Remember when a sampler was just a sampler? It didn't matter if you owned an Akai, an E-mu, or a llama — a sampler was simply a piece of hardware used to record, process, and loop digital audio snippets. Today, virtual sampler instruments with VST automation and cross-format sound support have clouded the picture, leaving us with a much broader definition of what a sampler is.
Native Instruments' Battery is the latest entry in the ever-growing software-based sampler category, joining the ranks of Steinberg's Halion, NemeSys's GigaStudio 160, and Emagic's EXS 24 as well as more specialized products like Steinberg's LM4 and Waldorf's Attack drum samplers. Native Instruments' first foray into the “soft sampler” realm, Battery is a hybrid of the samplers people are accustomed to, providing focused drum tools, percussion sounds with internal 32-bit resolution, sample-accurate timing, and multiple-file-format/bit-resolution compatibility, including Akai, SF2, LM4, AIFF, WAV, and MAP (Reaktor format). You can sculpt samples by graphing volume or pitch envelopes, layer them with other sounds in velocity-triggering combinations, alter them through bit reduction, and further sonically morph samples using the Wave Shaper for individual sounds.
After installing Battery on your computer, you must reinsert the installation CD upon your first launch of the program as a copy-protection measure. Native Instruments warns that a reconfiguration of your system (for example, updating your operating system) may cause Battery to request the insertion of the installation CD in order to work properly, so don't use the disc as a Frisbee or beer coaster after you've loaded the program.
Next, I strongly recommend installing the drum kit library CD containing more than 2,000 NI drum sounds and 30 kits (about 575 MB of goodies) and saving them to the Battery Drum Sounds folder. I cannot rave enough about these inspiring, musical, and versatile sounds, which are must-have items and worth the price of the entire software package. NI's preconfigured Kits (in KIT format) serve as excellent templates for your first Battery sessions. Also, without these sounds sitting pretty on your hard drive, you will experience crashes when attempting to read them from the CD-ROM drive while in VST mode (Battery's most common application). You can use Battery with any software program that supports VST instruments, such as Fruityloops 3.1 or Logic Audio (they're called Audio Instruments in Logic Audio).
As with almost all VST instruments, multiple instances of Battery can run in the same sequencer session. The only glitch: if your drum sets contain a lot of samples, some of the pads may not load and your machine may choke. For my machine, the comfortable limit in Logic Audio 4.7 was two instances of Battery with several other audio and MIDI tracks running. In Fruityloops 3.1, a considerably less memory-intensive application, I was able to run five instances of Battery packed to the sample-load max until my machine finally begged for mercy like Creeper in the clutches of an angry Dolemite. Each instance of Battery offers a maximum polyphony of 54 notes (a total of 128 voices when samples are stacked), so five instances gave me 270 sounds to work with. Even the most drum-centric tribal-house freak would admit that's more than enough!
Battery can also run as a standalone application, providing fresh beat-making possibilities for those who prefer to control sounds via MIDI with an external hardware sequencer or software program. When running standalone, Battery is compatible with sound cards driven by MME, Direct Sound, Sound Manager, MAS, DirectConnect, and ASIO. If you're not sure what audio interface to use, the manual provides an excellent breakdown.
The software is compatible with both Mac and PC. Battery requires a minimum 300 MHz (Pentium) Windows 98/2000 computer or a 300 MHz Power PC Mac running OS 8.6 or higher with at least 64 MB of RAM. For the record, I tested Battery on a 700 MHz Athlon PC with 256 MB of RAM, a Sound Blaster Live platinum audio card, and Emagic's Logic Audio 4.7 (for VST mode). Using DirectSound drivers, I was able to run Battery with undetectable latency. While using different sound cards will yield different results, you can achieve optimal latency performance by slowly moving your card's play-ahead timing toward zero until you hear clicks or digital noise and then backing down to the nearest click-free setting.
SHAPE IT UP
Battery's sample matrix consists of 54 sample cells in a 9-by-6 grid with group mutes and solo buttons for each horizontal and vertical line. Individual samples also feature their own mute and solo controls (red and yellow, respectively). There are a thousand ways to shave a goat, and Battery seems to offer at least that many ways to shape a drum sound. Editing options include Volume Envelope (attack, hold, decay, sustain, release), Pitch Envelope, Modulation, Tuning, Bit Reduction, Wave Shaping, Sample Reverse, and more. Battery is divided into several sections (Cell, Layer, FX-loop, Modulation, Tune/Shape, Output, Master, and Envelope and Waveform Display), each of which handles sound editing differently. For instance, the Tune/Shape section lets you tune cells over range of three octaves up or down, and also includes wave shaping, bit reduction, and sample-start offset controls. The Cell section is great for creating bass and melody lines from sounds with a defined pitch. First, load some tonal sounds. Next, set up the cell key range and root key, toggle the loop on/off, define mutes, and select the MIDI channel — it's actually easier than it sounds.
In the Envelope and Waveform Display Section, you can activate either or both the Volume Envelope and the Pitch Envelope. The names imply their function, but what they don't say is that Battery's real-time Waveform Display follows all knob movements to illustrate what is being done to the sound. The Pitch Envelope section differs substantially from the Tune/Shape section by offering a “DBD” envelope (Decay Time 1, Breakpoint, and Decay Time 2) that allows you to determine how drastically pitch bend is applied to the sample. By trailing slow pitch bend off a long kick, snare, or tom sound, you can create some incredibly expressive tones. Awesome!
Battery's Modulation section is excellent for creating sonic movement in MIDI tracks, and the company has made it easy for you to save your modulation presets for quick recall by accessing the File menu. Even if you have multiple MIDI controllers, you can easily map the parameter you would like to shape using the presets' six modulators.
Battery's Master section allows you to determine how sounds are edited by adjusting several key default parameters: Kits (KIT), Battery sessions (BAS), and Modulation Presets (BPR) can all be saved for later recall. Also, you can add new layers of sounds, replace cells, load new cells or kits, and import Akai and SF2 sounds.
THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS
Layering samples can be a great way to create new, original sounds. Ever wish you could combine the attack from your favorite '60s Gretsch kick drum with a Roland 808 boom? Battery can automatically crossfade between sample layers to create otherworldly, tripped-out tones. After you have layered a few sounds, you will want to get familiar with Battery's drag and drop function, which lets you copy or move cell settings and sounds to other cells — an especially creative enterprise once you set up a few layers and experiment with switching instrument parameter settings.
In the Master section, you can select whether to drag and drop a cell's entire contents or merely its editing parameters, such as Volume and Pan, Volume Envelope only, Pitch Envelope, Root Key and Key Range, Shape and Bit Reduction, FX Loop, or Modulation. Kudos to NI for allowing the user to determine which parameters can be copied from cell to cell.
A point of caution: Battery has no undo command. Still, it provides a comfortable one-level work-around for knob-tweak resets: Simply hold down Control, and then click the left mouse button while hovering above the parameter knob you would like to restore.
INSERT BATTERY HERE
Like most good samplers, Battery runs hot. If you hear digital clipping when playing a massive layer of low-end sounds, try reducing either the sample or overall volume until clipping has subsided. One useful level-monitoring trick is to click on the lightning bolt icon (on the upper right, above the master volume) to view numeric volume levels.
If you plan on running Battery as standalone program on a Mac, note that Digidesign's DirectConnect must be installed in your system. This is a temporary glitch that will be fixed in a future Battery update. The solution for now is to download DirectConnect from Digidesign's home page (www.digidesign.com/download/dc.html), and then place the Digidesign StreamManager file in the Extensions folder within your System folder. If you have previously installed Pro Tools, Pro Tools LE, or Pro Tools Free (which contain DirectConnect), ignore the paragraph you have just read.
As with most of Native Instruments' products, the creative potential of Battery is astounding. The sounds alone are worth a bill or two; the generous sample format compatibility and sound-shaping tools, another. Taking a simple loop, shape-shifting the samples, adding a few modulation presets, and then redefining the layers may be all you need to do to score a record deal with Ninja Tune or Warp. (Take that, Mira Calix!)
Could we ask for more? Of course — that's our job. The standalone application of Battery and its loop playback section would benefit greatly from the inclusion of even a modest pattern sequencer. Most Battery customers undoubtedly already own a sequencer program, but I'm sure that many of them would like to bang out some fresh beats without having to boot up a battery of external software applications. Even so, Battery is a high-powered percussion-tweaking machine — bigga beat-wrecking punch for low cash crunch.
PROS: Incredible factory sounds and kits. 128-voice and 54-note polyphony. Easy VST integration. Massive sonic shaping flexibility. Excellent value.
CONS: No internal pattern sequencer. No undo command.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4.5