Veteran games composer Aubrey Hodges created a classic dark ambient video game score for the Nintendo 64 shooter, revisiting it 20 years later for an augmented album release.
By Jerry Jeriaska (The Ongaku), Eric Bratcher, and Thomas Quillfeldt; republished with permission from The Ongaku
Contrary to misinformation from shady ‘news’ sources, Doom 64 is not the 64th game in the Doom series.
You could say it was the third mainline game (making Doom 3 the fourth), or possibly the fifth. Meaning that DOOM is the seventh. Or not. Maybe. Video game titles are weird.
What we do know is that Doom 64, developed by Midway with oversight from id Software, was an original, distinct entry in the series. The game recently enjoyed a fresh port for PC and consoles by specialists Nightdive Studios.
We asked the game’s composer Aubrey Hodges about his musical background, his work fighting against memory limitations on the various Doom ports and sequels, and his epic 8+ hours album release Doom 64: 20th Anniversary Extended Edition (Bandcamp; Apple Music Pt. 1, Pt. 2; Amazon Pt. 1, Pt.2; and Spotify Pt. 1, Pt. 2.)
Hodges’ audio credits span some 250+ game titles (over 128 million units shipped) including Sierra series King’s Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory and Leisure Suit Larry; and, at Midway, the console versions of Doom and Quake. He got his start in the mid-80s when the audio capabilities of some PCs was limited to a mere single-beep speaker; and was also among the first to use MIDI in a game.
“Music was always the thing I liked to do the most,” says Hodges. “I'm also an artist and a painter, and for a long time I thought that might be my career. But music just had that hold on me.
“I grew up with very modest means, but my aunt had a little organ and a piano. It fascinated me, so I would go there and annoy her. In school I learned violin and brass instruments, but then I got my first electric guitar — a Peavey T-15 — and it was amazing. The first time I played a power chord on that guitar, I was hooked.
“I started doing tiny concerts and church events, getting better and building my repertoire. Then I started playing at clubs — probably before I was legally allowed to — and, the way the world worked back then, I met the right people and started touring. I was traveling around the world opening for different groups, playing keyboard and singing.
“It was a lonely way to live, and I wasn’t a ‘party guy’. I don't do drugs, smoke or drink so there wasn't much to do. After playing a show, I’d be alone in a hotel room someplace and half the time I didn’t even know what city I was in.”
“When I got off the road, I looked for different gigs and tried to figure out what to do with my life, which ultimately led me to installing other people’s studio equipment.
“One of my clients was [Sierra On-Line’s] Mark Seibert. He gave me lots of business — and he always had the weirdest problems! In one case, I had to have equipment custom-made for him at a company specialising in cables.
“[Out of the blue] he invited me to ‘come and see the studio’. I didn't realise [where he worked] until I drove up and saw a giant ‘Sierra On-Line’ sign — these were the people who made those cool games I played on my computer when I was on the road!”
Seibert composed the music for Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail, among several others:
Hodges recalls: “[Mark] took me on a tour of the facility and I was just blown away. I had never seen so many computer monitors. I had no idea that it was all done here in Oakhurst, California, of all places.
“He asked whether I’d like to come and work for them and I agreed, but it was scary because I didn't know if I could do it. I came in at Sierra as the most junior of juniors, doing whatever they needed such as preparing a lot of weird batch files and conversions. I was one of the first in the world doing General MIDI conversions, because we were working with Roland at the time to develop that platform. Sierra wanted to be one of the first to get [the term] ‘General MIDI’ printed on a game box [for 1987’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose.]
“I was thirsty for knowledge, and it was cool just helping other musicians achieve what they were trying to do. I threw myself into a lot of the work that no one wanted to do — I found it fun. I think my first computer there was a 286-10, which was basically powered by gerbils running in a wheel.
“About five months in, my manager called me in and said that one of the composers had left, asking: ‘Can you write a hundred and twenty-nine songs in forty-five days?’ I said yes, got to writing, and didn't look back. That project was Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood, which was very successful, and everyone loved the music. It was a real learning experience.”
“The main lesson from that introduction into professional composing was to not write while looking over my shoulder. A lot of people are hesitant to take risks because they’re so worried about meeting market expectations, and matching certain styles and genres. That sense of worry can become like a shackle on composing and creativity.
“When I write I never worry about anything, really. I just think about whether I like the sound of it. Do I like the emotional state I’m in while hearing this cue in the game? Does it work with what I’m seeing? In having to write so quickly for Conquests of the Longbow, I lost all of that writer’s anxiety. To this day, I don't second-guess things. I can come up with something that sounds cool and make it work.
Unfortunately for Hodges, Sierra On-Line executed an office move to Seattle, Washington. In order to stay in California, he joined another gaming company, Midway.
For a while there he truly became the Doom guy, working on the PlayStation versions of Doom (1995) and Final Doom (1996.) Both titles were compilations of existing content and, strictly speaking, were developed by Williams Entertainment Inc. — more or less part of the same company as Midway as division names were shuffled about under parent company WMS Industries Inc.
Doom 64 followed soon after in 1997.
Doom guy and the Prince of Hell
Bobby Prince, composer for the PC original of Doom.
The most obvious differentiator between Doom (1993) and Doom 64’s soundtrack is how much more ambient and atmospheric the latter is.
“In the early days, Bobby Prince took a bombastic, heavy metal approach to Doom’s music,” recalls Hodges. “That works to get you amped up, and drives the adrenaline and intensity you need to feel while playing the game.”
“What I tried to do in the way I approached the Doom 64 score is to achieve that same intensity, anxiety and nervousness that heavy metal delivers but in a different way. The game’s world is a dangerous space and these monsters are going to take you out.
“I liked the dissonant, dark quality to some of the chord progressions Bobby made with his MIDI guitar. There's also a sort of heroic cadence to it; and, in subsequent games, there was also a sinister quality that I wanted to pick up on. However, I wanted to give Doom 64 a more cinematic and serious feeling so I blended the grittiness of metal with the orchestra — a sinister and militaristic feeling orchestra, since you’re a marine after all. I tried to give it that space opera vibe of doing your duty and saving the universe.”
“People often wonder what made me think of ambient music versus the high-energy metal soundtrack of Doom. There are people who love it and people who hate it.
“There’s no right way or wrong way to do a soundtrack for a game if the emotional intent of the game designers is delivered. The designers have built all these neat gameplay moments to engage you intellectually and emotionally, to pull you into a world they have created. It's my job to enhance that and root you in the emotions they [want to evoke in you.] They're brilliant at understanding what makes those design choices fun. If the game designer wants a happy and relaxing mood, you can deliver folk music, or electronica, or rock with a happy and relaxing mood.
“There are no rules to this — music is about emotion and communication. People who [have rigid] expectations of things, and think that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer are fundamentally misunderstanding what music is trying to do for a game.
“I listen to Bobby Prince's work and I love it. I listen to [DOOM and DOOM Eternal composer] Mick Gordon's work and I love it. [Some of the comparative] ‘which is the best…’ arguments in forums are harebrained and ridiculous. ‘Who's better: Elvis or the Beatles?’ There is no ‘better’. They’re both fantastic, and I enjoy them both for who they are.”
Hodges states: “Everyone is familiar with the concept of a music soundtrack — you're playing a game and [to some extent] the music reminds you of that fact. But, with Doom 64, I wanted that feeling to disappear when you entered the game world. I wanted the score to diegetically be of the game world, and to give you that emotional feeling that you're not in Kansas anymore.
“Where I hint at music here and there, I hope it doesn't break the immersion too much, but I generally do not bother with tonal music as we know it. I lead you into the miasma of the anxiety of the place you're in.
“The hard part about working on the game was not necessarily having the technical acumen to make it work, but allowing for the emotional vulnerability to feel that very disturbed mood. I never took it lightly. Getting into that mindset could make you feel moody and frustrated [as I’m sure happens] with method acting. It’s hard letting yourself feel all the stuff that you're trying to deliver emotionally.
“It wasn’t about making something scary or spooky — I was experimenting with sounds to find what emotionally bothered me, what made me feel anxious. [I was looking for] atonal and dissonant sounds to pick at that fear and vulnerability we all have.
“Once I found something that bothered me [emotionally] I would look at it clinically as a technician. I [would try to balance something that has] a lot of low end with something super high end; something that felt heavy with something that felt light. By mixing them, I gave people emotional space as they played.
“You would hear something heavy, and then the track would breathe for thirty seconds before becoming thick with emotional anxiety again. You have to pace [out the intensity], otherwise constant tension would reduce people’s desire to want to go back into that world.
“When a level ends, I hit you with a different mood entirely — a badass mood. ‘You're alive! You came out the other side! Now, take a breath... and get ready to go back in.’”
“Doom is a nightmare if you're playing at one of the higher skill levels and I was never that great at it! For me, it was always intense to test things during development, because I would just get killed. The level guys teased me about being a ‘noob.’
“In some ways, I intentionally didn’t get that good at Doom 64 because I wanted to maintain that feeling of nervousness while playing. When you get really good like some of the level testers you’ve got nothing to be nervous about — it looks like child's play.
“I was excited to go back and create a 20th Anniversary edition of the soundtrack, although I felt a little hesitant about jumping back into these emotions. I put it off for a long time. I had to [dose myself on happy stuff like Disney films] before going back into that world, but once I started I was once again excited about the sounds and uniqueness of that emotional space.”
The fight for memory
Hodges recalls: “[Both PlayStation and N64 consoles] were lessons in dealing with what you actually have, not with what you would like. Both devices had serious memory issues. In the case of the PlayStation, it wasn't how much total sample memory fit, because it was a disc — I could fit more in total. The problem was that, at any one time, I could only access around 500KB [half a megabyte.] Some of that was the music driver, and that was split between music and sound effects. We only allotted 200KB total for music. The remainder was for sound effects, the reverb and the sample engine.”
“On the PlayStation we were using [the sound engine] WESS (Williams Entertainment Sound System). The programmer behind it, Scott Patterson, sat down with me and mapped things out. We just did whatever we could do to fit those samples into the space available. The advantage was that every song could basically have its own unique sounds because there was no limit to the total, as there was on the Nintendo hardware. Another big differentiator was the reverb, which was really very beautiful on the PlayStation.”
The CD-based console also afforded them the luxury of directly streamed audio, just like a CD player. “The reason that the Doom theme sounds so high resolution on the PlayStation is because it's being played as Redbook audio. I was able to give you the full midi studio version of the song with real guitar, and didn't have to squish it down into a tiny little sample that could fit on the Nintendo 64. The same is true for the credits and level completion music.”
Doom 64’s soundtrack blends traditional gaming sample sounds with fuller, more realistic instruments. The main theme has brass and strings parts, and a crunchier, lower bitrate percussion track that all blend together.
Hodges explains: “Sound-wise, my budget for everything was 1MB, and you have to fit the sound engine in that, too. That takes you down to about 800KB for music and sound effects. You're left with very little space for music.
“In some cases, when I designed a sound effect, I would throw it into my sampler and mess with it to see whether it could be used in the music itself at a very low sample rate. The sounds themselves could be reused in multiple ways by messing with pitch and root key. What I found was that when you lower the sample rate intentionally to something like 5KB, it would start doing [interesting] things like aliasing, chirping and artifacting. These weird little idiosyncrasies would happen when you lost the ability, technologically speaking, for sound to cleanly define itself.
“When the sound driver doesn't have the information it squawks a little bit. That's what's going on with low bitrate sound. It's interpolating what should be there and doesn't do it accurately because there is not enough detail. That lower root key and those pitches work to your advantage when you’re creating a soundscape that is dystopian and disturbed; where you're trying to [play on] people's anxieties. It was giving me that ‘art of noise’ sound like, for example, what you might hear in Nine Inch Nails’ music.”
“The sound is bleached and torn up, real lo-fi — but sounding hi-fi in some ways. It involved constant maneuvering, like a shell game, to fit these sounds into that memory and leave room for the sound effects — platform sounds, the shotgun, the elevator going up and down, etc.
“In many of the pieces the sound effects themselves were being multi-purposed. While I was writing, if I needed something a little harsher, I would go through my sounds and throw them onto the palette and listen for a ‘musical instrument’ to find what I needed.
“The Nintendo tool that ran on the SGI Indigo machine was pretty crude. It was the very first version and the instructions were written in Japanese kanji. I tried reaching out to them but didn’t get a response, so I just made a cheat sheet of the symbols and what I thought they were doing, like raising the pitch, changing the root key, or changing the loop point.
“Eventually, I learned the symbols and didn't have to check the cheat sheet so much. Time was ticking by and I was just happy to make it work with that strategy — so long as it was saving and playing back in the builds.”
The player’s the conductor
“The interactive nature of video games makes it a more difficult task than writing for a linear scene, as in TV. You don't have a clue about an individual’s playstyle, for instance whether they’re an aggressive player firing the plasma gun, or a sniper who’s careful with his ammo. They could walk into a room and it’s Club Doom packed with thousands of enemies — or completely empty.
“You have to keep writing with the goal to keep the player engaged no matter the scenario. Because of the memory issues, I wasn’t writing specifically for each level. In terms of style, I wrote roughly three ‘gradients’ of darkness. We tried them out and if they just didn't feel right [in a given level], we’d try something else.
“One of the levels set in the Command Station ("Hellistatic") didn’t feel technological enough in terms of hearing the sounds of the station. We went and found another one that had more chirps and bleeps that fit better. It can be easy to miss the forest for the trees [when you’re absorbed in music-making.]”
“I loved seeing screens, such as the credits at the end of the game, and writing directly for those — otherwise, I just have ‘Ending’ written on a piece of paper! On Doom 64, I started writing the theme before the 3D title scene existed. When they showed me that I had to go back and rewrite it to match the timings. You have to go back and forth quite a bit because of technical reasons.”
Reopening old sounds
For the extended soundtrack, Hodges revisited pieces to elongate them with samples he simply couldn’t use in the ‘90s. “I intended to create extended length tracks at the time — for instance, for the mod community who were making very big levels.
“Now, with the extended album, I’ve been able to go back in and add things that I knew I had left out [in the ‘90s] — for example if I was after a wavy or shimmery sound with a high-end sheen, but couldn't find it because everything was below sample rate or didn’t sound right.
“I knew where to extend the tracks but had to figure out how as I went. I also thought it would be cool to go back through the sound effects and introduce those in a subtle way, to hit that nostalgia for the players without altering the initial spirit of the track.
“One of the hardest parts of the project was thinking back to when I was writing and remembering what I was trying to achieve but didn't have the samples for. When I checked through my old notes, I remembered at least half of them.
“There were a lot of samples I tried that just didn't work, such as smashing things with hammers, breaking glass, scratching metal, etc. Sometimes there just wasn't enough detail in the audio itself, and sometimes you get lucky. The whir of my laptop dying was an interesting sound so I recorded it thinking that I might use it one day. The sound when you blow demons up is packets of meat being dropped into a toilet. I don't think the janitor at Midway appreciated it much but I was just doing my job!
“A failed experiment can lead to a successful one. Out of seventy samples, sometimes only one — the sixtieth sample of glass scratching on metal that kinda sounds like a rusty oil can — resonates just right. You try all kinds of stuff. You make a lot of mess and a lot of noise. What I would say to any composer is: never be afraid to try stuff. The worst that can happen is it fails, and then you just try something else.
“People really like the crying babies track “Lamentation of the Forgotten”, and very little could be done there without potentially ruining what people love about it.”
Hodges explains: “For the Extended Edition album, the entire stereo field has been redone to give the sound more width. I used mastering software to remaster the album so that it sits, in terms of the stereo space, in a wider field — software that just didn’t exist back then. The music is also re-equalized and loudness maximized, so that everything is balanced. That was never something I got the opportunity to do the way I wanted to when the game shipped at Midway. To me, the pieces just feel better than ever because of it.”
The bonus tracks on the Extended Edition album are brand new, written using the same techniques and style. Hodges explains: “The key to the project was to make sure it still felt like Doom and that any enhancements don’t take away from players' memories.”
“The hard thing with the new material was making sure I had the right motivations. In an effort to re-enter that creative pace, I was pulling up Doom maps and watching people play levels on YouTube. Each piece became its own research project. These were pieces of Doom ambient music that needed to feel like they belonged within that universe.”