Originally published in May 2008.
The new breed of drum samplers are affordable, flexible, and really easy to use. PSE takes a close look at four top programs.
For many home and project studios, the dream of setting up a full-size drum kit and inviting a drummer to “let ‘er rip” is just that. For those who don’t have the luxury of a fully isolated recording space, drums pose one of the most difficult challenges to creating realistic recordings. Fortunately, the state-of-the-art options in drum programs have advanced greatly since the earliest affordable drum machines came to market in the late 1970s. We’ll take a look at four programs: Addictive Drums, DrumCore, Drumagog, and Ocean Way Drums. These programs can help you develop outstanding quality drum tracks for your recordings, without having your neighbor call the local police.
16 bars of drum machine history
Although a number of experimental rhythm machines had been created in the early part of the 20th century, the first commercially available drum machines were developed and sold in the 1960s as add-ons for home organs. Wurlitzer and Hammond each had a product that featured preset sounds and beats for rhythmic accompaniment. By the mid-70s, companies were jumping into the drum machine business, with Roland debuting its CR-78 in 1978, the first unit to allow users to program and save their own presets.
Roger Linn revolutionized drum machines when he launched the Linn Drum in 1980. Unlike previous units, the Linn Drum played back actual samples of drums that had been recorded and digitized. Artists such as Prince, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, and Michael Jackson all prominently featured the Linn Drum on hit records. At the same time, Roland brought out their TR-808. Although it used synthetic drum sounds, it was an immediate hit with musicians due to its programming flexibility and sub-$1K price point.
The introduction of MIDI in 1983 allowed musicians to program MIDI-capable drum machines with a level of nuance and accuracy that enhanced their believability over the earliest pattern-devices, which were limited by their lack of programming flexibility. By the year 2000, digital audio workstations had absorbed the function of the drum machines of a generation earlier and now offered studios virtual drum machines and sample libraries of many types of drums and percussion.
A Google search of the term “virtual drum set” generated 373,000 different page results. However, while walking the trade show floor at last January’s NAMM Convention, I listened to a variety of drum sample programs and invited four of the best to participate in this month’s column. As might be expected, the power and flexibility of the programs is nearly unlimited. Each of the four products tested can run inside the shell of every commercially available DAW program.
Engineers Jeff Crawford and Spencer Johnson were on hand to evaluate the software programs. Jeff has been involved in drum synthesis for many years, and Spencer doubles as a drummer. For our evaluation sessions, we ran each product from Pro Tools 7.4 on a Mac Pro with 8 GB of RAM.
Addictive Drums is aptly named. It’s easy to spend a few hours experimenting with all the parameters you can fine tune using the program’s intuitive GUI. Booting up the program as a multichannel Real Time Audio Suite (RTAS) plug in through Pro Tools, we were immediately struck by the sound and punch the Start Up drum kit provided. The program’s main screen is its Full Kit view, which shows you exactly which drums and cymbals have been selected at the moment. Your kit includes kick drum, snare, four toms, hi hat and four cymbals. There is a healthy assortment of drums and cymbals to choose from within the program. The drum samples have been recorded at Decibel Studios in Stockholm, Sweden, which is a 548-square foot room.
We started our test by opening a new Pro Tools session, and then used the instrument audio insert to access Addictive Drums as a plug in. The full kit page appears, with faders at the bottom of the page for each of the six drums, hi hat, overheads and room mics. The program offers a new level of detail by providing useful features that one would experiment with in an actual acoustical recording session. For instance, a stereo pair of room mics can be moved closer to or farther from the drum kit (up to 56’) and mixed up or down as separate tracks once you dump your drum part into your DAW program.
Spencer spent about 20 minutes tweaking a 22” TAMA Star Classic bass drum. The program allowed him to decide the proportion between the two mics shown on either side of the bass drum: one on the beater head, the other at the front, non resonant head. The pitch of the bass drum was easily tuned using the envelope filter. More tweaking was done with the equalizer, compressor, and notch filter. It was easy to create a “larger than life” kick drum with a huge bottom end.
Next, he faded the room mics up and down to create the perception the kick was being played in a large room. The care in programming was evident as we noticed that the bottom snare mic was picking up the rattle of the snares when we were repeatedly hitting the kick. Jeff had brought along his M-Audio Trigger Finger, a velocity and touch sensitive USB trigger device and was using it to demonstrate the nuances easily programmable by using the finger pads on the device. Any touch-sensitive MIDI keyboard would also allow for such input.
Spencer moved on, selecting a Sonor 14 x 5” Designer snare drum. The sound of the snare needed very little adjustment. He merely listened to the top and bottom mic sounds and blended them with about 60% top mic. Once again, we brought in the overheads, and a little of the room mics to give the snare a more ambient sound. The rest of our drum set incorporated the Start Up Kit’s toms and cymbals. Spencer clicked on a Hard Funk Groove and proceeded to lay down a 32-bar song segment into Pro Tools.
Our Pro Tools session was a mirror image of the mix window in Addictive Drums, meaning we had separate mono tracks for kick, snare, hat, and the four toms. Then we had stereo overheads and room mics independent from the drum tracks – identical to an actual session recorded using high-quality mics in a nice sounding room. Jeff experimented with creating accent patterns using the Trigger Finger on the high hat and ended up with a number of interesting and totally realistic patterns, including ones using the rapidly closing hi hat. We ran through all 14 cymbal options, including ride, crash, splash, and china models.
Jeff’s take: “I like the program’s ability to tailor the drum set quickly to the style most appropriate to a specific song. For instance, if I were producing a track for a songwriter using Addictive Drums, I could select the type of kit I wanted, adjust the timbre and depth of the individual drums, and finally vary the room ambiance to fit the arrangement.”
Spencer’s take: “Addictive Drums’ programming power and flexibility are impressive. The basic program leaves room for growth – it has yet to include brushes, mallets, and additional percussion – but what it comes with now is plenty for most of my sessions. I also saw that they have a new set of sounds released as Retro Drums Ad Pack, which includes three classic Ludwig drum kits from the ‘60s and ‘70s recorded in a large studio.”
DrumCore (Rev 2.5) Deluxe is a fully featured program that includes a database library of searchable loops and signature sounds from a number of top drummers and percussionists including Alan White, Terry Bozzio, Luis Conte, Matt Sorum, and legendary Jamaican percussionist and producer Sly Dunbar, to name a few. The drum tracks are accessible as either audio samples or MIDI files. For instance, the audio samples include each all-star percussionist playing a variety of grooves which can be quickly strung together to make up the basis for a new track.
Just below the collection of audio samples are rows of MIDI plug icons that represent the same drums recorded as raw MIDI data, infinitely adjustable in terms of attack, velocity, timbre, etc. When playing the MIDI version, you can change out drums in a similar fashion to Addictive Drums, by simply clicking on whichever drum you wish to change and selecting an alternate. Try Alan White’s kick with Terry Bozzio’s snare.
Here is where DrumCore’s real creative power came to light during our evaluation session. We quickly started layering and cross fading MIDI files of various snare hits, creating a stunningly fresh snare track. The raw MIDI files play back completely dry, whereas DrumCore’s digital audio samples include a nice dollop of room ambience. Choosing the audio samples or the MIDI data would likely be determined by how much time you wanted to invest in adding nuance and the type of subtleties a master drummer adds to any recording.
DrumCore is also a percussion sample playback device, meaning any other samples you might have on hand – or have recently recorded – can easily be integrated into a project using DrumCore. For instance, maybe you want to use some street noise, your friend’s motorcycle or a ticking clock, simply sample it and bring it using DrumCore as a sample player, or mix it with any of the wide library of drum and percussion sounds that ship with DrumCore Deluxe.
Jeff’s take: “DrumCore is like a perfect soup starter, one that gives you a good base to make a gourmet soup that tastes exactly as you would like it. It’s very powerful but also quite simple to start using, with either the audio samples or the MIDI data versions of the many drum patterns.”
Spencer especially liked the personalized drum grooves by so many notable drummers. “We were just grooving to a 5/4 beat by Terry Bozzio and by playing with the tempo, we created drum patterns that were pretty amazing.”
After a few minutes, we moved on and picked a few of the approximately 160 grooves played by Sly Dunbar, immediately wanting to add a funky offbeat bass line, smoking Hammond and signature Strat, to his signature Jamaican beat. All three of us loved the fact that we were calling up some of the best players in the business to lay down our grooves.
When asked which of the two programs he would prefer, Jeff answered, “One is not really better than the other. They take two different approaches and serve two different purposes. Addictive Drums is a sophisticated drum modeling application which offers a great deal of flexibility at a nice price. [Addictive streets for $199.]
The heart of DrumCore Deluxe, which has a street price of $400, is its sample library, and our demo version came with the full library of top drummers playing what amounted to hundreds of beautifully performed grooves. DrumCore provides more musical flexibility and the ability to mix and match any MIDI-controllable audio source. Addictive emulates a real drum set in a good sounding room that you can quickly bring into a DAW session and layer and mix just like a well-recorded drum kit.
When pressed which one they would purchase, Jeff and Spencer both agreed, “I’d get both. They are different enough that each will find regular use in my work.”
Sound Checks – a brief look at two other very useful drum sample programs.
Sound Check – Drumagog
Drumagog is a drum sample replacement program that runs in any DAW environment. It is particularly handy if you have a pre-recorded drum part that in the harsh light of day simply isn’t cutting it. With Drumagog, you can easily replace an existing drum performance with the samples of your choice, such as WAV, AIFF, and Sound Designer II files. The program comes ready to install. There’s either the Drumagog Fixed Latency version for programs that have built-in Program Delay Compensation (PDC) or Drumagog for any non-PDC programs (like Pro Tools LE).
Drumagog provides a full range of parameters that you can control to adjust its triggering functions. For instance, let’s say your pre-recorded snare sound is so thin that EQ can’t readily fix the snare track. With Drumagog inserted as a plug in, every time the snare was hit, the new snare replaces it. Over the nearly nine years since the program debuted from its publisher, Chicago-based Wave Machine Labs, it has been continuously upgraded and enhanced so that now it is the leading drum replacement plug in choice for many of the world’s top producers. You can also use it to trigger samples, as the Drumagog NAMM booth showed off. A drum kit made up of pots and pans was used to perfectly trigger a set of killer-sounding drum samples, with full velocity sensitivity!
Spencer recorded his own Yamaha Stage Custom kit in the studio. “I wasn’t happy with the kick drum sound. Using Drumagog, I blended my original kick with a Drumagog sample kick drum, resulting in a fuller sound that fit the track better. Another important feature that it has is ‘stealth mode.’ I used that when replacing my snare hits, but rather than cutting out the leakage from my hi hat that was apparent on the original snare track, using the stealth feature, I kept the hi hat on the original track and Drumagog cross faded over to the replacement snare seamlessly when triggered, resulting in a natural sounding track which retains the original leakage.
“I also loved the sound of the Start Up snare in Addictive Drums, so I sampled that snare using Drumagog’s ‘Add From Track’ function. Then, I was able to use it to replace my snare track which really beefed up my kit’s overall sound.”
Drumagog (version 4.3) comes with 4 GB of samples and is very user-friendly. The User’s Guide is packed with easy-to-follow instructions on how to fine tune the program to insure that your replacement samples sound every bit as musical as the original performance. Street price is $269.
Sound Check – Sonic Reality’s Ocean Way Drums
The mention of Ocean Way studios conjures up images of the rooms used to make some of the classic recordings of the 20th century. Artists from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra to the Rolling Stones have favored the studios at Ocean Way, which were designed by the legendary Bill Putnam, for their unique, open and natural sound. So it seems only natural that finally the signature sound of those rooms are now available in the Ocean Way Drums sample library, a 40GB collection of drum samples played by top LA drummers and recorded by Ocean Way owner Allen Sides with engineer Stephen Paul.
The driving force behind the collection is Dave Kerzner, a veteran keyboardist, producer, and composer who has worked with a who’s who of pop and rock legends providing keyboard parts and samples for more than a decade. Ocean Way Drums delivers outstanding ambience to any home studio owner who dreams of using the legendary rooms that have become part of literally hundreds of hit recordings over the past five decades. The 19 drum kits that make up the library come as both individual instruments (each drum and cymbal on its own) and “multis,” meaning entire kits.
Within each sample, you can access the data in a file format in a proprietary file format developed by Sonic Reality called I-MAP, which allows easy independent control of a full drum kit on any velocity-sensitive MIDI keyboard. It allows for swells, rolls, and accents to be played quickly and easily. The drum sample library also ships in the Roland V-Drum mode, allowing it to be triggered from the Roland series of electronic drums making it a great option for studio drummers recording at home.
As we listened to the various kits, it became clear that Ocean Way Drums is an amazing collection of beautifully recorded drum samples. Its street price of $895 makes it a bigger investment than some of the other programs we’ve been testing, but the program’s array of sounds and performance features, combined with the legendary room ambience provided by Ocean Way make it worth the investment for anyone really wanting superlative drum samples.