Midway Games Q&A: Composer Aubrey Hodges on Doom 64

Eric on 2021-06-08
Nightdive Studios' enhanced port of the iconic console title Doom 64 is available for Windows, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. The high-definition edition has introduced the 1997 first-person shooter, developed and published by Midway Games for the Nintendo 64, to a new generation of FPS enthusiasts.

We spoke with composer Aubrey Hodges on the making of the Doom 64: 20th Anniversary Extended Edition soundtrack album, available through the composer's Bandcamp page, as well as Amazon Music and Spotify. The eight-hour Extended Edition album is lengthened and remastered, while still painstakingly faithful to the spirit of the original score.

Would you share with us some details regarding your broader musical journey? How did you come to be a composer and what led to your entry into game development?

Composer Aubrey Hodges: Music was always the thing I liked to do the most. 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, you know?

As I learned to play instruments, I started with tinkering on a guitar and tinkering on an organ and a piano. I grew up in very modest means, but about halfway down our block my aunt Frances had a little organ and a piano at her house. It just fascinated me, so I would go there and annoy her.

After that, going on up to junior high and high school, I learned violin and the brass instruments. But then I got my first electric guitar—a Peavey T-15, by the way—for me, it was amazing. It played well and had a little amplifier built into the case. It was really pretty cool, for the time. The first time I heard the power chord on that guitar, I was hooked.

In the early years of your practice, in what kinds of settings were you performing your music?

You know how it goes—I started doing tiny concerts, clubs, and church events. I started getting better and building my repertoire, and then I started doing clubs, probably before I was legally allowed to. Thankfully, I had a beard at the time. This was way back when you could smoke in clubs.

The way the world works, you meet the right people and start touring. I was traveling around the world, opening for different groups, and playing keyboard and singing.

Now that you were traveling extensively, what manner of challenges were you encountering in that setting?

The hard part of it, for me, was that this kind of lifestyle was rough. It's a lonely way to live, and I'm not like a "party guy." I don't do drugs, smoke or drink—I don't do any of that. For me, there wasn't much to do. After playing a show, you're alone in a hotel room someplace and half the time you don't even know what city you're in. I'm just, somewhere.

How did your work of composing in-studio come about as a result of your experience touring?

When I got off the road, looking for different gigs and trying to figure out what to do with my life, it ultimately led me to installing studio equipment. I was working with people on how to accomplish technical goals with their music equipment. One of my clients, which I didn't know at the time, was Mark Seibert. A really nice guy, he came in all the time and gave me lots of business. And he always had the weirdest problems. In one case, I actually had to have equipment custom made for him at a company specializing in cables.

After I solved that problem for him, out of nowhere he said, "Hey, I want you to come up and see the studio." I didn't realize who this man was until I drove up and saw a giant sign: "Sierra On-Line." These were the people who made those cool videogames I played on my computer when I was on the road!

He 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. And then he said, "You know what—Would you like to come work for us?"

I nodded my head and said, "Sure, I'll give it my best shot." And I was scared because I didn't know if I could do it. I came in at Sierra as the junior of the juniors, doing whatever they needed, which was 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 "General MIDI" on the Mixed-Up Mother Goose boxes and get it out there.

How would you describe your state of mind while working at Sierra On-Line during this turning point in your career?

I was living there and hungry for knowledge, because I wanted it so bad. It was cool just helping other musicians achieve what they were trying to do, back in 1990. I just threw myself into a lot of the work that no one wanted to do, and it was fun. I think my first computer there was a 286-10, which was basically powered by gerbils running around in a cage. And I had great friends along the way.

About five months into it, I was called into the office of my manager Mark. I love that guy, by the way. He's one of the nicest people I've ever worked with. He was a good mentor and liked my musicality, and he knew I just needed to learn how to harness that with the tech of the time. He called me in and said there'd been a development and one of our composers, Ken Allen, had left and decided to go his own way. And we needed all that music done. He said, "Can you write a hundred and twenty-nine songs in forty-five days?"

I said, "Yes, sir" and just wrote and wrote, and didn't look back. That ended up being for Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood. The product was very successful, and everyone really loved the music. It was a real learning experience for me.

Opening sequence from Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood

What would you view as the incisive lessons learned during this period that helped you excel in the workplace?

I think what I learned most from that initial entry into the professional composing aspect was to not write while looking over my shoulder. A lot of guys are so hesitant to just put out ideas and take risks because they are so worried about meeting market expectations and matching certain styles and genres. That worry can become like a shackle on composing and creativity.

I never worry about anything, really, when I write. I just think about whether I like the sound of it. If I'm hearing this while the game is happening, am I liking the emotional state I'm in? Does it work with what I'm looking at? I think that in getting my feet wet in the way that I did, having to write so quickly, I lost all of that writer's anxiety.

At this point, there was no being impeded by having second thoughts?

Not really. Mark—and he was a very fair dude—would say, "I need those three, tomorrow at 2:00." And the funny thing was, I still did a lot of the conversions and tech work while writing for the games at the same time. To this day, I don't second-guess everything. I can come up with something that sounds cool, and make it work. I think for me, the way that I think about writing started there. That was my start at Sierra.

And not an enormous amount of sleep, day to day?

Nah, I was young at the time. It was fun. I was having a blast. I didn't really consider it work.

What led to your deciding to join Midway?

Ultimately, the problem was—and this was the reason I left Sierra—they were getting ready to move to Seattle. And I really did not want to leave California at the time. A friend of mine came along, and said he wanted to introduce me to Midway. They were making console and arcade games, down in San Diego. That's how I wound up making my first move.

Midway was a cool place to work. Unfortunately, they sort of fell victim to their own success and ended up going under. Of course, I was there for ten years and am really proud of Quake and Doom, and a lot of the games we did there. There were wonderfully talented people there.

It can be a very tough business.

I think in a lot of ways it's become even tougher because the market expectations are so high. For fifty bucks, you're not getting a few hours of content now, but dozens of hours. The barrier to entry for some of these games is massively expensive, but you still have the audience paying what they paid twenty years ago. The profit margins have gone down, the expectations have gone up, and the younger generation still feels like it's a problem to pay fifty dollars for something that has eighty hours of gameplay. I see that sort of thing and I don't really know the solution to it.

Your soundtracks for Midway are hosted on your Bandcamp page, along with several remastered and expanded editions. One album published there, "The SynthBots," is a collaboration with your son. How did that project come about?

We decided to study Beethoven, to do a series of quartets combining practice with music production. We changed the instrumentation from violin, viola and cello to: What would it be like if a space robot came to earth, and he could imitate the patterns of Beethoven with his internal sound chip? If he played Beethoven's sounds in his robot language, what would that be like?

We had fun taking this amazing classical music and delivering it to a younger generation, using electronic sounds and synthesizers. There's a freedom in not having to do the actual composing while getting lost in the music itself. What's interesting is that I react to it much the same as when I heard Yo-Yo Ma perform Beethoven. The musicality of the Maestro Beethoven still made me react the same way with these very different sounds and textures. What a gift that man was.

Your soundtracks for Doom and Final Doom were written for the PlayStation hardware. How would you compare the technological differences between the PlayStation and N64 consoles?

Both 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 500 kilobytes. Some of that was the music driver, and that was between music and sound effects. We only allotted 200k total for music. The remainder was for sound effects, the reverb and the sample engine.

On the PlayStation we were using (WESS)—the Williams Entertainment Sound System. The programmer behind the sound engine, Scott Patterson—an awesome dude—sat down with me and mapped things out. We just did whatever we could do to fit those samples in the space available. The advantage was that basically for every song, I could have its own unique sounds, because there was no limit to the total, like on the Nintendo hardware. Another big differentiator was the reverb, which was really very beautiful on the PlayStation.

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 for PlayStation included Redbook Audio tracks that playable on a standard CD player

Doom 64 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 blends together well. Can you talk about how you came up with this unique sound when you were composing at Midway Games?

Some of it is dealing with the reality of what you have. Sound-wise my budget for everything was one megabyte, and you have to fit the sound engine in that, too. That takes you down to about 800 kilobytes 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 5 kilobytes, it would start doing things, like alias, chirp and artifact. 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. Doing a soundscape that is dystopian and disturbed, where you're trying to reach people's anxieties, that lower root key and those pitches work to your advantage. It was giving me that "art of noise" sound—like, for example, what you hear in Nine Inch Nails.

You're talking about industrial sound?

Is it sound? Is it music? Is it a little of both?

The sound is bleached and torn up, real lo-fi but sounding hi-fi in some ways. It was like this 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.

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.

How significant were these constraints in terms of influencing the finished product?

How would it have been if I'd had more room? Well, I just don't know. That really wasn't my reality at the time.

The Nintendo tool that ran on the SGI Indigo machine was pretty crude. It was the very first version and the instructions weren't in English. They were written in Japanese kanji. I tried reaching out to them and never really got 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 and I was just happy to make it work with that strategy, so long as it was saving and playing back in the builds.

What did you view as the hardest part of working within these technical limitations on Doom 64?

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 mood. It's a very disturbed mood. I never took it flippantly. It was not about making something "scary" or "spooky." I was experimenting with sounds to find what emotionally bothered me. What sets me on edge? What makes me feel anxious? What feels so atonal and dissonant that it's picking at that fear and vulnerability we all have?

Once I found something that bothered me, I would say, "Okay, I'm going to use that one."

Then, I would look at it clinically, in terms of a technician. I have one that has a lot of low end, and—now for balance—we need something super high end, above 9000 kilobytes. I would look for something that felt heavy, and something that felt light. And by mixing them, I could give people emotional space, as they played.

You could hear something heavy, and then let it breathe for thirty seconds before bringing it back into a thickness of emotional anxiety. You have to do that, you have to pace people. Otherwise, that constant tension breaks their desire to want to get back into the world.

So, for me the hardest part about composing was getting into that mindset. It could make you feel moody and frustrated, because that's what you're living in. It's like the method acting style, the way some actors do their craft, where for days or weeks they believe themselves to be that character. It's a hard thing to do—to throw yourself into it and let yourself feel all the stuff that you're trying to deliver emotionally.

How would you compare the mood of the stage themes with the level completion music?

When each level ends, I hit you with a different mood entirely. You have a badass mood. "You're alive! You came out the other side!" Now take a breath... and get ready to go back in.

How do you view the tradeoffs between your approach to Midway's Doom soundtracks and that of the PC titles that preceded them?

Originally, in the early days, Doom and Quake had a bombastic rock and roll, heavy metal approach to the music from Bobby Prince. That works to get you amped up and pushes the adrenaline and intensity you need to feel while playing the game. What I tried to do in the way I approached the score is get to that same intensity, anxiety and nervousness that heavy metal delivers, but in a different way.

Instead of coming at it from the player's point-of-view, I'm coming at it from the world's point-of-view. "We're a dangerous world and we're going to take you out." You're hearing the world, diegetically—as the world itself might have sounded to the marine.

One frequent observation of the Doom 64 soundtrack is how much more ambient and atmospheric it is compared with previous soundtracks. What influenced this decision?

I liked in the first one the dissonant, dark quality to the way that Bobby wrote that music. There was a darkness to some of the chord progressions he made with his MIDI guitar. I really liked that.

There's also a sort of heroic cadence to it. In subsequent games, there was a sinister quality to it that I wanted to pick up on. But I wanted to give it a more cinematic and serious feeling that I wasn't sure pure heavy metal could do, so I blended the grittiness of metal with the orchestra. But with a sinister bent to the orchestra, and a militaristic feel. You are, after all, a marine. I tried to give it that space opera vibe of doing your duty and saving the universe.

Everyone is familiar with "soundtrack." You're playing a game, and the music reminds you of that. But here, when you went into the world, I wanted that to disappear. I wanted it to be the world. You're being diegetically thrown into this thing. I wanted to give you that emotional feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore.

When I hint at music here and there, I hope it doesn't break 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.

Working in depth on the making of the game and seeing it evolve at various stages, how would you describe the proficiency you attained in traversing through the game maps?

Doom is a hard game, if you're playing at one of the higher skill levels. It's a nightmare. And I was never that great at it. For me it was always intense just to test things, because I would just get killed. The level guys were teasing me, and would be like, "Come on, you noob."

But in some ways, it was intentional not to get that good at it, because I wanted to feel the nervousness of playing it. When you get really good at it, like some of the level testers, I don't know what you have to be nervous about. They can blow everything away so easily, it looks like child's play.

How were you feeling when you decided to revisit your work and start on the extended edition of the soundtrack?

In some ways I was excited about going back and doing a 20th Anniversary edition, and sometimes there was a gap where I didn't want to jump back into these emotions. I put it off for a long time.

Eventually, I thought, All right, c'mon. Just watch a lot of Disney or something before you start. Anything, to be happy before going back into that world. And then, once I started in, I was once again just excited about tones, sounds and the uniqueness of that emotional space.

In scoring a movie, you have a static visual reference to work with. However, with a game, how do you deal with writing music for a scene that is different for every player?

The interactive nature in general of videogames makes it a little trickier. It can be a far more difficult task. As a composer when you are writing for a linear scene, like in television, you know where you are and who is there. In a videogame, you don't have a clue about the player's playstyle, whether it's an aggressive player firing the plasma gun, or a sniper who is careful with his ammo. You never know. You could walk into a room and it could be Club Doom, packed with thousands of zombies and skeletons.

You have to keep writing with the idea that no matter the scenario, you can still keep the player engaged and interested. Because of the memory issue, I was not writing specifically for each level. I wrote in a style that went into probably about three gradients of darkness. We tried them out, and if they just didn't feel right—or if Danny Lewis or Tim Heydelaar had feedback—Scott and I would sit down with that list to see if there was another one to choose from. One of the levels, set in the Command Station ("Hellistatic"), did not feel technical enough, in terms of hearing the sounds of the station. We went and found another one that had more chirps and bleeps, which fit better. In the trenches, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees.

I loved seeing screens, like the credits at the end of the game, and to write for that. 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 to time it properly. For technical reasons, you have to go back and forth quite a bit.

You've mentioned the technical limitations of writing for the Nintendo 64 console. Were you able to change your approach to the music score for the Extended Edition soundtrack when those technological restraints were lifted?

That highlights the difference between what was done for the game and what was done for the soundtrack. I wanted to do extended length—for instance, for the mod community, making levels that are very big. I wanted something wavy or shimmery, at the time, and I went through fifty sounds and couldn't find it. Some of it was below sample rate. None of it had that high-end sheen that I was looking for. Here, with the album, I could go back in and put in things that I knew I had left out.

One of the hardest parts of the project was thinking back to when I was writing, what it was I wanted to try but didn't have the samples for. At least half of them I remembered, when I went back and checked through my notes. 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.

There's one piece where I was watching the level, and the whole thing just felt so dark. I needed to bring some brightness somehow. I ended up creating the sound in one of my synthesizers, a kind of a wavering shimmer, and I thought that might give me just what I needed to lighten the piece up. I put a low pass filter over some of the old sounds to let the new sound come to the front, lightening it up a touch there. And that gives you a break from the thick heaviness of it. That's the kind of thing you can't really predict until you're in the piece. Intellectually speaking, it was an interesting puzzle to solve.

The album has expanded tracks and brand new bonus tracks. What other upgrades can listeners who are familiar with this material look for in the 20th anniversary edition?

Another big thing is that the entire stereo field has been redone to give the sound more width. In other words, I used mastering software to remaster the album so that it sits, in terms of the stereo space, in a wider field. The software I am using didn't even exist back then.

The album is re-equalized, and loudness maximized, so that everything was balanced. That was never something I got the opportunity to do, exactly the way I wanted to, when the game shipped at Midway. To me, the pieces just feel better than ever because of it.

What was your thought process as you revisited this soundtrack for the 20th anniversary edition? Were there specific details in mind that you wanted to tweak?

The key to the project was to make sure it still felt like Doom, but new and enhanced in a way that does not take away from the players' memories. The hard thing with the new material was making sure I had the right motivations. I was pulling up Doom maps, streaming levels on YouTube to watch how people were playing them, recreating that same creative space. Each piece became its own research project. These were pieces of Doom ambient music that needed to feel like they belonged within that universe.

Technically, I knew going in where I wanted to extend the length of the tracks. But I didn't yet know how I was going to pull that off. The first week or two I had to think through how I was going to do the album justice, because I knew the pieces didn't sound, sonically, as beautiful as they should.

I also thought it would be cool to go back through the sound effects, and introduce those in a subtle way, without altering, in any way, the initial spirit of the track. I wanted to make sure that I still hit that nostalgia for the players.

The bonus tracks are brand new, written using the same types of techniques and style. Towards the end, when I was doing the bonus tracks, I was getting the feeling it was pretty long. I remember checking it, and it was over eight hours!

Do you have a favorite piece on the soundtrack?

I really don't know. They're all special in their own way. Each one has personal memories for me. For example, "Lamentation of the Forgotten," when I thought about putting the crying baby sound in there, there was a certain excitedness in finding out it worked. The sounds in the tech center ("Hellistatic,") that was one of the later levels I wrote, and I didn't know if those sounds could be used for that level. And it did work. Writing music for "Staging Area," that had a bit more musicality to it, and I was wondering whether that was going to work. And there was a really cool feeling of Yes, it worked.

You really don't know, while you're doing it. There was one experimental sound, like an air raid, that just didn't fit. And I replaced it with another experiment, where I recorded myself speaking phrases, and pitched it way down, twelve octaves below my voice. I listened to it, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up! That was a totally perfect sound for demons from Hell invading our universe.

There were a lot of samples I tried that just didn't work, like smashing things with hammers and breaking glass, scratching metal, lots of stuff. 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 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 that was just me doing my job.

One failed experiment can lead to a successful one. Out of seventy samples, sometimes only one—the sixtieth sample of glass scratching on metal, which almost 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 to never be afraid to try stuff. The worst that can happen is it fails, and you try something else.

Doom enthusiasts will get into arguments over which approach to the soundtrack is ideal. How do you feel when you encounter these arguments on the Doom forums?

People often wonder what made me think of ambient music versus the high-energy metal soundtrack of Doom. There are people who both love it and hate it. Nobody ever really asks if I have an opinion on the subject. For me, I guess my opinion is that there is 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 designed 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 have lined up for you. They're brilliant in understanding what makes those game design choices fun. If the game designer wants a happy 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 put expectations on things, thinking there is a right or wrong answer here, are fundamentally misunderstanding what music is trying to do for a game. There is no good music and bad music. To me, it's equally as virtuoso to hear a three year-old singing "This Little Light of Mine" at the top of her lungs as it is to hear Celine Dion regale us with her amazing skill at Caesar's Palace.

I don't think people understand that there is no right answer. If I listen to Bobby Prince's work, I love it. If I listen to Mick Gordon's work, I love it. People say, "Who's the best at this," or "Are you the best at that?" I see those arguments in forums—all of that is harebrained and ridiculous. It misses the point of what music is and what it’s trying to do for a game. "Who's better, Elvis or the Beatles?" There is no "better." They were both fantastic. I enjoy them both for who they are.