Synthesized cinematic percussion à la Zimmer

I watched a video of Hans Zimmer working on the soundtrack for The Dark Knight Rises, and was fascinated by his use of U-He Zebra for some of the huge-sounding percussion stuff. This inspired me to experiment a bit with synthesized percussion myself. Unfortunately I don’t have access to anything as advanced and versatile as Zebra, plus that I’m not much of a synthesist. Pads and leads and other meat & potatoes type of synth sounds I can manage, but mimicing actual instruments like drums? I had absolutely no idea how to go about it.

But as I’m not easily deterred and an advocate of making do with what you have, I sat down and had a look at the synths I had at my disposal. I first tried Oatmeal, but it quickly became clear that it was too complex. Selecting a couple of fitting oscillator waveforms and setting up envelopes and filters — easy. But tweaking everything to sound like what I was after came down to trial and error so I realized I needed something more straightforward.

Enter Synth1, the grandpappy of freeware synths. It may be old, it may be ugly, but it’s still a good-sounding instrument that is both very flexible and easy to work with. Within half an hour I had a couple of patches that was close if not identical to the sound I was going for.


The cool thing about all this is that the “toms” part that comes in at 0:16 isn’t actually played per se. I’m using the Kirnu arpeggiator to provide a basic rhythmic pattern — I’m just playing a sustained C major chord. Second in the fx chain comes a REAPER midi humanizer plugin to get rid of some of the robot-y feel. After that, an instance of Synth1 panned to the left. Then another midi humanizer for even more variation, followed by a second Synth1 (same patch) panned to the right. Finally a compressor to tame the unpredictable peaks a bit. It’s really great how you can seamlessly mix midi and audio plugins like this in REAPER. I honestly don’t understand how you get by using other hosts!

So, the variations in the tom rhythm are provided by the midi humanizers, which spit out changes in timing and velocity at random intervals. Unfortunately it seems the humanizers also cause some notes to be cut off, hence the pops here and there. But aside from that, this is a really cool way of quickly creating “percussion ensemble” type action cues. I really need to delve deeper into this.

If anyone’s interested I’d be happy to share the REAPER project/fx chains or fxp patches for Synth1.

Update: The REAPER project can be downloaded here. You will need Synth1, Kirnu and Freeverb3 Hibiki (though the latter can of course be substituted with your favorite verb). And, of course, REAPER.

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7 Responses to Synthesized cinematic percussion à la Zimmer

  1. Don says:

    I would love to see the fxp patches, as well as the fx chains!

  2. Stefano says:

    I was thinking about using an arpeggiator to “write” some percussion lines some weeks ago.
    I gave up because it soundend too robotic… but the midi umanizer looks like a brilliant idea!
    Could you share your fx chain and presets? I would like to give them a try!



  3. Mattias says:

    Don & Stefano: would it be okay with the entire REAPER project or do you want individual presets for everything?

    The midi humanizer is a REAPER native effect so a preset won’t be of much use if you don’t have REAPER. And if you have REAPER, you might as well load the entire project 🙂

  4. Mattias says:

    Post updated with a d/l link.

  5. pbattersby says:

    The dropped notes when using a humanizer is probably due to notes being made to overlap. Since percussion notes don’t need to be long (a quarter note and eighth note snare hit sound the same), I just shorten the notes enough that the humanizer can’t change the timing enough to cause an overlap.

  6. Mattias says:

    pbattersby: for manually entered notes, yes, but what about the “generated” arpeggiator rhythms? I don’t have the project in front of me right now but I can’t seem to remember any way of changing note lenghts. Can you do that in Kirnu without changing the timing of the whole pattern?

    • pbattersby says:

      I don’t know anything about Kirnu, but I was curious so I took a quick look through the manual. I did see this:

      “With length you can multiply the note length of the step. Value is relative to the current rate. For example if rate is 1/16 and length is 2 the actual note length is 1/8”

      Perhaps if yo can set the length to 0.5 that might solve the problem, but I’m just guessing.

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