Toontrack's DFH Superior received excellent reviews but perhaps didn't really make the impact that it deserved. Will the drums and cymbals of their new Superior Drummer 2.0 make a greater splash?
Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2.0 essentially represents a second generation of DFH Superior and, when Paul White reviewed the original release back in March 2005, he was very impressed by the realism of the sound and the extraordinary level of detail in the sampling. However, it is probably true to say that some potential users were put off by what was perceived as a somewhat complex user interface. To their credit, Toontrack responded with EZ Drummer, based upon a narrower range of drum sounds than DFH Superior but with a much more user–friendly interface. With SD 2.0, Toontrack are attempting to marry the best of both these earlier products — the meticulous sampling and user control found in DFH Superior with a more accessible user–interface based on EZ Drummer. SD 2.0 comes hot on the heels of its obvious competitor — BFD2 — so how does Toontrack's latest offering shape up against FXpansion's flagship product?
SD 2.0 comprises five main components: the drum sample playback engine itself; a 60GB sample library; the EZ Player Pro MIDI loop manager and sequencer (including a library of MIDI loops); a bundle of five audio plug–ins; and Toontrack Solo, which is designed to allow stand–alone operation of any of Toontrack's drum instruments. While SD 2.0 can be driven by a standard MIDI track, the separate EZ Player Pro plug–in provides additional options for managing, auditioning and sequencing MIDI loops, and this serves a similar function to parts of the Grooves page within BFD2. EZ Player Pro doesn't include a MIDI editor — this still has to be undertaken within your host sequencer — but many users may prefer to do this sort of editing in a familiar environment rather than having to learn a new set of tools anyway.
Via some clever compression technology, Toontrack have managed to get 60GB of detailed drum sampling into 20GB of hard drive space. Installation does take a little time, but both that and the challenge-and-response authorisation process proved otherwise painless on my test PC. I tested the VST version within Cubase 4.5.2 but AU and RTAS hosts are also supported, as is the stand–alone mode mentioned earlier. All the documentation is supplied in PDF format.
SD 2.0 includes an EZ Drummer–style drum–kit view in the Construct window and this provides an attractive means of auditioning (simply by clicking on the drum graphics) and loading samples (clicking on the small arrows produces a drop–down menu of kit pieces). For existing DFH Superior users, a 'classic' view is also provided, where each drum item is represented as a drum pad. The right–hand side of the Construct window allows the Envelope, Pitch and Humanise settings to be adjusted for the currently selected (highlighted in blue) kit piece, while the topmost box allows X–drums (you guessed it, extra drums) to be added to the kit. If you own other Toontrack drum libraries, such as the Latin Percussion library, X–drums can be used to build a full percussion section around the basic drum kit.
Along the base of the main window are five ever–present control sections. The Memory & Status section provides information and control over SD 2.0's RAM needs, while the Master Volume section does exactly what you would expect. The other three sections all refer to the currently selected kit piece, and particularly useful are the EZ Mixer controls, which mean that the full Mixer window doesn't have to be opened just to make a quick level adjustment to one element of the kit.
Perhaps the most significant development in the GUI is the Mixer window. This features separate channels for each virtual microphone, and, as there are multiple mic positions for the kick and snare as well as the overheads and ambient mics, this gives a very detailed level of control over how the kit sounds. Mixing the sampled drums of SD 2.0 provides an experience very similar to mixing a real multi–miked drum kit. Each channel features slots for insert effects, although you are limited to the selection of EQ (five–band), Gate, Compressor, Transient and high– and low–pass Filter supplied with SD 2.0. That said, these all sounded very good to my ears.
As well as a standard master output, SD 2.0 supports up to 16 stereo output channels if you wish to do further processing in your host DAW. Clicking on the Output button towards the bottom of each channel strip allows a mic to be routed to a particular output pair or to one of the 16 buses. The Bus Send Bleed and Bleed Control knobs allow the user to specify the degree of microphone bleed from each kit piece into other microphones. Clicking on the Edit button under a channel's Bleed Control knob allows the amount of bleed to be specified on a drum–by–drum basis. I suspect that this degree of control may be over the top for the needs of most users, but if you do want ultimate control for an ultra–realistic sound, SD 2.0 can certainly oblige.
The SD 2.0 engine can, of course, be triggered from a standard MIDI keyboard or a set of MIDI drum pads. However, if you have a collection of suitable MIDI drum loops the EZ Player Pro plug–in provides an alternative approach to building your drum parts. Toontrack supply an excellent collection of MIDI loops in a variety of styles and time signatures, and users can specify the paths to any other MIDI loop libraries they may have installed on their hard drive. To use EZ Player Pro, the plug–in is simply loaded into the Cubase VST Instruments rack (detailed instructions are given in the PDF manual for a number of popular hosts), after which it can be selected as the MIDI in source for the MIDI track allocated to SD 2.0.
The EZ Player Pro window is divided into two areas: the upper section simply provides a Browser window where MIDI loops can be searched and selected; and underneath is the multi–track Arranger window. In between these two is a strip of controls that include a playback option for auditioning the currently selected MIDI loop within the Browser. Having auditioned a loop, you can drag and drop it onto a MIDI track in the host DAW or onto one of the tracks in the Arranger window. While many users might prefer to do their loop arranging in their DAW, the Arrange window does offer some interesting possibilities. For example, each track can have multiple Layers, and a different loop can be placed in each Layer, with options to play all layers, cycle through them or select one at random with each playback pass. As the MIDI output from EZ Player Pro can be recorded into your DAW, there are also some excellent creative possibilities to be had by offsetting the loops within different tracks to create new performances. This would work particularly well with tracks containing percussive parts.
Given the DFH Superior pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the sophisticated functionality provided by the combination of SD 2.0 and EZ Player Pro is matched by the quality of the drum sampling. When you consider that there are approximately 150,000 individual samples in the library and that these are spread across a relatively small number of individual drums and cymbals, the word 'detailed' probably doesn't do the sampling strategy justice. The library includes three kicks, seven snares, three hi–hats, five toms, six cymbal setups, four rides and a cowbell. In almost all cases, multiple articulations are included (for example, seven different types of snare hits) as well as a variety of sticks, brushes and mallets.
Compared with the slightly more expensive BFD2, there is probably not quite as much variety in the SD 2.0 library but, as with FXpansion's line, Toontrack already offer a number of add–on kits, with more in development. That said, what is included here sounds absolutely great. Given the control over individual microphones, the ability to pitch–shift the individual kit pieces and to adjust their transients, it is possible to conjure a huge range of acoustic drum sounds from SD 2.0 and they would suit many different musical genres. I'm not sure I'd find myself delving into the various bleed options too often, but the ability to blend the close mics' bleed with that of the overheads and room mics allows you to add as much or as little ambience as required.
One might expect all this realism to come at something of a cost in terms of computer resources but, in basic use, SD 2.0 didn't seem to put a significant strain on my test system. CPU load only really seemed to pick up when I inserted more instances of the various effects plug–ins into the mixer. RAM use is perhaps more of an issue as the 'full' version of the default kit requires almost 1GB to load. However, options such as the system 'cache' (which only loads samples as they are used), 16–bit mode and the ability to limit the velocity layers can all be combined to reduce this quite dramatically while composing, and can then be switched off again when it comes to the final mix. Alternatively, SD 2.0 includes its own Bounce window, where its outputs can be bounced down to audio. This bouncing is done at the highest quality and, as well as just creating a standard stereo mix, can be used to create audio tracks for each virtual microphone. In essence, this will generate a multitrack audio performance — just as if you had recorded a real drum kit — ready for mixing with the rest of the audio in your project.
It's difficult not to be impressed by what SD 2.0 has to offer. Toontrack have managed to strike a sensible balance between very detailed control of your drum mix and an interface that is relatively easy to use. And as the samples themselves sound excellent, the only limits to your creativity are your programming ability and your host computer — unless you have a reasonably well-endowed one.
The obvious comparison is with FXpansion's BFD2 and, having used both products, I have to say that choosing a favourite is a very difficult call. In terms of control over your drum mixing, I think SD 2.0 and BFD2 are pretty evenly matched, and I suspect that both products actually offer more features than most of us would find ourselves using on a routine basis. The attention to detail in the sampling in both products is also excellent. While there are some differences between the two in terms of the approach taken to certain features, probably the most obvious difference is that BFD2 is supplied with a somewhat larger variety of drum types, while SD 2.0 comes in at a lower asking price. Without wishing to sound as though I'm sitting on the fence, if price is not a primary consideration, this really is a case where potential purchasers will need to audition for themselves. Like BFD2, Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2.0 is an excellent product.
As mentioned in the main text, BFD2 is the obvious competitor to SD 2.0 and, in many key ways, these two products do a very similar job. If you feel the level of detail provided by SD 2.0 and BFD2 is a little over–the–top for your own needs, a number of 'drummer–in–a–box' type products might also be worth considering. The obvious examples would be Steinberg's Groove Agent, Submersible's Drumcore or Scarbee's Imperial Drums XL. All of these provide their own take on the virtual drummer concept, so a quick dip into your Sound On Sound back issues might be a good idea before flexing your plastic on any particular product.