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FXpansion BFD

Virtual Drum Instrument [Mac/PC]
By Paul White

FXpansion BFD

When it comes to drum sounds, BFD and its XFL expansion pack offer unprecedented levels of detail and flexibility, totalling over 30GB of sample data. Is it overkill, or the rhythm programmer's ultimate weapon?

FXpansion's BFD is a sample-based sound generator dedicated to producing authentic acoustic drum sounds, and can be operated as either a plug-in or in stand-alone mode on Mac OS X and Windows systems running hosts compatible with VSTi, DXi, RTAS, Audio Units or Rewire. Its core library is based on seven acoustic drum kits recorded at multiple velocity levels in the same sympathetic room using the same mic setup, but rather than just offering basic samples, the 14 mics around the kit are layered with user controls to allow, for example, the balance of close mics and overheads or room PZM mics to be adjusted. In practical terms, it's more or less the same as being in the control room with a good drum kit in the studio, where you can adjust the levels from the various mics to get the sound you want.

There are also various tricks that let you try different mic placements and distances — for instance, the kick has a balance control for internal and external mics — while the core kits have up to 46 velocity layers and the optional XFL expander kits even more. A library of standard kits is included, but the way BFD is managed allows you to take individual drums from one kit and put them in another (toms always come as a set) and to tune individual drums. On top of that, there are MIDI drum grooves that can be imported into your songs to drive BFD, and also a self-contained groove mode where different grooves are assigned to different keyboard keys, rather like the Groove Menus in Spectrasonics' Stylus.

According to FXpansion, BFD should work under Windows 98SE and Me, but they only officially support its use under Windows 2000 and XP, and of course Mac OS X. You will need a fairly powerful computer with plenty of RAM and hard drive space to run BFD: Windows users should be looking at a PIII equivalent or faster, while Mac users need a G4 733MHz or above.

Devil In The Details

Before getting deeper into the way the plug-in looks and works, it is worth examining the way in which the original drums were recorded. A variety of well known mics including the Sennheiser MD421, Neumann KM81 and M49, Electro-voice RE20, AKG C451 and Shure SM57 were used as the close mics. These were apparently amplified via custom-modified API preamps. As with a real studio-recorded kit, each drum was picked up by a number of mics at the same time, and AKG C12s were used as overheads via Summit MPC 100A tube preamps, while the room ambience was captured using Neumann U87s through Avalon preamps. In addition, a pair of Crown PZM microphones was set up at floor level and compressed via an Empirical Labs Distressor. The room ambience that you hear is all from the natural recording space, and to capitalise on this, there is control over the distance of the room mics from the kit, and the width of their stereo field. I'm not sure whether this was achieved using multiple mics or by simply delaying one pair of room mics, but it works well enough and the amount of ambience can be adjusted on a per-drum basis rather than globally. The mixer section where the kit sounds and mics are balanced also has dedicated controls to set the balance between mics positioned inside and outside the kick drum, and above and below the snare drum.

The core library contains only seven kits, but these are sampled in heroic detail.The core library contains only seven kits, but these are sampled in heroic detail.

The snare hits include straight hits, flams, drags, rims and sidesticks, while the hi-hats include closed and half-open using the stick tip and shank, open played with the stick tip, and pedal closure. Suitable muting modes are employed to give natural-sounding hi-hat playing. When you look at the number of miked layers and the number of velocity layers, it soon becomes apparent why a 9GB library is needed to do justice to a relatively small collection of drum kits.

Where the host software supports it (and most of the popular sequencers do), each individual microphone buss and each individual dry (close-miked) drum sound can be routed to separate physical outputs for further processing. Modified kits and mixer settings may be saved in a user library and further kits can be added from the XFL expander library, increasing the basic 9GB library by a further 22GB, adding a greater range of cymbals, brushed kits, snares, tambourines and so on.

Groove Librarian

BFD makes a wonderful drum sound module for anyone who needs to capture the real miked acoustic kit sound, but for those less gifted in the percussion department, it also comes with a large library of 'Grooves' in a number of styles. These include variations and fills, so it is relatively easy to create a natural-sounding performance, and because these grooves control only the single hits, they can be played back at any tempo. They are based around Standard MIDI files, so you can also use your own MIDI grooves, or commercial MIDI files. BFD is mapped in accordance with GM (though exceeds it in some areas where more variations are available) so the files should always trigger the right parts. In addition to the groove library, BFD also has tools to vary the feel of the rhythms with controls to add timing and velocity variations or to add swing.

BFD's groove functionality is highly sophisticated.BFD's groove functionality is highly sophisticated.

The Groove Librarian, which contains almost 1000 patterns, is accessed by clicking the pull-down bar at the top of BFD 's window to reveal three 'Banks' of grooves with a browser on either side for locating the MIDI patterns for grooves and fills. You can then drag any groove 'bundles' from the browsers into Bank A and Bank B: a bundle is a set of 12 complementary grooves, each triggered by a different MIDI note. Fills go into the third bank. Normally, when triggered via MIDI notes, the grooves play through only once at the tempo set by the user, but there is a repeat button for auditioning or jamming along.

The groove can be changed using a variable quantise control that is illustrated by a quirky-looking beatnik who crossfades into an equally quirky-looking robot as the timing becomes more rigid. Two graphical windows also allow you to add varying degrees of randomness to the timing and levels of each hit. Swing is also variable. As intimated, grooves are normally triggered directly from MIDI notes, both in free-standing and in plug-in mode, but clicking directly on a groove allows the grooves loaded into the banks to be cycled and switched randomly, including adding fills, if you like a little controlled chaos/synthetic improvisation. This sounds surprisingly good and is also a great way to audition sounds while you're fine-tuning the kit balance.

A 'sync to song' function allows grooves to follow the host sequencer's song tempo and if Sync Groove Phrase is ticked, any grooves that are layered will play in perfect sync. There's also a means to change transitions between grooves so that instead of happening exactly at the start of a bar, they can happen part-way through to allow for upbeats and so forth. In monophonic mode, triggering a new groove kills the previous one, while polyphonic mode allows groove layering. The other way to trigger grooves is to copy the MIDI patterns from BFD 's grooves and fills folders and place them in your sequencer tracks. Originally I couldn't get the sync to song function to work in Logic, but an updated set of BFD AU Components fixed that.

The User Interface

There's only one main window to this plug-in, and though sections of it change depending on what you're doing, operation is pretty intuitive. Normally you see a picture of a drum kit in the upper window, with the mixer section below and buttons for selecting kits and individual drums down the left. This is replaced by tables of MIDI note allocations when you're working on grooves.

Further buttons on the right access the Groove and Feel functions as well as preferences and MIDI assignments. The button with the kit logo loads in a complete kit and shows you pictures of the available kits (and some technical spec) as you do it, while the individual buttons allow you to replace individual drums or cymbals, again with pictorial references.

The mixer section has nine sections for the Kit Parts with mute and solo buttons as well as (Ambience) trim, tune and MIDI dynamics controls, plus additional trim and pan controls for the close-miked sounds. To the right of the mixer are the faders for the close mics and the three stereo pairs, each of which has mute and solo buttons, as well as a master fader. Further knobs provide separate width and distance controls for the three stereo pairs: overheads, room and PZM.

There's no kit loaded by default, so you have to select a kit before you can hear anything. This takes a few seconds because of the size of the samples. Red lights underneath the solo buttons in the Kit Piece area of the mixer section turn orange, then yellow and green as the parts are loaded. The current kit layout can be seen by clicking on the main drum kit graphic to show an overhead view. Included in the Kit Piece selectors is a display showing which types of hits are provided for each drum, which is important when the snare might have straight hits, rimshots, sidesticks and so on. To save an edited kit, click the save kit combo icon, name the kit and then decide where on your drive to save it. The only serious limitation is that you can't add extra toms to kits, even by adding a detuned version of an existing tom. Sometime four toms is nice!

When BFD is used as a plug-in, it shows up as three different versions: BFD Stereo, BFD Groups and BFD All. The only real difference between these is the output buss configuration: as you might imagine, BFD Stereo mixes everything to one stereo output pair. Group gives you separate outputs for the four main mic groups, while All gives you 14 separate outs (all the close mics plus three stereo pairs corresponding to overheads, room and PZM), which is the most flexible option for external processing.

Playing the drum sounds from a MIDI keyboard is easy enough — you just treat BFD like a super GM drum kit — though you can also play it from a set of drum pads. If the sound or drum balance isn't right, there are plenty of ways to fix it.

The Kit Piece and Direct mixer controls the levels of individual Kit Pieces: you can tweak the kick close/distant mic balance, change its pitch and overall level and reduce the amount the ambient mics contribute. Solo (red) and Mute (yellow) buttons let you work on individual sounds and pan controls allow the direct signal to be placed in the stereo mix. As with a real studio session, you can't pan drums within the overhead or room mics though you can alter the overall width of these. In addition to volume, a Dynamic control varies the velocity of incoming MIDI notes for the various Kit Pieces. An additional Master Dynamics control works for the whole kit, and it is possible to load and save mixer settings.

Where BFD is being used as a straightforward MIDI-triggered drum sound module, a learn function enables other mappings than GM to be created and stored and some pre-made maps are provided for various electronic drum kits. If you don't like learn functions, you can make the assignments manually.

You can view the current kit from overhead, and swap out individual items.You can view the current kit from overhead, and swap out individual items.

In Use

Kits take around 20 seconds to load, and once loaded, most seem to need a little balancing to make them sound right. For my taste, the cymbals tend to come up a little too loud and the ambient mics make too much of a contribution, but it only takes moments to resolve this and then save the changes. But most important is the sound quality, and these kits sound exactly as though you have a real drum kit on the other side of the glass. The cymbal samples are very long and both the drums and cymbals are beautifully sampled, with more velocity layers than you could wish for. Being able to tune the drums within a kit is useful, as some of the tom sets aren't quite tuned ideally, and it's also wonderful to be able to change out cymbals, kick drums and snares.

I loaded the XFL expansion and found it to be every bit as well sampled; it more than doubled the number of drum kits and added a wealth of new cymbals. All these kits sound great and you can adjust them from tight and dry to big and roomy — anything from John Bonham to jazz. There's no artificial processing so you can add your own if you feel the drums need it, but I found they sounded excellent as they were. In fact the only addition I'd suggest is a control for virtual gaffer tape to allow the damping to be changed — something like a software equivalent of SPL's wonderful Transient Designer would be perfect.

I liked the feel functions for modifying grooves (see the 'Groove Librarian' box earlier) and in general, the grooves are pretty well designed, though some include gratuitous cymbal crashes that soon become wearing if you repeat them. The random backing mode is great for jamming and also for fine-tuning the drum sounds, but I prefer to create my own in real time where possible. If you work by dragging the MIDI files into the sequencer, you can easily edit these to sort out such annoyances as excessive cymbals so that's really not a problem. I also found some of the fills a little pedestrian, but then that's better than having everything over-embellished! I discovered that you can combine automatic Groove mode triggered from the higher keys with manual playing on the lower keys, so there are lots of possibilities. In fact the Groove section is far more flexible than I can go into here, so if you like that way of working, you shouldn't be disappointed, especially as you can add your own MIDI loops to BFD 's repertoire. Just make sure you read the manual thoroughly as there's more to BFD than you might initially imagine.

Big Friendly Drums?

BFD is definitely aimed at those users who want the sound of a real drum kit in a real room. If you want pre-treated, pre-produced, pre-digested sounds, this may not be the best place to look. The kits are very well recorded and the choice of three different stereo miking setups combined with the close mics gives you plenty of tonal scope. Furthermore, the range of quality drum kits is exceptional, especially if you add the XFL expander — and by the way, the letters BFD and XFL apparently stand for exactly what you'd expect them to!

With a real kit, normally I start with an overhead mic and then add the close mics, but with these kits it's usually better to start with the close mics and then add the appropriate stereo mics to complete the picture, otherwise the sound can get too ambient. The PZM mics have a nice bright edge to them while the room mic adds a sense of space. Increasing the PZM mic distance also gives a nice doubling effect for those '80s pop sounds. Personally, I probably wouldn't use the automatic groove play function much, but the MIDI groove files are well worth having for copy-and-paste composing.

In all, BFD is a lot of fun and mainly intuitive, though it does have a few hidden wrinkles that aren't explained as deeply as they might be, so you have to be prepared to explore. If the idea of getting real miked drum sounds without the real drums appeals, then this is one piece of software you have to try out — just make sure you have plenty of drive space available, especially if you go for the equally wonderful-sounding XFL expansion!

Pros

  • Easy to use.
  • Sounds fabulous!
  • Doesn't dribble or fall off the stool.

Cons

  • No way to add extra toms to kits.

Summary

This is a great-sounding, fun-to-use program that gives you all the realism of a well recorded acoustic kit without the hassle. XFL adds to the range while maintaining the quality.

information

£199; XFL expander £149. Prices include VAT.

Sonic8 +44 (0)8701 657456.

sales@sonic8.com

www.sonic8.com

www.fxpansion.com

Published February 2005