I have the original MS-20 synthesizer in my studio, and I can tell you that it sounds very, very close to the real thing. Amazing.
TC-11 Multi-touch Synthesizer, by Bit Shape ($29.99 for iPad)
This synth was surprisingly awesome. You can build your own custom synth using touch controls, device motion, and on-board modules. The app claims to be "the next evolution of synthesizer control," and I believe they’re correct — it’s a very innovative tool. You’ll need to be willing to invest some time in learning it, but the results can be great and very unique. Being able to move the iPad (using the gyroscope and accelerometer) to create music is very cool, and can create some happy "accidents."
Addictive Synth, by VirSyn ($5.99 for iPad)
In terms of flexibility in sounds as well as preset creation, this synth takes things to a whole different level. If you don’t have the time or energy to create your own synth presets, you’ll love the apps "intelligent randomizer." Addictive Synth is basically a dynamic wavetable synthesizer with a very cool spectral noise generator — while it may seem complex at first glance, it’s very easy to create sounds. The reverb quality is unbelievable, as well. I used this synth on a few Mass Effect 3 cues, like "The Scientists". If you haven’t downloaded a single synth app yet, make Addictive Synth your first purchase.
"Music knowledge and talent will ultimately matter."
NLogSynth PRO, by tempo rubato ($14.99 for iPad)
If you’re looking for a really good analog-style synth on the iPad, this is it. I used it extensively for the darker, and more bass-heavy syth pads in the Mass Effect 3 score. Feed this into the Eventide SPACE reverb stompbox first, and it will create an amazing field of lush sound just like you would expect from a true analog synth. It’s also compatible with external MIDI gear, so plug in your keyboard and have a go!
SampleWiz, by Jordan Rudess ($9.99, universal app)
Anyone who has been making music for 15 years or longer will remember the old, rather painful days of dealing with hardware samplers. The amount of work it took just to sample a sound and make it useful was just incredibly annoying. (Personally, I used the Roland 760 samplers in the 90s — all the drum sounds for the Quake scores were made with them.) Fast-forward to today: Samplewiz takes the sampler concept and removes all of the old frustrating elements. Sample anything you want and it will be playable immediately. Does your dryer make a cool noise? Why not sample it and use it as a bass? It also includes a sampling mode called "granular" which is their take on granular synthesis. Again, it's just amazing.
Grain Science by Wooji Juice ($9.99, universal app)
Music app developers seem particularly interested in granular synthesis apps these days — there are a lot of them out there. For those of you who don’t know what granular synthesis is, it’s a method by which sampled sounds are broken into small pieces (grains), which are then redistributed and reorganized to create an entirely new sound. A bit abstract, I know, but apps like Grain Science make it extremely simple and straightforward. You can even record directly into the mic and create your own patches, plus there’s a ton of effects and very cool performance pads which you can assign any parameter or sample to.
Prior to your recent fascination with music creation using the iPad, what are some of the more unique or unconventional tools that you used when composing or recording music?
I have always been a fan of looking for ways to create interesting sounds to integrate into my compositions. Sometimes I go out with my portable recorder and just record anything that I find interesting, from my dryer making weird high pitched noises when spinning up to my copy machine making cool noises. I also have a modular rig which I mainly use for sound mangling and for some analog, glitchy stuff.
In the end, it all comes together in my computers. I use a proprietary sound design system called Kyma X, which runs on its own dedicated digital signal processing hardware. It’s an incredible tool, even with its rather steep learning curve. I use tools like these to create what I call "musical sound design elements." You can hear them all over my score for Tron: Evolution and, of course, Mass Effect 3.
What’s your reaction to Apple’s GarageBand software for the iPad? Specifically, how do you feel about the tools it features that let people "play music" without needing to know anything about music theory, how notes and chords fit together, and so forth?
I think Garageband is very cool. Look, some people are just not born with any musical talents, but they still might enjoy the simple creation of something musical. Can’t blame ‘em! I wish I could draw, but there isn’t really an app for that yet I’m afraid! In the end, no matter how more sophisticated the tools get, you still need to know music to write proper cues. So while the tools might make it easier, music knowledge and talent will ultimately matter.
On Mass Effect 3 and several other games you’ve worked on, your music has only comprised part of the overall score, with other composers also contributing music to the project. Please tell us a little bit about the process of jointly composing a soundtrack with other collaborators — how challenging is it to have to work with others? Does that sometimes get in the way of your "vision" for the game’s score?
I’ll be completely honest with you: a lot of the co-composers are friends of mine. I admire their work and skills and respect them as composers. But, any composer would be lying if they would claim that it’s the best thing ever. On the other hand, for a game like Mass Effect 3, you need more than one composer. It’s just such a huge game, it would take months for someone to get it all done on their own. Bioware have been great in recognizing each composers’ strengths and letting us still do our thing within the Mass Effect universe. While there might be a few compromises that had to be made, my writing partner Cris Velasco and I could still excecute our vision for our part of the score. And since we got to write over 80 minutes for the game, I really shouldn’t complain.
csGrain, by Boulanger Labs ($9.99 for iPad)
csGrain is the first Csound app for iOS. C-what, you ask? Originally, Csound was an audio programming language for processing and creating sounds; it can still do amazing things. However, it’s quite an in-depth language, and for some it may be too difficult or time-consuming to learn. Fear not — this apps brings that all the processing power that Csound has to offer in real-time to the iPad. Import your own sounds and mangle them to create new textures or transform even your own voice! I’m currently using this app a lot for the creation of my own record.
"What really inspired me to score game music was the original Quake soundtrack by Trent Reznor."
BitWiz Audio Synth, by Kymatica ($2.99, universal app)
I like a good top ten — but I just had to add this gem to my list. BitWiz is a synth that uses real-time Algorithmic C-like code and turns it into some cool lo-fi 8-bit noise! It uses similar variables to those used in music creation back in the days of the Commodore 64 and VIC-20. You can also record in real-time via the built-in mic, plus there’s an X / Y axis pad for tweaking! To top it all, you can even write your own code, and then share it directly to Twitter or through email! Just awesome if you’re into that retro 8-bit sound (and you should be)!
It’s hard to believe that the first iPad was released less than three years ago. To me, it’s already hard to imagine my studio without all those brilliant pieces of software. I’ve had many friends come to my studio and they were blown away — lots of them ran off to the nearest Apple store to buy an iPad and start making music. It’s intuitive, smart, flexible — and most importantly, a lot of fun.
Photos by Drew Ressler