Dren McDonald on Gathering Sky and Gunman Taco Truck

This month we spoke to Dren McDonald about his composition and sound design for the recently released Gathering Sky, as well as his compositions for the upcoming game, Gunman Taco Truck. Dren has worked in the game industry as an audio director, composer and sound designer on titles such as Gathering Sky, Transformers: Age of Extinction The Official Game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Commander, Dangerous Dave in the Deserted Pirate’s Hideout HD, Skulls of the Shogun, Elevate (2014’s Apple App of the Year), Cooking Dash 2016, Diner Dash 2015, Ravenwood Fair and over 60 other game titles. His work has been nominated for awards by GANG, GDC Online and IndieCade and he won a GANG award in 2015 for his work on The String Arcade recording.

RS: Gathering Sky was just released, for those who don’t know the game, how would you describe it?

Gathering Sky is an experiential game, in that there is no winning/losing/failing, there are no words, no points, no competition etc and the player simply guides and grows a flock of birds through the ever changing sky. Each world in the sky is a little different and there is definitely a narrative there, but it’s up to the player to interpret any story that they might glean during play. Because of the nature of the game, the music and sound design play a large role in the experience which helps to shape the narrative.

RS: What was your process like composing for Gathering Sky? How long were you working on the game?

DM: Well, the team was GREAT to work with and they had some great references (music/film etc.) Plus, I really ‘got’ the game after my first playthrough, which made it a bit easier to understand what would work. Once we finally solidified the specifics, which included the recording at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, that laid out a very ‘real’ timetable for us. That meant that I had to compose the score (about 45 minutes worth) within 5 weeks time so that I had time to get the parts to the musicians (student musicians) so that they had time at Christmas break to look over the music before we recorded it right after the new year. It was a small ensemble, so we didn’t need a full orchestral score, but we had Cello, Violin, Viola, Bass clarinet, Clarinet, Flute, and Soprano. There was a lot of interplay going on between the flute, clarinet, and violin through many of the passages, kind of mocking the birds as they’d join and play/fly together. Sometimes writing those ‘solos’ can take a lot more composing time than writing big parts for sections etc.

During that 5 weeks i was composing, bouncing mockups, inserting the edited mockups into fmod and then trying out those mockups in the game build. Considering that I was doing all of that stuff throughout the 5 weeks (including all of the revisions etc), that was really a lot of work. So I was designing the music system (it changed quite a few times during this process) in FMOD, composing the score and revising all up until the students were going to take of f for xmas break.

As you well know (since you did the music copying) as soon as a cue was approved, I’d send you the Logic session for you to tidy up the score editor stuff and make it readable in Sibelius so I could send out those PDFs to the musicians.

Photo Credit: Heike Liss

RS: My impression was that in addition to working as the composer and sound designer you had a fairly active role in the game design. Do you find in indie games you often have a input beyond creating audio?

DM: I certainly made comments about the game design, and there were some things that we came up with that we really wanted to try but ran out of time to actually make happen. The core design of the game was there already, when I joined up, so I didn’t have anything ground shaking to add! Most of my comments, with regards to the game design, were things like “if we put the wind speed up at point B instead of A, and cue the music plus this sound at point C, the parts could work together to make this really neat effect” etc…and I had some comments about some of the changes we tried in art etc. And sometimes they’d have a design idea that I would have to find a solution for in the middleware, or we’d talk about trying something like the ‘in between areas’ that exist between worlds, that we wanted to work at making shorter. Some of those ideas were software efficiency issues that combined with game and audio design, as we were polishing and making the game tighter.

I did help them a bit with the publicity side of things, and suggested a publicist and gave them some basic ideas about that side of the equation. Having released a lot of albums with a history of working with press back when I ran a record label, I had some experience there that might have been helpful.

In indie games, the teams are generally smaller, so you find yourself wearing more hats anyhow (everyone in the team, usually). In the good situations, everyone is sort of riffing and improvising ideas on the game, and that usually is a lot of fun and results in good ideas. I like being someone who can offer ideas that expand my role of ‘audio’ or ‘music’ etc, I mean, I’ve designed a bunch of record covers, ads, posters, t-shirts, built a kitchen and written stories, plays, musicals, press releases, gear reviews etc…so I like to think that I have a background that allows me to offer relevant ideas, no matter what the discipline.

RS: For Gathering Sky you wrote a series of Audio Journals in the 3rd part you describe audio middleware as a ‘no brainer’ for indie developers. For members who have never used any middleware do you have any advice to get started? Does every game you work on now involve the use of audio middleware?

DM: Audio middleware examples are tools such as Wwise, Fmod, or Fabric, etc. They are software tools designed for the audio team to best integrate the audio content into a gamebuild effectively. Some people make the mistake of saying that it removes the software engineer from the equation completely, which isn’t quite accurate. A software engineer (coder/programmer, what have you) will still need to provide the hooks (usually the sound event names etc) within the game engine so that the middleware and engine are talking the same language. Once that is set up, however, it does leave the audio team to iterate without hassling the engineer again.

Once you have a sound event called “bird_hits_wall_1”, yo7_Oceanu can set up a lot of different versions of “bird_hits_wall_1” in your middleware, and then see how they sound in the game…iterating over and over and over, until you find the “bird_hits_wall_1” sound event that works best in the game. This could be a randomized pitch/volume event, or a combination of several audio files (bird squawk plus wall impact plus wing flap plus feathers falling etc), and then you could have a little container of different bird squawks and a little container of wall impacts and every time that sound occurred the middleware would pull a different sound from those containers at random…etc etc. So the middleware is helping you create sounds that are a bit more reflective of real life (in this case) and help the player to stay immersed in the game. If a player hears the same “bird-squawk” sound over and over, and it happens a lot, the player remembers that it’s a game and it breaks the immersion (or the ‘spell’) that helps the player enjoy the experience. Since most of those middleware tools offer indie rates that are either free or super reasonable, yeah, it’s a no brainer!

To get started, you can simply download any of them and hook them up to a Unity game (for instance.) I think that they all offer some sort of example project to play around with and in the GANG interactive audio GDC session for the last couple of years there have been projects made available by Stephan Schutze at Sound Librarian (even if you can’t make it to GDC, you could still download the example project and try something out!) It’s so easy to try things out now. Wwise has an online class you can take (for free) and FMOD has a lot of online tutorial videos on YouTube.

I wish that everything that I worked on was using middleware. Though clients are starting to understand the capabilities of it now, this is much better, so it is spreading! It really does make my job a lot more enjoyable and gives me control that I can’t always pass on to an engineer. Engineer cycles are always valuable during development time and audio is often the last dept that gets a chance to get some of that precious time before the ship date. So middleware helps solve that a little bit.

RS: Have you ever had trouble convincing indie developers that it’s worth using middleware? For Gathering Sky as it was built in Java it must have required significant extra work from the developers. Did you have any trouble persuading them it was worth the time?

DM: With indies, it’s never an issue since it’s basically free! Even with Gathering Sky, John Austin had to spend about a month to create the custom FMOD bindings for Java, and it was still totally worth it because of the fairly complex stuff that we built in FMOD. Most other platforms have an off-the-shelf solution, (i.e. FMOD/Wwise and Fabric all have plugins in Unity3D). Even with all of that, it allowed me to take so much of the load off of their plate (code-wise) that it was completely worthwhile. Again, with indies, everyone is wearing more than one hat, so if the audio team (even if it’s one person) can say, “i can take some code, in the form of middleware”, it’s something that everyone recognizes as valuable and it’s always worth the initial investment of time.

RS: How did you come to be involved in working on Gunman Taco Truck (GMTT)? 

DM: I’ve worked with John and Brenda Romero on a lot of projects, going back to Ravenwood Fair, through our time together at their Loot Drop studio, where we did Ghost Recon Commander and Pettington Park, and even at UCSC in the Games and Playable Media masters degree program, where they asked me to be a guest lecturer one quarter for game audio.

So I talk with them a lot. John and I worked on his remake of Dangerous Dave in the Deserted Pirate’s Hideout (coming soon), just for fun…he mentioned that he was remaking it, and i offered to put some music together for it. During another conversation John told me about Brenda’s son, Donovan’s game idea…which turned out to be Gunman Taco Truck. We were just laughing about it for a long time, way before anyone started to work on it. So I told him that if it all came together that I HAD to write the music for that. Donovan (11 years old, by the way) got his game design docs together, his drawings etc, and then John and Brenda put together some game jams on it, which included John’s son Michael (who is also a programming whiz and a great guy) and Ian Dunbar (one of our students from UCSC).

gmtt-4-800x456RS: What was your process like composing for GMTT. It seems as though it’s almost as far away from Gathering Sky as you could get. Did your composition process change between projects?

DM: With GMTT, we weren’t going to be able to use middleware, unfortunately. The team is using CoronaSDK for development, and so far it seems that there isn’t a great way to integrate FMOD with Corona. Bummer. So I wasn’t creating an fmod session or auditioning cues in the game build. The game is actually pretty simple (a menu screen, a map screen, a taco making scene and an action scene) so we are using loops, but the loops will get mixed up quite a bit, cuz there are a lot of them. Not to mention, I’m not doing any sound design for GMTT, just the music (John is doing the SFX), so I didn’t need to set up any special sound design integration.

Again, I had sort of a short window for composing, maybe a few weeks for 15-16 tunes (more song structured than Gathering Sky, for sure), and then I sent the mockups to the team to try ingame for a while. The game wasn’t at Alpha yet, so it wasn’t a great time to try out all of the music, but given the initial schedule, I had scheduled a couple of live sessions in early June (initial ship date was late June) so I had to have the parts finalized by then. I was writing for 2 trumpets, 2 violins, bari sax, accordion, drums/percussion, guitar and bass. I covered the last 2 instruments on everything, but got live players for everything else.

The biggest change was that the structures for GMTT were a lot more song oriented than Gathering Sky, and had to be gritty (Gathering Sky is certainly not gritty!) After all, Gunman Taco Truck is about the last taco truck on the planet after the apocalypse driving from town to town, gathering road kill for taco ingredients. So it was apocalyptic mariachi music…that kind of meets drive-in grindhouse movies. So the tone was obviously very different, and I knew that I was going to produce the music a lot differently. I was recording a lot of the instruments through mechanical filters (like old air ducts) and using funky microphones. Gathering Sky is very ethereal, uplifting, and ‘of the sky’, as it were. Gunman Taco Truck, is the joy in finding broken post-apocalyptic instruments and playing them thru torn 4″ AM stereo speakers in the taco truck dashboard. It’s basically the Mad Max Doofwarrior playing raunchy mariachi!

RS: As well as GMTT and Gathering Sky you’re always working on a range of projects. Do you have any tricks to continually change between projects and adjust your composing to each game?

DM: Well it helps to be well versed in a lot of styles. Throughout my years of collecting albums/CDs etc, I went through a lot of phases where I’d dig deep into a certain genre or label and really spend time with that type of music for a while. Be it klezmer music, or Kurt Weill, or the Constellation label or Sun City Girls…I’d dig in and really explore. So having a thirst for those genres of music, and actually having a history of being in a lot of different ensembles that played a variety of music genres is really helpful.

If I’m stuck for a direction, I do have that vast collection of music (much of it being extremely obscure) that I can listen to for inspiration (I always have a few discs on my desk), or I’ll search around on Youtube for some inspiring clips of something that I haven’t discovered yet. For instance, I had to recently write music for Cooking Dash that was for a venue that “was a former 70’s roller disco, being converted to a house music dance hall under the influence of Nordic gods”, so that took some searching!

My room is filled with a lot of weird stringed instruments and sometimes it really helps to just sit down with one of them and just start goofing around with it until something sounds good. That’s actually how I wrote most of the Dangerous Dave music…either goofing off with my standup bass or my dobro guitar.

RS: Any final advice for GANG members? 

In regards to what we talked about, if you can show an interest and versatility in using a middleware tool, that can help your appeal to potential collaborators. Being a composer who writes great tunes, vs being a composer who writes great tunes and can understand how to split them up into intensity stems, stingers, pads and transitions while integrating that into FMOD/Wwise is a little more valuable!

Also, I think that’s it’s helpful to have a knowledge of sound design as well. I happen to just really enjoy both sound design and composition, as i really enjoy playing with microphones, and preamps, and compressors and middleware and making things sound like they belong together. It’s all fun! Sometimes that just stems from your personality, but with a lot of mobile game developers looking to hire one person to take care of all of the audio on a titles, it helps if you can be that one person. But we can now download a ton of example game projects and practice that for no cost, (in case you are concerned about not being good at one of those two things) and that didn’t used to be the case.