Volume 3, Drums & Percs Elements (Mac/Win)
Ultimate Sound Bank's Plugsound series is one of a new breed of software-based instruments, combining a self-contained sample library with a dedicated playback plug-in. I reviewed Volume 3, Drums & Percs Elements ($99.95) using the MAS version with MOTU's Digital Performer 3.1.1. The package also includes VST 2.0 versions for Mac and Windows, and an RTAS version for Pro Tools (Mac).
The program includes hundreds of kits built from about two thousand samples. The sounds are organized into a broad range of categories, including rock and jazz kits, vintage drum machines, drums for Techno and Electro styles, and acoustic percussion.
Percs of the Job
Among the many acoustic kits, my favorites are the thick, organic Hot Rods kits and the loose and juicy Brushes kits, with their well-designed velocity switches. I also like the solid, basic timbres of Raw Kits 05 and 07. They aren't quite as rich and expressive as my current favorite sampled drum library, but that other library costs twice as much as Plugsound and requires a separate sampler. The volume balance of the kits sometimes seems a little off, with hi-hats that are too loud or snares that are too soft.
The Stylistic Kits category is usefully divided into genres such as Electro, House, Techno, Jungle, Disco, and so on. Techno Kit 07 is a standout, with its deep kick and airy snare. I also really appreciate the hard-hitting, punchy New York Kits 01 and 11. The Drumulator program in the Electronic & Machines category is a nostalgic treat; it was my first drum machine, and Plugsound captures it here in all its 8-bit, 27 kHz glory. The FX Kit Program served well as the quirky anchor to a hip-hop track. The strangely plural Percussions category has a wealth of options, from Agogos to Kutuwappa to Waterbells. I particularly like the Atmosphere Percs with shaker and bongo rolls that are perfect for a cinematic-suspense vibe.
Drums & Percs is not simply the host for a sample library. The plug-in also offers a selection of sound-sculpting tools, including two separate multimode filters, filter and amplitude envelopes, and an LFO that you can route to pitch, pan, amplitude, or filter cutoff. There are also four handy Velocity curves, as well as a Mono mode with glide. I presume these features play a bigger part in the other Plugsound volumes — most of the sounds in Drums & Percs leave them at their default settings. Volume, Pan, and the cutoff and resonance for one of the filters can be modulated with MIDI controllers; only the standard Bypass control appears as an automation destination.
The documentation notes that Plugsound can achieve more than 30 notes of polyphony on fast computers — a somewhat lower count than some other software instruments. With audio hardware buffers set to 64 samples for minimum latency, simple kick-snare-hat patterns caused an average CPU load of about 50 percent on my G4/400 MHz, despite the manual's helpful hints for optimizing performance. When I increased the buffer size to the maximum 512 samples, the CPU load went down to only 10 to 20 percent, but the latency was too high for comfortable playing and caused sync problems with other MIDI and audio tracks.
Selecting programs should be fast and simple in any sample player. Sadly, Plugsound falls short in this area. Sound selection relies heavily upon multilayer hierarchical menus as many as five stages deep. Some applications remember the current selection when you click on the menu again, but Plugsound doesn't; instead, you must traverse the submenus every time.
Fortunately, you can also select programs numerically (although MIDI Program Change is not supported). The numbers follow the same organization as the menus so that similar sounds are grouped together. That makes it fairly easy to select a category from the menus and then use the up and down arrows to step through the category's sounds. However, the up arrow moves to lower program numbers and the down arrow moves to higher ones. It's a small thing, but I often found myself stepping in the wrong direction.
Bang for the Buck
Drums & Percs Elements offers a broad variety of eminently usable acoustic and electronic drum sounds, along with a soft synth to play them, for a very reasonable price. I hope that future versions will see improvements in both the user interface and the plug-in's processing efficiency. If you lack a sampler and want to cover your basic needs for drum sounds on the cheap, Drums & Percs is definitely worth a listen.