Toontrack's DFH Superior comes from the same stable as the highly regarded Drumkit From Hell sample CD. It's a sample-based instrument that aims to allow the user the same degree of control over the sounds produced by its library of sampled acoustic drum kits that a studio engineer has over a real miked kit. This is achieved by providing samples not only of the close-miked drums and cymbals plus stereo overhead mics, but also the spill picked up by each close mic from every other drum in the kit. With some kick drums, you even get to choose the type of beater used, while the snare drum has top and bottom mics and in some cases, a choice of stick types. Add to this the use of multiple quiet and loud hits to add humanisation to the sound, separate right- and left-hand snare hits, a whole graduated range of mid-level hits and a wide choice of drum kits and you can begin to appreciate why this instrument comprises over 30 gigabytes of data!
DFH Superior is not a drum machine and doesn't come with a library of MIDI 'grooves'; it is a set of three dedicated software drum modules, and runs on both Mac and PC machines within host software that supports the VST or AU plug-in formats, or Rewire. It is installed from a series of DVDs, all but one of which is double-sided. As well as plenty of hard drive space, you'll also need a lot of RAM if you opt to use the drum kits with most or all of the crosstalk/bleed samples enabled — a single DFH drum can set you back well over 100MB of RAM, depending on how many of the bleed samples you enable at the same time. However, you have the option of switching off all the bleed samples and just using the close mics while composing, then using the Bounce option to render the final drum part with all the spill channels active. The rendering process creates separate close-mic and bleed-mic files for each drum, which can be imported back into your sequencer and rebalanced if you wish to work in this detail.
DFH Superior appears as three plug-ins entitled Drummer, Percussion and Cocktail. Drummer is where you find most of the acoustic kits, while Percussion offers a selection of Latin and world percussion. Cocktail contains smaller cocktail-bar style drum kits which utilise a kick drum with snares and generally only one tom. All of these are available in stereo and multi-output versions.
To give you some idea of the attention to detail that has been lavished on this project, the left- and right-hand snare hits comprise 10 low-level hits, a set of graduated-level hits in the velocity range 21 to 126, and 10 further hard hits. The velocity levels at which these switch can be adjusted by the user, but the idea is that if you are playing hard hits in a pop or rock song, they will cycle randomly so that you don't hear the same hit twice in succession. Individual drums hits can be retuned and the amount of bleed into the various mics from the various sources can be adjusted in greater detail than would be possible in a real studio session. There are also envelope controls for Hold and Release that can be triggered from a MIDI Note On or MIDI Note Off, which allows the user to simulate the effect of damping or to create more obviously gated drum sounds.
The DFH Superior interface comprises a number of pages, and when you first insert it as a plug-in, you see a window asking what pad (MIDI Note) configuration you wish to use. There is a GM option, but as DFH Superior has many more hit types than can be accommodated by the GM keyboard map, there is also a dedicated DFH Superior mapping system. You can also create and save your own. This window also has a button called Settings, and if you wish to use DFH Superior as a simple stereo-out plug-in, you need to go to the settings menu and tick Enable Stereo Mixdown. If you don't do this, only the overhead mics will be audible, and this had me fooled for a while. Settings have to be made independently for Drummer, Percussion and Cocktail, as they behave as three separate plug-ins.
The second window is accessed by pressing Continue, and is where you choose 'tools'. Again this term caused me some confusion when I came across it in the manual, but it simply means 'what you hit the drum with'. Not all drum sounds are available for all 'tools'; for example, if you select felt hand beaters, these only work on snare drums where the snare is turned off, while the Sonor kick drum is the only one sampled with the option of a wooden beater. Where the option is available you can also choose different sticks, and whether to turn the snares on.
The next page is where you build your drum kit; you can either load in a pre-made kit or build your own from individual drums or cymbals (if you have selected a hitting tool that isn't supported, the drum name will have an asterisk in front of it and will not sound). The drums are selected down the left-hand side of the window, while the main section shows a matrix of the drums and the microphones, with the close mics permanently indicated. Drums are on the vertical axis and mics on the horizontal axis. By default, Drummer loads with the close mics augmented only by the overhead mics. You can then use switches along the bottom to fill in the spill layers a drum at a time and one up the right-hand side to turn on all the layers for a particular mic, or you can use one switch to enable and disable spill for all the kit. The RAM use for each drum and total kit is shown so you can see if you're getting close to running out. There are also status indicators that show you when drums are loading into memory, so you know when the kit is ready to play.
It is important to note that if you use the DFH Superior Bounce function, all the spill layers will be included; if you don't want these, you can simply set the kit as you wish to hear it and then bounce it directly (to stereo if you wish) within your sequencer using the sequencer's own bounce function. If you're running out of RAM when programming, you can turn off all the bleed layers, deselect drums you don't need and/or switch on the Cached button to listen to a MIDI file you've programmed prior to bouncing it. This forces the sampler engine to load only those hits that will be needed for playback, which can make a big saving. If Cached is turned off, DFH Superior always loads all of the samples required for a kit.
Having selected or built your kit and then enabled those bleed layers that you wish to hear, you can move to the next window, which is in effect the main DFH Superior window. Here you see a number of drum pad icons known as Superpads, usually named after individual drums or cymbals. These contain Subpads of the various sounds that make up that instrument, for example, right- and left-hand hits, flams, rolls and so on. You can select one or more Superpad to carry out edits such as repitching the drums, changing the decay envelope using the Hold and Release controls, and adjusting the way loud and quiet hits are cycled. A Fix button is used to render pitch-changed drums to ensure higher quality.
Adjusting parameters for an individual drum via a Superpad also affects the way that that drum appears in the spill mics. You can also change the velocity threshold between the loud, soft and graduated hits, vary the amount of spill feeding from one drum mic to another, and even phase-reverse individual mics. Individual mics can be adjusted without affecting the spill by going inside the Superpads and editing the Subpads instead.
When it comes to bouncing down your drum track, you can select 16- or 24-bit resolution, whether to split the close-miked and bleed mic sounds, and whether to bounce each cymbal as a separate stereo track. If clipping occurs during bouncing, you get an overload warning allowing you to lower the levels and try again.
You might wonder whether 30GB of drive space can be justified for a handful of drum kits (albeit immaculately sampled), and I suppose the answer to that depends on the level of realism and control you need. There's no arguing with the quality of the samples — the cymbals are allowed to ring for their full duration, and it sounds to me as though the drums were recorded in a particularly good drum room. What's more, an intelligent polyphony mode allows the various hi-hat variants to interrupt each other in a very natural way. If you want the sound of acoustic drums but the flexibility of being able to program your own parts, then this has to be the most meticulous solution yet devised. A couple of the operational aspects threw me at first, especially the business of having to select Enable Stereo Mixdown in the setup menu when using DFH Superior as a simple stereo plug-in, but once you know about it, it's not a problem. However, to get the best out of DFH Superior, you really should use it in multi-output mode.
I suppose comparisons with FXpansion's BFD are inevitable, and it's probably fair to say that these are the only two drum 'rompler' instruments that stand comparison with each other. However, there are key differences beyond the fact that the drum sounds were recorded from different kits in different studios, and I don't think it's possible to say that either one is 'the best'. DFH Superior is slightly cheaper than BFD, has more spill options, and generally offers four toms per kit rather than three, whereas BFD offers groove libraries and groove play features that DFH Superior doesn't have. Personally, I find BFD's visual approach more user-friendly, and though you can't adjust the spill to such a high degree with BFD, or modify the envelopes in the same way, I think it still gives the majority of users more than enough scope by allowing them to balance the close mics with room mics, overheads and PZMs using intuitive mix sliders.
With DFH Superior, once you've mixed the overheads and close mics, you're 99 percent of the way to getting a great drum sound, and back in the good old days, it was normal to employ gates to remove exactly the type of additional spill that DFH Superior now allows you to add. Nevertheless, styles change with the times, and these days very live-sounding drums are in vogue, so having the ability to bring back all the spill artifacts, and to control them so precisely, will no doubt be welcomed by some. I also like the way you can bounce drum parts into multiple audio files for re-import into a sequencer, as this opens up a lot of possibilities for further EQing and processing.
Of course the sound of the drums is what really matters, and I can't fault what Toontrack have come up with. I would have preferred more kicks with wooden beaters, but the sounds cover most musical bases and the additional percussion section only adds to the flexibility, as does the cocktail kit. These drums seem to breathe life and they have bags of weight — it sounds just like having a real drummer on the other side of the glass, and I particularly like the way hard and soft hits are cycled to avoid 'machine gun' repetition. By balancing the overheads and spill layers, you can have the drums as wet- or as dry-sounding as you like, and if you want the sound more 'damped', the release envelope controls function very effectively as virtual gaffer tape.
The Percussion and Cocktail instruments don't have any preset kits, so you have to load in the sounds to create your own. This is very straightforward, but some standard setups to get you going would have been appreciated. The percussion section is mainly Latin in theme and includes some wonderful tambourine rolls that switch off when followed by single hits to create a very natural effect. Cocktail is also wonderfully brash and is ideal for generating that carnival feel. A kind of Ricky Martin meets Doc Martin!
DFH Superior is a monster, there's no two ways about it, but you can use it as simplistically or in as much detail as suits you. It has a great range of well-recorded acoustic kits, a useful section of staple percussion sounds and that cocktail kit for those of you into Latin bar music. It needs a lot of RAM to function well, but then RAM is cheap these days. It needs over 30GB of spare drive space to install, but again, drives cost under £1 per gigabyte now, so that's no big deal either. Even so, I feel there would be market for a cut-down version of this excellent product featuring only the close and overhead mics as that would, I'm sure, satisfy the needs of most users. While I feel the user interface could have been simplified in some areas, DFH Superior is very easy to get used to and very fast to work with.
As it stands, DFH Superior offers as much control as anybody could wish for and its Bounce mode will be welcomed by anyone who wishes to process the individual 'mics' after recording. I was more than impressed by the original DFH sample CD, and DFH Superior shows just how dedicated and meticulous the guys at Toontrack really are. Not everybody will appreciate the fine detail of which these drum kits are capable, but if you are prepared to put in a little effort customising drum sounds and you need the sound of world-class acoustic kits recorded in a sympathetic live environment, you can't afford not to look at DFH Superior. It's a true heavyweight amongst sampled drums and goes well beyond what even the better sample libraries can achieve.