Review: Sonoma Wire Works DrumCore 4 Ultra

A venerable virtual drummer gets a new look and feature boost
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A venerable virtual drummer gets a new look and feature boost

DrumCore 4 is the long-awaited update of a popular audio/MIDI virtual drummer, as well as the first version developed exclusively by Sonoma Wire Works, which bought DrumCore from Submersible Music in 2009, just before the release of DrumCore 3.

DrumCore’s essential concept—to provide a large collection of drum loops played by well-known drummers—remains unchanged in Version 4. However, the look and features of the program have been improved, with one exception: Although DrumCore was previously available in both standalone and plug-in versions, DrumCore 4 is plug-in only, supporting VST3, AU, and AAX.

LOOK AT ME

DrumCore 4 is available in three levels—Lite ($49), Prime ($249), and Ultra ($639)—with discounted upgrades available to owners of earlier versions. While the GUI and feature set is the same for all three levels, the price is differentiated by the amount of drum loops and MIDI kits that are included. (See sidebar for a comparison of the content in each.)

For this review, I used DrumCore 4 Ultra in a number of different DAWs—Avid Pro Tools 12.4, Apple Logic Pro X 10.2.4, PreSonus Studio One 3.3.1, MOTU Digital Performer 9.12, and Ableton Live 9.7. Installation and authorization were relatively easy.

DrumCore 4 is fairly intuitive to use, and the manual is informative when you need it. However, it can be tedious to navigate due to its lack of hyperlinks and page numbers in the table of contents.

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BYE BYE, ORANGE

DrumCore 4’s GUI has been completely revamped. Gone is the bright orange background of earlier versions, replaced by a more modern color scheme. Also departed is the Gabrielizer function, which allowed you to create random variations of loops. Although I only used it once in a while, it was nice to know it was there if I ran out of fills.

DrumCore 4 opens to a Browser window and can be switched between four other windows—Kit, DrumCore Store, Master FX, and Settings—using tabs located at the bottom of the screen (see Fig. 1). The GUI is not scalable, and I found it took up most of the screen when used with a 13” MacBook Pro. In Digital Performer, the GUI was too big to use on the laptop screen, and the page tabs at the bottom were hidden. According to Sonoma Wire Works president Doug Wright, a scalable GUI is one of the priorities for DrumCore 4.1.

Fig. 1. DrumCore 4 includes a revamped user interface and a host of powerful new features.

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CONTENT IS KING

As with previous versions, DrumCore 4 provides you with a library of audio-and-MIDI drum and percussion loops in a wide range of styles, played by renowned drummers such as Alan White, Bill Bruford, Matt Cameron, Matt Sorum, Terry Bozzio, and Zoro. Content for each drummer is arranged in Groove Sets, each based around a specific beat or feel.

In addition to the loops, DrumCore 4 comes with a large selection of MIDI drum kits, which correspond to the drummers. (The number of kits varies depending on the version.) It offers multiple kits for most of the drummers, each one matching up with a particular Groove Set. The idea is for the drum sounds in the audio and MIDI loops to sound similar enough that they can be used interchangeably when constructing a part. Especially for some of the more recently added content, the match is, indeed, very close. This gives you a greater number of options for customization, considering that MIDI loops are more easily edited.

Virtually all of the included content comes from previous revs of DrumCore and KitCore (the discontinued MIDI-only version), although there is quite a bit of new third-party content available for purchase. A notable exception is the killer collection of New Orleans-style loops from Terrance Higgins, which is included in DrumCore 4 Ultra.

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JUST BROWSING

When you open the Browser window, you’ll see pictures of the drummers. Clicking on one brings up a list of the corresponding loops that are available. Depending on the version of DrumCore 4 that you own, some content is included, and some is available for purchase and download from the cloud. Fortunately, a button called Show Owned lets you limit the display to what’s actually in the version you have.

I was happy to have this feature, because even though I was testing DrumCore 4 Ultra, I still encountered quite a bit of content that I would have had to purchase in order to use. Although more than 50 GB of material comes with Ultra, I can imagine that users who’ve plunked down the $639 for it are going to expect a pretty comprehensive collection, and are probably not going to be keen on buying additional content right away.

Once you’ve clicked on a drummer, you see a list of related materials on the left and the loops from the selected Groove Set on the right. You can also choose from a list of genres. Switching between views of the audio and MIDI loops is a snap.

Any of the loops can be dragged and dropped directly from the Browser window into your DAW sequence. As with previous versions, the plug-in automatically time stretches the audio loops to match your song’s tempo, which is a very handy feature.

DrumCore 4’s MIDI loops can be played on any of the included kits. However, if you want a MIDI loop to match as closely as possible to the audio loops from the same Groove Set, use its designated kit.

Fig. 2. The Mixer window with effects revealed and the Timeline at the topLISTEN UP

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Auditioning is easy: Click on a loop and it plays. Multiple loops can be auditioned in a linear fashion by dragging them up to the newly added Timeline, which runs across the top of the plugin in all the windows (see Fig. 2).

The Timeline has some pretty cool features. Not only can you assemble groups of loops in it and freely rearrange them, but you can add MIDI and audio loops and hear both when the timeline is playing.

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An entire song-length drum part can be created in the Timeline, if you want, although you can’t edit the length of loops within DrumCore 4. Various playback modes let you set the Timeline to loop continually or play through once and stop.

The Export feature allows the entire Timeline—including audio and MIDI loops—to be rendered into a single, stereo audio file. Whenever you drag a loop into the Timeline, it automatically gets rendered into your Rendered folder (at a location of your choosing), making it easy to create a folder full of loops at a specific tempo.

Another notable addition is the Mixer, which works only with the MIDI loops. It features seven channels, corresponding to seven Sub-Mixes—Kick, Snare, Hi-Hats, Toms, Cymbals, Crash, and Percussion. You can reassign any of the 44 drum and percussion elements in each MIDI kit to any of the Sub-Mixes.

Each mixer channel has a volume control, pan pot, Mute, Solo, FX, and Output 1-2 buttons. Multiple outputs are not yet supported, but according to Wright, they’re on the radar for version 4.1.

Effects available on the mixer include Compressor, EQ, Delay and Crush (a bit-crusher). Any or all can be independently applied to each Sub-Mix channel.

The effects are useful for sound shaping, but are relatively basic from a control standpoint. And I’m puzzled as to why Sonoma Wire Works chose a delay effect rather than reverb, considering the latter is more commonly used on drums. Then again, there were no effects at all in previous versions, so this is definitely a step forward. Global Master FX, which includes a multiband compressor, EQ and delay, are also available. The Kit page can be switched from the Mixer view to the Editor view, where you can edit the amplitude envelope, pitch, gain, panning, mapping, velocity crossover points between multisamples, and more, for each kit element.

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CORE VALUES

DrumCore 4 is a major improvement over earlier versions in terms of user control, especially regarding its MIDI features, and it also brings the software into the 64-bit era. It still has a few rough edges, but none are deal-breakers. From what the developer says, major issues such as lack of multi-output support and the non-scalable GUI will soon be addressed. I hope that future releases will also include additional new content, especially for owners of the Prime and Ultra versions.

That being said, DrumCore 4 (particularly the Prime version, which offers a good balance in terms of price and content) is one of the best virtual-drummer products on the market and I highly recommend it.

STRENGTHS
64-bit compatible. Mixer for MIDI kits. Track and global effects. Sample editing. Export from Timeline. Loops automatically render.

LIMITATIONS
No reverb. Multiple outputs not implemented. Non-scalable GUI. No reverb. No standalone version or Gabrielizer. Loops can’t be edited for length in the Timeline.

$49 to $639
sonomawireworks.com

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Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area.