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Hell machines and heavy metal choirs: a chat with Mick Gordon

Mick Gordon composes music for video games – in that scene, he’s about as famous as an artist can get. You’ll likely know his work from the recent DOOM or Wolfenstein reboots, but his career stretches much, much further back.

We spoke at length about how game composition really works, his new soundtrack for DOOM Eternal, and the mad scientist-tier audio experiments he undertook to make it.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 14. Grab your copy here.

Mick Gordon interview polaroid doom eternal wolfenstein

Motor-controlled guitar pedals, heavy metal choirs, you name it. Mick Gordon will go to extreme lengths to get the sound he needs.

HAPPY: Where did your relationship with video games again? Are you an old fan?

MICK: So my first console that I can remember – I was into games before music – my first console was an Atari 2600. With one of the old thumbstick controllers, right? I don’t remember so many games… I remember a helicopter game? So it started from then, and from there I had Sega Master System 2 with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, then Super Nintendo…

HAPPY: So almost as long as video games have been a thing?

MICK: I’m not that old! Certainly the home consumer video game. Not quite Commodore 64.

HAPPY: Not quite arcade, either.

MICK: No, where I grew up there was no arcade or anything. I grew up in a very small town in Queensland. And there was a pub in town…. basically these towns are so small, they had three things; they have a police station, they have a post office, and they have the pub. The three Ps, right? In the back of this pub I remember they had two arcade machines, one was Bubble Bobble, and the other was Shinobi. So that was the only arcade machines.

HAPPY: How important is being a fan of video games to being a video game composer?

MICK: Well, I think when you’re jumping onto something like DOOM or Wolfenstein, to have some knowledge of that history is obviously… it helps for sure. Games in 2020 have morphed so far beyond what my six-year-old mind playing that 2600 could have even imagined, you know? Where games are at now, it’s just unbelievable. So it’s almost like a whole new industry now as to what it would have been then.

HAPPY: I know you played in a few bands and tried a more classic music path. So was doing the video game thing a bit of a lightbulb moment?

MICK: Sure. I was really lucky in Australia at the time, there was about 40 different companies here in Australia making video games. But there wasn’t really anybody in Australia that was doing music. The companies that were making games here in Australia were going overseas to get their music and sound done. And I was making music on a very basic computer system at home, burning CDs and sending these CDs out to game developers.

HAPPY: Demos?

MICK: Demos, exactly. And I think they just enjoyed having somebody locally that they could work with on the same hours and stuff. I was, you know, right place right time.

HAPPY: And now you find yourself working with studios overseas?

MICK: Exactly! Well, I mean the industry in Australia obviously has morphed through many different changes and there’s still a lot of amazing game stuff that happens here in Australia, there’s a lot of incredible games that come out, but the the wonderful games that I’m very lucky to be working on these days are all around the world, from Sweden to Texas.

HAPPY: Communicating internationally has gotten a lot easier since the ’90s.

MICK: That too, of course.

HAPPY: With those older video game soundtracks, a key point was limitation. Literally memory limitation, bit limitations. Do you think removing that has changed game soundtracks in a mostly positive direction?

MICK: For me, what the composers who worked with those restrictions back then, what they were able to achieve was great music because they had very little hiding space. You couldn’t hide behind a massive orchestra and big budgets and whatever. You really had very, very limited technology, so the music had to be really good, really catchy. A lot of those Sonic the Hedgehog or Mario Brothers melodies, you can still remember those today because they’re good, right? They’re good. And I think that in itself, that core concept still should remain the same today. The music that we’re putting into games today still needs to be as memorable in a way, still needs to be as well thought out as those melodies were.

HAPPY: Do you think melody itself has become slightly less important?

MICK: Yeah, I think melody in itself has disappeared from music in general. Film music has felt that, pop music has definitely felt that. We sort of pulled away from that, but the power of a good melody is never going away, that was the same with music 500 years ago. Melody, I don’t know why it has taken a back foot, but for me it’s important to have good strong melodies and riffs and things that the player can sing back. It’s still very important.

HAPPY: Definitely. With DOOM, not to diss your work right in front of you, but for me it’s much more about momentum and repetition. I think with the melody thing, maybe we’re aiming more for instant gratification rather than something that you literally remember 30 years later?

MICK: Sure. I mean, what does it take, 20 seconds to get a melody across? But cool sound is instant, you know what I mean? So maybe that’s the change there.

HAPPY: At what point in the game design process does a composer usually become involved?

MICK: I like to get in as early as possible. Honestly, in a game development studio, every single person working in there has a billion games in their mind that they all want to make one day. And then very rarely, the opportunity comes across where they’re able to take one of these ideas and actually develop it. And shortly after that, after it’s been drawn up a few times with pictures of what it might look like, that’s when we get involved, and the discussions then are more centred on what the game is going to be. We try not to talk so much about musical specific stuff, because at that point, it’s largely irrelevant. Their goal at that stage is to get every person who’s working on the game up to speed to sort of understand it. And that is actually really difficult, that can take 12 months to understand a game.

HAPPY: Sounds like you have to make a lot of mistakes.

MICK: Well, at that point it’s all about failure because you’re trying to find the right thing. And every failure is just a step closer to the perfect thing. You know, the right thing. If you’re not failing, you’re not moving.

HAPPY: I do know a little bit about the process, but it seems like it’s a weird grey area where you do need a bit of information to stand upon but you certainly can’t come on board in the final stage.

MICK: I mean, sometimes unfortunately, that does happen, of course. And you know, you just buckle down and get the job done, for sure. But I think the best things, the things that resonate well with fans, is the stuff when we’ve had time. So DOOM Eternal was two years. That’s a long process, and you get to really know the team over that period, know their ideas and know what their feelings are about certain things and how they’re going to react to different situations.

HAPPY: Right, be involved on a more conceptual level?

MICK: Yeah, absolutely.

HAPPY: On DOOM 2016, you were inspired by an old Tony Visconti technique using differently spaced microphones and gain gates. Has the multi-effects chain you developed from that idea made it back into DOOM Eternal?

MICK: One of the great things about doing these projects is you’re literally given time and space to come up with new things, right? New ways of doing things. To be given the wonderful opportunity to come back and go again, you get a chance to expand on those concepts and ideas. So, previously, it was all about just plugging in a whole series of different pedals and bits of equipment and seeing what we could get out of that. But this time, I’ve been able to find ways to control it a lot more. We’ve been able to build technology that allows me to control these pedals from the computer. So when the computer is super accurate, you know, I can have my pedals moving and reacting in the same way. That’s where we’ve gone with that, and I’ve also started to incorporate more drum aspects, running drum sounds and drum kits through these various arrays as well, not just the sine waves and noise and stuff.

HAPPY: That’s cool. What’s that system that talks to pedals in that way? Because a lot of the pedals you would be using wouldn’t be MIDI compatible.

MICK: So some are these days, some of them have CV controls, right? Some you can have controlled voltage and things like that.

HAPPY: But a distortion or a fuzz?

MICK: Yeah, a 30-year-old fuzz pedal is not gonna have this control, right. So what we have is a whole bunch of potentiometers that are motorised.

HAPPY: Oh, shit. So actual, physical controls?

MICK: Yeah! So this little guy… because a potentiometer has, say, a 12 o’clock, and then all the way around to maybe 11 o’clock. It allows you to control that through data. And once you figure that out that’s easy, right? This is zero. That’s 127. And the sample rates of this stuff is so quick, it’s like 48,000 times per second. So I can create these envelopes in Ableton and then send that data to the potentiometer and it will spin it around.

HAPPY: You’re using Ableton as the brain of this whole thing? I’m imagining a complete mad scientist setup here.

MICK: Yeah. It’s great because they’re little tiny little motors that are going, so it sounds like I don’t know, a little robotics factory?

HAPPY: Amazing.

MICK: What’s cool about that is all of a sudden the pedal is an instrument, you know? We kind of alluded to that with that DOOM instrumental on 2016, but they were a static force in a way. So you set it up and leave it to go, and then if you wanted a different thing, you’d have to change a whole bunch of things. Whereas this, all of a sudden now it’s controllable. So it’s an instrument. It’s an expression, I guess. That’s probably a better word.

HAPPY: It sounds like you’ve just built yourself a massive Frankenstein synthesiser.

MICK: For sure. But even synthesising to me is just a way of controlling electricity. I think of a synth as just electricity coming out of the wall that is then being turned into a frequency spectrum that can come through the speakers. And all you’re doing is filtering that electricity. So yeah, much the same sort of thing.

HAPPY: Awesome. Is the right term for something that indicates a change in the game audio a ‘logic marker?’

MICK: Yeah, we usually call it a trigger.

HAPPY: A trigger, ok. So how big or small does a player’s input have to be to elicit a trigger?

MICK: With games, the game behind the scenes is tracking everything the player does; how much ammunition you have, what weapons they’ve got out, when the last moment that you died was, how close you are to the nearest enemy. The system that we have allows us to use any one of those pieces of data to drive changes in music. The challenge with producing music for a video game is picking the right moments.

HAPPY: I imagine you could go far too deep into that.

MICK: You can! So on Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, for example, we had an idea where we wanted the music to change as you’re sneaking up behind a Nazi, right? To kill the guy. And it works so well, you’d be sneaking up behind a Nazi, the Nazi didn’t know you were there, and then the music would start to change and it felt great. But there was this amazing thing that started to happen; the way we were changing the music was based on your distance to that enemy, and this mistake happened where you as the player could be on floor one but there might have been a Nazi up on floor two that you couldn’t even see.

HAPPY: I see, the change was on on the wrong axis.

MICK: Yeah, you just couldn’t even see it! That Nazi would walk over the top of where the player was, and that would change the music. The player wouldn’t have known why that was happening, but the game said, ‘oh, this enemy is now within that proximity.’ So you have to pick the right things. That’s a lot of play testing, a lot of trial and error.

HAPPY: Gotcha. My basic understanding is that it can be anything from opening a menu – I know a lot of games just apply a low pass filter when you open a menu – to something as infinitesimal as a one centimetre difference in where the player is oriented.

MICK: On that, though. I think with games, especially something like DOOM, you really have to analyse what’s important. With DOOM you’re either shooting demons or collecting things to shoot demons with. That’s essentially the two states you might be in, right? And when there’s that change to ‘Oh, we’re shooting demons,’ that music just has to hit the go button, and that’s it. It’s just on. Then the player can do whatever they want to do. Once they’ve killed everybody, music can go back to ‘looking for ammunition’ and those sorts of things.

HAPPY: When it comes to actually releasing the soundtrack, how are those arrangements considered? Because on Spotify, there’s an eight-minute minute version of a level’s theme or a combat theme, a version that’s going to be different to what everyone’s experience was in the game.

MICK: Sure. The music, when I write it, is in a massive Ableton session. These sessions once laid out can be an hour long, for example, and this includes everything that the player might go through during that level. What you end up with is not a song, but you have this massive – I don’t know what it is – like a library of music for that level. You can’t just hit play and listen through it from start to finish; this fits for the intro, this fits for the outro, this bit’s for that demon, this bit’s for no ammunition, et cetera. When it comes time to do the soundtrack, the challenge then is making a song – traditional, linear, ABCD, whatever it might be – a song out of that stuff. It’s really just about identifying where the cool bits are, where the melodies are, and building a traditional song structure out of that massive session.

HAPPY: Very different to a film soundtrack, then.

MICK: But even movies these days are built in one session. One of my buddies that do film scoring, they’ll have one Cubase session, right, two hours long, which is the film. And so when they do the soundtrack they’ve got to do the same thing; this is the love theme, this is the action theme, this is the whatever theme. So it’s a different process, the soundtrack process. And of course, it’s mixed specifically for that, it’s mastered specifically for that, we do a specific digital release master, we do a specific vinyl release master. It’s a big process.

HAPPY: There were a few techniques on the previous DOOM game that stood out to me. The big example is sampling the chainsaw from classic DOOM and embedding it into your guitar tone. Is there anything that you’ve done on the new game akin to that? Something that’s for the fans, but also a little bit for yourself?

MICK: Well, there’s all sorts of stuff. I got a hold of a bunch of electromagnetic microphones, and these microphones are… basically what they do is they pick up electromagnetic interference. So around us now, we can’t hear it, but these lights, that keyboard, the electricity in the floor… all this stuff around us will be emitting an electromagnetic signal. And these microphones collect that signal and amplify it up to a level where you and I can hear it. I love the concept that this is almost the hidden energy force in the room.

HAPPY: It plays into the theme of the game.

MICK: Exactly! Like if there are ghosts or demons among us now, I kind of liked the idea of recording them somehow. Like you might have seen those ghost hunting shows?

HAPPY: I was about to say! I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they do, right?

MICK: Yeah! So then I used these sounds as the noise aspect for the pedals. Right? So I’d send my synth sine waves and stuff through it, but instead of just having random noise, I’d have these electromagnetic things. So it’s almost like you have the music of DOOM pumping away, and then the electromagnetic ghosts are being affected by it, in a way.

HAPPY: Something that no one would ever be able to put their finger on.

MICK: Yeah, exactly, but it’s also organic. Like it is real. It’s not a synth.

HAPPY: I quite like that. Personally, and I know a lot of other people do this, is if you’re looking for noise, you always do try to find something organic. You source a sample, or try to do a field recording. Do you know Four Tet?

MICK: Yeah.

HAPPY: There’s a really great song of his where he samples a Geiger counter as a noise track.

MICK: And everybody’s raving about [Hildur Guðnadóttir’s] soundtrack for Chernobyl, and she did 90 percent of that from sounds that she recorded at a nuclear reactor. So again, it’s real stuff.

HAPPY: Then there’s the metal choir, which we haven’t talked about yet. Did you have to learn any quick and hard lessons about recording 24 people all screaming at once?

MICK: (Laughs) Yeah, so recently I sat down with Hugo [Martin], who’s creative director on the project. Hugo wants this chant in the game, and this chant is – the player will find more about this in the game – but the chant is basically ancient warriors that are chanting for blood.

HAPPY: Sounds bang on.

MICK: And what I like with these projects is when you’re looking at any creative solution I like to try and find something that is, I don’t know what the right term is, but really appropriate to the project, you know? So when he said we need a group of people to do a chant, it’s like, what could be one step closer to DOOM than just a group of people? And I’d always wanted to record a choir just completely made out of metal screamers, because metal screaming in itself is actually really difficult to do, it’s a proper skill, I mean people dedicate their whole lives to this guttural, screaming, horrid sound, right? And to my knowledge nobody had actually got a choir of these people together before, so we pushed this idea and and and got approval to do it and then we sent out an open call, because you can’t just look on a roster of metal singers. As passionate as the metal community is, it’s a community that’s very spread across the US. It’s not like there’s even like a metal ground zero that you can go to, it’s not like Nashville, where if you want to do a country record you go to Nashville.

HAPPY: You could go to Finland?

MICK: Well the most submissions we got were from Finland, and second was Russia. So I put this little video together asking for any metal singers in the world who were interested in wanting to do this thing to send in some demos. At this stage, everybody was still telling me it’s a dumb idea. It’s a stupid idea, don’t do it. Even to the point where I was like, yeah, this is a really stupid idea, it’s not going to work and nobody’s gonna want to do this. Then I put the video out. We had a month as a timeline for people to submit things and I thought, ‘that’ll be hopefully enough time to find 20 people.’ Within the first 24 hours we were already at 2000 submissions, and I had to close it after three days because we just got so many and I was adamant about listening through to every single one. And so we did that, we sat down and we listened and honestly man, we could have filled that choir with 2000 people.

HAPPY: That’s a heavy few days of listening.

MICK: Everybody was good though, that’s the thing. So that’s how that came about and to me, all of a sudden, that was definitely more DOOM than just a group of people or just a traditional choir.

HAPPY: On the physical recording, was that recorded as a choir? Like how you’d classically record a choir in a single space? Or individually?

MICK: Even though it was a choir of metal singers, it needed to be treated like a choir. So the next step once you found everybody was finding a place to do it, and I really like Austin, Austin’s a real music town. It’s a real fun vibe in Austin, so we decided to record there. And I found a hall to record in. There was a bunch of different opportunities, we looked at doing a sound stage that was there, but it was outside the city and we decided it was kind of difficult to get everybody there. We spoke to the Church of Satan because I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the Church of Satan had a hall where they get together? But apparently they don’t have an actual church or anything, it’s just a group of people that come together for Satanism. But wouldn’t have that have been cool, right? Anyway, we found this hall and set everything up. I had this wonderful engineer named Charlie, he came in with four billion microphones. We had a flat area where we set up everybody and then we had a grandstand behind, so we set microphones and things up in there. We could get up into the roof, so we set up microphones up there. Charlie bought along a 500 Series of all sorts of cool preamps and we had a compressor running and a Pro Tools rig that was set up. All this was custom and set up just for this session.

HAPPY: Sort of planning for any eventuality?

MICK: Exactly. So that was great, we had six hours with a choir, recorded a whole bunch of amazing stuff. We even got the choir up into the grandstand and treated the massive grandstand like a drum kit and had everybody stomping and bashing the thing and shouting.

HAPPY: What a day.

MICK: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

HAPPY: I really like the fact that DOOM started with a ‘no guitars’ rule and now the metal end of the spectrum is synonymous with the game’s brand.

MICK: I think metal is two things. I mean, metal can be you know, guitar, bass and drums. Sure. But there’s this cultural layer to metal music that I think is more applicable to DOOM. Looking at DOOM, everything feels like a metal album cover from the ’70s, I can see any screenshot from DOOM and imagine it as an LP cover. And so this idea of bringing these metal singers together, I think the culture that they bought was a lot more important than guitar, bass, and drums. Little things, like everybody turned up with spikes and chains and things hanging off them, because they were proper, legit metal. And when we were doing the stomps, it just sounded like a bunch of chains ringing. The engineer was like, ‘oh man, everybody take off the chains, we can’t have those on the recording.’ I’m like, ‘no dude! This is part of it, this is their thing.’ This is their culture, this is part of the whole metal vibe, you know? So let’s keep that. So culturally, I think it’s more applicable to DOOM.

HAPPY: Would you tour, now that you’ve found yourself a bit of an audience?

MICK: I think that at this point, there’s a disconnect between the work that I do in my studio and the player that’s experiencing the game in the end. What I want to do is bring these two things closer together. There’s all these amazing events that happen around the world with games, there’s your comic-cons and PAX and E3 and all sorts of things. And everything that these events lack is a nighttime event that’s really, super high energy. A fascinating, exciting, live music event.

HAPPY: An actual performance.

MICK: Exactly, and what’s cool about these events is that everybody’s who’s into games is already there. You know, the crowd is already there, the audiences are already there. I think the best game music, going back to what we were talking about, could also be translated into a live element very, very easily. So that’s the goal. That’s something we’re currently working on, is to get this stuff out there, on the road and in front of people.

HAPPY: I totally agree on that. A lot of modern game music, if not the melody thing, is about straight-up endorphin rushes. That would translate super well onto the stage.

MICK: I think so too.

 

DOOM Eternal is out now.

 

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 14. Grab your copy here.

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March 20, 2020