Sound Byte: Meet the Composer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Like what you heard from our last Deus Ex Sound Byte? Learn more about the man behind the music, Michael McCann.


No Caption ProvidedI'm sure many of you just can't wait to get your hands on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. We recently interviewed audio director Steve Szczepkowski who filled us in on his role and how he approached sound design. If you haven't had a chance to see it, you can view it here. Below, we also have embedded some of composer Michael McCann's music from the game, so have a listen and let us know what you think. You can get the soundtrack if you purchase the limited Augmented Edition of the game. As always, head over to Sound Byte Radio if you want to listen to more video game tunes and follow us on Twitter @gs_soundbyte for updates and giveaways.

GameSpot: Let's start things off by telling us about yourself and your musical background.

Michael McCann: I started with music when I was really young, mainly just learning songs by ear and playing them on various instruments around the house. I started a band with some friends when I was about 13, and after a few live shows, I started to realize I didn't like playing live. This pushed me into scoring stage plays in high school and then onto doing a couple of albums and writing music for a ton of short films in my late teens/early 20s. I noticed in the '90s that there was a lot of sound design being incorporated into scoring; music was becoming much more immersive as opposed to the traditional orchestral scores from John Williams, John Barry, etc. Because of this, I started picking up sound-design jobs in film--trying to figure out a way to bring the two worlds together--which eventually became what I do now, a mix of acoustic/electronic music with sound design elements mixed in around it.

Some of my earlier breaks were as sound designer and music editor on films like FUBAR and It's All Gone Pete Tong, which became cult hits in Canada and the UK. I also worked a lot in advertising, television (themes, ads, etc.), and in many different genres (comedy, drama, action, etc.). Each genre and each medium really teaches you something different about scoring to picture and especially how music and sound design affect timing, emotion, and editing. When going into games with Splinter Cell: Double Agent and then into Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's great to be able to pull from all these sources since scoring for games often includes not just the score, but also doing source music, trailers, etc.

Meet the composer, Michael McCann.
Meet the composer, Michael McCann.

GS: How did you get into composing for video games?

MM: I had the opportunity to pitch for Splinter Cell: Double Agent back in 2005. I was working with a company called Wave Generation in Montreal who used to rep a lot of composers. Splinter Cell: Double Agent came up, and they thought I'd fit the world really well, so I pitched Ubisoft about five minutes of music. I'm sure there was some hesitation, as I'd never scored a game before and I was pitching against some very experienced composers. But they offered me the job, and that was that. It was definitely a big learning curve; interactive music is very different from scoring to TV/movies, and it was interesting to go from doing relatively obscure films/projects right to a major title overnight.

GS: Are you more of a composer or do you perform or play?

MM: I don't perform or play live. I'm fairly reclusive when it comes to creating music, and I'm not really into the idea of sharing music with an audience in a live setting. I see making music a lot like how an editor will put together a film. For example, an editor will take all of these different takes from actors…all of these different shots in different styles, different locations, etc. and assemble it all into the final story. In the end, the film exists in one static form; it does not get performed differently and does not change when put in front of an audience. With music, I like the idea that I can put it together in a similar way, and in the end--after it is performed, recorded, and mixed--that is the only version of that music that will ever exist or be heard.

GS: So what was the first instrument that you picked up?

MM: Piano.

GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?

MM: Cello or violin. I use it so much, and I know that playing it would help me better understand how to express much more complex ideas.

GS: What is your fondest memory when it comes to music?

MM: Oh wow. All of it? I don't think one in particular. Fondest is always finishing a project. When I finished my first albums, when I finished Splinter Cell and Deus Ex…when you finish and you can finally look back at all the work and see what you've done. The analogy I've used before is the idea that you're working on a 100-foot sculpture and you're working on like a fingernail, and someone at the bottom is looking up saying "How's it going," but you've never seen the whole thing for yourself. When you're finally able to go down and look at it and see if it worked or not…I think that's usually the best feeling. Well, when it works at least! [laughs]

GS: What do you like dislike about the industry compared to TV/film?

MM: The big difference is in the creative direction and structure. In film, the director oversees everything: the editing, the visual design, casting, musical score, sound design…everything. He's the guy everyone turns to. With games, it's much more decentralized. The audio team has a lot more control over how the game will sound. I think this allows for more experimentation and makes the work much more personal. But at the same time, it makes it much riskier since there isn't that one person's vision controlling every aspect of the project. Sure, there is always a creative director overseeing the whole game but not in the same way as it works in film. I'm not sure yet whether I like this about games or not. I'm much more a fan of the total control a director has over a film, as in the end, the film can feel way more cohesive than a game. But because I don't think games would work like this and there are some incredible games in this world, perhaps games benefit from this decentralized creative process. I'm not sure, but I definitely prefer the director style of creativity.

GS: What's your process when composing tracks?

MM: It very much depends on the project. For example, even with Splinter Cell and Deus Ex, there were two totally different approaches just in the same medium. Splinter Cell is a very linear game; you can score it very much like you would a movie. Character goes from point A to point B; the story plays much like a movie, so the music can progress and reflect the story on a minute-to-minute basis. With Deus Ex, you have a very open-ended gameplay style. The player can choose his direction in the story and can also walk around in certain environments for as long as he/she wants. Because of these differences, each score requires a totally different approach.

An obvious example would be that on Splinter Cell: Double Agent, most of the focus was on lead melodies and one large piece of music for each of the 10 missions. Once the lead melody/theme is created, everything else gets built around it. On Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's creating over 100 smaller pieces of music that aren't built around a melody but, instead, built around an emotion or environment. If there is any melody, the melody comes last after the foundation is completed. So two very different approaches.

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GS: What is it like approaching a franchise like Splinter Cell or Deus Ex? Any pressure?

MM: Even if there weren't, I create it for myself anyway. (laughs) With a franchise, there's a precedent already set, and you know there's already a fan base and a long history, so it's trying to do something personal that's my own voice but still respecting everything that's come before it. In the end, though, my focus has to be 100 percent on the project I'm working on. I think the music (and game) would suffer if the first priority were looking to the previous projects to see if they matched, rather than whether music worked for what's right in front of you. The developers have created a story and a style of game that I compose to, so it has to match that before anything else.

GS: Could you talk about the musical style and approach you took with Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

MM: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a really long project, so the music changed and evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, Steve Szczepkowski (audio director) and I looked more at darker electronic influences that suited the cyberpunk world. But as the game developed, it became very apparent that the art direction and story had a very organic tone. The predominant colors were very warm (gold, yellow)…the primary influence in the art direction was Renaissance, and since the game is a prequel set 25 years before the first, even the technology was older and less advanced. All this convinced me that the music had to have an organic influence, an influence that lives alongside the very electronic textures that are a part of the cyberpunk music style.

On a larger scale, the music is built to represent three sides, as there are triangles all over the game; not just in the visual symbols, but also very much in the story itself. For me, the three sides always represent the same thing. Basically, you have two extremes of an idea and then a hybrid of two (a compromise) representing the third side. One example in the story and in the music would be the idea of past/present/future. The past, represented by acoustic instruments (mainly vocals, strings); the future represented by electronic instruments (mainly synths); and the present, which is a hybrid of both, not just in the arrangement of the songs but also actual instruments that are built by combining an electronic and acoustic instrument. Or even better…creating very electronic, ambient textures by manipulating acoustic samples until they sound electronic.

This idea of threes is a very religious one as well. It pops up a lot in religious-themed classical art and in religious texts, and because of the Renaissance influence on the story, it was obvious that a religious time and place had to appear somewhere in the music. I used vocals primarily for this, and occasionally you'll get textures and slight distant melodies that convey a religious/spiritual tone. It's not often up front and in your face, but it's there, subtly in the background.

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GS: What challenges did you face when working on this project?

MM: The biggest challenge was deciding how to handle themes and melody. The first challenge here is that the music system for this game is a three-layer music system (ambient/tension/combat). Each layer is a cue on its own but is built to interact with the other two. Ambient layer for exploring, stress layer for approaching an enemy, and combat layer for engaging an enemy. Because the cues are short, it meant that any melodic element would be heard over and over again, making the score very repetitive if we attempted to go in a very melodic direction.

The second challenge for melody/themes is based on the nature of the game. This is an open-ended game, where you can play the character in many different ways; for example, completely passive (not killing anyone), combat driven (fighting everything), social (talking your way through), etc. The player also has a great deal of choice on what direction they think their character and story should go. Meaning, what one player may see as a "bad guy" may appear as an ally to another player. It very much depends on how the players see the story and whose side they decide to take. Because of that open-ended style, the music cannot at any point tell the player what to do. It can't be like Star Wars where a dark militaristic theme will represent an enemy and another lighter and positive theme will represent a friend. The themes in Deus Ex have to be very neutral and nonjudgmental. Of course, the music is used to alert players to danger, etc. but melodies/chords are not used to place judgment on decisions or characters.

So between the music system and the style of game, themes and melody become a bit tricky. In the end, to make a long story short, I decided to score the environments as opposed to the story and reserve specific melodic themes for specific points in the game when the music needed to make an actual statement. What I mean by scoring the environment is to create the music as a reflection of the physical world the player is in. If you're walking through a very poor area of Detroit, the music will reflect the industrial decay, the lawlessness, the oppressive feeling of those in power, etc. If you're walking through a wealthy part of Heng Sha, China, the music will reflect light, wealth, and style of architecture/lighting of the game design. With this approach, the music becomes very much a part of the environment, as opposed to a non-immersive soundtrack sitting on top of everything. This also opens a strange avenue for incorporating melody in that once in a while, the lead melody/theme for a track will actually come from something in the environment you're in; for example, a street musician on the streets of Heng Sha or a radio playing an old gospel track in the streets of Detroit. All that environmental music a person would hear walking around in a city is all incorporated into the score.

GS: What are you hoping gamers and video game music enthusiasts will come away with?

MM: I hope, with the approach we took to the music, that once people play the game, they'll come out of it with a certain mood or emotion that carries outside of the game. It's something I thought the first Deus Ex did quite well and something that I always admire about very immersive films from guys like Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, and a few others. The idea that the music has come together with the art direction, story, voices, and gameplay to create a cohesive emotion that goes beyond the game would be an incredible achievement.

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GS: Do you have a favorite track from the game? Which one, and why?

MM: There are over 200 cues in the game, but I think there are four cues that represent what the music is trying to do in the game: the main theme (from the trailers); one of the ambient cues from Detroit; one of the ambient cues from Heng Sha, and one of the big boss fight cues (Namir). Those four cues represent everything from the action themes, the atmospheric feel of exploration and curiosity, and the main theme that carries the emotion of the whole game. The music still goes into much more territory than that, but each of these kind of creates the arc that music has throughout the game.

GS: So where do you see video game music heading into the future?

MM: That's a good question. I can say where I hope it doesn't go. What I hope doesn't happen is that it looks to film as something to copy. I find there's a kind of insecurity, where game music has to sound more like film. "It's got to be more cinematic," "It's got be a live orchestra, etc. For one thing, film music isn't all the same; it varies from Bernard Hermann to Neil Young, from Vangelis to Yann Tierson. There is no "film music sound" except maybe in blockbuster Hollywood flicks, which represent a fraction of films actually made every year. Because games are a completely different medium, with a completely different experience, and because they have the ability to be much more immersive than film, there is no reason why game music needs to follow film scores at all. So what I'm hoping is that, say, over the next 10 years, game music doesn't just become interactive versions of blockbuster movie scores.

GS: There's not a lot of recognition for video game music in the mainstream, why do you think that is?

I think game music still carries the stigma of where it was in the '80s. And I only use the word stigma to say that it was very limited by technology and the games weren't really asking for very deep or emotional music. When I talk about game music, even with my parents, they're thinking of Donkey Kong or Mario Brothers, etc. They still think it's…

GS: Bleeps and bloops?

MM: Yeah…maybe not that extreme but still very repetitive playful music. Even if the music is good, as soon as it's associated with a game, it immediately changes how it is perceived. When Spielberg did Munich, they used some of the Uru: Ages Beyond Myst score for the trailers--a beautiful cue--and a few people would ask what the music was, find out it was from a game score, and immediately the music is depreciated for no reason at all. I've also played certain cues from games like BioShock, Assassin's Creed, Medal of Honor for friends, and when I tell them it's from a game, I get a look of confusion. However, the fact that veteran film composers like Clint Mansell, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino (who even started out in games!) are doing full game scores will only help game music reach a broader audience. But I still think it will take some time for it to fully enter into the mainstream.

I think games in general have this same challenge--the challenge of being taken seriously and being brought into the mainstream the same way literature and movies are. If you look at the way movies were looked at back in the early 1900s, you see a lot of parallels with games, especially in the fight to have games seen as a legitimate art form. Today, you have guys like Roger Ebert writing articles saying "games are not art," which is basically the perception of film 100 years ago. Back then, movies were seen purely as entertainment; they were thought to have no other value beyond showing silent comedies, early porn, news reels. No one thought that the films of Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, etc. were actually the foundations for what would become the biggest art form of the 20th century. It wasn't until the '30s and the films of, say, John Ford, Jean Renoir, Orson Wells, etc. that movies started to be taken more seriously. It also helped that there was an academic push by guys like Rudolph Arnheim to present the "film as art" argument in a way that was hard to refute. And the use of film in war propaganda definitely woke everyone up to how powerful the medium was. Games are already on that same track…already have that same foundation, so I think you'll see quite a shift in how games are made, what kind of games are being made, and especially how they're perceived in the mainstream.

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GS: With your sound design background, have you worked on that in video games?

MM: No, but I definitely incorporate it into the music. In Splinter Cell: Double Agent, I was asked if I could do all the interactive menu sounds. Instead of doing the usual electronic button sounds, we decided to make them all musical so that they felt part of the score. So if we were doing the menu, all the stuff in the menu would match the menu music. And when you're in the game, all the things alert you to danger, stress stinger…any sound that is relating information to you would be musical…perhaps even just one note or musical sound but all built from the textures in the score.

GS: What kind of music do you listen to?

MM: All over the place. Old blues, opera, experimental ambient, hip-hop, punk rock, a lot of film scores.

GS: What are your biggest influences?

MM: Movies are my main influence. I'm not really inspired by music by itself mainly because I'm not a fan of lyrics and there's so little instrumental music I like these days (outside of soundtracks). I'm also more influenced by visuals than by music--colors, stories, etc. Best musical influences would be directors like Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman. When I see their films, I get inspired to write music.

GS: What kind of advice do you have for aspiring musicians or composers?

MM: Focus on developing your own sound or voice. The music industry (whether it's being a band or composer) is insanely competitive. If you don't have a unique voice and something to say with it, there's a good chance you'll get lost in the mix. Another reason, perhaps more importantly, is that not having your own voice will probably result in being forced to sound like someone else or to do music that is not personal to you. The end result would probably make creating music feel more like a chore than anything.

GS: Thank you so much for your time Michael!

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