Well, it's evening in New Zealand; almost midnight, really, by the time I finally manage to figure out how to get Skype to work. But for Gavin Dunne, better known as Miracle of Sound, it's bright and early on a Thursday morning when I call.
Time differences, am I right?
Gavin, or Gav, is one of the most popular and talented gaming musicians in... Well, ever. It's not exactly a huge genre, at least not at the professional end of the spectrum. And for Gav, it wasn't the first step in his career.
"I’ve played music for a very long time,” he says. “I was in various bands for many years, and one of them started to do quite well. We got a record deal, won a few national awards, and seemed to be on the way up. Unfortunately, as the old cliché goes, just as it was about to break, it fell apart, which was really disappointing, because we’d worked on it for such a long time.”
What would have destroyed other artists, however, became the catalyst for his reinvention.
“I was in a pretty bad mood, and just playing some video games to cheer myself up. I mean, I thought I was going to be that guy, the musician who failed into his thirties and still, naively, believed he was going to make it.
"I was playing Half Life 2, and decided to make a stupid song about Gordon Freeman. I put it on the internet, and people really seemed to like it, getting 20,000 views really quickly. I mean, now we're into 140 million, but for a struggling musician who's just had his career fall apart, 20,000 views was huge to me. So I thought “oh, maybe there's a little niche here” and put out a couple more. People kept listening, so I kept going, and it gradually became a career."
Gav's early songs have a very playful, almost silly feel to them. As he’s progressed musically, he’s been moving away from name-checking and obvious references, and both he and the music have benefitted from a more oblique approach.
"As it’s gone along, I feel it’s changed a lot. When I started it was this very silly, novelty thing, but when I started making the songs less obvious, more artful, that's when it really started taking off. I appreciate the early stuff for what it gave me, but it's not my favourite.
“I want to tell a story, and make something that celebrates that story, and that other people can maybe even enjoy that story in a new way afterwards.”
It certainly seems to be working. After years of hard work and sacrifice, Miracle of Sound’s latest album, Level 7, is out now. Gav’s main feeling post launch is one of relief; unsurprising, really, since he’s a truly one-man operation.
"I do everything myself. I write all the stuff, compose it, record it, mix it, master it, and promote it; it's a lot of work. Each process on the creative side is its own art form, and they all take years to learn.”
People often assume that writing and recording is the hardest part of making music, but Gav says that the most strenuous work isn’t what you’d think.
“By far the most time goes into the mixing phase; trying to balance everything so it all sounds right can take up 100 hours for a single song. That's the bit that drives me crazy, has me up at 4am with my head in my hands, close to screaming because I've been listening to the same kick drum for six hours. And the funny thing is that the stuff I get really nit-picky about and spend hours obsessing over are things that no other person will ever care about, or even notice.
“There's a danger there, in the times I get really into the technical side, and I sometimes forget that I also need to make a great song. You can have the greatest mix in the world, but if there isn't a great song backing it up, no one's going to give a shit.”
But would he change it?
“No way. In the end, it's still a dream job, and it's all work I do because I truly love it. There's nothing like finally getting a mix right and then being able to listen to it and feeling, if not totally happy, at least satisfied that it’s a good song.”
Gav isn't just a video game musician, although that's certainly the bulk of his work. Songs inspired by other sources are scattered throughout his catalogue; in fact, his favourite song from the last album, ‘My Shooting Star’, is a song with its roots in Firefly and Serenity.
Gav’s love of the Fallout series is well known, so his favourite song from Level 7 should be no surprise.
"My favourite one this year is probably ‘Some Things Never Change’. I don't often get to do quiet, mellow songs, and it's always refreshing for me to make something that's soft and quiet and doesn't necessarily have catchy choruses. It's not really a sing-along song, and if I had to pick one to take to a desert island that'd probably be the one."
There are pitfalls to gaming music that aren’t felt so keenly in other genres; with the constant onslaught of games releasing, many of which are excellent, there's a never-ending demand for new material around specific games. Gav is all too familiar with this trap.
"I think the best way to work with creative stuff is to do what feels right at the time. If you start to feel rushed or stressed, you'll end up making inferior work, and I certainly try to avoid that as much as I can.
"There were maybe five or six other games that I wanted to do songs for that I just didn't have the time for. And even now, despite having done twenty other songs this year, the comments are still coming as to why I didn't do songs for this game or that game, and the answer is usually just time, or they were too similar to another game.”
Continue reading on page 2.