A top‑tier film composer shares his coveted percussion collection. Is this the best cinematic drums library ever?
While reviewing Orchestral Tools’ Junkie XL Brass collection a year or so ago I watched a few clips from the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, scored by the library’s author. One scene stayed with me: the blind, terrifying scarlet‑clad figure of Coma the Doof Warrior leading Immortan Joe’s militia into battle on top of a speeding truck, swinging from ropes in front of a wall of speakers and banging out Djent riffs on a flame‑throwing double‑necked guitar (well, it could happen). The visuals were startling enough, but the accompanying soundtrack was mind‑boggling.
In this astonishing racket, a full‑blown orchestra engages in mortal combat with the composer’s arsenal of analogue synths, explosive industrial noises and detuned percussive guitar riffs. The string players hack out staccato rhythms as if trying to saw their instruments in half, striving to be heard over Junkie XL’s triple‑forte low brass, which sounds here like a cross between massed Tibetan horns and a bellowing herd of gigantosauruses. Powering this fearsome din is a regiment of big, battering percussion, a relentless bludgeoning onslaught which helped define the ‘epic cinematic drums’ genre and spawned countless imitators over the years.
Listening to this enjoyable slice of musical mayhem, the thought crossed my mind, ‘I wish I had those drums.’ Fast forward a year, and I’m happy to say those very same drums are now sitting on my hard drive. And thanks to an uncommon act of generosity by their creator, those drums are now available to everyone, packaged up and ready to rumble in the new sample library Tom Holkenborg’s Percussion.
THP is the second collaboration between the award‑winning composer (whose film credits include 300: Rise Of An Empire, Deadpool, Batman vs Superman, Tomb Raider, Mortal Engines, Terminator: Dark Fate, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Godzilla vs Kong) and the leading European sample company Orchestral Tools. The library exactly duplicates Holkenborg’s personal percussion setup, comprising a large number of instruments acquired over the last eight years and featuring the drum sound which changed the face of Hollywood action film music.
Let’s clear up the name thing. Questioned on his dual identity, Holkenborg says, “It’s technically Tom, Junkie XL became my producer name in the mid‑’90s. When putting out my remix of Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’ my agent had a conversation with a lawyer from the Elvis estate who said, “We love the remix, what’s this guy’s name again?” My agent said, “His name is Junkie XL,” and it went quiet at the other end, “you’ve gotta be f**king kidding me!” So for that release we changed it to JXL, a name we use if ‘Junkie’ is too sensitive. I still do movies under the name of Junkie XL if the movie is strongly rooted in pop culture, but if it’s more like a serious drama it’s Tom Holkenborg.”
Somewhat confusingly, Orchestral Tools’ Junkie XL Brass (reviewed in SOS in October 2020) has now been renamed Tom Holkenborg’s Brass. THP, the new percussion library, comprises 38 instruments sampled at up to 115 velocity layers, and like the brass library, runs exclusively on OT’s proprietary Sine player.
Though Holkenborg uses a wide variety of drums in his film soundtracks, the drum samples he describes as ‘the heart of his library’ were created for the above mentioned Mad Max extravaganza, and all of them are faithfully duplicated in THP. Their unique sonic signature stems from the inclusion of surdo and tupan drums, which take the place of the timpani and taikos found in today’s percussion collections.
The surdo is a large two‑headed cylindrical drum made of wood or metal. Played with beaters, its deep, resonant thump provides the heartbeat of Brazilian samba music. Holkenborg sampled five surdos ranging in size from 18” to 23”, carefully multisampling each drum then re‑sampling it with the skin tightened to produce a higher pitch. This low/high tuning option recurs throughout the library.
You might imagine that one surdo sounds much the same as another, but that’s not the case here: each drum has a different character, and the tuning strongly affects the tone. Some patches sound like explosive floor toms, while others sound like orchestral bass drums played with a hard mallet. My personal favourite is the high 20” surdo, a clean, deep‑toned resonant drum with a fabulous ringing sustain.
While surdo drum samples have long been available, tupans are a relative newcomer. Holkenborg introduced this traditional Bulgarian folk drum to his Hollywood soundtracks with great results: though their animal skins render them somewhat less dynamic and darker‑sounding than the surdos, the tupans sampled here pack a fantastic low‑end wallop and can be combined with the surdos to devastating effect.
In contrast to these colourful world drums is the more familiar, mass‑produced sound of a set of four Yamaha concert toms. Rather than rock kit toms, these are the stand‑mounted type used nowadays in contemporary classical music. The quieter hits of the 10” and high‑tuned 12” sizes have a nice tuneful ring and sound great playing melodic patterns, while the larger toms have more of a percussive, bright and battering rock‑like timbre.
Pronounced ‘tie’, Taye Drums are a California‑based company who enjoy a good reputation among pro drummers due to their high standards of craftsmanship. One satisfied customer is Holkenborg, who bought eight of their toms ranging from 8” to 18” in size, each presented in a single tuning. These toms have more of a conventional rock timbre, with the smaller drums displaying an ear‑catching pitch fall in their decay. I’ve always enjoyed this effect (though I draw a line at its electronic equivalent, the ‘dew dew dew’ Syndrum noise which lives on in the Eastenders theme).
The large 18” Taye floor tom is one of the stars of the library. Deep‑pitched, beautifully resonant and sustaining with a clean attack, its quiet dynamic has a great ominous quality, while its momentous, slamming loud hits are among the most powerful in the library — a great, super‑dynamic instrument. Speaking of dynamics, though THP’s drums are advertised as containing up to 90 velocity layers, I found that the high 10” concert tom and 8” Taye tom actually have 115 and 103 respectively, with five additional clangy loud flams thrown in for good measure. Sure beats those old four‑way velocity splits!
I usually associate marching band drums with the crisp, parchment‑like rattle of massed high‑tuned snares, but THP’s marching band set is a different animal. Acquired on the internet at a knockdown price, the five drums range from 8” to 20”. The latter has a wonderfully big, imposing and enveloping sound with a long timpani‑like decay; Holkenborg says he often uses it in preference to his regular bass drums, and its fabulous low tuning patch gets my ‘best in show’ award. The smaller, tom‑like marching drums all sound good and strong.
Like a bicycle, rock bass drums are normally pedalled, but in this collection they’re played with a beater, creating a sharper attack quite unlike the flappy boom of an orchestral gran casa. The author (who has played drums since the age of eight) sampled four of his favourite bass drums in a choice of high and low tunings with up to 75 velocity layers: I enjoyed the boomy resonance of the high 20” and 22” versions, while some of the less resonant options would make good epic EDM or hip‑hop kicks.
Though Holkenborg has on occasions commissioned custom instruments for film projects, the so‑called ‘custom drums’ in this library are actually taken from Yamaha’s Custom or Custom Stage drum kit range. The low‑pitched ‘Birch’ 12” toms and 18” bass drum were apparently coveted by the producer for years, but its $15,000 price tag put him off. Other potential customers obviously felt the same way, and when it finally became clear it wasn’t going to sell, the store owner sold our man the kit for less than 10 percent of the original asking price. As they say, everything comes to he who waits — a comforting thought as I await that inevitable lottery jackpot win.
Listening to the monstrous sound of the Custom Birch drums, it’s hard to believe this kit was designed for jazz — heavy metal would seem a better fit, but then virtually every drum in this library takes on an epic quality when you play its clobbering loud hits. On a less cataclysmic note, I enjoyed the high‑tuned 10” Custom tom’s sonorous pitch die‑away, the aggressive attack of its 12” partner and the 16” floor tom’s thunderous rumble.
If you get a call to knock up some epic music in a hurry and don’t have time to wade through this library’s menus to find the drums you need, the Quad Toms patch could save the day. This combination was created by placing a drum kit in each corner of a big space, carefully multisampling each kit’s low toms then combining the samples into a single playable 55‑velocity patch. It sounds absolutely immense, with notes becoming more obviously flammed as they get louder.
Though Tom Holkenborg’s velocity mapping system (explained in the box) was designed for keyboard players, drummers have not been forgotten. THP’s Performance Kit presents 16 instruments in a conventional velocity‑split setup which preserves the drums’ vast dynamic range. Played from an electronic drum kit or drum pads, this patch sounds amazingly lifelike — close your eyes, and you’d swear you’re hearing live drums.
Though it packs plenty of thrills, THP is short on frills. Other than the loud double‑handed flams appended to many patches, it consists entirely of straight single hits; there are no mallet variations or shell hits, and no common‑or‑garden percussion items like snare drums and cymbals, leading some wags to say the library should be retitled ‘Tom’s toms’. Given this lack of articulation choices, the library uses no keyswitches (though you can easily create your own multiple instrument setups).
Despite being in existence for over a year, the Sine engine lacks facilities we’ve come to expect in a sample player: there are no built‑in effects, and the only way you can detune samples is to use the pitch wheel (restricted here to two semitones). The plus side (and it’s a huge plus) is you can buy instruments separately from within Sine, which I suspect will lead to thousands of impulse buys!
Much as I enjoy a good epic drum wallop, I also love the subtle, deep, portentous and resonant sound of the instruments’ quiet hits — that’s one of this library’s unique selling points, and earns THP a place on my ‘favourites’ hard drive.
I can honestly say that in 20 years of reviewing, I’ve not heard better.
So, is this the best cinematic drums library ever? Let’s agree on one thing: over the last seven years Tom Holkenborg has single‑handedly transformed the timbre of Hollywood action film scores, as evidenced by the monumental, rampaging battle drums in Mad Max: Fury Road. That sound has been profoundly influential, shaping media composers’ thinking and spawning hundreds of imitative ‘epic drums’ sample collections. If you want that thunderous clatter, this is the best version of it you’ll ever find, since the drum samples used to create it are all faithfully duplicated in this library.
Like many composers (including Holkenborg himself), I’ll continue to use timpani, taikos, orchestral bass drums and snare drums in my arrangements, so this library won’t displace my favourite orchestral percussion titles. But when it comes to the ultra‑dynamic, beautifully clean and immaculately processed toms, bass drum hits and world music drums presented in Tom Holkenborg’s Percussion, I can honestly say that in 20 years of reviewing, I’ve not heard better.
In percussion sample libraries instruments are usually presented with all their dynamic layers and round robins mapped to a single MIDI note. Each dynamic layer has its own designated velocity zone, so by playing louder or softer you can access an instrument’s entire dynamic range from one key. Since MIDI supports up to 128 notes, this allows makers to cram a huge amount of sounds into one patch, enabling users to play multi‑percussion setups within a single sampler instrument.
While this time‑honoured system has clear advantages, Tom Holkenborg has his own take on the subject. He played every instrument in this library himself, sometimes performing over 100 hits on the same drum. Exercising precise control, he starts with super‑quiet strokes and steadily increases the volume by small degrees up to the loudest possible hits; he then maps the hits out across the keyboard with soft hits at the low end and loud ones at the top, so rather than all being stacked on the same key, each sample now has its own note.
With this system, velocity control is disabled: no matter how hard or soft you hit a key, you’ll hear the same sample. If you want a louder hit, play higher up on the keyboard; if you’re concerned about the ‘machine gun effect’ of sample repetition, just play the repeated note on an adjacent key — the dynamic difference is so miniscule that the repeat will sound entirely natural, which is not always the case with round robins.
Here’s the best bit. If you want to adjust the dynamic of a programmed part, you don’t have to edit note velocities: you simply transpose the whole part up or down until it reaches the volume you want. This preserves the part’s inner dynamic relationships, and when working with a MIDI ‘piano roll’ editor, gives a clear graphic representation of its dynamic range. For me, the great advantage of this method is its precision and repeatability — it takes the guesswork out of performance dynamics, and with no automated round‑robin cycles introducing random variations, what you program is what you get.
Er, there are two, front and back (that didn’t take long, did it?). Unlike most contemporary percussion libraries, THP was not all recorded in the same location: the library was recorded in many different spaces over a period of years, so it wasn’t possible to use the same microphone setup each time. Instead, Holkenborg recorded his drums from two stereo mic positions and processed them all in the same way, using EQ, multiband compression and reverb to create a homogeneous sound. Thus, recordings made in various different places took on a unified acoustic character.
Had I known this before auditioning the samples I might have been a bit suspicious, but in fact I was immediately bowled over by the sound and never once noticed any acoustic disparities between instruments. The front mics have an agreeable room ambience which adds some ‘air’ and subtle reflections around the samples, while the back mics sound more distant and reverberant, with tasteful light compression adding to their power. It’s a great composite sound, created by someone who knows how to mix drums for the big screen.
A welcome consequence of the limited miking scheme is that THP is a mere 4.89GB installed. This means that downloads take minutes rather than hours, instruments load quickly and working with the samples feels like a streamlined operation. From my point of view this felt liberating, and since I’m usually happy to work with a combination of a close and room stereo mic position, this simple front/back miking was entirely satisfactory.
- This library duplicates Holkenborg’s personal drum collection, as used in numerous Hollywood blockbusters.
- It’s the definitive, much‑copied ‘epic cinematic drums’ sound.
- Sampled at a huge amount of velocity layers from a whisper to a nuclear blast.
- Recorded, mixed and mastered by the author, the samples sound superb straight out of the box.
- It’s drums to the (mad) max — there are no contrasting timbres such as cymbals or gongs.
Often imitated but never bettered, this battering collection of toms, surdos, tupans, marching band and bass drums blows the roof off but also delivers great, ominous booming quiet hits and sensitive light strokes. Featuring as many as 115 (my count) velocity layers per instrument, it’s a dynamic tour de force which brings the apocalyptic Mad Max drum sound directly to your hard drive, sounding exactly as it does in Tom Holkenborg’s template.
Full collection €358.80. Single instruments: Bass drums €75.60, Surdos €86.40, Tupans €57.60, Concert toms €72, Taye toms €72, Marching Band drums €61.20, Custom drums €79.20. Prices include VAT.
Full collection €299. Single instruments: Bass drums €63, Surdos €72, Tupans €48, Concert toms €60, Taye toms €60, Marching Band drums €51, Custom drums €66.