Percussion instruments are some of the first instruments ever to be sampled. Most of their sounds have sharp transients and short sustains, which make the sounds easy to capture and reproduce in a music production. Though a wide variety of percussion libraries exist today, new collections keep appearing; there always seems to be room for more commercial percussion samples.
While it may be understandable to select a single tambourine hit, for example, and use it repeatedly in a pop song, most percussion instruments are capable of producing sonic variety and expressiveness, just like a guitar, a violin, or a piano. Many of the more recently created libraries have recognized that fact not only by adding more dynamic velocity layers, but also by providing more types of hits and sounds from a given instrument. With the wide variety of available percussion loops and the warping capabilities of modern software like Ableton Live and ReCycle, creating great-sounding organic or other-worldly percussion tracks is easier than ever. Gone are the days of General MIDI providing a single sample each for high and low timbale, bongos, and congas, or that obnoxious single guiro scrape.
Many good percussion libraries have been released over the past ten years. Some are so good that they remain relevant today, and others have added new tools or a unique approach to the game. The titles reviewed here have those qualities and will help you cover a lot of rhythmic ground in your productions.
PLP120 Percussive Live Performances
Following the trend of virtual instrument plug-ins, PLP120 includes a collection of rhythmic grooves accessed from a proprietary user interface. The library consists primarily of world loops — Indian, Arabic, African, and Eastern, but very little Afro-Cuban or Brazilian-type material. A small collection of single hits is included; however, this is really a plug-in geared toward manipulating idiomatic loops of live percussionists.
That's where the program's unique interface comes into play. At first glance, you can't help but notice the big compasslike orb (see Fig. 1). Called the “loop eye,” it is a graphic representation of the loop with the transients of the hits clearly visible. As a loop is played, a line from center to edge rotates clockwise, very much like what your would see on Doppler radar. Two moveable dials can instantly change the start and end points of the loop, which is great for making, say, a 5/4 loop out of two-bar 4/4 loop. You can adjust the start and end times on the fly, but you have to retrigger the sample to hear the change. The resolution of the loop points can be extended from a 32nd note all the way up to a bar (no triplets). I have yet to hear a bad loop created by adjusting the start and end times from their default positions.
Each bank brings up as many as 24 different loops that can all be played simultaneously, along with any individual edits. You can make an adjustment to the start and end points of one loop and have it play against the pattern of another loop that is triggered by a different note. (I created one really cool bed by having an 8-beat pattern play against 7- and 5-beat patterns.)
As the name of the product implies, all of the loops were recorded at 120 bpm. However, you can change the tempo or pitch of the material. Tempos can be moved effectively between 90 and 150 bpm with no audible artifacts. Although the initial loading of loop banks is almost instantaneous, you must process any tempo or pitch changes by pushing a button. Slowing a loop down from 120 bpm to 90 bpm took between 10 and 20 seconds on my G4. Tempo changes have to be applied individually to each loop that you want to use at the new tempo. The pitch change can also adjust the formant and offers semitone and fine pitch adjustments. The DSP is nondestructive and sounds great, so I think it's worth the few seconds it takes to do its thing. You can still adjust the start and end points after a tempo or pitch change.
You can set the loop to repeat by holding a key down or as a one-shot, and you can also play a loop in reverse. A rudimentary envelope and filter are included, which add more value to a really cool plug-in. I wish there were more Latin material.
Stormdrum is another in the ever-growing population of sample libraries delivered in the form of a software instrument. Although much of the content comes from acoustic drum kits, Stormdrum features a lot of nondrum percussion. The program treats all of the sounds as a wide palette of colors.
Stormdrum has Kompakt and Intakt engines — the former for use with the huge collection of its individual hits, and the latter for the percussion beds (see Fig. 2). Kompakt acts more like a traditional multitimbral sampler, while Intakt is designed to play back the loops and dense beds. The percussion beds are sliced by beats, so the tempo in Kompakt can be set to match the sequencer's tempo, and the loops will adjust accordingly. You can adjust the loops within an acceptable range before hearing artifacts, but it's best to find percussion beds that are fairly close to your desired tempo.
Stormdrum's samples have a large sound, which makes the program well suited for using with film scores, electronica, and other styles that call for an esoteric approach to percussion sounds.
Q UP ARTS
Latin Groove Factory, vols. 1, 2, and 3
Latin Groove Factory (see Fig. 3) is planted firmly in South and Central America. Vol. 1 concentrates on Afro-Cuban, and Vol. 2 is strictly Brazilian. If you need mambo, merengue, bolero, and salsa loops, look no further. All of the loops are authentic, and the recording is excellent. Several tempos are provided for the loops, and the players' level of expressiveness adjusts accordingly; throw these loops into Ableton Live, and you're ready to go.
The individual hits are also excellent. Vol. 1 has bongos, chekere, clave, congas, cowbell, guiro, maracas, timbales, and woodblock. My main complaint is that there is usually only one sample set per instrument. For instance, although the guiro is good and has lots of samples, they come from only that specific guiro. Fortunately, there are five different cowbells (as you would need for salsa), but most instruments are represented only once.
Vol. 2, geared to Brazilian music, has more instruments than Vol. 1: Agogo bells, bongos, cabasa, caixa, caxixi, chekere, congas, cuica, cowbell, metal shaker, pandeiro, repinique, surdos, tambourim, samba whistle, and wood block are represented. As in Vol. 1, the loops sound great, as well as authentic.
Both libraries also have an excellent acoustic drum kit that sounds like a Yamaha Recording Series kit. The drums are better than a lot of stand-alone drum libraries, and I've used them for many productions unrelated to Latin music. The same kit is used in both volumes.
Vol. 3, which is not reviewed in this article, concentrates on Caribbean sounds.
Afro-Cuban (Latin) Percussion
Sonic Implants, once a developer of SoundFonts only, has gained a reputation as a premier developer of high-end, professional sounds. Afro-Cuban (see Fig. 4) has a thorough representation of Central and South American percussion. The sampling and programming are excellent. It gives you as many as four Velocity layers per note, along with a large selection of articulations per instrument.
Each instrument comes in monophonic close-miked and stereo ambient samples that can be mixed together. The stereo samples aren't overly ambient and have just enough air and space. (In general, Jennifer Hruska — Sonic Implants' owner and head programmer — has shown a great ear for creating ambient samples that aren't distant and mushy.) The combination of close and ambient can be stunning in a production.
My favorite ones are the congas, surdos, cowbells, and the large basket. Combined with the ability to balance close and ambient perspectives, Afro-Cuban is a real winner for Latin music percussion.
The Supreme Beats collection (see Fig. 5) has been a mainstay for good reason: it's a great library, performed by percussionist Bashiri Johnson with collaborators. Johnson helped to set the standard for modern percussion sample libraries by including immaculately recorded loops and individual hits that can be seamlessly intermixed. He introduced U.S. audiences to lots of instruments from various regions of the world. For example, he has given us an education on how to play unique drums such as dun dun, maman, and bala in a musical context by providing stylistically appropriate looped performances.
The individual hits sound great. The recordings have a natural feel that allows for additional EQ and compression processing without the sounds falling apart, which is why this library has been a favorite of film composers for years. Natural air and space around the samples give them depth, and you can sequence very realistic performances with the hits.
Supreme Beats tends toward African percussion, but it offers Middle Eastern and Asian sounds as well. All of them are top-notch, especially the collection of human hand, feet, and mouth sounds. Creating an authentic-sounding Latin production with Supreme Beats would be difficult, though, because that material isn't represented in full. Maybe one day Johnson will bless us with a new, supplemental collection.
Heart of Asia and Heart of Africa, also offered by Ilio, are worth mentioning. They have seen a lot of studio time and integrate well with Supreme Beats.
Platinum24 Latin Percussion
The selection of instruments on Platinum24 Latin Percussion (see Fig. 6) is fairly similar to Latin Groove Factory and Afro-Cuban (Latin) Percussion. The primary difference between them is that Platinum24 Latin Percussion gives you more variations per instrument than do the others. For instance, you get six guiros, eight claves, two sets of bongos and four caxixis, many of which have as many as eight Velocity layers. The downside is that some of these instruments don't give you as many articulations per instrument.
All of the instruments are multisampled single hits; there are no loops. The individual sounds are excellent, and the various instruments work well together. All of the samples are in stereo yet have nice punch and presence. I especially like the pandeiro, vibraslap, and bongos.
Wizoo has taken a slightly different approach to its distribution than do other manufacturers. In addition to buying the complete libraries, you can purchase a half dozen individual percussion kits online.
Culture is one killer software instrument. Yellow Tools uses a proprietary interface (see Fig. 7) for its instruments that is similar to Kontakt in layout. Under the hood is a powerful engine that allows you to remap the sample to accommodate your playing preferences or to create custom mappings.
In addition to the standard fare of Afro-Cuban and Asian instruments, Culture has a nice collection of Industrial percussion, with barrels, claps, flight cases, ratchets, metal thunder sheets, trash cans, plastic and wah-wah tubes, and watering cans. Orchestral percussion includes cymbals, gongs, bass drum, snares, tambourine, timpani, temple blocks, toms, triangles, and vibraslaps.
Many of the instruments have as many as 12 or more samples per key as well as a large variety of articulations, which makes for some very authentic performance potential. Nevertheless, Culture is very easy to use.
But what matters most is its sound, and Culture sounds phenomenal. The low frequencies are full and more extended than those of the other libraries, and the highs are crystal clear. Some of the sounds have a “big” quality that makes them great for film scores or dramatic effects. I've had no problem using Culture in music productions either; its sounds seem to work all the time.
BANG A GONG
There may not be a lot of gongs represented here, but there are certainly enough to handle most needs. Each of these libraries is strong in certain areas. If you could afford to have them all — along with some great drum libraries like Stylus, DFH Superior, and BFD — you would have practically all of your bases covered for pop, electronica, world, and film music.
As with most sample libraries, I love mixing and matching sounds from different titles because it adds to the depth of the track. For quickly getting a world groove going, I'd first turn to PLP120 and Culture. Both of them sound great right out of the box. PLP120 gives you great loops played by real players, and it's easy to create new odd-bar loops on the spot with the loop eye. Culture sounds huge and would fit in a bigger-than-life film score without touching any EQ or compression. Stormdrum also has that large cinematic sound, and is great for creating bubbling beds. Stormdrum processed through a cool filter sounds awesome.
If you need to program some specific beats — either by themselves or on top of loops — Supreme Beats is a great place to start, especially for African or world stuff. The quality of the single hits is excellent and has proven to stand up in a well-produced mix alongside live tracks.
When it comes to Latin and Afro-Cuban, I mix and match between Platinum24 Latin Percussion, Latin Groove Factory, and Afro-Cuban (Latin) Percussion. I wish I could say that one had the best, say, bongos over the others, but the truth is that the right instrument depends entirely on the song. I like the choices afforded by all three of these libraries. I like that the “size” of a particular instrument varies from library to library, making it possible, for instance, to find a “smaller” shaker if the one at hand is too big. It's a drag that Latin Groove Factory repackages a lot of the same material, but the samples are good and may be worth the redundancy to many users. The tasteful ambiance in the samples of Afro-Cuban Percussion helps these samples find their own space in a track without having to resort to artificial reverb.
Numerous percussion sets besides the ones covered here are available, but these collections make up a good starting point for building your own library.
Producer-composerRob Shrockhas worked with a host of world-class artists, including Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, LeAnn Rimes, Aretha Franklin, and Ronald Isley. However, he is way more interested in the opportunities for new artists and good music as the music industry is finally beginning its long-overdue transformation.
COMPANY TITLE FORMAT DESCRIPTION SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS PRICE
Best ServicePLP120 Percussive Live PerformancesAU, RTAS, VST, Mac/Win3 CDsMAC: G3/233; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.2, OS X 10.2; 3.1 GB free hard-disk space
PC: Pentium II/300; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP$199.95Quantum LeapStormdrumKompakt/Intakt, AU, DXi, RTAS, VST, Mac OS X/Win2 DVDs: 1 Kompakt, 1 IntaktMAC: G3/500; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.2.6; 6 GB free hard-disk space
PC: Pentium III or Athlon; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/ME/XP; DVD$399.95Q Up ArtsLatin Groove Factory (volumes 1, 2, and 3)Akai, EXS24, Giga, Roland, SampleCell1 CDLibrary only$199.00 eachSonic ImplantsAfro-Cuban (Latin) PercussionAkai, EXS24, Giga, Kontakt, Kurzweil, SoundFont1 CDLibrary only$99.95SpectrasonicsSupreme BeatsAkai, Roland1 CDLibrary only$199.00 African Contemporary; $199.00 World/DanceWizoo GmbHPlatinum24 Latin PercussionAkai, EXS24, Giga3 CDsLibrary only$99.95 EXS24, Giga; $119.95 AkaiYellow ToolsCultureAU, DXi, RTAS, VST2 DVDsMAC: G3/400; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.2.2, OS X 10.2.2, or later
PC: Pentium, Celeron, or Athlon; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP 9 GB free hard-disk space; USB port for authorization key; DVD free$399.95