The acquisition of German software developer Wizoo by Digidesign's parent company, Avid, has been great news for both Digidesign and the legions of loyal Pro Tools users. First came Xpand, a free multisample player that grew out of the technology first used in Wizoo Hypersonic (a Steinberg product); next up was Hybrid, a stunning modeled analog synth; and now there's Strike, an amazingly versatile virtual drummer, which uses some of the groundbreaking concepts first seen in Wizoo Darbuka and Latigo.
Using Strike is not unlike sitting behind the glass in a studio and recording a real trap-set drummer — but with some extras that session producers can only dream of. You can tell Strike what style or beat to play in the verse, chorus, and bridge; request a more complex part or a simpler one; ask for stronger accents or tone them down; change the amount of swing; make the track looser or tighter; indicate the places where you want the verse, chorus, and bridge; add fills; swap in different drum kits without changing the underlying beat; and retune individual drums (without getting up from your chair).
You can adjust the mix of the close, overhead, and room mics; add effects to single drums or the whole kit; teach the drummer an entirely new beat; or, as a last resort, trigger individual drum hits yourself wherever they're needed — all for the price of about three good loop libraries.
As with Xpand and Hybrid, non-Pro Tools users will have to find another solution, because Strike is available only as an RTAS plug-in. (Steinberg Groove Agent 3, which is compatible with VST, DXi, AU, and ReWire, is similar to Strike in some ways.)
FIG. 1: Strike''s handsome main screen has a browser that supports multiple file types (left); macro controls for the style, kit, and mix (center); and a mousable MIDI keyboard for triggering patterns and muting individual drums (bottom).
Strike One: Styles
Right out of the box, Strike provides a healthy number of musical styles; among the 50 are bebop, boogaloo, Brit rock, Texas boogie, West Coast funk, and a lot more. Each style consists of about 30 patterns — intros, verse grooves, chorus grooves, fills, and so on. The styles are extraordinarily authentic and energetic. They're obviously based on analyses of real drum performances.
When a style is loaded, its patterns are laid out on a MIDI keyboard with a separate pattern on each key, suitable for real-time auditioning and easy sequencing. The keyboard can operate in either Latch or Momentary mode. In Latch mode, you can tap a key and the beat will keep going until you stop it; in Momentary mode, it will play only for as long as you hold the key down.
Even before you start tweaking knobs, the mix-and-match possibilities are awesome. You can load a style as a Settings preset, a file type that contains not only the musical data but also the drum kit and the mix. Then you can drag individual patterns from other styles onto various MIDI keys, thereby playing, for example, jazz samba and house patterns with a grunge kit.
The Style knobs (see Fig. 1) give you macro control over the virtual drummer's overall feel. You can adjust the playing dynamics, thus adding more-pronounced accents or smoothing out the track. Hit Variation can be applied to all beats, or to specific beats within the bar. Adding too much Hit Variation tends to undermine the cohesiveness of the groove — but a little helps the beat sound more like it was played by a real drummer. Timing can be adjusted from “natural” to “tight.” The Feel knob adjusts from Ahead to Fat. The Groove knob lets you apply a variable amount of 16th-, eighth-, or quarter-note swing. Your own groove templates can be imported. The Intensity and Complexity sliders, which do about what their names suggest, are also worth playing with.
Then there's the Jam button: when switched on, it will add small variations to the beat. And naturally, all of the knobs and buttons can respond to MIDI Control Change messages of your choice, or to Pro Tools automation.
Clicking on the Style button in the lower-left corner of the panel opens up a set of controls with which you can change the intensity, complexity, and dynamics of individual drums. Each drum can also be slid forward or backward in time to alter the feel of the groove. Here again, the parameters are MIDI controllable in real time.
Strike Two: Mixing
Strike provides a conventional console view (see Fig. 2), in which each drum has its own channel. Depending on the drum, you'll find a choice of up to five mic positions that can be blended to create the finished sound. With the kick channel, for instance, you get center, on-axis, front, room, and overhead mics. The snare has top, bottom, room, and overhead mics. I heard no phase cancellation problems when combining mics — the samples seem to have been phase aligned.
Each channel strip has two insert effects and its own 3-band EQ, which can be switched pre- or postinsert. The inserts are normally applied only to the direct mics, not to the room, overhead, and talkback channels, but the overheads can be switched into the inserts if desired. The overhead, room, and talkback channels have their own submix strips in the mixer, with their own effects. The master bus has two insert effects of its own in addition to knobs that control the Mic Leakage and Snare Buzz parameters.
The effects algorithms are just what's needed for drums: three different compressors, a brickwall limiter, a noise gate, an envelope shaper, dynamic EQ, three types of distortion, a mic modeler, a filter, a ring modulator, and the usual delay, reverb, chorus, and a few other items. The effects are not cheapies: most have four or five parameters, and the mic modeler has more than a dozen choices. The internal mixer has no aux sends, so if you want to apply one reverb to several drums to save CPU power, you'll need to route those drums to one of Strike's eight individual outputs.
FIG. 2: Strike''s mixer allows you to blend mic positions, add insert effects, and control the levels of individual drums through MIDI.
Strike Three: Editing
Strike includes five distinct drum kits with about a dozen drums and cymbals apiece. For each instrument, you can adjust the tuning, start point, attack and decay time, and timbre shift. In addition, you can choose to load the economy, midsize, or XXL version of an instrument. Some XXL versions load up to 300 samples, so having a computer with a lot of RAM is a good idea. My 3 GHz Pentium 4 machine has 1 GB of RAM, and loading Strike slowed down other applications noticeably. You can give Strike some guidance about how much RAM to use on each drum channel, thus making efficient use of your system resources.
The Timbre Shift knob doesn't use any type of formant-shifting DSP. Rather, individual drums can switch among eight or more samples (per mic); the Timbre Shift influences whether the harder or softer samples will play. Sample selection is also influenced by the Hit Variation knob in the Style section: when the Hit Variation is at minimum, Velocity changes in a drum's pattern won't cause a different sample to be played. This system is powerful and easy to use, but in listening to Strike's factory beats, the alternation between samples was sometimes noticeable, especially in the kick, and not realistic enough to fool sensitive ears.
Strike's drum channels have no filters, but a Vari Filter can be loaded as one of the channel's two insert effects. This filter has resonance and six modes, four of them lowpass. It has a decay knob but lacks full envelope control.
Five kits may not seem a generous assortment, but as the dozens of distinctive kicks and snares in the factory styles demonstrate, a lot can be done to tailor the sounds to your needs by adjusting the tuning, decay, EQ, and other parameters. Strike won't let you import your own samples, but you can easily export its grooves as MIDI data and use them to trigger samples in another plug-in. More surprising is the absence of hi-hat exclusive channels (in which only one hi-hat sample can sound at a time) in the mixer — but this turns out to be a new type of interface design, not a missing feature. Each hi-hat channel can trigger closed, open, or pedal hat samples on any beat.
Strike Four: Patterns
As good as Strike's factory rhythm patterns are, they may not always do the job in a particular song. After opening up the Style Editor (see Fig. 3), you can freely edit patterns and then save them in the user library.
FIG. 3: The Style Editor includes a display lane for each drum channel and a strip chart for inserting, moving, and adjusting the Velocity and other parameters of individual drum hits.
The Style Editor has the basic tools you'd expect, as well as a few extras. You can insert drum hits and adjust their Velocity with a pencil tool, drag them around with an arrow tool, erase or mute them, switch snap-to-grid editing on or off, and make fine adjustments in note timing by dragging up or down in a Timing data field. The pattern data for a single drum can be copied and pasted into a different pattern, which is very handy. Unfortunately, there's no Undo command in this editor, only a Revert command, which undoes all your edits.
Each note in a pattern can be given a Complexity Threshold setting, which interacts with the Complexity slider in the Style control panel. At low settings, the note will seldom play, and at high settings, it will play more often or always. For each note, you can also choose the type of sample that will be played. With a ride cymbal, for instance, the types may be limited to tip and bell, while a snare may give you a choice of six or seven types, including rolls. For the hi-hats, the available types are closed, closed tip, half-open, pedal, open, tip open, and tip half-open. Open hats are cut off by other types, as you'd expect.
Strike Five: Sequencing
Technically it might be feasible to use Strike live, but because Pro Tools is not optimized as a live-performance environment, it's reasonable to assume that most Strike users will be laying down studio tracks with it by recording MIDI into MIDI tracks or Instrument tracks.
Each pattern is assigned to its own MIDI key, and the most recently played key will cue up the selected pattern. In keyboard Latch mode, this pattern will continue to play (only one can play at a time) until you stop Pro Tools' transport or hit C0 on the MIDI keyboard, which is the handy off button. The black keys in the bottom 2 octaves of a standard 5-octave keyboard are intros and fills, which will play for a bar or portion thereof and then segue back to the most recently played white key. Black keys in the third octave are endings, and playback will stop when they finish.
You can assign drum channels to keys in the higher octaves in order to add extra single notes wherever you want them. MIDI notes on channel 2 can also be used to trigger single drums, but this feature won't often be needed, as the notes on channel 1 are more convenient. If you have a longer keyboard or one with a transpose button, you can use the keys in the octave below MIDI Note Number 36 to mute and unmute individual drum channels, which is handy for, say, shutting off the ride cymbal during a guitar fill on another track.
Strike Up the Band
Strike is the kind of plug-in that's going to force other software developers to scramble. Clearly a lot of thought went into giving it the kind of features that professional producers will appreciate. Both the drum sounds and the styles are top-notch. The inclusion of room and overhead mics really does enhance the illusion that you're hearing a real drummer.
I wish Strike allowed user samples to be loaded. Such an implementation would necessarily be limited, but it would be a convenience for producers who already have great drum sample libraries and would like to integrate them with Strike's smooth interface and great effects. But according to Peter Gorges, formerly head of Wizoo and now head of Digidesign's Advanced Instrument Research group, user sample loading is not planned. Strike's own sound library is so good that this won't be a big deal for most users. Strike is a super addition to the Pro Tools family, and is sure to be showing up before long on major-label releases near you.
Jim Aikin writes about music technology for EM, Mix, Remix, and other magazines. You can visit him online atwww.musicwords.net.
Pro Tools drum plug-in
FEATURES4EASE OF USE4QUALITY OF SOUNDS5VALUE5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Versatile editing. Great sound. Eight individual outputs. Wide range of onboard patterns. Choice of mic positioning for samples. Five editable drum kits.
CONS: Works only with Pro Tools. Won't let you import your own samples. Style Editor has no Undo command.