In the first part, we looked at how we can use atmospheres and pads to create a new sense of depth and interest in your cues. This time around, it’s time to add some more impact and energy to otherwise calm and static musical passages. More than anything, this technique will add more weight and power, and can make the simplest musical cues fit right in the cinema. We’re talking about using sub hits, impacts and transition effects to subtly take your tracks to a whole new level.
Those of you who have been through the trailer music course should be pretty familiar with the use of sub booms, wooshes and hits. These are all crucial and common elements in the realm of music for motion picture trailers, but what’s not mentioned as much, is their ability to enhance musical cues of nearly any other genre and style. Of course, some places it might work better than others, but I’ve successfully used these effects in everything from pop verses to orchestral climaxes with great effect. Let’s look at some practical examples.
We’ll start out with the piano theme from the previous week’s example. We added a new dimension to our cue by adding a background ambience consisting of pads and atmospheres. It made a rather generic piano cue pop out a bit more. That said, there’s a lot more we can do to enhance this cue. Let’s go through a few:
The first thing I usually look for when I want to add some more weight and impact is sub-booms. These are fairly versatile, as they are very transparent, don’t take up a lot of the frequency spectrum, and don’t necessarily add an abnormal amount of energy (like a full trailer hit would). This makes them good fits as standalone elements under a piano cue (like you will hear in about 24 seconds from now), under string parts, or as a low end layer under a massive hit for more epic parts.
But I’ll stop rambling for a minute, and let you listen to an example to show what I’m talking about. Here’s the piano cue from earlier, with sub booms added:
Now, let’s check out how it was before.
Go back between them a few times, and notice how the simple sub hit immediately gives it more power and depth, a more cinematic feel. Naturally, to experience the full effect, a good sound system with a subwoofer is recommended, although a good set of headphones will also give you the right idea. Anything as long as you’re not trying to make your iPhone 5 speaker do the job of convincing you.
To get such sub hits, libraries like Gravity (which is what I’ve used here), Project Bravo and various trailer music libraries all come to mind as good, reliable sources. There should also be something to work with if you’ve got our trailer music course, with the included trailer music sound design pack from Generdyn. If you want to be one of the cool kids and make yourself from scratch, Walid made a great tutorial explaining the basics here:
Now, let’s move on to a string arrangement of the same theme, both before and after the booms and our atmospheres are added.
Maybe I’m crazy – but I’d definitely say that the booms and atmospheres makes the string theme a little bit more interesting. It certainly adds a new depth and impact to the otherwise borderline uninteresting cue.
Let’s move on from the sub booms and head further down the road. It’s time to return to the string theme from our Part 1: Atmospheres article, and spice it up by throwing some wooshes and taiko rolls into the mix.
But first, let us all refresh our memory by listening to the original theme with the atmospheres only.
Now, I’m going to add some sub booms, but take it one step further and add some taiko rolls/a woosh effect to both lead into the cue and transition between the different repetitions.
This is a way to kind of “top up” the energy level as each melodic line is repeating, as repetition can sometimes make the music lose energy if not compensated for (this can also be done through larger orchestration, introduction of new elements and so on, as we explore in the course).
In this example, I’ve used some simple taiko rolls from Hybrid Tools 2. You can also take one of the hits from your Trailer Course Sample Pack, and roll off some of the high end to make it take up less space in the mix, yet keeping the heavy low end.
As the theme progresses, I’ve introduced more and more high end to the rolls, making it progress and grow as the theme evolves, making sure the energy and interest in maintained throughout the cye. Let’s give it a listen.
Sounds a bit bigger, more cinematic and powerful, right? Now, I’ll have to say that not every string cue will call for these effects, as a lot of cues will sound great with their natural organic sound, or even with some light atmospheres. However, if you feel that your cue is lacking impact and power, especially if you’re going for that big trailer-ish sound, these techniques might give you the little boost you need. Use your ears and season according to your taste.
Earlier, we used booms and transition effects to add more power to our themes. This time around, we’re going to step up the complexity of our cues and add some subtle background elements to introduce more movement and drive.
Subtle, moving elements in the background can really give an otherwise static theme a new sense of forward movement, while adding a new sense of interest to your cue. Let’s start out with the main theme from our previous parts, arranged for strings.
In the previous section, we added some sub booms to our string theme. Now, I’ve added a little repeating piano ostinato in the background. Let’s give it a listen:
As you can probably notice, the new element gives the string theme some subtle forward motion, and makes it slightly more interesting. The ostinato itself is really simple, consisting of triplets playing the root, fifth and root an octave below repeatedly in a descending motion. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you want to create ostinatos:
Again, the main focus should be on the string theme (or your element of importance). This means that you want to make sure that it’s not too busy or changing, as this will push a musical element more to the foreground. A more repeating patterns is usually a safer bet.
In the course, we’re talking a lot about separation between elements in your orchestration. While I won’t go through all the details here, you should aim to make the new element separated by the other main musical elements by either range, rhythm or tone color – or all of the above. For example in this cue, I’ve separated the ostinato by putting it in a higher range than the strings and playing a faster rhythm, while giving it to a piano that sticks out from the rest of the instruments due to its unique tone color. For a deeper walkthrough on how to separate your harmony, melody, counter melodies, ostinatos and effects – I encourage you to check out Cinematic Music: From Idea To Finished Recording.
Also – check out this week’s Evenant Weekly Challenge in our Facebook Group, which is dealing with analysing your favorite tracks to figure out how the composer has achieved separation between the elements using the techniques above.
In the next example, I’ve used our second string theme from the earlier sections. I’ve created a similar piano ostinato, but made it a bit more interesting by adding a few more notes. Bear in mind though, that it is still a very repeating pattern – making it naturally fall to the background of the piece without taking too much attention.
On top of the piano pattern, you probably hear that I have added some light hi-hats and sticks doubling the rhythm, enhancing the movement and drive the ostinato brings to the cue. Notice that the rhythm element is doubling the piano pattern rhythmically, so it doesn’t stick out too much as a new layer, but rather an enhancement of the ostinato itself. Here, I have consciously chosen NOT to separate the layers by rhythm, naturally making them glue more together. As with the atmospheres, the rhythmic elements are very light and high frequency dominant – making it float nicely on top of the more important elements in the mix (low-mid string theme), and not taking up too much space.
Let’s move on to another example, which is a tad larger orchestration of our main theme with horns instead, with the piano ostinato from the beginning of this tutorial, as well as the booms and impacts from last week’s examples.
And here with the ostinato added:
Now, let’s combine the two and hear what it sounds like so far.
In the second example, I have added a little string ostinato about an octave lower than the piano ostinato. It is playing a different rhythm, it’s in a different range (in between the horn range and the piano/atmosphere range), and it’s playing a different articulation than the rest of the elements (staccato vs legato and sustains). This ostinato is following a repeating pattern, playing triplets but excluding the first note of the pattern the piano is playing. The melodic part of the ostinato is following the chord changes in the cue, making this a more melodic ostinato than the monotonous piano pattern.
While this is a more moving and interesting ostinato, the fact that it is moving in a very predictable, and rhythmically repeating pattern, makes it fall to the middle-ground of the piece, giving the main focus to the stronger horn melody again, yet sticking out from the harmonic background.
Now, after applying both atmospheres, hits and ostinatos to our themes – let’s listen to the difference from the beginning, up until now!
Sounds a bit more interesting, yeah?
Now, we have a final stage left, where we will turn our cues into the following versions through layering:
Until then, feel free to experiment with different types of sub hits and rolls, ostinatos and background rhythms, and see how it affects the feeling and power of your cues.
The starting composer’s guide to composing,
orchestrating and mixing orchestral music.
Composer, producer, entrepreneur and digital nomad from Norway, and the co-founder of Evenant. Has a strong passion for traveling, exploring new cultures, learning new skills and creating new things.