What if I told you that I’d been hearing a single sound, everywhere, for 22 years? I’ve heard it in countless movies, tons of television shows, video games and even pop music. I can almost guarantee that you have too.
It’s a short, 3 second sound effect of something that’s really quite inoffensive, but still manages to register with me every time I hear it. It’s very simple, and there are a lot of sounds like it, but it cuts through the noise of anything I’m watching or listening to whenever it plays and I’ve become obsessed with it.
It’s most often used as the effect of a futuristic lab door opening. I don’t know why, but for decades it’s been burrowed into my brain. This innocuous noise has been in and around practically everything I enjoy and, every time it plays, it forces two simple questions into my brain: How was it made, and who made it?
It’s been 22 years now, it’s time to get those answers.
It’s hard to pinpoint when I first started noticing this sound effect, but as an educated guess I want to say it was its prominent use in the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece, Universal Soldier. As a teenager, I spent a good chunk of my youth watching and re-watching every cheesy 90s sci-fi action movie you can imagine, and Universal Soldier was certainly in rotation. But since then (and especially since starting this journey) I’ve found and documented it all over the place. From the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies to Scooby Doo. From Tomorrowland to The Venture Bros. From ‘90s children’s TV shows, to a trailer for 2021’s latest looter-shooter, Outriders. The application of this simple sound effect is everywhere, and its endless uses are way beyond what any one person could track (but if you have heard it somewhere please let me know!).
But my journey with this sound actually started quite a bit earlier.
1998. There I was, a fresh faced 15 year old excited about being able to purchase my first ever 15-rated video game myself. It’s not that my parents were ever particularly strict about age ratings, but the idea of being able to walk into a store and buy a game about zombies and blood myself was liberating.
During my playthroughs of what I still consider to be an all-time classic, I was constantly aware of how descriptive the use of sound was. Whether it was the shambling groans of the zombies, or the clickety clack of the typewriters, the use of sound in the series as a whole is something that’s stayed with me ever since. Little did I know though that one of the more passive sounds, a simple opening of a laboratory door, would be the one I’m still obsessing about over 20 years later.
So what is it about this sound? Why has it become stuck in my head so firmly? This is an answer I’ve really struggled with because I’ve found it hard to quantify why I find it so satisfying. Perhaps it’s the almighty clunk, or the winding motors that pan left to right, but the more I dissect it, the more I believe it’s this simple sound’s ability to be completely diegetic yet almost otherworldly. I’ve certainly never heard a door like it, but it always feels like it belongs, despite the situation.
Unfortunately, tracking a sound effect’s origin is not that easy. My first hurdle was simple; how do you google a sound? Typing in ‘Lab door’ or ‘sci-fi door’ understandably brings back thousands of results that could take forever to wade through. And it’s not as if there’s a Shazam-type app for sound effects – although I really wish there was. I was off to a bad start, so I decided to pull back and start simpler: asking a friend.
My first port of call was my immediate connections in the IGN UK office, specifically my colleague Jesse, who, like me, is a huge Resident Evil fan. Although also extremely familiar with the sound, knowing how to find it was also a mystery to him. Thankfully, Jesse has a friend called John. John is not only also a huge Resident Evil fan, but has also been involved in the Resident Evil modding scene, specifically working on sound effects and voiceover. As such, he knows more than a little about the original source files. This was my guy to set me on my way, and he kindly agreed to chat to me.
Dale Driver: So we’ve got a mutual friend in Jesse, and he’s mentioned that you’ve done work with Resident Evil modding in the past, is that right?
John: That’s correct. I would do a few little mods here and there, and a few little fan projects, and I’d usually tout myself as the “sound designer”. I say that with air quotes because I’m not a professional by any means. It’s just a hobby of mine.
Dale Driver: I’ve been chasing this sound from Resident Evil 2, of the lab door, now for a long time, and it turns out you can’t really Google what the sound effect is. So I was hoping that you might be able to help me out with this?
Being familiar with the original Resident Evil sound files, John knew that a bunch of them could be sourced legally, specifically from a sound repository called Sound Dogs. What the average person might not know is that recycling sound files is and was quite common practice. It turned out Capcom had done a significant amount of this with Resident Evil, thus spending a fraction of the cost of original sound creation on a license instead. It’s something they’re less likely to do these days – preferring to create original sounds in house – but back in 1998, it made all the sense in the world.
With this knowledge (and now a hint of my obsession) John and Jesse began combing through every potentially relevant search term they could imagine, until…
John: ….about 30 or 40 sound effects in I hear the sound. It doesn’t take too long. You hear the door open, hear it close and I’m like, ‘That’s it. That’s the one, it has to be.’
So thanks to John, Jesse and some internet sleuthing I now had a file and a link to a sound library. Logic would suggest the reason I’d heard it in so many places was due to how accessible this library was to sound designers. But in my quest to find its origins, the next question was: how did it get onto this library in the first place? In an attempt to understand this procedure more I got in touch with one of the few sound connections I have in the professional world, someone I knew from my younger days while playing in a band. Chris Mock is a sound designer, who, since the humble beginnings of mixing my audio in local UK music venues, had gone on to do much greater things in the world of live events and television. I was hopeful that not only could Chris give me more insight, but that he might also have some theories on how the sound itself had been made.
After giving Chris a quick rundown of my obsession and all my progress so far, and despite being slightly perplexed by the situation, he kindly agreed to help and we dove straight into discussing sound libraries.
Dale Driver: Are there people out there that specialize in just creating [sound effects] for stock libraries? Or would they create them for a project, and because they’re very malleable sound effects, they become part of a stock library?
Chris Mock: Yeah, there are both. I mean, there are people that just record sound effects and put them onto a stock library, whether that’s their own website, or they put them on places like Sound Ideas, or Sound Dogs. What [people] might do is start with a sound effect from a stock library and then add things to it in order to make it sound bigger or, you know, more haunting, or more descriptive in a way. You can also manipulate them and – like they do in films – they sometimes [use] stock sound effects, [which is why] there are so many over the years that are familiar. Sound designers even try to slip them into a film on purpose. I’m sure you know which sound effect I’m talking about.
For the uninitiated out there, Chris is referring to perhaps the most popular stock sound effect ever used in film, The Wilhelm Scream, a sound effect popularised by its use in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and pretty much every big budget action film ever since! But that’s a different (and well-documented) story – I’m here to find out about my lab door. So I decided to quiz Chris on what he thought the sound was.
Chris Mock: First thoughts? It’s a door from a sci-fi film… or a game. Just one more listen.
A door like that wouldn’t exist, they would have had to have created [the noise]. It might be starting with a stock library and ending with one but there’s definitely something in the middle that’s been added. I’m gonna have a listen again.
After repeated listens it almost felt like Chris had become as enamoured with the sound as I had. Or perhaps he was just really keen to pinpoint the noise for me and make a solid prediction. I like to imagine it’s the former…
Chris Mock: Okay, so I think it’s a door, obviously. It’s a door opening and closing. Then it sounds like there’s some kind of motor in there. And it could be a drill, could be a belt drive for a car, then slowed down. There’s something metallic in there as well, but then that might be the door. Maybe they’ve added some kind of hit to it as well. I’m gonna listen again.
God it’s so intriguing, I really want to know what it is now!
I had a link and a sound library (The Original General Series 6000 – which sounds more like a top-of-the-range toaster than a library of soundscapes) and, suddenly, finding the effect’s origins felt within grasp.
After spending far longer than I’d like scrolling through the track list – despite the titular 6000, the library actually had 7500 sound effects – I eventually found my true love, unimaginatively called ‘SciFiDoor 6039_24_1’. But, despite the minuscule description and a note of duration, I was none the wiser to its source. So, in another moment of need, I reached out directly to Sound Dogs themselves, hoping they’d guide me on journey:
I took a moment to enjoy this small victory: after all, I started with just a sound in my head that I was unable to Google, and now I’d managed to find the creator’s name. The moment passed though, and I was quickly onto the next step of trying to track down Mike McDonough. Fortunately, this time, Google was on my side.
After a quick tap and smash into the search engine, I was spoiled for information about Mike, finding out he was in fact an American who had been consistently working in the industry for over 40 years. But perhaps most notable was his very reputable work in the sound field for the last four decades – including big budget productions like Star Trek: Insurrection and Disney’s The Black Cauldron. I also found a modern video of Mike, introducing The Mike McDonough SFX Collection to potential sound library customers. I now had a name and a face for the man behind the door, but I was still none the wiser on how to get in touch with him.
With no apparent website or social media presence, getting in touch with Mike was proving to be tricky. At this point it honestly felt like I’d hit a dead end and, after two weeks of fruitless searching, I genuinely considered stopping here with just the satisfaction of finding his name.
But it was still there: an itch in my brain I had to scratch. I decided to pick up my trail and stumbled upon an article from a Swiss website called Digitec, where in March of this year, the author Philipp Rüegg had spoken to Mike about one of his signature door sounds being used in a classic video game. No, it wasn’t my Resident Evil lab doors, Philipp had reached out about a signature sound far more documented: The Doom Doors.
Yep, that’s right. Not only had Mike constructed my iconic door sound, but he also created perhaps the most iconic door sound in video game history; a sound so widely recognised on the internet it had even earned its own moniker as The Doom Doors. You can find YouTube video montages of its uses, and it even has a page dedicated to it on TVTropes, a website dedicated to cataloguing TV conventions, and anything used regularly enough to be recognisable.
This article gave me enough information to help me contact Mike, and prepare for our meeting. But while studying the piece, I discovered Philipp’s journey had been eerily similar to mine: Both highlighting stock library sounds that’d been used in a video game, that we’d both heard everywhere we went, both of us motivated by childhood nostalgia and, despite being completely different sounds, both ending up talking to the same man, Mike McDonough.
“Well, my name is Mike McDonough. I’m a sound designer, and I guess we’re here to talk about some sounds I made.”
At this point, I imagine you’re as keen as I was to find out the history of this infectious sound, but the question I immediately needed an answer to was how he actually made it.
Mike McDonough: Now, I’ve got to go back in my internal time machine, – which isn’t very good anymore – to remember how I made it.
So the initial sort of “click-clack” sound is actually one of the very first CD players. We were excited to get this new technology in the studio. It was a big heavy thing, and the little tray that came out… it was very beefy. It was solid, it was metal, it wasn’t plastic and flimsy, and it had this mechanism, a motor sound that went clickety-clack. So I took it in the studio, opened the grand piano and set it on the strings so it would resonate. Then I just got a microphone – Neumann’s 1987, which was my favourite mic back then – and I got it as close as I could to the mechanism and just opened and closed.
An old CD player inside a grand piano was not what I was expecting, but something I did foresee was the sound being multi-layered. It turned out, the CD player was only the first of multiple elements.
Mike McDonough: The studio had an old, old copy machine that was new back then; it was a big giant thing, I think it was made by Xerox and had multiple paper trays. It had this stack on the side with paper in it and when you pushed the button, it made this sound [Mike imitates a whirling electronic noise]. I was like “Wow, that’s a great sound!”
And he wasn’t done there.
Mike McDonough: A friend of mine had one of the first hatchbacks, it was a Ford Capri. The hatchback had little hydraulic lifters on it. When you open it, it made this sound [Mike imitates air pressure rising]. So we drove the car onto the stage so it’s nice and quiet, and I recorded that sound.
When it came to putting it altogether though, Mike had one final trick.
Mike McDonough: The machine I fed it through had a wonderful little device on it that I used all through the ‘70s and ‘80s to do sound design, pre-digital, it was called a VSO [variable speed oscillator]. The motor on those machines had a certain frequency that they ran at and it had a dial. When you turn the dial down, the motor of the tape machine would run slower. Turn the dial up and it would run faster. And if you put a sound on there and went from slow too fast, the pitch went up or the pitch went down. So I pitched them so the door would sound like it was moving.
I finally had an answer which was both substantially more complex than I imagined and also… slightly disappointing? Not that the ear, imagination and assembly weren’t impressive, but I guess, deep-down, part of me was unrealistically hoping for something beyond traditional means. I still had two other important questions though, when did he create this sound, and most importantly, why?
Mike McDonough: Growing up in Los Angeles I was exposed to a lot of creatives down there and through a chance meeting I got to meet a science fiction author, a fantasy writer named Ray Bradbury. We became sort of friends; he was kind of a mentor of mine. I wanted to take his stories and adapt them into… I guess you could call them radio dramas, just for fun. When I got into university we actually got a grant from National Public Radio to create 13 half hour shows based on Ray Bradbury stories and, suddenly, I had come up with 13 half-hour original radio dramas in stereo with original music and sound design, but I didn’t have any sounds really that were professionally recorded at that time. This was in the ‘80s, like ‘83, ‘84.
Dale Driver: Oh that’s when I was born!
Mike McDonough: Anybody reading this wasn’t born! *laughs*
I had a moment of weakness in the late ‘80s. I’d just got married and I was a college employee and pretty broke, right? Like things are when you first start. So after I did the Ray Bradbury radio series I did a film for Walt Disney called the Black Cauldron, [which was] my very first film as a sound designer. Then, in a moment of weakness and poverty, I sold a bunch of my sounds to a company called Sound Ideas. They dangled a check in front of me and I thought, “Wow, someone actually wants my sounds? They’ll give me money for these crazy sounds?” So I sold a batch of them and they became this disc called 6039. And now here we are talking about a sound that I made in the mid ‘80s.
After selling all his sounds in the late ‘80s, Mike’s library had spread far and wide. Despite not knowing about their usage in Resident Evil and Doom, he was fully aware of their proliferation in all forms of media.
Mike McDonough: For years they’ve been available to the general public and yeah, I hear them on TV and I hear little snatches of them in all kinds of big-budget films. And now it’s kind of like I can’t use them. Everybody has access to them and they’re no longer my special little sounds that I created. I don’t want to use the same old sounds everybody else is using, so I don’t use my sounds anymore. *laughs*
There’s something quite melancholic about Mike feeling like he couldn’t use his own creations anymore, but there was also a clear sense of pride about his work still being discussed all these years later. And perhaps more importantly, he clearly appreciated their substantial contribution to the soundscapes of modern media. He’d built his legacy, but he was unfortunately the silent partner.
Despite my fascination behind the sound, Mike was very quick to normalise his work, likening it to the disappointing reality of finding out the secrets behind a magic trick.
Mike McDonough: It’s kind of anticlimactic to go into how these things were made, because they’re common sounds; a CD tray and a copy machine. It’s like looking behind the curtain, The Wizard of Oz, you know? Look behind the curtain and you see this guy pulling levers and it takes the mystique out of it, you know?
He was right, they were common household sounds that he once assembled into something useful for a very specific moment in time, but the real magic was the journey the sound went on; something he could have never imagined 40 years ago and that was satisfying despite finally knowing the secrets. His sounds have left a legacy in modern media, and that’s due to not only its production quality, but also its accessibility. It’s something Mike could never have foreseen – or perhaps even engineered.
I started this self-given quest specifically looking to get answers about how this lab door sound effect was made, and finding out was ultimately satisfying – but for me, the fascinating and crazy story of the sound’s journey is the one that’ll likely leave the lasting memory.
Dale Driver is an IGN Senior Video Producer, and he’d like to thank John from ‘The Kendo Gun Shop‘, Chris Mock, Philipp Rüegg, Sound Dogs, Sound Ideas, Eric Sapp for the incredible artwork, and most importantly of all, Mike McDonough. Follow Dale on Twitter.