Michael McCann Interview – Deus Ex: Human Revolution Composer
There are many things that make the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution so engrossing, whether it’s being able to choose how to play, or being absorbed by the story. One of the key ingredients that makes the game epic is the music. Thanks to composer Michael McCann, he’s able to bring a compelling, musical atmosphere that parallels the themes from the game, themes like science vs. nature.
We were able to infiltrate and question Michael McCann on his involvement with Human Revolution.
NerdReactor.com: Watching the Deus Ex: Human Revolution 2010 E3 trailer, the one thing that instantly got me was how epic and dramatic the score was. From that moment, I had to find out who did the score. Where have you been all my life?
Michael McCann: Thank you! I’ve worked in a lot of different places and areas of music over the last 15 years. I started writing music for stage plays and short films, then onto doing my own albums in my early twenties, then into sound-design / music editing for feature films, then into scoring TV series, indie features, games, documentaries and advertising. I was very interested in working in as many different media and in as many different genres as possible when starting out. I think each of them teaches you something different about how to express emotion / ideas through music.
NR: You also go by the name of Behavior, how did that name come about?
MM: I started using the name ‘Behavior’ as a band / artist name about 10 years ago. A lot of my inspiration for music was coming from observations more than experiences, so the name symbolized that process of looking at things from the outside – observing how things work / behave. Over the years my source of inspiration has changed, so I’ve started to work under my own name.
NR: How did you get on board composing for Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
MM: I actually pitched for the project back in 2008. Often in games when the studio is trying to choose a composer, they’ll have a bunch of different composers submit a few minutes of music based on some references / direction they already have in mind. The pitch that I did seemed to come very close to what they had envisioned for the score, and although the score evolved quite a bit over the years, those initial ideas were what convinced them to bring me on.
NR: Since Eidos Montreal, the developing studio for DE: HR, is also based in the city you’re in, how has that helped with composing DX: HR?
MM: You would think quite a bit! However, I tend to work all night, starting in the late afternoon and working till the morning, so I’m on a very different schedule than the studio. However, there were definitely times when I could run down the street to the studio to see how the music was working in the game, and to see the progress of the game (both visually and audio-wise). This is something I didn’t have when I did Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which was primarily developed out of Shanghai. But in all honesty, working with a studio half way around the world, and working with one 5 blocks away didn’t change the communication / composing process all that much.
NR: What was the working process like in this game? Were you able to see how the game was like (footage, images) before working on the score?
MM: When I started in 2008, the game was still in very early development. Although some of the Detroit map had been started, I was still working off concept art, an early script, and occasional short video captures of early gameplay. As the game progressed, I’d get more and more detailed walkthroughs of different parts of the game. However, even with that, I was more interested in scoring to the concept art as some of those still images convey very strong emotion and really put you in a place where I can draw from a lot of inspiration. The score for the game is really built into the environments, and although seeing gameplay helps, I find my imagination can really explode when I’m just looking at a single image. The powerful thing about concept art is that I find it is the strongest expression of the lighting, art direction, composition and themes of the story. They are really great works of art, and I can just put them on screen and write endless amounts of music to them.
NR: You, of course, have your own influences for making music, but audio director Steve Szczepkowski gave you a list that included John Carpenter, Trent Reznor and Vangelis. How was it like trying to incorporate different sounds / themes into a game?
MM: Yes, those were the early references we looked at when starting the game. I definitely veered all over the map throughout the score, bringing some much more organic influences to the music. To contrast the more electronic side of the early references, I looked at Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard, Eliot Goldenthal, Ennio Morricone and Peter Gabriel (specifically his Last Temptation of Christ score). And on the electronic side, there are many areas of the game where the Carpenter / Vangelis side didn’t fit. I found a lot of inspiration from guys like Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Massive Attack and Ben Lukas Boysen. These influences represented a much more modern side to electronic music while still being very cinematic.
NR: The Deus Ex games have always been known to make you question whether technology is good or bad. How was it like to incorporate different viewpoints, religion / politics into the score?
MM: The philosophical, political and religious underpinnings of the story are really the core motivation in creating an overall theme to the music. All of those themes are very much apparent in the story and in the art direction for the game, so despite creating music for individual environments, the music really has to have a much broader continuity – something that holds it all together.
The story of the game involves many different conflicts, and one key conflict is between nature and scientific progress. There are those who want unbridled scientific progress, believing that science is the key to making humans almost immortal – enhancing the mind, limbs, brain, eyes, etc. and making humans almost god-like. The other side sees this progress as unnatural or immoral, from either a philosophical or religious point of view. And there is a more diplomatic side who just wants scientific progress regulated and equally accessible to all people, regardless of wealth or status.
This is a very inspiring theme to pull from musically. One way I wanted to express this particular conflict was representing each of these sides with certain instruments. The scientific side is represented by electronic instruments, the religious side is represented by vocals (specifically folk / religious hymns) and the diplomatic side is represented by merging electronic / acoustic instruments together – in other words, a hybrid of the two extremes.
NR: As a fan of the first Deus Ex, I was excited to hear that there will be musical cues from the first. Can you tell us how you will be incorporating it into the game?
MM: In the actual score, there is only one cue that incorporates a melody from the first Deus Ex. However, because the soundtrack is entirely unique to this game, Steve Szczepkowski (Audio Director) devised a pretty clever way of incorporating music from the first game into the world. There is a pirate radio station that you can hear while playing throughout the game. The music for this radio station is actually all from the first game, and you can occasionally hear when walking through a room, or an alley way where an NPC might have it on. The pirate radio broadcasts were already a great addition to the environment of the game, so it was a great way to showcase music from the first game at the same time.
NR: I’ve noticed that both Splinter Cell: Double Agent and DE:HR have players traveling to different locations like China and the U.S. Has Double Agent helped you with scoring the themes for different locations?
MM: Definitely. I had always been a fan of more international music when growing up, and Splinter Cell: Double Agent was the first score where I could actually experiment with instruments / vocals from different parts of the world. In the Africa sections of SC:DA, I really tried to use source recordings from Africa (traditional hymns, folk music) and bring this into a much more aggressive setting musically. Basically it’s combining acapella and simple acoustic songs into a much larger ambient or combat setting so that some elements of the music feel like they belong in the actual environment you’re playing in.
For Deus Ex: Human Revolution I was a little more aggressive with this approach. In sections like Heng Sha, China, when you’re walking around the streets, I tried to incorporate street musicians, music from cafes, city ambience, and any sound that might exist in the environment into the score. In the end, much of the music is made up of many different unique elements that when combined, they create the melody and the harmonies of the track. I think when it does work, you get a track that has many different vocalists (sometimes multiple languages), many different instruments and styles of music that all assemble into this cohesive track.
NR: How many days before the game went gold did you finish scoring the game?
MM: I was working on the music right up till the day of the final deadline. All the music was in before this, but on any project, if I’m allowed, I’ll continue to make tweaks, mix changes, revisions right till the last day. Since there are around 200 pieces of the music in this game and because I’m producing / composing all of it, I can always go back and look at things to enhance. Also, even after the game finished, we were still making trailers which used music from the game so I was continually adapting / rebuilding in-game tracks to suit the trailers.
NR: Are you the type to play and finish the games you’ve scored?
MM: Absolutely. I really take the time when I’ve finished any project to go over it to see what I think worked, and what I think can be improved. Although I get to see the game over the course of production, I don’t get a chance to sit down and play it in its entirety until it’s completely finished. I’m pretty hypercritical about my work, so even with DX:HR, I sat there with a pen and paper and wrote down notes on what I think worked and didn’t work, especially notes on how the music works over the entire arc of the game’s story. Sometimes music that works in a single map / scene won’t have the expected impact when put in the larger context of a 25-hour story. In the end, these notes are usually the first thing I read before even sitting down to write another piece of music for another project.