Put down your bells, books and candles — this a ghost you do want in your machine...
Geist is the German word for ghost or spirit — a nugget of information I acquired from an early Tangerine Dream LP. It's also a disembodied drum machine from FXpansion — although maybe the term 'drum machine' doesn't do it justice. Geist is a complete rhythm environment in software, capable of turning out anything from simple 'x0x' patterns to elaborate percussion arrangements. It encompasses sampling, sample slicing and full song construction too, so anyone expecting a rendering of traditional hardware might reasonably ask how many bells and whistles a drumkit needs — and then how many congas, bass guitars and synths!
Geist is happy to haunt your Digital Audio Workstation or run stand‑alone. In the former case, you trigger patterns and individual hits as per any virtual instrument on up to eight MIDI channels. Yes, Geist is multitimbral, with up to eight 'Engines' each containing a unique drum kit, effects, and up to 24 rhythm patterns. A kit consists of 16 pads, each with as many as eight Layers. These hold the samples that make Geist's ghostly heart go 'thump'.
The rabbit hole goes deeper. You can take snapshots of multiple Engines while they play their respective patterns. These snapshots are known as Scenes and are triggerable from a keyboard, the whole performance ready to be captured in your DAW. Up to 64 Scenes may be populated with any combination of patterns from the active Engines, instantly suggesting a means of on‑the‑fly remixes.
Keeping everything self‑contained, the effects implementation is highly polished: easily enough for a finished song. If you prefer to go out of the box, Geist supports multiple outputs — up to 16 stereo streams with a suitable audio interface. Finally, and shunting the drum machine concept into a corner screaming and blubbering, Song mode is equivalent to the arrange window of any popular DAW, with a track allocated to each Engine.
Having downloaded all the component parts and followed the simple installation instructions, choosing a suitable location for the factory content, all that's left is authorisation. With the stand‑alone Licence Manager, this is a breeze, although there's an alternative method for any who keep their studio computer offline.
I instantly spotted that Geist was large, arriving, as it did, in a month when I once again broke my meagre Broadband limit (those in a similar position may opt for the boxed version instead). The download consists of three 'RAR' files that expand to over 2GB of factory content. In my experience, drum hits tend to be short, so I was curious to learn exactly what I'd received and if it would justify the inevitable whining email from BT. However, a scan though the various folders quickly revealed a wealth of quality samples begging to be used.
There are literally hundreds of kicks, snares and a cross‑section of other percussion, plus a generous pile of 'Non Drum' samples, such as bass, sound effects, synths and more. Then there's almost a gigabyte of loops — and I don't mean 'filler'. I've shelled out for commercial libraries that aren't a fraction as useable as these. Special mention must go to the Percussion and Heavily Processed folders — they contain some real gems — but the standard is uniformly high whether it's Breaks or Drum & Bass, Dubstep or Hip Hop. Poke into the Vintage folder and you'll even find strange old drum machines reeking of late night rumba and bossa nova, but generally the collection is aimed at dance music. The loops are never over‑fussy either — always an important consideration — and since these are already in Recycle format, I was able to import them directly into Logic for a quick hit of inspiration any time I liked.
Considering this is software that impersonates the sweaty, skin‑whacking member of the band, Geist looks surprisingly involved. The Browser at the left-hand side felt too busy until I turned off some view options and dragged the dividing line between the Content and Parent Folders. Only then did the various long file names became readable.
In time I found the Browser to be a clear workflow enhancer, easily an improvement on the standard Mac file menu. Having activated Auto‑Load, all I had to do was navigate to a kit, select it, and audition via pads or keyboard. Many folders are named after contributing artists, with no categories or catalogue for their particular hits and kits. However a simple search engine will locate popular strings such as '808' and '909', plus you can memorise favourites too. Personally, I would have liked a few ethnic or orchestral kits, just as a change from the dance stuff. When loading kits, patterns or complete songs, individual pads can be locked to prevent them being overwritten. This is ideal when assembling original kits, perhaps mixing favourite samples with those cherry‑picked from the factory content.
The bulk of the screen space is a context‑sensitive display that changes according to the selected page. The options are: Pattern, Scene, Song, Pad/Layers, Layer Mixer, Pad Mixer, Engine Mixer, Global Mixer and Sampler. Already, we're dealing with way more mixers than my plinky Roland CR78 ever possessed! Underneath the display area are the pads and pattern memory keys, along with a transport bar, Engine selector and various mode icons, amongst which is 'Learn'. You'll need this when mapping Geist's controls to MIDI continuous controllers and host automation.
A mouse is your clickable chum, ideal for many roles, but it won't win any Oscars for playing drums. Therefore a kit's 16 pads are best accessed via MIDI notes, the Layers represented as coloured dots. These dots show whether kicks, snares, high hats or percussion are being triggered, and although you are free to ignore them and place drums on any pad, in some contexts (sliced loops, for example) they prove darn useful. Let's get started by examining a single Layer.
The first thing to note is that Geist is entirely sample‑driven: it does not synthesize percussion from scratch. Its samples are processed by FXpansion's modelled filters, with velocity control of filter cutoff and sample pitch. Add Dirac3 time‑stretch and pitch‑shifting, plus a couple of assignable envelopes, and this is the basis for a single Layer. Geist lacks a modulation matrix or any LFOs, so let's hope such features show up in future upgrades.
The filters — in two- and four-pole versions — offer the usual modes (low‑pass, high‑pass, and so on), and when one is activated, you immediately hear a difference. Even with the low‑pass filter wide open, there's a perceptible loss of top end. I also noticed that filter tweaks aren't heard until the Layer is retriggered, which is slightly disappointing. However, despite these two slight drawbacks, the filters are impressive, definitely in the context of basic sound‑sculpting. A more powerful set of modelled filters, ripe for extreme kit mashing and full automation, awaits you in the effects section.
Having loaded a sample from either the factory content or your own sources, the waveform display offers non‑destructive editing of playback position. When you have populated several Layers, you then need to choose how the pad plays them. Most obviously, all can be triggered simultaneously, creating a composite percussion voice. Alternatively, switching between Layers using velocity can be highly expressive. However, my instant favourite was 'round robin' mode, in which for every hit, a new Layer is triggered, up to the maximum of eight. With complete flexibility over the samples you load, transpose, time‑stretch and filter, these round-robin drum parts offer nuances way beyond the more familiar sample-toggling techniques. There's even a 'random' mode that picks a random Layer for every hit.
You'll also find drum‑specific modes of playback such as 'choking', where drums silence each other (hi‑hats, congas, for example), while for melodic performance, samples can be triggered chromatically, spread over two octaves. This works well for tuned percussion, bass lines, or anything you like!
If all this layering, filtering and chromatic performance doesn't whet your appetite, further sonic make-up is on hand courtesy of a versatile effects implementation. Effects are an integral part of Geist, and patterns can even contain effect automation to squeeze more zest from them.
There are 30 effect types, including circuit‑modelled filters, distortion, reverb (actually 'Breverb', under licence from Overloud) and a bit‑crusher. Naturally, the list includes delay, flanger, phaser and EQ, plus exotica such as a frequency shifter and 'Audio Freezer' (AKA Grain Shifter). The bulk of the effects range from good to very good, but the filters are nothing short of superb. These are far more varied and alive than most modelled filters, their names hinting at the machines that inspired them: 'Three Oh! Three', 'Japan', 'Child Genius', that sort of thing. Most are instantly recognisable, although I didn't guess that 'Little Fatty' was based on the Korg MS20.
There are example presets for individual effects or for entire effect chains, to get you started. An effect chain can be up to six effects long and chains may be distributed ad lib amongst Pads, Engines, the Master output or four auxiliary buses. If the mood takes you, you can create a chain for every pad of every kit, although this will gobble up processor power, especially if you're into those Breverbs and modelled filters.
Geist is primarily a step sequencer, its events shown as filled portions of a grid. Long gone are the days when this technique restricted you to robotic precision. Here, each individual step can be shifted forwards or backwards in time, plus you are free to simply hit Record and bang in your drums manually, timing warts and all. You can quantise later if necessary, or build a Swing Template by extracting the groove and then use it to enliven other patterns. There's even a Retro Capture feature that will do its best to retrieve performances made when you forgot to hit record!
Who knows, Geist's grid might lure even Cubase users away from their built‑in drum editor. It has in‑depth control not only of notes but of sample pitch, start point, filter settings, auxiliary sends and envelope depths. It is ideal for traditional 'x0x'‑style patterns — up to a wacky maximum of 1024 steps long! To conserve resources, 'Pattern Power' can be deactivated, which still leaves you free to play the pads as usual. MIDI files of Geist's patterns can be imported and exported too.
Flexibility is the key. Song mode might not be a priority to master right away, but it is a worthy and well‑thought‑out implementation for building compositions with as much complexity as you like. Patterns or full songs can be exported as audio files for use in other applications, widening the scope still further. Some of the example songs are polished tunes in their own right and are great pointers to what can be achieved.
Your host may already provide a means of routing audio into other plug‑ins for sampling, but if not, Geist is supplied with 'Spitter', a plug‑in (in VST/AU/RTAS formats) designed to do just that. With Spitter, you can resample tracks direct from your DAW for further processing or chopping up in Geist.
Sampling is initiated by a simple click from your host's transport, or according to an input threshold level. Geist keeps track of multiple takes, cropping and normalising them and even exporting them to pads for instant playback. One of its best tricks is slicing — the chopping up of loops (typically) for re-ordering via a pattern or for manual performance. The slicing process works either by detecting transients or by an 'equal division' method based on bars and tempo. In the former case, you'll often need to add a few markers manually, because transient detection alone is never totally foolproof.
Unlike Korg's sampling Electribes, Geist has no problem slicing stereo loops. It can even guess which portions of the loop contain kicks, hi-hats, snare and percussion, colouring them appropriately. Any it gets wrong can be corrected afterwards. Post‑slice, you are left with individual chunks and a trigger 'score' written into the current pattern. These chunks can be stacked as Layers on multiple pads, suggesting new remix possibilities via round robin playback.
I did experience an issue wherein long samples failed to generate markers beyond a certain point, and had a crash when I manually reclassified some slices, but generally I found sampling, resampling and slicing to be a solid and really valuable addition to the drum‑machine concept.
FXpansion have been on my radar since the release of their DCAM: Synth Squad series, which is amongst the most realistic analogue modelling I've heard. Attention to detail clearly matters — something you appreciate as you delve into Geist. It's an ambitious product, so it's natural that expectations are going to be high, but for the most part they're satisfied, even if the FXpansion forum already includes an extensive list of 'user wants'!
In taking a purely sample‑based approach, Geist is structurally uncomplicated — it just has a lot built in. It took me a few days of chipping away at each section before the screens, icons and options all became comfortable, after which I never looked back. The inclusion of sampling makes perfect sense, with the chosen editing and slicing tools exactly what you want. Being able to resample was often a lifesaver when I'd gone overboard with effects and wanted to claw back processor power for other tracks.
Generally, performance was good, although Geist did crash Logic on a couple of occasions; but then a strong wind can do that! Despite their potential to consume resources, I found multiple engines tempted me into experimentation, mixing and matching different kits, building complex effects chains and playing samples back chromatically, actions I wouldn't ordinarily associate with a drum box. And while perhaps lacking the range to satisfy all tastes and percussive needs, Geist has the power to unsettle most of its competition. With a demo version just a download away, why not see if it sends a few shivers down your spine — as it did mine?
There are a number of other software drum machines to consider, some cheaper, others more expensive. Each have their own particular flavour of beat creation, making the choice a very personal thing. Native Instruments Battery has been around for a while now; I own it myself (it came bundled with other software) and it features over a hundred kits in many different categories. Yet somehow it has rarely inspired me, perhaps partly due to its inherent ugliness.
Rob Papen's Punch is a more recent contender, offering synthesis as well as samples and scoring highly for simplicity — yet never at the expense of programming depth. It does lack Geist's Song mode, sampling and slicing though. One last possibility that occurs to me is Spectrasonic's Stylus. Although I haven't tried it personally, my experience with Omnisphere and its huge library (over 7GB) suggests it must be worth a look, if you can stretch to it.
- Windows XP SP2, or Windows 7 (PC).
- Mac OS 10.5.8 or OS 10.6.2 and above (Mac).
- Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz processor (as a minimum, but higher recommended).
- 2GB DDR2 RAM (as a minimum, higher recommended).
Geist is available as a download from FXpansion's web site, as a boxed edition and also as a crossgrade for FXpansion Guru customers (who also receive the Best Of Guru expansion pack for free).