The cinematic supremo enlists the best of British in a grand percussive collaboration.
Anyone who feels the current craze for sampled ‘cinematic percussion’ is getting out of hand should spare a thought for the man who invented the genre: Hans Zimmer, the affable German ex–popster who scaled the Hollywood heights with scores for (deep breath) Rain Man, Thelma & Louise, The Lion King, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbour, Hannibal, The Last Samurai, The Da Vinci Code, the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, The Lone Ranger, 12 Years A Slave and many other movies. Hailed in scoring circles as “the man who made orchestras cool again”, Zimmer now has over 100 film scores and innumerable awards under his belt and is widely recognised as a leading industry figure.
Mr Zimmer’s wheeze of combining ethnic drums with orchestral percussion has been much copied, with the result that there are now more so–called ‘cinematic percussion’ libraries on sale than you can shake a stick at. Unphased by the slew of imitators, the originator has entered the ring and released his own massive sampled percussion collection, the difference being that, in the words of a co–producer, “This is not an imitation — this is the real deal.” The Hans Zimmer Percussion library is a collaboration between the composer and British company Spitfire Audio, who share his love of epic, widescreen sounds; “3D landscapes”, as Zimmer calls them.
Spitfire’s Christian Henson explains: “I think there’s a kindred spirit there... we’ve had a few chats with Hans, and went over and visited him in LA last year. We felt he was a natural partner because we’re doing very similar things to him at Air Studios. I got a phone call just before Christmas 2012 and Hans expressed an interest in doing a percussion library with Spitfire. We were delighted, and the enthusiasm was instant: Hans said, ‘Do you want to do it?’, I was like, ‘Yeah!’, and Hans said, ‘Announce it now!’ I didn’t even clear it with Paul (Spitfire co–director Paul Thomson), I just went straight up on the Internet and announced it. I think we have a similar kind of approach — certainly an enthusiasm for sampling, and what it does for our work.”
Hans Zimmer Percussion Volume 1 (HZ01 for short) contains percussion ensembles recorded from multiple listening perspectives at Air Studios, London. Due later in 2014, Volume 2 will feature latter–day Led Zeppelin drummer Jason Bonham mercilessly clobbering his kit at the Newman Scoring Stage of Twentieth Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, as well as electronic modular drum sounds created by Zimmer. Volume 3 will return to Air Studios to provide solo versions of the instruments used in Volume 1’s ensembles. The library is formatted for Kontakt 4 and up, and will run on the free Kontakt Player.
An unusual feature is that this library’s contents have been remixed by no less than five leading sound engineers: two of them (Air Studios’ chief engineer Geoff Foster and Alan Meyerson, renowned scoring mixer based at Remote Control Studios in California), are long–time Zimmer collaborators; the others are the brilliant UK pop producer Steve Lipson, producer/engineer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), and of course Hans Zimmer himself, whose acute ear for sound has been a major factor in his success as a screen composer.
Due to its large data size, HZ01 will be released in stages, the first of which (‘Artists’ Elements’) contains patches featuring three listening perspectives created by Messrs. Zimmer, Foster and Meyerson. This initial 94.3GB release will be followed by Steve Lipson’s and Junkie XL’s mixes, more drums and mikings, and stereo and 5.1 surround mixes created by the five engineers. The additional material will be issued in a series of free updates which may be available by the time you read this. HZ01 is download-only, so be prepared for some hefty data transfer sessions!
Like his former alumnus Trevor Horn (with whom he worked in the late ’70s synth–pop outfit the Buggles), Hans Zimmer thinks big. For his Man Of Steel score he created a wall of sound by assembling 12 of LA’s top session drummers in a large studio and instructing them to pound out simple unison grooves (probably the easiest gig any of them had that year). Videos of the session are instructive: a natural collaborator, Zimmer visibly enjoys interacting with the musicians, and is receptive to their suggestions.
In the same spirit, the production team hired four of the UK’s top percussionists for the project. Collectively boasting a staggering number of major film soundtrack and album credits, Paul Clarvis, Stephen Henderson, Gary Kettel and Frank Ricotti have played with everyone from Pierre Boulez to the Pet Shop Boys, and their film soundtrack appearances span the Bond, Bourne and Batman eras. Clarvis headed the biggest troupe of drummers ever assembled in the UK for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, while Kettel played on David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus (1974), a tremendous, seminal work one can imagine may been a stylistic inspiration for the young Hans Zimmer.
Aficionados of the Hans Zimmer school of percussion will know what to expect from this library: big, bombastic ethnic and orchestral drum hits, laced with dramatic strikes from piatti hand cymbals and outsize tam tam gongs. The ‘Low Booms’ patch combines orchestral bass drums, Japanese taikos and Brazilian surdo drums in a massive–sounding ensemble which more than lives up to its name. Played at six dynamics, the Low Booms pack the elemental and emotional force of a thunderstorm; quiet strokes rumble and resound in the distance, while hard hits threaten to blow the roof off. As I write, the UK is being lashed by violent storms, and these big drums are the perfect musical accompaniment.
As well as hard and soft beater articulations, there are clacky rim and shell hits played by drumsticks and ‘Puilli’ (Hawaiian split bamboo sticks). The latter make a great, thin, whippy thrashing noise. If you combine the Low Booms’ hard beater, soft beater and Puilli sticks’ sustained rolls, it sounds like a hailstorm on Mars. The drum samples don’t include played crescendo or diminuendo drum rolls, but you can create your own ultra–dynamic swells and fades simply by playing a straight sustained roll and pushing the mod wheel up and down!
Air Studios has a ‘Minstrels Gallery’ where failed X–Factor contestants gather every evening to earn a crust, listlessly plucking their lutes and viols while Simon Cowell and the judges gorge themselves on a medieval feast in the Great Hall below. (OK I’m joking, but you have to admit it’s a fair analogy of today’s music business.) Spitfire took advantage of the gallery’s unusual ‘small space within a big space’ acoustic to record a set of ‘Low Boom Gallery’ hits, featuring the same drum combo described above. This can be layered with the hall–recorded Low Booms patch to truly monstrous effect.
The producers also used the gallery to record a set of orchestral and marching bass drums: extremely forceful when played loud, they also perform lovely resonant, portentous quiet hits. Though offering only a small number of articulations, the sharp attack of the library’s surdo drums (a Brazilian bass drum used in samba bands) is well suited to fast note passages, and by applying the mod wheel to their ferocious–sounding rolls you can do a very good imitation of a tube train emerging from a tunnel.
Since Hans Zimmer pioneered the use of Japanese taiko drums in film scores, it’s no surprise to find them included here. Though essentially an ensembles library, HZ01 includes solo versions of three taikos, the largest of which is a 60–inch monster with an amazing bottom end. A higher–pitched, 20–inch drum sounds more tuneful and will work well for fast licks, while the third taiko has a deeper, more resonant tone; all perform booming hard beater strokes and excellent, clacky shell hits which go off like a gunshot in Air’s reverberant acoustic. The Taiko Ensemble patch features the three drums performing unison hits and rolls, the loud versions of which sound powerful enough to have dislodged plaster from the studio’s ceiling.
Other large ethnic drums include the Argentine bombo legüero (doesn’t he play up front for Manchester City?), which combines a satisfying thud with a nice body resonance, African dun dun (whose wallop has been somewhat deadened by placing a newspaper on the skin) and the bright, clattering Indian Dhol drum associated with Bhangra music. For a more Middle Eastern flavour, you can try the Tombek (aka Dumbek) goblet drums, played with the hands but still explosive. The octave of pitched Boobams (tuned, long–bodied bongos) samples would work well in more experimental scores.
No percussion library of this type would be complete without orchestral snare drums. HZ01’s snare ensemble is very high–pitched; personally I would have preferred a deeper snare sound, but their bright, cutting tone provides a great contrast to the deep, booming sonorities of the larger drums. To subtly ‘demilitarise’ the timbre of the snare ensemble, Spitfire included a player whacking a steel bucket, which certainly shifts the ear wax. The bucket trick has been used again with the library’s clangourous darabuka ensemble (which plays only straight hits). The musical effect is, unsurprisingly, extremely strident.
In a fabulous ‘buy one, get one free offer’, we get two timpani players playing in unison, mapped chromatically over one and a half octaves from C1 to F2. The timp duo’s fabulous soft beater hits sound absolutely stunning in the large space, and their louder hits positively drip with cinematic splendour. An interesting variation is the Timpani ‘hot rods’ performances, a somewhat left-field, oil–drum–like texture which can be used to play fast, skittering rhythm patterns.
The library’s Metals section houses more traditional orchestral timbres: a piatti hand cymbals ensemble performs those big, climactic crashes that pepper media composers’ battle scene cues. The piatti are limited to a handful of hits, but they’re good ones. Given the tam tam gong’s capacity for sonic mayhem, I’ve often bemoaned the lack of power of some sampled specimens, but not in this case: this tam tam’s loudest hits will part your hair, and its played crescendo rolls are truly scary. Though not so deafening, its quiet strokes are also wonderfully menacing.
Caving in to pressure from the blacksmiths’ lobby, a set of anvils also gets a look in, but rather than the ear–splitting racket I feared, they play some quite melodious, flammy chimes which sound a bit like handbells. (Can we have a chromatic mapping, please?) Much has been written about the vices of session percussionists, and here they are shockingly on display in the form of a set of industrial ‘crusher’ vices which are brazenly crashed in tandem with the steel bucket, creating a thoroughly unmusical noise designed to offend all right–minded, respectable citizens.
Also included in this section is a large, metal–framed gong drum; this highly resonant instrument is one of the most explosive drums in the library, and its blasting loud rolls sound like an avalanche. If you’d like to hear how Hans Zimmer uses percussion in his scores, check out his theme for the TV boxing series The Contender, which features exactly the kind of big, thunderous drums you’ll find in sampled form in this library.
HZ01’s patches contain close, room and surround listening perspectives. As mentioned earlier, additional mikings will be available in a free update, but for my purposes these three are quite sufficient: the close miking gives all the punch, definition and detail you could want, while the room and surround positions give you the big Air Studios sound prized by Zimmer and the producers.
Since 96 microphones were used on the session, the remixers had a lot of options when creating their listening perspectives. Being a pop guy, I found Hans Zimmer’s patches to be the most effective — they’re consistently fiercer and more ‘in your face’ than Foster and Meyerson’s contributions, but the latter two engineers’ subtle and skilful microphone blendings may appeal more to classical listeners.
Reflecting Zimmer’s love of (as Christian Henson puts it) “taking recordings of quiet things and making them unusually loud”, particular attention has been paid to softer dynamics in this project. The composer himself points out that the subtle ‘bloom’ of a softly struck percussion instrument developing in an acoustic space is often lost in a live orchestral setting, and sampling is the perfect way of bringing out these subtle, often beautiful undertones.
In a nod to this ‘quiet is the new loud’ philosophy, Spitfire have built a new dynamic response control into the Kontakt GUI: when turned anticlockwise, it turns quiet samples up in level to match the volume of louder hits, which is very handy when fine–tuning dynamics. The new front panel ‘Boom’ and ‘Crack’ controls do exactly what it says on the tin, while the Pitch dial creates extreme detune settings which can transform a timpani into a biscuit tin, and vice versa. Ah, the wonders of modern science...
HZ01’s articulation mapping system is, as far as possible, duplicated across the different instruments, which means you don’t have to learn a different keyboard layout for every sound. It also enables you to create massive layered drum set–ups simply by copying your MIDI sequence data from one ensemble to another. Christian Henson’s excellent ‘How to program epic drums’ tutorial video (which I trust will still be viewable on YouTube by the time you read this) shows how quick and musically effective this process can be.
Spitfire Audio take the view that minor tuning imperfections, squeaks, breath noises and so on are desirable human artifacts which can help liven up a sampled arrangement. However, they are also aware that hearing the same squeak over and over again can be quite annoying. With this in mind, Spitfire collaborator Blake Robinson developed a new feature called ‘Punch Cog’ (named after the ‘punch in’ method used to correct notes back in the day) which aims to give you the best of both worlds.
To use this feature, you load the Punch Cog version of the patch you want to edit and cycle through the round-robin variations of a note until you hear the sample you don’t like. Click on the small cog icon on the GUI, select ‘Tweak last played note’ and a sub–menu opens, inviting you to adjust the tuning, volume, release trigger level or sample start of the offending sample, or to skip it altogether. You can save your tweaks so they take effect every time you use the patch, or remove them to restore the patch to its original state.
This cool facility is also implemented in Spitfire’s Albion and BML range. Though it’s more likely to be useful for pitched instruments than untuned percussion, I successfully used it to remove one slightly under–strength bombo ensemble hit from the round-robin chain, and was impressed by how much easier the procedure was than fiddling about in Kontakt’s rather intimidating sample edit windows.
Spitfire Audio’s first commercial release was the 25GB Spitfire Percussion in 2010. Over the last four years sampling projects have proliferated beyond anyone’s expectation, and the London–based company now have around 20 titles in their catalogue. Hans Zimmer Percussion may turn out to be their greatest mission yet. If nothing else, it’s good to know that we live in an era where a Spitfire and a German can be in the same vicinity without shots being exchanged.
It’sa pretty safe bet that this library will be successful, and the key to its success is that it uses exactly the same ingredients as a Hollywood film scoring session: a big, world–famous sound stage, leading players, great instruments and a team of eminent producers and engineers. HZ01 may not include every playing style under the sun, and it has no licks or phrases. But by replicating the brilliant sound and instrumentation choices that have propelled Hans Zimmer to the top of the pile, it gives other musicians the chance to add the definitive ‘cinematic percussion’ sound to their arrangements.
As mentioned elsewhere, ‘cinematic percussion’ is a crowded field; to draw meaningful comparisons with Hans Zimmer’s Percussion Volume 1 we need to discount smaller, loop–based, construction kit titles and concentrate on large, pro–level single–hit collections recorded from multiple mic positions.
That category includes Evolution Series World Percussion, a 204GB library which features big African drums and orchestral percussion but no Japanese taiko drums, and Quantum Leap’s 84.7GB Stormdrum 3, which has an excellent set of taikos in its huge instrumentation, but no orchestral percussion. Cinesamples CinePerc Epic (9GB) covers the big world–music drum ensemble sound, but to add Zimmer’s trademark orchestral percussion you’d also need to buy the separate 50GB CinePerc Core library.
- Bass drums.
- Snare drums.
Mixed drum ensemble
- Orchestral BDs, taikos and surdo drums.
Ethnic Drum Ensembles
- Taiko (also solo versions).
- Don dons.
- Piatti cymbals.
- Tam tams.
- Gong drums.
- Vices (crushers).
- A truly thunderous, bombastic and definitive ‘cinematic percussion’ collection produced by the man who invented the genre.
- Features four leading percussionists and five top mix engineers.
- Drips with Air Studios’ rich natural reverb.
- Beautifully resonant quiet hits make a great contrast with the explosive loud wallops.
- Lacks smaller, more subtle hand percussion instruments — but who needs ’em!
The ‘real deal’ cinematic percussion library produced by Hans Zimmer in conjunction with Spitfire Audio. A great, authentic and highly dynamic collection of immensely powerful ethnic drum ensembles (including Japanese taikos), orchestral drums and percussion, recorded in Air Studios and remixed by five leading engineers. Why buy the copy when you can have the original?