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«Really? I had no idea» The «Doom» sound designer talks about his unexpected legacy

Philipp Rüegg
Zurich, on 19.03.2020

Once you know them, you hear them everywhere. The sound effects featured in the first-person shooters «Doom» 1 and 2. What most people don’t know: the sounds aren’t originally from id Software’s cult game. They were created by Mike McDonough for two completely different projects.

«Really? I had no idea.» When I tell Mike McDonough that various internet forums are dedicated to his sound effects, the renowned sound designer is gobsmacked. «I just googled Doom Sound. And there’s a thing called Reddit. There’s a posting here: ‘Original doom sound effects. Does anybody know if there is a documentary about how the doom sounds were made?’ Isn’t that funny? I had no idea.»

Sounds that shaped a generation

From creaking doors to fire bursts to blood-curdling monster screams. The iconic sound effects from the 90s cult games «Doom» 1 and 2 have been part of my life since childhood. And I often hear them in movies, series and songs. Every time I do, I think of «Doom». And it's not just me. Numerous Reddit pages, Steam forums and YouTube channels are dedicated to the «Doom» soundscape, discussing where the sounds were heard and who created them.

All my questions were answered when I got to meet John Romero, one of the legendary «Doom» developers, a few years ago. He told me that it wasn’t them who had come up with the effects. Instead, they had been taken from a widely used collection of sound effects. Hearing that made me even more curious to find out who was the original creator of the effects. Eventually, I came across the source in a collection called «Sound Ideas 6000». The Canadian company of the same name is still active today and includes the well-known Wilhelm Scream in its portfolio.

Fireworks and truck trailers: how the «Doom» sounds were fashioned

Sound Ideas gave me the phone number of Mike McDonough in Salt Lake City. They tell me he’s the father of the «Doom» sounds that have been part of my life since the 90s. To be on the safe side, I make him listen to a handful of his most well-known sounds right at the beginning of our conversation. «Yes, that’s my door.» Although it’s been over 30 years since he produced that sound effect, he recognises it immediately. Hang on a minute, «Doom» isn't 30 years old yet? That’s correct, but the sound effect is much older. Mike created it for his radio show «Bradbury 13» – a sci-fi series aired between 1983 and 1984. «In one episode, the crew lands on a planet. So I needed the sound of a futuristic rocket ship hatch opening when these guys walk out.»

Mike still remembers exactly how he designed that door effect. At the time, he was working as the head of the sound department at Brigham Young University in Utah. «Back at the campus they had this old generator. It was a three-phase generator, a really old one. I was walking by once and heard it starting up. It made this incredible wheeeee sound.» So he grabbed his Nagra recorder and asked the janitor to switch the generator on and off for him.

He then played the recording backwards. That was the first element. «For the other one, I put a BB in a balloon and blew the balloon up. And when you spin the balloon, it goes wheee, wheee.» Another piece of the puzzle was an engine noise. «We had a CD player, and when the tray came out, it made a really unique sound. So I opened it up and put the microphone in so it would touch some of the metal parts, so the sound would be amplified directly into the microphone.»

The last element was created with the help of a truck the radio studio owned. «The hiss from the truck’s hydraulics made a nice little pssshhht. I think that’s how I made it.»

The sound effect I hear even more in movies or series than the door is the whip sound known from the final boss battle in «Doom 2». Its official name in the Sound Idea Library is «Fire, Ball – Impact And Large Fire Burst, Rumble». The list of its appearances in movies, series and games is long. «Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets», «Event Horizon», «Spongebob» and «Donkey Kong 64» are just a few examples. Originally, Mike produced the sound for the Disney cartoon «The Black Cauldron» from 1985. In other words, almost ten years prior to the famous finale in «Doom 2».

It also makes an appearance in Outkast's music video for «ATLiens».

For the scene in which the ground opens up and the magic cauldron appears, Mike needed an earth-cracking sound and a whoosh. Once again, he reached deep into his bag of tricks. «I went and bought some fireworks, went out to the desert and shot those bottle rockets. When you light them, they make this whoosh sound.» This was in the days before computers, so Mike had to do everything by hand. «I had two or three tape recorders with variable speed oscillators. Then I had an 8-track cassette recorder. I took the rocket sound and slowed down the pitch to make a longer, deeper sound. So I just start layering and adding sounds on the 8-track until I got something I liked.»

For the rumble that follows the whip sound, Mike attached a sound converter to a piece of sheet metal and connected it to his mixing console. He then dangled the sheet from two bits of rope. «If I would lightly touch the metal or shake it a little, it would make these big low-frequency rumbles. I would then filter all high frequencies out so it was just the low frequencies.» In combination with the fireworks, this made one of the most iconic sound effects ever. At least in my humble opinion.

«Sound design is kind of like making soup»

«I was always interested in sounds,» says Mike, who grew up in Los Angeles. Like most kids, he loved watching TV. At some stage, he realised that he kept hearing the same sounds. «It finally dawned on me that sounds as simple as a door being shut or a dog’s bark were not real sounds, but that they were produced and mixed by somebody.» Even before Mike’s time, studios, such as Universal or Warner Brothers, had their own sound libraries. «I got to the point where I could hear a sound and tell you who released the film.»

In the 80s, the studios started to trade sound effects back and forth. However, these sounds weren’t in stereo, so new effects were needed. Mike arbeitete damals an der Universität als Soundverantwortlicher. They didn’t have their own sound libraries, so Mike started to create his own effects. In the beginning, he listened to existing effects of renowned studios and built on those. «That’s when I started making sounds and keeping them.»

For Mike, sound design is like cooking. «It’s kind of like making soup. I start with one ingredient and just keep adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that.»

For his work, Mike also had a little help from Switzerland: A Nagra IV-s – one of the first professional portable tape recorders. Its inventor, Stefan Kudelski, was awarded many technical achievement Oscars for it. For a long time, the analogue Nagras were considered the standard in the movie and TV business. The company with headquarters in Lausanne still exists today, even though it’s now better known for its encryption systems, such as those used by Sky.

Back in the 80s, newly married Mike couldn’t really afford the Nagra IV-s. The price at the time was 13,000 dollars. That would be about 40,000 Swiss francs today. But there was no way around it for audio aficionados of the time. Mike borrowed the money and bought a piece of history. «It was an amazingly accurate and quiet machine. Like a Swiss watch.»

«One thing I got a kick out of was bullet ricochets»

His love for anything analogue is mirrored in his work approach. Although there are countless digital tools available, Mike has stayed true to his roots. «I’m an old-fashioned guy. I don’t really have a synthesiser. I like to record actual sounds and manipulate them.» Having said that, Mike doesn’t shy away from modern technology. «We can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do back then.»

Mike prefers organic effects because they’re unique. That’s what makes them special. «If you make sounds on a synthesiser they are pure sounds, but they're not that interesting. They don’t have random little sounds of the thing you’re recording, which sounds a little different every time you use it.» He tells me about the time at the studio when he set light to a whole matchbook. I held this matchbook close to the microphone and lit it all at once, and it made this whoosh sound and this little squeaky sound. It’s a really cool sound, and I hear it used a lot. But it happened totally by accident. I could never recreate it. I tried it with the same microphone, but it would never sound the same. That’s why I love to record actual little things.»

Bullet ricochets are one of Mike’s favourite sounds. He was introduced to them by his friend Ben Burtt, a well-known sound designer, who won several Oscars for his effects in «Star Wars», «Star Trek» or «Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade». «The ricochet sounds in Indiana Jones were really unique and cool. I’d never heard those kinds of sounds before.» He asked Ben to explain the technique to him. Next, he got a bunch of guns and ammunition and drove into the desert. «I recorded probably a thousand different ricochets. Just because it was fun.» The ricochet collection is one of his favourites.

The myth will remain

None of the ricochet sounds made the cut for «Doom». For most of us, the sounds from id Software's first-person shooter are probably the best-known ones from Mike's collection.

This article probably won’t change the fact most people on the internet will still be talking about «Doom Sounds», convinced that they were created for the game. At least a few more of you now know that they actually came into being because of an underrated Disney movie and a radio show that isn’t known outside of the US. For my part, I’m very happy to have found the source of the sounds that fascinated me from the moment I laid my ears on them almost 30 years ago.

Images: ZVG Mike McDonough

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Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur. 

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