Software drum machines and drum modules are more powerful than ever. By leveraging computer horsepower, RAM, and hard-disk capacities, these plug-in and standalone instruments offer features that few hardware drum machines and samplers can equal.
Software drum machines differ from drum modules in several ways. The basic drum machine offers a collection of drum sounds that you can trigger with pads, creating patterns using a built-in sequencer and arranging them into song form. Typical drum-machine features include pattern looping, which lets you overdub a groove while a measure or more repeats, the ability to delete notes while looping, automatic quantization, and step-style sequencing. Although the dominant software-drum-machine model is the sample-playback engine, a growing number of machines include synthesis techniques such as frequency modulation, analog modeling, and subtractive synthesis superimposed over sample playback.
Although some software drum modules strive to emulate drum machines, they simply deliver banks of drum and percussion sounds, relegating the triggering and song-form arrangement to the host sequencer or controller. Some drum modules supply a number of Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) that you can import into your sequencer. Other programs use sampler-style loop-playback techniques in which you use your MIDI keyboard to select and trigger MIDI drum patterns.
This is not to be confused with players that work exclusively with loop slices, such as Dr.Rex in Propellerhead's Reason and Spectrasonics' Stylus (see the sidebar “Spectrasonics Stylus RMX”), which are not covered in this roundup. Although you can trigger individual hits the way you would with a drum sound module using loop-slice players, their main focus is to create grooves that can adapt to tempo rather than to let you build rhythms from drum kits. For purposes of focus and space, this roundup also leaves out sound libraries, as well as drum machines that are included in sequencer software, such as ReDrum in Propellerhead Reason.
Consequently, the instruments that fall within the purview of this article can deliver high-quality drum sounds, combined with some form of rhythm programming capabilities and a playback engine. Rather than provide a full review of each product, this roundup will cover their most salient points, including sound quality, interface, and user-experience issues.
Most of the items in this article are available as VST plug-ins. On the Windows side, author Todd Souvignier used them in Cubase SX on a Pentium 4/800 MHz laptop running Windows XP Home Edition with an Echo IndigoIO sound card. He also ran the same plug-ins on a Pentium II/dual 466 MHz processor running Windows 2000 Professional, using Cubase VST 5.1 and an E-mu 1820m audio/MIDI interface.
On the Mac side, author Marty Cutler tested Audio Units (AU) versions in Digital Performer 4.1.2 and Apple GarageBand 1.1. For VST2 instruments, he used Cubase SX 2.2. He also used FXpansion VST-to-AU Converter to test the worthiness of plug-ins in non-VST-compatible software. Cutler tested the software on a G4/dual 1.42 GHz with 2 GB of RAM running OS X 10.3.3 and using a MOTU 896 audio interface. Details about the supported audio formats and drivers for each product are given in the table “Software Drum Machine and Module Overview.”
Best Service Artist Drums 1.02 (Mac/Win, $199.95)
Artist Drums, powered by Native Instruments Kompakt (see the sidebar “Going Native”), features kits compiled from four session aces — Kenny Aronoff, Dennis Chambers, Mel Gaynor, and Simon Phillips — who are renowned as much for their sound as their prodigious chops and grooves. Each kit comes in three configurations: a General MIDI — mapped kit for each of the artists, a layout that maps multiple articulations of each instrument across the keyboard over a single MIDI channel, and a multitimbral layout with kit instruments accessible on individual MIDI channels. Because the multitimbral layout is consistent with each artist's kit, it's easy to swap instruments between kits (see Fig. 1). The collection has drum kits, pure and simple: there are no congas, bongos, or other hand-percussion instruments onboard.
Although each musician's instruments are different (the product's booklet lists the drums and cymbals in detail), the common theme is sound quality. The drums are beautifully recorded and burnished with just enough compression so that they sit nicely in a musical arrangement without requiring further dynamics processing. The cymbals sparkle, the kicks have punch, and the snares are deep and expressive, with ringing, metallic overtones coming to the fore at higher Velocities.
Due to the sensitive design of the Velocity layers, ghost notes really sound like ghost notes, and the press rolls are equally convincing. The snares include left-hand and right-hand strokes, as well as alternate strike zones, which add realism to patterns. The careful Velocity mapping allows the instruments to respond to dynamics in ways that pitch, amplitude, and filter modulation just can't convey.
To help you understand each drummer's singular approach to the instrument, Artist Drums includes MIDI files representing typical performances. These powerful 2-bar grooves offer brief, stylistically accurate samples of each artist's work. A notable exception is Simonator3.mid — a lengthy, virtuosic sequence that exploits the Simon Phillips Multikit for everything it's worth (see Web Clip 1). If you have ever wanted the sound of these killer drummers in your MIDI tracks, Artist Drums can help.
ConcreteFX Granite 2.0 (Win, $24)
Granite is a software drum machine that adds a few synthesis features to a 16-bit WAV-file player. The plug-in has eight voices, with two oscillators per voice, and you can choose one of 12 waveforms or use a sample. Each oscillator has a resonant filter with ten different filter shapes, as well as frequency-, amplitude-, and pitch-modulation capabilities.
Instead of drum pads, Granite has a column of buttons labeled Preset1 through Preset8 (see Fig. 2). You audition drum sounds by right-clicking on the Preset button — which is an unconventional method given that most programs of this nature use left-clicking for auditioning and right-clicking for menu items. The vertical row of buttons, labeled Samp1 through Samp8, are used to assign samples to the presets. Left-click on any of the sample buttons to open the Load Sample dialog box.
The grid display allows you to create up to eight custom envelopes, which can be assigned to volume, pitch, and other parameters. Clicking and dragging on the curve, or clicking on either side of it, will change its rate of descent. That is a cool feature, except that the graphics update slowly, so the adjustments are jerky. Nonetheless, you can create complex envelopes using little effort.
Granite's MIDI mapping is simple and straightforward. Any parameter slider can be mapped to a MIDI Continuous Controller by right-clicking on the parameter slider, selecting Latch to MIDI, and transmitting a message from your controller. MIDI maps can be saved and recalled.
One way to kick the tires of an audio program is to move the controls while playing a sustained sound and listen for artifacts such as crackling, zipper noise, or aliasing. Unfortunately, real-time tweaking is problematic with Granite. For example, adjusting the oscillator volume while a note is sounding causes noise, and the sound will cut out or stutter when other parameters are adjusted.
On the other hand, Granite's signal-routing capabilities are straightforward, and the sound-shaping stages have pitch control, resonant filters, ring modulation, and frequency modulation. The effects stage offers only sample-rate and bit-depth reduction.
As you might expect with a $24 program, Granite is light on the pro-level features. Although Granite does include important amenities, such as resizable Open File dialogs and a choke group (see the sidebar “Practical Chokes”), MIDI key assignments are hardwired and there is no provision for layers or Velocity switching. The biggest issue that users will find is an inconsistent use of the right-click menu. Overall, Granite works as advertised, but it is the least exciting drum machine in this roundup in terms of feature set, user interface, sound, and general experience.
FXpansion BFD 1.0.811 (Mac/Win, $329)
Unlike most of the other sampled-drum programs, FXpansion BFD (see the quick-pick review in the May 2004 issue of EM) offers few synthesis features (see Fig. 3). It has no filters, envelope generators, or LFOs. Instead, BFD allocates CPU resources to streaming its massive sample library to convey startlingly realistic nuances of acoustic drums.
Velocity crossfades up to 42 sample layers' deep deliver acute realism and enormous flexibility along with standard drum-module features such as tuning and interchangeable virtual hardware (see the sidebar “Artifact or Artifice?”). Consequently, BFD requires a fast processor and a hard drive built for speed. It is important to emphasize that BFD's focus is exclusively on acoustic drums: you will not find any analog drum-machine emulations here.
BFD's sound-shaping capabilities rely exclusively on multiple samples recorded with a variety of mic techniques, and the software's ability to balance the close and distant mics. For example, adjusting the kick's In/Out knob alters the relative loudness of samples recorded inside the kick with those recorded outside. Each kit was recorded using three types of stereo distance miking — overhead, room ambience, and PZM — and each stereo pair is available simultaneously. You can alter the stereo spread and level of each mic pair and change their distance from the drums, all of which is graphically represented in a virtual drum room with onscreen microphone icons.
To add realism, BFD lets you add mic bleed from other kit elements. In many cases, the sampled ambience precludes the need for additional reverb processing; if you do need it, however, BFD offers a variety of output configurations that will let you bus each piece of hardware to its own plug-in processor.
BFD deals with drum-programming chores in a novel fashion: you choose patterns from a pop-up menu of SMFs, which you can trigger with MIDI notes from your controller. The loop-triggering notes are mapped above the keys that trigger individual kit sounds, letting you play grooves while adding individual hits from the keys below. You can also set parameters for auto-play and fill, allowing BFD to handle the groove decisions. FXpansion has a wealth of finely played grooves that take advantage of the software's sound set and dynamic range, and there is nary a cliché in the lot.
If those features aren't enough, you can add your own MIDI files to the list. Furthermore, you can adjust the dynamic response globally or for any kit element, randomize Velocity, adjust swing, or randomize the placement of trigger notes — all in real time.
An attention to detail shows in the sound of these kits, with vintage and contemporary instruments available from Zildjian, Ayotte, Pearl, Slingerland, Noble and Cooley, and others (see Web Clip 2). You get seven preset kits, but there are a good number of individual instruments not included in the presets that you can mix and match to create custom kits. Just click on a snare, tom, or other icon, and a color graphical menu depicting the hardware occupies the center window and lets you load an instrument. By the time you read this, FXpansion's 22 GB add-on sound set called BFD XFL ($229) should be available, significantly increasing your instrument choices.
FXpansion DR-008 1.2 (Win, $99)
DR-008 is a software drum machine that combines drum synthesis with sample playback. With 96 pads, three pad views, and a mixer display, DR-008 gives you plenty of tools to work with (see Fig. 4). That it can import kits from Native Instruments Battery and Steinberg LM-4 and export Cubase Drum Maps moves this drum machine toward the head of its class. Version 1.2 includes more than 500 presets, and 300 drum kits are available by download.
To assign sounds to pads, simply double-click on the pad and select any WAV, AIFF, or DRS file (DRS is the DR-008 patch format) from the Load Sounds dialog. You can audition sound files in the dialog box. The dialog box is expandable, which is useful if you are working with large sound libraries. According to FXpansion, you can drag-and-drop files, and if you drag multiple files, DR-008 will automap them.
DR-008's pads are Velocity sensitive, and they play soft to loud as you click from left to right — a behavior similar to that of the LinPlug RM IV pads. Unlike the RM IV, however, mouse-clicking repeatedly on the same spot of a pad will play the sound loud, like an accent, then soft. DR-008 responded well to real-time parameter tweaking, with no noise or dropouts.
Objects and Presets are the two layers of patch organization in DR-008. The easiest way to select Objects is to right-click on an empty pad and choose one of the Objects from the pop-up menu. If a pad is already populated, right-click on it and choose from the Objects submenu. After you've selected an Object, right-click on the pad again and choose from the Presets submenu. (Note that sampler Objects don't have Presets.)
To fully view and edit an Object, right-click on the pad and select Open Editor. Most of the Objects are fairly simple drum-synthesis algorithms, and they work as expected. Be sure to check out DS-008, which is the most feature-rich drum Object. It has the most patches associated with it, including nice-sounding 808 and 909 kits.
DR-008 also has a selection of sample playback Objects. Especially noteworthy is the VeloSampler, a simple dialog box that sets up Velocity switching in the most user-friendly way possible by auto-assigning the Velocity ranges. To get control over crossfading and ranges, use the QuadSampler, which provides a simple grid display for setting and viewing switch settings. Samples that have a sustaining loop require the UltraSampler, which allows you to set loop points using a simple waveform display. Other important features include the mix display, with its onscreen mixing board for the pads, and DR-008's comprehensive MIDI implementation, where every parameter can be mapped to MIDI.
Overall, DR-008 is useful, fun, and sounds good. The sample-playback dialog boxes are especially noteworthy, and among the Windows programs in this roundup, DR-008 was the lowest-priced entry to include Velocity switching. Although it lacks some of RM IV's slickness, it's a solid offering.
Glaresoft iDrum 1.0 (Mac, $49.95)
Although Glaresoft positions iDrum as an entry-level companion to Apple's GarageBand, it will run as a standalone application or as an Audio Units plug-in in programs such as MOTU Digital Performer and Emagic Logic Pro or Express (see Fig. 5). iDrum possesses features that make it a worthy contender in this roundup, and it is easy to use. You can create your own grooves using custom kits in minutes, without a glance at the documentation (see Web Clip 3).
Each sample occupies a Channel, an iDrum term that includes basic sample settings and its sequencing grid. Clicking on the Channel's folder icon opens a dialog box to load a new sample. Up and down buttons located on the left side of the screen will load the next sample stored in that folder. iDrum supports up to 24-bit, 96 kHz AIFF- and WAV-format files smaller than 2 MB. Dropping an audio file onto iDrum automatically creates its own channel. iDrum has hundreds of terrific-sounding kits, most of which weigh heavily on the synthetic and processed side of things. The iDrum sound set is appealing and effective, especially in the context of the preset songs and patterns bundled with each kit.
You can save kits and songs as a bundle and easily load and replace any instrument even while the pattern is playing back. Clicking on the channel/instrument name pulls down a menu of related instruments. A key feature is iDrum's Channel Info button, which holds important parameters for each instrument, such as settings for pitch, decay, bit-depth reduction, and high- and lowpass filter. You can also assign choke groups for hi-hats or other instruments and customize MIDI-note maps. A welcome addition would be an option that lets you control filter cutoff with Velocity.
The Fit button automatically resizes any loop you drop into a channel to fit within measure and tempo constraints. It would be nice if iDrum could avoid the typical pitch-shifting byproducts of the process. Nevertheless, the feature offers interesting creative possibilities.
Pattern programming with iDrum is a breeze. Each channel has a step-sequencer-style grid, and clicking in any grid creates a trigger event highlighted by a red vertical bar. Dragging up or down on the bar changes its Velocity. The Note Division View window lets you change the grid resolution in increments of 16, 32, or 64. You can add swing feels for any pattern on the fly, ranging from subtle to full bore. However, there are no tuplet settings.
iDrum's main limitation as a drum machine is its restriction to 4/4 time signatures. For other meters, you can always use iDrum as a passive sound source and trigger notes from your controller into the host sequencer tracks. You get up to 999 bars per song form, and selecting a bar and scrolling to the pattern of your choice selects that measure's patterns (patterns are limited to one bar). It would be nice to have a drop-down menu as an alternative to scrolling, especially for lengthy songs.
A handy feature in iDrum is the MIDI Drag window, a tear-off sheet in the lower-right-hand corner that lets you save patterns as SMFs. Currently, the MIDI Drag box is one of the few ways you can directly pull an SMF into GarageBand.
Once your song is complete, you can render it — or any selected patterns — as an AIFF file. You can sync and record iDrum's output in your host sequence and render individual instrument channels as separate audio files for any song or pattern. Once you have imported the audio tracks into your sequencer, you can add your choice of DSP plug-ins. At a retail price below $50, and with hundreds of great sounds and an elegant interface, iDrum represents a great value, whether you are a drum-programming novice or veteran.
LinPlug RM IV (Mac/Win, $149)
The RM IV is a major player in this roundup because it combines drum synthesis — done the right way — with well-thought-out sample-playback features and plenty of attention to detail. Like many of the programs covered here, RM IV has some quirky cosmetic features (see Fig. 6). But once you've located a few important buttons, the program is a snap to use.
The front panel groups the 18 pads on the right and the sound-generating and processing controls on the left. To play a pad, simply click on it. Like DR-008, the pads are Velocity sensitive: you get lower Velocity levels by clicking on the left side, and higher levels by clicking on the right side.
Each pad has clearly labeled controls for pitch, volume, pan, mute, and solo. There is also a Choke menu on each pad, offering five separate choke groups as well as Me, Prev, and Next settings.
You use the unobtrusive Module button above the pad array to select sample playback or one of the synthesis algorithms for the selected pad. RM IV has ten great-sounding and logically laid out drum-synth algorithms. A few noteworthy algorithms include the Kick 1, Claps, and Snare 2 modules, and it is easy to dial up satisfying patches quickly. RM IV uses a straightforward flowchart presentation for its synthesizer controls.
The main part of the RM IV sampler module looks much like the LCD on professional hardware samplers. Click on any of the tiny file icons between the two arrows to open the Load File dialog box. The most striking thing about the sampler module is the graceful way that LinPlug has exposed the layers and Velocity-switching features. The file-assignment display is front and center, and it practically begs you to put in different files, accepting up to 30 slots per pad.
The sampler module, which supports 8- to 32-bit WAV and 8- to 24-bit AIFF files, includes pitch and amplitude envelope controls. To see the results of the pitch and amplitude changes, you can switch to the Waveform view by clicking on the tiny box with the squiggle on it. It gives helpful visual feedback and makes for good eye candy.
RM IV includes a resonant filter, compressor, distortion, and Varizer, which introduces pseudo-random variations in volume, pitch, and timbre to make each drum hit sound a little different. Overall, the effects are simple and useful. The resonant filter is especially good, but the Crush and Dist fuzz settings aren't so hot. Additionally, it would be nice if the compressor came with some presets. The effects settings can be modulated by internal or external controllers, and the 6-by-6 modulation matrix is another good example of an RM IV feature that is user-friendly and intuitive.
RM IV also includes a slick MIDI mapping mode. Just click on the ECS button and select Learn to link onscreen parameters to MIDI controllers. And LinPlug didn't forget the little things, such as resizable dialog boxes and the ability to audition sounds while browsing, which make a big difference when you work with a program for hours.
RM IV comes with a fine 1 GB sound library in LinPlug's proprietary D4T audio file format. The sounds that come with the RM IV can't be used in other products, but fortunately RM IV will open and play any WAV or AIFF file, so you have unlimited expandability of your sound library. All in all, RM IV's slick, easy-to-use synthesis capabilities are the main attraction, along with great sound and an attractive interface. (To read the EM review of RM IV in the August 2004 issue, visit emusician.com.)
Native Instruments Battery (Mac/Win, $229)
Battery is a 54-pad sample player that supports Akai, SF2, LM4, AIFF, WAV, and MAP files ranging from 8- to 32-bits (see Fig. 7). Each column and row of pads can be muted, and you can assign up to 64 different choke groups. By default, MIDI note assignments are viewed and adjusted in the pad label at the top of each pad. However, nearly any Battery parameter can be assigned to the pad label for display and modification, which is a nice level of configurability.
The drag-and-drop implementation in Battery is fairly deep. Some products allow you to drag sounds onto pads from the desktop or rearrange pads onscreen. In addition, Battery allows you to selectively drag-and-drop other attributes, such as volume and pitch envelopes, key ranges, and modulation settings.
With most products in this category, you must click on an empty pad to assign a sound. In Battery you click on a pad, then click the File button and select either Replace or one of the Load options from a pop-up menu. Sounds can be auditioned from within the Load dialog box, which is a welcome feature.
Battery's main sound-shaping controls are easily accessible. For example, Layers are added from the File menu, then configured using the Layer section's intuitive Velocity, Volume, and Fade controls. The waveform display, which is used for editing volume and pitch envelopes rather than audio waveforms, offers a graceful way of making envelopes and is far better than using sliders.
To the left of the waveform display are the Tune, Shape, Bits, and Start knobs. The Tune and Bits controls have pitch control and bit-rate reduction, respectively. The Shape control is a novel one-knob feature that simulates expansion or compression, depending on the setting. Best of all is the Start control, which lets you begin playback at any point in the sample. When used with Velocity switching, you can use the Start control to trim the attack off of a sample at lower Velocity levels.
Each pad can be altered by six modulators, which are selected and routed in the Modulation section. Naturally, all of Battery's key parameters are MIDI controllable, and the modulation settings can be stored in any of six user-assignable presets.
The FX-Loop section controls the playback of loop files and has nothing to do with effects. There are sliders for adjusting a loop's start time, its duration, and its number of iterations. Basic pad properties such as MIDI channel, root key, range, and reverse are handled in the Cell section.
The standalone version of Battery has two different File menus — one in the toolbar, one in the Master section — which is a strange design choice. Another quirk is that slider and knob values cannot be set with the keypad or by clicking and dragging. There is little else to complain about in Battery, although a parametric EQ stage and a resonant filter would be welcome additions. Overall, the interface is straightforward and transparent.
Battery comes with more than 500 MB of tasty samples, arranged in 30 kits. The samples are in WAV format, which makes them compatible with practically every other audio program. Although Battery doesn't offer synthesis features, it's possibly the most thoroughly implemented software sample-playback drum machine available.
Nexoft Loopazoid (Mac/Win, free)
Loopazoid is a sample player with a simple interface that makes it easy to learn (see Fig. 8). Each of the 48 pads can be assigned to an 8- or 16-bit WAV or AIFF file by control-clicking on a button, which opens the Select Sample dialog box. The pads can be assigned to any of three mute groups, and both forward and backward sample playback can be assigned to any MIDI note number.
The interface includes volume and pan controls and four stereo output channels, but that's about it. The streamlined feature set has a prominent rollover Help display, making it even easier to understand.
Loopazoid doesn't come with a sample library, so you'll need to load your own WAV and AIFF files. It also doesn't have much of an installer; after it unzips onto the Windows desktop, you must drag-and-drop the DLL into your plug-ins folder.
Unfortunately, Loopazoid doesn't hold up well to the real-time controller test. But because the software doesn't offer automation, its not much of an issue.
The sound quality of Loopazoid is indistinguishable from any of the other WAV-file players in this article. Loopazoid doesn't put much of a load on your CPU, though, so it is worth considering if clock cycles are at a premium, or if you want to instantiate many copies of the plug-in. Overall, Loopazoid is simple, clean, and efficient and, best of all, it's free.
Quantum Leap StormDrum 1.02 (Mac/Win, $399.95)
Although the rich, cinematic-sounding loops supplied by the included Native Instruments Intakt and Kompakt players are StormDrum's primary draw, don't overlook its terrific-sounding drum and percussion kits. With drum sets averaging around 150 MB in size, they are definitely not an afterthought (see Web Clip 4). Add to that an assortment of percussion sets from around the world, processed drum kits from acoustic and electronic sources, and three prepared pianos, and you have an instant sound library of impressive variety and usefulness (see Fig. 9).
StormDrum includes six folders of instruments: Acoustic Drums, Electronic Drums, Large Percussion, Metal Shop, Prepared Piano, and Small Percussion. Acoustic Drums holds a subfolder with 32 different drum sets, which are useful for anything from rock and funk to jazz and country. Although the reverb, chorus, and delay effects that are the same as those included with Best Service Artist Drums, the StormDrum kits have additional pre-effects treatment beyond dynamics processing. For example, the '80s Kit features a batch of gated toms, and the Heavy Kit seems to contain more room ambience than other kits. The acoustic kits are nice, especially Custom Kit 2, with its strainer-heavy snares and thunderous toms.
Another subfolder is divided into individual instruments, including kicks, snares, toms, cymbals, and hi-hats. The individual component layouts offer more dynamic and timbral variations than those built into the preset kits, making a strong argument for using multitimbral layouts instead of preset kits. Despite a wide variety of sounds, the hierarchical menu is the only way to load kits. You have to navigate through layers of nested folders to find what you need. Nonetheless, the multiplicity of sounds offers many options for creating custom multitimbral kits. As examples, nested snare folders contain multiple Velocity-layered snares from DW, Noble and Cooley, Pearl, and other drum manufacturers. Three separate hi-hat menus each lay a wealth of articulations across the black keys of the controller, allowing for a great deal of tonal variation. Unlike the full-kit versions, however, you must set these to a monophonic voice count for realistic choking.
The Electronic Drums folder follows the same hierarchical menu scheme, but the sounds are mostly heavily processed acoustic kits. The Large Percussion and Small Percussion folders contain a representative batch of drums of diverse ancestry, including Japanese taiko, Irish bodhran, and Nigerian udu. As with the trap kits, the percussion kits include a nicely arranged assortment of Velocity maps and articulations. A nice surprise in the collection is the set of Prepared Piano folders, which offer plenty of offbeat rhythms.
The total StormDrum package offers a powerful rhythm machine. Although the included Intakt player (with its propulsive looped rhythm beds) is beyond the scope of this article, you can use the Intakt player kits to add to the frenzy or build grooves from scratch. StormDrum has the tools to create awe-inspiring rhythm beds and expressive grooves.
Steinberg Groove Agent 1.0 (Mac/Win, $249.99)
Sometimes the most difficult aspect of creating drum tracks — especially for nondrummers — is inspiration. In that regard, Steinberg Groove Agent succeeds on a number of counts. Groove Agent is equal parts drum machine, algorithmic composer, and Rhythm Ace (a preprogrammed drum machine, introduced in 1970 that offered style-based options). A logically laid-out interface makes this software instrument fun and simple to learn — you can easily grasp how to use Groove Agent with scarcely a glance at the documentation. Don't overlook the manual completely, though, because it's entertaining, well written, and full of insights into using the instrument creatively.
When you open the plug-in and see drum styles listed above a timeline, you know you're looking at something different from the rest (see Fig 10). A bifurcated slider moves from left to right from the year 1950 to 2000 and beyond. Moving the slider to any of the styles in the timeline loads a drum kit that best conveys the music of that time period. For example, styles originating in the '50s loads a '50s snare and kick drum, whereas the trance style loads analog drum-machine-style sounds. The Link button disassociates the style from the drum kit so that you can, for example, combine a Rumba with a Detroit Techno kit. You can also mix and match individual kit elements using pull-down menus.
The second, lower pair of sliders increases the complexity of the grooves (upper slider) and fills (lower slider). These sliders can also be unlinked, so you can have complex grooves with simpler fills or vice versa. The manual warns that moving a slider too far to the right increases the complexity to a point that the outcome isn't musical. However, in practice, that worked well for some styles.
Below and to the right of the sliders are an array of buttons. The larger buttons allow Groove Agent to select patterns randomly, change to a half-time feel, trigger fills, trigger a kick and crash cymbal accent, or switch from snare to side stick. Auto Fill inserts fills at regular intervals, and Random Fill selects from fills of varying complexity. In addition, there are controls that adjust swing, humanize the patterns, engage a limiter, and adjust ambience.
The Swing control is terrific. At the default center detent, grooves retain their original feel. A swing feel will swing harder when the knob is turned clockwise from center, and it will become more even when the knob is turned counterclockwise. It also intelligently adds swing based on the feel. If the overall feel is eighth-note heavy, for instance, it will swing only the eighth notes. Unlike swing quantizing, the Swing control won't affect busier note subdivisions such as snare rolls or hi-hat trills.
The humanizing controls in sequencers generally use pseudo-randomization, which doesn't fully replicate human timing variations. Although Groove Agent's randomization control is hardly an exception, it can be put to good use with some of the included styles (see Web Clip 5).
The Limiter works well in small doses, but as with any limiter, beware of pumping and oversquashing at higher levels. The Ambience control mixes in a sampled room sound on acoustic drums kits and increases an appropriate reverb effect (such as gated reverb for '80s-era hip-hop) on modern, electronic drum styles. Clicking on the Edit button in the bottom-right side of the information window exposes a control panel, which, among other tasks, lets you fine-tune the ambience level for any kit element.
Groove Agent's sequencing tactics are simple: it offers ten memory slots to capture pattern playback, fills, and general song dynamics such as accents, half-time feels, and choices for complexity. You can output MIDI data to sequencer tracks or let Groove Agent perform on the fly. It automatically locks to sequencer tempo.
Groove Agent can be used as a passive sound source, so you can add hits on the fly. The keys on your controller located above the keys that are mapped to individual instrument hits can be used to select fills or mute a particular measure. Then use VST automation to select and record to memory slots. Although each of the styles suggests a specific time signature and tempo, most of the styles adapt to other meters in musically intelligent ways, without unnaturally truncating pattern boundaries (see Web Clip 6).
Groove Agent's drum sounds, which Steinberg says were recorded to analog tape before being digitized, are a mixed bag. That isn't a problem because you can adjust the tuning, Velocity sensitivity, ambience level, and decay time of each instrument. From a hidden panel, you can switch on Vintage mode, which creates a narrower stereo spread and uses a filter to simulate an old-school, analog-style recording environment. Furthermore, you can route any group to one of four assignable outputs and tweak that sound with a plug-in. You can also route Groove Agent's MIDI output to a compatible sound module or plug-in of your choosing. All in all, Groove Agent is a terrific creative companion and gives you a handy way to quickly create grooves.
Toontrack DFH Superior 1.22 (Mac/Win, $299.95)
In terms of replicating acoustic drums and percussion, DFH Superior (DFHS) is the most ambitious software in this roundup. Packing a massive 35 GB sound set, DFHS includes multiple drum kits, percussion, and even a cocktail drum set. To play more than one drum set at a time, however, you will need a separate instance of the DFHS engine. DFHS ships as a VST instrument with support for ReWire (an AU version is in the works).
As with BFD, you can balance direct and distance-mike recordings for each instrument. The DFHS design is recording-studio oriented, allowing you to shape the sound by selecting instruments, determining room ambience for each instrument, setting the overhead-mic distance, and regulating instrument leakage.
The DFHS user interface requires you to page through four menus and multiple options to get a drum kit ready for playback. On the first page, choose from several drum-map schemes, including General MIDI (GM) mapping, variants of earlier DFH sample libraries, or a custom set. Because the typical GM map doesn't account for the additional instrument groups that DFHS provides, the other maps occupy a broader range of the controller with additional instruments. A subpage enables monophonic output from all drum channels, changes the readout to display note names or MIDI note numbers, and sets the path to DFHS samples.
The next page lets you choose the type of beater to be used on the kit — sticks, brushes, Hot Rods, or felt mallets. A separate pull-down menu selects a felt, a plastic, or a wood beater for the kick drum. Below that, a switch toggles the snare strainers on and off. Not every preset kit offers samples using Hot Rods, brushes, or various bass-drum beaters. However, most kit elements have an alternate sample set with additional beaters.
Next is the Instrument Construction window, where you choose the components of your drum kit using pull-down menus (see Fig. 11). You can load preset kits or choose instruments individually from the series of slots above. Depending on your choice of beaters and sticks, the menus will let you load any piece of hardware not flagged by an asterisk. On this page, you can enable mic bleed and ambience for each instrument and enable RAM caching.
The final page sports a series of pads with miniature sliders on their right, as well as Mute and Solo buttons. Solo lets you hear the selected instrument and its leakage to other instruments. Mute silences the selected instrument and its leakage. You can use the sliders with the Mic Control menu to edit the amount of ambience or the level of bleed into another instrument's mic. For example, you can adjust the amount of leakage from the snare into the overhead microphones.
Each pad has a Sub Pad that, for example, lets you select an alternate sticking of a tom and assign that instrument to an additional note number on your keyboard. This is a useful feature if a sequence calls for adapting your drum set to a MIDI file that uses additional kit instruments.
A couple of features in DFHS enhance the instrument's realism. Clicking on the Alternate button will cause the snare to switch between right- and left-hand sticking, and Semi Seq causes the snare to choose samples at adjacent Velocities.
Naturally, a drum kit with extensive Velocity layering, ambience, and leakage will be RAM intensive. A single kit with all samples enabled can use more than 3 GB of RAM. To deal with the sheer file size of a kit, DFHS offers a variety of choices. You can choose to load only the instruments you need, load specific Velocity ranges, or enable the engine's audio cache.
With the cache enabled, DFHS loads just the samples when it receives the appropriate Note On message. DFHS opts for caching audio rather than streaming, which is not the most elegant solution for programming or playing back tracks with kits of this size. The process required a preliminary run-through to ensure that the sounds were completely loaded. Toontracks suggests caching to audition tracks with bleed and ambience enabled. You can disable the bleeding when you do your programming, but when you render tracks to audio, leakage is automatically included. Nonetheless, auditioning with the cache enabled can strain the limits of your computer's RAM, especially if other software instruments are fighting for memory. Clearly, DFHS anticipates the ascendancy of computers with RAM capacities in excess of 2 GB.
With or without mic bleed, the biggest selling point of DFHS is its superb collection of instruments. The instruments are wonderfully playable and — as evidenced by the brush kits — possess an almost supernaturally organic quality. For example, Cocktail — a loosely tuned Yamaha kit with Zildjian hi-hats and a Mikaelsson ride cymbal — is an agreeable set, and you can play it with sticks or brushes. It's great to hear brush kits that aren't compromised by cymbals or other instruments sampled with sticks (see Web Clip 7). The percussion set is solid and expressive, albeit not nearly as diverse as other percussion collections surveyed in this article.
The DFHS user interface has a plethora of options and the manual is only marginally helpful and badly needs a rewriting. The expressive powers and true-to-life detail in the instruments, however, makes DFH Superior a winner.
USB Plugsound Drums and Percussions 1.87 (Mac/Win, $99.95)
Drums and Percussions has been with us for some time now (it even garnered our EM Editor's Choice award in 2003 for Best Software Sample Player). For just under $100, the software dishes up plenty of terrific sounds for nearly any musical preference, whether it's techno, rock, jazz, or world music. Drums and Percussions is not a multitimbral device, but MOTU MachFive users can drag an alias of the DAT file into the MachFive sample library folder and use the kits without loading multiple instances of the UVI engine. The Plugsound instrument's output is stereo for every format, so processing kit elements separately in a single pass is problematic.
Drums and Percussions comes with an enormous selection of sounds, including acoustic kits, analog and digital drum machines, hand-percussion, and uniquely processed kits. There are even a couple of crackling vinyl sounds if you want that lifted-from-an-LP sound.
The program's simple user interface belies its versatility (see Fig. 12), and all synthesis parameters are neatly laid out on the instrument's face. Sliders controlling ADSR amplitude and filter envelopes appear on the left and right sides of the instrument, respectively. Between the envelope generators are one highpass and three lowpass filters, each with a different slope. Just above the filter types are knobs to set filter-modulation amounts for cutoff, resonance, key follow, and envelope depth. Underneath the filter types, you can set initial values for filter cutoff and resonance. The filters sound great and are particularly useful for creating drum-kit variations. Surprisingly, Velocity does not modulate filter cutoff or resonance.
A single LFO with depth and rate controls can be routed to modulate pan, pitch, depth, amplitude, and filter. The LFO does not sync to MIDI Clock, but the adjustment values are given in hertz. With a bit of calculation, you can achieve satisfactory tempo-aligned modulation. Other programming niceties include four preset Velocity curves; octave, semitone, and fine-tuning; and a simple reverb with programmable time, high-frequency damping, and mix parameters. Drums and Percussions offers a fixed set of MIDI Control Change messages for modifying parameters and supports automation as a VST instrument.
The collection of sounds is plentiful and exceedingly diverse. The percussion instruments are a high point with plenty of separate articulations and Velocity crossfades. If you need a GM layout, the Big GM Kit bank offers complete GM mapping and great sounds without sacrificing expressiveness (see Web Clip 8). Standouts for the percussion groups include Latin Tradition, which holds multiple articulations for bongos, congas, shakers, udu, cajon, and quica.
Because drum kits place a variety of instruments on different controller keys (unlike sampled pianos or other primarily melodic instruments), it's nice to apply individual settings for each. Accordingly, the Zone button lets you adjust a set of parameters for a key group in three steps: click the Zone button, select a key group by sending the appropriate Note On from your controller, and adjust the parameter. When you are done, click on the Zone button to disable editing.
While this is a sensible way to edit, it does have one drawback — its inability to adjust individual reverb settings or polyphony. Changing a key group's polyphony is especially significant for realistic hi-hat performance because the hi-hats in this collection do not have choke groups. You can load a second instantiation of the plug-in, select a hi-hat-only program, and set its polyphony to one note, but that is a rather involved work-around.
Programming hindrances notwithstanding, Plugsound Drums and Percussions literally places a world of great-sounding drums and percussion at your fingertips — and at a reasonable price.
Yellow Tools Culture 1.5 (Mac/Win, $399.95)
Typical software drum machines and modules might include a limited assortment of Latin percussion, such as congas, bongos, guiros, timbales, and even a few taiko samples from Japan. Because authentic stylistic programming can be hard to achieve and the more exotic instruments are often in short supply, many musicians prefer to use audio loops rather than sampled instrument kits. Although loops can fit nicely into a groove, they won't be of much use in a rubato passage or in a situation that requires intimate interaction with the rest of your sequenced rhythm section. Yellow Tools Culture includes a wide range of instruments and gives you the tools you need to sequence your own percussion grooves.
Instead of spreading maps of musically related instruments across the keyboard, in most cases Culture exploits its 8-part multitimbral capabilities to allocate a different instrument to each slot — in most cases — on discrete MIDI channels. That makes sense on several counts. For starters, each channel slot can host a variety of percussive articulations. Second, it lets you tackle percussion ensembles one instrument at a time.
Although Culture's MVI synthesis engine superficially resembles Native Instruments hosts in that the file-management area has a similar design and a keyboard-map display appears at the bottom of the screen, the resemblance ends there (see Fig. 13). Culture doesn't use filters or LFOs. Instead, extensive sample-layering and sample-manipulating tools help you create sonic variety and enhance realistic performances. Culture lets you apply edits to key groups, to a batch of selected key groups, or to the entire Layer (Culture's term for a single-MIDI-channel instrument). For example, you can use Velocity to modulate sample start time on a single instrument, a batch of instruments, or the whole layer.
An AHDSR amplitude envelope generator lets you alter the attack rate relative to Velocity. In the Audio section, you can change the sample start time to a fixed value using the Skip knob, or you can modulate the sample start time with Velocity. These features are more impressive when applied to samples with slower, sustained timbral development such as cymbals. On instruments like congas, it merely creates a blip in the sound.
Although the credible-sounding Velocity layers deliver natural changes in an instrument's pitch with increased dynamics, you can enhance or exaggerate that behavior with a bit of pitch modulation routed to Velocity. On it's own, simple pitch modulation tends to stretch and smear the attack. The Skip knob in the Pitch section delays the onset of the pitch change to a later portion of the sample. The feature works well in subtle doses.
Another feature that is worth noting is the Note Off button in the Keygroup section, which causes a selected layer to sound upon release of the key. Some Multis use Note Off layers to subtly re-create the effect of the hand leaving the striking surface, which is a neat trick.
In the upper-right corner of the screen is a button that triggers alternate samples, giving you a pseudo-randomized strike-zone effect. The Pre-Silence button lets you delay the onset of triggered notes that occur simultaneously for a more realistic ensemble performance.
Culture would be little more than a slick interface if not for its sound library, which includes congas, tablas, udu, shekere, chicken-egg shakers, yamboo, flight cases, snare drums, watering cans, taiko, and timpani (see Web Clip 9). The tablas are rich and resonant, and the congas are fat and meaty. The udu is programmed well; as the Velocity increases, the hand-slap sound becomes more prominent. Samples mapped to the higher notes of your controller contain single-sample articulations such as flams and multiple-instrument hits. In other instruments, contiguous notes trigger the same sample layer, which is handy for creating rolls and flams. You'll need to come up for air long before you finish exploring Culture's percussive arsenal.
It's one thing to have a globe-spanning collection of instruments, but it's another thing to know how to play them. Yellow Tools offers registered users Culture Groove Pack, a free downloadable library of African, Brazilian, Flamenco, and Latin grooves in SMF format. The grooves range from short to relatively lengthy examples of ethnic styles and variations. These work with a collection of Multitimbral presets designed specifically for demonstrating the MIDI examples. Culture Groove Pack includes a PDF document with a complete listing of the grooves, including descriptions of the styles and instruments, as well as tips and a bit of ethnomusicology along the way. Of course, the sounds speak for themselves, and there's no reason not to create your own approach.
Each product in this roundup has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they all can deliver dynamic, great-sounding drum tracks. Undoubtedly, there will be new additions to the list by the time you read this overview, but it should serve as a good guide for choosing a software drum machine or sound source.
Contributing editorMarty Cutlerteaches MIDI and synthesis courses at Touro College in New York. Todd Souvignieris the author of Loops and Grooves: The Musician's Guide to Groove Machines and Loop Sequencers (Hal Leonard, 2003) and The World of DJs and the Turntable Culture (Hal Leonard, 2003).
Software Drum Machine and Module Overview Manufacturer Product Version Minimum System Requirements Formats File Bit-Depth and Sample Rate User Samples Multitimbral Parts Synthesis Methods Special Features Price
Best ServiceArtist Drums1.02Mac: G3/500 MHz, OS 9.2 or OS X 10.2.6, 256 MB RAM Windows: Pentium III or Athlon/500 MHz; Windows XP, ME, 98; 256 MB RAMVST, AU, RTAS, DX, standalone24-bit, 44.1 kHzNo8Sample playback, subtractiveBuilt-in reverb, chorus, delay, filters; MIDI sync; flexible multitimbral setups$199.95ConcreteFXGranite2.0Pentium II/300 MHz, Windows 95VST16-bit, 44.1 kHzYes8Sample playback, subtractiveLow-fi effects$24.00FXpansionBFD126.96.36.199Mac: G4/733 MHz, OS X 10.2.3, 512 MB RAM Windows: Pentium III or Athlon/1 GHz; Windows 2000, XP; 512 MB RAMVST, AU, RTAS, DX, ReWire, standalone24-bit, 44.1 kHzNoN/ASample playbackBuilt-in MIDI-file playlist$329.00FXpansionDR-0081.21Pentium II/233 MHz, 256 MB RAMDX, VST, RTAS, ReWire, standalone,32-bit, 96 kHzYesN/ASample playback, subtractiveExtensible with third-party synth modules$99.00GlaresoftiDrum1.0Mac OS X 10.2, QuickTime 6.5AU24-bit, 96 kHzYesN/ASample playback, subtractiveImports WAV and AIFF files, loop-playback fit-to-time, bit reduction, drag-and-drop MIDI data with iTunes$49.95LinPlugRM IV4.0.5Mac: G3/400 MHz, OS X 10.2.6, 512 MB RAM Windows: Pentium/400 MHz, Windows 95, 512 MB RAMVST, AU, (RTAS soon)32-bit WAV, 24-bit AIFF; 96 kHzUp to 480, up to 32bit/96kHz, sample length limited only by RAM18Sample playback, subtractive, phase-modulation, FM, additive, and combined methodsBuilt-in dedicated effects for drums, varizer, modulation matrix; ability to browse kits during playback$149.00Native InstrumentsBattery1.3 for Mac OS X, Mac OS 9, and Windows XPMac: G3/500 MHz, OS 9.2 or OSX, 128 MB RAM Windows: Pentium II/Athlon 500 MHz; Windows 2000, XP; 128 MB RAMVST, AU, DX, DirectConnect, MAS, RTAS (Mac OS X only)32-bit, 192 kHzSupportedN/ASample playbackDrag-and-drop-support, two AHDSR envelopes, shaper, bit-reducer, effects loop per cell$229.00NexoftLoopazoid1.2Windows XP, 256 MB RAMVST16-bit, 44.1 kHzUser onlyN/ASample playbackImports WAV and AIFF files, mouse-over tool tips, two MIDI notes per sample for forward and backward playbackFreeQuantum LeapStormDrum1.02Mac: G3/500 MHz, OS 9.2 or OS X 10.2.6, 256 MB RAM Windows: Pentium III/Athlon 500 MHz; Windows 98, ME, XP; 256 MB RAMVST, AU, RTAS, DX, standalone24-bit, 44.1 kHzNo8Subtractive, sample playbackBuilt-in reverb, chorus, delay, filters; with MIDI sync; flexible multitimbral setups$399.95SteinbergGroove Agent1.0Mac: G3/366 MHz, OS 9 or OS X 10.2, 256 MB RAM Windows: Pentium III/400 MHz; Windows 2000, XP; 256 MB RAMVST24-bit, 44.1 kHzNoN/ASample playbackAdjustable swing and ambience, Remap-to-GM switch$249.99ToontrackDFH Superior1.22Mac: G3 500 MHz, OS X 10.2, 512 MB RAM Windows: Pentium III/Athlon 500 MHz; Windows 98, ME, XP; 512 MB RAMVST, ReWire24-bit, 44.1 kHzNoN/ASample playbackAdjustable leakage and ambience, multitrack bounce capabilities$299.95USBPlugsound Drums and Percussions1.87Mac: OS 8.6 or OS X 10.2.3 Windows: Windows 98, ME, 2000, NT, XPVST, AU, MAS, RTAS16-bit, 44.1 and 48 kHzNoN/ASubtractive, sample playbackCan use instruments multitimbrally in MOTU MachFive$99.95Yellow ToolsCulture1.2Mac: G3/400 MHz, OS 9.2.2 or OS X 10.2.2, 256 MB RAM Windows: Pentium, Celeron, Athlon 400 MHz; Windows 98, 2000, XP, ME; 512 MB RAMVST, AU, RTAS, DX, standalone24-bit, 44.1 kHzNo8Sample playbackPitch and sample-start modulation, collection of MIDI file examples$399.95
SPECTRASONICS STYLUS RMX
Spectrasonics Stylus RMX (Mac/Win, $299; upgrade from classic Stylus, $99; free if purchased in 2004) is a new groove-oriented product that builds on the concepts of the original Stylus plug-in. Powered by the Spectrasonics Advanced Groove Engine (SAGE), Stylus RMX offers powerful tools for creating rhythm tracks that go significantly beyond the scope of this story. It features a beefed-up sound set and a host of amenities that transform it into a killer rhythm-sequencing tool.
Stylus RMX is 8-part multitimbral and hosts its own mixer and effects rack. Each kit element (snare drums, for example) occupies its own part, track, and assignable MIDI channel. That lets you send channel messages to specific kit elements without affecting other parts. Because the kit is broken down into component parts, you can easily swap instruments in real time. Once you have chosen your kit elements, you may save the kit and add it to a list of favorites so that you can easily recall it for another song.
Each mixer channel is furnished with volume and panning controls as well as solo, mute, sends, and output assignments. The effects section is flexible and offers more than you'll probably ever need. If you want to get tweaky, every sample can access its own virtual rack with three inserts and four effects sends.
According to Spectrasonics, the Stylus RMX sound set is more than twice the size of its predecessor and offers hundreds of General MIDI — mapped drum kits and thousands of individual groove elements and drum and percussion sounds. The library is suited more toward remix projects and film-score effects than to traditional acoustic drum kits. However, because Stylus RMX can import Groove Control libraries and REX files, almost any sound accessible to those formats is fair game.
Stylus RMX works under Mac OS X and Windows 98 (or later) platforms and supports AUs, VST, and Real Time AudioSuite (RTAS) hosts. For further information, visit www.spectrasonics.net.
— Marty Cutler
Best Service Artist Drums and Quantum Leap StormDrum use Native Instruments' Kompakt player, extending their versatility with a generous dollop of synthesis features. Kompakt player presents an easy-to-use interface with all programming tools plainly visible. Neither package contains any sequencing software, so you will need to use it either in a host sequencer as a plug-in or with an external MIDI controller as a standalone instrument.
A pull-down menu in Kompakt lets you save and load multitimbral setups, which appear as a collection of instrument groups. A group can contain an array of kit elements, such as hi-hats, cymbals, snare drums, hand percussion, or even a complete drum kit with its own set of subgroups. Clicking on any group lets you arrange playback parameters: a panel on the left side of the screen indicates the group's file size, letting you keep an eye on the RAM expended.
Directly to the right, you can adjust a group's polyphony. A window below the file-size display lets you set the key range for any group, so you can quickly arrange splits or layers. A pair of windows below the transposition field (which moves the group sample map) lets you assign a group's MIDI and audio output channels. Global parameters for groups include tuning (±2 semitones in 1-cent increments), Control Change assignments for Volume and Pan Position, the choice of file folder for the sound library, and the ability to enable direct-from-disc (DFD) streaming.
Kompakt instruments furnish three AHDSR envelope generators, including one each for amplitude and filter. Two resonant multimode filters offer a choice of lowpass filters with one- to four-pole configurations and correspondingly steeper slopes as well as highpass, band-reject, and bandpass types. The four LFOs are hardwired to volume, pan, tuning, and filter. These can sync to MIDI Clock, which multiplies your rhythmic modulation possibilities, as does the built-in syncable delay. You can further polish the sound with effects, using Kompakt's programmable reverb and chorus.
To play drum-kit sounds effectively, the samples are, typically, used in a one-shot playback mode, which means that they will play through their entire envelope once they are triggered and regardless of when you release the key. Using a one-shot is fine for sounds with shorter durations such as kick- or snare drums, but it is not effective for hi-hats. In the real world, hi-hats ring until they are stopped by closing them together with a foot pedal.
The most common way to achieve an open-to-closed hi-hat effect is to use a choke group (also called an exclusive or hi-hat group by some manufacturers). Any instrument assigned to a choke group plays back monophonically so that one sample will cut off, or choke, another.
ARTIFACT OR ARTIFICE?
Despite sampling technology's best efforts, some musicians maintain that they can always discern a “real” instrument from its synthetic siblings. Ironically, some listeners claim that the giveaway is the sampled instrument's lack of mechanically or acoustically created artifacts. The drifting of oscillator tunings, motor leakage from organs, guitar-fret squeaks, and sympathetic vibrations between instruments are all good examples.
Creating sonically convincing drum tracks requires a number of sample-playback and synthesis tricks. As with any acoustic instrument, striking it harder or softer creates behavioral artifacts that a single sample cannot create on its own.
In the early days of drum machines and sound modules, RAM was at a premium, and so a snare drum, for example, was represented by a single sample, which would simply get louder with increased Velocity. With increased dynamics, a real snare sounds brighter and subtle pitch changes occur. Synthetic methods, such as the use of Pitch Bend or lowpass filters that respond to Velocity, are moderately effective in simulating these real-world aspects, but in the end, they sound artificial.
Velocity crossfading allows you to use a number of samples assigned to the same note number. As the Velocity increases, samples recorded with stronger dynamics are triggered, creating a dynamic response with greater realism. These days, computers have large, fast hard drives and very high RAM capacities, which can better load and store massive amounts of samples for Velocity crossfading. That alone can make a big difference between dynamic, expressive grooves and sterile-sounding tracks.
Another drawback to sampled drums is that they are often recorded in isolation, causing the composite kit to sound as though it was recorded in an anechoic chamber. The use of sampled ambience places the instruments in a virtual drum room, imparting a live-sound quality to the overall kit. FXpansion BFD, Toontrack DFHS, and Steinberg Groove Agent use ambience with varying degrees of control. FXpansion BFD aces this technique, allowing you to adjust the amount, distance, and stereo spread of the virtual mics.