Spitfire Audio launch their new flagship series with an intensively‑miked drum collection.
After spending the last 15 years recording a prodigious number of sample libraries at London’s AIR Studios, Spitfire Audio appear to have found a new spiritual home. Two miles due south of AIR lies Abbey Road, legendary haunt of the Beatles and self‑styled “world’s most famous studios”. Spitfire recorded their Abbey Road One: Orchestral Foundations collection here in 2020, subsequently returning to record an ongoing series of themed Film Scoring Selections mini‑libraries. Though the producers profess their undying love for AIR Lyndhurst Hall’s sonorous acoustic, the studio manager may be nervously eyeing the bookings diary.
The latest library to emerge from Spitfire’s new hangout is Abbey Road Orchestra: Low Percussion, a collection of 20 drums recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio 1. Though this enormous space can accommodate a 110‑piece orchestra and 100‑piece choir (ear plugs not provided), ARLP (as we’ll call it) features only one performer: Joby Burgess, veteran of film scores such as Black Panther, Rocketman, Ad Astra and Mission: Impossible. This multi‑faceted percussionist also created the Virtual Marimba Choir, runs his own Powerplant and Pioneers Of Percussion solo projects, is a first‑call session player for alt‑classical recordings and has rocked out with the Who at Wembley Stadium — the word ‘diverse’ comes to mind.
ARLP is the opening salvo in a new flagship series described by Spitfire co‑founder Paul Thomson as “the most detailed and comprehensive project we’ve ever undertaken.” In an echo of the company’s earlier BML series, the library will be issued in modular chunks and will eventually comprise a full orchestra. Thomson explains: “We’re already recording other sections and there’s a fair amount in post production at present. It’s a long and exciting journey we’ve embarked on. Making stuff at this level of detail isn’t fast, but it all locks into the Abbey Road One sound immaculately — same setups, same room, same engineer, same musicians. This project will take a few years to complete however; it’s our most ambitious and complex set of libraries to date!”
The new percussion library sees the company come full circle: their first public release was Spitfire Percussion, an orchestral perc collection performed entirely by Joby Burgess. Despite its age, the library stood the test of time and remains a go‑to item in my personal sample arsenal (you can read my February 2011 review on the SOS website).
While many Spitfire libraries include a full percussion range, ARLP is the first to focus exclusively on large unpitched drums — the emphasis is squarely on the well‑worked ‘cinematic’ genre, comprising powerful orchestral bass drums, taikos, toms and a healthy complement of world drums (see box below for a full list). The real detail lies in the instruments’ timbral variations and dynamic range: a total of 20 drums were played at up to 10 dynamics and 12 round robins with as many as seven beater types, creating 13 ultra‑lifelike, expressive and playable presets.
Adding to the sonic depth, Abbey Road’s Senior Engineer Simon Rhodes recorded the drums from a large number of microphone positions which were subsequently collated and mixed down into 16 signal options (see the ‘Microphone Positions’ box). Each signal has its own mixer channel fader with pan, solo and mute controls, so you can customise and fashion each drum’s sound to your heart’s content.
ARLP is 88.7GB installed and runs exclusively on its own free plug‑in that you can load into your chosen DAW or hosting application (I ran it in Vienna Ensemble Pro 7 with no problems). The dedicated plug‑in doesn’t support multitimbral use, so it’s not possible to open multiple instruments within one instance — however, you can freely switch between and/or layer a single instrument’s various articulations. The plug‑in GUI perpetuates the arty design instigated in Spitfire’s Eric Whitacre Choir in a funereal ‘none more black’ colour scheme. Not exactly cheerful, but I suspect after hearing these drums your mood will brighten.
With the exception of one gigantic item which we’ll come to shortly, all the drums in this library belong to Joby Burgess — in which case, one has to feel pity for the cab driver hired to take him and his gear to the studio. Setting out the stall for ‘large’ is the percussionist’s 36‑inch Gran Cassa, a two‑headed orchestral bass drum. One loud hit straight out of the box is enough to confirm that this drum would definitely get a thumbs‑up from the thunder gods — big, spacious, booming and voluminous, it evokes images of Thor’s house band doing a soundcheck in the Taj Mahal.
Featuring a 32‑inch head mounted on a shallow open shell, a second orchestral bass drum combines a clean attack with a pronounced resonance, and mirrors most of its bigger brother’s mallet variations. The less familiar Gong Bass Drum also has a single head and packs a tight, hard attack not unlike a rock kick drum.
Switching from the reverberant default mic position to a close miking clearly demonstrates the effect of the different beaters. Thick, club‑like wooden sticks create the familiar sharp attack of a rock kit, hard felt mallets soften the attack but retain definition, while medium felt mallets blur the initial hit while increasing resonance. The ‘super soft’ mallet hits sound exactly as described, but playing them at high velocities with lashings of internal reverb (based on a bespoke IR developed at Abbey Road) creates amazing low‑end impacts and throbbing volcanic pulses. By contrast, the plastic poly beater gives a thinner, toppy tone, while the light brush, rute (aka hot rods) and Hawaiian bamboo puili stick hits sound fine when served dry.
No one seems to know who owns the giant taiko (aka o‑daiko) drum used in this library — it’s not the kind of item you can overlook, standing 60 inches tall and producing a gargantuan, trouser‑flapping bass tone when struck. Highly resonant and rich in overtones, this Japanese drum excels at momentous low booms, for which the hand hits are particularly effective. A pair of smaller taikos work well for rhythm patterns: the lower‑pitched drum’s precise attack and beautiful resonance are a highlight of the library and catapulted it straight into my ‘favourites’ folder. In addition to skin strikes, all the taikos have clacky rim hits which sound great in Abbey Road’s reverb‑rich acoustic.
A pair of conventional floor toms nail the requisite ‘cinematic’ (getting a bit tired of that word) combative pounding racket, covering the dynamic spectrum from subtle, barely audible quiet strokes to manic wallops. Though Spitfire have labelled these toms ‘epic’ (ditto), when you solo their close mics they sound surprisingly small and dry. That’s not a criticism, but it does illustrate a universal truth — room sound is a vital factor when recording drums, and this room’s reverb tails lend a heroic grandeur to any instrument you care to play in it.
I enjoyed the precisely played mallet hits of Joby Burgess’ vintage Tama Imperial Star toms, which come in 10‑inch, 12‑inch, 13‑inch and 14‑inch sizes (the epic pair are 16 and 18 inches). The 13‑inch and 14‑inch models sound almost timpani‑like in the lower velocity range, while all four sound explosive at high dynamics — even the loud brush hits take on a manic battering quality.
Moving into less familiar territory, two Chinese ceremonial dagu drums (aka dragon drums) introduce an exotic edge. While these large two‑headed drums have an agreeably long sustain, the only mild concern is that the lower‑pitched one’s fairly distinct pitch (a rather flat G) might clash with your bass line. Easily fixed though — Spitfire’s sample player has a tuning knob! More importantly, the dragon drums’ stick and hard felt beater hits sound superb.
Hailing from West Africa, a pair of djun drums also turn in a meaty thump which works nicely for insistent warlike rhythms. The high drum’s distinctive attack shines through in its roll performances; you can emphasise the beater attack by turning up the Close 2 miking and pulling down the reverberant mix signal. Though it’s a single instrument, the Indian dhol drum produces two distinctly different sounds: the larger head is played with a heavy curved stick and has a powerful deep tone, while the treble head is whanged with a thin flexible stick and sounds not unlike a clangy Latin timbale. Use this drum to get your Bhangra grooves going.
Over to North America, home of the buffalo drum. This 22‑inch single‑headed frame drum has a long, ringing semi‑pitched sustain and rich overtones — you can use its soft beater delivery for doomy single hits or switch to hard beaters to add definition to rolls. A great, beautifully resonant sound.
We conclude this whistle‑stop world tour with two large folk instruments: the Argentinian bombo is a 20‑inch bass drum tuned with ropes in the manner of a military drum. It produces a powerful deep, earthy thud which you can use dry in intimate acoustic arrangements, or steeped in reverb to beef up your cinematic productions. If it’s power you’re after, you’ll enjoy the surdo. This metal‑bodied 22‑inch bass drum’s loud resonant thump provides the heartbeat of Brazilian samba music, and here adds industrial‑strength power to ARLP’s low drum arsenal.
Rather than try to capture every playing style under the sun, the makers have focused on straight left‑ and right‑hand hits and straight rolls, with additional brush sweeps and rim flams available for certain instruments. Some drums also have a damped option where the sustain is reduced either by hand or by that old standby, a tea towel.
The default two‑handed mapping layout places a duplicate of the samples two octaves higher on the keyboard, making it easier to play repeated notes on the same sound — this feature can be disabled if you wish. Different beater types and damped versions are presented as separate keyswitchable patches, while ‘All In One’ master patches map all of a drum’s available beaters and playing techniques across the keyboard. Left‑ and right‑hand hits are mapped respectively to the adjacent white notes of C and D, but if you activate the Right/Left Mapping feature repeated hits on the C note will trigger an alternating right‑left sticking pattern, a subtle but telling aid to realism.
Though the library contains no crescendo rolls, you can create your own dramatic surges by using the mod wheel to control the straight rolls’ dynamics — alternatively, the ‘Soft Takeover’ feature bypasses the wheel and makes the roll keys velocity‑sensitive. The rolls terminate with a natural end hit on note‑off. When it comes to flams and grace notes, I suggest you program them manually using the two‑handed layout — it’s not hard to do, and a lot of fun when you get the knack.
If you seek thunderous, high quality, hugely dynamic, pristinely recorded cinematic drums, Abbey Road Orchestra: Low Percussion is hard to beat.
ARLP is a promising first step in Spitfire’s new collaboration with Abbey Road Studios. On this evidence, the “world’s most detailed orchestra” claim is unproven — though there’s a welcome abundance of beater types, a good spread of drums, deep dynamic layering and a startling profusion of mic positions, other percussion libraries offer more in terms of instrumentation and playing styles. However, a library consisting exclusively of large drums is no yardstick by which to pre‑judge an entire orchestral series. Let’s wait until the strings and woodwinds start to arrive, at which point the full musical scope of the project will become clear!
Is Abbey Road Studio 1’s acoustic all it’s cracked up to be? If you search for Christian Henson’s ‘Abbey Road One, BBCSO and Albion ONE — What’s the Difference?’ YouTube video you can compare orchestral ensemble recordings made at Abbey Road, BBC Maida Vale and AIR Lyndhurst studios and judge for yourself. Personally I found the opulent natural reverb of these low drums inspirational and look forward to hearing more examples of this modular library. In the meantime, if you seek thunderous, high‑quality, hugely dynamic, pristinely recorded cinematic drums, Abbey Road Orchestra: Low Percussion is hard to beat.
Captured with over 25 mics per drum, ARLP’s signal options outnumber those in Spitfire’s inaugural Abbey Road One: Orchestral Foundations library. The 16 positions are laid out on the interface’s Signal Browser, with (annoyingly) only six visible at a time due to the GUI’s vast expanses of wasted blank space.
The default position for each instrument is Simon Rhodes’ Mix 1, based around the classic omnidirectional valve Decca Tree 1 with additional Overheads, Outriggers 1 and a blend of close spot mics. This makes the most of Abbey Road’s iconic Studio 1 ambience, placing the drums in a reverberant space tailored for big‑screen orchestral productions. Used alone, the Outriggers 1 miking produces a wide room ambience with a massively powerful low end, which when harnessed to a loud bass drum hit threatens to blow the roof off.
As you’d expect, the Ambients position is the most distant‑sounding, while the two vintage ribbon mic options (both placed near the conductor) also contain a fair amount of room sound. Vintage 1 uses a pair of ultra‑rare RM‑1B mics first manufactured by EMI in 1949, while Vintage 2 features classic RCA 44‑BX microphones of similar antiquity. Considering these mics’ simple design (basically, a thin, flexible piece of tinfoil‑like metal suspended to pick up sound waves), they sound surprisingly hi‑fi.
For a more attacking, in‑your‑face sound you can feed in the Close mics, which emphasise the splatty tap of the beater hitting the skin. Close 2 has the driest sound, while Pop Close combines a fierce attack impact with a resonant die‑away.
If you’re working with a 360‑degree sound system you’ll have a field day deciding where to place all these miking options. The Ambients signal is an ideal candidate for rear surround speakers, while Section Overheads (a set of large‑diaphragm condenser microphones placed directly above the instruments) seems the obvious choice to pan overhead. I haven’t yet figured out what to do with the Spill signal, which combines the sound of all the unused mics — maybe you could route it out to the kitchen so the rest of your household can enjoy hearing what you’re working on?
It would be remiss to mention Abbey Road and AIR Studios in the same article without saying a few words about Sir George Martin. Martin’s association with the Beatles is well documented — after their astonishingly successful alliance at EMI Studios generated megabucks and helped spawn a global countercultural youth movement, EMI cashed in and astutely changed the studio’s name to Abbey Road, the title of the last Beatles album. The studio has dined out on the Martin/Beatles legacy ever since — well, wouldn’t you?
Having torn up his miserly EMI contract and secured a well‑deserved producer’s royalty, Sir George set up his own Associated Independent Recording company and opened AIR Studios in Oxford Street, London in 1970. A sister studio on the Caribbean island of Montserrat was opened in 1979, but sadly destroyed by a hurricane 10 years later. Soon after, Martin closed his West End operation and created AIR Studios Lyndhurst in an imposing 19th Century Hampstead building formerly used as a congregational church — happily, the singing continues to this day.
Without Martin’s creative vision it’s arguable that neither studio would still exist. In 2010 EMI made an abortive attempt to sell Abbey Road but were stymied by a public outcry and government intervention, and had the producer overlooked its potential, AIR Lyndhurst would by now likely be a collection of luxury flats.
At a time when other London studios are falling like dominoes, there’s another compelling factor keeping Abbey Road and AIR afloat: both contain spaces large enough to accommodate a full‑scale symphony orchestra, thus enabling them to accommodate anything from solo piano to large orchestras, film scores and sample recording sessions. I’m sure the broad‑minded Sir George Martin would have smiled at the latter development, though he might have felt 25 mics on one drum was overdoing it a bit.
- A well‑chosen, powerful and hugely dynamic low drums collection.
- The drums are precisely played with up to seven beater types.
- Recorded from over 25 microphones in Abbey Road Studio 1’s magnificent enveloping acoustic.
- The Abbey Road acoustic is superb — did I already say that?
- It has a manual.
- Performance styles are largely restricted to straight left‑ and right‑hand hits and sustained non‑crescendo rolls.
- Contains no timpani, cymbals or metals.
You want powerful, highly playable cinematic low drums with a great dynamic range? You want a fabulous, clear and transparent reverberant big‑soundstage acoustic? You also want a choice of beater types, up to 10 dynamic layers and more mic positions than you can shake a stick at? In that case my friend, I strongly recommend you cast an ear over Abbey Road Orchestra: Low Percussion, the classy first entry in Spitfire Audio’s new flagship orchestral range.