The Stormdrum concept came about several years ago when award-winning soundtrack composer, sound designer and Quantum Leap founder Nick Phoenix recorded some big film grooves for movie trailers he was working on. Some of the best percussionists in the world were hired, filling up the studio with hundreds of drums in such a complex setup that studio staffers said they'd never seen anything like it. Indeed, SD1 captured a sound so massive and stunning right out of the box that it became the best-selling acoustic drum and percussion virtual instrument ever.
That legacy grows with SD2 — The Next Generation, a 13 GB collection of 24-bit/44.1 kHz multisampled acoustic percussion instruments and MIDI performance loops. More than twice the size of the original, SD2 draws from the private collections of three well-traveled percussionists. None of the instruments are carryovers from volume one and were sampled exclusively for this project — except for the Metallica “Black” drum kit hauled in from Quantum Leap Ministry of Rock.
SD2 was recorded in Studio 1 of EastWest Studios (United Western Recorders), best known as Frank Sinatra's fave soundstage back in the day and arguably one of the finest percussion rooms on the planet. After using its legendary mic closet and arsenal of rare vintage recording equipment, Phoenix passed the digital transfers through expensive Meitner converters.
Whereas Stormdrum was driven by Native Instruments' Kontakt, SD2 is powered by EastWest's brand-new Play Advanced Sample Engine. Lots of time and money were invested in that engine, with the intention of it hosting many future Quantum Leap/EastWest instrument libraries. As such, the core engine is the same for all, with each library merely presenting a customized GUI. That allows you to mix and match other Play titles simultaneously within a single instance. Both 32-bit and 64-bit stand-alone versions of SD2 are included for Windows XP SP2 or Vista and Mac OS 10.4 or higher, along with 32-bit Audio Units, VST, RTAS and a special 64-bit PC VST plug-in version for supporting hosts. Authorization comes via an iLok USB key (not included), requiring that you set up a free account at SoundsOnline.com for one-time product activation. You cannot activate the license from your iLok.com account directly.
SD2's graphics provide you with controls for mostly basic functions. A prime example is the simple lowpass filter with knobs only for cutoff and resonance — no selectable filter type, envelope, modulation source or slope selection. An equally simplistic AHDSR amp envelope; stereo spread control; delay effect with time, feedback and level controls; and convolution reverb module with pre-delay and amount are also provided. Especially in a library geared toward radical sound design such as this, I wish for at least individual multimode filters and envelopes per key zone, not to mention playback directionality and customizable LFOs to really twist up a sound.
In a thoughtful move, SD2 responds with special behavior to certain MIDI control codes compared to other Play libraries because some users will want to select sounds from multiple SD2 instruments to create a kind of ad-hoc drum kit and trigger all the notes within a single track in the sequencer. Therefore, individual percussion instruments within an instance of Play respond independently to MIDI CC11 and CC12 messages to affect the volume and the pan position, respectively. That is in contrast to CC7 and CC10, which affect all notes in a track.
The library opens to a folder containing a variety of rock, orchestral and specialized drums. Among the most notable is a kit of nine brooding Ludwig Octaplus toms played with mallet, rod and stick; single hits are featured on white keys and double hits on black keys. Remo built the world's biggest floor tom (42-by-42 inches) specifically for this project. Eleven hits with four variations are spread over four octaves, and to say this sucker rocks is an understatement. The dynamics are huge, and the soundstage is fantastically wide.
The Ethnic Drums folder sounds insanely good. Setting the stage are three African bowl drums, seven Chinese kettle drums, separate kits of custom bongos and congas with plenty of inside-to-out hits and roll articulations. A lively sounding Egyptian darabuka with rattles provides dozens of taps, sizzling rim-hits and scrapes, while a two-headed dholak drum from northern India is equally expressive with nearly 40 hits incorporating psychedelic pitch bends. Earthquake Ensemble trumps SD1's six-man thunder-drum program and features 11 musicians hitting drums of various sizes in unison.
A collection of distant-sounding o-daikos, a Middle Eastern dumber “goblet drum,” Malaysian djembe, Moroccan darubaka (sounds like a PVC pipe), Spanish timbales, West African udu and other worldly skins round out the truly ethnic selection. Elsewhere, a table gets whacked with a stick, and that same Remo floor tom receives brush treatment — from beautiful, light caresses to walloping slaps and detuned presses — across 16 keys. At times, it sounded like hand drumming, and its stereo imagery suggests a “tribe” surrounding you.
Generally, there is a lot of velocity switching going on, with upward of 24 velocity layers per multisample for incredibly realistic dynamics. Even the simplest SD2 instrument can often fill an 88-note keyboard with an ample supply of hits and articulations organized with the middle of the drum on the lowest keys, and moving to the outside of the drum on up the keyboard. Left- and right-handed hits, plus a clever round-robin mode ensures no two same sounds ever “machine gun.” With so many samples to keep tabs on when compiling these programs, it's with no great surprise, albeit a little disappointing, that the odd grunt or errant instrument noise kept popping up on certain keys, rendering them difficult to use.
The Ethnic Metals folder is a real treat, even if a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there are the ubiquitous brake drums, Chinese cymbals and castanets, but Phoenix and company definitely put on their thinking caps to come up with the rest. In Eleven Bowl Gongs, for example, bowls ranging from five to 15 inches are struck from the inside out (including the rim), providing dozens of expressive variations across the keyboard that are a hypnotic joy to play. That same bowl gets bowed for a more eerie and suspenseful sound. Two programs featuring various small and large gongs, from seven to as many as 35 inches, are absolutely gorgeous. Splashed, crashed, slid, tapped, brushed at the rim, mallet-rolled and more, they offer tons of timbral and textural possibilities when layered.
For Tibetan Prayer Circle, Phoenix placed various Tibetan bells he's collected during the past five years and sampled them in position on a large table. Their delicate chimelike appeal works brilliantly with arpeggios, automatically panning to the rhythm according to their natural stereo placement around the table. Elsewhere, brilliant-sounding finger cymbals of various sizes receive the attention of four huge keymap programs, each providing highly detailed hits, taps, mutes, rattles and slides in dozens of positions, as well as grouped play.
The Hang Drum program completely blew me away. This very rare and stunningly exotic tuned-metal “dome” drum is keymapped for its eight pitches in left- and right-fingered pairs, and in two intensity groups from C1 to D3 and C4 to G6. By alternating between the gentle finger taps and harder fingernail taps, you can produce entirely mesmerizing and enchanting-sounding melodies that impart a swirling, almost glassy or ceramic tone when played in a circular motion.
In the oversized category, a huge 4-foot bowl is struck and bowed to create an assortment of dark and haunting tones, including no-attack drone samples. An 80-foot metal bridge gets the sledgehammer treatment for sharp clank attacks and a dull, wiry decay. The Whale Drum preset features a large metal fuel tank modified to make many clunky tones, and the Prepared FX preset is a modern take on the classic prepared piano, featuring the strings of a concert grand being struck, popped, rubbed and bowed, scraped, strummed and sprung using objects of varying hardness. I especially loved the trickles and boings of what sounds like a handful of change dropped over the keyboard and strings before hitting a hardwood floor.
A small folder of miscellaneous wooden percussion rounds out SD2, providing everything from a giant 12-foot native log drum and aboriginal wood and shaker instruments to your standard tambourine, Chinese noisemakers, Vietnamese shakers and rattles, devil chasers (wooden hollow sticks with grooves) and the Ticki-Ticki Zen patch for creating high-pitched clickity rhythms. A highly expressive collection of rare anklung bamboo instruments from Indonesia generates a rapidly repeating pitched sound when shaken.
The most spectacular and instantly gratifying material of all resides in the Sound Design and MIDI Performance Multis folders. While SD2 doesn't offer audio loops per se, it ships with around 100 MIDI files (created live using Roland VDrums and Zendrum controllers) made for pairing with respective Performance Multis of the same name that you call up in the Play browser. This allows you to adjust tempo, time signatures and more without affecting audio quality, similarly to Spectrasonics' Stylus RMX and inspired by EastWest's old Dance/Industrial.
The loops are of Type-0 MIDI file standard, which means that multiple tracks of MIDI data are compressed into a single file that you can play back as is — like one composite loop — or expand onto 16 tracks using the Unpack function in your sequencer. In Logic, it helped to set up a track folder template to keep things tidy and make it a one-step process for adding groups of tracks with consecutive MIDI channels 1 through 16, all assigned to one instance of Play. An Auditions folder contains short MP3 snippets of each of the MIDI performances.
Mostly, the MIDI files are high-impact performances oriented toward film scores that run the gamut of emotions and visual cues. But there are also a good number of sequences that would fit in less-epic situations, such as electronic and rhythmic-pop songwriting. Several multis even contain keymaps of processed drum-machine samples to create contemporary backbeats around SD2's otherwise found sounds. You get dozens of variations, intros and endings to each loop, and you can tweak or automate any parameter that the interface provides. At times I loved a sound in a particular performance multi but not its MIDI rhythm — or vice versa. Fortunately, sometimes a simple augmentation or regrooving of a track is all it took to make things fit.
The Sound Design folder offers a radically different approach, featuring short electrified rhythm and effects beds that layer well to create edgy, modern soundscapes. There are seven pairs of Glitched Drone programs, each with a keymap of assorted beat phrases (120 to 160 bpm) and a related keymap of the single-hit components that were used to create them. Contrary to the rest of the library, the sounds here are extremely raunchy, heavily distorted, synthetically modulated and experimentally preprocessed. Their themes defy description, but you can try imagining a beatbox grudge match between two Marshall stacks, or aliens racing their futuristic NASCAR vehicles around a track full of explosions, swoops and dive-bombs. These patches will surely inspire a ton of high-energy extreme sports and game scores this year.
BANG A GONG, GET IT ON
SD2 — The Next Generation makes an exceptional add-on for original Stormdrum owners; the percussion assortment is highly complementary without feeling too similar or rehashed. Naturally, the sounds and beds appeal to soundtrack composers looking for the most cutting-edge drop-ins, but should also go a long way in any variant of house, hip-hop, ambient/IDM/minimalist, electro and more.
If you're mainly a cut-and-paste-style audio-loop arranger, then SD2 will probably be overkill on both your pocketbook and method of workflow for what you'll get out of it. Rather, the more eclectic “composer's composer” should appreciate the authenticity and exhaustive playability of each and every preset. The versatility with which you can create your own grooves — either by combining the sample loops or melding them with the MIDI sequences — is staggering. I liked taking the live grooves and quickly manipulating them to sound more like electronic breaks. At the same time, Phoenix makes it absurdly easy and tempting to grab any of his killer loops, call it a day and collect your check.
This is an overwhelming truckload of fresh percussion to have dropped at one's fingertips. Thanks to the acoustics of that gorgeous Hollywood soundstage, you feel the sound as much as you hear it. It shakes your bones and brings tears to your eyes for its sonic purity, majesty and realism. You totally forget you're playing a VI; that's what makes SD2 the “big percussion” instrument on the market today.
SD2—THE NEXT GENERATION
Pros: Huge selection of powerful drum and percussion sounds, effects beds and MIDI performances. Meticulous dynamics programming. Gorgeous stereo presence. Engulfing natural room ambience. Uses EastWest's new 64-bit Play Advanced Sample Engine.
Cons: Interface is short on editing functions. A few sample layers suffer from environment noise or talking.
Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/1 GHz (2.5 GHz recommended); 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended); OS 10.4 or later; 13 GB free hard-drive space; Audio Units, VST or RTAS host for plug-in operation; iLok USB key
PC: P4/2.5 GHz; 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended); Windows XP SP2/Vista; 13 GB free hard-drive space; Audio Units, VST or RTAS host for plug-in operation; iLok USB key