April 4, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
Today we are venturing back into the epic, cinematic world with the Epic Toms Ensemble! This is the 4th epic percussion ensemble available in Soundpaint, following the Epic Taikos, Dhols, and Frame Drums. We sampled toms so deeply that we would never have to sample them again. With high-tuned 10" - 14" toms, roto-toms, octo-bans, floor toms, bass drums, and custom mega-toms, this collection is perfect for creating epic battle scenes or adding a thunderous boom to your tracks. You can see the toms in action here!
At comparable sizes, Toms are generally deeper and a bit more resonant than dhols and taikos. Larger taikos can be lower with sharper attacks compared to toms and bass drums, but the tenor range of toms is definitely a sweet spot. Frame drums sound a bit more open and many of the drums in that library have rattles, so you really get a different texture there. Dhols have a sharper and brighter sound than toms, with a tight and crisp sound. Taikos are large Japanese drums that have a distinctive deep, resonant sound with a strong attack and long decay. They are typically played in ensembles and are known for their power and intensity. All that being the case, the epic toms ensemble includes bass drum ensembles to cover the low end of the spectrum, shouts, and more - all of this has made it a defining instrument in epic music for a long time!
All of these epic percussion instruments are a blast to play in Soundpaint, with a ton of freedom and expressive agility thanks to the full range of velocities and natural variation. Each can stand on their own to create epic, driving passages covering the full spectrum. But if you have a chance to play them all, you’ll find some really unique textures and timbres between them.
Speaking of Toms, I’ve always wondered why they’re called that. The bass drum has a perfectly sensible name, and the snare on a snare drum makes sense. But we don’t call snare drums steves or sam-sams or something like that. Is it onomatopoetic - did the word come from the sound? Tam-tam comes from a Malaysian term; did we get tom-tom from another language? Tamtam can be written with or without a hyphen, but is tomtom okay?
Why are they called Toms?
A quick search online may tell you that the term "tom-tom" may have originated from the drum's similarity to the sound of a drum used in Native American music. This drum had a cylindrical shape and a single drumhead. This type of drum was typically made from a hollowed-out log or a barrel, with animal skin stretched tightly over the top as a drumhead. That definitely sounds like a type of tom, and one can see the relation to the modern drum as a tenor instrument, but it seems impossible to find any specific information about which Native American language the word could have come from, or why it would have been called that. So, let’s keep looking.
Several sources instead note the Chinese tom as a likely origin of the drum, if not specifically the name. In the latter half of the 1800s, Chinese toms made their way to the US. Their unique tone was noticed by drum set players, who began adapting them for various purposes by the early 20th century. The Chinese toms, despite their lack of tunability, boasted vibrant paint jobs and were frequently employed in generating sound effects for stage productions, silent films, and radio broadcasts. But, is this actually where the name came from? Or did English speakers take it from an older style of drum?
While both of these are valid explanations of older drums that may have inspired modern tom drums over time, they are both focused on the drums' introductions in North America and lack some specific information about the name. The true roots of the word "tom" seem to come from Sri Lanka, where a type of frame drum called a “Thappu” was used in Buddhist rituals. The Thappu came to Sri Lanka from South India, and the Sinhala people had a variation of the drum called a “Thammattama.” This drum was a bit deeper and seems to resemble modern toms even more than Chinese toms do. Ethnomusicologists have discovered written records of British colonists who complained about the noise of drums they referred to as "tom-toms." These records actually pre-date the introduction of Chinese toms in the West. And since the term was written down, it appears most likely that "tom-tom" was an English speaker's attempt at pronouncing "Thammattama."
Tracing the word back further may well reveal a directly onomatopoetic source. Some English dictionaries actually conflate tam-tam and tom-tom as sharing the same etymology (history of a word) from a Chinese term, even though they are completely different types of percussion instruments. Since language and music are both constantly evolving, some specifics like this can be lost. It seems like the modern tom drum was inspired by a lot of things, so even finding a good source for the name does not tell the full story. But sometimes, when you look for a specific detail like this, even if you do not find a perfect answer, you find a lot of other interesting information along the way.