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Voices in the Blood: Scott Patterson and the Terrifying Soundscape of Doom 64

Doom 64's audio engineer talks his interest in sound design, and the particulars of building dread in the former N64 exclusive title.

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Doom 64 was one of the most unique titles to grace Nintendo's 64-bit platform. It played like Doom 2--same enemies, same weapons, same power-ups--but pivoted from a straight-up action shooter to a slower-paced, more chilling experience, while still retaining plenty of run-and-gun fun.

Developer Midway wanted to do something different than previous ports on consoles such as the Super NES and PlayStation, and Doom 64 fit that bill. Two programmers shouldered the responsibility of devising the soundscape that would walk in lockstep with the new lighting engine, redesigned monsters, and larger, more exploration- and puzzle-solving-driven gameplay. As the project's audio engineer, Scott Patterson worked with composer Aubrey Hodges to create earworms that would burrow deep into the minds of players and give them nightmares for decades to come.

Patterson and I discussed his background in the industry, how he zeroed in on audio engineering, and the process of creating an aural environment for Hodges' soundtrack and sound effects to come to life.

To set the mood, listen to the soundtrack as you read.


David L. Craddock: How did you get started in the games industry?

Scott Patterson: As a teenager, I was interested in audio electronics and especially the audio effects boxes you would see at a guitarist's feet or in a recording studio. I tried to build my own audio mixer in high school but really didn't know what I was doing. I liked math and physics and decided to get a degree in electrical engineering.

During university I worked at some co-op jobs that weren't related to audio, but they did teach me how to prototype hardware devices on a breadboard with wire-wrap. At university in my final year I created a device with a CPU and memory and input hardware and output hardware so you could use foot pedals to trigger sequences of music in the MIDI format to a synthesizer. That project was a great chance to work on the design of both computer hardware and computer software and demonstrate the skills I had at that time.

I lived in Maryland, and after university, a friend I knew came to work at MicroProse Software which was just north of Baltimore. My friend got a job in their hardware division (MicroProse was making arcade games at the time) and told me I should talk to them about a job in their software division. So that is what I did, and I remember brining along my MIDI device in all its prototype wire-wrapped glory to my interview there. Hopefully that helped show my level of interest in audio and something must have worked as I got the job working in their audio software group.

Audio effects were fascinating to me in the early days, but also other things such as music sequencers and synthesizers and anything related to audio. Once I started working in game development, I was exposed to more topics and details about hardware and software and the constantly evolving world of game technology. I eventually branched out into other areas like 3d content creation tools, cinematics and camera systems, streaming systems, character development, gameplay physics, and multiplayer networking architecture.

Doom 64's box art (front).
Doom 64's box art (front).

Craddock: What brought you to Midway?

There are some overlaps with the story of Doom and when I started at MicroProse. The designer Sandy Peterson worked at MicroProse when I was there, and he went to work at id Software later to work on Doom. And I remember the designer and programmer Silas Warner, the creator of the original Castle Wolfenstein, also worked at MicroProse around the time I started there. I remember that game was uniquely suspenseful. Ever since starting at MicroProse in 1990, I've been employed as a video game developer.

I moved to San Diego in 1993 to work at Leland Interactive and a few friends I knew also moved over there. Leland Interactive became Williams Entertainment when they purchased the studio. Around that time, we moved to a big brand-new building and became developers for the newest game console platforms at that time which included the Nintendo 64.

I created WESS (the Williams Entertainment Sound System) which worked on the various PC audio hardware of those times and worked on the 3DO, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64. WESS was used in many games we released including Doom 64.

Craddock: In general, what goes into developing a sound system?

Scott Patterson: Quite a few things. Knowing the hardware capabilities unique to each platform, knowing how to communicate with the hardware to get the control you need, tools that convert digital audio formats, tools that convert music sequencing formats, a run-time that can take the converted formats and trigger the audio voices and effects, a run-time that is configurable based on performance and memory restrictions.

Sometimes the audio system also has to deal with streaming data into memory to bring in different sets of audio data based on the game context or deal with synchronizing the audio playback with other things like animation or video playback. Topics found in many areas of programming are also present in audio programming such as dealing with caching, compression, decompression, and optimization.

Doom 64's box art (back).
Doom 64's box art (back).

Craddock: What was it like working with the Nintendo 64 hardware?

Scott Patterson: Well at first there wasn’t any Nintendo 64 console hardware to develop with. It was one of the only times in game development that I remember a computer coming into an office that was intended to fully simulate the eventual hardware. That computer was the SGI Onyx. But of course, we got hardware later and that was connected to the SGI Indy computers that then became necessary for development.

The SGI machines ran an operating system called IRIX and it was the first time I used Unix and had to learn all of the unique Unix things you had to type at the command line to get that operating system to do the things you needed. For the software development you had to build command lists. To make the Nintendo 64 run-time play audio you had to build command lists and send them off to the lower level system to be processed. Similarly, to display the graphics you also had to build command lists and send them off to the lower level system to be processed.

Before there was console hardware, the SGI Onyx could process those command lists to show you what the console hardware would eventually be doing. Once the console hardware was available it could handle the processing of these command lists with hardware custom designed to be able to process those particular command lists and therefore less expensive to manufacture.

Doom 64.
Doom 64.

Craddock: What was your level of familiarity with Doom prior to working on Doom 64?

Scott Patterson: I think it is safe to say most game developers in the early 90s were aware of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom because of their technical and consumer successes and id Software was the leader in how to do high performance graphics on the PC graphics hardware available in those days.

Craddock: What was your collaboration with Aubrey Hodges as he designed the game's soundtrack and sound effects?

Scott Patterson: Aubrey was one of our audio designers at the studio and I remember he was a very versatile musician. I remember the ambient soundtrack he created in Doom 64 was very dark and creepy.

Aubrey would design and play the music for the game on his own gear and then would run my tools to convert the music and audio data to play it on the Nintendo 64. Also, for Nintendo 64 audio development I created a utility that allowed you to hookup a MIDI device to the SGI Indy and it would forward on the commands to my sound system running on the Nintendo 64. So you could play things live from a keyboard or trigger them from a sequencer to see how they sounded on the console.

Craddock: What quirks or specific implementations were unique to the N64 and Doom 64 in terms of developing the sound system?

Scott Patterson: Every platform has limitations on storage devices and memory. For the Nintendo 64 cartridges I’m sure we stored things compressed and brought them in to memory and decompressed them when necessary. For music, we played sequenced tracks of audio voices and for sound effects they were played in a similar way. There wasn’t room for long pre-mixed audio tracks or long videos.

Craddock: What were some of the challenges involved in creating Doom 64's sound system?

Scott Patterson: I’m not sure I had specific challenges to Doom 64 development. I built the sound system to work for many games and many platforms and probably the first Nintendo 64 game that my sound system shipped with was Crusin’ USA.

Craddock: Looking back on the project, what does Doom 64 mean to you today (especially given its forthcoming re-release later this month)?

Scott Patterson: It is nice to reminisce on how unique of an experience it was to work with SGI and Nintendo and id Software to make that game at that time.


Hyped for Doom Eternal? Check out Countdown to Doomsday for even more Doom-related features, videos, and more.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at davidlcraddock.com and @davidlcraddock.

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