Making Mushrooms Dance
Gl33k's audio geeks sound off on 'Mushroom Men'
The aesthetics and processes of Matt Piersall's studio prove a study in contrasts. "I'm pretty ghetto about it," he says. "I don't need a big space to sound pristine."
The president and "audio overlord" of Gl33k (pronounced "gleek"), the Austin-based game-audio boutique charged with the task of soundtracking Mushroom Men, knows his technology. He can lay claim to a computer and a soundboard, both looking impossibly expensive, and the Sennheiser 418 microphone he records on could easily warrant a "Do Not Touch" warning from its owner.
But the right side of that same room is littered with what could have been Piersall's childhood toys, tossed in the corner as if a 4-year-old swept through only a minute ago. Kept in the blue plastic bin next to Piersall's bookshelf is an assortment of sound makers, pieces of plastic and scrap metal he keeps in his arsenal. T-shirts and vinyl shorts rest atop clotheslines and coat hangers, all of which Piersall and his team will use without hesitation to create any sound they may need to generate.
Part of the reason why he doesn't completely trick out his studio is that Gl33k does a lot of fieldwork. Gl33k's team of three will spend afternoons camped out under an air-conditioning unit at a house or run field tests in Zilker Park, recording the sounds generated from swinging a branch through the air.
"It's a whole collection of stuff," says sound designer Bobby Arlauskas. "We'll just put the mic down and play with whatever we find. Maybe the shoe doesn't sound good as a footstep, but it sounds better as a bag. So the bag doesn't get used."
It's particularly important for Gl33k to maintain such a high understanding of sound manipulation these days, because Mushroom Men takes place in the world as we know it. The multitude of scenes and levels includes a kitchen, a shed, and a front yard.
"We're working with environments that we're used to," says Piersall, "but you've got to make it trippy. You've got to find a different way of showing it."
That's because his subjects stand approximately 3 inches in height and face the world not as people but as fungi. Everything is amplified. Gl33k's job was to visualize these effects and put their repercussions into action.
"We went the representative route," Piersall offered. "Instead of using an actual object, we're going to do a representation of where you're at. And we watched Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Incredibles a lot for inspiration.
"We didn't just want to go in and pitch everything down, but rather we made it so the world breathes at this certain tempo." That way, a regular window fan, harmless to humans, is a protagonist-shredding machine, a complete horror for a hero like Pax.
"It's more of a rhythmic thing and a cool musical thing than just making it sound really loud."
To generate this ominous shake, Piersall took a recording of his fan and spliced it through Pro Tools. "You gotta cut it up and start manipulating it," he says, "so that whenever you pass [the fan] in the game, it represents this intimidating, massive thing."
Whereas many games today occupy free-formed soundtracks that respond entirely to the player, Mushroom Men is recorded to a beat. "You have sparks sparking in time to the music, and there are moments when the background music backs out and you hear the cricket cricking on beat," says Jimi Barker, another sound designer with Gl33k.
Piersall continues, "You want to make it seem like the world plays to a beat."
It was a welcomed practice by the Gl33k team, as all three of the company's employees have spent time as gigging musicians. In fact, the connection between Arlauskas and Piersall was made at a meeting among Dallas-area laptop battlers.
"We're all from indie rock backgrounds and kind of a more rock & roll background," Piersall says. "We got tired playing shows and that whole road and were like, 'Let's do video games.' So we have this whole video-game band, almost."
Ever the performer, Piersall holds nothing back, bringing the same amount of energy he spent at Dallas stages to his virtual alternative. In his eyes, the only difference is the means. "Instead of playing the bass, I bang on crap. That's why that stuff's over there. It's like a trash kit."
Through Gl33k, Piersall, Arlauskas, and Barker have found their way to perform the never-ending gig.
"I feel like soundtracking video games, if you're a musician, they become home," says Piersall. "It's a personal experience for each individual, like you're playing a show, but you don't need to be there. But it's made for one person and always lays out differently than it did the time before. It's way cooler."
That's not to say the Gl33k team won't welcome an extended set break now that Mushroom Men production has been completed. Asked how much time they've spent on the game, the three collectively share a laugh. "Dude, like several hundred hours," Piersall says. "Maybe thousands."
"On the audio side, you're bringing the whole freaking thing to life. I'd say we play it more than the testers who are paid to play the game."