“Hoist the flags, hold the lines
Lessons ever lost to time
Now we sing for you, departed pawns of war“
This verse is the chorus to an orchestral war anthem called Pawns of War. In under three minutes, it seamlessly changes style and shape several times as if to acknowledge and sing ode to the sacrifices made by brave soldiers across nations and continents and put into perspective the scale, scope and diversity of the First World War. Reading this description you’d think that this is as far removed from “video game music” as a song gets, and yet the inspiration for this was the video game Battlefield 1.
The author’s name is Gavin Dunne, but he is better known by his stage name: Miracle of Sound. He’s an eclectic musician, performing anything and everything from metal to electronic, and prolific to boot, boasting nine massive albums in roughly six years. He’s been kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer a few questions for me. As a fan of his work this makes me both thankful and anxious.
We won’t dwell too much on ancient history, as we have a lot of present to cover: Gavin lives in Ireland, his country of birth, he is the son of respected late Irish poet Seán Dunne and had been an aspiring stage musician for quite a while before he broke through into the web content industry. Nowadays, he struggles with defining what he does and explaining it to others when asked. “YouTuber” doesn’t quite cut it, but saying “musician” just tends to raise eyebrows when he is asked what instruments he plays and the answer is “all of them”. The struggle is an ongoing one, as Gavin himself confessed to us: “I think I’ll never figure that one out! I tend to say musician & music producer, or Youtube musician, or just ‘one man band’. But it inevitably always has to followed by a more thorough explanation, ha!“
Prior to being independent, Miracle of Sound was a regular featured video series on The Escapist where Gavin started building his loyal following. Roughly two years ago, however, he decided to go fully independent and according to him, the transition has been a smooth one for the most part. “I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder, I feel like my channel and profile have continued to grow organically the way they had been before. If anything my youtube channel saw an increase due it becoming the exclusive place for fans to watch my videos.“, he told us. A fraction of this could very well be due to his joining game critics and journalists Jim Sterling and Laura Kate Dale on the weekly show The Podquisition, a naughty, sordid affair that occasionally discusses video games. By his own admission “I’ve definitely gained some new fans from Podquisition, that’s to be expected with a new platform. And yes, people are often a little taken aback by the naughty potty mouths we all have! “.
In the beginning, Miracle of Sound consisted mostly of thematically laid-back songs, with an outward gaming theme. Early songs like Gordon Freeman Saved My Life, The Ballad of Clay Carmine or I Suck at Call of Duty were tongue-in-cheek and heavily drew on the video game characters, tropes and worlds that served as inspiration. One of his earliest hits was the Mass Effect song Commander Shepard which Gavin has since grown to resent, partly because for a while it was one of his most successful songs and he did not want to be known as “The Commander Shepard Guy” but undoubtedly even more because of how far he’s come as an artist since.
In recent years, he’s taken to looking inward, rather than outward and focusing more on the subtle nuances of the characters’ emotions and personalities without referencing the source material in an obvious manner. We asked for his secret in writing the lyrics but… “I tend to avoid having a set methodology to be honest. Yes I’ll often take notes and create word clouds that I can use later but the way I actually write is always different. I might start with a beat, a riff, a line, or I might think up the entire piece in my head and then try to translate that into sound. If I am lucky enough to get a great idea for the chorus first, then the rest of the song will usually write itself.”. The evolution shows, for example, when comparing something like the Dark Souls song You Died to one of his recent Dark Souls 3 songs such as Fires Fade. This is true across all long-running series Miracle of Sound has tackled over the years, but I don’t think we have room to discuss all five of his Soulsborne games or all fifty-four Assassin’s Creed ones in the detail that they deserve.
While you can find the occasional Miracle of Sound song inspired by some other facet of geek culture such as Game of Thrones, or Mad Max: Fury Road or even just a feel-good uplifting rock anthem, the main focus of the project is gaming. Most big releases that are compelling in either narrative, style or theme get a song, but only when and if the muse inspires Gavin. “It has to grow organically. I used to try to force out songs about games because I felt I had to and it often resulted in bad songs. Nowadays I only create the song if there is a genuine inspiration there and i like what I’m working on. Sometimes a game can be awesome, like Titanfall 2, but still not give me any inspiration for a song.“.
In fact, a lot of his work tends to never see the light of day. “I abandon songs all the time. My hard drive is full of half finished work, stems, song ideas, things that just didn’t feel good enough to release at the time. I’ve started entire songs over from scratch. ‘The New Black Gold‘ was a completely different song when I first started it. I scrapped it and started over because I didn’t think it was working. People are often surprised by how much work I put out, but they would probably be more surprised if they knew just how many songs I don’t release, haha.“. Gavin categorically discounts the possibility of ever releasing a collection of his unfinished/unpublished works.
Having shifted to the aforementioned songwriting paradigm that doesn’t lean as heavily on obvious video game references, including two entirely non-gaming albums with the instrumental collection Vistas and the iTunes Metal Chart-topping Metal Up, Miracle of Sound has started to reach a much wider audience than just the online video game community. “I would love to do more personal music, especially after Metal Up did so well. I plan to make more personal songs this year as it has been quite an emotionally difficult and introspective winter for me.“. He is also planning (or hoping rather) to have the time to do a concept album one day.
Miracle of Sound is entirely a one-man operation. While Gavin occasionally collaborates with other singers when he wants either leading or backing female vocals (Lisa Foiles, Malukah, Sharm), and the rare soloist when the situation requires it, the vast majority of the time, he writes, composes and performs all of his songs all on his own: “It’s mainly that I only want to collaborate if I feel the person can really add something to the song that I can’t. The singers you mentioned all have amazing voices and can hit much higher notes than my muddy bass baritone. I also much prefer to work alone. it’s scary and it’s hard sometimes being 100% in charge of the final pieces, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m too much of a control freak (on an artistic level at least – less so on the technical side) to let other people insert their ideas into my work.“.
He also confesses that he does not have as much trouble as one might expect when mixing a complex, imposing orchestral song as opposed to playing the guitar. “It’s the same 12 notes after all! Once you get used to what each instrument’s place in the audio spectrum is it becomes second nature. For example cellos will fill your warm low mids, violins cover the high end of the emotional spectrum, brass can add a feeling of grandiose power, big thumping drums help everything feel epic etc etc… But it is certainly far more tedious & challenging to program, record and mix a project containing 80-90 layers of instruments all fighting for space to be heard. Especially when you add modern guitars & drums AND vocals on top of it!”
But that’s not all. In addition to writing, composing, and performing, Gavin also takes on the duties of the unsung sound engineers when he mixes and masters his music as well. There are quite a few talented musicians out there, many that can play multiple instruments and have a good ear for composition, but I personally know of few if any that so completely and exhaustively create from A to Z. Thus, all I could muster to ask was “Who is your spirit animal?” Thankfully, I received an answer: “My spirit animals are hard work, dedication and practice, haha. There’s no secret formula to being good at something, you just have to be disciplined and put in the work. I’ve dedicated my life to this for over 15 years and I do 70 hour work weeks sometimes to keep my dream job.“
On the topic of inspiration and influences, Gavin has spoken before about how much he looked up to and appreciated David Bowie. Following his tragic passing around this time last year, a Miracle of Sound tribute was released. It sounded like something out of Bowie himself and it was positively heart-wrenchingly melancholic and optimistic. “Bowie was probably the number one influence on my work. I tried to capture the effect he had on myself and other people in the song. It was all about how far reaching and varied his work was. The character in the third verse ‘Little Gangly Geeky’ – that is autobiographical. It’s all about how Bowie was important to me as a teen because in his music and his personas he made it ok to be different and creative without inhibition.“
We’ve had a lot of debate online lately about the fairness with which streaming services such as Spotify treat artists. The majority of the profits from sales tend not to go to the artist, but more often than not, that’s not the service’s fault but rather the music label they’re signed up with. Gavin seems to have done well for himself but I was curious to find out what his best revenue stream was between YouTube views, music streams and album sales. “Album sales are by far the best way to support an artist. For the price of a $10 album, you’d have to stream their songs around 1500 times for them to make the same amount of money. I’m glad to be outside of the traditional music industry. Greedy labels taking the lion’s share of the profit is nothing new, it has always been that way.“. I, personally, had no idea the difference between streaming and buying would be so staggeringly large.
Of course, running a one-man show also means looking at and dealing with the feedback on his own as well. Additionally, relying on fan dedication rather than a marketing department means that Gavin needs to pay attention to and interact with the online community a lot. This can sometimes take its own toll. “I struggle with it a lot. The skin grows incredibly thick over time but sometimes when you’re not feeling great or having a bad day, one comment can get you down even amid a sea of praise. One disappointed fan is more upsetting than 1000 comments saying ‘This is shit’ – especially so when their criticism is something that deep down you agree with yourself.“. This is undoubtedly a product of the way we’re wired to predominantly speak up when we are dissatisfied rather than when everything is going well. Maybe that’s something the Internet could work on.
Naturally, there is a flip side to this as well, as some Miracle of Sound fans put in the extra effort to make Gavin’s day every now and again. On these fan interactions Gavin comments: “The vast majority is fantastic. I get loads of wonderful fan art, I get messages from people all over the world telling me their stories & how my music fits into their lives whether in small or huge ways. I get people telling me the songs helped them through the worst of times. It’s an amazing feeling to know the things I make bring so much joy and comfort to others.“.
While this positive note would have been perfect to end on, I would have been remiss to forfeit this unique opportunity to ask Gavin Dunne, aka Miracle of Sound, whether he was, in fact, the Commander Shepard Guy. Immediately after asking this question I felt a chill beginning to creep up around me and as it grew in intensity I realized that it was no mere breeze or draft, but rather the air moving swiftly into a single direction as Gavin breathed it all in. Seconds later, a low, pained sound tore through the skies as he let it all out in a deep, bellowing sigh. And the Earth sighed with him.
(he asked me to just type the verbal equivalent of a loud sigh. I did my best)
In closing, I thanked Gavin for the time and privilege and asked if he had any message for his fans out there: “Just thanks for a great 2016 and for continually supporting me and my work. My fans are the ones who keep me in this job and I am grateful for that every day.“. Thank you too, for all your work and dedication, Gavin and we’re all looking forward to hear more from you. Keep those clocks a running.
Follow Miracle of Sound’s work on Gavin’s YouTube channel miracleofsound. Follow him on Twitter @miracleofsound or Facebook on his Miracle of Sound page. Check out his website http://miracleofsound.net/.