BFD2 was always going to be a hard one to top, but that hasn't stopped FXpansion from trying. Have they succeeded?
Whatever your take on the matter of virtual instruments vs the real thing, there is no doubting the realism, flexibility and convenience offered by virtual drum instruments such as FXpansion's BFD series, Toontrack's Superior Drummer, Native Instrument's Battery or XLN Audio's Addictive Drums. And even if you have the kit, drummer, recording space and microphone collection to compete with what's possible with these virtual instrument tools, efficiency alone might be enough to mean you choose the virtual route.
I reviewed BFD2 for SOS in the June 2008 issue. I found that it offered the essence of a real drum kit, with the subtleties and nuances of the performance all under easy control, in a convenient software format. So, five years after its release — and given that BFD2 is still one of the best virtual drum instruments available — just what have FXpansion found to improve upon?
The basic concept of BFD3 is essentially the same as BFD2. In essence, you get a series of meticulously sampled acoustic drum kits with multiple sample layers (up to 80 on some of the snares). Equally, multiple articulations have been sampled. For example, for the snare you can get standard hits, drags, flam, half edge, rimshot, side stick and rim click, while the hi-hat features as many as 13 different articulations. Providing your programming and/or playing chops are up to it, what this allows is an ultra-realistic sample-based performance to be created; no machine gun rolls or parts where every hit of every drum is triggering the same sample.
However, the potential for creating realistic drum performances doesn't just depended upon the sample base; there is also the very sophisticated mixing environment, including multiple microphones on some drums. For example, the snare features top, bottom and side mics while the kick has in, out and sub mics. In addition, you get overhead, room, ambient and various mono and compressed room channels. The mixer allows you to blend all of these sound sources, just as you would with a multitrack recording of a real acoustic drum kit; including the ability (if you want it) to add 'bleed' from one drum into the mic positioned near another. Oh, and you get a range of dedicated effects such as compression, EQ, envelope shaping, distortion and reverb that can all be added to your drum mix.
In short, what you have here is a virtual equivalent of the best acoustic drum kit you can imagine, in the best recording room you can imagine, miked up with the best collection of mics you can imagine, ready for you to play and then mix. The vast majority of us simply couldn't get close to the sound and control that BFD offers. And if your drum playing or programming sucks, then FXpansion throw in a huge collection of ready-made (and editable) MIDI drum grooves that can capitalise on the sampling and articulations offered.
The obvious difference with BFD3 is a significant overhaul of the interface, both visually and functionally. There is also a completely new core-audio library with five new kits, one of which is sampled in three versions based on sticks, brushes and mallets. This gives a total of 118 kit pieces (or, as they're rather intuitively called in the new terminology, 'Drums') plus 1000 new MIDI grooves in a range of musical styles.
In addition, there are a number of new features in terms of the performance options, some new articulations and improvements in the mixing/processing capabilities. A new lossless audio compression/decompression system also that means audio data takes up only 1/3 of the hard-drive space without any compromise in performance or audio quality. However, both drum sample data and MIDI groove data from previous BFD installations will happily function with BFD3, although you might find you need to do some initial tweaking if you load one of your own BFD2 presets into BFD3. That said, the two versions can co-exist on the same system.
BFD3 can work in stand-alone mode or as a VST, AU, RTAS or AAX 64 plug-in, with the first three of these available in either 32- or 64-bit formats. You can purchase either a boxed or downloadable version and choose between three levels of install (18, 27 or 55 GB) depending upon your requirements and available disk space. This includes the above-mentioned compression, without which the full library would be in excess of 160GB. If you purchase the download version, be prepared for a bit of a wait whichever level of installation you go for; unless you are on super-fast fibre all that data is going to take some time to be delivered. That said, once done, installation and authorisation is a very smooth process.
If you're familiar with BFD2, the screenshots here will clearly illustrate just how different BFD3 looks. Aside from the upper menu/transport strip, the interface is split into three areas by default. To the left is the Browser that can be tabbed between Presets, Kits, Drums, Grooves and Auto (automation) functions. The Browser can be toggled off if required. The remainder of the display is split into the upper drum kit graphic and lower mixer areas. Gone are the old-school drum graphics of BFD2 and in comes a modern, crisp technical drawing and, as you browse over the kit image in the upper half of the display, an arrow rather helpfully points out which mixer channel belongs to the currently selected drum in the lower half of the display.
This central area is also tabbed — Kit, Effects, Groove Editor and Key Map — and each option adjusts the display to show the appropriate functions. The Drum Editor replaces the Kit-piece editor and, to the extreme right of the main display, are two further tabs for the Drum Editor: Tech and Model. These allow you to get into the detailed settings for each drum.
While the depth of the overall window is fixed, you can adjust its width via two buttons located to the right of the Help menu. This is great if you want to see either more Mixer channels at the same time or want a bigger area within which to view the Groove Editor. A similar 'expand/contract' switch is available within the Mixer panel. This allows you to toggle between two views: one where all the channels are shown including the multiple channels for the snare, kick and ambience mics, and a second where each of these multiple mics are folded down into a single channel (acting like an aux or group channel). Further Mixer customisation is available via the Mini Mixer as this now allows you to specify any subset of channels to be displayed. These channels are then permanently visible on the right end of the Mixer panel, regardless of where you are scrolling within the mixer channels on the left.
There's not enough space here to go into all the subtle details offered by BFD3 for shaping the drum sounds, but the Drum Editor is an excellent illustration of what's possible. For example, activating the Tech panel opens an additional panel on the right side of the display to edit the technical details of the currently selected drum. The level of control possible — and the ease with which the new interface makes it accessible — is excellent. While you can adjust the level and tuning, the ability to control the bleed from the kick and snare and the absolute precision with which you can adjust how much each drum appears within each of the ambient mic channels and its dynamic response (the Loudness settings) is like a drum engineer's fantasy.
The Model panel allows you to configure some of the engine's modelling options for damping, choking, cymbal swells and the tom resonance. Again, the degree of control offered is impressive. For example, in a busy mix, one of my pet hates is ringing, resonant toms; in BFD3 you can pretty much dial that in or out to whatever degree you want via the Damping and Tom Resonance controls. Equally, the Hi-hat Tighten controls allow you to specify just how tightly closed the 'closed' articulations actually are, going between snappy or flappy as required.
Incidentally, BFD3 also introduces a new system for saving individual drums with all their associated Drum Editor, mixer and effects settings. These are termed Processed Drum presets and they can be viewed for selection within the Drums section of the Browser.
In the Mixer you now navigate between Fader, Effects, Sends and Tweaks views using the appropriate tabs. The first three of these are obvious and straightforward (and, incidentally, stuffed full of features; this is a very well-specified mixing environment). The Tweaks panel brings together the Trim, Tune and Damping controls from the Drum Editor panels into one place. For broad-brush editing of the kit's overall characteristics during playback, this panel is very useful.
While all of BFD's effects have been restyled in v.3, there are also some brand new effects including FXverb, an eight-band EQ, EnvShaper and Distortion (the latter replacing PSP's Vintage Warmer from BFD2). The other key addition is a very flexible side-chain capability to some of the effects (for example, the Comp Bus and Noise Gate). Equally, BFD3's compressor effects include a Mix (wet/dry) control that allows you to create parallel compression effects on a mono or stereo channel without the need to set up an additional aux channel. Overall, the suite of effects in BFD3 — covering dynamics, EQ, filters, reverb, delay, modulation and distortion — are comprehensive and high quality. It's a shame they can't be used outside of BFD.
BFD3 is a deep and very powerful tool and it's difficult to give a full sense of that depth in a concise review. However, there are a few other technical features worth mentioning. For example, the Key Maps have undergone some substantial changes and, on the whole, I think these create a much more intuitive and flexible workflow. As there are new articulations, the BFD3 default Key Map is different from BFD2, but the latter can be loaded and the new articulations added if required. Incidentally, BFD3 makes it easy to work with MIDI drum kits and the automation system now features a well-implemented Learn mode for mapping MIDI controllers.
As noted above, BFD3's mixer is fully featured and provides plenty of scope for internal routing of audio. The instrument also includes multiple outputs; you can send separate BFD3 mic channels out to your DAW or via a suitable multi-channel audio interface if you wish. And if you want to export your BFD3 drum track as a series of audio files, then the Export features are truly excellent, allowing you to specify exactly which channels are exported and their bit-depth. This saves a heap of work assigning the required channels to separate BFD3 outputs and the subsequent rendering that would be involved otherwise.
While I was initially quite surprised at just how different BFD3 looked from its predecessor, having used it over the review period, I think FXpansion have done a fabulous job in both the interface and technical overhaul. These cosmetic and workflow improvements are not, of course, the only consideration; how does BFD3 sound? Brilliant, fabulous, delightful, er... cubed. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy with the results I can get from BFD2 or competing products such as Superior Drummer 2 (which I regularly use in my own projects), but BFD3 moves things up a notch from what's gone before. The range of drum samples provided means that even with just the default kits, BFD3 can cover a huge range of acoustic drum kit styles and musical genres.
But what is really impressive is the combination of sound quality and the ease with which the characteristics of the kit can be adjusted and fine-tuned to exactly suit your needs. To repeat what I said earlier: add in the impressive collection of supplied grooves — and the powerful manipulation tools — and you can go from zero to drum hero in double (quick) time.
It doesn't really matter what aspect of the drum sound you want to adjust — basic drum balance, the amount of room ambience or tom resonance — BFD3 provides you with a way to do it. And it is all ridiculously easy, allowing you to go as deep as you like, or just simply to load one of the excellent presets and leave well alone. The bottom line here is that you can coax almost any acoustic drum sound you want out of BFD3 and control that sound in ways that most of us (well, those of us without a mega-studio at our disposal) could never hope to replicate in our own recording spaces.
Despite my initial surprise at the radical new look, I think BFD3 is a bit of a gem. It's powerful if you need it to be, but quick and easy if you don't. Whatever the kind of acoustic drum sound you are looking for, BFD3 has the samples and editing features to get you there. So who might buy it? I suspect BFD2 users, who might be hesitant about what appear to be wholesale changes, will actually be pleasantly surprised. As a regular BFD2 user myself, I can honestly say that I'm not going back.
What about those who haven't yet ventured into the world of top-notch virtual drum instruments but have a need for great-sounding acoustic drum tracks? Well, if you have a studio where you can record a drum kit better than BFD3 sounds, then the price of BFD3 is going to be chump-change anyway. However, for the rest of us, BFD3 is a cost-effective and creative solution to what can be a real recording problem. At £229$349, BFD3 might not be a casual purchase but, given the truly convincing results that can be obtained, this will be money very well spent. Highly recommended.
When it comes to upmarket virtual drum instruments, there are a number of alternatives to BFD3, such as Superior Drummer 2, XLN Addictive Drums and NI Battery, although you might also consider the somewhat different approach offered by Drum Core. Of these, perhaps the most obvious comparison — in terms of the basic features and the huge variety of drum kit sample and MIDI groove expansion packs available — is SD2. This is slightly less expensive than BFD3 but also ships with a smaller core sample library. Both, however, are excellent products.
As well as the Groove Browser now being rolled into the tabbed Browser area, the Groove Editor has received a BFD3 makeover. And while the intricate sampling and powerful drum-mixing features might get the headlines, for lots of potential users — particularly non-drummers — the MIDI groove functions should not be underestimated.
BFD3's Groove Editor is a sort of mega-version of the Cubase drum editor and is (as much as any MIDI editor can be) a joy to use. Cosmetics aside, the functionality will be familiar to existing users, aside from perhaps the new Paint tool, which replaces the Roll tool, and allows for a wider range of performance options to be easily drawn into the Editor.
As before, BFD3's groove editing, chaining of grooves, drag-and-drop to a DAW host and humanisation elements are first class. In addition, the supplied MIDI grooves are excellent, covering musical styles from jazz to thrash metal. If you want to go from 'nowhere' to complete drum track in an insanely short space of time, BFD3 will let you do it.