It's been a long time coming, but has the latest version of Steinberg's Groove Agent been worth waiting for?
Since it was first released, back in 2003, Steinberg's Groove Agent has come to the aid of many musicians who either don't want to or can't program drums, yet prefer not to rely on static sample-based loops. Groove Agent is essentially a virtual drummer VST Instrument that can play drum styles crossing many decades of history, each with a range of complexities, from laid back to busy, but with the flexibility to add accents and fills on demand.
By the time I reviewed Groove Agent 2 in SOS May 2005, it offered many more rhythm style options (81 instead of v1's 54) including grunge, punk and trip-hop, plus nine new kits, as well as up to eight stereo outputs available for more refined mixing options. Unfortunately, its interface provided few opportunities for yet more growth, and since the original programmer had moved on to pastures new, Steinberg decided to rewrite Groove Agent 3 from the ground up, with an ambitious new list of options. These include the Special Agent, with 15 drum styles of sample-based recordings; the Percussion Agent, with eight groups of live-recorded percussion; a new Dual Mode, offering a choice of any two of the three available modules; and other additions such as 27 new Groove Agent styles, three new acoustic drum kits and an enhanced effects section for each of the 12 outputs.
Unfortunately, Steinberg ran into difficulties during GA3 development that prevented it being released for a further year, but they managed to smooth a lot of ruffled feathers by starting a development timeline and associated blog (www.steinberg.net/1346_1.html) to keep everyone informed about progress. Despite this, many musicians gave up waiting and investigated other alternatives, such as EZ Drummer and Jamstix, before GA3 was finally released in August 2007. Has it been worth the wait? Let's see.
As with Groove Agent 2, the supplied GA3 activation code requires a Steinberg dongle (not supplied); you can either use an existing one (I already had one for Cubase) or buy one. While it isn't mentioned anywhere in the manual or on the Steinberg web site, GA2 users should also accept the default installation destination, which places GA3 in a fresh folder alongside any existing installation, so you can use them simultaneously. If you already have songs that use GA2 you'll need to leave it installed anyway, since you can't load GA2 presets into GA3 (I do wish developers would include such information in their manuals!)
Another issue with a VST Instrument that pushes the boundaries like GA3 does is compatibility. Groove Agent provides an elegant 'Live to host' feature, to output in real time whatever MIDI data you generate from its changing patterns (plus fills and accents) onto a separate MIDI track, so you can further edit it. However, not all hosts can handle MIDI output from a plug-in, so there's a 'Record to file' option for applications that can't use the 'Live to host' feature.
Unfortunately, many musicians who bought previous versions of Groove Agent experienced difficulties in using it with hosts other than Cubase SX3 and Cubase 4, so some at least must have been hoping that the GA3 delays would ensure wider-ranging compatibility in this latest version. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case (even Steinberg's own Cubase SX1 and SX2 haven't yet been officially tested), so I do hope that Steinberg soon publish a list of GA3-compatible host applications on their web site, along with advice on how best to set up GA3 to work with them.
Special Agent features 15 extra styles covering such genres as rock, jazz and Latin, with tempos ranging from 60 to 120bpm, and each with 25 variations and fills, just like Groove Agent, but using live recordings edited into slices rather than pre-programmed MIDI triggered samples.
This means you get the feel of a live drummer, but with lots more flexibility than you would using standard drum loops. However, you have to be more careful to stick within the recommended tempo range for each style, because using an SA style faster than intended can sound a little unnatural, while going slower can result in silences between beat slices (interesting for weird, sliced effects, though!).
You also have to be careful when changing from a variation involving cymbals to one without, because as the new one starts, any cymbals currently sounding will suddenly be chopped off in their prime, instead of continuing to ring on as they would in the real world. However, you can largely mask this anomaly by enabling the fills, as these are layered over the patterns, so when you play a fill any cymbals used continue dying away while the normal pattern continues.
As a control freak already in love with the way I could modify each individual drum sound within Groove Agent kits, I was initially a little sceptical about Special Agent, but the more I discovered workarounds for its little foibles and ways to push it in unexpected ways, the more I grew to like it, and the more I appreciated its undoubtedly natural feel. This module has been cleverly programmed, and since both dry and ambient samples are used, SA offers a 'pre-delay' control that lets you move the ambience samples forwards and backwards, which also offers some strange and chaotic effects.
There are a few bugs — I occasionally heard double (flanged) kick drums on the first beat of a fill, and SA only plays hi-hats if you start playback before choosing a new style, but Steinberg have already acknowledged these and 10 other bugs that are destined for cure with a GA 3.0.1 update expected by November 2007 (http://forum.cubase.net/phpbb2/viewtopic.php?t=79828). Ultimately, I suspect that if you enjoy the 15 available 'live' styles you'll enjoy Special Agent, and I found it a useful if perhaps not a must-have addition to the team.
I began by revisiting the original Groove Agent display, now known as Classic Mode. First impressions were good — although the timeline of previous versions (with different drumming styles laid out chronologically from 1950 to 2000 and beyond) is gone. This was already getting unwieldy in GA2, given the huge number of styles, so in GA3 Steinberg have grouped the even greater number of styles into 15 main categories: Jazz, Latin, Moods, Blues, Country, Pop, Dance Floor, Rock, World, Music Academy, Heavy, Hip Hop, Electronic, Modern Pop and Club. This makes it far easier to find what you're looking for.
Most of the interface layout remains the same, although GA3 has been given a 'walnut dashboard' make-over, and there's an enhanced auto-fill control that, in addition to offering an optional fill every time you change the drum pattern, now offers a very handy option to play automatic fills every second, fourth, eighth, 12th or 16th bar. The 'under the hood' controls for tweaking individual kit sounds are also largely the same, but there's a handy additional Speed control with half, 1x and 2x settings for those times when (for instance) you've played in your song at 50bpm but accidentally left the sequencer tempo set to 100bpm.
There are lots of new styles — so many, in fact, that the manual devotes a full 24 pages to describing them all in detail, but given that we don't have that kind of space available, here are some highlights. From the Moods collection there's 'Free Form' jazz improvisation and the evocative 'Old Squeaky', with snare rolls that sound like creaky doors, while the more ethnic feels are catered for by the skin drums accompanying 'Mandela' and the agogo bells of 'Senegal'.
Other sections include nods to specific tracks and artists, including 'Wonderland' (Stevie Wonder), 'Jillie Bean' (Michael Jackson), 'Madish' (Madonna-inspired) and 'League' (Human League), while more genres, such as Acid Jazz, Jungle and Irish Rock, are covered. There are also some more unusual time signatures, such as 5/4 Fusion and 7/8 Funk, as well as several styles based on paradiddles, including a classic Heavy Metal version for those double bass-drum figures. Each style includes 25 variations and fills, plus half-tempo versions.
There are three new acoustic kits and a range of new electronic ones, such as the Linn LM1 (heavily featured on the LM Ballad style). To my ears, many of the previous kits seem to have had the relative levels of their component drums and cymbals slightly rebalanced, as well as having their pan position and ambience levels tweaked, giving a more punchy and lively sound, while the new kits feature alternating hits for kick drum, snare, hi-hat, tom and cymbals, making rolls rather more realistic and faster ones less like machine guns.
Even better for those who know exactly what drum sounds they want, you can now import samples. There's a dedicated Import & FX page where you can load up to 27 different pairs of sounds, allocate each of them volume, pan and balance values, and then save them as User kit presets.
There are also two new global effects on this page that are applied globally to all agents — an easy-to-use compressor and a nine-band graphic EQ, plus lots of presets. I'm sure most musicians will already have plenty of plug-ins that can perform both these duties, but they are nevertheless a handy addition and a very quick way to radically alter kit sounds when required. On the other hand, if you want to add plug-in effects to individual sounds, you can now increase the number of GA3 stereo outputs to 10 from the much more comprehensive setup page.
The only significant down side of the new Classic engine that I noticed is that each time you change style the new kit is loaded from disk, which can take quite a few seconds in some cases. For me, the instant changeover of GA2 meant that I often accidentally discovered styles that worked well in a song, but sometimes found it difficult to locate a particular style in its cluttered timeline: with GA3 you get a much better-organised timeline, which makes finding a particular style a lot easier, but the loading times do disturb your flow when searching for the best style to fit a song. Definitely a case of swings and roundabouts.
Percussion Agent provides you with the sound of up to eight simultaneous percussion players, and has a very similar screen layout to the Classic Agent sound edit controls. Each of the eight horizontal strips holds your choice of the 39 available instrumental grooves, covering various tambourines, shaker, cabasa, triangle, guiro, woodblock, cowbell, hand claps, congas, bongos and cajon.
Each groove offers five variations with increasing complexity, and you can fine-tune their sound with shuffle, tune, ambience, pan and volume controls. However, far more creative possibilities are offered by the Groove Offset controls, which let you shift the start time of individual instruments in eighth-note increments to create polyrhythms. Changing the groove offsets in real time creates all sorts of shifting rhythms, and the sounds are all well recorded. However, there are no accents or fills available (although sometimes these happened accidentally with the random buttons activated), and it would be handy to have an option to automatically mute the percussion parts when fills are triggered in the other Agents. I was also a little disappointed at the lack of more Classical percussion, such as timpani and orchestral drums, plus Eastern percussion such as Japanese Taiko drums, Chinese gongs, and so on, and since the Sample Import options only apply to Classic Agent there's no way to incorporate your own new percussion sounds.
One thing that sets both the Special and Percussion Agents apart from the original Groove Agent is that, although you can still automate your moves, you lose the option to capture the note data to a MIDI track for further tweaking; instead, their contributions must be captured like a regular VST Instrument, using audio export. This is perhaps understandable for the loop-based Special Agent, but not for the often complex rhythms generated by Percussion Agent, and I found it frustrating not to be able to further refine them. Nevertheless, Percussion Agent is undoubtedly a very welcome new feature, especially when used in conjunction with the other Agents.
For many people, the most significant new features are going to be the two new Agents that accompany the original Groove Agent, and the Dual Mode that allows any two of the three to run simultaneously. To enter this mode you click on the Dual Mode button that appears at the top left of Classic Mode, and a new screen appears. This has a central horizontal control strip where you can load any of the three Agents in either the upper or lower half of the display, and have separate or joint control over the Stop, Run, Accent, Fill and half-tempo feel, plus overall control of Level and Balance between the two Agents loaded.
In Dual Mode, Groove Agent appears with the lower half of its Classic display largely intact, but with a much smaller horizontal timeline, and you must make style and kit choices from drop-down boxes. I adapted within a couple of minutes and was soon enjoying the option of having two Groove Agents playing simultaneously with different styles and kits. Some lateral thinking generated lots of other interesting combinations, since it's possible to mix individual drum patterns from two styles, using, for example, the kick and drum parts from one style with the hi-hat and cymbal parts from the other.
However, the more obvious Dual Mode combinations involve Percussion Agent and Special Agent (see boxes for more details on each of these). It's easy to over-indulge in Dual Mode, and unless you want the massed sounds of a carnival parade it's better to remove some components from each active Agent. One obvious coupling is the Groove and Percussion Agents, although I found this combination often sounded more effective if I automated the various solo instrument buttons to drop elements in and out during the course of my song.
Combining Special Agent and Percussion Agent is more challenging for 'traditional-sounding' drum parts, since you can't drop individual drums out of the former, making it very easy to create rather an over-the-top feel. Using Groove and Special Agents together is an ideal pairing for anyone who wants to explore the experience of having twin drummers in their virtual band, but another, more subtle, approach might be to employ the Dual Mode balance control to morph from one to the other, and use them individually in different parts of the same song.
Overall, there's nothing else on the market that's quite like Groove Agent 3, but despite the long wait for the new version, it does still have some rough edges, with a list of initial bugs that's already been worked on, a few unexpected limitations, and some doubts over compatibility with well-known DAW hosts such as Logic and Sonar. Let's hope that these issues are soon resolved, and that more information becomes available to prospective users of applications other than Cubase SX3, Cubase 4 and Nuendo 3.
Nevertheless, GA3's developers are to be congratulated on an ambitious product, and, with an upgrade price of just £69 for existing GA2 users, I suspect few will resist the urge to add percussion and a versatile 'live' recorded drummer, in the shape of the new Agents. The full £169 asking price also seems very reasonable, considering all that's on offer.