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Behind The Groove

Virtual Drum Instrument Developers' Round Table By Debbie Poyser
Published September 2008

More and more music producers are turning to 'virtual drummer' software to help them realise authentic-sounding drum tracks. We caught up with some of the people behind the leading applications, to find out why this new software genre has appeared and how it might develop in the future.

Behind The GrooveSince its very early days, sampling technology has been applied to drums. The apparently modest demands that drum samples placed on primitive samplers, in terms of memory and bandwidth, made them a fertile area for exploration, and basic drum and drum-loop sample libraries were some of the first sample libraries ever to become available.

As technology and our understanding of the true complexity of drum and percussion instruments and how they are played has progressed, however, it has become ever clearer that a sampled representation of a drum kit that has any pretensions to authenticity must be extremely sophisticated. Drums come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, and can be struck, stroked, bashed and beaten in any number of ways, by players exercising their art across all musical styles. No longer content with picking out a couple of loops from a sample CD, music producers who can't or don't want to use a live drummer are turning to a new generation of virtual drum instruments to allow them to create drum tracks that could pass for the real thing.

Some of these instruments use artificial intelligence to produce drum parts in styles to suit the user's requirements, while others focus more on extremely in-depth sampling of many different drum hits and articulations, enabling the production of highly realistic drum parts in the hands of skilled programmers. We talked to a selection of virtual drum instrument producers about their products: Steinberg (who make Groove Agent); Fxpansion (BFD); Submersible Music (Drumcore); Toontrack (EZ Drummer and, just released as we went to press, Superior Drummer 2.0); Digidesign (Strike); and Mixosaurus (DAW Drums Kit A). See the 'Product Background' and 'Company Background' boxes for more on these instruments and the people that created them. For now, we'll push on with the questions...

Raison D'être

What led you to produce a drum sample instrument?

Digidesign (Peter Gorges, director of the Digidesign AIR Group, and Paul Kellett): "We wanted to raise the bar in terms of musical and authentic drum performance and there was a clear need among the Pro Tools community. That's why we did Strike."

Mixosaurus (Uwe Lietzow): "The idea for Mixosaurus was born during a drum-recording session at Berlin's Teldexstudio. Being a musician first and technician second, I was always very dissatisfied with what the drum-sample world had to offer, because none of the products was able to deliver a musical, natural-sounding performance that could follow a song's dynamics and feel, one that I'd like to play to as a musician, or to listen to as a music lover. And if there was one that could, there were mix options missing, or the sound quality wasn't right. Then one day, while tracking drums for a production at Teldex, we were so overwhelmed with the sound we had achieved that I started to develop a concept for my own virtual drum set, one that could legitimately be called an authentic reproduction of a drum kit in a recording situation. A musical instrument one could play, not an assortment of samples."

Steinberg (Helge Vogt): "Groove Agent 3 is the third incarnation of Steinberg's successful virtual drummer. Since the beginning, the goal was to combine a huge library of top-quality drum and percussion sounds with a range of player technologies, to create dynamic, ready to-go drums with a few mouse clicks: just choose a music style and a drum kit, and you're off."

Submersible (Dave Dysart): "We created our software in response to the owner of our company's frustration with trying to find, audition and export drum loops quickly for use in songwriting sessions. We then expanded it in response to comments from our owner's friends (Dave Stewart, Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel) to include MIDI beats in addition to audio loops — making a virtual drum instrument with multisampled MIDI kits."

Company Background

  • Digidesign: Peter Gorges (Director, Digidesign AIR Group) and Paul Kellett (Head Of Research, AIR)

Peter and Paul joined Digidesign in 2005 after being in the market under the name Wizoo since 1997. They have been creating virtual instruments since 2001. The AIR team currently consists of 17 people, with a balance of developers, sound designers and technology/product strategists, all "avid users of our own and our competitor's stuff". Their drum-related background dates back to providing the entire content for the first software drum module ever (Steinberg's LM4) and includes the Wizoo Platinum 24 drum libraries.

  • Fxpansion: Ted (Gareth Green) & Skot McDonald

Ted has been a sound and recording engineer for two decades, and worked at major studios all across London. When not working for Fxpansion, he does a lot of work on film scores, commercials and the like. SkoT is a software engineer who wrote his own plug-ins under the Vellocet imprint, as well as researching some of the more esoteric aspects of computer audio at the University of Western Australia, before joining Fxpansion at the end of 2002. Skot led the development effort for both BFD1 and BFD2 and has a special interest in artificial music perception and creation.

  • Mixosaurus: Uwe Lietzow, Tobias Lehmann and Mathias Ramson

Uwe Lietzow heads the Mixosaurus team and is responsible for product concept and design, drumming, editing and programming, while Tobias is a recording engineer and Mathias takes assistant engineering duties. Uwe has been a multi-instrumentalist and engineer for 25 years, mainly working in pop and rock. Past work has included freelance drumming, recording and mix engineering for national and international live, studio and TV productions. Credits include engineering on commercial advertising productions, drumming, music production and mixing for the German Idols TV shows, and engineering on Britney Spears' 'My Prerogative'. Grammy award-winning Tobias is best known for his production and engineering of classical recordings. He's a trained pianist, but "when nobody's watching he cranks it up to 11, grabs his Gibson and does rock recordings." Mathias Ramson had just finished school and was a trainee at Berlin's Teldexstudio, as well as a noted techno artist, when the Mixosaurus recordings were made. He's now with Valicon, one of Germany's most successful producer teams.

  • Steinberg: Helge Vogt, Product Manager

In his role as Product Manager, Helge has been working closely with the Groove Agent programmers, Dave Brown and Michael Spork, for several years. Lead developer Dave was one of the first people to develop for the VST interface when it came out in the late '90s. Helge himself is a musician and has been playing drums and guitar for many years, including stints in different bands around his home town of Hamburg.

  • Submersible: Dave Dysart.

Dave has 18 years of experience as an audio engineer and producer, primarily working on music sessions in Seattle and including "everything from rock artists like Guns N' Roses and Heart to jazz recordings with Mark Murphy." Submersible have two other music engineers, one an accomplished drummer and the other with 18+ years of experience in LA studios, having worked on recordings by artists such as Dave Stewart, Queen, Robbie Robertson and Pearl Jam. The team is completed by a sales and marketing person and a "genius" software programmer. Everyone in the group is a musician.

  • Toontrack: Andreas Sundgren, CEO, and Mattias Eklund, Head Of Sound Design

Toontrack Music was formed in 1999 to produce computer game soundtracks. The company mainly did contract work on early PC titles such as Traitors Gate and Clusterball, and during the production process for the Clusterball music in late 1999 couldn't find a drum sound library that would deliver the sound they needed. They decided to record one of their own, using drummer Tomas Haake from metal band Meshuggah, and called it Drumkit From Hell, because of the heavy metal connection. After using the sounds in several productions the team noticed that they were being asked by other producers where they got their drum sounds, so in early 2000 Toontrack started selling Drumkit From Hell as a sound library from the company web site, on CDs burned in the office. A few months after receiving a five-star Sound On Sound review for DFH, Toontrack had global distribution for their products. With the money made by DFH, they continued to try to realise "the ultimate tool for recreating drums in a digital recording environment", and work started on the drum VI Superior Drummer in 2001. DFH Superior was released in April 2003, and other products followed, including EZ Drummer, built on the Superior software engine but with new sounds and user interface.

Kits & Miking

How did you choose the drum kits?

Digidesign: "We tried to select a good balance of character and universally usable sound."

Fxpansion (Ted ): "To offer a good range of musical, interesting and rare drums that are out of the reach of the majority of people. To bring the best to the table, recognising users' desires to achieve many different styles and genres of drum sounds."

Mixosaurus: "The goal was to create a drum kit that would be programmable and playable in as diverse and detailed a way as a real drum kit, and it immediately became obvious that there could not be more than one kit created at the same time, because the recordings alone would take one, maybe two months — per kit (don't even think about the editing!). Thus the goal was to achieve a universal, 'standard' sound to make this kit usable for many musical styles and productions, yet with enough options to push the sound in one direction or another."

Steinberg: "The sound library of Groove Agent 3 was created to cover as many musical bases as possible. The idea was to tailor drum kits and percussion instruments to a perfect fit for each musical style, as well as to capture natural room ambience for every sound. In Groove Agent 3 we added new kits that recreate certain very distinctive sounds. One is modelled on famous kits played on many Swedish pop classics, another features recordings from a lovely old '60s kit, and the third is a powerful, clean and punchy kit that's got quite a modern, radio-compatible sound."

Submersible: "We normally use whatever the 'famous' drummer we are employing requests (Matt Sorum, Sly Dunbar, Terry Bozzio, Alan White, etc...). If we're doing kit sampling alone, we try to get the best instruments in a certain style or category."

Toontrack (Andreas Sundgren, CEO, and Mattias Eklund, Head of Sound Design): "We always work with the producer, engineer and drummer to get the result we're looking for in a specific product. If we do a 'vintage rock' product, for example, we want kits that correlate with that."

How important are stick choices, head choices and drum tuning?

Digidesign: "They're as essential as guitar tuning."

Fxpansion (Ted): "Stick choice has a role to play, but in my opinion the more important aspects are tuning and choice of skin, and drum damping. With two of the kits in BFD2 being well known and owned by famous drummers, it was important to research their tuning and setting up, as well as recreating, within reason, the manner in which they were originally recorded, in order to recreate, to a degree, the sound of the drums that are so well known to so many people. For example one of the 'tricks' used with Ringo Starr's Black Oyster kit was the use of tea towels over the drum heads to dampen the skins. On John Bonham's kit we used a very particular tuning regime and choice of drum head."

Mixosaurus: "Well, they're certainly as important as the choice of drums. Put the wrong head on the greatest drum (or tune it wrong) and it won't sound great at all. For 'tip' sounds on cymbals, the stick makes all the difference. A great cymbal won't sound bad, but take two very different sticks and you'll believe they are two different cymbals!"

Steinberg: "The tuning of the drums is vital in getting the maximum sound out of the drum heads: without tuned drums, the kit will sound muddy and out of pitch. Our drummer used several different heads and sticks, as well as brushes, mallets and rods, to evoke the spirit of a given era."

Submersible: "We think these things are very important. To get the sound right you need to consider the genre of music — is this jazz or metal? Wood tips sound different to plastic, and coated heads sound different to clear. Plus proper drum tuning really makes a kit sound great (or not)."

How did you mic the kits?

Digidesign: "We used up to three close mics per instrument, plus stereo overhead and room. Every hit in Strike consists of up to seven channels of audio."

Fxpansion (Ted): "The drums were miked in a fairly typical manner. I'm not, as an engineer, into what I call 'stunt recording techniques'. I believe in good, solid mic technique, with attention paid to technical needs and requirements sometimes ahead of my own personal desires as an engineer. Recording drum samples is very technically demanding. The slightest creak, rattle or breath noise can ruin a particular sample. Sounds that are often masked in conventional recording by other sounds are laid bare.

"In terms of ambient microphones, we offer the mics in a spaced-pair overhead position using Manley Gold reference and Coles 4038 mics. We offer a second pair of mics in an M/S configuration, placed 10-12 feet back from the kit and pointing at just above the bass drum. These were a pair of original AKG C12s. Finally, way up high and in the back of the room are another pair of spaced mics, this time Sony C800s, to capture the very different room sounds you get high up in recording spaces."

Mixosaurus: "Close mics were used on the drums and the hi-hat. Cymbals were not close-miked. I've never liked the 'gong-y' sound of mics close to a cymbal. My thinking is that close-miking cymbals was invented to let you, for example, bring a ride cymbal up in a mix, but that can be done anyway in virtual instruments. There's no need to compromise the cymbal's sound by putting the mic too close.

"To give the producer or mix engineer the greatest flexibility, we offer three different overhead setups (Schoeps MK4, Coles 4038 and Neumann U67 in M/S configuration). We included Neumann PZMs on the floor, and we also recorded the studio's real echo chamber, which had a speaker system fed by a mix of the kit's microphones.

Andreas Sundgren, CEO of Toontrack, the makers of EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer.Andreas Sundgren, CEO of Toontrack, the makers of EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer."What's special about what we did was that we added a second, more distant mic to the hi-hat, which gives a more 'ambient' sound but at the same time has incredible transients. The user can blend the two mics as he or she wishes. The PZMs serve as what I call 'air' mics: they are heavily tube-processed and compressed, and add the 'expensive' touch to the sound that's so hard to achieve with plug-ins.

"However, the biggest conceptual difference to other drum instruments/libraries in terms of sound and miking is the room: Kit A was recorded in a small room that was not too ambient sounding. With all the ambient-sounding products out there, it's impossible to remove the room sound because the room's ambience is in the overheads, too (and these you need for a good 'kit' sound). A big ambient sound is impressive, but we felt the user would have a more versatile kit if it could sound dry too.

"Inside the kick we used an Audio Technica ATM25; outside was a Neumann U47 (FET); top of snare, Shure SM57; bottom of snare, Shure SM57; hi-hat close, Neumann KM140; hi-hat distant, Neumann U87; toms, I'm not telling! We also used Neumann GFM132 PZMs, and overheads were Coles 4038, Schoeps MK and Neumann U67."

Steinberg: "The drums for Groove Agent were recorded in a Swedish studio that features a large recording room mostly covered with wood panels. All sounds were recorded on analogue 24-track tape for a warm sound, with multiple microphones to capture the room. We mixed down the multiple tracks with the finest analogue gear, to end up with two stereo buses: the dry, mixed signal and the ambience signal."

Submersible: "Again, this depends on the genre of music. We generally mic all of the drums: snare at top and bottom; all toms on top; for kick, we have inner, outer and sometimes a Yamaha Sub kick; then stereo overheads; stereo room; and a close room mic. Sometimes we do spot mics on ride cymbals or other things we need to feature. It gives us flexibility later when mixing and usually works very well. We have used all kinds of things for ambience: M50s, C24s, Coles, M49s, U67s, usually in coincident (X/Y) or spaced pairs. The idea is to capture the sound of the drums in an environment, to capture some of the room sound that adds size and colour to the drum kit. In the case of a big rock kit, the mics may be far away from the kit and capture more room; for a funk kit or country kit they will be closer... and so on."

Toontrack: "We mic the drums the way they are supposed to be miked for the purpose of the product, and the producer we use has 100 percent say about what he wants to use. The mics are very different between different studios and products. We always use the best we can get: as an example, for ambience we used U67s, Royer SF12s, Royer R121s, Coles, Neumann M50s, Telefunken ELAM 201s and AKG C24s."

How have you handled crosstalk and spill? Can you explain the reasoning behind what you did and what you were trying to offer the user?

Matthias Eklund, Toontrack's Head of Sound Design, in demo-ing mode at 2008's Frankfurt Musikmesse.Matthias Eklund, Toontrack's Head of Sound Design, in demo-ing mode at 2008's Frankfurt Musikmesse. Digidesign: "Strike doesn't apply a conventional 'multisampled drum kit mapped to velocity' method. The key feature of this instrument — and the secret behind functionality like seamless dynamics — is a special recording and vectorising technology that allows us to reproduce real live performances without the crosstalk you would get in multitrack recordings. This way we can freely combine instruments like hi-hats or snares from different grooves without the bleed getting in the way. Crosstalk in Strike is re-introduced on the fly with an overall user control, so the user is entirely flexible."

Fxpansion (Ted): "All the crosstalk and spill is retained during the recording process. We record the bass drums with and without snare rattle, so that users have a choice. We keep the crosstalk and spill for the simple reason that all this noise gives our ears acoustic clues that we are indeed listening to a real drummer playing a real drum kit. Without all the crosstalk and spill the drums very quickly sound like very obvious samples."

Mixosaurus: "Based on our collective drum-mixing experience, we decided to use the natural spill only in the 'common' mics (overheads, PZMs, room) and to leave out the crosstalk in the close mics, as these usually are much more of a pain to handle than they are beneficial to the sound. In Mixosaurus, the common mics play with every hit on every drum or cymbal, while the close mics only carry the respective drum or hi-hat signal. This way, there's no need to clean up channels using noise gates (like most people would). The Gigabytes we saved by omitting these spill samples we could use for the good stuff instead — more articulations, more alternating samples. This doesn't take away anything in terms of authentic sound and realism, but it makes it much easier to apply heavy compression, EQ, extreme pannings or reverb to a drum.

"For each individual drum or cymbal, the user can adjust the levels of close mics, overheads, PZMs and Teldex room. If the user leaves the level controls untouched, he or she has an authentic reproduction of a drum recording with everything sounding exactly as loud as when it was played and recorded — a real-world drum kit mix, not separate sounds."

Steinberg: "Our engineer did his magic, setting up the microphones to avoid too much bleed. However, we think a bit of bleed is necessary to make a kit sound real, and we are happy with the result."

Submersible: "We try to capture the sound of the entire kit in a way that is in keeping with the style of music we're working on. We want enough isolation to be able to have some amount of control when mixing, but not at the expense of having it sound cohesive."

Toontrack: "We always record all bleed, because in DFH Superior and Superior Drummer 2.0 you can control that bleed in many ways. In EZ Drummer, we remove it on some mics and keep it on others. We use all bleed because it enables the producer, songwriter or engineer to achieve the most realistic result."

Drummers & Performance

How did you choose the right drummers? What qualities do they need?

Digidesign: "We chose an experienced producer who's a drummer and skilled sound engineer. Since Strike's development system is complex and unusual, it required somebody committed to working closely with us instead of just using conventional methods. This producer organised other drummers, who helped him in recording the grooves. Most of Strike's content production involved actually playing real grooves for maximum authenticity, instead of just sampling individual hits (although they're available), so we wanted real drummers."

Fxpansion (Skot): "The drummers needed an engineering knowledge and understanding of how BFD2 needs to operate; a consistency of hit position and deep dynamic control and expression; a knowledge of how different models of drums react, and how to get the most out of them; a Zen-like ability to sit absolutely still without breathing after each hit for ages; an equally Zen-like ability to not go crazy after days of single hits spaced apart by long tail periods; and a willingness to be an advocate for drummers and make sure the sessions recorded what they want from the product, not just composers and engineers!"

Toontrack's EZ Drummer main page.Toontrack's EZ Drummer main page. Mixosaurus: "There are single hits only, all played by me. To play a precise schedule of about 70,000 drum hits, a drummer needs precision, patience, endurance, dedication, unlimited capacity to suffer and the ability to count the clicks between the hits. The combination of these qualities is hard to find (and would hardly be affordable even if I found it), so I did it myself."

Steinberg: "Because there are lots of repeated tasks, we were looking for a very technically experienced drummer with that extra discipline that is needed for this kind of session. For example, it's important to scale the dynamics in the same way all the time, especially when recording the alternate hits: they need to match the dynamic levels of the original hits. For the performances our drummer needed a lot of creative potential on the one hand and a lot of actual song experience on the other, to create really usable styles and patterns that will work in a lot of contexts."

Submersible: "We try to pick the best drummers we can get in each style. We look for guys with a background as record-making drummers. The qualities they need include great timing, great-sounding drums, a unique style and a good work ethic! Our Groove Sets are the equivalent of a song, and generally drummers are used to doing a song at one set tempo. However, we usually have the drummers play the same Groove Set at multiple tempos, sometimes from 60 to 130 bpm. So it is a bit of work for all concerned. But we think it makes for a better product, since tempo dictates so much of how a drummer plays."

How do you translate real performances into your programmed drum patterns (if your product offers them)?

Digidesign: "Strike can use programmed drum patterns, but the original styles are analysed from the actual performances — keeping the exact dynamics, micro-timing and 'hit context', which to us is superior to MIDI patterns. We used custom tools for aligning to bars and beats within multitrack performances and then extracting timing, level and timbre of each hit."

Fxpansion (Skot): "We recorded MIDI from an electronic drum kit, and then we engineered/corrected by hand as needed."

Steinberg: "The majority of MIDI styles were played by a drummer on an electronic drum kit and later edited in Cubase. There are also styles that are entirely programmed in a sequencer, such as the non-acoustic ones. Throughout the entire creation process for the MIDI grooves, we paid meticulous attention to keeping the feel of a real live drummer. All of the new acoustic drum and percussion styles in Special Agent and Percussion Agent were recorded live. Patterns recorded live are not as flexible, but they intuitively feel very dynamic and emotive."

Submersible: "We use the audio loops and a real live drummer to create our MIDI loops. We compare back and forth between the audio loop and the MIDI loop and our sampled kit, to try to get them as close as possible. The MIDI loops are optimised for the particular artist's kit that most closely matches their live audio loops, but also have to work well with other kits in our library. That's one of the most fun things about our product, in that you can have a MIDI groove up and swap kits instantly, which will yield new and sometimes pleasantly surprising results. For example, there is the trendy 'electronic drum intro/breakdown/verse that goes to the huge rocking chorus' effect. With Drumcore, you just take the MIDI version of the 'huge rock drummer' beat and assign it to an electronic kit in our MIDI instrument for the verse. Then simply drag over the audio versions for the big rock chorus."

Toontrack: "The drummers use high-end electronic drums to record the performances."

Talking Technical

Do you use disk streaming or do the samples load into RAM?

Digidesign: "We decided in favour of RAM, to avoid increasing the disk-streaming load and being a system hog. This was only possible because we developed our own custom lossless compression of the audio, which minimises RAM consumption by 70 to 80 percent compared to linear recordings. In its ECO setting, Strike doesn't actually need more RAM than a disk-streaming engine needs for pre-buffering, so the benefits are obvious."

Fxpansion (Skot): "We give the user the choice of both disk streaming and RAM-based approaches. Disk streaming allows BFD2 to support massive kit sizes — very long cymbal and tom tails, large numbers of velocity layers, large numbers of microphones. It does require a good I/O sub-system, however."

Mixosaurus: "Mixosaurus uses streaming. It wasn't a question of advantages or disadvantages; it's simply impossible to create a sample-based instrument that has this degree of detail without disk streaming. All the articulations, variations and tracks, all at 24-bit and uncompressed, would need 5-10GB RAM for each of the kit's drums and cymbals without streaming. The disadvantage of streaming is a somewhat higher latency, but since the v1.1 update Mixosaurus can be run with a 64-sample audio buffer for real-time playing situations — so latency isn't an issue any more."

Steinberg's Helge Vogt.Steinberg's Helge Vogt.Groove Agent 3 shows off its Styles...Groove Agent 3 shows off its Styles... Steinberg: "We are not using disk streaming, so all samples load into RAM. Of course, you can save RAM by using streaming but on the other hand you are then stressing the hard-disk performance, which may lead to not enough bandwidth for audio tracks in your sequencer. We reduced the RAM consumption in Groove Agent 3 by using a lossless audio compression scheme."

Submersible: "We use RAM, as it seems to be easier to achieve the least latency with the least hassle."

Toontrack: "We load samples into RAM, but we have a compression system that we developed, which saves RAM and disk space up to a fifth of the normal WAV file, without any loss. We do not use disk streaming, for several reasons. The disadvantage is the time it takes to load a kit, but we feel that now, with our Superior Drummer 2.0 engine coming out, we have compensated for that as much as is possible. The advantages are many: we use a lot of advanced transmuting technology for hi-hats, for example, and that would not be possible if we used disk streaming. But most of all, using RAM is far more stable than disk streaming."

Do you think that the resolution of MIDI is good enough for reproducing real drum performances, in terms of timing and velocity?

Digidesign: "No, and that is one reason why we do not use MIDI patterns. We use a higher resolution. Internally, Strike's timing is sample-accurate, and the level isn't just represented by 127 velocity steps but is entirely continuous."

Fxpansion (Skot): "The MIDI file spec has more than enough resolution in timing, as you can have time quanta down to microseconds if needed; but the MIDI serial transport layer is woefully inadequate — 31.25kbaud just doesn't do it. All major electronic drum manufacturers need to get into USB MIDI — hint, hint, Roland. Yamaha and Alesis are already producing drum brains with USB MIDI connections. Velocity-wise, 127 levels is probably adequate for our purposes; BFD2 uses incoming velocity as a guide to intended dynamic strength and then uses various round-robin and anti-machine-gun algorithms to select the actual velocity layer to play. BFD2 can thus support an unlimited number of velocity layers."

Mixosaurus: "Yes, definitely. Don't blame the machines: if a MIDI instrument sounds robotic and machine-like, it is due to a lack of articulations and sound variations programmed into the instrument (by humans!), not because of the grid. There are a number of ways to work around (or mask) MIDI's limitations, and they work fine. As an example, Mixosaurus uses no more than 22 velocity layers, but the Alternating Samples feature acts as a multiplier, adding subtle variations — and you don't even have to program those variations into your MIDI data. If you ask a drummer to play two takes of the exact same performance, you'll probably find that the timing, as well as the velocities of his/her hits, differs more than MIDI's resolution."

Steinberg: "In GA3, we use a much higher resolution than MIDI for playing back internal patterns and beats, so internally we can do away with many of those limitations. Generally speaking, VST Instruments use sample-accurate resolution, so there is no real resolution issue."

Submersible: "Yes, but we are continually seeking ways to improve it. We've found that the more care and detail we put into taking the samples themselves, the better the results in terms of emulating acoustic drums. We've made great strides in this area. Also, we see that traditionally the way folks process real drums with compression means that perhaps you don't really need a bazillion discrete samples to make things sound good."

Toontrack: "Yes, but we do think that there could be ways to make it even better, such as higher resolution."

Getting The Balance Right

How much is good enough when it comes to providing levels of samples, articulations, dynamics and velocity?

Digidesign: "You can't have enough, really, and on the other hand it's not just a matter of the sheer quantity of samples — it's also a matter of concept, and interlinking, interaction and interpolation of samples. If you just map samples to MIDI velocity zones and maybe apply round-robin, you'll never get good enough for a real drummer to accept it as 'real'. We use up to 300 individual hits per instrument; we use a real-time context system that makes intelligent choices on the fly depending on rhythmical context, spectral and dynamic properties of the instrument, playing dynamics (not just velocity) and user input. Still, while more isn't always more, it helps."

Submersible's Drumcore.Submersible's Drumcore.Dave Dysart of Submersible Music, pictured here on the right, with Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins at centre and Submersible's Gary Thompson on the left.Dave Dysart of Submersible Music, pictured here on the right, with Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins at centre and Submersible's Gary Thompson on the left. Mixosaurus: "You asked the right guy — or maybe the wrong guy! If you compare the design of Mixosaurus with that of other drum products, you'll find that we give a very different answer to that question. Our aim is to provide an instrument that can be used musically in virtually any production situation where you'd use an acoustic drum kit played with sticks. It is designed to deliver a great, musical-sounding drum track in real, dynamic music. The resolution of Mixosaurus is where it really starts to make sense from a drummer's perspective. What's the point of a virtual instrument on which you can only play 75 percent of what you'd normally play in the song? None, I say — the missing 25 percent is much more than a small part. It might make the difference between 'real' and 'fake' and thus ruin the whole track. Now, why would it be important to look at this from the drummer's perspective at all? Question in return: why would you want a drummer to play drums on your tracks, and not the trumpet player? Because the drummer knows what to play, not just how to play."

Steinberg: "Well, to be honest: a lot! The count on velocity samples depends on whether the engine is providing sound-shaping tools that help interpolating between velocity levels. However, the simple rule is: the more velocity layers are included, the closer you'll be able to get to the sound, impact, musicality and realism of a drum kit recorded live. It is also important to feature alternating hits to avoid machine-gun effects when triggering a drum sound repeatedly. The Alternating Hits feature calls up a different sample every time a drum sound is played, because human ears are extremely good at recognising exact repetition."

Submersible: "At this point, we use up to 10 velocity layers per instrument, and proprietary ways to insert more randomness, in an effort to sound even more like live drums. We feel this is necessary to recreate the timbral nuances that occur with dynamics and subtle performance variations that occur naturally with live instruments. We are elaborating on this with the new DrumFeel technology we are introducing in KitCore 1.5."

Toontrack: "A snare, for example, would need just for the centre hits at least 40 samples divided all over the velocity scale, and also at least two on each of the velocities. For EZ Drummer we also have 10 or more in the softest area and 10 or more in the hardest area of the hits. Superior has much more than that. Articulations differ between drums: a snare needs centred hits, sidestick and rimshots; a ride needs ride, bell and crash; kick drum only needs one."

How do you make the product usable for non-drummers yet sufficiently deep and satisfying for drummers?

Digidesign: "Our ambition with Strike was to let users who have no drumming or engineering experience, and no access to a drummer, create authentic drum performances for their tracks. A lot about the user interface and performance features in Strike subtly guides the user to a good result. At the same time the user interface is 'scaled', and there are detailed pages with a lot of depth, so skilled drummers or engineers can use it to its full extent and create results not possible with conventional sample playback — not even with real drums, where you can't just replace the snare in a perfect performance with another one or 'ask the drummer' to play softer. Market research shows that the majority of users for an instrument like Strike have little drumming/engineering experience, but are creative as producers, and that's what we want to help them with. A minority of our users, especially in the Pro Tools HD world, are very skilled engineers and drummers, and they can be very vocal if you don't do it right, so we're happy we satisfied them as well."

Mixosaurus' DAW Drums Kit A.Mixosaurus' DAW Drums Kit A.Uwe Lietzow, founder and head of Mixosaurus, with his dog Heidi!Uwe Lietzow, founder and head of Mixosaurus, with his dog Heidi! Mixosaurus: "Mixosaurus users are given several hundred hi-hat and ride cymbal patterns of different tempos, different loudnesses (hit strengths) and accentuations, all clearly named. Kit A also includes a number of well-known songs where the drums are programmed exactly after the original, so they can examine how it's done: composition, transitions, fills, and especially the interaction between hands and feet. V1.1 also includes the translations of all major MIDI drum formats (Addictive Drums, BFD, DFH, EZ Drummer, General MIDI), so you can take any MIDI groove in these formats and have it played back properly by Mixosaurus, and you also can play Kit A directly via Roland and Yamaha e-drums.

"But let's be honest and destroy yet another advertising myth: the truth is that you can't use an instrument properly without knowing a good portion of how it works and how it is played. Marketing regularly tries to tell us different. The big Virtual Instrument difference is that you don't need to be able to play it, but knowing it is essential.

"In my opinion, what we as virtual instrument companies should do is give users a stock of basic grooves/patterns to derive their own stuff from, and also give them some real-world song stuff to examine and analyse — but users will definitely have to get to know the instrument they want to use to some extent. What happens if you take groove #1234 for your verse and chorus, and then you need to build a transition or fill and you don't know anything about the instrument? The result will be a great-sounding verse and chorus, a bogus transition and a few embarrassing fills. So if you want the best results, please save the time browsing through thousands of grooves and do some analysis and examination instead. It'll pay!"

Steinberg: "I think Groove Agent 3 is used by lots of non-drummers who want to set up a drum track in no time. Keyboardists and guitarists especially just need a good accompanying drum track that sounds real. On the other hand, there are also drummers who use GA3 as a source of inspiration for their own drumming."

Submersible: "Most of our users are songwriter/guitar types or keyboard players composing for film and TV. So not many are drummers. But we have tried to make it easy to use for the professional down to the novice-level user, both drummers and non-drummers."

Toontrack: "We provide MIDI played by real drummers without altering the timing within the bars, so you get the real timing and feel of the drummer. Users can always quantise later. Most of our users do not have drum experience."

A Suitable Case For Treatment?

Do you think it's important to provide effects, even though they would already be offered by the host program?

Digidesign: "We think it is very important to include effects so that a drum sound (or an entire kit) can be created, stored and recalled as one object. Many users don't work (and don't want to work) in a traditional way, with the drum kit spread over many mixer channels, and don't know what to do to polish the drum sound. Our effects are tailored specifically for drums, so we include some unusual ones, such as frequency shifting, which can be used to tune drum sounds; triggered effects (because these processors 'know' the timing exactly); and, of course, a range of dynamics processors."

Fxpansion (Skot): "Yes. By having a standard suite of effects you can provide factory presets and allow users to share presets that sound the same, no matter what a user's personal collection of plug-ins is, or what host platform they use. BFD2 has some seriously accurate circuit-modelled compressors that we feel are products in their own right. Fxpansion have also done a deal with Overloud to bring their wonderful Breverb effect into BFD2. BFD2's signal processing architecture also allows side-chaining, which hasn't always been available in all hosts, and is essential to mixing drums."

Toontrack: "In EZ Drummer, we don't, as a very conscious choice. We want EZ Drummer to have as few 'moving parts' as possible without compromising sound. In Superior Drummer 2.0, we have EQ, HP LP Filter, Transient effects, Gate and Compressor, all of them provided by Sonalksis."

Submersible: "Actually, no. We feel that since people have a DAW that they have spent time learning, plus tons of plug-ins that they know and like, it's redundant. Plus it's rare that you can get a high level of optimisation happening when you have so many separate mix engines running."

Steinberg: "Yes, we think it is important to provide effects, as it allows you to save the kit together with the effects — independently from the host you're using. We provide EQ, compression (both very well suited to shaping drum sounds) and spatial effects — very important. Here we didn't add artificial reverb. Our ambience feature adds natural space recorded in the room with the kit at the same time, so when you blend in the room signal you get a very lively, realistic and homogenous feeling to the drum sounds."

Keeping The Faith

What was the hardest thing about producing your instrument?

Digidesign: "Managing the huge amounts of data involved, checking at every stage of the process that no quality/musicality from the original recordings is lost, and making sure that performance features we expose to the user always create a credible result."

Fxpansion's Ted at Air Studios, London.Fxpansion's Ted at Air Studios, London.Skot McDonald of Fxpansion at the 2008 NAMM show in the USA.Skot McDonald of Fxpansion at the 2008 NAMM show in the USA. Fxpansion (Skot): "A project of the scale of BFD2 was far bigger than anything Fxpansion had ever attempted before — more like a small film. It's a cliché, but it was a real 'growing experience' for us. The level of exactitude needed in the studio — isolated, single-hit, multi-channel drum recordings require a level of obsessiveness and attention that is crazy — so many channels to check, your drummer needs to sit absolutely stock still for minutes after a hit and barely breathe while you capture the tail, and the bloody studio building has to be silent, so much more so than you'd ever require when recording a band. If the sun fell on Air Studios, we'd occasionally hear Emre, our first drummer, swear his head off in the middle of a ride cymbal because part of the building had warmed up slightly and made a tiny 'tick' sound. We also have out-takes of him chasing a fly all over the studio. Always prep your sample-recording studio with bug spray! The sheer amount of data that needed processing, refining, checking, and even just backing up was insane. We had a small fleet of terabyte servers shuttling around versions of our kit data between locations. Trying not to despair when the scale of what we had taken on became more and more apparent; staying focused and sane until completion."

Mixosaurus: "Keeping the faith and motivating myself through endless days and nights of editing 350 gigabytes of drum samples. Appeasing my family was equally hard, though!"

Steinberg: "Recording the content was a major challenge: in GA3 we feature almost 10,000 patterns in total. On the software side we already faced big challenges in previous version 2 because the code wasn't written with a modern modular approach to software development. Our experience was that the software was doing what it should, very well and efficiently, but it simply wasn't written to be expandable. So it was a major task to re-engineer and rebuild the code for Version 3 from the ground up. Also we liked and wanted to keep the easy user interface of Groove Agent 1 and 2 but make it a bit cleaner, so the interface has been reworked. Developing a new piece of software is always hard. There's an old adage in programming: the last 10 percent tends to take longer than the first 90 percent."

Toontrack: "The hardest thing is to stay focused during the recording, since it is a very demanding job for all involved. It's not easy to listen to single drum hits 15 hours a day and keep focused."

When Less Is More

We think there are too many complex patterns, and especially fills, in drum instruments, and not enough basic ones. What would be your response to that?

Digidesign: "Totally agreed. This is a dilemma that every content designer struggles with, not only with drum instruments but also synthesizers and effects. The show-off stuff that makes people buy the product is not necessarily what they need in production, and the useful stuff usually sounds bland. We had that same criticism from our Strike user base — you don't want Vinnie Colaiuta going crazy in a simple folk song — so we released a content expansion at NAMM with a focus on simple, useful patterns."

Toontrack: "We agree, and we are working hard to make easy song-writing loops and fills in our products."

Submersible: "It is a complaint we have heard across the board. That's why we offer simple beats that get increasingly more complex in our Groove Sets. We also offer the user the ability to edit the MIDI versions of the beats in their DAW and (of course) to create their own beats using our sampled MIDI kits. So there is a bunch of ways to deal with that issue, at least in the case of our stuff."

Mixosaurus: "I agree. That's why Mixosaurus offers basic patterns and famous real-world songs instead of fancy licks."

Steinberg: "Well, we have the basic ones and took extra care to ensure they are usable in a real song environment. In GA3 we offer 25 complexity levels per style, each one consisting of a drum beat and a fill. They do not start getting really wild before level 20!"

Fxpansion (Skot): "BFD2 has what we feel is the 'best of all worlds' drum-pattern editor. We've used a lot of hosts over the years, and we cherry-picked all the best bits and stuck them into one editor, with some extra ergonomic creations of our own, such as the swung insert grid. Additionally, the users have so much power to manipulate patterns: they can use the 'simplify' knob to non-destructively take a pattern, on the fly, to a more stripped-back feel, or can decompose patterns into their component kit-piece lines, and drag-and-drop these independently of the pattern they are part of. BFD2 has several thousand grooves. Some are simple, some are more complex; additionally, third-party providers like Groove Monkee are stepping up to provide even richer palettes to choose from."

The Future

Where do you see this technology developing in the future? Would you agree that we are at the point where there is no problem with the sound of drum instruments but users are still not able to get exactly what they need from them? If you're using a human drummer you can simply ask him or her to play something appropriate. Would it not be possible to use automatic groove/mood extraction to intelligently produce similar behaviour in the software?

Digidesign: "We think you're right, and we gave the answer with Strike almost two years ago. Apart from that, I [Peter] sound like a broken record about how virtual instruments should enable computer-based musicians to be producers, rather than forcing them to learn the instrument.

Creating a kit with Fxpansion's BFD2.Creating a kit with Fxpansion's BFD2."As a keyboard guy I want to concentrate on my instrument, I don't want to learn how to play and engineer drums — I want a tool that makes me feel like a producer, that gives me the choices I'm comfortable with and am skilled enough for, and helps me create great results that can totally be my own, although they're originally based on pre-recorded content. I think this is where a large part of the virtual instrument world needs to go. This needs a change of direction, as these days we still see too many 'instruments' thrown onto the market that are just a sample library embedded in a generic player — which is basically what you could get with a big hardware sampler 10 years ago."

Fxpansion (Skot): "Huge scope for development remains. For the most part, sound quality and detail are at a level (certainly in BFD2) where users up and down the spectrum are satisfied — now we just need to get them more kit-piece options! There are still gestures and drum interactions beyond simply hitting the damn things that need addressing — muting, head tension during playback, hitting position and style, interactions between drums. Complex dynamic systems such as hi-hats are just a mass of variables, and I think that sampling will only ever be able to provide an approximation. That said, you can satisfy a huge proportion of cases with samples.

Paul Kellett (left), Digidesign AIR Group's Head of Research, and Peter Gorges, Director of Digidesign AIR Group.Paul Kellett (left), Digidesign AIR Group's Head of Research, and Peter Gorges, Director of Digidesign AIR Group.Digidesign's Strike.Digidesign's Strike."Artificial composition/musician modelling also seems like a near-future achievable goal; but human drummers will react to whatever the state of the art is and produce a mind-blowing response that leaves the AI dead in the water (for a while!), which will be great for music! Think of those drum & bass drummers that play rings around the drum machines and intensive sample manipulation tricks that those musical styles were built around originally."

Mixosaurus: "The 'intelligent accompaniment' will certainly become better, but I'm sceptical about whether it'll be good enough to produce really pleasant, musical tracks for dynamic music, following a song's structure, and so on. You'd probably need to explain so many things and parameters to the machine first that it wouldn't speed things up. I'd rather work to give people a musical instrument they can play — this will likely produce the better sounding music — and they can fix their timing afterwards!"

Submersible: "Technology and products can be two different things. New products can be created by combining content and/or features to address the needs of a specific musical genre or price point, using what you already have. Some of our new products we're tooling for this approach. Not as flashy, I know, but cool in that more folks can get access to the tools. Technology-wise, I'd say we want to make it easier for songwriters and composers to use our stuff in two major ways, and the tech has to serve these. You can think of them as 'Inspire' mode and 'Gimme' mode. To address Inspire mode first, this is helping folks dial up an inspiring performance and making them create stuff they normally wouldn't create — akin to how jamming with another accomplished player can always stretch you musically. In Gimme mode, we need to make it easier for folks to get to the groove they have in their head. They know what they are after and want the computer to 'gimme this beat now '. Short of being a great drum programmer or an actual drummer, that part of the process is still a bit dense. Music genre selection in the software gets us part way there with 'appropriateness', but there is a long way to go. The technology certainly is heading that way, and we are definitely looking at these types of features. And of course we probably should look at when it just makes sense to hire a drummer."

Toontrack: "It might, but in our opinion it is not possible or desirable to replace real drummers with software. If we did, who would we sample for our instruments? For those users that are not drummers/players, creativity within their working environment and talent will always be the deciding factor for how the music turns out, as opposed to technical feature madness." 

Product Background


SOS review: December 2006 (

Features overview: Described by Digidesign as "the ultimate virtual drummer", Strike is an RTAS-format plug-in offering five high-resolution drum kits, each containing up to 12 instruments, allied to more than 1500 editable preset patterns in popular musical styles. Features include: custom pattern creation with onboard Style Editor; real-time control of virtual drummer performance, including intensity, complexity, timing, groove and dynamics; real-time performance engine allowing gradual adjustment of performance dynamics without 'machine-gun' effects or audible velocity layer switching; mixer providing control over kit sound, including room ambience, microphone levels/leakage, EQ and dynamics; EQ and two insert effects processors per channel; MIDI Learn for mapping plug-in parameters to MIDI instruments; support for multi-channel output, for discrete routing/mixing of kit components in Pro Tools mixer.

Platforms & system requirements: Mac OS X & PC (Windows XP): Digidesign-qualified Pro Tools HD, LE or M-Powered system running Pro Tools 7.0 or higher software; 768 MB of RAM (1GB or more recommended); DVD-ROM drive for installation.

Price: £193 including VAT.


SOS reviews: BFD, February 2005 (; BFD2 June 2008

Features overview: Now at version 2, BFD is "the most powerful acoustic drum production workstation ever", according to its developers. Featuring a redesigned and "easy to use" interface and 55GB of new kit sounds recorded at AIR Studios, London, BFD2 offers: 10 full kits, with extra snares, cymbals, and more; control over tuning, damping, ambience levels and velocity response; multiple mic positions, expressive articulations and up to 96 velocity layers; user stereo multi-velocity layer sample import; mixer; suite of "studio-grade" EQ and effects processors; more than 5000 grooves and a groove-editing environment allowing user groove and drum track creation; multi-channel audio export; control mapping for keyboard/pad controllers; electronic drum triggering support.

Platforms & system requirements: PC: Windows XP SP1 or higher, Vista 32, P4 or better CPU; Mac: OS 10.4, G5 or Intel CPU; 1GB RAM, 60GB 7200rpm HD; DVD drive.

Price: £234 including VAT.


SOS review: January 2008 (

Features overview: More a super-deluxe sampled drum kit than a 'virtual drummer', Mixosaurus' mammoth DAW Drums Kit A probably competes in a market of about one, given that there's nothing else that compares to it in terms of detailed multi-level sampling of a single drum kit. As the developer puts it, "Mixosaurus consists of one drum kit, set up all together and sampled with authentic ringing, sympathetic vibrations and uncompromising detail, to form a giant 122GB library." Kit A, all at 24-bit with no data compression, comes installed on its own hard drive, complete with Kontakt Player 2 front end, and connects to computer via Firewire 800 or eSATA. MIDI Grooves are also provided, as are ride cymbal patterns, hi-hat patterns, and some complete drum parts of a number of hit tracks.

Platforms & system requirements: PC: Windows XP SP2, Pentium IV/Athlon CPU, 1.4GHz or faster; minimum 2GB RAM; Firewire 800 or eSATA port (eSATA needs 1.5 Gbps Plug and Play support); Mac: OS 10.4 or later, G4/G5/Intel Core Duo CPU, 1.4GHz or faster; minimum 2GB RAM; Firewire 800 or eSATA port (eSATA needs 1.5 Gbps Plug and Play support).

Price: 434-529 Euros, depending on drive type supplied.


SOS reviews: Groove Agent, July 2003 (; Groove Agent 2, May 2005 (; Groove Agent 3, January 2008 (

Features overview: Groove Agent 3 is a virtual drummer instrument combining a large library of drum and percussion sounds with a range of player technologies to give "dynamic, ready-to-go drums, beats, rhythms and percussion in only a few mouse clicks", according to Steinberg. Features include 10 detailed acoustic kits and nine drum machines, plus acoustic and electric percussion; 123 music styles "from over 50 years of music history", plus hundreds of percussion performances played by professional studio drummers; 25 complexity levels per style, including fills, intros, endings and half-tempo feel variations; user sample import feature; realistic rolls and paradiddles with alternating hits; auto-fill functionality; 'RealAmbience' technology providing true recorded ambience for drum kits; 9-band EQ and compressor for each of the 12 stereo outputs; VST, DXi, AU and Rewire format support, plus stand-alone version with multiple-output support.

Platforms & system requirements: PC: Windows XP Home, XP Professional or Vista 32-bit; Intel/AMD Processor 2GHz minimum (dual-core recommended); 1GB RAM (2GB recommended); 4GB free HD space; DVD drive for installation. Mac: OS 10.4; Power Mac G5 2GHz or Intel Core Solo 1.5GHz minimum (dual core recommended); 1GB RAM (2GB recommended); 4GB free HD space; DVD drive for installation.

Price: £189 including VAT.


SOS reviews: Drumcore, February 2005 (; Drumcore 2, December 2006 (

Features overview: Described by its makers as "a complete solution for producers and composers who need to create drum parts quickly in a multitude of styles", Drumcore majors on providing performances by world-class 'name' drummers including Sly Dunbar (Bob Marley), Michael Shrieve (Santana), Matt Sorum (Velvet Revolver), Alan White (Yes, John Lennon) and Zoro (Lenny Kravitz). Performances have been recorded at 10bpm increments, for "more musical" grooves that don't need extreme time-stretch processing. Drumcore features include 48kHz/24-bit samples recorded in top studios using high-end analogue and digital gear; loop librarian with extensive search engine, which can also be used to manage the user's own libraries; 'Queue Play' function for rapid auditioning of beats; user sample import; songwriter 'groovesets' designed to present the user with the best loops, fills and variations that can work together at the current tempo; and optional 'Drummer Packs' offering additional genre- and drummer-specific content.

Platforms & system requirements: PC: PIII or Athlon 800MHz or above, 512MB RAM (1GB recommended), 8GB free space (content), DVD drive for installation, Windows XP or Vista. Mac: G4, G5 or Intel CPU, 400MHz or above, 512MB RAM (1GB recommended), 8GB free space (content), DVD drive for installation, Mac OS 10.3.x or higher.

Price: £140 including VAT.


SOS reviews: EZ Drummer, July 2006 (; DFH Superior, March 2005 ( Coming soon: Superior Drummer 2.0 (£189).

EZ Drummer features overview: This "compact, affordable, easy to handle plug-in", according to its developers, "enables users to create a great drum track in just a few clicks". Features include: multi-microphone drum recordings made at Avatar Studios, New York, by "world-class" drummers and producers; extensive drag-and-drop MIDI library comprising 8000+ MIDI files; 7000 audio files; control over microphone bleed and levels between drums using internal mixer; Toontrack Percussive Compression (TPC), meaning that system requirements are kept to a minimum; humanising features derived from the Superior Drummer line; stereo and multitrack routing to the host through a single plug-in; user interface that 'visualises' the drums loaded and combines auditioning and kit construction; user MIDI file import; and preset mix modes for quick sound changes.

Platforms & system requirements: 1.5GB free hard disk space, DVD drive, plug-in host. PC: Windows XP or Vista, PIII/Athlon 1.8GHz with 512MB RAM. Mac: OS 10.4 or higher, G4 1GHz with 512MB RAM.

Price: £99 including VAT.