Review: Toontrack Superior Drummer 3

A premium virtual drummer gets significantly more powerful
By Mike Levine,
Toontrack Superior Drummer 3 sports a completely new look to go along with its new sounds and new capabilities. The GUI is also scalable and has detachable windows.

Not all major software updates are created equal. Some merely burnish the graphics and throw in a few new features. But that’s not the case with Superior Drummer 3, one of the most substantial updates I’ve ever seen. From the sounds to the grooves to the outstanding audio-to-MIDI feature and GUI, this upgrade is about as major as you get.

Superior Drummer 3 (SD3) can be used either as a plug-in or a standalone app, and its features are the same in either.

CHANGE IS GOOD

Toontrack totally redesigned the GUI, giving it a more modern look, including 3D graphics and a new window structure that includes a Song Track for assembling full-length drum parts, a la Toontrack’s EZ Drummer. Several key windows are detachable, and the full GUI is scalable, as are any detached windows, making customization for your monitor easy.

More importantly, the sound library has been significantly expanded, providing seven kits by six different brands: Ayotte, Gretsch, Ludwig, Pearl, Premier, and Yamaha. The drums are played with sticks, brushes, rods, and felt mallets, and you can load snare samples with the snares on or off. George Massenburg recorded and produced the recordings and, as you’d expect, they sound excellent and totally realistic.

A fairly sizable collection of presets—including some from Massenburg, himself—offer varying levels of ambience, compression and effects. All of those aspects are adjustable in the Mixer, which offers nine ambience mic channels (six stereo pairs and one mono channel), giving you a wide variety of room sounds for every drum. SD3 can also use those ambience channels to create a 11.1 surround mix.

Also notable is the drum-tuning algorithm. Rather than just pitch-shifting a drum, SD3 closely imitates the changes that happen to a drum when you tune the head. The results are impressively realistic. Moreover, the cymbal-tuning algorithm lets you realistically change the “size” of any of the cymbal samples.

And this is the first version of Superior Drummer to include electronic sounds; 350 snares and kicks sampled from a variety of sources, including TR-808 and -909 drum machines, and Steiner Synthacon and Buchla synths, among others. The sounds are quite good, and you can mix and match them with the acoustic sounds in a kit. Surprisingly, there are no electronic tom or cymbal samples. Among the electronic-kit presets are those created by well-known names such as Richard Devine.

The percussion offerings have also been expanded and include shakers, tambourines, cowbell, finger snaps, hand claps, and electronic claps.

GROOVE GURU

One of the anomalies of SD2 was that its MIDI drum Grooves section was not as robust as Toontrack’s less expensive EZ Drummer 2. SD3 changes that by incorporating the best of EZ Drummer’s Groove features, and more.

Tap 2 Find lets you tap in a rhythm to search the library for similar beats, and the Groove window allows you to filter your searches by categories. The Song Creator builds a series of song-length arrangements based on any single Groove.

The overall Groove collection covers a variety of styles, and additional Groove sets are available in the Toontrack online store, which you can audition from within SD3.

FOR A SONG

Grooves can be loaded into the Song Track one at a time, or strung together into a complete song from the Song Creator. The Tabs feature, which is not in EZ Drummer 2, allows you to have multiple songs (or individual Grooves) loaded at once. Whichever Tab is active will play, and it’s easy to switch between them.

You can sync your track to the host or play it independently: SD3 has its own transport controls. The Song Track offers cut, copy and paste editing, and you can drag loops around, and even color code them by song part.

The new Grid Editor is like a sequence editor where you graphically edit selected Grooves, quantize the hits, and graphically edit velocities.

When you’re done, you can export the song as a MIDI file, drag it from the Song Track directly into your DAW, or use the Bounce feature to create an audio file.

MIX MASTER

The Mixer provides all the tools you need to mix the drums from within SD3— individual channels for each drum mic (or mic pair, in the case of room mics), along with buses, inserts and a master bus. As with previous versions, SD3 gives you control over the amount of drum bleed in each channel.

The Mixer includes 35 new effects (up from five in SD2), split into six categories—EQ, Dynamics, Distortion, Reverb, Delay and Modulation. The EQ is excellent, offering multiple parametric bands and a spectrum analyzer. The Tape Simulator is great for warming up the drum sounds (I loved it on the master bus). Models of classic hardware such as the UREI 1176 and Fairchild 670 are provided, as are stompbox models. Modulation effects such as Tremolo, Phaser, and Vibrato are particularly handy for the electronic sounds.

TRACKER STAR

Fig. 1. The Tracker lets you import multitrack drum audio tracks and turn them into MIDI so you can replace the various instruments using SD3 samples.

One of the most impressive additions in SD3 is called Tracker (see Figure 1). It’s essentially a fully featured drum replacer. Use it to convert multitrack drum recordings into MIDI so that you can replace them with SD3 sounds. It was created using machine-learning technology and is smart enough to recognize the various parts of a drum kit, even on a track with a lot of bleed. And using the hi-hat’s multiple articulation setting, it can recognize the difference between open and closed hi-hats.

Once Tracker analyzes the audio, it categorizes it as either snare, kick, tom, cymbal (crash), ride or hi-hat. If it gets it wrong—which didn’t happen in my testing—you can manually switch it. You can audition the converted MIDI along with the original audio to hear how they line up, and there are a number of tools for tweaking the conversion if needed. For example, you can set the threshold of the algorithm that recognizes the different instruments and adjust the velocity above which the algorithm will look for notes.

I used Tracker to replace the snare and kick drum on several multitrack drum parts and it worked without any adjustments, capturing the nuances of the sticking on the snare track (and avoiding the dreaded machine-gun effect). It didn’t go quite that easy when I converted a hi-hat track. I had to do some post-conversion adjustments because SD3 recognized some of the closed-hat hits as open.

When you’re finished tweaking Tracker’s results, you can export your newly minted MIDI tracks together in one combined MIDI track, or split each track out individually. You can move your new tracks into the Song Track—where you can make additional adjustments with the Grid Editor and the other tools. Alternatively, you can drag and drop them into your DAW, or even bounce them back out as audio using SD3’s sounds.

Another cool new feature lets you import external audio files to replace, or stack on top of the samples for the various drums and cymbals. This opens up a lot of creative possibilities.

If you want to get really tweaky, Toontrack also added a Macro function that lets you gang multiple parameters on a single control knob. You can create up to 100 of these Macro controls.

MANUAL LABORIOUS

Probably my least favorite aspect of SD3 is its manual, which is accessed from inside the interface, but opens as a webpage on the Toontrack site (you must sign into your account to access it). The manual’s internal search function is tedious and inefficient. Search results are comprised of every instance where the search term was found. There’s no weighting for relevance, so you often end up having to scroll through a bunch of text to find the information you want.

Usually, I export online manuals as PDFs, to take advantage of the superior searching capabilities of that format, and you can now download the SD3’s manual directly from toontrack.com.

SD3 FOR YOU AND ME

Overall, I was highly impressed with Superior Drummer 3. The sounds are great, the features are powerful, and the new GUI is much more intuitive and functional than the previous version. It is on the high end price-wise, when compared to its competitors, but as an all-around MIDI drum-production environment, it’s hard to beat. SD3 lives up to its name—it is superior.

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area.

STRENGTHS

Sounds produced by George Massenburg. Ambience channels. Electronic instruments. Brush, rod, and mallet hits. Percussion added. Drum replacement. Improved Groove features. 35 mixer effects. Macros.

LIMITATIONS

No electronic tom or cymbals. Tedious search function in the manual.

$399 (Upgrade and crossgrade pricing available.)
toontrack.com

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