It's a given that the transition from dedicated hardware samplers and synthesizers to virtual software-driven instruments brings more of your music production right to your desktop. Samplers were among the first instruments to make the move to computer-based workstations. For years, musicians have been using drum and percussion samples to create rhythms and effects; the evolution of the virtual drum machine was only a matter of time.
Virtual drum machines or rhythm composers (call them what you may) have expanded with functions that go considerably beyond traditional drum machines or samplers. For example, velocity switching among samples (the harder the “hit,” the more the sound character changes) typically once involved two or three different sounds. Today, there might be a dozen or more samples in the mix — with distinct samples for right and left hands! With drum/percussion collections often including thousands of samples, some applications now include database tools to help keep track of all these sounds.
Another interesting development is incorporating “groove agents” that enable you to go beyond traditional beat patterns and loops to encompass entire rhythm sections that form a song's foundation. If you're looking for an instrument, distinguishing between a virtual drum machine and a groove box/remix application can be tricky. For the buyer's guide assembled below, we've defined virtual drum machines as products that can import samples and velocity-switch among them, assuming that the instrument in question wasn't originally intended as strictly a synthesis-based system. Yet, while lacking these particular characteristics, Spectrasonics' (www.spectrasonics.net) Stylus RMX is certainly noteworthy and deserves a close look.
We searched for applications that are likely to appeal to audio pros, omitting consumer-grade products. However, Cakewalk's (www.cakewalk.com) Kinetic, geared for the remix artist, and Acoustica's (www.acoustica.com) Beatcraft may, nonetheless, be just what you're looking for. There are some amazing and cool products out there, so let's get going.
THE VIRTUAL KITS
Integrated into Apple's (www.apple.com/logic) Logic 7, the Ultrabeat drum synthesizer has full provisions for creating percussion loops or manipulating the samples of instrument sounds. Particularly effective for working in techno, house, hip hop or derivative musical genres, Ultrabeat provides two synchable LFOs, two EQs and four envelopes per voice. The instrument employs subtractive and FM synthesis, noise, modeling and sampling. Its 32-step sequencer with accent is reminiscent of popular early '80s drum machines. UltraBeat offers 24 drum voices and one voice that can be played chromatically. Among its various effects, filters and EQs is a multimode filter that offers four different 12- or 24dB cut-off modes for tweaking the lower frequencies of instrument sounds.
With the exception of Tsunami, the Hork, Meteor, Psion and Puma drum/percussion modules for Arturia's (www.arturia.com) Storm PC/Windows music software follow the same basic operation and programming system. The difference lies in the choice of instruments with each module. Hork, for example, employs samples of acoustic drum set instruments, while Psion has samples from electronic kits. Puma is a collection of Latin percussion instruments, and Meteor offers samples from an unidentified drum machine. Instrument pitch and decay can be defined, and each instrument can be controlled by MIDI, shortcuts on the numeric keypad or via the instrument's Mute and Solo functions. Unlike the other modules, the Tsunami module is a 100-percent synthesized drum machine with eight oscillators — all fitted with various controllers such as amplitude, frequency envelopes and bandpass filters for each sound.
Arturia Storm 3
Best Service's (dist. by East-West, www.soundsonline.com) Artist Drums uses kits from acclaimed drummers Simon Phillips, Dennis Chambers, Kenny Aronoff and Mel Gaynor. Recorded and mixed at Galaxy Studios in Belgium, the audio engine functions as a plug-in instrument without the need for a sampler program, and features up to 24 velocity layers and excessive sample layering, plus user control over the playback and programming of each instrument, with 32-bit processing and 256-voice polyphony for sophisticated arrangements. There are multimode filters, envelopes and LFOs for sound shaping and integrated high-quality reverb, chorus and delay effects. Artist Drums includes a Native Instruments interface powered by the Kontakt audio engine for Mac and PC.
New from Cakewalk (www.cakewalk.com), Project5 integrates sequencers, software synths, samplers, audio and MIDI effects, and audio looping tools. As a virtual drum/percussion engine, Project5 provides studio-quality instruments and effects, pattern-based sequencers and processors, ACID-compatible audio looping, real-time pattern genesis and triggering, and a live performance audio engine. The DS864 digital sampler supports popular sampler formats, offers 8-layer/64-voice polyphony and supports key mapping and velocity zones. The Velocity™ drum sampler supports .WAV, .AIFF, LM4 and other proprietary formats, provides 18 polyphonic voices with up to 32 velocity-layered samples, offers extensive editing capability and includes 175 MB of Velocity drum kits from FXpansion and Q-Up Arts. Further, Project5 includes the nPULSE™ analog modular drum synthesizer, featuring a 12-voice multitimbral synthesizer with per-voice oscillators. Project5 is for PC/Windows (ASIO, DX, DXi, MFX, ReWire client, WDM, VST, VSTi).
Concrete FX's (www.concretefx.com) Granite (PC/Windows) can create vintage drum machine sounds and effects using its built-in oscillators and 16-bit .WAV samples. Granite's kits comprise eight drum presets with sound load/save/copy/paste for creating your own kits. Each preset can be sent to one of four stereo output channels and can be part of a Choke group. Each drum preset uses two oscillators per instrument with 12 waveforms or 16-bit .WAV samples. Each sample's position is controllable with an envelope that facilitates reversing or time shifting. Additional edit parameters include bandpass, band reject, ring modulator, comb filter, and frequency and ring modulation. Drum presets have their own decimator and distortion filters for additional sound alteration. The drum preset's parameters can be controlled using a vari-slope envelope with up to 16 sections and a definable loop position. They can also be controlled using MIDI commands via the MIDI Learn function. Granite provides 100 presets.
Compatible with Pro Tools LE and TDM systems — Mac OS X and Windows XP — Digidesign's (www.digidesign.com) Synchronic is an RTAS plug-in for manipulating audio loops to create a variety of rhythmic and sonic variations. Synchronic lets users create rhythmic modifications and in-tempo effects with individual beats and beat subdivisions within a loop. Effects can also be MIDI-synched with real-time control. Synchronic is controllable directly through its own GUI, MIDI, plug-in automation or via a Digidesign-qualified Pro Tools control surface. The application includes a graphical slice-point editor for automatic and manual loop slicing, 96kHz Pro Tools session support and ships with 200 MB of audio loops from the company's development partners.
FXpansion's (www.fxpansion.com) BFD and DR-008 virtual rhythm composers are complementary products: BFD employs an acoustic drum library, while DR-008 offers sampling/drum synthesizer capabilities. BFD provides control of seven real drum kits, plus additional hats, drums and cymbals. The drums are recorded from 11 mics positioned around the kit and room, providing the ability to mix the drums by blending mic sources. BFD also incorporates a comprehensive library of MIDI grooves. It supports VST, DXi, RTAS, AudioUnits and ReWire formats for Windows and Mac OS X. Two expansion packs are available: BFD XFL and 8-Bit Kit. DR-008 is for generating and arranging drum and percussion sounds, one-shot samples and rhythm patterns in the user's DAW or sequencer. DR-008 uses a modular architecture, with sampling, MIDI event processing for performance features, pattern sequencing and import filters among its numerous abilities. DR-008 is compatible with VSTi, DXi and RTAS hosts on the Windows platform. It imports audio files in all .WAV and .AIFF formats, and can use third-party kits in LM-4 and Battery formats.
Glaresoft's (www.glaresoft.com) Mac-based iDrum virtual drum machine can function stand-alone or as an AudioUnits plug-in. This affordable application edits the pitch, decay time, bit depth and filtering for each drum part in a pattern. Both .WAV and .AIFF samples can be imported, though files need to remain under 2 MB in size. Further, iDrum's user interface provides individual velocity control for each step in a sequence. Up to 99 patterns can be stored in a single iDrum file, along with all of the drum sounds used to create the beat. iDrum comes with dozens of part presets, making it easy to create beats by mixing and matching parts and samples. Parts can also be edited and stored for future recall.
LinPlug RM IV
RM IV from LinPlug (www.linplug.com) combines analog-style percussion synthesis with intelligent percussion sampling, and its 18 velocity-sensitive drum pads can be used to trigger the system's various audio generator modules. RM IV includes 10 percussion synthesis algorithms — ranging from classic analog drums to cutting-edge sounds — and a fully featured percussion sampler. The Sampler provides support for single sample, multisample, velocity layer and velocity crossfade. Also standard are an AHDSR-controlled multimode filter, a compressor designed specifically for percussion sounds, a flexible “Humanizer” and a 6×6 modulation matrix. The user interface's all-in-one edit screen enables operation with minimal mouse-clicking; an “intelligent” sample module automatically switches off unused modules to optimize CPU resources. RM IV comes with more than 270 sample-based and synthesized drum kits and more than 2,850 grooves. RM IV is for PC VST and Mac OS X (both VST and AudioUnits).
Native Instruments' (www.native-instruments.com) Battery 2 (Mac OS X and PC/Windows) drum sampler boasts a large, customizable matrix with a total of 72 possible sample cells. Every sample cell is equipped with a compressor and multimode filter, an LFO, freely assignable envelope, mapping editor managing 128 sample layers per cell, a resampling effect and an extended loop section. Battery 2 ships with a 3.5GB drum/percussion library — more than 9,400 sounds. The sample engine provides 256 stereo voices and 32-bit internal resolution. The graphical mapping editor can configure up to 128 sample layers per cell. Sound sections can be merged to create new samples and different samples layered within the same cell can be triggered for greater creative control. Battery 2's loop section offers four loops per sample, including tuning, crossfade and alternating loop functions.
Available as a free download, Nexoft's (www.nexoft.net) LoopAZoid is a 48-channel, 64-voice stereo drum sampler available for Mac and PC/Windows. Each of the 48 sample channels has a pre-defined MIDI note attached, and triggering these in a sequencer plays the associated sample. Two MIDI notes can be assigned for each sample — one for forward and one for reverse playback. The application can handle stereo and mono samples and play them back with up to 64 voices while each sample can be played fully polyphonic. LoopAZoid provides three mute groups. This enables the creation of open and closed hi-hat patterns and similar percussive functions. Groups of samples, or patches, can be exported for archiving and exchanging data with others.
Propellerhead Software's (www.propellerheads.se) Reason 3 (Mac and PC/Windows) virtual instrument provides one-step loading of complex, customizable instruments and effect setups, soundbanks, integration with MIDI keyboards and controllers, a file browser and a suite of mastering tools. With more than 10,000 drum and cymbal samples, the Reason Drum Kits ReFill is a DVD-ROM library of multi-sampled drum kits mapped out across a MIDI keyboard for use as a rhythm composer within the Reason system. The ReFill Kits feature 17 NN-XT multiple output kits (for use with Reason's sampler) in a variety of musical styles and 50 additional ReDrum kits for Reason's step-time drum machine, plus MIDI files, song files, 20 style templates and 53 instrument patches for building custom drum/percussion kits. Samples are available in 24-bit and 16-bit versions. There are multiple same-velocity samples, enabling the NN-XT sampler to automatically alternate between sets of similar-sounding samples for more realistic performances.
Quantum Leap StormDrum
Quantum Leap's (dist. by East-West, www.soundsonline.com) StormDrum (Mac OS X and PC/Windows) has 6 GB of loops and multisamples ranging from conventional to exotic that are divided into two libraries designed to run on the included Native Instruments' Kompakt and Intakt virtual instrument engines. Storm-Drum's multisampled kits and percussion provide 10 to 24-way velocity switching with left/right-hand samples for greater control and more realistic performances. Loops are played from a one-screen interface based on the Intakt sampler; sound shaping tools include a multimode filter, envelope follower, two LFOs, effects and additional parameters. Loops can be automatically synched to tempo via the Beat Machine or the Time Machine. The Beat Machine has loops divided into their individual hits (slices) that are playable at a wide range of tempos without any pitch change. Each hit can have individual settings for pitch, playback direction, pitch envelope, amp envelope, distortion, delay, etc. A MIDI file of each loop can be exported so that groove, accent and feel can be manipulated in any host sequencer. The Time Machine time stretches/compresses loops in real time.
Steinberg Groove Agent
Groove Agent (Mac OS X and PC/Windows) from Steinberg (www.steinberg.net) is a virtual rhythm composer plug-in (VSTi) incorporating 50 musical styles (each with its own drum style patterns) and up to 24 complexity levels in each style, including fills and half-tempo — feel variations. There are four unique drum kits, plus percussion and numerous electronic drum sounds. Any style can be combined with any kit, and the kits are user-configurable and editable. The application provides separate dry and wet (ambience) samples and four stereo outputs. Groove Agent's Shuffle and Humanize controls facilitate fine-tuning a beat's overall feel. All edits can be saved for later recall.
DrumCore (www.drumcore.com) from Submersible Music is a collection with more than 8 GB of 24-bit drum beats performed by leading players, with both MIDI and audio hits, loops and fills. Loops are auditioned by clicking on icons that represent a groove's loops and fills. DrumCore also has an integrated MIDI drum module for playing MIDI drum parts and layering instruments. The application includes a search engine/database for locating content via musical and stylistic criteria, and there is also a project and file export function for placing content into Pro Tools, Logic, Digital Performer and other apps. Content can be monitored through your computer's native audio system or through ReWire when used with a DAW application. Performances were recorded at multiple tempos to prevent audio quality from being compromised by extreme tempo stretching, beat slicing or other processing. DrumCore is for Mac (PowerMac G4 400 MHz or higher; OS 10.2.3 or higher).
Toontrack's (www.toontrack.com) DFH Superior is a drum/percussion application that runs as a VST instrument (VSTi) or via ReWire for Mac OS X and PC/Windows XP systems. DFH includes three plug-ins — Superior Drummer, Superior Percussionist and Superior Cocktail — and includes more than 85,000 samples distributed on one DVD-ROM and four double-sided DVD-ROMs. There are 60-plus cymbals, five drum kits, eight hi-hats and 17 snares that are sampled using an assortment of brushes, drum sticks, rods or felt mallets and various bass drum beaters. The drum kits are sampled in multiple velocity layers, including right and left hands, for greater realism. DFH offers “Multiple Leakage Control”: multiple outputs with natural bleeding choices through all mics to achieve realistic performances. MIDI control change messages are supported for the highest degree of control. Mac AudioUnits is also supported.
Ultimate Sound Bank Plugsound
USB's (dist. by Ilio, www.ilio.com) Plugsound Drums and Percussion Volume 3 is a 540MB sample library for use with the company's UVI audio instrument engine, which uses 32-bit floating-point architecture and operates with most plug-in formats. Plugsound Drums and Percussion includes natural acoustic jazz, pop and rock kits; “Treatment” kits with distortion, gate and spring reverbs; and a large assortment of electronic sounds from well-known drum machines. Stylistic kits offer a wide selection of electronic drums sorted by style (dance/electro/groove/house/techno/trash/jungle, etc.). Additionally, there is a comprehensive percussion library featuring more than 60 different instruments. Plugsound data files can be used in MOTU's MachFive universal sampler. The Sample Library is for Mac (MAS, AudioUnits, RTAS or VST 2 — compliant host) and PC/Windows 2000/XP (VST 2, RTAS, DXi-compliant host).
Yellow Tools Culture
Culture is Yellow Tools' (www.yellowtools.com) modular virtual instrument containing nearly 9 GB (two DVDs) of authentic and highly optimized sounds of world, ethno, industrial and orchestral percussion instruments combined with a high-end audio engine. All instrument samples incorporate 16 velocity splits per note for left/right hands. These techniques are available for the different playing styles such as hits, flams, rolls, etc. A Skip Pitch function lets users delay the pitch modification so it kicks in after a certain delay. This preserves the original attack of the sound while still pitching the sound as desired. The Pre-Silence feature allows the user to apply a slight initial delay to each note, creating the effect of several percussionists playing one note at the same time but with slight timing discrepancies. Culture also provides Intelligent Polyphony Management, Note Off, and Key Activator and Volume Controller functions for added creative control. Culture is for Mac and PC/Windows, with most plug-in formats supported.
The Operating Table from Zero G (www.zero-g.co.uk) is a plug-in or stand-alone drum/percussion sound module powered by custom versions of Intakt sampler and Kontakt audio engines. The compilation of instruments and rhythm patterns, fills and other components was produced by Emre Ramazanoglu in London, who has produced for Prodigy and William Orbit. The main drum kits employed for this collection are a custom Premier Signia, a custom Tamburo Opera, an '80s Pearl BLX and a Premier APX. All cymbals are Zildjian and there is an assortment of additional snares. An extensive collection of backbeats derive their feel and sonic basis from live drumming technique performed by the collection's four featured drummers. Loops can be synched to your host sequencer at any desired tempo. Supported plug-in formats include VST 2, DXi, ASIO, AudioUnits and RTAS for Mac OS X and PC/Windows.
Roger Maycock is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.