It feels to me as though we're finally starting to see proper drum and percussion products for computers. Of course, it's been possible for a long time to buy drum sounds or loops for samplers (hardware or software) and trigger them straight from our sequencers, but over the past few years, there have been more and more software-based products specifically tailored to cater for rhythm, whether to tailor loops or simply build kits which respond like real drums do. Of these, I particularly like the look of NI's Battery, now out in a revamped version, Stylus RMX from Spectrasonics, reviewed by Paul White in last month's SOS, and FXpansion's BFD, which Paul tackles on page 226 this month. And now I have one more to add to the list, because the first time I heard about Submersible Music's Drumcore, I knew I had to have it.
I recently set up a computer recording system based around an iMac and Apple's Logic for a friend who simply wanted to trawl through loads of drum samples till he found one he wanted to write or play over, and then get on with composing and performing. He found it very frustrating having to import loops as AIFFs or WAVs from CD-ROM into Logic and matching their tempos to hear if they would be suitable. He wanted to audition loops the way you can whizz through presets on a synth, then simply pick the one he wanted, try different tempos till it was right, and have Logic use this as the start point for his new song.
His frustration lasted until I showed him Drumcore. It's a software instrument containing the performances of many very gifted drummers, presented as a series of audio loops in various styles, with each loop recorded at many different tempos. For further flexibility, individual drum hits recorded at the same sessions as the loops are also supplied, as are MIDI sequences derived from the performance loops — so if you wish, you can create a completely tempo-flexible version of the performances based on the supplied MIDI sequences and kit samples. In addition to its library of audio and MIDI loops, the program has excellent auditioning facilities. You can step through the available patterns very quickly, arranged either by artist or style of music, until you find something that piques your interest, vary the tempo with a big user-friendly control and then export the loop so that it opens in your sequencer and works with the tempo you've set. You can even customise Drumcore's excellent auditioning interface so that it works for any sample libraries you already own. It really takes the hard work out of auditioning and tailoring drum loops for use in your own music.
My interest in Drumcore stemmed from having all these famous drummers at my disposal. Alan White (the drummer with Yes since the early '70s, and before that with John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band) is one of my favourite drummers of all time, and I was irresistibly drawn to the idea of being able to use his most famous rhythms to write and arrange my own material without falling foul of the publishers and lawyers for breach of copyright.
Now, I wouldn't expect everyone else to feel the same way about Mr White's drumming, but I would be surprised if this collection does not contain at least one of everybody's favourite drummers. The other one I immediately checked out was Michael Shrieve (the drummer with Santana in their classic Abraxas phase); but that's my roots showing again. For those who like a different type of roots, there is Sly Dunbar (who played with Bob Marley and Black Uhuru, as well as being one half of reggae production team Sly and Robbie) and for those who like their black music on the rockier side, there is Zoro, whose credits include Lenny Kravitz. Plenty of other styles are represented here, from AOR (Ben Smith from Heart) and rock (Matt Sorum from Guns'n'Roses and Velvet Revolver) at one end of the spectrum, through Jeff Anthony (Sheryl Crow's drummer) and Tony Braunagel (who has played for both Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal), Ned Douglas (who has worked with both Dave Stewart and Simply Red) to DJ Size-up, whose grooves feature in Ultra Naté's stuff. If you can't find someone whose playing you admire in that lot, you must have very exclusive tastes indeed! And if you do like what you get on the main disc, Submersible are apparently making other Sly Dunbar, Zoro, and Matt Sorum add-on discs available in the near future.
Creating & Editing Kits
At the time of writing (late November 2004), the single Drumcore install DVD only works on Mac OS X (minimum requirements a 400MHz G4 with 256MB of RAM and 10GB of disk space to install and audition the library from). However, Submersible recently announced version 1.5, which will work on the PC as well when it ships in the New Year. Any Mac users who bought Drumcore before the end of the year are automatically entitled to a free v1.5 upgrade when it is released.
Whether you choose to browse by artist or style, you can instantly skip from one category to the next using the left and right arrow keys, or from one pattern to the next using the up and down arrow keys. In case you cannot hear the difference between the audio grooves and those made from kit samples triggered via MIDI, the two distinct categories are represented by a waveform and five-pin DIN icon respectively. Original tempos are shown beneath MIDI icons, whereas the audio loops default to the tempo of recording when you first open them. You can also open a Video Window to see Quicktime footage of your selected drummers in action and read their biographies.
One of the important things to note is that when you change tempo in Drumcore, you are actually selecting a different audio loop recorded by that same drummer at the new tempo. This means that the looped audio performances are not available at every possible tempo, although you can of course edit them in your sequencer after importing them if you need them to run at a slightly different speed. However, this does mean that the grooves you get have been properly played at all the different available tempos. This is important, because rather than just playing the same thing slower or faster like a drum machine, good drummers will play a pattern differently at different tempos, especially where there is a lot of 'swing' or 'feel'. This means that Drumcore will give you a more 'human' performance at the selected tempo — in fact, some of the patterns change quite drastically at different tempos. But then you try playing 16th-note triplets at 150 beats per minute!
Of course, if this doesn't offer enough flexibility for you, then as mentioned earlier, each drummer's kit is also available as a MIDI-triggerable set of samples with velocity layering. Using the supplied MIDI files of the famous drummers' loops, you can set the tempo to whatever you like. The kit samples also allow you to add fills and other embellishments with instrument sounds which match with those in the audio loops, as the individual hits were recorded at the same sessions.
The other really cool thing about Drumcore is that you can use the audition engine to go through all your existing audio loops. You just drag and drop your files into Drumcore's Date/Content folder and then select 'Import Files' from the Import menu inside Drumcore. You can decide what criteria you use to sort the loops (for example, if you have files with tempos in their filenames, this can be used to order them), and you can even make your own Styles and Groovesets if you want. Once you have done this, your loops become available to Drumcore's browser interface, sorted in the way you've determined.
If none of the patterns appeal, and you are bored of all your own loops, then Drumcore still offers a way to please. It offers an excellent option which randomises the content of audio files in a musical way, named after Peter Gabriel. Although the 'Gabrieliser' doesn't give you a useable result every time, every once in a while it comes up with a cracker of a rhythm which you wouldn't have thought of by programming or chopping up a loop yourself. It works virtually instantaneously, too, so you can just keep clicking on the Gabrielise button until you get something which appeals — I saved off a few real corkers which turned up while doing this review which are going to come in nicely one day.
Of course, none of this great stuff would be that much use if you could only run it inside the Drumcore program. Fortunately, Drumcore can output in Logic, Cubase/Nuendo, Digital Performer, or Pro Tools formats, or generic ones like WAV, AIFF or Sound Designer II. Files can be 16- or 24-bit and at sample rates from 44.1 up to 192kHz. I tried using Drumcore files with several different sequencers, and everything worked swimmingly. Rewire is also supported, so you can feed the output of the Drumcore engine through your audio software if it supports this.
As you can probably tell, I was really impressed by Drumcore, but as mentioned at the start of this review, it's up against some stiff competition at the moment, all at around the same price. Stylus RMX was reviewed in detail in last month's SOS, and a review of Battery 2 is still forthcoming, but the obvious other contender is FXpansion's BFD, which is only 30 quid more expensive. BFD does come with some great drum sounds and arguably offers more flexibility, with the ability to mix and match the levels from overhead, room and close mics, and to process the different instruments in the kit through different output channels, which is not possible with Drumcore. However, auditioning kits is much slower with BFD, as it takes a lot longer to switch from one kit to the next. Like Drumcore, BFD comes with a lot of MIDI patterns to make preset grooves possible, but it is really about programming your own patterns and using your sequencer to trigger the patterns. And whereas BFD's raison d'être is the different classic kits they have painstakingly set up and sampled, with Drumcore it is the performers who are the focus, not the individual instrument sounds.
After some time spent with both, I think I can categorise the difference as follows. If you want a particular drum kit or combination of specific bits of drum hardware, then BFD offers you a level of mixing and matching, and of subtlety in the triggering department, which no other library can touch. But if you want classic drummers to bring their own special something to your music, or you want to make selecting from your own library of loops and grooves a speedy process which does not get in the way of writing, then Drumcore is the way to go.