Roundup – Virtual Drums and Percussion

Because tastes in drum sounds and musical applications
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BECAUSE TASTES in drum sounds and musical applications can turn on a dime, we like to periodically dip into the pool of drum and percussion instruments and sound libraries. This roundup covers sample-based products, and a couple of very cool instruments whose synthesis engines carry them well beyond the 808 and 909 paradigm to incredibly fresh new sounds and rhythms. Not to be outdone, many of the sample libraries rely on some pretty slick DSP—either in the sampling or the playback stages—to endow the end-user with plenty of sound-shaping power.

It’s become commonplace for instruments to include preset, editable rhythm patterns that you can arrange in your host software or simply lock to your host’s tempo. Some offer built-in modulation tracks to animate sounds alongside the typical grid-based, drum-machine style sequencing. Whatever your approach, we’re confident that there is something for everyone here—and probably more than you expected.

Audio Damage Axon
Audio Damage

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Frequency-Modulation synthesis (FM) excels at producing snares, kicks, and cymbals, as well as oddball, clangorous metallic tones. Audio Damage’s Axon relies heavily on FM synthesis, albeit without the nest of often baffling parameters. Instead, you get an X-axis to control timbre, and a Y-axis for the amount of FM: in essence, its brightness. It’s easy to get a feel for the grid’s tone-altering capabilities simply by mousing around the axis; no FM theory required. Each of six Neurons (a tone-and-rhythm-generating unit) carries its own two-oscillator tone generator. A seventh, central Neuron creates no sound, but serves as a master clock for the other six and can sync to the host clock.

To generate rhythms, Axon divides the Neurons into transmitters and listeners. Axon provides a Wire mode—really an edit mode—under which you can link neurons to create intricate rhythms. By setting a threshold for a Neuron, it will respond to incoming pulses based on the number of pulses allowed to a transmitter: The lower the threshold, the busier the pulse, based on the rate settings of the central Neuron. It takes a while to grasp, but the instant-gratification quotient is high, and the results are rewarding, with slick synth-percussion polyrhythms and intricate old-school tonal sequences. Sonically, Axon’s FM engine provides worlds to explore, but if its built-in tone-generating capabilities aren’t enough for you, you can route Axon’s MIDI data to external MIDI instruments, or another MIDI track and software device. In Studio One Pro 2, this was a breeze, simply requiring that the new track see Axon as an input device. Axon offers plenty to explore and is full of surprises for the adventurous programmer.

EastWest Stormdrum 3

Stormdrum 3
$395 (DVD Format), $479
(Mac or Windows USB 3HD)

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EastWest/Quantum Leap’s Stormdrum gathered mixes of conventional percussion, ethnic instruments, and processed sounds of unidentifiable origins, to drive eerie, larger-than-life, sinuous grooves filled with attitude and mystery. A boatload of terrific-sounding drum kits and percussion ensembles let you roll your own grooves or add your touch to existing loops. Sometime later, Stormdrum 2 continued the theme with new sounds and MIDI files of live performances to trigger dynamic, new grooves—and folded in the original Stormdrum package.

The Stormdrum 3 (SD3) sample library draws on the talents and vast, exotic percussion collection of Planet Drum and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, and the formidable sampling and production skills of Nick Phoenix. The exhaustive 89GB sample library pays off in long, evolving, and very live loops; percussion ensembles with generous velocity layers; plenty of special performance techniques and articulations; and in many cases, up to five additional mic-position recordings you can mix to taste.

As with Stormdrum 2, SD3 uses The EastWest Play instrument. Play’s built-in mixer draws on its own tasty convolution reverb in addition to a resonant, lowpass filter, topped off by a channel strip, EQ, transient shaper, and stereo bus compressor licensed from Solid State Logic. The effects signal path is easy to reconfigure, with sidechains available with a click of the mouse.

All of the above is in the service of a vibrant and rich gathering of percussion instruments and loops. Easily one of SD3’s strongest attractions is its huge library of loops performed by Mickey Hart, Nick Phoenix, Chalo Eduardo, and Greg Ellis. SD3 has 23 separate loop patches, each gathering as many as 42 constituent loops, each averaging out at four bars. Each measure breathes with its own internal dynamics. Loops progress from sparser sections, through more intense and busy parts, into simpler breakdowns, back into more intense playing, crescendos, decrescendos, and often into final bars. Play one loop, and segue it perfectly into another, or grab a handful of keys for a huge, thunderous, and grooving ensemble.

Some of the loops with strong tonal motifs would normally paint the part into a harmonic corner—not so here: SD3 sports a pitch knob to shift the loop up to two octaves above or below the original pitch, without any change to the tempo; this knob can sync to the host.

 An exhaustive list of beautifully sampled percussion would probably eat up most of my word count: toms, cajon, gongs, bells, bowls, plates, door stops, cymbals, ceramic hand drums, dholak, bongos, udu, and plenty more. All are intimately recorded, with generous velocity layers; many with round-robin hits, avoiding any tinge of mechanical-sounding playback. Phoenix’s clockworks samples, gathered from field recordings of antique clocks, are a piece of work. I can’t think of a more varied and inspirational library of percussion than Stormdrum 3.

XLN Audio Addictive Drums

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XLN Audio
Addictive Drums

XLN Audio has done a tremendous job of crafting an informative and easy-to-navigate visual interface for Addictive Drums. The default Kit window grants instant access to each kit piece; clicking on the piece’s graphic triggers the sound with higher Velocities increasing on the vertical axis. Clicking on the name of the assigned instrument brings up available kit pieces to exchange.

Just below, and available from every page—the mixer section sports typical volume and pan controls, along with buttons to enable effects sends and inserts, mute or solo a kit piece, reverse the kit pieces phase, or send the piece to its own output. Unlike many drum plug-ins, there are no separate instances for multiple outputs; instead, the selected piece will bypass the Master output to a hard-wired individual out.

A button identifying each kit-piece channel (Kick, Snare, Hi-Hat, and so on) opens that instrument’s edit page, which gracefully melds a channel strip with a sample editor. Here, you can load in a different sample set for any kit piece: a boon in the same context as the channel strip, as it enables auditioning of EQ, compression, and other tone-altering settings for any kit piece in one place, including settings to alter the level and pan position of any additional mics used. There’s plenty to encourage sonic mayhem here with pitch and filter envelopes, as well as distortion and saturation controls.

The FX page send effects comprise a pair of independent reverbs and a pair of dual-band EQs that you can route independently pre- or post-master output. The reverbs sound great, and the additional EQ adds plenty of sonic variety.

A marvel of UI design, the Beats page hosts a huge number of MIDI files arranged by category—often in nested song-form folders. You can easily audition these and build a percussive song form, section by section. You can set the length of any of the files to wring odd time signatures from the files, but that didn’t always yield useful results.

You can instantly remap kits. A pull-down menu yields alternate maps for Alesis, Yamaha, and Roland drums, among others. It’s a tremendous boon to instantly change the map for proper playback when you are working on a client’s project.

The kit pieces are beautifully sampled, with plenty of alternate hits, and Velocity layers to pull off a convincing performance. The basic kits that come with Addictive Drums cover a pretty wide range, but if you need more, you can purchase and download additional sound sets from XLN Audio’s growing library, including percussion and custom kits.

Impact Soundworks Groove Bias

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Impact Soundworks
Groove Bias

In an effort to avoid the conundrum of pristine digital recordings of vintage instruments, Impact Soundworks kept the chain of recording as analog as possible before sampling. Groove Bias comprises three drum kits, recorded through vintage microphones, analog outboard gear, and then to tape before being captured in Pro Tools as 24-bit, 96kHz sound files. The resulting drums are fat and warm, with five to 16 velocity layers and up to 10 round-robin samples on each kit piece to keep things interesting.

Each of the three kits was recorded at a different studio, and mics ranged from Neumann and Royer to a General Electric cassette-recorder mic. Outboard processors included gear from Empirical Labs, Tube Tech, and Manley.

Groove Bias loads into Native Instruments Kontakt 2 and later, but the samples are in WAV, rather than Kontakt’s NKI format, so you can build your kits in another sample player if you choose.

Groove Bias offers patches to suit different needs. You get four folders: Components, Full Kit, Multis, and Processed. For quick starts, Full Kit holds complete, single-channel drum sets with a stereo-only output and basic level controls for each kit piece. To create your own mix-and-match kits, use the Components folder, and create a multi; you can draw hardware from each of the three kit folders. Multis offer preset kits with individual hardware patches, letting you route pieces to Kontakt’s individual outputs. If you want something a little different, dive into the Processed folder and grab an ’80s-style snare, or a 14-bit kick. You’ll also find a couple of pre-processed kits; all of the processing derives from Kontakt’s remarkable collection of effects, so if you have the full version of Kontakt, you can always create your own treated kits. Despite their expressiveness, the drums impose a pretty light memory load. In part, this is due to the modest number of kit elements; some kits have a splash or crash cymbal, while others offer no more than kick, snare, hi-hats, and toms. At $49.95 for a download, for drums that reek of old-school funk, it’s hard to pass up this one up.

Native Instruments Cuba

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Native Instruments

Native Instruments offers a boatload of drummer and percussionist tools; between Abbey Road Drums and Session Drummer alone, you get representative kits from every decade, reaching back to the ’60s, and a few kits of older vintage to boot. The company’s deeply programmable Battery 4 boasts a ton of kits for every occasion, and drag-and-drop editing of your own samples to build unique sounds.

Cuba, as part of the Native Instruments Discovery series for Kontakt 5, follows in the footsteps of Discovery West Africa, going well beyond drum and percussion programming, instead providing the entire rhythm section, authentic rhythms and all, if you want them. At the top level, Cuba presents four folders: Percussion Ensemble, Single Percussion, Melodic Ensemble, and Melodic Instruments.

Every patch offers a dozen loops triggered by note number, with ensuing higher key groups offering single hits and articulations. If it is an ensemble, the keys include all instruments and their articulations, which include rolls, flams, and rim hits. Melodic Instruments, such as trumpet, bass, or tres, often include loops at the lower range of the keys, followed by the instrument, and key switches to change the articulation: for instance, trumpets that can switch from staccato to legato.

You can set up a performance in a few different ways: Each pattern has an associated MIDI file that you can drag to tracks in any order you prefer; Cuba can simply sync to the host program, and you can trigger patterns from the octave of key triggers supplied for every patch; or you can just play the instruments in as you see fit, from a keyboard or percussion controller.

There’s plenty of authentic style here, with Pachanga, Guajira, Charanga, Salsa, and other rhythms represented with themes and variations. Even so, loops have tons of leeway in customization: Add swing in small increments, change the clave from 3-2 to 2-3, alter the dynamics, change the overall EQ and ambience from traditional to contemporary. You can even create and store your own grooves. You aren’t locked into a key with tonal instruments, either. Transposing a loop neatly changes pitch of the melodic instruments while keeping the percussion tuned just right. It’s undeniably a treat to play the melodic ensemble grooves, with trumpet. Cuba is a great resource for authentic Latin percussion styles and presents them in the very important context of the other instruments that drive Latin music. And it grooves like crazy.

FXpansion Tremor

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Tremor is FXpansion’s successor to the DR-008, but if you’re expecting a dance-oriented clone of yesterday’s analog drum machines, let me stop you right there. Although 808-ish sounds and dance fodder abound, powerful sound-shaping tools and a remarkably flexible synthesizer engine take this instrument practically anywhere non-representational drum and percussion sounds are needed.

FXpansion’s Discrete-Component-Analog-Modeling (DCAM) technology, optimized for drums and percussion, drives Tremor’s prodigious sound-shaping force. You’ll find controls that you might not see on your typical analog-modeling synth or your average drum machine. The oscillators are a particularly good example, with a choice between a Membrane or Harmonic tone generator. The former emulates the frequency makeup of drum heads (such as snares, toms, and kicks), while the latter handles cymbals and other sounds, including tonal synths. A space control sets the distance between harmonics, which alters the frequency content to build harmonic or inharmonic tones. That alone can provide a diverse array of sounds; add on FM, a resonant, multimode filter; a white-noise generator with a bandpass filter; a sub-oscillator; a ridiculously flexible Drive engine with a variety of circuits to choose from; and plenty more—and you have a vastly expansive toolbox for building unique drums. Each of Tremor’s eight voices draws on its own synth, and any voice can be either monophonic, an appropriate choice for hi hats; or polyphonic, good for drum rolls in which successive notes continue to ring.

Anyone familiar with the overall sequencing capabilities of Geist—or, for that matter, a step sequencer—should have little trouble getting comfy with Tremor’s Grid-and Graph sequencing layout. Each voice (called an Engine) has a horizontal grid in which you can play or paint in notes, edit velocity, randomize the possibility that a note will play, trigger repeats, and much more. Graph pages use the same Grid format to let you shape or randomize Tremor’s powerful modulation system. You can set the number of steps to a pattern and nest loops for any engine, so for example, an eight-note hi-hat loop can sit within a 32-note pattern. There are 24 patterns per song, and you can trigger them with notes assigned beyond the range of the kit pieces.

Presets lean heavily toward four-on-the-floor and contemporary dance styles but plenty of fresh sonics are available, and they convey only an inkling of Tremor’s sonic range; that’s the beauty of a completely programmable, unabashedly synthetic drum machine. I wouldn’t use this as a substitute for an acoustic kit, but for cinematic, industrial, or more surreal applications, Tremor rocks.

Vir2 Studio Kit Builder

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Studio Kit Builder

In the old days, I would split up my drum tracks and assign notes to different sound sources to build a composite kit. It was a flawed and often tedious task; levels needed to be matched, dynamics needed to be adjusted, and sometimes notes needed to be dragged to new pitches. Vir2 Studio Kit Builder (SKB) has a better way.

Native Instruments’ Kontakt 5 or later hosts SKB, which offers more than 50 kits. Everything you need to design your drum set resides at the patch level, and it’s surprisingly easy to build a kit of choice without Kontakt Multis.

SKB uses four main pages: Player, Mapping, Kit, and Mixer. Player holds a sizable library of MIDI files, which you can audition and drag tracks in your DAW. Mapping is where the kit-building action starts: A vertically arrayed keyboard layout accesses a pop-up menu for each key, revealing a huge number of articulations for a specific kit piece. Simply load the instrument articulation you want to the key you have selected. There are no round-robin samples, as such; instead, the map lays out multiple versions of snares in zones across the keyboard, which makes the programming a bit more work. If there was one item on my wish list, it would be a script that enabled instant remapping of kit pieces to various manufacturers’ protocols; assigning the kits here to a Roland or Yamaha drum map would be an arduous process.

Loading a kit defaults to the Kit page; its UI presents a player’s perspective of the kit. At the top of the page, select from a handful of impulse responses to feed SKB’s convolution reverb.

Clicking on any kit piece highlights it in red and brings up a window below the kit with quick and easy access to some of that piece’s parameters, including Velocity curves and limiting; the number of voices; tuning with 1,200 cents in either direction; pitch humanizing, pitch response to Velocity, or volume; or adjust the envelope’s attack, hold, and release values. Conveniently, the same kit page offers quick replacement of kit pieces, too, and selecting a new piece from the menu replaces all related articulations, which greatly reduces the tedium factor.

Finally, the Mixer holds controls to set pan positions, levels, effects sends, routing, and more. The array of effects is impressive, and they include a few of Native Instruments’ recent compressors and transient shapers. The breadth of SKB drum kits is remarkable, and the sounds are burnished and punchy. Vir2 has come up with a huge, versatile drum library whose kit pieces can easily change on short notice.

Sonivox Big Bang Drums 2.0

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Big Bang Drums 2.0
A simple interface with buckets of terrific-sounding drum kits gather in Sonivox Big Bang Drums 2.0. Despite the relatively sparse user interface, the essential performance and sound-shaping tools are a click away.

There is no swapping out of kit pieces, however; Sonivox has done some of the heavy lifting for you with presets that mix and match available kit-piece samples. The Browser menu presents a non-editable short list of attributes to home in on sounds by genre, kick drum, or snare. For instance, you can load a Punk kit set up with a mahogany Rock kick, and a Jarrah custom snare.

The kits sparkle, offer plenty of punch, and are easy to play, with a logical keyboard layout. Editing kit sounds is deceptively simple. For instance, to change a kit piece’s filter settings, select the kit piece by clicking on its graphic, adjust the filter (you can choose from nine filter types) cutoff, resonance, Velocity response, ADSR, and more. Ensuring consistency across kit piece families gets a bit fiddly because the parameters only apply to one of the articulations, so for the snare, you’ll need to right-click on the piece to select another articulation, then click a second time to refresh your selection. If you click the Edit All Pads button, settings apply to all kit pieces; hopefully, a future release will include a button that will let you edit kit-piece groups, or, at least the option to select an articulation by MIDI note.

There is no reverb, but you can load the multi-output plug-in and assign individual kit pieces to one of 16 individual outputs, and you can choose to include any built-in effects you have assigned for that piece. The included delay is relatively simple, but effective and sweet sounding. You get a button to enable sync with the host program, which makes it relatively easy to set up some interesting rhythmic activity from simple parts.

Impact Soundworks Forest Frame Drums

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Impact Soundworks
Forest Frame Drums

Impact Soundworks specializes in very reasonably priced, boutique sound libraries. Forest Frame Drums derive from three Ojibway-tribe frame drums, one drum recorded with a touch of natural ambience, and two close-miked instruments. This library requires Kontakt 4 or later, and each patch is loaded separately; there are no multis. For all their purity, the interface delivers processing that can bestow a huge, cinematic quality thanks to some clever DSP and a handful of reverb impulse responses. An Ensemble effect presnts controls for the number of ensemble voices, their spread across the stereo field, and the tightness of the hit, in addition to an overall stereo-width control for the patch, so what can sound intimate and close-up can easily sound huge and wide-screen. The playing arrangement of the instruments is basic, with samples laid out across the diatonic keys and no key switches. As a result, the extensive range of hits, rolls, and other articulations have overlapping key maps, so you’ll need to load each drum to a different MIDI channel.

Sonivox Big Bang Cinematic Percussion 2.0

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Big Bang Cinematic Percussion 2.0

The percussive companion in the Big Bang series follows the simplified UI of its sibling, Big Bang Drums. Browser attributes reflect cinematic applications: Genre, Scene, and Class (instrument type or characteristics). Kits range from ethnic percussion to huge, processed sounds and atonal electronic pads and effects, with many points covered in between, and patches combining traditional percussion with synthetic sounds. Among the percussion patches, I heard powerful toms, jangly bells of all sorts and sizes, congas, bongos, and others. The documentation and the browser attributes could stand an update listing specific percussive elements for each patch, as the titles only occasionally give a clue regarding the contents.

Although the graphics are different, the editing process is the same as with BBD2. Click on a pad to select it for editing or hit the Edit All Pads button for global processing. Here, synchronized delay works to tremendous effect to create a rolling, percussive onslaught.

Despite a few workflow concerns, the sound quality of the Cinematic Percussion set and its drum-kit sibling are outstanding, and represent excellent bang for the buck.

Former Electronic Musician editor Marty Cutler simultaneously enjoys a reputation as a banjoist, electronic musician, and writer. He has performed with everyone from Hazel Dickens to Twyla Tharp and all points in between.