How the Sound of 'DOOM' Was Redefined
Composer Mick Gordon discusses his conceptual approach to scoring demons.
It’s fitting that as one of earliest major first-person shooters, Doom conjures up primal associations of demons, Hell, shredding guitars, and gore. Regardless of whether you play games, the iconic foundations of id’s seminal shooter are near impossible to divorce from any concept of it. But when it came to scoring Bethesda’s frenzied 2016 reboot, composer Mick Gordon started by throwing everything out the window.
What he came up with is nothing less than spectacular. Rather than mired in the ‘70s and ‘80s metal homage that defined the series until 2003’s Alien-esque Doom 3, the tracks on this latest entry make up a churning sonic tableau fueled by synthesizers. There’s still some extended range guitar and kick drum — it arguably wouldn’t be Doom without it — but Gordon’s aural machinery is most heavily defined by electronic crunch.
“You’ve got to ignore everything thats come before,” Gordon says. “With Doom there’s obviously been a bunch of games that have come out, but if you’re just looking at the word “Doom,” you’re going to get this real sort of laser focus on what it can possibly be. That’s not saying that we don’t pay tribute to things that have happened in the past, but it’s not like we’re trying to create just a sole remake. It’s important to kind of throw all that stuff out.”
If you haven’t played 2016’s DOOM or heard the soundtrack — the latter of which you can rectify right now by scrolling to the bottom of this page — there’s a chance to see just what Gordon means tonight by streaming the Game Awards’s annual broadcast. The composer is leading a live performance with longtime Quake collaborator Sascha Dikicyan and Periphery drummer Matt Halpern, who was apparently a major influence in creating what the new game would sound like in the first place.
“DOOM is all about this forward momentum. It’s about this constant pushing,” Gordon says. “When the music was being written, I had Matt in mind, like what would Matt do here, what would Matt do there. And his approach to drums and visceral, forward momentum progression is something that really inspires that fist-pumping Doom [feeling].”
With an audience reach of about 1.5 billion — what Gordon says TGA’s Geoff Keighley described to him as the “the largest streamed awards ceremony ever” — the live showcase is reason enough to get pumped up. Gordon and his crew have spent the past ten breakneck days putting it together, after Keighley emailed him out of the blue to see if the composer was interested.
“I like to be confident and all that, don’t get me wrong. But with any email like that, you’re going to go, ‘man, is this even possible?’” Gordon says. “But Geoff is just one of those guys you just can’t say no to. And it’s really difficult to say no to something that’s so much fun.”
While the Game Awards performance will be a bit different than what’s on the two-hour arranged soundtrack — which represents an insane amount of work — Gordon’s enthusiasm for the whole creative process is evident, beginning when he flew to Texas to meet with id last year. At the studio, director Marty Stratton gave him some interesting ideas to work with right away.
“[He told me] he was having a barbecue recently, and everyone had young kids who were upstairs playing music, it was whatever they were into,” Gordon says. “All the parents were [downstairs] complaining about how horrible the music was. It was just horrible — everyone absolutely hated it. And he said, ‘Make me music that parents would hate.’ I thought that was such great direction.”
It was id’s idea too that DOOM should be a synth affair instead of going back to a metal standby, which was something that was expressed in concepts. Gordon appreciates this kind of open-endedness because it means ideas, and creative results, can take any form. It was crucial to keep DOOM from retreading old ground.
“We started just with synthesizers for six or nine months, just trying to see how far we could get with that sound,” Gordon says. “[And] I feel we reached a sound that was different than if we went straight from metal to begin with.”
What guitars DOOM does use were suggestions that came in later; initially Gordon tinkered by feeding audio into vintage signal generators.
“It’s super nerdy, but [it was] all electronic signal generators that engineers would use 70 years ago to generate sine waves to feed through radio equipment,” he says. That’s technically a synthesizer because it’s something that’s generating a tone.”
What did all that do to the final soundtrack? Gordon’s experiments were done so that he could test how to manipulate sound.
“I’d be using these different tones and things and be feeding them through, you know, different circuitry, equipment, and anything that would change the sound, that would influence it,” he says. “That’s the concept of what a synthesizer does. You take a sound source and then you change that with other pieces of equipment.”
This led to an even more unexpected place — using Cold War-era synthesizers from Russia. Gordon even reached out to a contact in the Ukraine and was able to get a couple of hulking machines that weighed 50 pounds or more.
“These were synths that were built during the Soviet period in these big giant factories,” Gordon says. “What’s amazing is that when you get them they sound totally different to every other synthesizer you hear today, because they’re made with whatever they had at the time — you know, paper clips and rubber bands and black magic and whatever else they could fit into it.”
Though you would be hard-pressed to find any resemblance of DOOM in aged Soviet equipment, Gordon’s approach illustrates his desire to find something unique in everything he creates.
It’s a style that Gordon clearly is at home with, which proved a common bond when collaborating with id’s audio director Chris Hite and sound designers Ben Carney and Chad Mossholder.
“I really love projects where we talk in concepts,” Gordon admits. “So the direction of your conversation might be like, ‘What does isolation feel like? How would you illustrate it in a musical sense? If you were going to design a synth sound for it that you could hear in one note, what would that sound like?’”
Gordon says conversations with the team could last until very early in the morning, exploring ideas both on the periphery as well as ideas more directly related to what DOOM would be, among them the notions of Mars, Hell, and being the last living human on a planet.
“What does the distance between Mars and Earth mean and how does that represent itself?” Gordon says. “What’s the concept of Hell, and where does that come from? Is it is a biblical thing or is it psychological? What purpose does that play? We looked a lot further than just Doom.”
Essentially, casting a wide net gives you creative leeway you might not have had otherwise, an important aspect of giving any creative project room to grow.
“The reason you do that is so you can find the absolute center of what you’re looking for,” Gordon says. “If you have a very narrow focus, your center’s going to narrow, but if you’ve got this really wide breadth of influences you can absolutely pick the perfect center within them.”
The result is what Gordon calls surgical precision for player association, a reason why it’s key to have an open creative partnership between music and other sounds. Accordingly, Gordon doesn’t see separate audio channels as individual components; he gives an example of how they handled DOOM’s chaingun.
“The firing sound of the chaingun is at the same pitch as the music — so when its firing, it’s firing on the D note,” Gordon says. “And the music there is written in the key of D — so whenever the player pulls that trigger, that gun is playing a note that fits within the music. This is stuff the player’s not going to notice, but they notice it if it’s wrong.”