Epic Interview with Mick Gordon

So you just won a GANG award for “Best Audio: Other” for a project that I don’t know anything about! Can you fill us in on what the project was, what sort of music was written/recorded, how was it implemented? How much music was created for the project? Was there sound design created along with the music? Will it be traveling to other museums/countries?

I know! Hooray! Having that award called out completely blew me away! I was sitting with the Need for Speed crew as Shift was nominated for some awards and to have A Day in Pompeii called out took me completely by surprise. I’m incredibly grateful and appreciative of Tommy, Paul, Michelle, Sean and everyone else involved with G.A.N.G. for putting on the awards, and the night couldn’t of run without the awesome Mr Dren!

So, yeah, down in little ol’ Australia (or, ‘straya’, as we call it), Museum Victoria put together a new and exciting exhibition to showcase a vast array of artifacts and relics from Pompeii, which of course was devastated by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD. Instead of simply displaying these incredible artifacts, the Museum wanted to turn the entire exhibition into an interactive experience for the viewer.

The Museum bought on a wonderful designer named David Lancashire who created a journey that began with attendees entering though a set of Roman columns into a commerce area showcasing Roman coins, pots, scales and other objects. It then lead down a market street into a space reflecting a Pompeii house with jewelery, beautiful mosaics and assorted ornaments. This house lead into a 3D Theatre which continuously showed an 8 minute render of the final hours of Pompeii. Attendees exited this area along another street showing the depth of fallen ash which finally lead into a rotunda with a collection of Pompeii body casts on display, including the famed dog.

Museum Victoria were very interested in having someone with an interactive audio background take care of the sound on Pompeii, and they called me up based on my video game work. This was completely new territory for me but I set out treating the entire space as a game level – instead of using a game engine tool to place an ambient sound emitter in a level, I’d have to pick the best spot on a CAD drawing to actually have a speaker manually installed!

I had quite a free rein over the audio experience and we set out with a clear vision to tell the story of the exhibition with sound. We created a ton of ambient sounds and did a lot of recording with wooden boats, wooden walkways, birds, metals, Gladiator matches – we couldn’t find any actual Gladiator matches happening, so instead we settled on Australian football crowds! We then developed audio “scenes” of busy Romans loading stock onto ships, people drinking in bars, Gladiator matches, people cooking, etc.

We wanted to add another layer of believability so I contacted the University of Queensland’s linguistic department who put me in contact with a bunch of latin-speaking students and lecturers. We wrote scripts for several scenes (a bar fight, a couple bickering about the husband spending too much time in the brothel, a dodgy fake-goods seller who gets caught out, a threatening extortionist looking for protection money from a shop owner, etc) and translated these into Latin. We bought a bunch of actors into the studio and recorded these Latin scripts and this allowed us to create scenes within our sound design. Myself and my talented sound designer on the project, Michael Tornabene, worked incredibly hard to make it realistic and believable.

I also wrote and recorded a stack of music for the project. Instead of using horns and wooden drums I took a lot of melodic and instrumental ideas from the various territories that the Romans conquered and controlled. I looked into music from Turkey, Spain, Italy, Albania, Greece, Iraq and the middle east, Morocco etc and combined these various elements with strings and the solo female voice of Caitlin Murphy. I recorded Duduks, Ney Flutes, Ouds and other various instruments as well as stacks and stacks of percussion.

The project deserved a very high level of integrity and respect and in parts of the exhibition we felt that music would create a stronger narrative. For example, having sound effects in the body cast rotunda would have sensationalized the event, but some soft, moody and atmospheric music helped put the area into context. As a result, I walked into this area on opening night to see 15 people with tears running down their cheeks.

As with games, making sounds and music for A Day in Pompeii was only 50% of the audio experience. The audio needed to play back correctly and doing this in a real-life space was new territory for me. We ended up running about 40 speakers throughout the exhibition space, including 5.1 surround for the 3d theatre. We ran everything from a Reaper based rig with two Motu 24 I/Os and a bunch of QSC CX 8 preamps. We set up a 10 hour long Reaper session to ensure the audience would constantly hear fresh sounds and each track was routed to a different speaker in the exhibition.

At project end, we ended up with 13 hours of sounds and music. The exhibition was the most successful ever run by Museum Victoria with around 350,000 people visiting throughout its three month stay. It’s a touring exhibition and is currently in New Zealand, then it heads to Singapore, then I believe it has just been purchased by three Museums in the United States.

How did you end up finding your way into game audio/music? Did you come from a music school, or a background in rock bands etc…? Was it your intent to start out in the game industry or a happy accident? 

Well, yeah, I picked up one of Dad’s guitars when I was 12 and started trying to learn Sweet Home Alabama – that was it man, I was hooked. All I wanted to do was practice guitar all day and all night and I’d often wake up after falling asleep with it in my hands. Then I found Stevie Ray Vaughan and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! That, to me, summed up exactly what someone could do with music – send you to sleep crying your eyes out or tear your head off. I still get ‘that’ feeling even now when I hear the start of his version of Little Wing…just incredible.

After a few years of playing I started taking lessons with an incredible teacher named James Woodward and this guy showed me that jazz theory was like sticking a key into my fretboard and unlocking all the hidden secrets. It all started to make sense! I went from here into playing in Blues bands, then Rock bands, then Heavy Rock bands, then came the spiked shoulder pads…ahem…

Anyway, after playing and teaching Guitar for a bit I was trying to find a way to make music more financially viable. My breasts weren’t big enough to become a pop star and I couldn’t find a hat big enough to be a country music star, so I started looking at other areas I could make a living out of music.

I’d always been a gamer and I’ve got stacks of fond memories from my original Atari 2600. When I wasn’t playing guitar, or getting in trouble, I was often spending time with video games. I set out trying to find developers and started shopping my music around. It took a while to make some contacts and often I simply wouldn’t get a reply from an email or letter. I was barely living on a handful of cash from teaching guitar and one day the teller machine gave me a “cannot complete transaction due to insufficient funds” error when I tried to withdraw $20. I had $4 in my wallet so I thought “stuff it” and I took the bus over to a game development studio called Fuzzyeyes to ask them why they hadn’t replied to my messages. I rocked up, walked inside, introduced myself and the CEO came down and said “I was just about to email you”.

These guys gave me my first gig and that was pretty much it! I then went and worked at Pandemic Studios for a while on the Destroy All Humans series but I’ve been running freelance for about four years.

I’ve heard you describe yourself using the term “Music designer” in game audio, could you elaborate on that concept?

Yeah for sure, so, someone asked me what my “thing” was once and the “thing” that I feel I’m pretty good at is musical design. It’s basically a way to describe the process of turning non-musical sounds into musical ones, or using musical sounds in new ways. “Musical Sound Design” is probably a better term. Turning a squawking bird into a cool sonic riff, messing with Trombones until they sound like a pipe-organ from Hell, using a Violin bow on a music stand to scare people or throwing a cheap microphone down a stairwell and turning into a driving beat – anything to create new and exciting sounds.

I set a challenge today to produce an entire track for Need for Speed: World using nothing but sounds from a guitar. However, the idea is to not make it all *sound* like a guitar. This is achieved through vast sonic manipulation and stacks of processing, but what comes out on the other end is, hopefully, something sounding fresh and new.

Another great example would be Mel Wesson’s work with Hans Zimmer on the Batman Begins soundtrack. Mel created that awesome rhythmic “bat cape flap” that introduces the film. Here Mel has manipulated the sound in such a way that it instantly illustrates Batman, whilst being something musical – musical design!

When you’re listening to a big budget Hollywood score and you here those massive percussion hits, those exciting rises, the obscure percussion or the weird sound you can’t quite place – that’s musical design. That’s the stuff I really enjoy doing. Don’t get me wrong – I love heading into the studio with a string quartet to record a sweeping arrangement, but I’ll take that back to my studio afterwards and wrap all sorts of aural niceties around it!

You recently did a live twitter feed of a day’s work on a new piece of music (which i found super interesting, because I love hearing about the creative process from creative people), what inspired this? What sort of feedback did you receive? Have you ever considered teaching (seems like something that comes naturally)?

Hey cool man! I’ll have to do another one of those sometime and I’ll be sure to give me a little more notice! I just thought it would be cool to do. My big passion at the moment is looking at the creative process that people go through to come up with an idea. How does Mike Patton look at something? What do the guys from Sigur Ros do? How did Salvador Dali view everyday things? This is the stuff that excites me at the moment and I guess a little bit of me was trying to encourage other people to do the same. Everybody loved it and I’ll definitely do more. And yeah, I taught guitar for quite some time – it was stacks of fun!

Do you have a favorite/memorable gaming experience? Maybe it was due to the people you were playing a game with, or a game that really surprised, or maybe watching a game come together with your assets…

Oh too many to list! I think one that comes to mind would be taking Mafia home and installing it on my PC then watching the amazing intro-cutscene and hearing Vladislav Šimůnek’s amazing strings. That blew me away man!

Another would have been playing Doom for the first time. I was in school when it came out and one of my computer-whiz friends bought a shareware disk and we broke into a computer room at lunch time and installed it on one of the machines. Man, this was an incredible moment. It was like we were finally able to be in one of our favourite horror movies, and wholly-crap it was scary.

Then there was the time when that bloody robot killed Dogmeat. That was sad.

But yeah man, seeing a trailer debut or a game on the shelves is always an awesome experience. When we debuted our “Someone Special” trailer to promote Edge of Twilight and reading all the comments talking about the music was astonishing – that’s truly awesome.

Can you name any composers/musicians that are inspiring for you, if not musicians, maybe other art, people or events that you find extremely inspiring?

Wow! Honestly? Music and sound is too much a beautiful thing to restrict yourself to only certain areas of listening. I appreciate everything and I’m constantly on the lookout for new and original stuff. I’ve been on a bit of a melancholic expedition lately and I’m a big believer in experimenting on myself to see what happens.

I tried a sleep-deprivation experiment a little while back where I forced myself to stay awake for 72 hours to see what I could come up with afterwards. Not sleeping for a solid period has some strange effects – after about 18 hours you start to become drowsy and at around 24 hours you get a second-wind where your body clock is trying to trick your brain. After 30-35 hours you start to lose track of time and hours can slip by in an instant or a minute can last forever. At about 50 hours you hit a point where your body starts little spasms and you start to hallucinate and see shadows out the corner of your eye. At 60 hours you start to become kinda bored as your body starts to get used to the lack of sleep and by this stage you’re in a routine. At 72 hours I sat down at my computer to see what I would come up with. It was hard keeping track of what I was scoring as all the midi notes in my sequencer started to look like ants scurrying across the screen. Musically though it was quite refreshing as I found myself staying away from things that I would normally do and I was more encouraged to try different things that I’d normally shy away from.

Recently I booked seven hours in a tattoo chair and asked the artist if we could work straight through and listen to nothing but the band Sunn0))) really loud. He’s a mad bastard and was totally up for it. I was having coloring done on my arm which is where the artist uses a combo tattoo-gun with 9 needles that penetrate your skin at about 1000 times a minute. Laying in one position in a hot room, fan blowing on my face, tattoo gun pounding away at my wrist whilst listening to some of the most dissonant and disturbing sounds ever made got me into such a strange kinda “trance”. At the seven hour mark everything we stopped the music and the tattooing and sat there for a few minutes in complete silence. It was the most deafening silence that I’ve ever heard.

To me, music, sound and the mind are all combined and I’m always trying to find ways to challenge these areas. Putting myself through these things certainly makes me look at creativity in fresh ways and I find them to be very worthwhile.

But yeah, who are they people that I keep an eye on to see what they do next? Well, Charlie Clouser, Clint Mansell, Marco Beltrami, Paul Haslinger, Cris and Sascha, Atticus Ross, or anyone else that does things a little differently!

What do you like best about being in this industry and why?

Its fun man! Someone asked me recently what problems I come across in the game industry, and I said that the most amazing thing about this job is that we help people working in other jobs and industries forget their daily problems for a few hours while they play one of our games. How cool is that?

Do you feel robbed by getting knocked out of the composer’s challenge this year? (joke question)

Pfft – no way at all man. Are you serious? Joe (Thwaites) is awesome, the man is a dude! I don’t at all envy the voters as they had the toughest job in the world. Everyone put together an incredible Pac-track and picking a winner was ridiculously tough. Lennie Moore does such an incredible job of running the composer challenge each year and this year was no exception. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with for the next challenge and I can’t wait to hear what people put together for it!

Mick Gordon on the web:


http://www.formspring.me/MickGordon (ask him more questions!)

Twitter: @Mick_Gordon

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald