In his GDC talk ‘Doom: Behind the Music’, Mick Gordon, composer at Game Audio Australia, spoke about the compositional process and production techniques used to create the hit FPS’s intense soundtrack.
“We want you to make music that no one has heard before.
It needs to fit the game perfectly, and instantly be loved by millions of fans.”
This was the brief Mick Gordon received from id Software as he began work on the score for 2016’s Doom.
“I first met the id Software team back in mid-2014,” says Gordon. “They sent me a music design document that started like this, ‘Doom is about demons on Mars. You have a shotgun. Send them back to hell.’”
“The second part of the brief went like this: ‘No guitars. We hate guitars. We do not want guitars in our game. Do not put guitars in.’”
In approaching the Doom soundtrack Gordon knew there was a danger in being inspired by the brief, but not executing it. Determined to eschew traditional techniques, Gordon decided to take a new approach to the compositional process.
“You cannot expect to end up with a different outcome without changing the process,” says Gordon. “Change the process, change the outcome.”
“This is a lot easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, you suffer terribly from the fear of rejection. It’s that fear of rejection that disables us from changing our process.”
“Why?” asks Gordon. “Because it’s asking you to take everything you know and come up with a new process in the hope that you are going to reach something better. As humans we don’t want to do that. If something has worked a certain way before, we want to repeat that process to end up with what we perceive is going to be the same result.”
The key making this work on a huge AAA video game, says Gordon, is working with a team that shares the same outlook and philosophy. In id Software’s audio team – Ben Carney, Chad Mossholder, and Chris Hite – Gordon found a group of people that supported and endorsed this ambition.
Gordon’s initial submission for the Doom soundtrack used synths, combining low sub notes and high frequency white noise. With a bit of distortion added to the mix, Gordon was confident he was on the right path.
“This was gonna be the Doom sound,” he recalls. “We’re gonna take sine waves, and we’re gonna take noise, and we’re gonna run them through some distortion. I’m an absolute genius! This is brilliant!”
Gordon send the demo track over to audio director, Chris Hite, with a note preparing him to have his mind blown.
“I hit send on the email and I awaited Chris’s reply,” says Gordon. “He replied with this…”
“I read that on my screen and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve failed again. Time to turn on the cold water in the shower and have a bit of a cry.’ But then, underneath that, he added these lines:”
“I feel you’ve taken the first step on a journey toward the perfect destination. Keep going. You’re almost there.”
“Instantly,” says Gordon, “I felt comfortable with failure. I wasn’t worry about failing with this team. I was encouraged to be able to keep going.”
Hite was encouraging an environment where Gordon felt comfortable with failure. Gordon had to change the process, change the outcome.
Reinventing the wave
Inspired by the story of how David Bowie and Tony Visconti created a scalable reverb technique, Gordon designed a system that dynamically produced interesting musical elements based on an input.
Using some early concept art that suggested a mystical and evil flowing energy as inspiration, he created a system that, when sketched out, resembled water flowing downhill. In this system a computer would generate a simple sine wave that would be split into fourth different paths, each containing a chain that would produce its own effects and output.
- Chain 1: Four FX pedals and a splitter.
- Chain 2: Four FX pedals and a compressor.
- Chain 3: Tape echo, FX pedal, AKAI, spring reverb, and a compressor.
- Chain 4: Mini amp, microphone, splitter, and a pair of compressors.
Each output was then run into a mixer, then into an EQ and compressor, before finally being entered into the Digital Audio Workstation.
Source: Mick Gordon’s talk, GDC 2017
The result of Gordon’s first experiment with this array was, well, a deep, rumbling buzz made from sub sine wave tones. However, when the same tone was run through the array several times, the output transformed into a deep, threatening, skull-crunching rhythm.
“The way that I started thinking about this, was that this was my instrument. I’m feeding it a very basic input and all I’m changing from that input is the amplitude and pitch of what I’m sending through.”
The only sound going into the system was a sine wave, and the reason for that was simple, says Gordon.
“It’s our most pure representation of what sound can be. It’s a wave that goes up, and then comes back down. Therefore any interesting thing that is happening inside this array was being imparted on that sine wave in the purest form possible.”
The music created through this method sounded good, and the id team were happy with the approach. Nonetheless, Gordon felt the music was missing one, very specific ingredient. Although the new Doom felt like Doom, it still wasn’t sounding like Doom, and Gordon knew exactly why.
It had no guitars.
“There was a really good reason behind that,” says Gordon, referring to the brief’s original guidance. “It’s because the sound of an electric guitar, somehow instantly summarises a genre that has become a bit of a joke.”
A heavy metal soundtrack evokes a certain tonal quality. Yes, Doom is filled with demons and violence (so you’d be absolutely forgiven for thinking a heavy metal soundtrack fits) but drop-tuned, point-headstocked guitars can conjure up the wrong sort of image. There’s always a danger your buzzsaw-guitar, adrenaline-thumping score winds up sounding like an audio caricature.
Nonetheless, Gordon believed that a harsh, aggressive sound was entirely appropriate the game. And eventually, he got permission to add a little bit of guitar to the soundtrack.
“What we wanted to do was experiment with different guitar tones. We didn’t just want to take general metal sounds and put those into the game.”
Using Zynaptic’s Morph plugin, Gordon took the chainsaw sound effect from the original Doom game, and merged it with a tone composed on a 9 string guitar.
“Once I got this, it felt like it was the little Trojan Horse I was able to sneak into the id Software base. And once I was in there I was able to put in as much guitar as I wanted,” he says.
Source: Doom: Behind the Music (Part 1)
“All of a sudden, just by adding that stuff in, it started to feeling like Doom game. It started to make the player run around the arena a little bit more and be comfortable in doing that. By changing our process, we changed the outcome. We were able to come up with some sounds that fit the game. I would argue that it’s not stuff that nobody’s ever heard before, but it was something that started to become quite unique for Doom.
“It fit the project. And by adding a bit of guitar in there, it started to fit the project even further, even though it was in the brief as a no no. We then decided to go back and change that brief in order to act on the other point, which was that it needed to be instantly loved by millions of Doom fans around the world.”
And in the respect, it was objective achieved. The game was released in May 2016 and Mick Gordon’s score was often cited as one of the highlights of the game, lending it energy, drive and a suitably hellish grind. The Doom soundtrack went on to win the award for Best Music at the 2016 Game Awards as well as send fans into a frenzy uncovering various easter eggs hidden within the music assets of the game.
Gordon refers, once again, to the mantra for this project.
“Change the process, change the outcome. If you’re struggling to come up with something new, if you find yourself stuck in a rut, if you’re suffering from creative blocks, change the process. Change the way you’re doing things and you’ll end up with a different result.
“Not only that, have the courage to do so. I say courage, not confidence. Confidence comes from doing the same thing over and over again. It takes courage to change that.
“Finally, and most important,” concludes Gordon, “A team that encourages an environment where you feel comfortable in failure will enable you to thrive.”