Profile of Video Game Sound Designer and Composer Gordon McGladdery (A Shell in the Pit)
Gordon McGladdery (A Shell in the Pit) is a prolific, successful video game music composer and sound designer based in Vancouver B.C. Along with his colleagues, he’s created music and sounds for games including Rogue Legacy, Night in the Woods and Parkitect, to name just a few. I talked to him about how he got started, his creative process and how he keeps himself recharged creatively.
An Interview With Gordon McGladdery
Karl Magi: What was the genesis of your passion for making music?
Gordon McGladdery: I’ve been interested in music since birth. I’ve been playing instruments as long as I could move my hands. My dad always had guitars around, I think there was a piano in the house from when I was a young age, so I’ve always just been messin’ with things.
I never really was classically trained. I took piano lessons for nine years, but I never got very good. I liked playing piano but I didn’t like learning from notation. I never became good at reading music. I didn’t like any of the rigidity of that style of learning music and probably didn’t have the focus or attention span for it anyway.
I grew up as a rock ’n roll kid listening to a bunch of bands that I’d be ashamed to name nowadays. I went through high school playing in bands and then played in a band in university for a bunch of years, but never really pursued music or anything audio related as a job. I was from a small town and that was just a thing that didn’t happen, that was for other people to do.
KM: Talk about the arc of your career since you started.
GM: I moved from Prince George B.C. to Victoria to go to university. My wife and I were living there and we were at a crossroads. I was working in a woodworking shop and my wife had finished a chemistry degree and couldn’t get a job with it. She was just finishing up her degree when the 2008 financial crisis hit.
We split and went to South Korea for a year and a half and taught English. While in South Korea, I decided that I was just going to take a stab at doing the music thing in any way I could. If it failed, at least I knew I could fall back on teaching or go back to the woodworking shop. If I didn’t try, I knew I’d feel bad for the rest of my life.
I reached out online to get experience doing some composition. I did get a couple of gigs that didn’t pay much. The first video game I did was for a teenager in Mexico. I think I got $15 and he had to get his parents to open a PayPal account for him.
I also made a connection on Reddit that wound up being the YouTube channel Smarter Every Day. We were just two nobodies then who were just looking for something to work on together. Now its one of the biggest YouTube science channels in the world, so that was just a stroke of luck.
We also worked on a 48 hour film festival in South Korea. I met my friend Sam and his wife Christine doing that. She was one of the top voice actresses in South Korea, so meeting them was pretty eye opening because they’re really nice people who were successful. From my small town viewpoint, I thought all successful people were probably, in some way, kind of assholes. It opened me up to the idea that I could be a nice person and still be successful in the entertainment industry.
Working on that short film, I got to see my first sound designer in action. Christine got one of her colleagues in a professional sound studio to squeeze in a twenty minute short film in an afternoon. Watching this woman work just blew my mind. I was so impressed with what she was able to do that it planted the seed for me.
My wife wanted to move back to Canada. She decided to drop chemistry and try out special effects makeup. She took the same trajectory that I did in an even larger sense. She returned to Vancouver, enrolled in Vancouver Film School and I came back three months later. I tried a harebrained business scheme which failed, but it did teach me some valuable business and marketing lessons.
There was a scholarship contest to VFS for the sound design program. It’s an expensive school by Canadian standards, so I made it my full time job to win that contest. It wasn’t a meritocratic contest, it was a popularity contest because they wanted to get as many eyes on the school as they could. I had learned how to get eyes on things from my little business adventure. Long story short, I won the contest and went to VFS. Their sound design program helped me to bone up on my technical skills, but it also opened my eyes to game audio and the whole implementation side of things.
Games to me were just a way to have fun, blow shit up and run cars into things. I didn’t see them as art and that’s why I’d gone to VFS specifically thinking that I was going to get into film sound design. When I saw what the indie game scene was becoming it really piqued my interest.
While I was in school, I’d already done my first game which was Shellrazer which was really successful and I’d started working on Rogue Legacy, which today is still the best selling game that I’ve worked on and that kick-started things as far as giving me undeserved credibility, which nonetheless allowed me to get more gigs. I started working with Power Up Audio, honed my skills and started getting enough gigs to start my own company.
KM: How do you approach a new project?
GM: Firstly and most importantly, we scope out the project as clearly as we can. We come up with an accurate budget that we can provide to the client. After that, we can start getting artistic.
After that’s all done, we get our contract in place and then we can get to work. For us it’s a lot of technical things like getting set up with a repository so we can work directly on the project without having to upload things all the time.
We like to be in the game engine implementing the sounds directly, so that we can mix them and test them in gameplay. If you can’t test in gameplay, it’s really only 50 percent of the way there to being an actual good sound.
We like to have our middleware set up and we then get to work making the sounds and putting the sounds in the game. After all the discussion is done, we know the direction the game wants to go in and they’ve given us references and emotional tones, so then we can go and start putting things in.
KM: Talk about your approach to music and sound design.
GM: We like subtle narrative tales. We like things like delicate footsteps in grass and making sure you can tell whether the grass is wet or dry. We like those small details and we like lush ambiances. We love building these really detailed worlds. Musically, I’m all over the place, but I like meshing real instruments with electronic sounds.
KM: What’s your view on the current state of game audio/music?
GM: I really like a lot of the work my friends are doing in the indie sphere especially. The game audio community is really fantastic. It’s one of the best communities in any industry. They’re a blast to work with and there’s a ton of resources. The knowledge sharing is very prominent. There aren’t a lot of people siloing themselves up with their information any more which has been really great. The respect for game audio from developers has been on the rise significantly since I got in. We’ve been making an extra effort to communicate with developers more.
KM: What are some of the projects coming down the line that you’re excited about?
GM: We’ll be releasing Wandersong this year which is really exciting. I’ve been working on that for two years. It’s going to be my largest soundtrack to date and my most diverse soundtrack. It’s been a trip working on that one. Having that done is going to free up a lot of my time. We’re going to be working on Nels Anderson’s next game as well, so that’s cool! It has been really exciting working in the VR field as well. It’s been really exciting working with the Northways and Radial Games on the Museum of Other Realities. It’s basically a giant VR art gallery.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
GM: I’ve been trying to get outside, take some walks and do some thinking. I’ve been doing tai chi since January. It’s a pretty off-brand thing for me to do, but I’ve been enjoying it. It’s me and a bunch of people twice my age. I’ve just been trying to do things that aren’t work. I’ve been doing only work for so long that I’m trying to pick up some hobbies.