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The Ultimate Acoustic Drum Library

July 1, 2003
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Without a doubt, the acoustic drum set has been sampled more than any other instrument. Ever since the first drum machine played back digital recordings of actual drum hits rather than synthesized emulations, the world of popular music has been transformed by the sounds of sampled drums.

Composers, arrangers, and producers can now make competitive recordings without the expertise, expense, or time that is required to record a drum set in a commercial studio. Moreover, sonic explorations with drum samples and loops have helped lead to the development of numerous musical styles that now stand completely on their own, using deliberate alternatives to the traditional drum set.

The acoustic drum kit was an easy target for early sample developers because the sounds are relatively short and static as opposed to, for example, a violin section or a piano. It's a mistake to think, however, that a single hit of a real drum always sounds the same. We've come to accept — and even expect — drums to sound consistent and static because we've been fed 20 years of consistent and static drum sounds in so many pop records. The way we program drum parts has been largely defined by the way real drummers play; and ironically, the way real drummers play today is often influenced by the way in which sampled sounds are applied in various styles.

More snare-drum hits are commercially available than any other sampled sound, yet the list of acoustic-drum sample libraries continues to grow each year. Apparently, our fascination with the infinite varieties of sounds that can be derived from banging on drums with sticks is not easily satisfied, especially considering that drums come in so many shapes and sizes and are made from such a wide variety of materials.

ROAD RULES

Because so many great-sounding drum libraries have appeared over the past decade, this installment has been the most difficult of the “In Search of…” series to write. For this article, however, I'm narrowing the scope to cover acoustic-drum-kit libraries that attempt to capture the sound, flexibility, and dynamic range of a bona fide drum set. Because there are so many drum libraries to choose from, I had to set some harsh standards to narrow the field to a manageable number of titles. The truth is that the right drum sound for a particular song could come from just about any library. The point of this article, however, is to provide you with a good place to start when you're looking for a great-sounding collection of drum-kit samples.

I have therefore established the following rules for this feature: I'm covering only single-hit libraries, not loops and not heavily processed or synthetic-sounding drum and percussion samples. Special attention was given to libraries that make use of the latest technology, especially multitrack layers (close-mics, overheads, room mics). Libraries with mono-only cymbals were largely eliminated unless they had some killer drum hits to justify inclusion. Libraries that feature multiple Velocity layers were given more consideration than those offering only one or two hits per drum.

No particular prejudice was applied toward libraries that didn't include room ambience or judicious processing such as compression and EQ; if they sounded great, they were included. Libraries that were uniformly excellent ranked higher than libraries that offered only a limited selection of standout samples. I used two questions to help me narrow the search as I evaluated the libraries: if I had to fit my whole sample library onto a single hard drive for portability, would those sounds make my must-have list? And more importantly: would I use these sounds on a commercial recording in lieu of a real drum set?

So, after months of pounding on my keyboard and MIDI drum controller, here are the libraries that I couldn't leave home without.

BIG FISH AUDIO

MIXtended Drums

This two-CD set offers five different drum kits in General MIDI (GM) format. The kits are labeled Funk, Jazz, Heavy, Rock, and Soul, although they're compatible enough for easy mixing and matching within the same song. The samples are well recorded in 24-bit resolution and should work fine in many productions with little or no additional processing.

MIXtended Drums (see Fig. 1) takes advantage of today's streaming sample technology, so the kits are big and detailed; each note features between 4 and 12 stereo samples. The outstanding feature of MIXtended Drums is that each kit is provided in identically mapped dry, overhead, and room versions, which allows you to layer the three kits and dial-in the balance to taste. That would be virtually impossible with a hardware sampler and its limited RAM, but today's streaming samplers like Emagic EXS24 and Steinberg HALion handle the tasks easily even with modest CPUs.

MIXtended Drums also features XXL versions of each kit that offer up to 32 stereo layers per drum with a resampled blend of the three mic perspectives. The Velocity crossfades are excellent and natural; the results are outstanding.

The cymbals are envelope shaped at the sample level to ring for only six or seven seconds, which is my biggest criticism of this library. In the context of a full drum-kit performance, however, the shorter ring of the cymbals is usually not a problem. Also, the open hi-hat sounds on A# are cut off only by the foot hi-hat sample on G#, and not by the stick hit on F#. A little tweaking in EXS24 fixed that minor bug.

The concept of MIXtended Drums is great, and the execution and organization is excellent. Especially considering its price, MIXtended Drums is a true winner.

BIG FISH AUDIO

Platinum 24 Acoustic Drums

Another bang-for-the-buck library, Platinum 24 Acoustic Drums consists of 16-bit stereo samples (in the Akai version) with up to 32 stereo layers per note. (According to Big Fish Audio, 24-bit EXS24, Giga, and HALion versions will be available soon.) The two-CD library has no full drum kits, although most individual instruments adhere to the GM drum map. In addition, the samples are mapped chromatically starting an octave or two above the GM layout in the same patch. That lets you play a specific sample more easily without having to trigger it with its corresponding Velocity range, and you can have full Velocity control over it.

Ludwig, Premier, Sonor, and Ayotte snare drums are represented and flams are included. The snares sound great, except for a few Premier single-hit snare samples that sound abruptly chopped off, which affects the perceived ambiance. It is noticeable, because most of the surrounding samples have more of a decay tail. Another point worth noting is that many of the instruments have a few more samples in the chromatically mapped area — eight to ten samples per note — than there are in their GM layout.

The toms are from Yamaha, Sonor, and Pearl. Oddly, the toms are mapped chromatically only, with no corresponding GM layout. Four toms are mapped at C1, C2, C3, and C4 with eight samples per drum. There are no tom flams, but the drums sound very good in a market that offers surprisingly few great tom samples. The hi-hats are especially good, with 8 to 12 layers per note.

Platinum 24 Acoustic Drums also has five GM-mapped, single-layer ambiance programs for layering behind the drier samples: small, medium, and large plates; brick-wall limited room; and gated ambiance. The ambiance layers are moderately useful, but not nearly as effective as the newer libraries that provide detailed overhead and room kits. I'd rather have had the space dedicated to more samples and articulations in the main kits. However, the overall value of this library is excellent.

BIG FISH AUDIO

Ross Garfield Drums 1

The Ross Garfield Drums 1 library (see Fig. 2) gives you 20 kits drawn from a pool of drums that includes five kicks from Gretsch, Ludwig, and Remo; ten snares from Ludwig, Leedy, Noble & Cooley, and others; toms from DW, Gretsch, and Roto; and a variety of cymbals and hi-hats. The library also includes a good collection of Latin and pop percussion and a variety of techno and 808-style kicks, snares, and other sounds.

Unlike the Drums 2 library, Drums 1 uses only two to four Velocity layers. The quality is high overall, but the usefulness is hit-and-miss. This library (unlike Drums 2) has samples that are stylized with EQ, compression, and other processing. Although some of the drums are used for more than one kit, the kit names (such as Metal and Dry Pop) group the appropriate drums for each given style. Overall, Ross Garfield Drums 1 is a solid collection, especially if you need to get a lot of mileage out of a single library.

BIG FISH AUDIO

Ross Garfield Drums 2

As you would expect from Ross Garfield, the drums used in these sampling sessions sound great. The tuning is spot-on, and you can tell that care went into prepping the drums for recording the samples.

Black Beauty, Garfield Custom, Ludwig, and Noble & Cooley snare drums are covered in great detail. Of particular note is the collection of multirod snare samples, which are especially strong in this library. Yamaha, Ludwig, and Gretsch toms are also included, along with Gretsch and DW kick drums.

Most of the drums in this 16-bit library have four to eight Velocity layers. Dry and ambient versions are provided for all drums. The hi-hats are good and the cymbals are okay, but they typically have only one or two layers. The library's strength is clearly its collection of drums, so I often use drums from this library mixed with cymbals from elsewhere.

The drum samples are very natural and realistic, much like what you get when you place a quality microphone in front of a great-sounding drum and record it without processing. That may make this library sound a bit smaller and duller than other libraries that have added some EQ and compression to the samples.

Garfield's approach to Drums 2 has its advantages and disadvantages. The sounds are of high quality and take well to compression, EQ, and other processing that you would usually add when working with drum tracks, and that gives you lots of flexibility. On the other hand, the sounds usually need some processing to compete with most of the drum sounds in modern productions. Nevertheless, for high-quality samples and flexibility, Ross Garfield Drums 2 is a winner.

EASTWEST

Pure Drums

I broke one of my own rules by including Pure Drums in this article (see Fig. 3) — all of the 16-bit samples are in mono. However, they sound so great that they deserve inclusion. The tone of all the drums is full and natural, with great transients — in fact, some of the best transients in this entire roundup. There are up to 16 Velocity layers per note, and with a little artificial ambiance, the samples sound stunning.

The Pure Drums sounds are mapped in GM kits with names such as PopKit, HipHop, FunkKit, and SoulKit, so it takes a little searching to find exactly what you want in a particular sound. Nevertheless, all of the samples are great, and they mix and match quite well. I still wish the cymbals were in stereo, although adding a little mono-to-stereo reverb usually fixes that situation. Or you can easily use cymbals from another library, which is what I usually do. I often start with Pure Drums when looking for kick, snare, and tom samples.

EASTWEST

Real Giga Drums

Real Giga Drums is an incredibly well-thought-out three-disc library (see Fig. 4). The five kits average 7 to 13 16-bit stereo samples per note. Each kit is offered in three versions: dry, overhead, and room. All three versions are mapped exactly the same for layering, just as MIXtended Drums is.

Each of the five kits is given in GM layouts as well as in custom mapping programs that feature more samples. Economy versions of the kits consist of a premixed blend of the dry, overhead, and room mics. Those smaller versions are especially great for reducing the drain on your computer's resources while sequencing; you can later print the independent versions of the layered kits for ultimate control. However, the economy kits sound great in their own right and will satisfy many users.

The toms are the weakest instruments in the kit — I wish they had a little more ring to them — but I'm splitting hairs here. Real Giga Drums is a great value.

ROLAND

SRX-01 Dynamic Drum Kits

I occasionally cover hardware in the “In Search of…” articles if it fills the “best of” criteria that is the premise of the series. Roland's SRX-01 expansion card fills a unique niche (see Fig. 5). It offers the equivalent of 64 MB of 16-bit samples, all dedicated to drum sounds.

As is typical of Roland's products, a lot of sounds are crammed into the available space on the SRX-01. A bunch of meaty-sounding kicks, snares, and toms maintain their character without being cleaned up or overedited to the point of sounding generic. The sounds are punchy, too, which is usually not the case with expansion-card sounds.

The cymbals aren't great; they lack the transient zing that many of the other libraries have, and there are only a few cymbals that serve all of the included kits. But cymbals aren't the focus of this card. The many kicks, snares, toms, and full brush kits are the main attraction, and they're real winners. I mixed a couple of preset kits (without cymbals) for a professional song and for a demo remake of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Windows of the World.” When I played the mix for Bacharach recently, he asked me who was playing the drums! I had to hold back a smile as I pointed to myself.

If you own an XV-series synth, Fantom workstation, or some other compatible synth, I recommend this card. It puts lots of excellent drum sounds immediately at your fingertips, and you can feel good about using an expansion card without compromising quality.

SONIC NETWORK

Sonic Implants Drum Series 1

This powerful 16-bit library has five kits, three of which were sampled at Blue Jay studio (known for its drum sound). The other two session kits give you four-to-eight-Velocity cross-switched stereo layers per note in GM format (see Fig. 6).

As with all of the company's Sonic Implants products, great attention has been given to the programming, and patches have been customized to take full advantage of each native format's strengths. As a result, a lot of programs use effects and filtering that don't translate well into other formats. For instance, when importing the Giga version of Drum Series 1 into EXS24, I had many patches that were sonically identical, because EXS24 doesn't recognize the effects setting in GigaStudio. (According to Sonic Networks, Drum Series 1 should be available in native EXS24 and Kontakt formats by the time you read this.)

This collection is especially noteworthy because its sounds are ready to go right out of the box. Sonic Networks has created a musical blend of close-mic, overhead, and room mics, and the sounds are extremely punchy and have an ample supply of transients. The kits are so versatile because they respond well to additional processing, yet they can easily stand on their own. Sonic Implants Drum Series 1 is a fine, well-produced collection.

STUDIO CAT SOFTWARE

Purrrfect Drums

The prize for the largest sampled drum kit goes to Studio Cat. Purrrfect Drums comes on eight CDs, all of which are dedicated to a meticulously sampled Yamaha Recording Series drum kit (see Fig. 7). The 16-bit library has a few alternative snares and toms, but by and large it is dedicated to a single kit with 16 Velocity-switched samples per note.

One unique feature of Purrrfect Drums is that most of the Velocity-switching is weighted toward the upper end of the 0 to 127 range. That causes different samples to be triggered more often than usual when a performance stays in the upper dynamic range, which could be a problem if not implemented well. In Purrrfect Drums, however, the sound designer has maintained strict quality control; the results are a very playable and natural-sounding dynamic drum set.

Purrrfect Drums does include some processing, especially EQ, but I find that I still need to add some EQ and compression for a finished result. The toms ring for an especially long time, and I usually have to gate them to prevent them from muddying a fill. However, I'd rather have the natural, long ring of real toms to work with than to be stuck with toms that sound chopped off.

The cymbals and hi-hats are particularly good, so if you find that the snares, kick, and toms are not to your liking, these cymbals should work well with most of the other libraries covered in this roundup. Studio Cat has just released its second title, Purrrfect Brushes, which promises to raise the bar for brush kits.

SWEETWATER SOUND

Total Stereo Session Drums

As its title states, all of the samples in Total Stereo Session Drums (see Fig. 8) are in stereo (although I suspect a few mono samples may have slipped in). The drum sounds run the gamut from excellent to mediocre, and I even found a few stinkers. However, Total Stereo Session Drums was intended to cover lots of sonic ground, and it accomplishes that goal admirably. (According to Sweetwater, the library was designed to offer a wide range of sounds from top-level pro to low-level garage band.)

What makes this library great is its collection of cymbals. For years, they were the only realistic-sounding stereo cymbals that I found satisfying; I used them on several big records. Even though sampled cymbals are getting better in the more recent libraries, I still call on these cymbals when I'm in a hurry, because I know that I can fully trust that they will sound good.

Many kick and snare samples are crammed onto this disc, so you can probably find something you like. However, most of the sounds are either one-shots or have only a couple of Velocity layers, which may be too limiting for some people.

In addition, I've never been able to successfully translate this Kurzweil-only library into GigaStudio or EXS24 formats. (According to Sweetwater, that's because the library includes a lot of programming specific to the Kurzweil platform.) That means that to use this library I still have to fire up my K2000 rack, which I'm doing less and less frequently as I continue my migration into software synths and samplers. If you own a K2000, K2500 or K2600, however, this is a good library to have. I've gotten lots of mileage out of it over the years; it has provided me with a unique collection of stereo drum sounds that many of my competitors haven't had.

HIT PARADE

All of the libraries in this roundup are very good. However, as I mentioned earlier, you may need to mix and match samples from different collections to build the ultimate kit for a particular project (see the sidebar “Test Pattern”).

I usually start with Real Giga Drums and MIXtended Drums because the flexibility offered by their multimic perspectives is hard to beat. I sometimes get mixed results, though, when combining some of the drum sounds from the two libraries. The most noticeable differences occur when using the room layers.

On the other hand, the dry and overhead perspectives blend quite well between the two libraries, and I ordinarily build a room perspective with external processing. I can usually use either of the libraries' premixed kits for basic sequencing, and then go back later and swap individual drums between the two libraries before the final recording. That approach has worked very well.

If I can't find the right toms or snare, I most often turn to Pure Drums, Platinum 24 Acoustic Drums, or Drum Series 1. They offer so many great hits that I'm usually satisfied. For cymbals, I turn first to Real Giga Drums or Total Stereo Session Drums and then augment the drum set from there if necessary.

When I want a pure, unprocessed sound or want to work on customizing the sound of a drum kit, I reach for the Ross Garfield libraries. The raw samples can take a lot of processing and still hold up, much like a well-recorded live kit. If I want a very detailed drum performance, and I don't mind working to customize the sound with processing, the multisamples found in Purrrfect Drums are hard to beat. This library probably affords the best opportunity for emulating a live kit. When I want great results in a hurry, I jump into Roland's SRX-01 expansion card and Drum Series 1.

As you can see, plenty of excellent drum samples are currently on the market, and new technologies continue to offer more opportunities for creating better drum tracks with 24-bit samples, streaming technology, and multimic perspectives. These recent developments have greatly improved the sounds and performances of sampled drums, and you can expect to see drum libraries emerge in the near future that are even more detailed.


Producer/musician Rob Shrock has worked with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Faith Hill, and a host of others. He is currently on the Board of Governors for NARAS.

TEST PATTERN

When creating most of my drum parts, I obtain the best results when I mix and match sounds that are from various libraries. Auditioning a multitude of drum sounds, however, can quickly become tedious as well as very time-consuming. Fortunately, I have found an effective way to speed up the process of searching for the right drum sounds.

I have created a little eight-bar pattern that plays through all of the drums in a way that provides a quick feel for the sounds that are in the current setup. The sequence consists of a couple of full-kit sections that go in and out of fills. The fills are dynamic (loud to soft or vice versa), so I can hear the basic dynamic response of the drums. I use a lot of cymbal hits, too. I wouldn't use this little sequence in a musical context, but the pattern offers enough variety that I can listen to it for 10 or 15 minutes without going crazy. I've created the eight-bar pattern so that only a brief moment passes before I hear a few hits of any given drum sound.

Of course, I have a main General MIDI layout of the test pattern that works for many libraries. But I have also customized the pattern for each of the dozen or so main libraries that I use on a regular basis. Most of the libraries, even if they have an unusual layout, are usually consistent. So even if, for example, a library lays out its snare-drum samples chromatically starting at C3, it most likely stays that way throughout the library.

I've copied and edited my basic test pattern to match each library's mapping scheme and have renamed each sequence to match each of the library names in my short list of favorites. That lets me quickly hear drum sounds in a more musical context than if I were to manually trigger one-shot hits ad nauseum.

All of the copies of the test pattern reside in my sequencer template in either an alternate sequence or in a nested folder, which I can delete later once I have started a new song. I've found that this process has greatly improved my ability to quickly audition drum sounds so that I don't have to fall back repeatedly on the same old sounds when I'm short on time.

SAMPLE LIBRARIES

DISTRIBUTOR TITLE FORMATS DESCRIPTION PRICE
Big Fish Audio MIXtended Drums EXS24/Battery, HALion/LM4 2 CDs $99.95
Big Fish Audio Platinum 24 Acoustic Drums Akai 2 CDs $99.95
Big Fish Audio Ross Garfield Drums 1 Akai, Audio, E-mu, Kurzweli Roland, SampleCell 1 CD $199.95 Akai, E-mu, Kurzweil, Roland, SampleCell; $79.95 Audio
Big Fish Audio Ross Garfield Drums 2 Akai, Audio, Giga, Kurzweil, SampleCell 1 CD: Akai, Audio, Kurzweil, SampleCell; 2 CDs: Giga $199.95 Akai, Giga, Kurzweil, SampleCell; $79.95 Audio
EastWest Pure Drums Akai, EXS24, Giga 1 CD $149.95
EastWest Real Giga Drums Akai S5000/6000, E-mu, Giga 3 CDs $199.95
Roland SRX-01 Dynamic Drum Kits XV-series synths, RD-700, Fantom, Fantom-S, MC-909 expansion card $395
Sonic Network Sonic Implants Drum Series 1 Akai, EXS24, Giga, Kontakt, Kurzweil, SoundFonts 1 CD $199.95
Studio Cat Software Purrrfect Drums Giga, HALion 8 CDs $249
Sweetwater Sound Total Stereo Session Drums Kurzweil 1 CD $199

COMPANY CONTACTS

Big Fish Audio
tel. (800) 717-3474
e-mail info@bigfishaudio.com
Web www.bigfishaudio.com

EastWest
tel. (800) 969-9449
e-mail info@soundsonline.com
Web www.soundsonline.com

Roland Corporation U.S.
tel. (323) 890-3700
Web www.rolandus.com

Sonic Network, Inc.
tel. (888) 769-3788
e-mail info@sonicimplants.com
Web www.sonicimplants.com

Studio Cat Software
tel. (614) 873-3034
e-mail jim@studiocat.com
Web www.studiocat.com

Sweetwater Sound
tel. (800) 222-4700
Web www.sweetwater.com

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