If you dream of the ultimate sampled drum kit, and you have a cuttingedge computer to run it, Mixosaurus's Kit A might be your Holy Grail.
Sometimes, it's only after you agree to review something that you realise what you're letting yourself in for. I knew that Mixosaurus were attempting something a bit special with their DAW Drums Kit A, but I had no idea quite how ambitious it would be. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most detailed and comprehensive sampled drum instrument ever created. If you don't believe me, take a look at the specs: DAW Drums Kit A contains over 1200 patches, made up of some 122GB of data. There are over 80,000 stereo samples here, all in uncompressed 24bit format. It ships on its own hard drive, with a heavily adapted Kontakt Player front end. And — get this — it's one drum kit.
That's right: Kit A features just one kick drum, one snare and one hihat, along with four tomtoms, two ride cymbals, three crashes, a splash and a China cymbal. These few instruments are, however, sampled in unprecedented detail and with an extraordinary number of articulations and variations. Miking, for instance, encompasses three different sets of overheads including vintage ribbons and an M/S pair, internal and external kick drum mics, close mics above and below the snare, stereo PZMs and, uniquely, stereo signals from the reverb chamber at Teldex Studios in Berlin, where the recordings were made.
There are no fewer than 29 different articulations for the hihat alone, including tip, shank and 'crash' closed hats, each sampled at seven different levels of footpedal pressure. The snare is sampled using seven articulations — edge, halfway and centre plus three different rimshots and a rimclick — at different levels of muffling. Four different beaters are available for the kick drum, and as for crash and ride cymbals, well, you probably get the idea. Oh, and Mixosaurus include seven alternate versions of each and every sample in the entire set. Other sample libraries provide alternate samples, but usually only for the most-used sounds such as the louder snare samples, so this goes way beyond what's on offer in other instruments.
The hard disk containing Kit A is shipped in a very smart external caddy, engraved with the Mixosaurus logo. Mixosaurus recommend connecting either via Firewire 800 or eSATA, but a sixpin to sixpin Firewire 400 cable is also included. My Windows laptop has no eSATA or FW800 port, and only a fourpin FW400 socket; having scrounged an appropriate cable, I had no trouble mounting the drive or installing the software, and found that it is usable over Firewire 400, although it's not hard to run out of bandwidth when a full kit is playing back. As the manual states, "in a normal drum groove, Mixosaurus will continuously play 100200 stereo voices", and a faster connection will definitely improve the Kit A experience.
The Kontakt Player application is installed from the hard drive, and you need to connect to the Internet and run NI's Service Centre application to authorise it. Annoyingly, the Mixosaurus installer insisted on reinstalling the Service Centre itself, thus overwriting the newer version that was already in place on my machine, so the first thing it did on finding the NI web site was update itself again! After that, installation went without a hitch.
Mixosaurus have made full use of Kontakt's scripting capabilities to tailor the interface to the needs of this instrument, and they've done a good job, but it still takes a little while to get your head around it. This is not one of those virtual instruments you can simply fire up and play. First, you need to choose one of two 'frame' Multis, depending on whether you're using Kit A in a multichannel environment such as a DAW host, or in a stereo context, as when Kontakt 2 is running standalone and addressing a stereo soundcard.
Next, you need to understand Mixosaurus's patch-naming system. Selecting Instruments in the Kontakt 2 browser window displays a list of folders with friendly names like 'Snare_Drum_muffled' or 'Cymbal_Ride_light'. Open one of these and you'll be greeted with seven subfolders allowing you to choose variants with the relevant number of alternative samples; as you'd expect, more samples provides a more natural sound at the expense of more sample RAM being used to preload them. Each of these subfolders then contains (usually) nine different Instruments. The reason that there are nine is that you get a choice of three overhead miking setups (smalldiaphragm condensers, vintage ribbons, and M/S) combined with a choice of three levels of processing. All of these are indicated by slightly cryptic conventions in the naming of the Instrument. For example, 'MxA_3_full_OHA_SD_mufld' is the muffled snare drum sampled using overhead setup A (vintage ribbons), with three alternating samples, and the full choice of processing. It gets more complicated with kit pieces that are sampled in particular depth, such as the hihats, which are divided across anything up to four Kontakt 2 Instruments, depending on how many alternating samples you require.
Doubleclick an Instrument or drag it into the main Kontakt Player window and, after a lengthy pause while the samples are preloaded, you can explore the editing and processing options made available by Mixosaurus's scripted interface. The interface is nicely done, presenting all the controls clearly on a number of pages, with a friendly builtin Help function.
The full processing palette provides a Levels option, allowing you to balance the relative contribution of the different mics for that Instrument, a simple but effective Envelope editor, MIDI dynamics (see 'Muscle Power' box), plus delay, filter and distortion effects. With the intermediate 'noFX' versions of each Instrument, you get the Levels, Envelope and Dynamics sections but not the last three, while there are also versions that offer none of these facilities.
In practice, I found I always used the intermediate versions of every Instrument. The nofrills versions I found too restrictive: the fixed balance of mics for each Instrument means you can't, for example, tweak the amount of snare going to the reverb chamber. By contrast, I'd always rather apply effects in a DAW than within a virtual instrument like this. In fact, to my mind there seems little point in using a sample library of this calibre if you're going to obliterate its subtleties with heavy processing. The Envelope settings in the intermediate versions are useful, however, especially for taming the resonance of the toms. A particularly nice touch is that you can set up an offset to make the release time in the overheads, PZM and room mics longer than that in the close mics, so you can, for example, gate the snare's close mic without unnaturally affecting the way it sounds in the ambient mics.
The multichannel frame Multi addresses eight stereo outputs into your DAW via a customised mixer window in Kontakt Player. This allows you to apply Kontakt's effects to individual mics, rather than on a perInstrument basis, and balance the overall levels of the various mics, but it's a shame that it's not possible to mute or solo the individual channels here. By default, the instruments with two close mics — kick, snare, and hihat — emerge on stereo channels, with each mic hard-panned. You may want to change this in your DAW mixer, but in many cases I actually liked the sense of width this produced. In my system, the Kontakt Player plugin defaulted to a surround output configuration rather than one based around multiple stereo outputs; to change this, you need to load one of the frame Multis, open the mixer, click Make Default, and then reload the plugin, but this only needs to be done once.
Overall, I think that Mixosaurus have done a good job of customising the Kontakt Player interface to suit the particular needs of their virtual instrument, but it's nevertheless fair to say that it will never feel quite as slick or userfriendly as a virtual instrument that is custombuilt from the ground up. When you look at how the likes of BFD or Addictive Drums handle kit construction, mixing and editing, what's on offer here is less intuitive and takes longer to get to know. There is, thankfully, a printed manual: it's clear and well written, but sometimes seems to jump ahead of itself, and assumes prior knowledge of Kontakt.
That said, once you have that knowledge, the Kontakt Player interface is perfectly usable, and I imagine that most users will settle on one or two preferred setups fairly soon, after which there won't be much need for tinkering. And after all, the most important thing is the sound.
So how does Kit A sound?
Without wanting to be facetious, the best answer I can give is that it can sound as good as you want to make it sound. If you habitually program drums by knocking up twobar loops in a grid editor or step sequencer, the results you'd get from Kit A probably wouldn't justify the investment of money or system resources. Not that it would sound bad, but the difference compared with smaller libraries wouldn't be startling.
Where Kit A comes into its own is when you play it live from a MIDI controller. When you work a lot with sampled drums, it's easy to forget that a real drum kit is a versatile instrument. It's easy to get into a mindset where "make the drums sound different" automatically equates to "load a new set of samples". Beyond switching the kick-drum beater or the muffling on the snare, that's not really an option with Kit A. Instead, you quickly realise that the way to make this drum kit sound different is to change the way you play it. Here is a snare drum that really feels like a living, breathing musical instrument; you can pound the crap out of it, but you can also do light, jazzy stickwork, and both will sound great. There are no separate samples of flams, drags or rolls, but convincing ones can certainly be played or programmed. The toms, likewise, have a really lively and musical ring to them, and the inclusion of really playable rimclicks and rimshots is very welcome. The difference between Kit A and other instruments is particularly apparent at low velocity levels.
I was sorry that I didn't get a chance to test Kit A with a proper drum-kit controller, because I imagine it would work superbly. Features such as the multiple levels of hihat foot pressure cry out to be used with, well, something that responds to foot pressure! Kit A is very playable from a MIDI keyboard, where you use the mod wheel to control hihat foot pressure, but you will need a large one to take full advantage (keyboard, that is, not foot). The sheer range of articulations on offer means that Kit A Instruments cover nine octaves, although Mixosaurus have sensibly relegated lessused sounds like China, splash and mallet cymbals to the highest part of that range.
No details are given in the documentation as to what makes and models made up the kit, and it turns out that Mixosaurus's Uwe Lietzow has an interesting take on this issue. He believes, with much justification, that the choice of heads and drum tuning is at least as important as the name on the drum shell, and that the choice of sticks makes a huge difference with ride cymbals; with Kit A, his aim was also to create a versatile kit that would suit many different applications. As a result, he chose to use relatively standardissue, albeit highquality, drums and cymbals rather than esoteric or vintage models. The kick, for instance, is a 22inch Pearl Masters series, while the toms were Yamaha Maple Custom.
Another important respect in which Kit A is different is in Mixosaurus's approach to room miking. Most rival highend drum instruments seem to present drums with what might be called a 'room signature': sampled in a live room with a distinct sonic character, with ambient or distant mics as well as conventional overheads and close mics. In Kit A, by contrast, what you get is dry overheads with a relatively neutral character, augmented with two 'special effects' channels. One is a stereo pair of pressurezone microphones, heavily compressed; the other is a feed from the reverb chamber at Teldex studios.
In both respects, I think the results bear out Uwe's philosophy. The drums and cymbals sound great, and through careful use of different articulations, MIDI velocities and mic balances, will give sounds that work in a wide variety of styles. The sampling is virtually flawless, and you certainly never find yourself thinking "I wish they'd sampled a handmade oneofakind iridiumshelled piccolo snare instead of this!" Conversely, if you want to add the character of a real room to your drum mix, the world is full of convolution reverbs; but the PZM and chamber signals in Kit A are unique. The PZMs give you the sort of short, subtle ambience that acts more like a loudness enhancer than a noticeable reverb, while the chamber has a uniquely dense, complex reverb that is nonetheless short enough to work well with fairly uptempo drum tracks. Leave them both off, and you have an untainted dry sound with unlimited potential for manipulation.
In short, I think Mixosaurus's claims to have created the ultimate sampled drum kit carry a lot of weight. A skilled programmer with a decent understanding of drumming can create a truly first-rate drum recording, and not just in a straightahead rock style (check out some of the demos on the Mixosaurus site for proof). If you have to have the best, you'll want to investigate Kit A, but be warned that its quality and versatility come at a heavy cost in terms of system resources.
I've already noted the fact that a Firewire 800 or eSATA port is desirable, and an even more pressing concern is RAM use. Although the instruments stream from disk, so many samples have to be preloaded that it's easy to run out of memory even when you have 2GB (and there would be no point even trying to run Kit A with less). In my system, with 2GB RAM, it was impossible to load the entire Kit A drum-kit at one time. In fact, if you want to make full use of the alternating samples, you can exceed the limits of a 2GB system by loading the hihat alone! According to Uwe, Kontakt Player has no problem addressing larger amounts of RAM on Apple computers and most Windows configurations, and I think 4GB at least should be considered desirable.
The best workaround in other systems is probably to use smaller Instruments with fewer alternating samples when you're playing or programming your drum tracks, and then switch to larger ones when you want to bounce down. You can use smaller preload settings for offline bouncing, which will enable loading of more or larger Instruments.
In general, though, Kit A is sufficiently demanding that only a really cutting-edge machine will be able to run it live alongside other virtual instruments. More practical would be to create your drum tracks first and then bounce them down, or even use a separate computer just to run Kit A. People dedicate entire machines to orchestral libraries, so why not a drum library?
If that makes it sound as though Kit A is running at the limits of what's possible with current computer technology, that probably isn't far from the truth, and I get the impression that this is a product that will really come into its own when 64bit music software gets going. When that happens, it will be a mouthwatering prospect, and I can imagine a future where session drummers turn up at studios with a set of VDrums and a computer running Kit A...
As well as Kit A itself, the hard drive includes several folders of MIDI files, which Mixosaurus call Grooves. The Standards Grooves folder contains 20 or so short sequences of typical beats for styles such as samba, bossanova and merengue, while Example Songs contains complete drum parts for a number of wellknown hits, including Michael Jackson's 'Beat It', Robbie Williams' 'Let Me Entertain You' and rather too many Eagles songs.
Probably more useful in practice are two folders called Ride Cymbal Patterns and HiHat Patterns. If you're not comfortable playing in ride and hihat patterns from a MIDI controller, it would take a lot of programming to exploit all the relevant articulations in a realistic fashion, so these will give you a big helping hand.
Among the many scripting enhancements Mixosaurus have made to the standard Kontakt Player interface are realtime MIDI processors that allow you to modify the apparent playing style of the drums without having to edit your sequences. The most important of these is a MIDI Dynamics processor for each Instrument. This takes the incoming MIDI velocities and compresses or expands them, with an additional Muscle parameter that acts rather like a makeup gain control. So if, for instance, the entire hihat is too prominent in the mix, you can instantly give it a negative Muscle value and have it played more gently — which, of course, sounds different from, and often more convincing than, simply turning down the level of the hihat mic.
- Absolutely no compromises have been made on sound quality.
- Makes you realise what a versatile and expressive instrument a single drum kit can be.
- Everything here is sampled with unprecedented thoroughness.
- The Teldex reverb chamber is a nice option.
- Getting the best from Kit A requires a fair amount of drumming knowledge, and preferably the ability to play it from a controller.
- Demands considerable computing resources, and ideally, a lot more than 2GB RAM.
- Kontakt Player interface is not as friendly as dedicated drum instruments.
Mixosaurus DAW Drums Kit A is an awesome feat of sampling. It sounds fantastic, but requires a lot of RAM and a fast machine.