Why use samples of analogue drum modules when you can have a proper drum synth in your sequencer, giving you complete control over your percussion sounds? Waldorf's Attack makes it all possible...
Analogue drum machine sounds form the rhythmic mainstay of contemporary dance music, but as anyone who has ever tried to buy a real analogue drum machine will have discovered, they have drawbacks aplenty. They're expensive, many need modifying to work with MIDI, and they are far less flexible than modern instruments. Waldorf's Attack is a VST plug-in for Mac and PC systems that aims to recreate many of these classic analogue sounds, not by sampling, but by virtual analogue synthesis.
The biggest weakness of the true analogue drum machine was that each voice had to be based around a separate, dedicated sound-generating circuit. This meant the component cost was high and there was also a limit to the sonic variations that could be coaxed from each voice. Furthermore, each drum sound was strictly monophonic. Using software to emulate these analogue building blocks imposes no such limitations, and Attack is flexible enough to mimic machines as diverse as the Roland TR808 and TR909 and the Simmons SDS5, as well as being able to create new sounds not possible on any of the analogue machines. Furthermore, 12 of the Attack's 24 voice elements can be played chromatically on separate MIDI channels (1 to 12) for use as bass or lead lines.
The drum sounds themselves cover the range C1 to B1 and the preset kits follow the GM drum-mapping protocol as far as possible, while the chromatic sounds can be played from C2 to G9. This means that all the drum sounds plus one chromatic patch are available on each of 12 MIDI channels. Controllers 12 to 59 are used to modify the drum sounds and Controllers 72 to 119 to modify the chromatic sounds. There are two built-in delay sections, and these accept MIDI only on channel 16 with Delay 1 using controllers 12 to 18 and Delay 2 using controllers 72 to 78.
Waldorf Attack £130
Good user interface.
Emulates just about any analogue drum sound imaginable.
Includes a surprisingly fine-sounding chromatic polysynth section.
No pitch-bend scaling or mod-wheel vibrato.
Attack is a powerful and great-sounding drum/synth module well suited to dance music or electronica.
The 24 voices, their names and their MIDI channels are shown down the left-hand side of the plug-in window, and selecting any one of them brings up the appropriate synth settings in the main window. When the sounds are played over MIDI, a virtual status LED attached to each voice lights up.
The synthesis engine is the same for all voices (see the block diagram, right) and starts off with two main oscillators that can generate all the classic analogue waveforms plus random sample-and-hold-style waves and noise. Additionally, samples of open and closed hi-hats and a crash cymbal are available. This makes creating cymbal sounds easier than by the traditional analogue method whereby a number of oscillators cross-modulate each other; in practice, Attack can generate both synthetic and natural-sounding cymbals. Oscillator 2 may be used to frequency-modulate Oscillator 1, and it's also possible to feed the two oscillators into a ring modulator. Using these facilities, a cymbal sample could, for example, be ring-modulated with an oscillator to produce a beatbox-type analogue cymbal sound.
A mixer combines the oscillator outputs with the ring modulator and the output from a specially designed 'Crack' generator (with speed and length parameters) is used to produce handclap-type effects. There are also controls to set the amount of influence the two ADSR envelope generators have on the level of Oscillator 2, based on key velocity. Envelope 2 is pre-routed to the main output amp (which operates like a VCA) while Envelope 1 can be used to influence different sound parameters, such as the filter cutoff and the Oscillator 2 level, and both Envelopes 1 and 2 can be used to modulate Oscillator 1.
Attack's signal path in block-diagram form.Test Spec Attack version reviewed: v1.01.
In order to produce natural-sounding hi-hats, the voices may be assigned to exclusive groups so that triggering a new sound, such as a closed hi-hat, will cut off a sounding open-hi hat assigned to the same group. As the block diagram shows, the synthesis engine is relatively straightforward, but it is still capable of generating a huge range of sounds. A section of the manual explains how the familiar TR808, TR909 and SDS5 sounds were generated and examples of these sounds are provided within the preset drum kits. I used Attack under Emagic's Logic Audio and in order to gain access to the preset kits, I first had to copy them into Logic's Plug-in Settings folder.
New sounds can be created from scratch either by modifying the presets or by starting from first principles, and sounds may be copied and pasted between kits. Modifications to a kit must be saved before you move to editing a new one or your changes will be lost, though you can move around within kits without losing your changes.
All the classic analogue machines sound the way they do because of the way in which the analogue voice-generating elements are put together, and some are very distinctive. In many cases, the quality of the sound is due to the imperfect way in which analogue circuitry attempts to synthesize 'real' drum sounds and I was pleased to find that that the TR808, TR909 and SDS5 presets were extremely true to the originals. What's more, it's very easy to customise the sounds to build up a library of individual voices or complete kits, and some of the presets provided show just how weird and industrial you can get when you try. You need to know the basics of analogue synthesis to get the best out of Attack, but even semi-informed experimentation can produce some very worthwhile variations, and there is a Random function that can be used to create new voices or even complete new kits. Oddly though, the randomisation also applies to the output assignment, so I had to keep switching back to Stereo 1 before I could hear anything! A 'vanilla' blip is also provided as a starting point for creating new sounds.
The envelope generators are fast and assertive, and the sounds consequently have plenty of punch. The more I played with Attack, the more I liked the way it sounded, and the ability to automate parameters is a techno composer's dream.
Further surprises were in store when I started to explore the lead/bass capabilities of the chromatic section. I'd expected this side of Attack to be a bit of a throwaway, but that turned out not to be the case at all. In fact Attack is enormously flexible as a musical synth and is great for producing fat bass sounds, punchy TB303-style basses and even bass drones that are extremely reminiscent of Moog Taurus pedals. It's not too bad at leads either, and of course it is polyphonic, so you can get some nice pads out of it. The FM and ring modulation in the oscillator section coupled with the multi-mode filter provide more versatility than many of the simpler analogue synths, so it's possible to get glassy DX-like tones, silky Oberheim leads and even some fair Moog approximations. However, I found the lack of 'mod wheel to vibrato' routing a little limiting, and the pitch-bend seemed to be fixed at 12 semitones, which is far too coarse for normal use. This could be fixed in Logic Audio with a bit of trickery in the Environment page, but I felt it should have been adjustable from the Attack front panel.
Attack is a powerful, great-sounding piece of kit. Its ability to do impressions of classic analogue drum machines is uncanny, its friendly user interface invites experimentation, and it turns in a better-than-average performance as a chromatic synth, even though some functions are missing in this department (specifically the fixed bend range and lack of mod-wheel vibrato). There's also no portamento control, but you can still coax some seriously good synth leads, pads and basses out of it. Attack is more than just a virtual drum module it's a complete drum programmer's toolkit, and is flexible enough to be useful across a whole range of musical genres. Some software synths simply fail to excite, but this one is fun to play with and the results are more than worthwhile.