In honor of tomorrow’s release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut, Geno sits down with composer Michael McCann to discuss scoring the game.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution composer Michael McCann
Geno: Before we begin… To say that I loved, or enjoyed Deus Ex: Humas Revolution’s score would be doing it a disservice of the highest order…I nearly worship it. I wrote half of my living will to it… And seeing that I was on a roll, I wrote everyone I ever fell in love with, or loved period and told them all this really personal stuff; these letters are to be delivered upon my death, but that’s the impact your compositions had on me. It made me want to really take final stock, say needed goodbyes, and look back at everything I have done in my life. I can’t thank you enough…
Wow – thank you!!
Geno: Deus Ex: HR’s post-apocalyptic theme, I imagine, is something composers would shy away from. It must be truly difficult to carve out a space of one’s own, with all that has been recorded in that vein over the last thirty years. You went far beyond the measure of a small confined space, and multiplied your vastly singular sound to fill an entire living, breathing world. Only you could have created this. It’s truly remarkable, and your work on this project is unlike anything done before or since in the genre.
Did you feel any amount of trepidation going into the initial scoring runs for Deus Ex: HR? Did your rough sketches differ vastly from the final set of compositions? What was that initial call like, the one asking you to join the project?
Yes – this was a concern of mine from the very beginning. Although I do think there is massive diversity to sci-fi, cyberpunk, and post-apocalyptic scoring, it seems there is still an assumption that these genres have to stay within a very limited range. But – if you consider sci-fi scoring (at least on the film side) to include scores from Jerry Goldsmith, Vangelis, Basil Poledouris, John Tavener, Daft Punk, Brad Fiedel, Cliff Martinez (Solaris), Don Davis, Atticus Ross (Book of Eli), Michael Kamen (Brazil), etc., you really start to see a wide range of instrumentation and style. And this is exactly because sci-fi, and even sub-genres like cyberpunk, encompasses a huge range of story themes and settings. Even something like Blade Runner draws from world music, blues, jazz, ambient and classical. There’s really nothing preventing the genre from branching out – especially when the themes of the story call for it.
Talking specifically about DX:HR, the story, themes and art direction all strongly highlight a duality between multiple contrasting themes – technology/nature, past/future, wealth/poverty, etc. All of this is surrounded by the global theme of transhumanism, which embodies the continual evolution of human technology to almost conquer nature, or more specifically, achieve mortality through technological advancement. Perhaps that’s an over-simplification, but it is a strong enough theme to bleed into issues like religion (which we’ve seen recently with stem cell research), politics (information control), philosophy (metaphysics, consciousness), etc. It’s an incredibly inspirational world to pull from musically – and allowed me to get very personal with the music, which absolutely allowed for a more emotional soundtrack.
As for the initial call – although we began with more traditional sci-fi influences like Blade Runner and the original Deus Ex, all of these more humanistic themes pulled me far more into bringing in warm, acoustic influences like voice, world instruments, solo strings, etc. The soundtrack definitely evolved from what was a very industrial / dark electronic pitch (which you can hear in Detroit, which was some of the earliest music I composed) to something that had a great deal more diversity – like the heavily world instrument influenced Hengsha, China sections of the game.
Purchase the DX:HR soundtrack on Sumthing.com!
Geno: One of the most beautiful things about this particular set of works is how the tracks seem to bleed into every fragment of space provided within the game. Everything, it seems, from its worldview to its characters, its abandoned hallways, makes even the most minuscule of hand gestures carry your music’s imprint. When you are inside the game’s future world, every action you take has a very specific, deliberate effect on its sound design. It feels quite literally like you’re pulling strings, and measuring player response in real-time. This elevates the music to something much, much more. It becomes its own character, with motives, intent and secrets. Was it your goal to make the soundtrack as devious and corrupt as the games’ many morally compromised inhabitants? How did you achieve that all-knowing, all-seeing watchful eye?
I think an important reason why the soundtrack has an immersive, almost oppressive effect on the game despite it being primarily ambient – is the decision to score to the environment and not just the story. What this means is that the music derives a lot of its sounds from the physical environments, whether it’s the steel and machines in Detroit, or the street musicians and dense crowds of Hengsha, China. There’s always a great deal of the actual environmental sounds embedded – and exaggerated within the soundtrack as you walk through the game.
In doing this, the hope was that the music would affect the player on a subconscious level, and not just feel like a soundtrack sitting on top of the game. The music could really become a character in the game, as much a part of the environment as the streets, the walls, the lighting, and the people walking around you. This becomes very effective when, at specific times, you can have the music rise out of the environment and become much more predominant – but it doesn’t rise up out of nowhere, it’s rising out of the musical ambient bed. The intended effect is to create an immersive, unbreakable stream of music that can disappear and reappear when needed, which meant that integration of the music (how it adapted in real time) and where each piece of the music was placed was very important. This also created the challenge of making certain elements of the music minimal enough to just sit in the background, but that the more dramatic layers are still intertwined in the minimal side, so it all feels like analog-like waves and not mere erratic steps.
Geno: Something rather incredible happens when you first load up the game: that menu music. It’s the first of many signposts that bridge the gap between the player and the world of Deus Ex: HR. It stops you dead in your tracks; it takes from you the notion that the world you’re entering is anything but fiction. It also requires a bit of strength to finally press START, as it effortlessly communicates the tumultuous weight of the game’s narrative. Can you tell me a little bit about the making of this particular piece?
That was one of the last cues I wrote for the game. There was actually a much more ambient menu theme temped into the game about a year before we finished. You can hear that theme in the pause menu and in some of the setup / utility menus. The final menu theme was actually the ambient music I made for Sarif Headquarters in Detroit, where it still plays, but it also became the menu theme. I can’t explain why it became the main menu other than that everyone, including the audio lead Steve Szczepkowski and myself, thought it acted as a strong introduction to the mood of the game.
We could have perhaps gone with something like the main ‘Icarus’ theme, which builds to a massive climax, and has more dramatic melodic themes, but we felt that something like that was deceiving. Human Revolution is a cerebral game, it’s about conspiracies, investigation, exploring – and the themes are complicated and diverse. To put a large, dramatic and “traileresque” theme in the menu may have misled the audience as to what kind of game they were going to be playing. For that reason, we sided with a much more atmospheric and subtly emotional theme.
Geno: “The Mole” has this gorgeous refrain to it, like droplets on a pond; you can hear these three single notes throughout the score as a sort of embedded piece of scarred heart, via guitar or keyboard or through the scattered dissonance. It really brings focus to the character of Adam Jensen. No matter how far he may or may not choose to veer off course, he’s always going to be damaged and heartbroken. Am I correct in this assessment? Is this one of the more central themes in the score? Those three chimes… were they originally part of a longer set of notes? How did you decide what would make up the common threads, the things you hear repeatedly throughout the game?
The themes in the soundtrack are intentionally quite ambiguous, so it’s difficult to say what themes are specific to actual characters or events. There are a couple reasons for this – one is technical and one is stylistic.
The technical reason is that the music system for the game was very simple. There are so many pieces of music in the game (about 200) because the music was based on static loops, which can become quite repetitive! For this reason, a great deal of music was created to cover almost every single possible location in the game: alleys, main streets, apartments, clinics, side streets, interior of various buildings, and even different music for different floors, or different entrances to the same location. Although having many cues helped draw attention away from repetition, it still didn’t solve the issue of continually repeating themes if you were in the same location for long periods of time. There really wasn’t a solution to this considering the very old school music system we had – which made me look at a stylistic solution…
The technical limitation led me to look at both the global story themes and the art direction for the game, and look more seriously at what we were trying to say with the music. Because Deus Ex is very much about broad global conflicts and conspiracies where you are slowly gaining more and more information about location, characters, and how everything intersects, you don’t really want the music casting judgements on characters or situations. You don’t want to have a Star Wars-like ‘Imperial March’ theme when a character steps into the game because the music is then casting judgement – telling you what to think or what to feel about a particular character or piece of information. Neither I, nor the creative heads at Eidos wanted the music giving you answers or influencing your decisions before the story did. Although there are times when the music needs to convey specific information or cast judgement (e.g. Namir & Barret are obviously antagonists from the start), it was actually more important that music be an emotional/atmospheric companion accompanying you through the game, reminding you of the world/story around you, but not being overly explicit.
Geno: “Everybody Lies” and “Harvesters” are absolutely emotionally gripping. The strange thing about them is that they are action cues. Not many composers inject the onslaught of brutal physical encounters with such earnest, heartfelt confliction. It’s a tremendous feat to make sympathetic the plight of your enemy.
What was your main goal with these two compositions? Why not simply stomp your nemeses with simple drum and bass?
Going back to the earlier point about immersion – it was very important for the action music not to break the atmospheric or emotional mood that was in the ambient themes. For the game engine, there are three layers to the in-game music: ambient, stress, and action. Each of these layers play at the same time, and the game engine will crossfade between them depending on the situation. If things are calm, the ambient layer plays. When you approach an enemy, or approach an area of danger, the stress layer will fade in on top of the ambient to provide tension and the ambient layer will fade out the closer you are to that danger, leaving only the tension layer. If you get into a fight, or are discovered in a restricted area, the action layer will fade in on top of the stress layer, and those two layers will provide the soundtrack for combat. When the action is finished you will either go back down to the stress layer, or all the way back down to the ambient layer if you are totally out of danger.
It’s a very simple system, but it does allow for a large amount of immersion, and does allow me to carry all the ideas from the ambient all the way up the ladder to combat – often repeating melodic, vocal, emotional elements from the ambient inside the combat layer. I do find in many soundtracks, both in film or games, that the action music often completely drops many of the emotional themes as it ramps up into combat. I really tried hard not to do this, and I think it resulted in the action music having a much stronger emotional anchor. I did accent this in the retail soundtrack, as I could really build the arrangements in order/timing that I felt conveyed this idea best – specifically on the tracks ‘Hengsha Daylight’, ‘Harvesters’, ‘Everybody Lies’, ‘Namir’ and ‘After The Crash’.
Geno: The sound inside Hung Hua Brothel feels viciously murky. You can see its bottom rung in the desperation of those girls, in the sound of a broken-down cigarette machine making change. Club scenes in video games are usually a one-sided affair: lights, music and bartenders…This track however, makes every inch of that brothel vile, yet somehow leaves the window of temptation wide open. How difficult was it to traipse the wire of subtlety here? How did you approach the idea of stacking moral consequence against fleeting benefit?
Actually – that brothel track was originally going to be The Hive theme for the main bar in Hengsha, China. However, it didn’t really match the lighting or the feel of that place. It wasn’t until much later in the game’s production that the lead audio director, Steve Szczepkowski, dropped the track in the brothel and thought it worked great. I added a few more elements like the breathing effects and some more melodic elements to put it more in line with the brothel’s “atmosphere,” and then remixed again for the retail soundtrack album – adding vocal themes from ‘Icarus’ & ‘Ending’ which I think, at least in the last minute of the track, make it (I hope!) a little more powerful.
Geno: This record is the sound of a man possessed, the tunnel going narrower, darker, no interventions seemed to be planned. Emotionally this must have been difficult to compose. You can leave a studio at the end of the night and say you’re okay, but something like this has got to stick with you a bit. Did you find any of the creation or recording process to be at all overwhelming? ‘Home’ sounds like you’re trying actively to forget the burden of your work… I love it! Adam Jensen becoming Nick Drake? The lines are ever fuzzy!
I think the goal of many composers is to have the audience carry the atmosphere of the game or film or album out into their real lives, after the music is turned off. This was absolutely my goal with Human Revolution, and especially the soundtrack album. I definitely get absorbed in soundtracks when I work on them – like getting into a trance and being completely immersed in the world and the music sometimes for many months, or more than a year in the case of DX:HR. I think getting lost in the music and world helps a lot in creating a cohesive enough soundtrack that it has the possibility to affect the audience in the same way but in a shorter amount of time.
As for ‘Home’, which was written for Adam’s apartment, the studio/loft where I wrote the soundtrack looked almost identical to the one in the game – the same three-arched windows with the same blinds, the same open kitchen and living area. Minus the smashed glass mirror in the bathroom – at least at the beginning of the project! I think that really helped writing music for that room, as it was really how I felt working in that loft.
Geno: ‘Hengsha Daylight (Part 1)’ and ‘Endings’ …are so powerful, so vivid as they deliver the near-final pieces of Adam Jensen’s story in Deus Ex: HR. These compositions ARE the album’s cover art: its message of compromise, its malleable, morally gray individuals, its polluted and debris-strewn oceans. You encapsulate the essence of the game in just under seven minutes. Again nothing is done in half-measures… quite simply, how do you do it? Also, those amazing vocalists you employed for these tracks, who are they? How did you balance the use of vocal and instrumental throughout the soundtrack? What do you think the vocals communicate here?
Those two tracks definitely represent the more “light” side of the game’s soundtrack – heavy on vocals, airy pads, massive reverbs, an emphasis on acoustic instruments (vocals, strings, percussion, etc.) and a wide stereo image. Those two tracks and the ‘Penthouse’ cue were written around the same time when I was scoring the daylight sections of the game – and they could all definitely be considered within the same family of cues.
The vocals – not just in those two tracks, but throughout the soundtrack, were a mix of many, many different sources. The two primary vocalists were Andrea Revel (who I have worked with for almost 10 years, including Splinter Cell: Double Agent) and provides a lot of the ambient vocal textures throughout the game, as well as Ariel Engle, whom I used on ‘Opening Credits’, parts of ‘Icarus’, ‘Endings’, ‘Everybody Lies’, and others. The rest of the vocals are either myself (heavily manipulated), or various sample libraries and source recordings of folk/street musicians that are scattered through much of the Asian locations of the game. There really are about fifty or more vocalists used, sampled, incorporated into the score from countless different sources.
The heavy use of vocals, and the wide variety of vocal styles was very intentional. I chose the voice as the primary instrument to represent the organic side of the game’s themes. Whereas synthetic instruments like synths represent technological progress, machines, science, and the future – the vocals represent the distant past as well as nature, religion, superstition, etc. So when combined with more synthetic elements, it creates kind of a struggle between many contrasting elements that have machine vs. nature as their core.
Geno: Oh man…I adore the hacking cues, I can feel that tiny ball rolling around in the socket just waiting to trip the wire… No matter how many systems I had already previously infected, the confrontation with that round AI never failed to make me sweat. I noticed these pieces were very much a world unto itself. How did you give such a definitive voice to the act of fumbling around in the dark?
I actually completed all four hacking cues very early in production. They are fairly short (about 45 seconds each) and only have two layers – an ambient layer for hacking, and an action layer that plays if you fail and are discovered. The intent of the ambient layer was to create a hypnotic pulse that helps the player focus on the task – almost a psychological escape from what’s going on around you while you’re in the hacking interface. The action layer is of course to signal that you’ve been caught and need to get the hell out!
Geno: On your website behaviormusic.com you indicate that the full score for Deus Ex: HR is near 200 tracks long. WOW! This is incredibly exciting to a guy like me, and no doubt fans looking for a deeper insight into the musical sphere you crafted for the game. Is there any chance you might be able to officially release it at some point in the future? How do you whittle down such a mountain of music to 25 pieces? Was there anything you wish you could have added to the final track listing?
I seriously considered releasing a double CD version of the DX:HR soundtrack. But when I began looking at other 2 (or more) disc soundtracks I felt that they often had a lot of repetition in themes or emotions. I wanted the DX:HR soundtrack to be about the length of a normal album – choosing each track carefully, to cover the full arch of the game’s story and themes. The 25 tracks of the retail soundtrack were created by combining about 50 of the 200 tracks I composed for the game. Whatever tracks were left out of the game were left out because I felt they repeated something that was already covered from those final 25 tracks.
Geno: The music for The Missing Link, the DLC content released after the game’s launch, is not represented on the official score, was the music that accompanies that chapter of the story a totally separate entity and therefore could not be released in the same package? Were those sessions done at different times?
Yes – I scored “The Missing Link” after the retail soundtrack for DX:HR was completed, so it was mostly for scheduling reasons that none of those tracks were included in the DX:HR release.
Geno: I am curious as to what your typical process of creation is like? Do you start with guitar or piano? Is creating music something you like to do with collaborators, or is it a more solo experience? What instrument do you feel was most prominently featured on Deus Ex: HR? Why that particular one?
Since I was focusing on scoring to the environments and larger themes of the game rather than specific characters or events, the building of each cue definitely began at the ambient level. I usually begin by picking or designing certain sounds or instruments that I feel match the mood/atmosphere of a specific location, then begin to expand into rhythm, chords, harmonies, and musical effects until there’s almost a wall of sound, slowly building up to the action cue. Then it’s a matter of choosing which elements belong in which layer – ambient vs. tension vs. action. Once all the layers are defined I start looking at lead melodies, or lead instruments if they are needed, and again start refining each layer so they have a very identifiable character. In this way, the transition between each layer is clear but also not so distracting that it draws a lot of attention to itself… although some of the action cues tend to get a little carried away!
As a side note, this is the total opposite process I used on the score for Splinter Cell: Double Agent. For that game, I began with lead melodies, and then built every other element from the ambient to the action layers around those melodies. That score was also a more collaborative process with a lot of live performances, so it required a different approach.
Geno: The characters obviously don’t have their own dedicated musical themes, It would be great however to hear your thoughts on what pieces of music most remind you of Pritchard, Jensen and Sarif.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a very intentional decision to not have strong identifiable themes throughout the game, particularly when it came to more ambiguous characters. Again, this was all about scoring the environments, and scoring the global story themes, and not specific events or characters. There are definitely many consistent chord progressions, textures/instruments, and rhythmic themes all over the game as well as strong identifiable characteristics for each location in the game but nothing that I would really say “this is Adam’s theme” or “this is Namir’s theme” or “this is Megan’s theme”. Probably the most literal theme is ‘Home’ which is definitely Adam’s theme, at least his more ambient and introspective theme, but it’s still not complete enough or dynamic enough to represent his entire personality or place in the story.
Geno: With the new versions of Deus Ex:HR Director’s Cut hitting the Wii-U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, will we to be treated to an even more expansive selection of musical tracks within the game? Will anything differ in the audio from the original release?
Eidos and I have always had plans to release additional music not just from DX:HR but also from ‘The Missing Link’ DLC and the recent The Fall mobile game, but I cannot confirm when this will happen at the moment. This is also very much out of my control. As for the Director’s Cut of the game, the music will be exactly the same as the original release. However, ‘The Missing Link’ DLC has been incorporated into the timeline of Human Revolution for this new release, so those who haven’t played that will hear about 20 minutes of music that wasn’t in DX:HR.
Geno: What does the rest of 2013 hold for you? Can you share any tidbits with us here today? Vacations, new recordings, marathons? You must have a pretty full plate of commitments.
I did take some time over the last year to work on some personal musical projects, which I’ll get back to at a later date. At the moment though, I am fully back to doing scoring work – but can’t give any details about what that work is at the moment! J
Geno: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today Mr. McCann, our meeting is something I will hold especially near to my heart; it’s been such an honor for me.
Thank you very much – it’s been a pleasure!
Purchase your copy of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution soundtrack by Michael McCann right here on Sumthing.com!