RECORDING TECHNIQUES WITH MICK GORDON
HOW ONE MAN WROTE THE SOUNDTRACK TO HELL. WORDS
You might not know his name, but if you’re into video games, odds are Mick Gordon’s music has hammered its way through your headphones at some point in the last few years.
This one-man crew from Queensland has composed, produced and performed the soundtracks to some of this generation’s most memorable games, including Prey, Wolf en stein: The New Order and the 2016 reboot of Doom.
Yep those destructive, visceral tones that shattered your skull as you eviscerated Hell’s arm with chainsaws, shotguns and the mighty BFG were born in the brain of one guy. And with the Doom reboot’s soundtrack finally seeing a release on vinyl and CD this year, it seemed like the perfect time to learn the stories behind some very memorable music.
How did you go about finding sounds and tones that suited the in-your-face action of Doom?
Doom was about pushing the extremes with everything, and that philosophy was the most important thing. Instead of six-string guitars, it was nine-string guitars. We had five-string bases tuned all the way down to F-sharp, and everything in the mix was really over-compressed and over-distorted.
I like to spend a lot of time creating the sounds in Ableton, FL Studio or Cubase, and I like to experiment without any rules. Then, I’ll look out for anything cool that came out of it, and I’ll build libraries of things that happen during those experimentation periods.
My philosophy with mockups is that I usually try to demo the track with the worst sounds I can find – Sawtooth waves, 808 kick drums, noise snares and stuff like that – because if you can make the song good with those bad sounds, then you know it’s going to be a good song. That was how I approached Doom.
I’d get to that point with a combination of all sorts of things on the chain: parallel compression, transient designers, 20 different plug-ins... Plus, I get bored if something’s subtle, and Doom was the biggest, loudest, most offensive game I’d ever looked at doing.
Was it tough to EQ a soundtrack that’s so complex and punchy?
When a note hits a point, I want to make sure I’m pushing all the frequencies that best represent that note. Then, when the next hit comes in, those things get shifted out of the way and whatever needs to take the centre stage comes forward. That’s an incredibly time consuming process, but it’s how that [punchy] Doom sound comes about. Every single 16th or eighth or quarter note gets attention.
“BFG Division”, for example, is technically a sextuplet rhythm, but it has that groove there and the hit on the first note. As that comes about in the mix, I’m tweaking the settings everywhere to make that groove come through as much as possible. It needs that push and pull. If you just layer up your parts, compress everything and give it a bit of an EQ, it’ll sound like music. And that’s fine, but this super surgical method is more akin to what an EDM artist might do.
So it’s closer to an EDM mix than the metal or djent feel it’s often associated with?
Philosophically, it was more of an EDM mix with some sort of lower midrange to allow the eighth and ninth strings to come through. A lot of EDM stuff is sub, kick and snare at 200Hz, 2000Hz, 5000Hz and upwards. So I kind of took that – and then the lower mid-range of 300 to 600Hz – from heavier genres.
Did that contribute to the relentless punch that pulses through the soundtrack?
The trick with that is that your ear needs a relative point to judge what’s punchy and what’s not. If everything is punchy then nothing is punchy, so you need those background sounds and those atmospheric elements. Then, when the kick comes in, that comparison makes it feel much louder.
The most important part of that, rather than compression settings, is the philosophy of pushing air. If you just take a drum kit and compress it to the point where the speakers aren’t moving, you’re not pushing air, you’re just generating noise. Whereas a great drum kit that’s compressed in a nice way really pushes with the beat – that’s what I’m aiming for.
What role did reverb play?
I hate reverb, generally, but I do use a couple of other things that play the same role as reverb. If I’m using a drum kit, for example, I usually run a mic from the drummer’s position into a guitar amp that’s in a neighbouring room, and then we’ll record that amp using a far mic. That gives us an interesting room reverb tone that’s more effective than, say, an ‘80s linear reverb on your snare.
Does that mean you’ve got a never-ending wall of effects, too?
I’ve totally lost count [laughs]. I’m not even kidding. I have four large cupboards with 24 shelves, all full of different pedals.
Did you use those, or plugins, to create distortion?
The majority of my pedals are distortion or drive circuit pedals. I like hardware distortion more than plugins, because you can feed a really strong signal through hardware and it will maintain the note.
I have pedals with really nice transformers, and I have lots of really old, cool valve equipment. I bought Jeff Lang’s Ampex Tube preamp that they used to use in the ‘50s for tape recorders, and I’ve got a Culture Vulture that I really like. I love Soviet stuff because they’ve got completely random components. I love distortion, and the philosophy of it too. Everything is distorted all the time – everything! To me, distortion is music.