Asbjoern Andersen


In 2011, Gord McGladdery began A Shell in the Pit, which transformed from a solo project into a beloved Vancouver-based game audio studio. Since then, the team has been responsible for the sound and music in dozens of titles - from the instantly recognizable soundtracks for Rogue Legacy and Viking Squad to the innovative technical design for Fantastic Contraption and Parkitect to the story-driven sound for Fossil Echo and A Night in the Woods.

In this interview, Gord shares with us how he maintains an innovative work environment and a resilient business model with the help of meditation, his love for spreadsheets, the strong local indie community, and of course, the amazing skills of his teammates - Em Halberstadt, Joey Van Alten, Chris Tammik, and Rachel Sim.


Written by Adriane Kuzminski; images courtesy of A Shell in the Pit, Miguel Araujo, Infinite Fall, and Awaceb.
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Hi, Gord – to start off, how many games have you and your team worked on at A Shell in the Pit so far?

We have done full soundtracks and/or soundscapes for over 30 titles and had smaller roles in at least an additional 15-20.

 
Could you tell us a little about your personal history of getting into game audio and the beginnings of the studio?

I thought I wanted to score music for film. I won a scholarship to VFS’s Sound Design for Visual Media program and half-intended to leverage that as a back-door to film composition. Then I fell in love with sound design in general, and particularly game audio due to how innovative one can be with real-time implementation.

 
Were you inspired by a specific composer or game?

Even though it’s not at all the type of music I write myself, Jessica Curry’s score for Dear Esther was the first time I heard game composition with my picky-ass hipster ears and was like “oh wow, ‘game music’ ain’t what it used to be.” So much emotional depth and just… class. Jessica Curry’s music is just classy as all hell. As far as dynamic audio, the incredible ability to set the tone in INSIDE – almost completely sans music – is the first thing that comes to mind.

 
Since your team does both sound and music, what kind of games or genres do you keep an eye out for?

It is important we work on games that interest and aesthetically mesh with my team as individuals, so the type of games we pursue are influenced by who has bandwidth. There is plenty of crossover for all of us, but if indie-narrative-fan Em is the only one with bandwidth, we aren’t going to pursue a local co-op shooter. Chris doesn’t have quite as much curative freedom since Moona, our audio tool, is used in any Unity game developers want to use it in.
 
The 5 team members of A Shell in the Pit
 
Could you tell us a little more about Moona? What games have employed it and how has the studio benefited from it most?

Moona is our Unity-based audio tool that covers a lot of the basic logic functionalities that other audio middleware tools might provide. It gives our sound designers much more sophisticated control of the Unity audio engine, including voice and instance prioritization, lead & follow action presets, RTPCs, and a bunch of other things. It’s led by our audio programmer Chris Tammik. Chris started with us as a sound design contractor, but when I saw how passionate they were becoming with audio programming in their spare time I knew there was no way it wouldn’t be an asset for us to bring Chris on full-time and simply have them do that. We were struggling with 3rd-party anything (middleware, plugins, etc.) with VR games in particular, so I really wanted us and our developers to have more control of our projects at a more technical level. When a project needed to be using a constantly updated version of Unity on tight hardware-driven deadlines, relying on large tools with complex codebases became overwhelming and I felt like a real pest hammering their support lines all the time. I decided I’d much prefer, in many cases, to have someone on the team who could tackle issues with more immediacy.

Audio implementation in Moona

Audio implementation in Moona

It also allows us to mold the tool on a project-specific basis. For instance, Parkitect has an orthographic viewpoint which introduces really weird attenuation issues when you have tall emitters in 3D space. The top of a tall tower with people yelling on it might be 100m away from a merry-go-round in the game world, but to the viewer they may only be a few pixels apart, so the user feels like they should have equal loudness. Where the heck does the listener go? This was a huge problem for which Unity had no native solution that persisted literally for years, but Chris was recently able to fix it by making modifications for Moona. Now we have that as part of our toolset for other orthographic titles, should they arise.

Games that have used Moona (and its previous rudimentary version, TaT) are Splitter Critters (this was the first game, and it used TaT which actually blew up in our faces immediately before launch, haha. Software development is hard), The American Dream, Fantastic Contraption (we were recently forced to switch from Wwise for very particular spatialization plugin issues), Parkitect, Iron Tides, and a few unannounced titles.

 
With three employees at A Shell in the Pit, how do you balance everyone’s roles and personal goals?

Now four! We just hired Rachel Sim. To answer your question, it’s important to me to minimize micromanagement. Everyone at A Shell in the Pit has as much autonomy as they want on projects, which is why it’s so important everyone can work on stuff they enjoy, believe in, and feel ownership over. I often see our company as an incubator for artists with only as much managerial meddling as is asked for/required from myself. It takes a lot of trust, which is why I am very careful about who I hire. Everyone on our team is capable of self-management to varying degrees and I only step in to fill in those gaps of variation.

 

Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:

 

Latest releases:  
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    Our sound-sets are made up of two main folders labeled as Audio-Scenes and Audio-Stems. The Command Center I Audio-Scenes consist of five long playing scenes representing this star-cruiser command center in various modes of operation; -From busy to calm to high alert and more. Think of these audio-scenes like we dropped microphones into a futuristic space cruiser command center and have captured all of its sounds in real-time!

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    Also included with our audio-stems are less glamorous necessities like room tones and back-wall system sounds to give your futuristic environments the nuance they deserve. This sound-set is delivered industry ready at 24 bit/48kHz WAV and each sound file contains simple meta-data to make our sound files easy to organize & find. All of our sounds are 100% original, created in our sound-labs and designed to boldly explore the universe of sci-fi sound!

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    Vesislava Todorova is a performing and recording artist from Bulgaria, with more than 10 Years of experience playing cello for various projects such as movies, video games, commercials and now the brand new Creepy Violin SFX Library from TH Studio Production.

    CREEPY VIOLIN

    • 3 Instrument for FULL Kontakt 5.8.1
    • 681 MB uncompressed
    • 24 Bit / 96 kHz

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Along with hiring people who are creative and independent, minimizing micromanagement, and seeking projects that interest your employees and fit in their bandwidth, what other qualities do you believe help in running an ideal indie studio?

I spend a LOT of mental and emotional energy on making sure we have a sustainable business model and ensuring we have multiple income streams and aren’t relying too much on one thing. Just as there must be room for failure creatively as a sound designer, you must also make room for failure as a business owner. If I am hiring people I want to be hiring them indefinitely, so losing one contract or having one revenue-share game tank cannot be the thing that sinks the company. My worst fear is running out of capital and having to lay people off. I think I’m doing alright, but I probably have a few more years to really get this sussed out. I have piles and piles of spreadsheets calculating our overhead costs, incomes, salary contingencies, affordable bonuses, etc. Without a word of a lie, I get a huge kick out of spreadsheets. Like I think they are really fun and would totally be happy working with them all day every day. The only reason I do music and sound design for games is because I don’t think I could handle the endemic pressure brought on by the fame and glamour of the elite spreadsheeting world.

 
Ha! I can only imagine their inner-circle is filled with Macallan scotch and macros.

As a volunteer mentor with the Audio Mentoring Project as well, what do you think of mentorship in the indie game audio world?

It’s tremendous. Lowering the bar of entry for the less privileged has been the guiding principle in founding the Vancouver Sound Designers Group as well as the podcast (Beards, Cats & Indie Game Audio or BCAIGA). We want to share information at as low a cost as possible and psychologically empower people from all walks of life by interviewing and hosting talks from soundies and composers of all backgrounds. I try to incorporate these ideals into A Shell in the Pit as a company.
 
Dozens of sound designers gather at the Vancouver Sound Designers meetup

Photo of the Vancouver Sound Designers Group by Miguel Araujo

 
Speaking of the podcast, not long ago in one of the episodes (and in a guest post for Designing Sound) you talked about meditation. Has this practice affected how you approach daily life at A Shell in the Pit?

I can’t lie, I am still not in a steady habit but I know it’s good. I often rephrase it for the less… open minded – I’m from a small, conservative (by Canadian standards) logging town so have I vestigial unease with anything that may lead to me hearing the word chakra – I reduce it to its most banal description. For me, “meditation” is leaving the house without my phone and going & sitting somewhere for 30+ minutes. “Meditation” is intentionally boring myself until all my restless thoughts of bills & deadlines wear themselves out and my brain can get to work on more interesting things. I assume the more one does this, the faster one can get to this productive state. This is how I have solved many of our more complex business-oriented problems as well as come up with some decent sound design ideas.

 
Can you give us an example of one of these times?

I came up with our dynamic budgeting spreadsheet via my poor man’s “meditation”. It is a spreadsheet that automatically tallies assets lists into a budget based on the filename prefix. It allows us to collaborate with developers on both the game’s asset list and the budget all at once, giving budgetary control to the developer and allowing them to balance their priorities with contracts paid at an asset-level. I also came up with all our different budgeting models by just sitting and thinking for a long time. Rarely do we lose contracts over our pricing, because by mixing and matching revenue share with up-front payments of some sort we are able to come up with something affordable for almost anyone.

 
If that doesn’t convince people to unplug once in a while, I don’t know what will! This system must save you so much time and give your developers a sense of ease. In another episode of your podcast, however, you talked about something equally as important: failure – and how not every project is guaranteed to be a hit, no matter how much time and love you put into it. Do you have any words of advice to help others become more resilient in these situations?

Keep surging forward. Of the multifarious ways a project can underperform, most are wildly out of our control as audio professionals. One cannot force the public to love anything or bend the winds of the cultural zeitgeist. Failure in chaos does not reflect the quality of one’s work or self. We are children holding out our little soap carvings hoping Mom & Dad will like it, but maybe our sibling kept them up screaming for attention all night and they’re worn out & we don’t get the reaction we were sure we’d get from them. In the moment it is devastating, but I promise it’ll be a lot easier to overcome that sting of failure by getting lost in a new carving than by sitting in your room in circular negativity. Revisit it later with less raw emotion for objective analysis. All our “failures” (which I don’t see that way) hurt less because we have always had new things to occupy us.

 
What a beautiful metaphor and wise way of looking at it. Makes it no surprise your team has been so successful. What do you find most fulfilling about running A Shell in the Pit?

Providing “dream” jobs to a diverse staff. I want and desperately hope we can keep them that way. So many “dream” jobs in entertainment wind up being so crushingly illusory. There are too many stories of excessive crunch, harassment and toxic work culture. I am trying – even if it is just with our tiny, young company – to fight against that by taking cues from great workplaces like Klei & Audiokinetic. We may not have free beer & skittles at the office… or even an office… but when I can tell everyone is doing the best work they possibly can because they love what they are doing and aren’t burnt out, overworked or apprehensive for the sustainability of their livelihoods, I feel like we are really accomplishing something.

Cartoon animals stand in a cirle around the words A Night in the Woods
 
Klei is, of course, your neighbor in Vancouver – do feel the local community plays a role in helping you maintain a dream workplace?

Without a doubt. I may be biased, and Vancouver isn’t without its flaws – it was recently awarded the top spot as the Least Affordable City for real estate in North America – but we have one of the best indie game communities in the world, largely (if not entirely) attributable to the organization Full Indie who hold monthly meetups and yearly Summits with world-class speakers. Em just did a talk on the sound for Night in the Woods at the most recent summit and brought down the house!
 

It seems like every time I see news about that game, it has won another award! Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I’m very excited for Wandersong, launching in 2018. I have written over 50 songs for it and I have to write another 50 in every imaginable genre. Em has been working on the SFX for it with Greg Lobanov, the developer, who built us arguably the most capable & complex audio tool Gamemaker has ever seen. We will also be releasing The American Dream in the near future, by far the most subversive game we’ve ever worked on, and Joey & I will soon be launching Full Metal Furies, the next game from the developers of Rogue Legacy. Parkitect is wrapping up as well! Tons going on.

A young person sits near acamp fire encircled by two large rock-shaped hands.
 
That’s a lot of exciting stuff. It will be fun to hear what you compose for Wandersong, knowing your diverse yet distinct writing for Viking Squad, Bunker Punks, Splitter Critters, and Okhlos (to only name a few). Considering the sheer amount games your studio has created sound and music for, which project are you most personally proud of?

That is like picking my favourite child! So I cannot. Em’s work on Night in the Woods is some of the best sound design in indie games ever, in my opinion. Fossil Echo was one of our best team efforts, and Moona has come such a tremendous distance since Chris began developing it that it has even replaced a major middleware tool in one of our biggest projects.

 
Great stuff! And finally – a very BCAIGA question – if Doctor Who suddenly popped out of his TARDIS and offered to take you any place in any time period so you could record one sound of your choosing, what would that sound be?

This might be everyone’s answer, but I’d love to do some field recording in the Jurassic period & get me some extinct sounds.

 
Thanks for sharing with us! Where can people follow you and the rest of the team on social media?

We are all on Twitter:

Chis: @chtammik
Em: @emaudible
Gord: @ashellinthepit
Joey: @VanAltenAudio
Rachel: @rachelsimpleton

And Facebook.

 

A big thanks to Gord McGladdery for sharing his wise perspectives from running A Shell in the Pit
– and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!

 

Please share this:


 


 
 
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Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • Environments Command Center I Play Track 28 sounds included, 28 mins total $24.95

    Orbital Emitter is proud to present Command Center I – a comprehensive sci-fi sound-set providing a rich arsenal of futuristic sounds for you to quickly build believable sci-fi atmospheres for all of your sci-fi projects! Inside you will find nuanced environments, futuristic instrument displays, multiple alerts and imaginative lo-fi system sounds. And like the rest of our growing library, this environment sound-set can be customized to your liking allowing multiple possibilities -all from this one sound-set!

    Our sound-sets are made up of two main folders labeled as Audio-Scenes and Audio-Stems. The Command Center I Audio-Scenes consist of five long playing scenes representing this star-cruiser command center in various modes of operation; -From busy to calm to high alert and more. Think of these audio-scenes like we dropped microphones into a futuristic space cruiser command center and have captured all of its sounds in real-time!

    Our Audio-Stems folder contains the curated sound elements used in creating the audio-scenes. This is where you will find isolated sound elements like tactical scans, lost communications, sweeping sensors, enemy alerts, interface sounds, probe telemetries, stellar mapping, systems under incredible stress and interface sounds and much much more!

    Also included with our audio-stems are less glamorous necessities like room tones and back-wall system sounds to give your futuristic environments the nuance they deserve. This sound-set is delivered industry ready at 24 bit/48kHz WAV and each sound file contains simple meta-data to make our sound files easy to organize & find. All of our sounds are 100% original, created in our sound-labs and designed to boldly explore the universe of sci-fi sound!

    Thank you for reading! Watch for more from Orbital Emitter coming soon!

    20 %
    OFF
    Starts 1579820400
  • Say Hello to Particles the new sonic weapon for creative sound designers, video makers, filmmakers and motion designers.

    A must-have sound effect library to give a sense of organic and hyper-realistic to your projects in a fast and creative way.

    • 287 high quality pristine sound effects with an organic and granular taste divided into 6 categories.
    • Stereo 24bit and 96khz for extreme pitch shifting and sound manipulation.
    • BaseHead embedded metadata

    CATEGORIES:

    Hyper- Realistic Textures (104 sounds)

    These are hyper close-up recordings of various kinds of props (food, fabrics, materials).

    Since they are really rough, they’ll inspire you to create something cool using them as sound sources.

    Their proximity allows you to use them for macro-shots, CGI and motion pieces, hyper-detailed images.


    Granular Whooshes (76 sounds)

    From sci-fi granular to totally organic, a large number of whooshes, passbys, dopplers to give a natural sense of motion to your project.


    Minimal One Shots (62 sounds)

    This is the category of short and tiny sounds: small collapsing, fractures, all with a premium high-end sonic detail.

    You can make your organic foley drumkit using them as a sample into your electronic music project.


    Organic Impacts (17 sounds)

    Powerful, organic, natural-sounding with a big low end, these impacts are ready for your earth’s destruction shots.


    Granular Atmospheres (16 sounds)

    Abstract but generated from organic recordings, these atmospheres will help you to get the right “other world” dimension to your project


    Low End Rumbles (12 sounds)

    Last but not least, do you need more power in the low end? You can layer these sounds to enforce subsonic frequencies giving a new taste to other existing sounds.

    29 %
    OFF
    Ends 1580252399
  • Obscure cinematic ping elements perfect to add as top layers while crafting memorable hit sounds and hybrid trailer impacts with mystical undertones and terrifying stingers.

    This file is from the personal library of trailer music composer Federico Soler Fernandez (“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” – “The Food That Built America (History Channel)” – “Middle Earth: Shadow of War” – “Halloween 2018” – “The Predator 2018”)

  • The Creepy Contrabass SFXs Instrument: A Big collection of Creepy SFXs live Contrabass, recorded from 3 mic positions with a Neumann U87. This is the best Contrabass collection for your horror trailer tracks, recorded by Vesislava Todorova.

    Features 427MB uncompressed content, 180 sounds in 24 bit / 96 kHz. Includes 2 instruments for the FULL Kontakt version 5.8.1 and the AIFF Version.

    Vesislava Todorova is a performing and recording artist from Bulgaria, with more than 10 Years of experience playing cello for various projects such as movies, video games, commercials and now the brand new Creepy Contrabass SFX Library from TH Studio Production.

    Along with her live performances, she also has a strong online presence with over 7 million views her covers and original music.

    CREEPY CONTRABASS

    2 Instruments for FULL KONTAKT 5.8.1

    AIFF Version

  • The Creepy Violin SFXs Instrument: A Big collection of Creepy SFXs live Violin, recorded from 3 mic positions with a Neumann U87. This is the best Violin collection for your horror trailer tracks, recorded by Vesislava Todorova.

    Features 681 MB uncompressed content, 306 sounds in 24 bit / 96 Khz. Includes 3 instruments for the FULL Kontakt version 5.8.1 and the AIFF Version.

    Vesislava Todorova is a performing and recording artist from Bulgaria, with more than 10 Years of experience playing cello for various projects such as movies, video games, commercials and now the brand new Creepy Violin SFX Library from TH Studio Production.

    CREEPY VIOLIN

    • 3 Instrument for FULL Kontakt 5.8.1
    • 681 MB uncompressed
    • 24 Bit / 96 kHz

 
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