Ten Things Miracle of Sound Can Teach You About Making Fun

Making fun. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Try it for five seconds and you’ll soon realise it ain’t. It involves just as much focus and effort as your day job. How the hell can producing fun be so much of a slog?

Times like those, you need a good example to follow. And frankly, when it comes to making so much fun that other people pay one for it, I reckon you can’t go past Miracle of Sound. It’s the project of Gavin Dunne, a gamer and muse-o who decided to combine his passions last year; he now has not only a bill-paying following but also a song commission by game developer BioWare to help promote their new video game, Mass Effect 3.

Here are ten things we creative types who aspire to get paid to play can all learn from the Miracle of Sound.

It’s Not About What You Love, It’s About Two Things You Love

You’ve seen the advice in God-knows how many books and blogs about writing: Write what you know. Recently, though, some folks have been modifying that to something more easily applicable: Write what you love. Yet still, that doesn’t quite go far enough.

When Gavin Dunne started working on his first Miracle of Sound project, he didn’t just choose to follow his love of video games. No, he mashed it up with his other love: Guitar rock.

The result? “Gordon Freeman Saved My Life.”

He’s not the only creative type to do this. In his introduction to The Callahan Chronicals, Spider Robinson wrote that in choosing a subject for his Callahan’s Bar short stories, he went with what he loved: Drink. However, he also picked his second love, one (he earlier explained) that had him from Rocket Ship Gallileo: Science Fiction.

Be aware of all of your tastes but be choosy about which ones you’re charging your creativity with right now. Trying to cram everything in may result in a jumbled mess (at least, when you’re starting out); pick two or three things and you’ll give the fun you make an uncomplicated strength it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Better To Start Than Wait Until You Learn What You Think You Need

How the hell can you write and record music without knowing score and notation? I mean, laying aside the fact that people have been doing it for millennia, you need to know score to compose something complex and multi-part, right?

Well, Olivia Newton-John has never, ever learned how to write or read score, but that didn’t stop her from having a fantastic career in music.

Same with Gavin Dunne. I don’t know whether he knows musical theory – I imagine he must know the basics so that he can work with the software he uses to create and mix his music – but in interviews, he readily confesses he doesn’t know how to write or read sheet music. it doesn’t seem to have hurt his productivity or the quality of his work in any way.

There’s another side to this, too. Ever found yourself waiting until you’ve made something that meets some kind of arbitrary external standard? Like, what’s the point in making something unless you know it’s going to get attention?

Well, Gav made and recorded “Gordon Freeman Saved My Life” as a salve to a pretty big creative disappointment. He posted it on the web.

The rest, as they say, is history.

If you want to do it, go ahead and do it. You’ll learn what you need to know along the way.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously…

“Gordon Freeman Saved My Life” isn’t some epic song about the Half-Life games. It’s a rockin’ ditty that has a little fun with the avatar’s attributes (“Completely silent, a violent creature / Despite lookin’ like a Geography teacher”) and the fact that Valve still haven’t released Half-Life 2, Episode 3 yet. It brings a smile to your face.

Which is what you need sometimes, especially when you’re one of the hardcore, leet N00b-pwn3rz who love to play the Call of Duty series. You know what it’s like. You’re about to capture a point or take out a bunch of enemies with an RPG when some n00b who doesn’t know how to play the game manages to team-kill you.

Thank God Gavin Dunne remembers what it’s like to be that n00b, the one who wants to be good but just doesn’t have it – it’s for that guy he wrote the even more rockin’ and even more entertaining “I Suck At Call Of Duty”. Who thought being bad could be so bad-ass?

Wile we’re on the topic of Call of Duty, there’s a song that could have been some hate filled rant – but much like my musical heroes Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who turned a story of a guy finding out that his girlfriend went on the game when he was out of town into a smile-on-your-face dance number, Gavin Dunne took his dissatisfaction with Call of Duty: Black Ops and turned it into a bouncy piece of rock. I defy you not to sing along with the chorus of “Goodbye, Black Ops!”

They say your hard times are grist for the mill, but one thing they tend to forget is that, to borrow from Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Look for the silver lining on every cloud, the quirky angle that turns your misery into a good joke.

And even if you can’t find one, just play your blues with a smile.

… Hell, Make Sure To Be Silly Every Now And Again…

Making fun can be a hard slog at times. You can’t tell whether what you’re doing is going to pay off down the track. Will anyone else like it? Will they buy it? If not, what’s the point? Shouldn’t you wait until you have Something Of Merit?

Gavin Dunne knows that sometimes, you just need to relax and have fun. Take “Khajit Like To Sneak”, the third of (so far) four songs inspired by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a tribute to its race of feline… er… cat burglars.

It sounds all low key and cool, but you can’t take lyrics like “Manoeuvres silken and sleek” seriously! It’s a fun number that could come straight from Skyrim: The Musical. If anyone made it.

Then there’s “Commander Shepard”, which, while it’s about the titular avatar of the Mass Effect games, is really all about us, the people who played Mass Effect to be that interstellar paragon / renegade for a while.

Because, let’s face it, when you think about Mass Effect, you don’t think about a Commander Shepard – you think about your Commander Shepard!

Share your sense of humour if the whimsy strikes. You never know just how many people will love your silly side.

… But Take Yourself Seriously Enough To Be Epic.

Being light-hearted all the time only gets you so far. Sometimes, you have to toss all that “don’t take yourself too seriously” noise aside and really dive into your passions. The results can be spectacular.

Take, for example, the second song Gav based on Mass Effect. It could have been a ditty about the elevators on the Citadel or inter-species romance. Instead, Gav produced a song all about the Suicide Mission at the core of Mass Effect 2. The resulting song, “Normandy,” is five minutes of sci-fi rock power.

Then there’s “Sovngarde Song,” the first of Gavin’s Skyrim songs. It’s almost three songs in one, going from Nordic folk harmony to orchestral rock to guitar ballad between verses. Epic in a bottle.

As silly as it might seem later, invest in the emotion of the moment. Draw it out like spidersilk and spin it on the loom of your favourite craft. You might well wind up with something uniquely awesome.

Accept That You’re Not Going To Please Everyone…

Thus far, Gavin has only produced one song based on the Assassin’s Creed games. They mightn’t have fired his creativity enough for that number. He might have had other projects he needed to work on first. But he mentioned in a recent tweet about his next AC song that few liked the first one, “Brothers of the Creed.”

He also copped some flak for “Beauty Bleak,” a Fallout 3-inspired instrumental number that he posted on The Escapist at the end of the year.

Since “Brothers of the Creed,” though, Gav went on to release eleven more songs on The Escapist, including “The Grind,” “Sovngarde Song,” “Joker’s Song” and “Nord Mead,” all of which are pretty damned popular.

No matter what negative feedback you get, keep on working. To paraphrase the late, great Ed Wood, your next one will be better.

… But Accept That You’ll Please People You Weren’t Expecting To.

I’m going to break the rules here and talk about me for a second. That “Brothers of the Creed” song no one seemed to like? I love it. It was one of the very nice surprises I encountered on Miracle of Sound’s Level 1 compilation.

And here’s the thing: Of all the Assassin’s Creed games, I’ve only ever played around fifteen minutes of the first one. It was interesting, but not intriguing enough to get its hooks into me.

Same thing with “Beauty Bleak.” I’ve never played any of the critically-acclaimed Fallout series, let alone Fallout 3, but when “Beauty Bleak” began playing through my iPod headphones one day (I was listening to Level 1 while gardening) it had me immediately.

Ditto again for the atmospheric “Little Sister.” I get what it’s about, having played enough BioShock to grasp the relationship between the monstrous Big Daddies and the creepy Little Sisters. But BioShock turned me off after a short while, while “Little Sister” keeps me listening.

All three songs made the $20 I plonked down for Level 1 more than well spent. And I’m not part of (what ought to be) the target audience for any of them.

Sometimes, you never can tell where your fans will come from. Keep working and standing by your work and sooner or later its true audience will find it.

Be Willing To Work Your Arse Off.

In the last post, I mentioned Level 1, a compilation of all the songs Gavin released in 2011, whether on The Escapist or elsewhere. That’s thirty-three songs, seven more than the twenty-six he was contracted to do for The Escapist.

Most bands take at least two years to put out that many songs on albums and the B-sides of singles (remember singles, kids?).

Thirty-three songs in fifty-two weeks. That’s a shiteload of work by any standard.

The kind of work that, because it looks like it’s based on whimsy and a rather narrow niche, you could quite easily talk yourself out of doing. Especially when you have no idea just how you’re going to convince people to pay you for it.

Gav’s results speak clearly as to why you should keep at it. Don’t trust that voice that keeps telling you that it’s all to hard, that you should quit while you’re behind. Keep doing what you love, even the icky, sloggy parts of it. The rest of it, you’ll figure out along the way.

The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train.

Take Opportunities To Work With Awesome People…

Creativity’s always a tricky endeavour, especially when you’re collaborating.

You know that disappointment I wrote about earlier on? See, right before he recorded “Gordon Freeman Saved My Life,” Gavin was part of a band on the verge of being signed by a record label.

Instead, the band split up.

This worked out pretty well for us nerds, what with all the awesome music that came after, but not only did it likely suck for Gav at the time, it meant that for a long while, he was creating his stuff solo.

It wasn’t until the L.A. Noire-inspired “Sweet L.A.” that Gavin worked with a couple of a couple of fellow muse-os in his area to bring some jazz piano and sax to the tune.

And most recently, he enlisted another songster who fuses her love of music with her love of games, Malukah, to collaborate with him on his fourth Skyrim-inspired song, “Legends of the Frost.”

So if you get the chance to make your making fun more than a solo endeavour, take it – but do your best to ensure that you and your fellow fun-maker(s) are on the same wavelength.

And even if you’re not and things go to pieces like with Gavin’s last band? Don’t let it stop you from trying it again in the future. Just listen to “Legends of the Frost.”

… But In The End, If You Want It Done, Do It Yourself.

Oh, yeah. When I wrote about Gavin creating his stuff solo above? I mean that literally. Solo. One.

Listen to any of his songs (other than the two mentioned in the point above, naturally), but you should (in my opinion) pay particular attention the complexities of “Brothers of the Creed,” “Normandy” and “Sovngarde Song.” Every single part of that song, every vocal harmony, every instrument (even the synthesised ones) is Gavin’s work alone.

Sure, you could argue that he cheated on some parts – the harp and orchestral parts of “Sovngarde Song” and the drums on, well, all of them were entirely synthetic – the guitars and vocal harmonies were all him.

Then, once he’d recorded each component, he had to produce each whole song. Mixing, mastery, all his work, and often done within the space of several days, especially the ones he produced for his bi-weekly schedule for The Escapist.

As if all that wasn’t enough, he’s now making his own video clips.

Not only was “Goodbye, Black Ops!” all his own work, but Gavin even went back and did his own videos for “Commander Shepard” and “Normandy” (originally created by the team at The Escapist). He’s expanded his YouTube efforts into video logs and even gameplay commentaries.

The only question is, what new avenues is he going to expand his passions into?

And speaking of The Escapist: Gavin didn’t wait for opportunities to market his work to come to him. He approached The Escapist about becoming a regular contributor (thankfully for all of us, they said yes).

So even when you’ve got no one in your corner and time, money and even your own lack of willpower are all conspiring against you, don’t wait for someone else to come along and solve your problems.

Stand for yourself, your passion, your potential. Stand by the work you’ve done and the work you’re doing.

You’ll be a success before you know it.

Big Ten

I could keep going. Try Something New is a good one, referring to the very un-guitar-rock “Sweet L.A.” and “Wheatley’s Song” as examples of why getting out of your familiar groove can not only help you learn new things about your craft but also produce qork just as quality as what you’d have been doing otherwise. I could also have made a point about juggling multiple projects at once – I mean, how else did Gav managed to crank out thirty-three songs in the space of a single year?

But sometimes, it’s just as good an idea to stop and walk away when you’re on a roll. And ten is a nice, solid-sounding number – not to mention another Miracle of Sound reference.

In closing: It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, just bad executions of it. On its face, making songs about video games seems silly, frivolous. Yet with skill, craft, passion and genuine joy, Gavin Dunne is earning an income from his two loves. He’s getting paid to play.

And to think that it all started when he recorded a song to help himself feel better after what looked like his Shot at the Big Time had fallen to bits.

So when you’re feeling hopeless, when you reckon you’ve got no chance at making your dreams real, when you can’t see how all the slog could be worth it, when you think everyone else thinks you’re some dumb, talentless hack…

Stand up and take it back.

Or do some push-ups. Moves the pain out of your head and into your body where the endorphins can take care of it. You’ll feel more creative afterward, trust me.

What have you learned about the craft of making something fun from the artists you follow?

What’s your favourite “inspired by” music?

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  • Doug

    Thanks for this article Rob. Never read your blog before today, but after this article I’m going to start paying attention, it was quite inspiring to a fellow aspiring amateur entertainer. Thanks for the reassurance!

    • You’re welcome, Doug!

      Hey, what field of entertainment do you aspire to break into? How’re you going with it?

      • Doug

        Working on making Lego stop-motion videos actually. I’m making a practice one right now for my daughter acting out our first D&D game together, and then after that I have a few ideas that I want to roll out.
        One of my first, that I’m super excited about, is a series following a gamer group playing tabletop D&D, being illustrated by the lego stop-motion both in-game and out.
        It’s going fairly well, I’m making all my mistakes now and learning from them, the only real obstacle I have is time. I have a full-time job in the military, and a part-time job delivering pizza in order to buy the toys and equipment I need to film, so you can imagine I might be a bit cramped for time.
        Anyway, I won’t be producing anything for public consumption for at least a month or so, but keep your eyes open!

        • D&D, animation and two jobs? That’s one heck of a full schedule, Doug! Please keep us posted!