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psycho starship rampage

Today, Lionel Davoust shows us a specific step by step instruction how he used BOOM sounds in the space shooter game Psycho Star Rampage. He gives us some insight into his work and explains how he made use of the BOOM sound effects throughout the game. We bet you always wondered how to build a black hole cannon for a video game.

Lionel Davoust is a professional science-fiction and fantasy writer. In addition to that he is mainly a sound designer and produces electronical music. He worked on the independent game called: Psycho Starship Rampage by Ballistic Frogs. The game is out on STEAM since last September. You play a maddened artificially intelligent starship on its way to earth and you have to design your own starship from the ground up. Everything is placed individually by the players who can test their creation against hostile aliens. So the weapons have to be rewarding! And the black hole cannon is the biggest, ultimate weapon in the whole game.

In this article I am going to walk you through my workflow as I created the final, big, fat sound for that final, big, fat weapon, relying heavily on the BOOM! Libraries. – Lionel Davoust

SFX library canyons

Lionel Davoust

Arranging the tools:

I do almost all my sonic work inside Ableton Live, whether for composing or designing sound effects. While I find it a little bit lacking when it comes to working precisely on sample durations and mixing, its sound processing capabilities, especially warping, are unparalleled and help a lot with sound design. In video games, music and sounds usually have a precise duration with next to no wiggle room. Warping in Live ensures everything sounds great, while trimming effects to the precise length they have to have.

I compile all the game’s sound effects from the menus’ audio feedback to explosions and weapons fire in a single Live session called “SFX lab”. It allows me to plug-in virtual synthesizers to design some sounds from the ground up (for instance, the laser weapon or the tractor beam in Psycho Starship Rampage), layer samples very easily but above all it allows me to mix everything in real time using my grid controller to see what fits together just like a DJ mixes tracks and loops.
SFX lab project

Some track groupings inside my SFX lab project. It ended up with over 130 individual tracks. “BH” stands for Black Hole cannon.

I do 90% of the work there: export to audio, then finalize the fade-ins, fade-outs in an external wave file editor which gives me a better view of the actual durations of the sound (I could do that in Live; it is just a matter of taste, as I am used to my favorite wave editor, Goldwave, which I have used since the 1990’s under Windows 3.1!).

What’s in a black hole cannon?

Before doing anything else, first, I ask the game’s developers what the weapon does and what it looks like. What do they want to player to feel? What is the intent and role of that game mechanism? How does it work in terms of gameplay? What are the constraints in terms of duration or of repeatability of the sounds?

That gives me a lot of important information, both technical (how many sounds, their length…) and emotional (what story do these sounds need to tell?). Then, still before opening up a single synth or previewing a single sound, I draft mentally what I would like to achieve (even if that changes later because a better idea shows up). I think of keywords pertaining to the atmosphere I’m aiming for; also a few basic ideas and components for the sound. How harmonically rich will it be? All over the spectrum? Bass-intensive? Lush highs? Percussive? What effects might then come into play?

This lays the groundwork so as to look for synthesizers, sounds or effects in my library that might fit the part, as well as ideas for mangling them beyond recognition all in order to work towards my intended result.

hectic action

Hectic action on screen calls for clear readability of sound effects, as they provide important feedback to the player’s actions.

So, what were the constraints in the present case?

The black hole cannon being the ultimate weapon in the game, really needs to sound as fat, as destructive, as rewarding as possible to the player without destroying his speakers (or hearing!). It works as follows: it cannot be fired in rapid sequence. It is a slow reloading weapon (about 30 seconds) that destroys absolutely everything in its path and takes a second or so to charge up, sucking up the player’s energy. But when it shoots, oh boy. It annihilates everything in its path, swallowing the poor enemy ships until nothing remains.

So there is actually more than a sound to be designed:

- The weapon’s charge
- The weapon’s fire, along with its travel on the screen
- The weapon’s misfire, when the player runs short of energy
- The absorption of the enemy ships inside the vortex

And so on.

Each shot of that costly weapon has to be fun, rewarding and as memorable as possible. It absolutely needs to pierce through the mix of music and other effects. Then, when the shot travels it has to sonically eclipse everything else. It needs to feel grand, god-like. It can verge on the comical, so grandiloquent it is and makes you smile. I can – I need – to go over the top.

I’m already deciding that I want it to sound mechanical and percussive to begin like a high-powered sci-fi gun; and then convey that feeling of massive energy and potential instability as the shot travels.
For the sake of simplicity we’re going to study the sound the weapon emits when it is fired and destroys everything. Because that’s the funniest part, isn’t it?

Things that go BOOM!

So, having decided on the direction I would like to see the sound design take, it is time to assess the tools at my disposal. “High-powered sci-fi gun”, “massive energy” and “potential instability” all scream “BOOM! Libraries”, especially the Sci-Fi package which, between the Construction and Designed Kits, gives incredible flexibility to build exactly the sound you want with extreme simplicity.

SFX library canyons

There are two main advantages to using the BOOM! Libraries over many competitors:

- Superlative sound design. (But then, that’s the least you come to expect, otherwise you wouldn’t be using the library anyway!)

- Incredible versatility and flexibility, not only in the Construction Kit but also with the Designed Kit as well. Each sound really has a unique character, allowing you to quickly home in to the precise quality that you are looking for and yet is versatile enough that it can be effected and mixed with many others in order to build a complex sonic sculpture, that ultimately becomes yours and yours only.

The sound that the black hole makes when it fires has two constraints:

- A percussive, aggressive start
- A long duration where energy crackles and power screams as it travels through the screen.

In my case I simply create tracks with the basic components I think I will need (but I can always add some if needed).

final layering

The final layering of the black hole cannon firing sound. Two pulse sounds were needed to really make it BIG.

BOOM! Library files are very conveniently organized and named out of the box, even without any advanced metadata. Anyway, I think no system will ever replace intimate knowledge of your tools. In my case, having worked extensively with the Sci-Fi package for the duration of the project, I know almost by heart where to find stuff. Using Ableton Live’s preview feature, I skim through the main categories of the library to shortlist a handful of samples than I think might be adequate for each component.

selecting candidates

Previewing and selecting potential candidates for layering in Ableton Live

It is then a very simple matter of importing them in the session and arranging them in a selection of scenes. My Ableton Push (or any kind of session controller) allows for that real-time mixing I mentioned above:

sound candidates

A few sound candidates. Do they sound right and interesting together? How can I mangle them to make them my own and make something new and personal with them?

Putting it all together

From then on it is, as always with any artistic endeavor a matter of trial and error, of progressively homing in to a result that both serves the game and that feels and sounds great. BOOM! Libraries already sound awesome from the get-go with lots of breadth and space, so it is never a matter of getting them to sound right; the idea is to mix them, tailor them, effect them to your final idea and liking. That saves a ton of time.

The firing sound simply uses five layers:

sound simply

All taken from the Sci-Fi Construction Kit.

The two first “pulses” take care of the initial percussive impact that happens as the projectile is being fired. I slow one down to create a longer decay, becoming the sound’s foundation; I compress and limit the hell out of one of the other, so that it maketh the roof tremble and puncheth the gut:


Yeah, I’m in the red, but that’s the ULTIMATE WEAPON. I’m allowed (to limit later).

Those two pulses make for a nice, fat impact:


But that’s only the beginning.

One of the commonest tricks in electronic music is to layer a sub-bass impact with your kick to give it body and strength. The Sci-Fi library obligingly provides various such impacts to give depth to your sounds. However, I am not going to use it just on the beginning of the sequence but warp it three times slower, so that it lasts during the whole sequence. I intentionally warp it to the point that sonic artifacts appear, which adds that unstable, dangerous feeling:

damage equipment

Warning: lots of bass on that one, be careful not to damage your equipment

Finally, we need the crackle of energy that the weapon emits as it travels through the screen. There again, it needs to convey power, as well as being heard through the mix. In the game’s environment, highs frequencies will be perceived more readily than the lows (which can get muddy pretty fast, especially if various sounds compete for those frequencies, as all mix engineers well know). So I am going to give the sound body with a medium hum but add another unstable high-pitched sound to complement it. That calls for two different samples. Once again, the library provides the perfect basis for that; I am just going to mangle a little the high-pitched hum using my favorite Ableton Live effect, the Grain Delay, in order to make it fatter and more menacing. Here you will hear the difference between the dry version and the effected one:


Here is the final version of the hum. Pretty ominous, huh?


Looks like we are almost ready. Some mixing to get the levels right…

BH fire

Fitting everything together

And we’re done… No… Wait.

The finishing touch

Remember how I said in the beginning I asked the developers what they wanted and how it fit into the game? Well, the process goes both ways – that’s one of the cool things of working with a small, indie team. I liked my result but I felt it lacked something even bigger, possibly outrageous and grandiloquent. I mean, this is the ultimate weapon, right?

I went to them with a question: let’s say I give you another sound layer… Can you play that in the background and increase its volume with the number of enemies that are destroyed?

They gave me a quizzical look but answered: “yeah, we can do that”.

So I went back to Ableton Live and added another trick to my black hole cannon…

BH aaa

Because I mean, shouldn’t the angelic choirs of heaven themselves salute you as you fire the ULTIMATE WEAPON? ;)
This is not a BOOM! sample but those few disharmonic chords complement them nicely…

The final result

And here goes the final complete result in action with the charging and firing sound thrown in and the little funny trick with the choirs:

Building the final result was really extremely easy thanks to the versatility and completeness of the BOOM! Sci-Fi library. I mainly used that one for Psycho Starship Rampage but there was also a dash of Medieval Weapons throw in. Each time I buy a BOOM! product, I know I own a near inexhaustible well of content, because the sounds are cleverly designed to be reused in many different contexts and rich enough to be tailored and effected to suit any need. And I am saying this in total freedom, because I am not paid or anything by the BOOM! folks, it is my genuine feeling, that I wanted to share here: the libraries have been huge time-savers for me. Still they do not hold your hand, leading you to sound the same as everything else. You can – and should – really make them yours and once you do, they will give you countless sonic gems to expand upon. They are my “go-to” manufacturer.

If you would like to know more about Psycho Starship Rampage, how it plays, what other wonderful crazy weapons await you like force spikes, tractor beams and pulse cannons, visit Ballistic Frogs’ website:

And if you would like to know more about my work, listen to the full soundtrack of the game for free, just check out:

It is always fantastic to hear directly from our customers. We want so say Thank you to Lionel Davoust for the detailed description of his work, the bag full of tips and tricks and the great compliments! Thank you so much for sharing ;-)

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