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We are only a few short days from the launch of one of the most anticipated games of 2012 with Mass Effect 3. The Feed spoke with three of the five composers behind the music of ME3, Sam Hulick, Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco, and the creation of the music for the game. We and the composers have kept this as spoiler-free as possible for you, so don’t be afraid to come inside for a look and a listen, as have samples of some of the incredible sounds they’ve created for the closing of the Mass Effect trilogy.
The Feed: Mass Effect 3 must have been a great collaborative effort to put the music together for. How was the work divided amongst yourselves?
Sascha & Cris: Due to the massive amount of music that had to be written, BioWare decided early on that multiple composers were needed. Each composer received a series of levels to work on, that includes cinematics and gameplay music. We were fortunate to work on a large chunk of ME3’s music (over 1 ½ hours), with most cues written for later levels and some pretty epic stuff towards the end.
Sam Hulick: Very similar to the way work was divided in Mass Effect 2. Each of us was assigned entire levels or sets of levels to work on. With one composer working on an entire level, including ambient music, combat music, and cinematics, it provides for a more consistent sound. I was assigned the main menu, opening cinematic, most of Earth (except the very end), Mars, and the end-game levels.
The Feed: Cris and Sascha we know you worked more directly together, but what were the challenges to working apart from each other?
Sascha & Cris: Well to be honest, there wasn’t really any interaction between us and the other composers. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Sam knows the ME sound really well having worked on the first two. And Rob Blake, the Audio lead, had a great vision of what he and Casey (Hudson) wanted to hear. We had brief meetings with Rob and Michael Kent on an almost daily basis, but in the end they really let us do our own thing.
The Feed: As we are now three games into the Mass Effect series, what were your inspirations for the music for Mass Effect 3?
Sascha: Being an electronic synth guy and huge fan of the likes of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, it was easy where to go for inspiration. Blade Runner obviously had a huge impact. Of course ME itself had already established its own sound. So we wanted to take that, especially the synth work, and see how far we could push it without taking the original ME vibe away. I think I read on the forums that people are saying, “It sounds new yet still like Mass Effect”. I think that was really our goal.
Cris: Like Sascha said, we obviously wanted to retain the Mass Effect sound but also add our own personality to it. We love that style just as much as the fans do. My only real goal was to have fun with it and make sure that we delivered the best possible music. I think people are going to really love it!
Sam: Rob Blake (the audio lead) and I had talked about stylistic goals before I got started on this project, and we agreed that to some extent we wanted to return to the original Mass Effect sound. On the other end of the spectrum, this third installment of the game is a much more emotionally charged experience, so the music has once again matured to reflect that. There’s a nice balance between that ME1 sound and a more cinematic palette. And lots of piano this time around.
The Feed: Sam, you are the constant here, having worked on the first two games. How has the experience working on the series evolved and have things changed dramatically between iterations of the game?
Sam: It’s certainly changed a lot from the very beginning. With the first Mass Effect I feel like we were breaking new ground. Jack Wall and I were brought on board initially to score the game, and Casey Hudson had a musical vision in mind that we set out to help realize. Moving into Mass Effect 2, we gravitated towards a more cinematic and orchestral sound. I imagine it was fan feedback on ME2’s score that led BioWare to revisit the ME1 sound a little more this time around.
From a work experience, it’s definitely become more streamlined and organized as the series has progressed. The most recent installment of the game felt like the most efficient to me. Level details were delivered quickly, music was submitted in a timely fashion, and feedback on those tracks was reasonably prompt.
The Feed: Our readers are very interested in the behind the scenes aspect of what goes into game music composition. What kind of gear/software did you all use for your compositions?
Sascha: I use Steinberg’s Cubase as my main composing sequencer. Audio hardware is all based on RME and Dangerous music gear. Even though we had to start working on ME3 right away, I spent a lot of time doing research how to get that old school Vangelis reverb/echo. We used a lot of real hardware synths like a Moog, Juno-106, MS2000, a Linn Drum machine and the awesome OP-1 by Teenage Engineering. All these synths were hooked up through lots of Eventide and Metasonixs pedals. I also have a rather large modular rig that was used.
Cris: I’m also a Cubase and RME guy. While Sascha was taking care of all the cool synthetic elements of the score, I was focusing on the orchestral side of things. My palette is made up of just about every commercial orchestral library that’s available. I mix and match a lot of things to get just the right sound. All the PLAY libraries, Sonokinetic, 8Dio, Soundiron, Spitfire, etc. I also have a nice collection of my own custom samples that I used quite a bit on this too.
Sam: I use Cubase on a Mac for my composition work and Adobe Audition for editing and processing. I’m mostly a software guy, so my instruments are all VSTs loaded into Cubase. For my synth work, I decided to keep things relatively simple and mostly used my miniMoog VST. There’s a little bit of Zebra2 in there, some Omnisphere as well. I use a pretty wide array of samples for my orchestral works.
The Feed: What has the response from your various fans/followers been to the pieces you've been able to shar so far?
Sascha & Cris: The response has been amazing. People really care about the music. And that’s always very important to us during the writing process, especially when you’re coming onto a franchise with a score that is as beloved as Mass Effect. The challenge was to keep that ME sound yet take it to the next level. The fans have been really responding to that and loving it so far!
Sam: Really incredible and humbling! They’re so excited to get their hands on the end of the trilogy as well as listening to the hard work that we’ve all put into the musical score. Sascha and I are rather active on Twitter, and we get positive comments and questions often, more especially now that the demo has been released.
The Feed: Obviously, everyone working on Mass Effect 3, including yourselves, is working towards the same end-goal. That said, how much creative freedom were you given with your compositions, or were there any requests to make it “sound just so” from the main creative team?
Sascha & Cris: There was a lot of freedom for us to try some new things this time around. Everyone working on the game was there because BioWare knew we could all write in the “ME” sound though. That sound provides its own boundaries in a way while still giving us huge amounts of space to be really creative. We also tried to implement a “less is more” approach to a lot of the combat cues. It’s still a common misconception that an action cue has to be busy. Part of our creative ‘freedom’ was that we could offer arrangements that still bolstered the excitement of combat, yet were not hitting the player over the head constantly. You could call it “refined epic”. In that regard, BioWare has been extremely amazing to work with.
Sam Hulick: BioWare really just provides a general musical direction and sometimes reference tracks to follow. It’s just there to serve as a guide though, never as a strict model to write a piece of music to. Creative freedom varied a bit from track to track. There are obviously some very critical parts of the score towards the end of the game that really did have to “sound just so,” and they provided me very specific direction on those. There are other tracks where I was able to also throw in ideas and ask “how about this?” and often times they were cool with it.
The Feed: There is a huge precedence having already been set with the release of physical and digital soundtrack albums for ME and ME2. Those gamers opting for the Collector’s Edition of Mass Effect 3 will be getting an “exclusive extended soundtrack”. What was your involvement, if any, in putting that together for the final game?
Sam: Rob Blake was tasked with that. He spent many hours taking all of our musical content and deciding what to include, how to piece things together into tracks that make for a listenable experience. It’s actually not an easy job at all, due to the nature of interactive music. He has all these pieces of tracks and snippets, and has to make music that was written for an interactive experience work in the context of sitting down with some headphones on and just listening.
Sascha & Cris: We unfortunately did not have time to do soundtrack edits for the CE release. However, Rob Blake did a great job of telling the story of ME3 musically. If you listen to the soundtrack from beginning to end, you can really ‘feel’ the ME3 story.
The Feed: For Cris and Sascha, how has working on ME3 differed from your other collaborative game soundtrack creations?
Sascha & Cris: It really wasn’t any different. Each game has its own unique challenges and, of course, each of our workloads differs from game to game. Space Marine, for example, was very orchestra heavy while ME3’s musical bulk is really a true hybrid, with a lot of the more ambient cues being mostly electronic and the cinematics leaning towards orchestra. We’ve been working together now for almost 7 years so we are indeed like a well-oiled machine at this point. :)
The Feed: Sam, will it be easy for gamers/vgm listeners to spot through lines in the music from Mass Effect and ME2 in the new game?
Sam: Definitely. As people have already heard from the demo, I’ve taken the ME1 “Victory” theme and used it in ME3. Other themes from ME1 will make an appearance as well, but I’ll leave it at that to maintain some mystery!
The Feed: During composing, was there music that worked great at first but ended up being left out for one reason or another?
Sascha & Cris: All of our music was actually used in the game. However, sometimes a particular cue winds up being used in an area we didn’t originally intend it for. For example, we had a fairly massive combat track that we also deconstructed into “medium” and “low” versions just to give them more variety to play with. It turns out that the “low” version worked perfectly as the Character Creation music. Happy accidents like this aren’t too common, but it’s cool when it does!
Sam: Yes, sometimes there’s a piece that’s really great but for one reason or another it just doesn’t end up in the final product.
The Feed: Are there any differences in the music should you choose to play as either a male or female version of Commander Shepard?
Sam Hulick: Not in any of the music I wrote, no.
Sascha Dikiciyan: As far as I know, there’s zero difference.
Cris Velasco: All the music sounds exactly the same, except we used pink instruments for FemShep.
The Feed: What are your favorite pieces of music from the ME3 score?
Sam: Unfortunately we can’t really reference any track names at this time, and it’s hard to mention specifics without spoiling the story. There’s one particular track from Cris & Sascha that I really love, it has these gritty synth textures and filmic tension going on, then breaks into a somber piano passage. Really awesome mood about it. I also really like their music for the character creation screen. For my own stuff, there’s a bit of music that can be heard in the demo, when Shepard is on Earth getting briefed, and talking with Vega and then Anderson. It has this dark tone and a nice balance of orchestral and synth that I think really captured that ME1 feel.
Sascha: What Sam said. We can’t talk about specifics however since the demo is out you can hear one of our favorite pieces which plays during the Character Creation screen. Very minimal yet has all the elements that make it that ME sound, IMO.
And if you aren't playing the demo (but really, why wouldn't you be?!) Here is the Character Creation screen music.
Cris: I really like the cue where you find out that Shepard is Darth Vader's father. Oops!
The Feed: A three-parter question for you all: How much music was created for the game?
Sascha & Cris: We wrote a big chunk of the ME3 score, over an hour and a half of music, including various cinematics, Character Creation screen, and the multiplayer theme. Probably 30 minutes of it was for cinematics with the rest being all gameplay.
Sam Hulick: I’m not sure on the grand total of minutes, actually. Personally, I wrote about thirty-five minutes of music. Roughly thirteen of those minutes are cinematics.
The Feed: If you are able to, can you tell our readers what to expect next from you?
Sam: I’ve got some cool stuff coming up in the future, but nothing I can talk about just yet!
Sascha: Currently working on something non-game related. However I have a title lined up for the summer which I am very excited about! Of course, I cannot say what it is. :)
Cris: I’m currently working on another big game. If I say any more than that, my legs get broke.
Oh composers are so secretive sometimes. You should definitely be following Sam Hulick, Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco on Twitter. If you want to hear from more pros from the game audio world, let me know via Twitter!