A Bit About Percussion in Celeste, And Some Tangents Along the Way

A bit of initial philosophy

One of the quintessential aspects of most video games is the sense of conflict. There is, whether it’s violent or nonviolent, a conflict that needs to be resolved. Therefore, scoring that conflict is one of the most important aspects of writing music for games. And, as is the nature of games, it should (usually, with exceptions) be fun.

Conflict is one of my favorite things to score. I was once asked what I thought made good combat music in a game. My answer is that any music you can dance to is perfect for combat, and in turn so it is for conflicts of any nature. All forms of dance music, going back to the origins of dance, stem from their rhythms and percussion. Entire musical forms are built upon it. Waltzes, sambas, house music, dubstep. As composers, we can pull from everything to make the conflict engaging, fun, and memorable.

Dancers at Cornish College of the Arts, my alma mater. I began, not in games, but writing accompaniments to dance choreography like this. Source

Anyway, that’s a huge intro to get to the point of this article: percussion! Sure, writing music with cool rhythms is all fun and stuff, but percussion is where that rhythm really shines.

As a preface, I’ll note that I very rarely start with percussion. I can get so deep into making a cool beat that suddenly the music has so many restrictions placed on it based on the percussion I’ve written. The main exception to this is if the main point of the track is the percussion. But if I want a melody, a progression, then I start there & find the pulse of the music before bringing in drums. Percussion often locks us into a grid, when we think of it as just a beat. Music can be far more fluid than that, taking us into polyrhythms, complex time signatures, etc., and percussion can make that sound extremely cool, but we have to plan for it!

I wrote some music and want to add drums, now what?

Well hold on for a sec. Let’s get into the actual composition, first. When I write a piece of music and I’m orchestrating it out for any group of instruments — synths, string quartet, orchestra, jazz ensemble — the first and foremost thing I think about is the mix. Why the mix, this early? Because composition is even more than just writing chords and melodies. It’s about filling your ears with sound and calling attention to all the parts you want without muddying things up too much.

I swear this eventually gets to percussion

Think about your piece. What parts are there? Is there a bass line? Okay, what frequencies is it using? Is your melody in a middle register? Higher up? Are there textural elements? Where are they in relation to everything else? What I’m getting at is that every instrument in every section of your piece is taking up a frequency. Everything you want the listener to hear needs its own space in the mix to fit into, or else it will get lost.

Sometimes it feels like the possibilities for digital percussion are everywhere. Choice matters! Source

Here’s the thing. Percussion also takes up those spaces. Good percussion takes advantage of filling spaces that are otherwise unoccupied, whether it’s through syncopation (hitting the rhythms that notes aren’t playing), emphasis (doubling up on the rhythms & frequencies that notes are already playing), or just being a wash of noise (I call it the “fuck it let’s just go all out” method. More on that later.) Whether you’re aware of it or not, using percussion will always follow one of these three methodologies, and the key to making it sound rad is understanding them and using them as composition tools.

Starting with the basics

When I go to add percussion to my tracks, I generally have three methods of implementing it:

  1. Manually-sequenced kit (play it in with a MIDI input)
  2. Existing sample manipulation (find a cool recording from a library)
  3. Live recording (hire a drummer or percussionist)

Now, I’ll often mix all of these together. Because most projects budgets leave me without access to #3, I’m always weighing the balance between 1 and 2.

So what’s the pros & cons? Well, when you manually sequence a drum track, you’re creating a beat “from scratch”. Probably. Very often if we’re not actually a drummer, we’ll recreate some cool beat that we remember subconsciously from something else, but it’s fine. A beat is a beat. If you grab an actual sample of a live drummer or an existing beat, then you’re running the risk of someone getting in your Twitter mentions and being all like “YOU USED THIS SAMPLE I RECOGNIZE IT”. Which is also fine. Libraries of sampled drum loops are there to be used, and a good beat is a good beat. The only dangerous thing is taking an entire drum track from, like, an existing published song and taking it wholesale. In the case that I use anything from a published song (I still haven’t), I would always modify it in some way, to make it my own.

Anyway, there’s lots of ways to record a beat. But the best examples are all around you. Find music you groove to. Listen to how it puts together its rhythms. Learn how to achieve that sound, how it’s played, and try to incorporate that into your music!

I know you want me to talk about Resurrections

For a lot of people, the moment that Celeste exploded in their ears, was when the beat drops in Old Site. I’ve seen a bunch of streams of people reaching that part and just losing it. It’s really validating to me, as a composer! It wasn’t intended as a moment to like, blow someone away, but it was important to me to have dynamic shifts in the music that were exciting and upped the tension.

So what is it? Well, the answer is unfortunately a little boring. Ableton Live has a number of drum sample packs, either available by default, or downloadable from their website. I wanted a whole bunch of breakbeat samples to work with, so I downloaded one of them & found some really cool beats that I then proceeded to modify. Let’s take a look at how that beat’s constructed.

  1. This is the original sample, unaltered. You’ll notice it’s way faster! In fact, I actually use it closer to the original tempo in the Old Site section of Reach for the Summit. The original bpm (beats per minute) of the sample is 102, while the project is a leisurely 72 bpm.
  2. So what happens when we slow it down? Ableton Live has the great built-in ability to warp recordings to the bpm of your project, and it can also create a really neat effect when you do this. Because it’s simply repeating slices of the sample to elongate the sound, it actually creates a rad stutter step effect that adds to the rhythm.
  3. And here it is in context. You’ll notice that the majority of the percussion falls in the higher frequencies where there isn’t as much going on in the piece. There’s some sub bass to the kicks, but the actual bass synth is so heavy that it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s it! Literally all I did was slow down a cool breakbeat. But sometimes that’s all you need!

What I did for the chase section of Resurrections is an example of the other method I use, which is tracking in drums manually:

Legitimately all the percussion is for the chase are two versions of the same beat. One without hi-hat, and the other with. By alternating these, I mirror the rise & fall in tension in the track.

For this track, I used the Studio Break Kit from Kontakt 5’s Factory Library. There’s some great bread and butter kits even in the most basic stuff you’ve got, it’s all in how you use them!

So what about Scattered and Lost?

This is probably the one I get the most questions about. Perhaps another boring answer, but it really is in the execution of these things, so let’s examine step by step how I built up the percussion from 1 shaker line, to the explosive finale.

  1. We start with a super simple shaker rhythm. This is the basic motor to the track, and for the vast majority of the build it’s gonna be the glue that holds everything together. For reference, the kit I use up until the finale is Kontakt 5’s Rolling Ice Kit.
  2. The next layer I bring in is a clave pattern on a sort of egg shaker instrument. This gets a good polyrhythm going, which I use wherever possible.
  3. Third and final layer for the 1st intensity is a simple snappy snare on the 2s and 4s.
  4. Immediately in the next intensity layer, I changed up the rhythm to be even more polyrhythmic, in a still sort of latin-inspired groove.
  5. Then, since the snare is doing their own rhythm now, I introduced claps on the 2s and 4s instead.
  6. In the next intensity level, I finally bring in the bass drum laying down a few beats.
  7. Annnnd then here come the claps again.
  8. In the final intensity layer before the finale, I go all out on the bass-heavy sections of the percussion. The deeper the pitch of the percussion, the more intensity it brings.
  9. A slight rhythm change-up, but with the introduction of my favorite drum effect, the “geh!” effect, which just sounds like someone going “geh!” with echo. I don’t know what it is, that’s just what it sounds like.
  10. Another rhythm variation.
  11. And the final variation used in the break before the loop.
  12. HERE COME THAT DRUM FILL. So this is an awesome breakbeat sample from the aforementioned sample pack I got, and y’know at its own tempo and EQ it sounds relatively tame. It’s a really great fill that keeps going, building, giving you that really all-out feeling (the “fuck it let’s just go all out” method I mentioned above).
  13. But…it can be cooler. So I sped up the drums to the bpm of the track (from 82 to 98), EQ’d it a bit, and ran it through some compression to really up the intensity of it.
  14. Then, the primary beat of the finale is this other breakbeat sample.
  15. Again, I beefed it up. This one actually started faster, at 102bpm, and then I slowed it down to the track’s 98. Fun!

Confronting layering

You may have noticed that for both of these tracks, there’s really only one thing going on at a time. For Celeste, I primarily wanted the percussion to feel like it was coming from one drummer, like it’s just this cool layer being added on top that could feasibly be produced by one person at a kit. But sometimes you really need to have an extra added oomph. Let’s take a look at an example from Confronting Myself.

There’s a lot going on in Confronting Myself, to speak nothing of the percussion. Let’s break it down.

  1. The first bit of percussion in the track is actually two samples layered on top of each other. The first layer here is a simple cymbal part played with a brush. The original recording is pretty slow, at 70bpm.
  2. I then sped it up, almost twice as fast, to the track’s bpm of 132, and added some compression to really bring it into the higher frequencies.
  3. The second sample layer is a swing pattern played on hi-hat, originally recorded at 140bpm.
  4. This one is slowed down, again to the track’s 132 bpm, and given the same processing as the first.
  5. So here we have two layers, one sped up from its original tempo, one slowed down, and both of them panned to the left and right respectively. This gives us a super crispy polyrhythm with a lot of fun complexity to it!
  6. Not content to just use samples, I also brought in my own kit playing. The first of the two parts here is a fill I recorded, using the Studio Break Kit from Kontakt 5 (same one as Resurrections!) and filtered through a lot of distortion-based compression.
  7. And then the drum pattern itself, also using the Studio Break Kit.
  8. Then, for the first section of the track, I layered this pattern with the swing hats from earlier…
  9. And finally, all three of them play together! This works, because the three parts all take up different holes in the mix. The sequenced drum beat is primarily in the low & mid end, and the two cymbal samples are mid highs & high highs, panned to the left and right, letting them all create a complex percussion part without stepping on each other’s toes.
  10. The final piece of the puzzle is the silly 80’s beat I used during the chorus of the track. This one is literally just an 80s synth drum loop, originally at 90bpm
  11. Then, processed and sped up to the track’s 132 bpm. Hype!

Outro

So, there you have it. Hopefully this gives you a bit of insight into not just my process for creating percussion parts, but also my methodology for how I choose sounds in general. Always remember the mix, because the more you consider it before actually mixing, the less work you’ll need to do later! This applies not just to percussion, but every building block of the track you’re writing. You’ll absolutely thank your past self!

Thanks

Special thanks to all of my wonderful supporters on Patreon for the ability to let me write blog posts like this for the public. If you’re not a patron yet, you could be! All patrons get access to the Radical Dreamland Discord server, where we chat about all things music, sometimes hedgehogs, and quite frequently pictures of our cats. Higher tiers also get all of my self-published music and writing for free, and the top tier has a weekly chat where you can ask me to critique your music, pick my brain about the game industry, music industry, or whatever you want to know!

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