Starting the music composer journey as a percussionist and drummer has definitely shaped the way I approach music and music production. Many times I set aside my bent towards the craft in order to fit the demand of what’s needed and essential for the production I’m working on. However, in some cases, it has been a great benefit because percussion is a great pacesetter for EPIC and larger than life compositions.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been privileged to score some works that have required enormous amounts of percussion. The most recent production piece for something like this we pushed past the 200 track mark for percussion alone – not including glockenspiel, piatti, sus cymbal work, etc. The variety was quite expansive as well – from 3 drum kits, cajon’s, doumbek’s, Taiko’s, Djun’ Djun’s, marching bass drums, concert snares…the list goes on and on. It was a big set-up. Then, to have an orchestra layered over the percussion just broadened an already massive display of sound and created a unique depth.
Through the production of working on these huge perc beds I’ve learned a few things that I thought I might share. Learning these lessons have helped me to better navigate what works, and what does not, and how to bring clarity to something that can, at first glance, seem to be too much running the risk of losing space for other instrumentation and making things too “muddy”.
1. Subtlety is everything. Precision in dynamics. You can still get a big sound while playing soft. In one of the sessions I had all the drummers use their fingertips to play a march on different pitched snare drums that layered in with 9 drum kits. We stacked it a few times and it really popped within the ensemble and mix.
2. Layers are very important! Layers with different drums playing the same rhythm creates depth and energy. As an example – start with deep medium and large toms to gather that attack, then softly layer medium sized Taikos, then a little more dynamically pronounced add Surdo’s, and for even bigger thunderous undertones, add timpani and larger Taikos.
3. Also a part of adding layers – Use a different array of drums and perc (hand drums, shakers, triangles, etc…) to create counter rhythms that subtly move between the main percussive drive. These rhythmic undertones do not need to be dynamically heavy. They help create variations of movement within the framework of the main percussive focal point. Another possible layer – learning to add programming into the mix is also a great tool to use. Combining a boomy 808 kick with Surdo accents can be a nice effect.
4. Create counter accents with different drums. Don’t use the same drums to drive the accent marks. Split it up. I’ve found that this is a great tool when writing for action cues. Helps drive the energy and can support the intensity and movement of the scene.
5. Dynamics. Dynamics. Dynamics. Vital.
If anyone has any other points to share – feel free to add! I’m still learning (that’s a lifelong thing) and am always open to other ideas and creative pursuits that expand my knowledge beyond the view of the completed canvas in front of me.
*After answering some questions on and off the board related to this post – wanted to offer: If you have a specific question in mind and would like some feedback – feel free to send me a message. I’ll answer it as quickly as I’m able.