Toontrack Superior Drummer 2 (Mac/Win) Review

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Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0's subtitle, “New York Studio Legacy Series,” offers a clue to the software's concept. Think of it less as a high-powered drum machine and more as a user-controllable recording session that puts a well-miked set of drums in a great room — in this case, Manhattan's Avatar Studios. In many ways, it's the built-in mixer (and not the drum triggers) that forms the plug-in's core. Multimiking, bleed, and ambience play important roles in Superior Drummer, which emphasizes the holistic sound of the kit over the more detached and isolated sounds typical of drum samplers.

Gettin' It On

Toontrack describes Superior Drummer 2.0 as a complete overhaul of its predecessor, dfh Superior (see “Beat Generation” from the September 2004 issue). Version 2.0 is compatible with its forebear's libraries and has features designed to put experienced users in familiar territory.

Five DVDs furnish AU, RTAS, and VST plug-ins for the Mac and Windows. The included EZplayer Pro lets you load and edit MIDI drum performances and use them to trigger sounds in Superior Drummer and other drum programs. You also get a collection of MIDI files and about 20 GB worth of samples, all played by drummer Nir Z (who has recorded with artists as diverse as John Mayer, Chris Cornell, Alana Davis, and Genesis). The samples are stored using Toontrack Percussion Compression (TPC), real-time data-compression technology that's designed to save disk space and computer resources while allowing fast sample loads into RAM. Toontrack Solo, a low-latency host that enables the VST plug-in to function as a standalone program, is also included.

I installed Superior Drummer on my MacBook Pro, which has a 2.2 GHz Core Duo processor and 2 GB of RAM. I tested the VST plug-in in Toontrack Solo and the AU plug-in in Apple Logic Pro 8 running under Mac OS X 10.5.5; either version runs in stereo or multichannel modes. Operation was about the same in both hosts, though the AU version smashed up against my computer's limits a few times. Fortunately, Superior Drummer 2.0 offers resource-saving features.

Get in the Zone

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FIG. 1: Superior Drummer''s Standard view shows drums as a complete kit. Just click on any drum or cymbal to hear it.

Loading the plug-in presents you with the Construction window, which in Standard view offers a graphical depiction of a nice-size drum kit owned by someone with a healthy cymbal fetish (see Fig. 1). Clicking on a drum triggers its samples, and clicking on its associated pop-up menu button lets you replace the loaded drum with another of the same kind; for example, the kick drum's menu lets you choose from an assortment of kick drums. You can also choose whether to strike the drums with sticks, brushes, or rods (such as Pro-Mark Hot Rods), and whether the kick's beater is plastic or felt.

Less visually compelling — but in some ways more effective — is the Construction window's Classic view (a carryover from the original dfh Superior), which displays the kit as a bunch of drum pads. These pads let you hear more of each drum's sample set; click on the bottom of a pad for quiet sounds, on the top for loud sounds, and in the middle for sounds in between.

Superior Drummer uses a Velocity-mapping scheme that's intended to make each drum sound more natural. You get three zones: hard hits (by default, triggered by a Velocity of 127), soft hits (Velocities from 1 to 20), and gradient hits (Velocities from 21 to 126). You can easily reassign any zone's Velocity range, which also changes the range of the one above or below it. Because each zone triggers multiple samples, repeatedly slamming the snare at a Velocity of 127 plays different hits selected at random instead of retriggering one sample machine-gun-style. Some instruments have as many as 25 samples for hard and soft hits, respectively.

Everything's Under Control

Superior Drummer's well-organized interface gives you access to important controls right from its Construction window. Essential functions are in a large row at the bottom. At the lower left is the Memory & Status section, which indicates RAM usage and allows you to switch from the default 24-bit samples to 16-bit.

Left of center is the EZ Mixer, which lets you set each virtual mic's basic parameters, including level, pan position, and bleed. A large Master Volume knob in the middle governs the loudness of the entire kit, postmixer. The Voices & Layers section lets you adjust the Velocity mapping and determine the number of samples assigned to each drum — useful if you want to save resources. In the lower right corner, the Instrument section lets you fine-tune a drum's level, balance its articulations, specify its MIDI note mapping, and adjust its relative volume.

By default, each kit loads a specific set of drums, but you can load additional drums and percussion instruments using the X-Drum feature. Added drums can augment or replace those already in the kit. For instance, you could add a conga drum and assign it to its own MIDI note, or you could steal the MIDI assignment from a kick drum and have it trigger the conga. Working with X-Drums can get pretty complex and offers you the chance to move beyond the program's natural kit model.

An ADSHR Envelope Designer lets you control the behavior of the sample itself. You can use it to create realistic choke and swell sounds for cymbals, among other things. You can toggle the envelope on and off and assign it to respond to MIDI Aftertouch, Note On, or Note Off.

Superior Drummer treats each drum in the kit as a number of individual articulations, which helps key instruments like hi-hat and snare behave more realistically. For example, pressing one key triggers a sampled snare roll that continues until you press the key assigned to a single snare hit — totally intuitive and impressively natural-sounding (see Web Clip 1).

When you're editing a drum in the Instrument section, you have the option of working on the entire drum (in essence, all hits on that drum) or a single articulation (for instance, the side stick) by toggling the Edit Articulation Only button. That means you could use the envelope editor to make the side stick attack more slowly or make center hits transpose higher — powerful stuff.

Mix It Up

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FIG. 2: Superior Drummer''s Mixer lets you set how much each drum''s bleed will be heard in individual mics.

Superior Drummer's Mixer window sets it apart from other drum samplers I've used (see Fig. 2). Many drums are spread across multiple channels. Load up the Avatar kit, for example, and you'll find three channels for the kick drum, mics for the top and bottom of the snare, and more. Instruments that rarely get individual mics in real life — such as cymbals — get picked up on overheads and ambient mics. There's not a disembodied crash cymbal within earshot.

Each channel sports conventional controls such as faders, pan pots, and inserts for adding EQ and dynamics processors. The effects — highpass and lowpass filters, 5-band EQ, gate, compressor, and even a transient modeler — work well and sound quite good, but I was surprised to find no spatial processors such as reverb. You can, however, add great-sounding room ambience from the mics.

Let It Bleed

Superior Drummer's most intriguing feature is the Bleed control. It lets you set how much of any given drum gets picked up by another drum's mic. You can, for instance, let a bit of the kick drum, toms, or hi-hat bleed into the snare's top or bottom mic, or you can choose to isolate the snare completely (see Web Clips 2, 3, 4, and 5). Bleed works for all mics; by default, the overheads and room mics pick up everything, but if you want them to exclude the kick, you can remove it from their respective bleeds.

The bleed feature adds to Superior Drummer's naturalness, but it can also chew up resources. By turning off individual bleeds, you can take a load off your system while you're editing the drum parts in your sequencer, and then turn them back on later. You can also save resources by bouncing the bleeds to disk, which generates a separate audio file for each mic (see the online bonus material at

Superior Drummer 2.0 boasts killer sounds and a bunch of unique features, but its best attribute may be the way it gets your head out of the machine and into the mix. With the ability to pick up the subtleties of a real performance — either via programming or played with electronic drum triggers — this may be the most realistic digital drum instrument yet.

New York-based guitarist, composer, and producer Emile Menasché is the author of The Desktop Studio (Hal Leonard, 2002). His latest album, Overtones, is available on iTunes.

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