A new drum-based instrument from Digidesign combines instant gratification with a huge sound library and plenty of potential for editing.
Since becoming Digidesign's Advanced Instrument Research division, the former Wizoo development team have been churning out product like there's no tomorrow. Their free Xpand! software sound module has been a welcome addition to the Pro Tools universe, and Hybrid is a powerful analogue-style synth with some neat user interface innovations. Next off the production line is Strike, a plug-in dedicated to helping you create convincing sample-based drum tracks.
Just as Xpand! bore more than a passing resemblance to Steinberg's Hypersonic, so too does Strike recall a Steinberg product, in this case Groove Agent. In both cases, realistic drumming performances are stored as patterns, which can played back using high-quality, multisampled drum kits. And in both cases, the key selling point is an advanced user interface that enables you to control your virtual drummer using the sort of instructions you might give to a real player. "Play harder! Not so busy on the hi-hat! Let's have a fill at the end of that bar! And try not to belch in the quiet bit."
Strike ships on two DVDs, and fortunately its sprawling 6GB sound library (which actually contains 20GB of sample data thanks to the wonders of lossless compression) doesn't have to be installed on the same hard drive as the plug-in itself. Because of its size, it took over an hour to install on my machine, but the process was straightforward. Authorisation is to an iLok key, as usual.
When you first add an instance of Strike to an Instrument track, you'll be greeted by the Main window, which consists of a file browser on the left and a selection of the most important controls on the right, with a MIDI keyboard running along the bottom. For more detailed editing, you can then visit various other pages dedicated to setting up kits, patterns, mixes and so forth. A nice touch is that Strike supports tool-tip help, so you can easily figure out what all the controls do without spending hours on the PDF manual.
There's no equivalent of the gimmicky 'timeline' slider found in Groove Agent; instead, you begin by choosing a Setting from the file browser. A Setting encompasses three basic elements: a playing Style with its associated selection of patterns, a drum Kit to play them on, and a choice of virtual microphone placements and mix processing to apply to the results. Each of these three elements can be saved individually, so you can mix and match playing Styles with drum Kits and processing choices.
When you've loaded a Setting, you'll see the on-screen keyboard divided into three zones. Six octaves are active, and the notes in the two highest of these are assigned to the sounds in your drum Kit on a single-hit basis, just as you'd find in a conventional sampler; hitting the Kit button devotes the rest of the keyboard to this function as well, allowing you access to more samples. The three central octaves are used to trigger the patterns in the current Style, with the white notes choosing basic patterns and the black notes triggering variations such as fills and endings. The bottom 'C' in this section doesn't trigger any pattern, but stops whatever one is currently playing back. The notes in the lowest octave are used to mute individual instruments within the active Kit, allowing you to drop out, say, the snare or kick from a pattern at the touch of a key.
This arrangement means that each Setting can include 20 basic drum patterns, with 15 variations. Most of the presets divide the basic patterns up into categories, so you might get one octave's worth of 'verse' patterns based around kick, snare and hi-hat, another octave of 'bridge' patterns using kick, snare and ride, and a third octave of 'chorus' patterns incorporating some other instrument instead of the hi-hat or ride. The different patterns in the preset Settings tend to be quite similar to one another, which is a good thing in my view, because it enables you to create discreet variations by switching between them. And because they're based around individual drum samples rather than loops, they can be played back over any tempo range you like without artifacts.
However, Strike 's most important parameter is Complexity. As you move this control through its seven layers, it introduces subtle changes to the drum patterns, making Strike 's playing busier or more sparse to suit your requirements. You can adjust Complexity by moving an on-screen slider or using automation in Pro Tools, but by default it's also assigned to pitch-bend, so you really can create a flowing performance from your keyboard. The mod wheel, meanwhile, controls the Intensity of Strike 's hitting, and this, too, is a brilliant way of introducing subtle variation on the fly.
Strike ships with a 6GB library containing some 20GB of losslessly compressed sample data, but as with products like BFD and Drums From Hell, this doesn't mean you get thousands of different sampled drums. Instead, the size of the library reflects the fact that each instrument in the kit has been multisampled exhaustively, with no looping, from lots of different microphones. In total, there are around half a dozen hi-hats and similar numbers of crashes and rides, plus five kicks, five sets of tom-toms and nine snares. Each of these Instruments comes in 'Eco', 'Mid' and 'XXL' versions, allowing you to balance realism against memory resources when creating a Strike Kit. Some, especially snares and hi-hats, are also sampled in a number of different positions: hi-hats, for instance, can be closed, half-closed or open, and struck at the edge or on the bell.
Each Kit has 12 slots, and as well as loading and saving entire Kits, you can change individual drums within the Kit. There are default slots for each type of drum, so for instance, double-clicking a kick drum in the browser automatically loads it into slot 1; but if you want to have a second kick in your track, or replace a snare with a floor tom, you can also drag drums out of the browser and on to the slot of your choice. It makes sense to stick with the defaults for the most part, since the Kick part in Strike 's patterns will always play whatever's loaded into slot 1, and so on.
The slots for each part of the Kit are represented as mixer channels, with a level fader and mute and solo buttons, but with the EQ and aux knobs replaced by controls that affect the way each instrument is played back. Tune engages a conventional repitching algorithm which plays back the samples faster or slower to make the apparent pitch of the drum higher or lower, while Start Point, Attack and Decay all do pretty much what you'd expect. The most interesting control is Timbre Shift, which allows you to make quite radical yet natural-sounding changes to the character of an instrument. Turning it to the left makes the sound 'softer' and darker, but not dull in the way that heavy EQ would, while higher settings make the sound progressively harder and more 'snappy', but again without the negative side-effects of conventional treble boost. There's no explanation in the manual of how it works, but it sounds natural even at quite extreme settings, and really widens the palette of sounds that is available.
Using only the global controls on the Main page, you can create a basic drum track for your song in a matter of minutes. Load in the Setting that best suits the style of music, audition the patterns to find the most appropriate, record-enable the Strike track, and you're away. Even the most ham-fisted keyboard player shouldn't have any trouble hitting a different note every few bars to change the pattern or add a fill, and you can record Complexity and Intensity data live or edit it in afterwards.
When the Latch parameter in Strike is on, it will continue to play the last-triggered pattern until you tell it to stop; with Latch off, Strike only plays for as long as you hold down the MIDI note. In general, I found it more convenient to keep Latch on while recording, rather than have my fingers welded to the keys. One problem with this approach is that if you start Pro Tools playback in the middle of your song, Strike won't do anything until it encounters a MIDI note, but this is easily dealt with. The Legato option from the MIDI Change Duration editor automatically extends all notes to fill the gaps, and Pro Tools will 'chase' a sustained note if you start playback in the middle of one.
There are 50 preset Settings, each of which includes its own set of patterns, its own combination of drum samples, and its own mix and processing parameters. These are all saved separately as Styles, Kits and Mixes respectively; so if, say, you hit on the right groove for your song but want to audition it with different sounds, you can just load in another Kit. It would be impossible to describe all the Kits and presets in detail here, but they cover the whole spectrum of pop and rock production, and most of them sound mighty fine.
I was particularly impressed by some of the vintage Settings; 'Dancehall' is crisp yet dripping with warmth, 'RhythmnBlues' is a brilliant showcase for the sort of detailed snare work that is so hard to program convincingly, and 'Jazz Bossa' uses a gloriously flabby kick drum to great effect. There are also a number of highly usable Settings in contemporary musical styles, such as 'Country Pop', 'Live Pop' and so forth — the funky 'Hybrid Hop' is a particular highlight. One or two of the preset Settings are a little sterile in their default form, but this can be addressed using the mix processing, and in general, the standard is consistently high. The preset called 'RnB' left me completely baffled, though!
As you'd expect, the emphasis is on realistic styles, but there are a few electronic Kits and patterns. These sound OK, but I'm not sure how much use they will get. Anyone making overtly electronic music is likely to want to program beats from scratch, or at least to have more than one set of patterns in their chosen style. However, there are also presets of 'real' drumming for dance music, with names like 'DrumnBass' and 'Four On Floor', which might be more useful.
One of the most impressive things about Strike is the balance it achieves between ease of use and flexibility, and this is particularly evident when it comes to setting up a drum mix. All the drums have been sampled from a number of different microphones in different positions around the kit. The Main page provides global controls allowing you to set a quick-and-dirty balance of these sources for all the elements of the kit, plus basic tone and dynamics controls. In many cases, this will be enough to get things sounding fine, but hitting the Mix button takes you to the Mix page, where all these parameters and more can be adjusted individually for each drum.
Like the Kit page, the Mix page presents each 'slot' in the Kit with its own fader and mute and solo buttons, but the tone-shaping controls are replaced by sliders which allow you to vary the contributions of all the different mics to the overall sound. Depending on what type of drum it is, each element of the Kit can have up to three close mics; the snares, for instance, offer top and bottom mics. There are also stereo overheads and room mics, and a Talkback mic for those trashy lo-fi moments. These global mics have their own faders, and in the case of the overheads and room mics you can vary the stereo width. The overheads also have a Delay parameter which allows you to change their apparent distance, and there are nice touches in the shape of the Mic Leakage and Snare Buzz parameters, which are self-explanatory. However, there's no way to reverse the polarity of microphones; if this were a real drum kit, you'd often want to do that with the top and bottom snare mics, but I'm guessing that Digi have put some work in to ensure phase accuracy between all the various samples, so as to make this unnecessary.
An interesting addition is the Surround button in the Room channel, which introduces an extra two channels of room ambience into the Overheads buss; this then produces your conventional room sound, and the Room channel now provides additional ambience to put in the Left and Right Surround (rear) speakers.
Each individual drum, plus the global Overheads, Room, Talkback and Master channels, has its own three-band EQ, plus two slots for an insert processor. The range of inserts on offer is pretty comprehensive, varying from conventional compressors, limiters and gates, through different flavours of distortion and enhancement to more unusual tools such as a microphone modeller and frequency shifter. Most of these do a more than passable job, given that the scope for editing them appears to be limited to five rotary controls.
Strike is also the first plug-in I've come across that can address multiple outputs in Pro Tools — in fact, I wasn't even aware that this was possible. By default, all the elements of the Kit are routed to the main stereo output, which is returned on the Strike Instrument track, but an additional eight individual outputs are also available as options. If you want to use them, you can create additional Aux tracks within Pro Tools to which they can be returned. I think this is a very neat way of handling multiple outputs, at least compared to all those multitimbral VST plug-ins that automatically create huge numbers of unwanted channels for themselves in Cubase or whatever.
Digi have chosen to tackle a pretty wide stylistic range in creating the preset drumming Styles, and the down side of this is that many individual genres are covered fairly thinly. If none of the presets works for you, you could simply use Strike as a drum library in the mould of BFD or DFH, and program your beats as MIDI parts in Pro Tools. To my mind, Strike would be worth the money even if you did just that, and never used its capabilities as a virtual drummer: but you're not limited to doing that, because another area where it scores over the likes of Groove Agent is that Strike patterns are fully editable.
The virtual drumming sounds pretty sophisticated when you're playing the presets, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn how simple the principle behind it is. In essence, a Strike pattern consists of a one- or two-bar MIDI-style drum part, and switching to the Edit Style page brings your chosen pattern up in a conventional grid-type drum editor. The variations that add so much to the realism of the drumming are mainly the result of each hit having an additional Complexity Threshold parameter. The fundamental kick and snare beats in each pattern will tend to have their Complexity Threshold set to 'Play Always'; eighth and 16th-note hi-hat hits might have intermediate Thresholds, while decorations such as ghost notes on the snare will be set up such that they only get played back when the Complexity slider is fully raised. Each hit also has a Type parameter, which enables you to specify whether a hi-hat is closed, half-closed or open, or whether a snare is hit centrally, off-centre, at the rim, as a sidestick beat, or whatever.
The editor shows each Instrument in the kit on a horizontal lane, with the bar and beat grid superimposed vertically. By default, any hits you insert or move snap to the grid, but this can be turned off, or set to a triplet grid, by clicking the magnet symbol. To the left of that symbol is a small toolbar containing most of the tools you'd expect in a conventional MIDI editor: an arrow for moving hits and a pencil for creating them, plus erase, mute and audition tools. If I have a criticism, it's that editing a pattern involves quite a lot of swapping between tools, because there's no way of creating new hits with the arrow tool, no way of moving them with the pencil tool and no way of deleting them with either. It would be great if, for instance, you could hold down a modifier key to turn the arrow tool into a pencil, though I'm not sure whether the RTAS plug-in interface would support this.
Another aspect of the editor that's a bit fiddly is that although it displays all the Instruments in the grid area, you can't edit them here. In order to change anything, you need to select, say, the Hi-hat row, and then make your edits in the larger window at the top. This means you can only edit one Instrument at once, and I don't see why it shouldn't be possible to add, move and delete hits within the grid display too.
If you want to make changes to a selected Style but haven't got the time to get down and dirty with this sort of detailed editing, a visit to the Style page will often pay dividends. Like the Kit and Mix windows (see boxes), this gives each Instrument a channel on a virtual mixer, with its own fader, mute and solo buttons. Above these are controls that allow you to adjust Complexity, Intensity and a number of other parameters on a per-Instrument basis. As in so many other areas of Strike, this puts a surprising amount of control in a very simple package. For example, I wanted to reduce one of Strike 's patterns to a basic 'kick, snare, kick-kick snare' rhythm; reducing the global Complexity simplified the snare and hi-hat just as the doctor ordered, but also dropped out the third kick-drum beat, so the simple answer was to adjust the Complexity of the kick Instrument separately. Likewise, if you want to have a messy feel on the hi-hat while your kick and snare are absolutely nailed to the beat, it's a simple matter of adjusting those Instruments' Timing, Offset, Hit Variation and Playing Dynamics parameters.
If you'd rather edit your data in Pro Tools itself, or you want to use a Strike pattern with some other synth — I can imagine it being useful to trigger percussion sounds such as tambourines that aren't included in the Strike kits — you can also Export patterns as MIDI Regions. What gets exported is not an individual pattern, but a 'performance' created by triggering patterns in succession. This seems to work, but not quite in the way described in the manual. When you've performed your drum take in Strike, you click the Main window's Export MIDI button and drag into the Pro Tools Edit window or timeline. According to the documentation, this should bring up an Import MIDI Settings dialogue, before creating and naming new MIDI tracks to accommodate the various Instruments used in your performance. In my system, dragging the performance into the Edit window simply dropped MIDI Regions onto existing tracks at the point where I let go of the mouse button, which is rather less useful. What's more annoying is that there are no Note Off messages within these Regions, so what you get is a load of superimposed long notes, which are impossible to edit without visiting the MIDI Operations / Change Duration window first.
As you might have guessed by now, I'm very impressed with Strike. If you want to get great results with minimum effort, it's hard to see how things could be made much simpler. If, on the other hand, you want to edit every beat individually for maximum realism, Strike offers as much depth as you can deal with, and more. For not much over £200, you're getting both a state-of-the-art sampled drum library and a beautifully thought-out tool for playing that library. To my mind, that makes Strike one of the best-value virtual instruments out there. Highly recommended.
There are a number of Pro Tools-compatible virtual instruments intended for creating realistic drum tracks, but none offers quite the same balance of features as Strike. The major selling point of Submersible Music's Drumcore is that it includes performances from big-name drummers, but compared with Strike it lacks flexibility over mic choices, pattern editing and mix processing; it also works via Rewire and not as a plug-in. Toontrack's DFH Superior and FXpansion's BFD/XFL combo each include some 30GB of sample data to Strike's 20GB, giving you even more choice in terms of virtual drum miking and so on, but although BFD comes with a library of MIDI patterns, neither includes anything like the 'virtual drummer' element of Strike.
- A brilliant interface allows you to get good results fast, but also offers great depth.
- If you don't like what the virtual drummer plays, you can change it!
- Excellent multisampled, multi-miked drum kits and well thought-out patterns facilitate a high degree of realism.
- Some neat processing options and a flexible mixer make it easy to tailor the sound.
- Good value for money.
- Style Editor could be a little more streamlined.
- Exporting patterns as MIDI doesn't quite work as advertised.
Strike is a triumph, pairing a neat virtual drumming engine with a cutting-edge library of sampled kits and making the whole thing child's play to use.
£211.50 including VAT.
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