Last month, we explored the basics of orchestral and
cinematic percussion. As the function of the percussion section expands
in orchestral music, so must our concepts of how to approach them in our
scores. Let’s take a look at a few methods that will help.
Instruments in an orchestra’s percussion section are
typically divided into four classifications based on how they produce
sound: body vibration (cymbal, cowbell, vibraphone); striking a head or
membrane (snare drum, bass drum, timpani); striking strings (hammered
dulcimer, berimbau); or blowing air through the body (slide whistle,
samba whistle). A less informative classification is “unpitched” versus
“pitched.” When using samples in a virtual orchestra, it’s more useful
to view all percussion as having some component of pitch;
however, it’s always a good idea to consider the feel derived by the
different methods of sound creation and how that affects your approach
to playing the virtual instrument.
Many percussion instruments create a sound with so many
overtones that they’re considered to have no discernible pitch, like a
snare drum. While you can’t necessarily play a melody with these
instruments, it is possible to change the relative center frequency of
many so-called “unpitched” instruments, usually by modifying the tension
of their heads. Rock drummers do this all the time, especially with
their toms. Cymbals aren’t individually tuneable; however, different
cymbals have different pitches relative to each other and can be chosen
according to what sounds best. “Unpitched” is really a misnomer, as many
percussion instruments still imply a set of tones.
Fig. 1. For this log drum patch in Cinesamples CinePerc,
the tuning has been lowered 35 cents in Native Instruments Kontakt to
match the drum’s pitch to a specific note that matches other instruments
in the score.
It’s not uncommon at recording sessions to tweak the pitch
of tunable percussion or choose cymbals or a tambourine with an ear
towards how the overtones blend with the basic key of a piece of music.
The goal is to minimize the primary overtones from ringing in a
frequency range that rubs unpleasantly against the core of the music.
This is largely a “feel” thing, so trust your ears and don’t be afraid
to nix a cymbal you otherwise like because it feels out of tune with the
current piece of music.
Tuning drums for each song and maintaining a large
collection of cymbals and other percussion toys at various pitches is
both hard work and expensive; however, it is easy to adjust the overall
pitch of a virtual instrument in soft samplers like Native Instruments
Kontakt (see Figure 1), so don’t hesitate to use this
feature to help your sampled percussion sound better. Extreme pitch
changes usually aren’t necessary, unless for special effect; you want
just enough to transpose the overtones to a place that interacts better
with the other instruments. Oftentimes, you’ll find less EQ and other
effects are needed if the relative pitches for your percussion are given
some attention. Try it with orchestral bass and snare drums, cymbals,
tambourines, cowbell, bongos or pretty much any unpitched percussion
For instance, if you’re writing an action cue in G
minor with a lot of low strings playing root notes, and you’re using a
low-pitched ethnic drum for accents that seems to imply a B note, this will clash. Slightly lowering the pitch down to around a Bb
will fit the tonality of the cue much better, and this slight pitch
shift won’t destroy the overall realism of the sampled drum. If pitching
down doesn’t work, you can actually go higher (to C) and the diatonic implication will still most likely make the drum sit better in the music.
Many of the pitched percussion instruments are struck by
mallets, such as the timpani, glockenspiel, marimba, and xylophone.
Occasionally, you’ll find some instruments with unconventional methods
for generating sounds, like using a double-bass bow with crotales (which
are usually hit with mallets) to create an eerie ringing sound. Pitched
percussion instruments are traditionally great for adding color, like
doubling a flute melody with a glockenspiel or using timpani to
reinforce the root note of a chord (see Figure 2).
|Fig. 2. Vir2 Elite Orchestral Percussion provides key-switched performance triggers for playing roles, triple-strokes and choking the instrument.
Rhythmic precision is much easier to maintain with
percussion than with bowed or blown instruments, so complex melodic and
harmonic ostinatos that carry on for long periods are a strong suit for
pitched percussion. Many novice orchestrators fail to fully exploit the
percussive aspect of the pitched percussion instruments, usually
defaulting to the unpitched ones for rhythm and accents. A well-manned
percussion section is capable of carrying whole sections of an
orchestral score melodically, harmonically and rhythmically all on its
own for extended lengths of time in a way that sounds very different
from the other sections of the orchestra. Try digging deeper into the
pitched percussion section the next time your orchestration ideas hit a
Many of the action film, TV, and video game scores today
may use traditional-sounding strings, horns, and woodwinds, but the
percussion is far from conventional. World music, rock, and electronica
have all had a major influence on the rhythmic underpinning. As we
introduced in last month’s column, “cinematic” is an umbrella term for
music-to-moving-picture applications, not a fixed sound set or
approach—pretty much anything goes.
|Fig. 3. EastWest Quantum Leap StormDrum 2 has built-in effects. In
this example, a set of bongos if being filtered with moderate
resonance, along with some stereo spread, delay and reverb for a
tripped-out music bed.
A number of current sample libraries are designed specifically for the cinematic, like Big Fish Audio Cinematic Percussion, EWQL StormDrum (I and II), Heavyocity Damage, ProjectSAM True Strike (I and II) and Sonivox Big Bang Cinematic Percussion. Most of these have built-in loops, kits and effects to help send you on your way to sonic mayhem (see Figure 3).
Studying how these libraries are constructed and
implemented is hugely informative if you’re more interested in creating
your own cinematic percussion beds. Start with a couple of good
orchestral and world percussion libraries, add a handful of plug-ins
(resonant filter, EQ, sub-harmonic generator, delay, reverb, modulation)
and start building a collection of loops you can use to audition sounds
later. Save your channel strips and effects presets and, before you
know it, you’ll have some original and interesting percussion textures
that can be further enhanced when layered with commercial libraries.