Here you have it, the only guide that you will need explaining the ins and outs of trailer hits and how you can make the most of them as a composer.
What are Trailer Hits?
Trailer hits are those massive bangs you hear all over movie trailers. You know the ones that sound like explosions.
These hits are the sonic embodiment of movie trailers; over-the-top, in-your-face, larger-than-life drum hits.
The wonderful thing about these hits is that they don’t have to just be drums. They can be glass shattering, anvil whacking, close mic breathing, and groups stomping. If you can make a percussive sound you can bet someone has used it to create a trailer hit.
What are Trailer Hits for?
Trailer hits are almost always used as accents to emphasize something that has happened on the screen or within the track itself.
As a composer when I am using these hits I am using them for my own musical purposes but also thinking about how they might be used by the editor cutting my track within their edit.
This is why we have so many different types of trailer hits; to serve all the needs of both editor and composer alike.
What types of Trailer Hits are there?
I am still amazed at how many different types of hits there are.
You can go onto the public website of a music library, like say Audiomachine, and search their music back catalog by keyword or music type. This means that you can search all the different trailer hits they have.
And there are a ton of them! It’s almost as if someone has used a descriptive word and put it in front of the word ‘hit’ to make new-sounding hits. Wobbly hits, airy hits, or leafy hits for example.
I do however want to go through the most common hits that you will encounter as a composer.
These are my favorite and probably the most common hits you will hear. The name (as with most of them) gives the hit away.
A swish hit is simply a large-sounding hit with a “swish” before the hit. Kind of like the noise you get when you ‘whip’ a long thin stick through the air. But instead of just swishing it around you add the sound of 50 taiko drummers to it.
They invariably look like this (see below). A little rise into the hit which then has a long tail.
(Image attribution: Audiomachine)
Just to be clear. The swish does not have to sound like a swish; it just has to be a reverse tail into the attack of the note.
This means that the sound can actually be a drum sound reversed or even a synthesized sound of your making as long as it ramps us up into the sound of the hit.
Again the hit does not have to be traditional drums at all; it can be metallic, organic, hybrid…whatever as long as it sounds HUGE.
As a composer, I would never have dreamed that I could make my own swish hit and then have it used on loads of trailers as a sound effect. And that is exactly what I have done.
If you are interested in learning how to do this I show you exactly how I did in my flagship course, The Trailer Music Course.
These are one of my staples. But before I explain what they are I want to paint a picture for you (with words of course).
Imagine you are in a field in the middle of nowhere. You look up and in the distance you see a giant robot falling from the sky.
You watch as its hugeness descends and lands. There is no noise at first but then you feel it. The bass frequencies travel to you and hit you in the gut with a BOOM.
That is the sub boom. The sound of something huge in the distance.
Why in the distance? Because of the way sound works.
Bass frequencies travel further than higher frequencies so you only hear the low-end details of the noise as if someone has put a high-cut filter on the sound. And yes, that is exactly how you can make your own; by taking a huge-sounding hit and putting it through a low pass/high cut filter.
These sub-booms are used to beef up some music that is mostly high notes (take the act one that only uses violin harmonics for example).
They are also used to give impact to something visual, like a giant robot falling from the sky.
Another way to think of these sub-booms is to think of an explosion happening underground. All the high-frequency detail would be muffled by the earth and all you would hear and feel is the subfrequencies.
It is a really important part of these hits that they only contain SUB bass frequencies. We are talking 60Hz down to 20Hz and below. Below 20Hz we are not able to hear them, we feel them instead. I’m sure you have been to the cinema when a boom has happened that you have felt more than heard. That is one of these bad boys/girls/hits.
When using these in your tracks you must use them sparingly as they can very quickly muddy a good mix. I tend to only use them in act one, in stop downs, or at the very end of my trailer cue.
The reason is that I want to use more harsh or fuller sound trailer hits in other parts of my track and don’t want too many hits happening at the same time otherwise it will suck up all the sonic space from the bass, low strings, and brass.
(Image attribution: Audiomachine)
These sub-booms look much the same as any full hit would; very quick attack and a very long tail.
You might be thinking, “hang on Rich, you have just covered distant robots falling from the sky – isn’t this the same thing?”
My answer is, “Yes and no”.
Sub-booms only contain those frequencies below 60Hz whereas these distant hits contain higher frequency information.
Say we imagine that falling robot again.
With sub booms that robot is so far away that only the longest lowest sounds get to us and rumble our insides.
With distant hits, the robot is closer and perhaps a little smaller so the impact may still contain a lot of low frequencies but also contains the details of the trees being crushed.
Another interesting aspect of these distant hits is that they also sometimes contain small pre-hits or swishes. The difference though is that the high frequencies have been “rolled off” using a high-cut EQ filter.
I use these hits differently to sub-booms. I like to treat these, in the same way, I would treat a quiet timpani roll. They are there to introduce a new instrument or chord pattern or new subsection. I would save the bigger hits for the big changes in the track like going from Act 1 to Act 2.
Again, use these sparingly. Even though they sound amazing and so cinematic they can quickly swamp your mix.
To help your track if it is feeling swamped or muddy you can simply apply a low-cut filter to these hits. I mean who said distant hits had to be full of low frequencies?
One of my favorite ways to make a distant hit is to take a taiko roll, use a high-cut EQ to filter out anything above 500Hz, and then throw it in an 8-second plate reverb. This really does give you a cinematic transition very easily.
Just in case you are wondering, no, these are not the greatest hits of the band Metallica. Yes, they were ‘metal’ and they had lots of ‘hits’ they are not the same thing.
A metallic hit is simply a trailer-style hit that has a metallic impact as its main constituent.
The reason I say “main constituent” is that there are a lot of hits that have a metal sound in them that are not “metallic hits”.
I like to think that these types of hits are basically anvil hits with a bit more welly.
(watch out for these odd English terms here. Welly means “oomph” “power” and “drive”. Basically like you are kicking something whilst wearing wellies.)
If you don’t know what an anvil is then let me explain.
Have you ever seen a blacksmith making a sword or a shield in the movies or on TV?
Great. That blacksmith is whacking metal on an anvil.
Anvils are also those great gray shapes that fall from the sky and crush Wile E-Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons.
The purpose and use of these metallic hits can vary but it is invariably to add a different emphasis. Usually, because the style of track is in a certain genre that uses metallic sounds (horror for example).
I will say this first. I am not a huge fan of these sounds but they can be very useful to cut through the mix. The metallic frequencies are usually pretty high and like a triangle can cut through a whole orchestra with ease.
Another aspect of these hits is that they can have a metallic sound in the pre-hit or swish. It basically sounds like someone is drawing a sword just before the hit.
The metal sound is not limited to anvil-style hits or swords being drawn. Just think about all the variety of metals and quickly you realize that piano strings, cymbals, vibraphones, metallophones, etc. They all have metal timbres.
Btw. Timbre refers to what material is resonating to make the sound; wood, metal, gut, string, skin, etc.
My first real experience with foley was seeing it done live at Universal studios.
On the tour, you are taken to a foley studio where they record real sounds as effects for movies.
Foley is basically everyday sounds used as sounds for TV and film.
In our instance, foley hits are everyday sounds that we use to create hits.
One of my most used hits was a foley hit. It was the sound of me throwing my wife’s yoga ball onto the floor with great strength (ahem).
I layered it with some paper being ripped, zippers being zipped, and me closing a door in my house as the result was a really punchy and interesting sound. This was the hit that was used in the Top Gun 2 trailer.
I really love using foley as a way to record sounds as my own private library to use in trailer and cinematic music.
I take those sounds and mess them up with effects and get all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
The way we use this foley sound in trailer and cinematic music is to take it and throw it into a reverb with a long tail. The result is the sound of a car door being slammed in a cathedral. It makes it sound huge.
You’ve probably guessed that these are the long-lost cousins of sub-booms and distant hits.
The only signifier that I would suggest is to imagine life on a submarine. What type of hits would you hear in that cinematic universe?
You’d hear bombs exploding underwater (hopefully not anyway), big doors slamming and clunking, boots banging on ladders, etc.
For me, this is a bit of a tiny niche but a useful one nonetheless. I say this because it is a useful visual clue to help you imagine what type of sounds you require for your track.
Like I showed earlier, I really like trailers for the fact that they are OTT and larger than life so these weird visual and sonic metaphors are totally welcome.
Here’s a good one; what would it sound like if a Blue What imploded?
Create that as your own underwater hit library.
See how much fun we can have with this!?
I should really have started with this, the Godfather of trailer hits, the orchestral hit.
The orchestral hit was created by the amazing composer Igor Stravinsky for his work, The Firebird. You can hear the orchestral hits extensively in the first 30 seconds of this clip.
The ones Stravinsky used had rips/pre hits too courtesy of the woodwind and strings performing fast glissando into the hit which is essentially the whole orchestra playing the same note at the same time.
There you have it.
The orchestral hit is the whole orchestra playing the same notes (or very similar) at the same time.
It was then sampled extensively in 80s Hip Hop which then led to it being included in almost every electronic keyboard. This means that it has come to sound quite dated but when used in more commercial-sounding trailer music can sound amazing.
This video from the YouTube channel, Vox, is a great reference to show you the wonderful journey that the orchestral hit has gone on.
I wouldn’t let any of this stop you from exploring these amazing hits. They are very common in horror trailers. Just be sure to make the hit rather dissonant.
This point leads me to the wider use of orchestral hits for us composers. We are inevitably performing these whenever we use a section or all of the sections of an orchestra to play a hit or emphasize a single note.
This means that these hits for us are often layered with other more percussion-led impacts.
This for me is the hardest one to put into words. Similarly to organic veg. What does the word organic even mean here?
Well luckily for us there isn’t a government body making us jump through hoops to define our hit as organic. All we have to do is to record a sound that feels like it might have come from something real.
Yes, it is very similar to foley BUT we can go a little leftfield with the sound.
Foley is generally not affected much. If anything you want the sound to sound like the thing that was recorded.
Organic hits only have to have the faint whisper of real life.
Record yourself chopping wood and use that as the starting sound.
Here’s the trick; not to mangle it too much otherwise it starts to sound synthetic and unreal.
This is why this one is tough to define because you can go through the steps of recording your own sounds and not mangle them much, but to someone else, they might hear something very digital.
It’s very subjective.
My little tip is to think of it as the hit that sounds like it was played by humans; a bit wonky.
Yay, we have gotten to the scary ones.
You guessed it. Horror hits are mashups of all and any of the above hits but they have to feel scary, twisted, and weird.
The easy win with these hits is to include a sound that sounds like someone screaming.
One year I was working on a horror album and I invited my daughter and her friends into the studio and I recorded them screaming to make my horror hits. It worked like a charm, well a scary charm that is.
Another approach is to mimic the sound of the human scream with other instruments, usually the violin.
This way you can get the organic texture, the pain of a shrill sound, and the impact of a hit. Job done. there is your horror hit.
Now although the clue is in the title (again). These hits aren’t necessarily what you might expect.
Hybrid hits, much like hybrid trailer music, are a combination of electronic and organic sounds. This translates to synths being used heavily.
If you want to create a hybrid hit make sure you use something electronic sounding. It doesn’t have to be over the top but it is used as a layer; either to pad out the tail with noise or to make the hit feel even larger.
If you think of hybrid music as being hard-hitting trailer music. Then hybrid hits are the hard-hitting hits.
These can have swishes, metal, and screams (sort of) but that has to feel absolutely massive.
I show you how to create your own hybrid hits in my Trailer Music Course.
Hits!? Who Cares?
You may be wondering why you should care about hits!?
Surely I just grab the one that sounds the best right?!
Well, yes, actually that is pretty much it. But if you are anything like me then you will at some point wonder why that one sounds best where it does and why they use certain hits when they do.
‘They’ are other composers and trailer editors.
The other reason is that using hits (and transitions) is the easiest and quickest way to “trailerize” a track.
To “Trailerize” means to make a piece of music fit the trailer structure and feel like it fits in the sonic world of movie trailers (OTT, in your face…that type of thing).
I used to overlook hits as a gimmick.
Oh, how wrong I was.
I was overlooking one of the most useful and indispensable tools at my disposal.
Next time you are in your DAW, make sure you take some time to browse through your hit libraries and think, “how could I use that to make my tracks sound better?”
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