Robot Drummer Roundup

For most music, you need the foundation of a good drum part. But if you’re not a drummer and working alone in the studio, who ya gonna call? These days, people are turning increasingly to software that helps in the actual creation of a part, and also increasingly, the results are becoming more realistic — and musically useful. This article looks at some of the most popular and common pieces of cross-platform (except where noted) software designed to lay down a drum part as fast as possible. Interestingly, each one takes a different approach to this task; some might resonate with you, while others don’t. So, we’ll do an applications-oriented overview that describes how you would go about making a drum part with this new breed of software. Hopefully by the end of the article, you’ll know which approach is going to work best for you.
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SAMPLE CD LIBRARIES: QUICK AND EFFICIENT, IF THE MUSIC FITS

While not typical software per se, when working in a particular musical genre a good set of sample CDs with multitracked drums might be all you need. For example, each Discrete Drums series typically consists of audio CDs so you can audition what’s in the libraries without having to load anything into your computer, and a bunch of content: particular projects played by a drummer and broken down into individual song sections (and furthermore, into individual tracks like snare, kick, toms, room mics, etc.), stereo loops mixed down from the multitracked versions, and individual sampled drum hits. They’re extremely well-recorded in excellent rooms, use top-notch recording gear and mics, and aren’t overly processed so you can add as much or as little EQ, limiting, etc. as you want.

I recently used the Series I set of rock drums to create a fairly complex drum part. Referring to Figure 1, here’s a description of the workflow I used, which illustrates how you’d put together a part with sample CDs.

1. If time is a factor, forego the multitracked projects (although they do offer much more flexibility) and use the stereo loops. They’re well-mixed, and do the job. (Drums on Demand also makes excellent stereo loops for this purpose.) Some of the loops are on the “busy” side, but you can usually find a fairly straight-ahead verse part and lay that in as a reference.

2. What makes a sample CD drum part really come alive is cutting and pasting. During the verse, there was an instrumental figure between vocal phrases. I needed something different for these; the same project had an appropriate tom beat file. I cut away 1.5 measures of the verse but left in the fill (colored red in Figure 1), and brought in 1.5 measures of the tom beat (light blue) behind the instrumental figure. In one section, I doubled the verse with the tom (yellow), as the song was building at that point.

3. For the chorus, there was a great 4-measure drum beat but it was too complex. However, the first measure was perfect, so for most of the chorus I just cut that one measure segment and copied it multiple times (green), waiting to use the whole beat (orange) until the final measures that led into a transition.

4. Just these few files got the part 90% of the way there. I grabbed a tambourine beat (dark gray) for the choruses, but needed a few more final touches.

5. Cymbal crashes generally don’t work well as part of a loop, so I brought some cymbal crashes (brown) in as one-shot samples where appropriate.

6. Finally, in one spot, I wanted a series of 16th note snare hits to lead into the start of the chorus. So, isolated a snare hit from the loop, trimmed it to a 16th note, and pasted it multiple times (magenta), leading into a fill. Note the automation curve (light blue line) that increases the volume of the hits over time. I also wanted a dramatic fill toward the end, and there were several to choose from (dark blue) — no problem.

As these files were all acidized, even though the file tempos were a little slow, Sonar recognized the acidization and sped them up appropriately. (When I bring non-acidized files into a project, I’ll generally use DSP to stretch them.)

Perhaps most importantly, the Discrete Drums sets clearly had a lot of thought put into them as to the elements needed to make a complete, authentic-sounding part. Each project contains lots of files and variations, so if even though it’s a “some assembly required” situation, it’s almost always possible to find what you need. If not, you can check out the other projects.

As the parts are played by a human drummer, the parts already have dynamics and expressiveness. Still, some gain changes and automation can add extra emphasis. This also means that the drums hits are not quantized to the nearest sample (nor should they be). As a result, with some parts you’ll need to add a very short crossfade between files to cover up any glitches or splices.

The part ended up sounding like it was played by a drummer, because in fact, it was; but the real key is editing, which can make sampled loops fit a song like a glove. www.discretedrums.com, www.drumsondemand.com

STEINBERG GROOVE AGENT 3: THE ORIGINAL ROBOT DRUMMER

Of all these products, Groove Agent 3 is the most like a true robot drummer. It generates patterns in various styles, with varying levels of complexity including automatic fills. The program works in stand-alone mode, as a plug-in (VST/AU/DXi), or ReWire slave.

Even better, Groove Agent 3 generates what it’s doing as MIDI data. If your host can capture this data (e.g., Cubase, Sonar), then you can freely modify the part afterward. This also means that it works well as a MIDI expander module, where you can take advantage of the generous complement of drum and percussion sounds (as well as load your own AIF/WAV samples).

The process of creating a part is simple:

1. Select the style you want; an associated drum kit loads automatically. If you want to tweak the drum sounds, you have quite a few variables (decay, tuning, amount of ambience, pan, etc.).

2. Move a slider to choose the part’s level of complexity, from basic to Keith Moon-style flailing.

3. Set Groove Agent 3 to generate fills (random or consistent) automatically, or add fills and accents yourself in real time.

4. Tweak the shuffle, humanize, and ambience knobs as desired.

5. Click on Run, sit back, and listen to the part unfold.

There have been quite a few changes in the latest version. Groove Agent formerly consisted of one module that triggered drum sounds with MIDI, and this is still accessible via Classic Mode; but a new Secret Agent module incorporates digital audio loops played by a real drummer, that nonetheless have the same flexibility (time stretching and the option to add fills) as the MIDI-based options. Furthermore, a new Percussion Agent module provides a variety of percussion parts, again with the usual Agent options. What brings this all together is Dual Mode (Figure 2), which allows using two of the three Agents at any one time.

Sound-wise, there are new acoustic drum kits, digital drum machine and percussion sounds, and an FX section where each of the available 12 stereo outs has its own 9-band EQ and compressor. There are also many more styles, including ones in non-standard time signatures, and algorithms for alternating hits to avoid the “machine gun” effect.

Overall, Groove Agent 3 is the closest you’ll come so far to having a drummer where you just click on play, and unique parts flow out. www.steinberg.net

FXPANSION BFD: GREAT SOUNDS MEET GROOVE LIBRARY

Fxpansion’s BFD is a “hyper-realistic” sampled acoustic drum standalone/plug-in program (it can also be a ReWire slave). It features multiple drum kits with multiple miking positions, the ability to swap around kit elements, and a great deal of control over the sound. But what interests us here is the Groove Library section (Figure 3), as it lets you create drum parts using a variety of MIDI grooves and fills — some programmed, some created from the playing of human drummers.

BFD’s Groove Library includes almost 1,800 grooves and over 400 fills, but you’re not limited to that; you can import your own MIDI file grooves, and save them into the Groove Library for later recall. Bi-directional drag-and-drop is supported, as you can drag MIDI sequences into slots in BFD, as well as drag BFD grooves into your host sequencer (assuming that the host supports this).

It’s quite easy to put together a drum part with BFD:

“A standout DrumCore feature is being able to import files and “tag” them with searchable metadata.”

1. Drag a bundle of up to 12 grooves into one Groove bank, and if desired, 12 more grooves into the second bank. You can also drag in individual files if you want to mix and match among bundles.

2. Drag a bundle of up to 12 grooves (or individual files) into the Fill bank.

3. Each groove in a bank has an associated keyboard note: Notes C5–B5 play bank 1, C6–B6 bank 2, and C7–B7 the fills bank.

4. Holding down a key plays the groove; you can also initiate a latching mode, so that the groove keeps playing until you initiate another groove, or trigger the original groove again.

5. Record the MIDI data generated by your controller as you trigger the various grooves and fills. On playback, the MIDI data will trigger the grooves the way you played them.

There are other options; if you’re really not into doing any work at all, enable the Auto Repeat, Auto Shuffle, and Auto Fill buttons, then hit a key. BFD will cycle through the various grooves in a bank, and insert fills at the interval you specify. This is great for when you just want something to jam to; if you then want to go back later and create a more complex part, go for it.

You can filter out certain notes if you, for example, prefer to add cymbals as a separate, manually-overdubbed track. You can also ignore the real-time aspects altogether and just audition the MIDI grooves. If you like them, drag them over into your host to create a part.

Overall, BFD straddles the worlds of great-sounding drum expander and robot drummer; most importantly, the program makes it surprisingly easy to create parts that sound as if they were recorded by a drummer in an excellent studio. www.fxpansion.com

TOONTRACK EZDRUMMER: MELDING MIDI AND AUDIO

The EZdrummer plug-in has two main claims to fame. First, it’s descended from the acclaimed dfh drum sample library. Second, Toontrack states it can yield a great drum track in just a few clicks . . . and it can.

There are two main elements: A set of superbly recorded drums (about 670MB of samples, but using lossless compression that gives the equivalent of about 8GB uncompressed), with several drum sound options and a mixer that doesn’t just adjust drum balance, but also can mix in bleed. Although you can use a stereo output to keep things simple, you can also assign any of the nine tracks to any of eight outputs (there’s no leftover track; I send the snare top and bottom to the same track). If you want, you can just treat EZdrummer as a sound module, and trigger the drums from a pad controller or keyboard.

But we’re talking about putting together something fast, which brings us to the second part: A library of MIDI files that you can audition (Figure 4), and then drag-and-drop into a host sequencer. There’s also a “master velocity” control, so you can push the dynamics or bring them back. Here’s the typical workflow for putting a drum track together.

1. EZdrummer loads a default kit when you open it — and when I want to put a song together fast, I don’t bother changing it. It’s always possible to change the kit, swap out drums, alter the mix, or whatever later on.

2. If the default kit doesn’t do it for you, click on any drop-down menu on any drum and choose another kit.

3. Open the Groove library by clicking on the Open Grooves button.

4. EZdrummer ships with a pop/rock library that has five main subcategories: 4/4 Straight, 4/4 Shuffle, 4/4 with 6/8 Feel, 3/4 Styles, and 6/8 Styles. Each of these has additional categories for musical styles, including fills. Choose one of these, and you’ll see a list of Grooves toward the right, with another list of Playing Variations.

5. The Playing Variations are MIDI paydirt. You double-click on them to audition them, and if you like something, drag it into your host sequencer’s MIDI track that’s driving the drum sounds. As MIDI is so malleable, I often treat EZdrummer as a glorified metronome (although I try to get patterns that work well), and deal with the fills later.

6. As the song takes shape, I’ll go back and edit the MIDI parts and if necessary, the mix. Because you can treat EZdrummer as an expander module, it’s also like having a library of individual hits on hand if you want to add cymbal crashes or other hits.

By basing the sounds on MIDI and including grooves played by a drummer, the resulting parts sound (natch!) like they were played by a drummer — but you have more flexibility than a purely sample-based approach. As to customization, you can add your own grooves and Toontrack has also released four drum kit expansion packs (Nashville, Drumkit from Hell, Vintage Rock, and Latin Percussion) with more planned (e.g., R&B and industrial/ethnic).

So yes, you really can put together a drum part with just a few clicks; but as with any of these programs, put a little effort into customizing the results, and you’ll end up with something more personalized and appropriate. www.toontrack.com

SPECTRASONICS STYLUS RMX: THE DRUM COMPOSITION TOOL KIT

Stylus RMX takes more of a groove toolkit approach, as it can play back grooves, let you assemble multitracked combinations of grooves and mix/mute/solo them (the closest analogy I can think of is Ableton Live for drums), and what’s more, you can create some pretty exceptional non-traditional, processed drum kits and use Stylus RMX as a tone module.

Although there are a lot of extremely creative and processed grooves, suitable for remixing, electronic, and urban forms of music, there are also standard sounds and several expansion packs. And Stylus RMX can load and convert REX files from commercial libraries; if you have Propellerhead Software’s ReCycle and some editing chops, you can create your own REX files as well and import those.

Another, less tangible factor is that Stylus RMX is an inspiration generator. A lot of drum software facilitates getting what’s in your head into something you can hear, but Stylus RMX can also put things in your head in the first place — it’s a great writer’s block buster.

Loops or individual hits in kits can route to four effects buses, and there’s a fine roster of effects for processing them. There’s also a complete set of synth modules (Figure 5; LFOs, filter, and envelopes, as well as DSP like sample start, sample reverse, and the like) that can again process individual loops or hits. Still not enough? A “chaos” feature allows altering the loop patterns and timing so that the loops can live and breathe over time.

Although Stylus is based on using MIDI to drive digital audio, audio-wise the program uses the Recycle model of slicing up loops and issuing a series of notes to trigger each slice sequentially. The downside is that you can’t use the resulting MIDI patterns to drive traditional drum sound programs, but you can do things like isolate specific hits for specific drums and process those.

Because of all these options, explaining how you would use Stylus RMX to put together a drum track is daunting, as there are so many ways you can do it. However, as the point of this article is putting tracks together fast, let’s do it from that angle.

1. Each of the eight Stylus RMX “tracks” can be driven from a different MIDI channel, so start off by creating eight MIDI tracks.

2. After opening up Stylus RMX as a plug-in, browse the collection of loops. When you find a loop you like, drag the MIDI file from the “drag and drop” box on the browser page into the MIDI track associated with the Stylus RMX channel containing the loop.

“None of these programs lock you into a particular sound: All have customization options.”

3. Click on the next Stylus RMX channel, and browse another loop. Again, drag the MIDI file over to a MIDI track in your host.

4. I’ll generally pick a couple foundation loops, some fills, and some percussion. After selecting the loops you want to use, arrange your song using the MIDI files.

5. You now have the “outline” for your drum part. As the tune gels, it’s easy to add variations to the patterns by shifting some of the MIDI notes around; for example, you can find the “slice” that corresponds to a snare drum hit, and copy it to add some additional hits — like a roll at the end of an otherwise straightforward part.

6. As the song evolves, you can continue editing the part — add effects within Stylus RMX or your host, use MIDI learn to create automated control of virtually any Stylus RMX parameter, and the like.

In addition to using kits instead of loops, yet another approach is to do a “live remix” using Stylus RMX. For example, you can load up multiple loops in Groove Menu mode, and trigger them in Next 16th or Next Beat mode from the MIDI keyboard in real time while syncing to existing tracks, and use the MIDI learn function to control each channel with a fader. Then, as Stylus RMX plays, you can vary the mix of the loops and record the faders moves as MIDI data. www.spectrasonics.net

CAKEWALK SESSION DRUMMER 2: SONAR’S ANSWER TO ROBOT DRUMS

Session Drummer 2 (Figure 6) is included in Cakewalk’s Sonar Producer Edition 6 and Home Studio XL 6, but works with other Windows programs. It’s basically a ten-channel drum module, but can also load eight MIDI patterns up to 32 beats long. You can play these in real time by clicking on them and if you want, cause them to loop; you can also drag-and-drop the MIDI patterns into your host to create a part, but drag-and-drop is bi-directional as you can also drag patterns into Session Drummer 2.

To create a part in real time, here’s the basic procedure.

1. Load an appropriate program, containing a kit and MIDI patterns. Several come with Sonar, although expansion packs are now becoming available.

2. Each kit comes with a variety of MIDI patterns and sounds, but as mentioned you can also load your own patterns, as well as load different sounds for the pads.

3. Tweak the kit parameters (volume, width, stereo pan, and tune) if desired.

4. While Sonar is recording MIDI data, trigger the patterns from a MIDI keyboard playing notes 27–34 (one for each of the eight patterns). You can also play drum sounds with other notes to add fills and such.

5. On playback, Sonar will play back the patterns where you triggered them.

One very useful feature is that you can load pad sounds with WAV, AIF, Ogg Vorbis, or SFZ (multisampled) files. Also, you can load complete audio loops into the pads, thus treating Session Drummer 2 more like an MPC-style device where you trigger audio loops from your MIDI controller. www.cakewalk.com

SUBMERSIBLE MUSIC DRUMCORE 2: REWIRING THE STARS

DrumCore 2 is not a plug-in, but a standalone or ReWire application. It contains both audio and MIDI files played by some of the truly heavy hitters in the music biz (Matt Sorum, Terry Bozzio, Alan White, and the like), which you can drag into into a variety of hosts (DrumCore does easy exporting to Acid, Cubase, Fruity Loops, Nuendo, Pro Tools, Samplitude, Sonar, and Tracktion; for others, you can export to a folder, and import into the host). Furthermore, several expansion packs are available with loads of additional files.

DrumCore comes with plenty of drum kits, which means a very flexible choice of sounds (acoustic, electronic, and percussion) if you’re using the built-in MIDI grooves or simply using DrumCore as a tone module — a function it does very well. Furthermore, there’s a drum kit editing section so you can customize it to some degree: For each sound you can mute, solo, change volume, edit panning, or re-tune with a pitch control, as well as swap kit sounds or even load your own AIF/WAV samples.

One standout feature is that you can import files (WAV, AIF, REX2, Acidized, or SD2), make them part of the DrumCore database, and “tag” them with searchable metadata. However, only Acidized and REX2 files will be tempo-stretched; other formats play back at their initial tempo. Note that you’re not totally locked in to a file once it’s loaded, as the “Gabrielize” function randomizes the loop somewhat. If you like what you hear, drag it in and if not, try again.

Creating a drum part is mostly a drag-and-drop process if you want to use audio or MIDI files. You can also use a combination of the two, but if you’re planning on doing a mix and match from multiple artists, you’ll probably want to use MIDI files as that way, you can maintain a consistent kit sound.

1. Set the host tempo as desired. If you’re using MIDI files, choose an appropriate drum kit.

2. Use the DrumCore interface and browser to audition the various files, or search for files with particular attributes.

3. When you find something you like, drag it over into an audio or MIDI track, as appropriate. Note that fills are not a given; some drummers include them, some don’t so this is where mix and match comes in handy. Otherwise, using the Gabrielize feature can often create a fill out of a standard part.

4. Keep building the part.

When you’re done, you can turn off transport/tempo sync so you hear only the files you’ve used to create a part, not DrumCore.

A free player, DrumCore LT, does much of what DrumCore does and allows playing back the expansion packs, which really lowers the entry price. Also, a demo is available on the Submersible site.

DrumCore requires a little more work than some other programs; it doesn’t do automatic fills, or automatic slight randomization over the course of a tune. Furthermore, the drum loops aren’t multitracked. However, having files available in both audio and MIDI formats is extremely helpful, especially because you can customize the sound of the kits. The whole database management aspect of the program is also outstanding. www.submersiblemusic.com

SO, WHICH ONE IS BEST?

Hopefully, you’ll be able to come to your own conclusions after getting an idea of how these programs work. As just one example, some might gravitate toward DrumCore because of the database management aspects, while others might decide that Groove Agent is perfect for them because they just want to push play and see what happens. For those working exclusively in a particular style, sample CDs might be all you need. And don’t forget that some programs can be chameleonic, like Stylus RMX: Although you can use it in traditional ways, it also lends itself to remixing drum parts. Or what might matter to you is realistic drum sampling, in which case BFD and EZdrummer are excellent choices.

In any event, these are all pretty amazing programs. Best of all, none of them lock you into a particular sound: All have customization options so once you get past laying down a basic groove, you can customize things in a variety of ways . . . welcome to the brave new world of robot drummers.