Other-worldly percussion in an orchestral landscape sounds thoroughly modern. When excitement is called for, not having loads of massive percussion often sounds empty and, well, quaint. I can’t imagine the driving intensity of a Batman score feeling the same with just an orchestral bass drum and temple block behind the string and brass sections.
Influenced by years of pop music, percussion has become an
increasingly dominant force in many modern orchestral scores,
especially in film and TV music. Practically every dramatic action cue
is underpinned with hyped, percussive ostinatos and booming accents from
either live players or samples—or both—that often dominate the rest of
However, there’s more to the orchestral percussion section
than sub-shaking tympani and taiko drums. Although too numerous to
mention all the possibilities, also traditionally found are gongs, snare
drums, tam-tams, shakers, tambourines, wind chimes, cymbals, triangles,
and more. Glockenspeil, vibes, marimba, and tubular bells add both
melodic and harmonic content, usually handled by a dedicated musician
who specializes in pitched percussion.
Old Versus New
In today’s orchestral music, the specific demands of the
score drive the size and makeup of the percussion ensemble. There are no
rules anymore regarding percussion—or even what qualifies as being called
percussion. It’s not uncommon for big-budget films to use sections of
specialty percussionists and esoteric instruments in order to sound
unique. A great amount of both commercially available and customized
percussive samples and synths show up in everything today from
blockbuster movies to TV ads, as the symphonic and pop pallets are fused
further into various hybrids.
Fig. 1. Elite Orchestral Percussion provides several pages of editing options, including keyswitching for various articulations.
There’s a distinction between “orchestral” and “cinematic”
percussion. Orchestral percussion are the more natural-sounding
traditional instruments that work equally well for classical repertoire
and modern music; while cinematic sounds tend to be larger-than-life and
not wholly natural through sound design, and/or derived from world
Several standout libraries see a lot of action with composers. On the traditional orchestral side, Big Fish Audio London Orchestral Percussion, Sonivox Symphonic Percussion, and East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra cover most of the bases and sound great in a classical context. Vir2 Elite Orchestral Percussion
bridges the gap nicely between orchestral and cinematic, and a
selection of ethnic instruments are included. The sounds are large and
rich, and in some instances may actually be too big for a traditional
On the cinematic side, ProjectSAM True Strike (I and II) and Quantum Leap StormDrum (I and II) are staples of film, TV, and multimedia. Two great-sounding newcomers are Spitfire’s Percussion and Vir2’s World Impact: Global Percussion.
Developed with Native Instruments, Heavyocity Damage (reviewed Nov.
’12) is a great choice for contemporary action films and darker dramatic
scenes. At this point, the lines between orchestral, cinematic, and
ethnic percussion start to blur as these libraries include some of all;
and there are many more libraries out there to choose from.
Getting percussion to sit correctly in a mix is always a
challenge with samples. It’s almost always necessary to use one or two
unifying reverbs to tie all your orchestral sounds together cohesively,
and a percussive instrument is going to reveal the virtual room for your
virtual orchestra quite clearly.
| Fig. 2. The upper left panel of Spitfire Percussion allows balancing between close, Decca tree, and ambient mics. Round-robin repeated samples and key-switching are also available
To test this out, I like to call up a few percussion
sounds, like a timpani, snare drum, and marimba. These cover a wide
range of transients and frequencies that will reveal how your reverb or
virtual acoustic space will perform.
Orchestral percussion are usually positioned towards the
back of the ensemble and require a bit more reverb; so when you find the
size and color of hall and early reflections that work in the way you
want, the same ambience tends to work well for strings, brass, and
Keep in mind the “size” of the sampled instruments. Most
good libraries are recorded fairly dry and close, as it’s always easier
to make something sound smaller and farther away than the other way
around. The result is that many sounds out of the box tend to be too
large for an orchestral ensemble and need to be shaped to some degree.
| Fig. 3. World Impact: Global Percussion sorts sounds by both type of instruments and world regions.
Depending on the specific sound of the instrument, it may
be necessary to roll off some bottom end—and maybe even a touch of top
end—to “move” the instrument back in the mix. The proper combination of
EQ and ambience is key to getting the percussion to fit properly in a
traditional orchestral setting.
As mentioned before, there are no rules on the cinematic
side. In fact, “the bigger the better” is usually the maxim; although
manipulating the “size” of your percussion is still a critical issue
that demands a good handle on signal processing, even with the best
What to do if you don’t own any of the previously
mentioned libraries and need to sound cinematic? Roll your own, of
course. You’d be surprised at what you can create with much of what you
probably already have. Some of the most mundane sounds can be become
massive when processed with extreme EQ and filtering, effects,
pitch-shifting, and layering with other sounds.
Decide on the sonic area of an instrument you want to be
prominent and boost those frequencies with a fairly narrow EQ, for
example, the low end of a bass drum sound around 90Hz. Pull out a lot of
other frequencies to make room for other instruments—you’re going for
exciting, not natural. If there’s another component you want, like a
brighter clack on top, find a cymbal or wood sound and mangle
that with EQ and maybe a slow phaser. Now layer the two sounds; and
maybe even add a heavily filtered, pitched synth under them that
subliminally follows the root notes of the score. Then add a distinctive
reverb sound to it all. Remember again, there are no rules—if it sounds
good, it is good.
As inspiring as scrolling through factory presets from a
sample library may be, making your own sounds is fun and makes you
better at sound design. This is an asset for higher levels of composing
work, so experiment!