Epic Drums for Video Game and Film Soundtracks
How to dial up the intensity and drama for maximum impact, keeping your listeners on the edges of their seats.
JUNE 27TH, 2021
If you produce music for video games or epic films, you’ll inevitably need to create bombastic percussion sounds. In this article, we’ll explore how to make it sound as epic and huge as possible!
Getting the ‘big’ sound you want
In cinematic percussion, you’ll find a bunch of recurring world instruments, such as:
- Tam tams
- Various stick hits
- Bassy sound design percussion
- Plus too many more to count
When producing epic percussion, you need a balance of thunderous, sharp, light, and driving timbres to round out the percussion section as a whole. The idea is to combine different sounds and frequency ranges and create a balanced spectrum to carry your song forward. Combined with the right effects and processing, it doesn’t take much to build out a powerful sound quickly — and to get that huge cinematic sound, first you need to master compression — but in a very different style than you’re likely used to.
Two major aspects of cinematic drums are the attack and release; you need a thick attack on the front end to get a hefty smack, but you also need an explosive tail to each note. With this style of compression, you’ll notice a powerful attack followed by a quick duck in volume, then a swell in volume immediately after — all on every single big drum hit. This is the recipe for a huge sound! If the attack is sharp but the release is too slow, you’ll miss that swell and the body and tail of each hit will fall limp. This isn’t the case for every instrument, though — more on that in a bit!
We’re about to go into a lot more juicy details about how to create epic percussion easy and quickly with virtually zero guesswork, but helps to have a drum library on hand to go through these exercises with us — UJAM’s Symphonic Elements DRUMS are the best way to take advantage of every single strategy you read in this article, with a blend of powerful single hits, sound design percussion and massive organic loops you can edit at will and dissect to understand this process on a much deeper level — you can download it free for 30 days. Try the ACT Taiko Army if you want a bombastic start!
Epic drum rhythms and grooves
Much of what you’ll hear comes down to big, syncopated notes from the larger drums and fast, rapid grooves from the smaller ones. Bearing that mind, here are some time-saving techniques you can keep coming back to.
You’ll rarely go wrong with constant 8th notes, adding in 16th notes here and there to introduce variety. Get 4 to 8 bars of this going, and soon you’ll have plenty of space filled in. Do this with a single instrument first, then add in other layers with slightly modified rhythms. Record them separately, don’t copy and paste — epic drums are mainly about acoustic drums, and in order for them to sound organic, they must be slightly out of sync with each other (which is also why you should never quantize the rhythm too heavily). If all your drums line up perfectly with each other, the transients will be too in sync and everything will sound robotic and weak. Feel free to try it and see — but once you switch to slightly ‘off’ drum grooves, you’ll never go back!
In order for your drums to sound truly epic, don’t always bring out the big guns like taikos and tam tams; save them for the right moments. This contrast makes them far more powerful once you finally bring them in. To extend the life of your drum grooves while saving the huge, thunderous drums for later, add smaller percussion like shakers, rim hits and anything click-y. Record patterns with all 16th notes and sparingly add in 32nds for flavor. Toss them in quietly so they’re not obvious — you’ll feel the effect long before you hear it, and most of your audience won’t be able to pick out exactly what’s going on. But they’ll definitely notice if you do it just right.
When it’s finally time to bring out the hefty drums, your temptation may be to load up the mix with busy grooves — but while there’s a time and place for that, start with syncopated rhythms of dotted quarter notes or something similar. There’s no perfect drum pattern, but the idea is to start with less and then only add more if it’s absolutely necessary. Ironically, one of the most effective ways to make your drums more epic is by not using them at full speed — always leave room for them to grow! If you frequently get stuck in your drum writing in the biggest sections, it could be because you already had extremely powerful drums in the previous section and there’s simply no way to make them sound more massive than they already are. If you catch yourself doing this, strip out some layers and make the grooves less busy in previous sections, thereby giving the drums more room to breathe and evolve. You’ll be amazed at how quickly this alleviates your writer’s block!
Transitions and sweeteners
It’s not just about creating massive loops — subtle details are what keep things interesting for the listener and avoid boring repetition. There are tons of patterns and articulations to keep your listeners on their toes; let’s tackle a few of them.
First, rolls: these are super common, but when used sparingly they pack a punch. If there’s dead space between phrases or entire sections, rolls can fill in the space and quickly ramp up the intensity. Rolls on bigger drums like taikos feel especially full and sub-heavy, making them a great way to fill empty space as well. Combined with a cymbal swell and a meaty hit as the roll ends, you have a rapid transition whenever you need something quick and dirty.
Next, flams and double hits: these are when a drum is hit with the left and right mallets (or hands) in rapid succession, rather than together, too quickly to be considered separate notes. This is easy to overuse, especially in fast rhythms — which is why you should reserve it for sparse passages or syncopated notes for extra emphasis. This technique works for virtually any size drum, and it creates the illusion of two instruments being played together. Multiplied across different drums, it’s a perfect recipe for a huge sound!
While it’s not exactly percussion-related, there’s something else that will instantly make your drums more exciting: sound design fx. Short risers, swooshes, and anything else that ramps up quickly in volume and/or pitch. Not only is this effective at filling dead space, but you also introduce more timbral diversity and switch up the palette, which is one of the most effective methods of ensuring listeners stay engaged!
Of course, there are also drum fills — employing these before major section changes can set the tone for what’s to come and provide you with an opportunity to introduce even more variety than you’d have otherwise. They’re also a fun excuse to introduce a completely new set of drums into the mix! We cover the key steps to creating consistently powerful drum fills in our article, How to Mix Percussion; check it out if you want to dive even deeper!
Next, we’re going to explore everything you need to tie your entire epic percussion section together.
Mixing all your percussion layers together
As we mentioned above, you want a lot of bass, reverb, and long and hefty releases ... but not from every instrument at the same time! In cinematic music, you need a range of huge, medium-sized and small drums, woods and metals, each with a different role to play. Perhaps the easiest way to separate this is by the frequency range each drum generally occupies.
First, big drums: these are your bass drums, taikos, and anything else with a huge membrane. Dialing up the bass is critical in the dry signal, but you must high pass filter your reverb send so the mix doesn’t get garbled and muddy. Compress heavily with a short release to make the tail end explosive! The transients should be strong, but use other drum and wood layers to inject high frequencies into the attacks since no one percussion instrument can perform every function. The other major factor here is reverb — it should be large, but not uncontrolled. Use a longer pre-delay and length, and filter out both the highs and lows.
Mid-sized and small small drums should focus on tone and punch — high pass filter them so they don’t get in the way of the large drums. If you’re not sure how to distribute the rhythm between different percussion instruments, simply give the fastest rhythms to the highest-pitch, shortest-tail instruments (wood blocks, castanets, etc.) and get progressively less busy as the pitches get lower. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, but it’s a great way to get yourself unstuck. Compress them, but don’t make them as explosive as bigger drums — keep them light and controlled, as they provide a nimbleness that large drums can’t.
Metals like the triangle, brake drums and any number of others are excellent for adding tone color, and many are equally useful when used sparingly or frequently (of course, there are also some obvious ones which are best used infrequently, such as wind chimes). While you can stack drums upon drums, be more cautious with metals — they tend to clash when layered, so it’s best to use them mainly as accents. Always filter out the low frequencies except for occasional creative decisions.
There’s a ton of nuance to epic drum production, but when you nail it, it becomes one of the most rewarding aspects of music production with instant gratification thrown in! Tweak your grooves, compression settings, reverb, EQ and even distortion until you get a sound you love. Whenever possible, record via a MIDI keyboard, because with acoustic drums, note velocities and slight timing variations are the fastest way to avoid your drums sounding lifeless and mechanical.
Also, don’t shoot for an epic sound all the time — using less busy moments and even silence will give the intentionally epic sections way more impact! Save it for the right time, and build up multiple layers so you can control the intensity at will. Ultimately, you’ll want to optimize for the maximum amount of overall drama, which means holding back most of the time until you unleash the pent up energy at just the right time. Have fun, stay in control, and save the best for the most climactic moments!
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