Over the years, software drum machines have evolved into extremely sophisticated instruments. The art of software drumming has brought about new ways to deal with sample data, including slicing entire rhythm performances to help adapt them to changes in tempo, feel and even meter.
There are plenty of software drum machines, libraries and groove-creation programs available. But this time, we'll focus on five: FXpansion Guru 1.6, Linplug RMV 5.0.4, MOTU BPM 1.02, Spectrasonics Stylus RMX 1.8 and Submersible Music DrumCore 3.
The selected instruments provide good operational contrast, so it's more fruitful to give an overview of their distinctive qualities rather than full reviews or shoot-outs. We'll look at our lineup from the perspective of user interface, workflow, sounds and any special features.
FXpansion Guru 1.6
FXpansion's Guru resembles an Akai MPC-type rhythm programmer: You click on the drum machine-style pads while recording to enter data. You can also sequence parts from the QWERTY keyboard or by clicking in the pattern grid or — most fun of all — by playing from a controller. However, Guru has features that only a software instrument can offer, lurking only a click or two away.
FIG. 1: One of FXpansion Guru''s several Graph windows. For illustrative purposes, I''ve drawn a slightly exaggerated line above and below the perfectly quantized placement of hi-hat notes in the Shift graph. Pull up to rush, down to lag.
Running from left to right are buttons for the pattern-editing section, a Graph section hosting various DSP functions, a sample editor and a mixer — all framed by a generous, visually elegant central display. The Graph windows provide unique plots of the data for editing. For example, the Shift window shows each event's deviation above and below a horizontal line representing a spot-on note placement. Pull upward and you're rushing; drag down and you're lagging (see Fig. 1). Users can easily induce humanizing and minor variations, and a similar graph handles velocity. Repeat graphs allow painting anything from stutters to granular, buzzing tones (see Web Clip 1). All editing — including DSP — happens in real time; it's always a plus to make major timbral and temporal adjustments in an active, musical context.
The familiar, drum machine-like aspect of Guru's basic workflow invites immediacy and ease of use. However, creating a rhythm track in Guru is a multidimensional process. Each of the 16 pads can hold up to eight layers, which can include sequenced drum patterns or sliced audio loops. (Guru has eight individual Engines with 16 pads in each.) You can drop files directly from the Finder onto the pads or use the browser on the instrument's left-hand side to load patterns, full kits, loops or individual samples.
Guru's playback of time-sliced grooves is vastly improved, now providing a significantly expanded library of loops, kits and hits, with many from well-known programmers. In addition to standard acoustic and drum machine fare, loops and kits include a generous assortment of unique ethnic, glitchy and circuit-bent sounds.
There's plenty of room for personalizing with Guru. In addition to importing your own samples, Guru offers a hefty array of effects, including bit crushers, distortion, delays, filters and more.
Linplug RMV 5.0.4
In contrast to Guru, Linplug's RMV favors a multiple-page interface — a sensible choice for an instrument that provides several unique drum synthesizer modules; a huge supply of sampled kits, patterns and loops; 48 pads (each with a generous modulation matrix); six loop players; and a library of MIDI file patterns. Due to RMV's complexity, navigation can be counterintuitive at times. For example, arranging MIDI files in tracks requires you to first load the pattern, then click and drag a button (marked “D” for drag) to the track. The few extra steps proved tedious and slowed down the process of assembling a track. On the other hand, the Loop window is a model of smooth workflow, with a generous waveform display and an editable overview of loop slices just below.
RMV is strictly a plug-in with no built-in sequencing. Still, it is considerably more than a passive sound source. You arrange grooves by dragging them to your host's MIDI tracks. And to keep its enormous library of kits, hits, loops and patterns orderly, the RMV Browser hosts a sophisticated search engine. For instance, it's easy to set searches for loops by the number of bars, bit depth and original tempo; patterns by style; or drum kits by sampled or synthesized engines.
FIG. 2: On the left side of Linplug''s RMV, I''m editing a snare drum pad using the Clap drum synthesizer. The top three knobs control the space between each clap, the release time and the number of claps. At the bottom-right of the left panel is the Varizer, which helps humanize the sound''s playback.
More or Less Cowbell
If you prefer synthesized drums, RMV has lots to offer. Twelve distinct, independent synth engines (called Modules) focus on specific percussive sounds. The modules are easy to program and their simple interfaces invite experimentation. The Clap module is a piece of work, with controls for dialing in the flamming and number of claps (see Fig. 2). Another module, Plop, features a Drive control that produced plenty of metallic partials for convincing cowbells and agogos. None of the modules will convince you that you are listening to an acoustic kit unless you hail from another planet, but overall they sound great and are a welcome alternative to the usual TR-808 or 909 fare (see Web Clip 2a).
Each of RMV's pads has a Varizer that adds controllable amounts of randomness to the kit piece's dynamics and frequency content. The Exactness knob is less specific, introducing random changes to different voicing parameters on playback. Both work on synthesized and sampled sounds subtly enough to animate them naturally, while providing a nice balance between consistency and randomized overkill (see Web Clip 2b).
The RMV user interface may seem busier and a little more daunting than the others; however, I was drawn in by its powerful real-time control and imaginative sound design capabilities.
MOTU BPM 1.03
With an easy-on-the-eye emulation of a hardware drum machine, BPM from MOTU sports a clean and intuitive user interface that belies its depth. Most of the editing and information appears at the top-center window; a click of a single button and you can edit patterns, edit a pad's waveform or synth engine, or set up the pad's effects, work the built-in mixer, set up Scenes and arrange the song form. You load patterns, kits and loops from the browser at the instrument's right, record with a MIDI controller or simply click in the pattern grid.
FIG. 3: The Song page in MOTU BPM allows arranging and rearranging sections of the song (called Scenes) with tremendous ease. You just drop the scene from the drum pad into the Song window.
Those familiar with MOTU Digital Performer's concept of Chunks will appreciate BPM's Song window, where you can drag, drop and align blocks called Scenes (basically, an aggregation of loops, patterns and sequences) in a timeline to arrange the song from beginning to end (see Fig. 3).
As a true sampling instrument, BPM lets you sample external sound sources directly onto pads and resample BPM's output or any audio track issuing from the host program. Similarly, dragging and dropping of audio files onto pads from the computer is as easy as it sounds.
BPM kits range from spiky, harsh and metallic to acoustic, warm and mellow, and the instrument supports unlimited layering of samples per pad. Pads can simultaneously deploy round-robin programming, velocity switching/crossfading and simple stacking. You can include synth-derived sounds with samples in the layers. A set of Racks plays loops and holds a useful library of instruments — such as bass, piano and synth — and their associated piano-roll editors.
BPM's 15GB sample library of classic drum machines, loops and hits clearly tilts it in the direction of R&B, hip-hop, house and their subsets. However, support for most audio formats including REX files, as well as proprietary files from any MOTU and UVI-compatible sound sets, breaks BPM wide open in its range of sonic options (see Web Clip 3).
It offers an analog-modeling drum synthesizer rather than RMV's dedicated synths for specific kit pieces. There are separate OSC and Noise sections, and with the effects rack for each pad there are plenty of tools for sound mangling. In addition to convolution reverb, effects include a wide variety of delays, dynamic processors, distortion, modulation and filter effects, ring modulation, sample freeze, etc. Each Bank and Rack has an SP Mode button that mimics the gritty sonic characteristics of E-mu's classic SP-12/SP-1200 drum machines. The effect is subtle, but adds a modicum of warmth.
More than 200 construction kits of preset rhythms are part of the 15GB library — all organized by name within each library category and ready for easy use or tweaking. There's also much more, with four banks of pads (64 pads total), a Graph Sequencer, the Loop Editor and Recycle-style beat slice editing, live performance scene triggering, support for pad controllers including the Akai MPD32 and Korg PadKontrol, and export features such as drag/dropping an entire scene to the host/desktop as a stereo WAV file.
Spectrasonics Stylus RMX 1.8
With the release of Version 1.7 and up, Spectrasonics has re-invented Stylus RMX with a vengeance. Best of all, upgrades have been free since the instrument was released.
Stylus RMX offers an ingeniously malleable, multitimbral loop-slice playback engine, plus drum kits made up of sounds in the loop library. You jump to any of several editing pages with a click of a button while playback and patch-selection controls remain in place. Editing pages include access to synthesis parameters, effects, the Chaos Designer, the mixer and Time Designer. Undoubtedly its most significant new feature, Time Designer provides plenty of tools to sculpt and adapt rhythms in just a few clicks. For starters, the top-left pull-down menu offers preset examples; you can use these to get the hang of editing ideas or just tweak Time Designer parameters to get what you need. When done, you can save edits from the same menu.
The most impressive action in Stylus RMX takes place around its Groove Lock and Pattern Modify features. From a pull-down menu in the center of the instrument, you can select a rhythmic subdivision of slices that are graphically represented by a grid at the top-center of the window. The selected subdivided events appear below the original grid. Similarly, changes made that affect the timing of the selected events alter the placement of the bottom grid events to the left or right. For example, selecting a laid-back groove shifts the grid to the right of the original position; rushed events will shift to the left. The degree to which the timing is altered can be done using a horizontal Strength slider. I loved the Natural button, which leaves slices other than selected values untouched. For instance, rolls, grace notes and busier embellishments falling outside of a 16th-note groove remain untouched.
Choices for Groove Lock are well-thought-out: Grooves to any other part in a multi can be locked, which is very handy for making disparate grooves fall in step. A generous library of presets culled from drum machines, sequencers and “live” feels is provided. One knob can adjust swing to an existing feel, and a Simplify knob thins out events should you prefer a sparser performance.
The Pattern Modify section offers 14 possible meters, with the groove instantly conforming to your choice. Grab the resulting MIDI data from the title bar above and drop it into a MIDI track, and you can create an arrangement with multiple meters. The track adds the meter to the MIDI file name so it's easy to identify changes in the track. And you are not restricted to existing grooves: You can drag MIDI files from the desktop into the Grid window and instantly conform Stylus to the new feel. It would be incredibly tedious to change parameters on an entire multi to match a single groove. The good news is the new Global button, by which all parts will fall in step rhythmically and metrically (see Web Clip 4).
FIG. 4: In Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, I took a 4/4 Multi I created, changed its time signature to 5/4, added a touch of swing, simplified it, loosened the feel slightly and dragged the resulting MIDI file groove into Omnisphere, whose arpeggiator will take on the same rhythmic characteristics.
Users of Stylus and Spectrasonics Omnisphere have a particularly cool feature in store: Both instruments accept MIDI files to shape grooves. Simply drag and drop a MIDI file from Stylus into Omnisphere's Groove Lock window in the arpeggiator section, and the arpeggiator assumes the same feel and meter (see Fig. 4). After exporting a track to Omnisphere, you can adjust either instrument's strength slider if a slightly looser feel is desired.
I had great fun trying out my library of converted Rex-format files in Stylus and then importing them into Omnisphere. Stylus includes a mini-application that converts Rex files into the Stylus RMX format. Propellerhead ReCycle users can convert any audio into Rex files, and from there import them into the Stylus RMX library. It's important to emphasize that Stylus accomplishes its tasks while retaining a high degree of musicality. I don't think I've had more fun making serious music with a software program.
Submersible Music DrumCore 3
It's probably a safe bet that few EM readers are poised to be the next Steve Gadd, Alan White or Sly Dunbar. It would be great to have high-ticket studio pros with equally estimable drum kits and studio space ready for your next musical endeavor. DrumCore from Submersible Music might be the answer, with recorded grooves played by the finest drummers, plus sampled versions of their drum kits.
You can trigger the kits with MIDI file captures of the artist's performances or create your own grooves. All of this is coupled with one of the most intuitive user interfaces I've had the pleasure to breeze through.
DrumCore now comprises a plug-in and DrumCore Toolkit, a small app that lets you audition and manage the program's content. DrumCore's generous display makes building your own drum kit very easy: Import your own MIDI or audio data, or drop kit samples directly into the Pad Editor.
DrumCore 3 includes support for SD2, WAV, AIFF, REX-2, Sony Acid files and other formats. Kits can support up to 32 layers, which you can switch or crossfade.
Product Price Stand-Alone, ReWire and Plug-In Formats Audio Format Imports Built-In Sequencer Sample Editor
DrumCore's audio leans heavily toward acoustic instruments. From the toolkit, you can add from Submersible's ever-growing roster of artist grooves, kits and MIDI files. In addition to the aforementioned artists, Submersible supplies grooves and kits from Jonathan Moffett, Matt Cameron, Matt Sorum, Michael Shrieve and Terry Bozzio, and you can add more kits from these and other artists. There are several electronic kits, as well as some very fine percussion sets from Luis Conte.
FIG. 5: Submersible Music''s DrumCore 3 lets you view drum grooves arranged by artist or style. Simply drag and drop the Waveform display or the title of the file in the browser to your tracks to arrange song form.
The plug-in favors a multiple-page approach, but it is simple to navigate and operate. The upper portion of the Groove page starts with a drop-down menu, where you choose a kit arranged by artist. If you want to associate a kit with a song or some other criteria, you can rename it. Just below that is a context-sensitive list of loops and patterns. Just atop the list are buttons that let you view the files sorted by artist or style, and to its right the files are grouped together stylistically (see Fig. 5). You can filter your search for audio or MIDI data, and refine the search for loops, individual kit piece hits and fills.
Separate pages for drums and percussion each feature a matrix of 24 pads, and these are highlighted when triggered. Option-Click on a pad, and you can select a kit piece from another instrument.
DrumCore has a Play button but no built-in sequencer; it works exclusively by dragging and dropping files to the host program's audio or MIDI tracks. You can drag files directly from the browser or from a window on the right that illustrates the waveform or the MIDI data. When auditioning tracks, you can choose to queue selections, which facilitates mating grooves together.
Just Add Gadd
Audio and MIDI file-driven loops are incredibly fluid and adapt well over a wide tempo range. Some of the Bozzio stuff is amazing, although they may not be something you would use every day. The Sonic Reality Steve Gadd add-on files are especially dynamic and groovy (see Web Clip 5). The MIDI file versions are terrific in that kits and even kit pieces are uniformly mapped (to the GM standard) so there's no need to remap; you can even trigger GM-compatible kits outside of DrumCore. The sounds sit nicely in tracks without added processing, but you can route kit pieces to any of eight individual outputs for extra sonic polish.
Each of these software drummers represents vast improvements over drum machines in workflow, scope and musicality, and I have barely scratched the surface. There are plenty of other programs to help you get your groove on, and no doubt there will be plenty more on the way.
Marty Cutler tries to think like a drummer when he plays banjo, although he doesn't hit it with sticks.
Software Drummers, At a Glance
FXpansion Guru 1.6 $249 SA, ReWire, Audio Units, VST, DXI, RTAS WAV, AIFF, REX Yes Yes Linplug RMV 5.0.4 $179 Audio Units, VST WAV, AIFF, REX No Yes MOTU BPM 1.02 $295 SA, MAS, Audio Units, VST, RTAS WAV, AIFF, SDII, REX, Apple Loops Yes Yes Spectrasonics Stylus RMX 1.8 $399 Audio Units, VST, DXI, RTAS REX No No Submersible DrumCore 3 $250 SA, Audio Units, VST, RTAS WAV, AIFF, REX No No