Sound Design as Music: How Mick Gordon Embodies the Modern Music Producer

In the modern artistic sphere, the fields of sound design and music creation increasingly overlap. The crafting of unique sounds, rather than using pre-sets or plugins, can be the difference between standing out or blending into the background of an oversaturated market. One composer who understands this is Mick Gordon. Gordon rose to fame for the DOOM (2016) and DOOM ETERNAL (2020) soundtracks. His unique approach blends oppressive, atmospheric sound design with bludgeoning heavy metal motifs. He has also co-produced an EP with Bring me the Horizon, on which he further flexed his ability to utilise sound design as a creative tool for producing music.

In this article, I’ll explore the blurry divide between sound design and modern music production—and how Mick Gordon’s work exemplifies the boundless creativity that can arise when the two come together.

Listen: At Doom’s Gate

The amount to which sound design and music overlap has been a topic of debate for almost a century at this point. Edgard Varèse famously said in 1936 that, “The raw material of music is sound. That is what the ‘reverent approach’ has made people forget – even composers”. This idea of using sound design as musical expression has evolved and adapted overtime, with artists such as Pierre Schaeffer, Phillip Glass and even The PoguesJem Finer choosing to focus on sound as art.

When describing Longplayer (a small excerpt of which can be heard below) in 2001, Finer said:

“I think [Longplayer] is definitely music, and if there’s such a thing as sound art then it’s certainly sound art as well. Sound is the consequence of an idea, and maybe that’s sound art; and if you take that sound and make something else of it then maybe that’s music.”

Watch: Longplayer is a Symphony That Will Play for a Thousand Years

Modern musicians in the digital age perhaps take this “sound as art” idea for granted. The terms “sonic artist,” “sound artist” and “sound designer” have become increasingly commonplace in the scene. In turn, a word that has become outdated in the modern music sphere is “composer.” Many musicians dislike the descriptor as it conjures thoughts of a troubled genius working alone on a piece of classical music for months at a time.

However, Mick Gordon encapsulates this modern form of musicianship. His widely celebrated soundtracks for the DOOM franchise not only utilise sound design to add atmosphere to the game, but also to create a large proportion of the instrumentation. In his talk at GDC (embedded below), Gordon alludes to this idea of a “composer” being outdated by outlining the brief he received from ID Software:

  • “We want you to make music that no one has ever heard before.”
  • “It needs to fit the game perfectly.”
  • “And instantly loved by millions of fans.”
  • “No guitars.”
  • “DOOM is about demons on Mars, you have a shotgun to send them back to hell.”

He proposes the idea of giving this brief to a solo pianist, dubstep producer or traditional composer. Because, whilst they may be able to write an inspired piece, they may not be able to execute the brief due to the limitations in instrumentation and genre.

Watch: DOOM: Behind the Music

Gordon goes on to emphasise the ability of sound design to enable creativity and break away from conventional composition. In fact, the first thing that he began writing with was noise—a sub-bass and white noise working in unison to create an interesting musical sound. However, after the team at ID Software told him to keep pushing this idea, Gordon, not settling for anything less than the best, began to develop a system that would allow him to dynamically produce appropriate musical segments based on the input. This resulted in the complex synth sounds that make up the bulk of the game’s soundtrack. An example of it can be heard below:

Listen: Mick Gordon – 19. Cyberdemon

After some convincing, Gordon added heavy metal guitar to the mix to complete the soundtrack’s feel, noting that the original games from the nineties all included distorted electric guitar (albeit MIDI). But the sound design didn’t stop there. Taking influence from producer, Sean Beavan, Gordon would record each riff twice as fast onto 30inch tape. He’d then play it back, half as fast, whilst running it through distortion. This would lead to crazily distorted guitar sounds that suited the hellish environment of the game. He would often combine this sound with a sample of a chainsaw to get harsh, synth-like tones out of the instrument.

Perhaps one of the most novel elements of the soundtrack is Gordon’s use of images to produce audible sounds. Inspired by Aphex Twin and the satanic panic of the 1980s, Gordon put “666” into the game’s soundtrack. When played through a spectrograph, the infamous number and a pentagram would appear. Whilst this could be considered on the very fringe of what constitutes as sound design in its purest form, it exemplifies the immense levels of creativity involved in Mick Gordon’s musical process.

Watch: Mick Gordon – 11. BFG Division

His work on the DOOM soundtrack led to Gordon becoming one of the most sought-after producers in the world. In a studio clip (linked below) Bring Me The Horizon notes Gordon’s creativity and ability to manipulate sound in a way that perfectly suits aggressive music like theirs. His production talents can be heard on their EP POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, which saw BMTH return to their more metal roots after a short departure through their last couple of records. If the results are as good as that EP, I’d love to see him working with more artists in the future!

Watch: 10BMTHS2-mick gordon-.mp4

The world of sound design can be an intense, and often overlooked, subject in music. So, I hope you’ve gained somewhat of an appreciation for the topic and start to spot it more frequently in the soundtracks you know and love! As always, thank you for reading!

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