I played my first rumba on a battery-powered Casio keyboard with the press of a button. In fact, that same keyboard also supplied my first samba, bossa nova, fox-trot and a pretty crappy waltz. In my defense, I was only 9, and I didn't have Steinberg's Cubase SX with its fancy new Groove Agent VSTi plug-in. I did, however, have the bad habit of hitting the obnoxious (but instantly gratifying) Drum Fill button far more often than was musically required. Now, I am a bit older, think I can appreciate a real rumba and am still searching for the instantly gratifying loop CD — or, as in this case, the instantly gratifying Steinberg Groove Agent VSTi. And look, it has a Fill button!
UP AND DRUMMING
Installing Groove Agent is straightforward, particularly for Cubase and Nuendo users (see the sidebar “Mac Logic”). After installation, you can insert Groove Agent in any VST 2.0-compatible host. Mac users can simply click on the OS 9 or OS X installation file and follow directions. The VST plug-in and its three data files will be installed in your VST folder of choice (in OS 9) or in your Library/Audio/Plug-Ins/VST folder (in OS X). I also installed Groove Agent on my PC by following the onscreen directions and selecting the desired VST folder. Although Groove Agent comes with a serial number and registration information, the program never asked for it. I left in the installation CD, and the program seemed to verify it on the first launch, but I could not confirm this in the manual or online. I have since launched the plug-in several times and have never again been required to insert the CD.
TALK TO MY AGENT
At first glance, Groove Agent appears to be a modernized cousin of the Casio “auto-accompaniment” feature. Press the large square button marked Run, and you launch one of the Agent's 1,350 style-specific drum loops (25 different patterns and fills for each of the 54 styles). And, yes, it has a rumba. If you press the Accent button, you will instantly hear a kick drum and a crash cymbal strike in unison. Click on Fill, and the Agent obeys. Yet upon closer inspection, these “loops” are actually MIDI performances played by studio drummers, which in turn trigger stylized 24-bit one-shot drum-set samples — a straightforward but exciting plug-in concept.
Accessing Groove Agent's beats and variations really couldn't be simpler. Two large virtual silver sliders determine the groove's style and complexity. Styles are listed in a rough chronological timeline spanning from 1950 to 2000 and beyond. A setting of Rock (found in the late-'60s section of the dial) forces Groove Agent to play patterns and sounds of that particular genre just as '50s Swing or Jazz Trio settings use those MIDI performances and respective sample sets. Modern genres such as Tribal Techno, Ambient, Trip-Hop and many more include electronic sounds, as well as acoustic.
The sound palette is about as varied as you can imagine but consistently well-recorded. You also have the option of splitting each slider by deactivating the Link button. After doing so, you are free to change the drum kit independently of the performance genre. That means you can mix-and-match any of the included beats and sounds. You could have a Cuban Songo pattern drive your Techno kit or a '50s Jazz kit play in the style of Bonzo (John Bonham). How about a New Orleans Funk drummer playing the sounds found in Detroit Techno? Groove Agent's most intriguing feature is that it does what MIDI programmers and musicians have been doing for years: change the sound for a given performance or change the performance for a given sound. However, it does this in a slick and inspiring way that let's you look at a shiny silver slider instead of the old piano-roll editor.
Groove Agent's second slider, labeled Complexity, logically adjusts the amount of syncopation and rhythmic events in each genre's pattern (or fill). Patterns and fills on the left-hand side of the control are simpler or sparser than those on the right. Because you can automate each control in Groove Agent, automating your pattern Complexity setting is a quick way of establishing a drum arrangement. Here again, you can split the slider to independently vary the pattern versus fill complexity. I found the Complexity slider's accuracy to be uncanny in its interpretation of what a live drummer might play (or a producer might program) when looking for more or less rhythmic intensity. If you are a Cubase SX/SL or Nuendo owner, you can further explore (edit) each Groove Agent MIDI performance in detail or even drive a third-party drum machine or sampler. Groove Agent also features Shuffle and Humanize controls to help the occasionally stiff MIDI groove swing. I found the Humanize control to be a little dangerous at higher settings by adding a bit too much slop. If you wanted a human, you'd hire one, right? You can also dial in a room-microphone Ambience on either the entire kit or on individual drums or instruments. This is the short road for discovering Bonham-esque drum tones or warehouse/loft-party-style reverberation. Or if you like to dry up the kit and go for that tight disco sound or small-room vibe, roll off the Ambience. Also handy is Groove Agent's adjustable universal-output Limiter for achieving quick compression-style effects.
This brings you to the second-coolest feature in Groove Agent. Every drum-kit sound is editable and interchangeable between kits. For instance, you can use the kick drum from the '70s Rock kit with the Detroit Techno hi-hat kit or vice versa. Fly in the Tabla (on one of the two percussion tracks), or mute any of Groove Agent's eight voices. Your settings for each drum, percussion and noise sample within a given kit can then be saved (along with slider positions) in as many as 10 memory settings. I was a little disappointed that you can't easily import a tom sample in place of the snare or route the kick performance to the hi-hat track. But these can be done manually by editing your MIDI take in Cubase or Nuendo.
WHO'S YOUR STYLIST?
When anyone sets out to cover 54 different styles in a single collection, there will inevitably be some disappointments. However, Groove Agent's pattern-versus-drum kit interchange allows you to salvage just about any performance or sound that you find lacking. Generally speaking, the early-'50s and -'60s American styles like Swing, Jazz Trio and Paint (think ballad) are less inspiring than some of the more modern and ethnic styles. It could well be that these styles are so dependent upon who is playing the drums (say Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich or Philly Jo) that a generic reproduction falls a little short. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Groove Agent is its simple and intuitive design.
In an effort for one company to out-innovate the other, plug-ins and virtual instruments are becoming increasingly knob-happy (that is, deep). Although this is an exciting way to create new sounds, it requires a good deal more manual reading and experimentation just to get the job done. Also, many sample-library vendors have been experimenting with virtual instruments (with varying degrees of success). I'd like to see the Groove Agent interface and format spin off into several other genres — for example, a dedicated “club mix” Groove Agent focusing on just the '80s and '90s that would explore a wider range of subgenres rather than try to capture every major style. Regardless, it is only fitting that the creator of the VST (and VSTi) format is one of the format's true innovators. Groove Agent is a blast to play with, a great investment and likely to be regarded as a classic plug-in — especially with the Cubase and Nuendo crowds.
GROOVE AGENT > $250
Pros: Intuitive interface. Simple, fun way to experiment with classic grooves and wide range of drum tones. Loop format for the new millennium.
Cons: VST-only. Finicky setup in Logic Audio. Mysterious dropouts sometimes occur in performance and must be edited.
It took me some degree of futzing around to finally get Groove Agent to work in Emagic Logic Audio in both Mac OS X and OS 9.2. I'll save you the long and short of my frustrations and simply point you to the informative Groove Agent-specific Website found at http://ga.clubcubase.net. Click on the FAQ tab. This site contains relevant (but not exhaustive) information on the Logic-versus-Groove Agent issue. For instance, my problem was remedied only when I omitted a space in the title of my own hard drive. Specifically, my hard drive was called MacintoshHD. But Groove Agent wanted a space between “Macintosh” and “HD.” The reason is still a bit of a mystery to me. I tried following the directions in the FAQ; although forum users report that these work, they didn't for me. Also, OS X Logic users must covert Groove Agent's VST plug-in file to Audio Units by using an adapter such as the one found at FXpansion's site (www.fxpansion.com).
MAC: G3/500; 256 MB RAM (512 recommended); Mac OS 9.x/10.2 and higher; 300 MB hard-disk space; Cubase VST 5.1, Cubase SX/SL 1.x or higher, Nuendo 1.x or higher, other VST 2.0-compatible host
PC: Pentium II/400; 256 MB RAM (512 recommended); Windows 2000/XP; 300 MB hard-disk space; Cubase VST 5.1, Cubase SX/SL 1.x or higher, Nuendo 1.x or higher, other VST 2.0-compatible host