How The Quake Soundtrack Changed Video Game Music

Early PC gamers used to get these crappy “multimedia speakers” that came as a free feature with their 486-powered systems. It was good enough for the chirrpy tunes from early graphics cards, but when Quake arrived, everyone needed an update!

John Carmack, John Romero, and other luminaries at ID Software did so much for PC gaming. They moved the entertainment bar up a notch with Wolfenstein. They ripped the graphical limits to pieces with Doom, and with Quake they unleashed proper fit-for-purpose gaming soundtracks on the world.

Sure, it wasn’t the first CD-ROM game, or the first with an impressive soundtrack, but it was the first that went above and beyond what gamers were used to. Whatever the plan was for the game’s music, 1996 saw the ID team turn to Trent Reznor to bring a gothic feel to the CD-ROM release, unleashing full fidelity digital music on the scene.

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The artistic talent of Reznor was well-known via his Nine Inch Nails project and he took a broad brush to the game with a wide mix of dynamic guitars and ambient sounds. Describing the game and the audio content, he has said “We tried to make the most sinister, depressive, scary, frightening kind of thing… It’s been fun using textures and ambience, and whirling machine noises and stuff.”

The Quake Soundtrack

The Quake Theme starts off scary with demonic guitars, racing synths like a summoning crescendo, that rapidly fades after a minute into an ambient collection of noise that plays on your mind. What are the demons or screams you can hear in the background? They are definitely hard to pick up on those crappy speakers, but invest in a decent set, or route the music through a proper stereo or decent headphones and it becomes a whole new experience.

Then came Aftermath, all heavy bass lines, descending and repeated, encouraging players to look around and into the depths of the game with its full 3D world. The game is full of secrets, and this track almost bludgeoned people into looking for them.

There’s more scritchy-scratchy voices in Hall of Souls, hinting at the demonics going on under the game’s action-based exterior. Perfect for when devil dogs leap out of the dark and chew the unwary player into chunky flesh gibs.

While playing the game, exploring the medieval themed castle, the lumpen, lumbering enemies, soundtrack helped set the tone for the battles and shocks to come. It took a few months but soon the game was running at light speed on the PC’s first graphics accelerators like the Voodoo 3Dfx.

The rest of the soundtrack is full of Reznor signature motifs, lurching from clean and electric but menacing in Parallel Dimensions to the stereo shenanigans in Focus, but every piece is perfect in the game to highlight the dread, with the boom of the shotgun or the crack of the nail gun all fitting perfectly into the malevolent audio scheme.

Read this interview with Trent about Quake here

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