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Of late I've been working on a project where I've needed a sound reminiscent of modern soundtracks such as The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins and Battlestar Galactica, especially with the big percussion arrangements.

So, having pretty much learned from scratch here, I thought I might share my findings with the good members of the forum. I'm really going to talk about un-tuned percussion here so I'm afraid my thoughts on marimbas, glockenspiels, vibraphones, harps and even pianos will have to wait for another time. I'm also going to be omitting working with loops. I do use some loops from various products but they are usually well produced and fit right into a mix.

Percussive Instruments in a Modern 'Action' Soundtrack
Modern percussive soundtracks have been known to use all manner of strange instruments however there are a few that are almost ubiqitous.

Firstly, 'standard' orchestral percussion is worth looking at. These are instruments likely to be found in a 21st century symphonic orchestra without searching too hard. Without going too far here I think we can safely assume a gran cassa (bass drum), timpanis (yes I know they are tuned but we should consider them), snares, military/field drum and orchestral toms. These are all useful and it would be good to have excellent quality samples of these instruments with a strong sound, selection of miking ranges and a versatile set of articulations.

I generally use the stage mikes from Project SAM True Strike for this but there are good instruments within East West's Symphonic Orchestra. I've struggled to get good results from VSL here because I feel that at least some room sound is needed and I don't manage to achieve it with Altiverb. CineToms are an excellent range of orchestral toms that I've been using of late. I absolutely love their sound and they seem to drop into a mix beautifully.

Various pieces of percussion can supplement the standard orchestra including anvils, brake drums and metal sheets (think of the Uruk-Hai theme from LotR). I often use EW for these sounds.

So, moving away from the orchestra, the most common sound you're likely to hear these days is the Japanese taiko drum. A fantastic sound and there are plenty of samples around to use. My current faves are the Tsaiko library from Sean Beeson. I believe it's not currently available but a new upgraded version will be available very soon. I also use taikos from StormDrum, RA and True Strike 2.

There are many other world percussion instruments that are commonly used (log drums, frame drums, lion drums, talking drums). I use Flying Hand Percussion for a lot of these. I'm not going to go into specifics about many of these because I tend to treat percussion in a very specific way which I'll detail below. Having said that, if anyone can find me a good bhangra dhol sample then I'd be very happy.

Arranging the Percussion
In a big action piece with a lot of percussion, it's quite useful to observe a fairly straightforward rule of thumb:


If I need a frantic high tempo 16th note rhythm then I'll need it played on something that takes up a tiny fraction of the mix. I didn't know this on my first big percussion track (Thunder) and the percussion sounds incredibly unwieldy and cumbersome as a result.

Incidentally, my usual fallback for this kind of rhythm these days are the pulli sticks samples from EW Storm Drum (or RA, I forget). They are the perfect tiny sound which cuts through a mix.

So, to complete this arrangement, I create four groups of percussion. The first group is called "Patter" and includes pulli sticks and similar instruments that I'll use for those fast rhythms. I then create "Small Drums", "Large Drums" and "Booms". Toms and snares go into small drums, taikos into large and then various bass drums into booms. I'll also often use StormDrum Thunder Ensemble hits, True Strike Ensemble Hits, True Strike 2 Cinematic Hits and Stylus RMX Big Boomers in this group.

In this way, I'll often think of sounds without caring too much about the instruments. Not very purist I know but these tracks are often supplemented by electric guitars and synths so I'm not really thinking purist when I do this. Many of the percussion samples are produced beyond all manner of recognition anyway.

If you want to be more analytical about the percussion breakdown then it's worth also noting which instruments are dry and which include ambience. If an instrument is damped or left to ring may be worth categorising as well - you could even consider putting damped timps into small drums and ringing timps into large drums. If you include metal instruments you may wish to give them a separate category (or multiple separate categories).

Writing a Basic 'Action Rhythm'
This is not going to go through how to write a great action rhythm piece but here are a couple of simple and common ideas that I've used.

Firstly action pieces are usually played at 16th note rhythms. I've written battle pieces in 12/8 (i.e. with 8th note triplets) as well.

Either way, I'll be concentrating on letting the "patter" instruments fill out this rhythm when I need it. That means generally using, say, pulli sticks to play a continuous 16th note rhythm. Generally I'll write this in an unaccented way so I just make the first beat of every four a little louder.

The actual rhythm of the piece will usually be taken by either the "little drums" or the "big drums" (or both sometimes). If it's a pointedly military piece then this might include a lot of snare. For more standard action it will generally be toms or taikos taking this role. I usually layer 2-3 sets of instruments here and then quantise each piece using an 8 tick randomisation. This helps to give a pleasing clatter sound as they don't all hit at the same time.

Once this is sitting well then I'll start adding the more blunt punctuation from the "booms" category. These will be used to emphasise strong beats and can help to determine the "weight" of a rhythm. Sparing use of these will really help to bring out the dynamics in the track. Sometimes they may play once a bar or once every other bar. Sometimes they may hit each beat. For really big hits I'll layer up to 5 layers of instrument. It's worth checking the attack on these booms as they vary considerably across the samples.

To add further interest it's worth varying rhythms and helping them to grow and evolve. It's just soooo easy to cut and paste the entire track and build 5 boring minutes out of a great 20 seconds when a few differences are enough to keep the track from stagnating: -

- Vary instrumentation (move the main rhythm from toms to taikos, add or remove snares)
- Move the emphasis in the rhythm (add new heavy beats, add in bars of odd time signatures)
- Change dynamics (either by adding/removing instruments or simply playing quiter or louder)
- Vary tempo (perhaps move to a new tempo or a half time feel)

Producing the Track
A lot of modern percussion samples are really beautifully produced and they drop in a track without much effort at all. Some are less friendly and need some work. I try to avoid using much EQ but it can be worth dropping out any bottom end from instruments that don't need it. If you don't care about the purity of the basic sound then some extreme cutting in the low-mid range can really lighten up the sounds of bigger drums (timps, taikos) and make them usable in busier rhythms.

I also tend to use some close instruments and some really ambient instruments to give a sense of space. Generally the smaller instruments are very dry and the big loose booms are very ambient. The mid-range instruments might be a blend instruments with differing ambience but I tend to err on the dry side to prevent a cluttered sound.

Wow! More than I intended to write (again). I hope this is useful.

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Comment by James Semple on April 11, 2009 at 5:29pm
I mentioned about looking for a great library for a dhol library ... well the amazing Tonehammer gang have brought one out and it sounds amazing!

This is the main drum used in the Bourne films scores!
Comment by Doug Lauber on February 24, 2009 at 5:48pm
OK. So, I came to the party late, but it was well worth it. Great advice!
Comment by David Dean Freeman on August 21, 2008 at 12:49pm
Thanks James, I'm currently doing an on line Orchestration course With Berklee.
and this weeks assignment is Percussion, so your advice is well timed.
much appreciated.
Comment by Neil Bruce on August 8, 2008 at 9:37am
Thanks for that James!! Fantastically useful!
Comment by James Semple on July 31, 2008 at 3:08am
Ray, hopefully my principles will apply to less frantic work too but in retrospect I realise that my post was skewed in that direction.
Comment by Mike Torr on July 30, 2008 at 6:26am
It most certainly is useful - thanks James! Your rule of thumb makes for a pattern that reminds me of a fractal - a small number of large things and a large number of small things. Of course, that's true of many musical structures anyway. It can't be coincidence that so many musicians are also mathematicians and software engineers etc. :)

Actually, if I had to sum up why I love music so much, I'd probably say "because it's mathematical in nature, yet defies rigorous analysis."

I look forward to trying some of these tips once I get my libraries fully sorted out!

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