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The Doom Eternal Soundtrack debacle: A composer's perspective.

An alternative/complementary perspective on the dividing lines that've been drawn on the whole ID vs Mick Gordon "thing".

Matthew Bentley, Blogger

September 8, 2020

5 Min Read

As a composer (and a programmer of some minor note) I know both sides of that equation fairly well - so to summarise briefly, programmers, you will probably never grok how hard full-time composing is emotionally - and composers, you will probably not understand how hard full-time programming is mentally. That's basically the case. That aside, I am a somewhat retired professional composer (ie. have over the course of my life done a fair bit of music for cash) and a games composer but not a professional games composer ie. I have done music work for open source/mod projects and that's it.

Over the past two years (2018-19) I spent every weekend in at the studio spending my spare time on doing a 3-4 hour soundtrack for a semi-obscure Quake mod called Arcane Dimensions (which expands the quake universe and changes the gameplay significantly). By the end of that process I was wrung out, exhausted and could not for the life of me pick up an instrument for 3-4 months. Let me put that in perspective: I normally revel in playing instruments of all types - now I couldn't enjoy any of them.

And that was just my Weekends. I can't Imagine what Mick Gordon went through after finishing the Doom Eternal soundtrack. Aside from the hangover from composing, recording, mixing and mastering a 4-hour magnum opus would take out of you, imagine then discovering that you don't get a break, you have to go straight back into it and keep working - and keep working... and keep working. All the while, the world is falling apart around you, Covid-19 has fundamentally altered your existence, and you can't get the positive benefits or rewards that completing such a soundtrack would normally bring due to events being canceled. All of that spells one hell of a lot of burnout.

Frankly, I'm surprised Mick got through the amount of work he did in such a short period of time. It's possible he didn't factor in his own exhaustion and simply thought he could push through. At any rate, things fell apart. Let's take another look at this from another industry's standpoint. Film scores are often composed and recorded in a matter of months, but that doesn't factor in the overall energy cost of the people involved. You have (a) the composer, who, if they are good, may be able to compose basic sheet music in 3 weeks. But that's not the finished product.

After that the sheet music goes to an arranger(s) who fixes it and expands it for orchestral use. Then it goes to an orchestra of some ~50 players, with an experienced conductor, and recording engineers who record it, and then sound engineers who mix it, and editors who sync it to the film. Recording can take many days. All of this amounts to a phenomenal amount of man-hours compressed into a relatively short space of time, of which the composer is only one cog in a much larger wheel.


Game composers do not have that luxury. They are forced to fulfill all roles themselves, from composition, to orchestration, to playing, recording, mixing and mastering. And even editing in the send of preparing stuff for the in-game audio engine 3rd-party software. Yes the tools for doing so have gotten better and better, but that doesn't change the fact that you're doing the work of what used to take scores of people. You end up going over the same music hundreds of times in many different ways, and it can be grueling - and also sometimes self-sustaining - in the same way that programmer crunch can be invigorating while being destructive.

I've no doubt that ID's staff are aware of this - several of the core members are prolific musicians in their own right. My feeling though is that they pushed the ball too far with this one, and Mick was too goal-focused to say no. Regardless, the decision to rush the soundtrack out has bad consequences - a physical release on vinyl is no longer possible, since the level of volume compression present in the internal game soundtrack would be too much for a record pressing to physically handle. Also there, is so much soundtrack now that any CD/record release would be drastically reduced in length. Fans are quite obviously pissed off, though it seems most are empathic enough to see that there are two sides to this story.

But for myself and many others who're sound-oriented, the soundtrack was the best part of Doom 2016, and I expect (once I play it) Eternal will be no different. That soundtrack is something that I will go back to again and again - in most part due to excellent post-game mixing job (though I wish he'd backed off on the compression for the digital release, matching it to the vinyl version's dynamic range). In parts it reminds me of Nine Inch Nails "The Fragile", an album that took 5 years to record BTW.

There may be some small light at the end of the tunnel - ID have forced the withdrawal of the official soundtrack release from youtube and closed the accounts associated with it - which may be a sign of decisions to revisit the soundtrack at a later point - or it may not. Either way the whole debacle shows an industry coming of age in many ways - (a) creating music that can stand not just in it's own right, but on a quality level with general mainstream album releases, and (b) showing a power struggle between art and business. That can only be a healthy thing.


- Matt Bentley was born in 1978 and never fully recovered.
He alternates between programming, composing and fixing computers. His favourite fruit is blue.


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