Sonic Doom: David Levy on composing for Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods

For gamers of a certain age, there are few videogame soundtracks as era-evocative as that of id Software’s seminal 1993 first-person shooter, Doom. Bobby Prince’s deft MUS (id’s in-house alternative to MIDI) programming served up a frenetic rock/metal accompaniment that remains as vividly memorable as the game’s revolutionary 3D hellscapes and relentless gunplay.

In 2016, 12 years after the release of Doom 3 (a generally successful but one-off effort to take things in a more ‘action horror’ direction), the franchise saw a full-on reboot as Doom (but with an optional 2016 suffix for the avoidance of conversational confusion). Every aspect of the original game was reimagined for modern platforms and expectations – including, of course, the soundtrack. Composer and producer Mick Gordon nailed the hyperkinetic, ultra-violent Doom mood with a mixture of industrial metal and electronic themes. Gordon would continue down the same path with the 2020 sequel, Doom Eternal, his tenure coming to an end later that same year, after a falling out with id.

For the two Doom Eternal expansions — The Ancient Gods, Parts 1 and 2 — the audio baton was passed to ascendant composer David Levy, who jumped at the chance to claim his place in Doom’s musical pantheon.

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The full Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods OST, by Andrew Hulshult & David Levy

As a drummer and guitarist, David’s work on Doom saw him putting ShaperBox 2 to great use on instrumental sources – sources you might not immediately associate with our award-winning LFO-driven multi-effects plugin. As 2021 drew to a close, he managed to blast a hole in his schedule big enough to squeeze in a chat with Cableguys, telling us all about his ShaperBox workflow, his career path leading up to Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods, and more.

Tell us about your background as a musician and producer.

“I started playing piano when I was about eight, then picked up the drums (which remains my main instrument to this day) at 14, then guitar and cello in my early 20s. I played in tons of bands throughout high school and college but nothing serious came out of it. It was just for fun, really.

“When I graduated from college (with a degree in Psychology – I didn’t study music; I’m completely self-taught, for better or for worse!), I started working at Power Station Studios in Pompano Beach, FL, as an intern. Over the years, I climbed my way to the top and became the chief engineer, working under Tony Bongiovi.

“I did the audio engineering thing for about eight years before I got burnt out and decided it was time to pursue a career as a composer. I’ve always written music on the side for fun, and for whatever reason, it was always very ‘cinematic’-sounding and score-appropriate, so I figured I’d give it a try and see if I could make it happen.”

How did you first break into videogame soundtrack work?

“Loads of indie films, games and animated shows. Some were big, but, honestly, most weren’t. The first couple of years were rough; lots of unpaid gigs and small projects that never ended up being released – mostly indie games and movies. I caught my first major break with a production company called Rooster Teeth, who brought me in as a composer for their animated web show Red vs. Blue.

“I worked for Rooster Teeth for about four years as a composer, sound designer and mixer on their various animated shows, before they offered me the chance to score their new show, gen:LOCK, which was their biggest and most ambitious project to date, and is now streaming on HBO Max. It featured lots of A-list celebrities: Michael B. Jordan, David Tennant, Maisie Williams and more. It was a huge deal for me – the biggest thing I’ve worked on to date!

“About a year after the release of gen:LOCK, I got the opportunity to join the id Software team as the composer for Doom Eternal: Ancient Gods, alongside Andrew Hulshult.”

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A taste of David's OST for Rooster Teeth's gen:LOCK

As one of gaming’s most illustrious and longest-running series, securing the Doom Eternal gig must have been hugely exciting. How did it actually come about?

“I’ve known id Software’s audio director, Chad Mossholder, for a very long time. We connected when I first moved to Austin in 2012. He called me up out of the blue one day and asked if I’d like to submit a demo for the Doom Eternal expansion pack they were working on. I immediately panicked, knowing what a remarkable job Mick [Gordon – the composer behind the main Doom Eternal soundtrack and 2016’s Doom] had done with the scores for the previous two games. I’m a huge fan of his work and filling his shoes was anxiety-inducing, to say the least! However, to my surprise, they loved the demo and offered me the job.”

Being a drummer, did you record the actual drums used in the soundtrack yourself?

“I didn’t record any live drums, but I wrote the vast majority of the parts sitting behind the drum set. In fact, I wrote many of the guitar riffs around the drum parts! 'Trial of Maligog' is a great example of that.

“Once I had the drum parts in my head, I would program them in my DAW using drum VSTs like GGD and Superior Drummer, which I later layered with custom samples of various metal hits, impacts, etc. Once the drums were done, I would write the rest of the track around them.”

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David Levy's 'Trial of Maligog' from Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Pt. 1

The guitars in the soundtrack are super-tight. Were they recorded or sampled/virtual, and do you have some tricks you can share for achieving that locked-in, mechanistic feel?

“All the guitars were double tracked live through my Fractal Axe-Fx III. In some instances, I added some VST guitars to thicken things up a bit, but not very often. I relied on synths for that, primarily. I had at least two or three layers of synths under each guitar part, playing the exact same lines and rhythms. That’s a big contributor to the mechanistic sound of the guitars.”

David's cat scrutinizes his Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III rack unit – the source of those chainsaw-heavy guitar tones

How did you use ShaperBox in the production of the Doom Eternal soundtrack?

“Before we get into my endless admiration of ShaperBox, it’s important to me to mention to the readers that Cableguys did not pay me for what I’m about to say. I’m genuinely enthusiastic about this plugin because it’s really just that great!

“So, ShaperBox was a game changer for me and an indispensable tool all throughout the score for Doom, for both mixing and creative purposes. I used it mainly on the synths and guitars, taming frequencies and reshaping envelopes. It’s a big reason the guitars and synths sit so tightly together in the mix.

“One of the many ways I used ShaperBox was controlling the volume and filter envelopes of the guitars and synths, and keeping them sounding super tight by getting them out of the way of the drums (the kick mainly) and other conflicting elements in the mix. I also used it to create crazy rhythms for the synths and SFX.”

ShaperBoxes locked and loaded! A peek inside the project for David's 'Dragon Ride' from The Ancient Gods Pt. 2

Which is your favourite Shaper and why?

“That’s a hard one. They’re all terrific and each have their own unique abilities and purposes. I distorted everything on Doom all the time, so I got very familiar with DriveShaper and CrushShaper. I love those a lot.

“Aside from that, I just love the ducking, volume automation and endless rhythmic possibilities that I have within each Shaper. Before ShaperBox, I’d have to use at least four completely different plugins to achieve what one instance of ShaperBox can on its own – and with great ease, I might add!”

You use a lot of simultaneous instances of ShaperBox at times. How do you approach that in terms of workflow? And do you have any favourite Shaper combos?

“Yes, I have dozens of instances of ShaperBox in each session – an average track count for any given Doom session is around 200 tracks.

“When I first insert an instance of ShaperBox on a track, I’ll draw the initial envelope by hand, then save it as a [Wave] preset and recall it in any other Shaper I might use in that same instance of ShaperBox. The ability to do that, by the way, is ingenious and has saved me hours.

“My absolute favourite combo is Drive or CrushShaper followed by WidthShaper. It’s nothing fancy, but it works so well and really helps certain things pop out in the mix in the most musical way possible. Having the sound saturate gradually as it gets wider is a thing of beauty!”

What is best in life? To see your enemies crushed, driven and, er, widened before you – all with David's favorite Shaper combo

Your setup features a lot of hardware synths and outboard. What does ShaperBox bring to the table that all that hardware doesn’t?

“Many things! Speed; recall; a simple and intuitive UI; swapping and changing the order of the Shapers takes seconds, as opposed to doing it on hardware which involves re-patching, reworking the gain staging, etc. And honestly, it’s just endless fun and a true creative sandbox. Anything is possible with it, and it’s packaged in such a sophisticated yet simple to use way. Can you tell I’m a massive fan yet?!”

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