The Virtual Orchestra Part 7 of 9: Percussion in Context

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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.

“Unpitched” Percussion

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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.

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.

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 instrument.

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.

Pitched Percussion

Fig. 2. Vir2 Elite Orchestral Percussion provides key-switched performance triggers for playing roles, triple-strokes and choking the instrument. 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 (seeFigure 2).

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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 standstill.

Cinematic Percussion

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. 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.

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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.