Two years on from its original release, Native's virtual drum module gets its first full upgrade. Is it all John Bonham tom mayhem, or is it limper than a Kraftwerk drum solo?
I've been an ardent fan of Native Instruments' original Battery sample-based software drum module since it was unveiled back in 2001. It was great for slinging together a 'kit' of drum samples and for coming up with rhythms quickly, and much faster than using my old Akai hardware samplers to do the same thing. But there were a few quirks in its operation, and I found myself hoping that an upgrade would take care of them someday. Now, at last, it's here — does it smooth out the wrinkles of the previous version?
Battery 2 will run as a stand-alone application, or as a plug-in under VSTi-, DXi-, RTAS-, or Audio Units-compatible hosts. Native Instruments claim that it will run in 256MB of RAM and up to 4GB of disk space under 400MHz Athlon or Pentium 3-based PCs, or a 500MHz G3 Mac, but as usual, they suggest using beefier machines than these for optimum performance; a 1.2GHz Pentium 3/4 or Athlon PC, or a 1GHz G4 Mac, with 512MB of RAM, is recommended. I ran the review copy on a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 in 1GB of RAM with no problems, and it demanded little more than 10 percent of my total CPU power in typical use (ie. when using it to handle main rhythm, percussion and tom-fill duties) with the largest of Battery 2 's new factory kits loaded.
At first I thought that NI had forgotten to include the library disks with Battery 2. The disk insert states that it contains the 'Installation CD' — but it's actually a DVD. Anyone lacking a DVD reader on their PC or Macintosh, take note...! In addition to Battery 2 itself, the DVD contains over 3GB of sampled drums including acoustic, electronic and percussion kits. The kits from Battery 1 are also provided, which is handy, as you can use version 2 in your old songs without having to re-import the v1 sounds. Whatever minor gripes I may have had about the original Battery 's user interface (of which more in a moment) I can vouch for the quality and effectiveness of the Battery 1 kits, having used them time and time again. I'm glad to report that the new material is generally of an equally high standard. There's a power and liveliness to the samples that sometimes makes you feel as though there's a real drummer sitting next door surrounded by expensive microphones! I would have preferred rather more variety in the factory sets, however — particularly a few more acoustic kit variants. Some of the acoustic kick drums sounded a little flabby, and I would have liked a few more to choose from.
The user interface is similar to that of the original version of Battery, with its rows of 'Cells' containing your samples, but NI have tidied up the main panels and arranged them more logically. The Battery window is conceptually and physically divided into three sections, comprising the Master Section, the Sample Matrix and the Edit Pane (see the large screenshot opposite). The Master section is where drum kits are managed and where the overall volume of Battery is controlled. The Sample Matrix, which dominates the window, maps out the Cells containing the samples into columns and rows, much like a spreadsheet, and gives you an overall view of the current kit. The Edit Pane, in the bottom third of the window, is where you get down to modifying the behaviour of Cells and the samples within those Cells.
This section, at the top of the Battery window, contains drop-down menus for File, Edit and View functions and a 'quick-select' drop-down menu for selecting kits stored in the hard drive location specified by Battery 2's sample 'path'. Useful information displayed here includes polyphony/used polyphony, memory requirements for the currently selected kit and the master volume.
As with some of their other recent sample-based releases (such as Elektrik Piano), Native Instruments have endowed Battery 2 with 'Direct From Disk' facilities, making it possible to use sample files that would otherwise take up more space than is available in RAM. You do have the option to turn this feature on or off, since the downside of DFD is that it increases disk and processor activity.
I felt the original file- and sample-handling system in Battery was somewhat clumsy, and I was pleased to see that this had been streamlined in the new version — I've lost count of the times I've picked the wrong option from Battery 's File menu, ending up in the 'Add Cell' dialogue when I really wanted to load a new set of Cells. Battery 2 treats its files intelligently; so if you choose a kit, the program now realises that you want to load a kit and performs that function, whereas if you choose a WAV or AIFF file, it loads that sample into a Cell. There's also a list of recently used kits, which is a nice time-saver. The influence of Native Instruments' Kontakt is discernible in the wealth of supported file formats: Kontakt Instruments, Battery v1 kits, Battery 2 kits and/or Cells, Sound Designer II files, WAVs, AIFFs, Soundfonts, and files from the following hardware and software samplers: HALion, Samplecell, LM4, Gigasampler, Recycle, the Akai S1000 and S3000 and MPC-series sequencer/samplers — and all from eight- to 32-bit resolution. It's an extremely impressive list.
A new 'Import' function brings all of the supported file formats together into a browser window, similar to that used in Kontakt. I've never been totally convinced by this browser window, even in Kontakt; I find it a bit pokey and I'd also prefer to have access to some simple file-management functions from here, such as the ability to rename, copy and move samples — the browser format merely hints at such possibilities. I would also like to see the double-pane approach adopted, like the standard Windows Explorer panel, to make the navigation area less restrictive.
Choices for saving information have been given some attention too. There's now the option to save pointers to your samples, rather than have them replicated by Battery in its own folders — although you can still choose that method for maximum flexibility. You can save selections of Cells, making it easier to build kits from these collections, rather than having to load them one at a time, or start from another full kit. It's simple to save a Cell collection of your favourite percussion rack and then pop it into any kit. Brilliant! This has the potential to avoid an enormous amount of repetitive work.
The spreadsheet-like Sample Matrix displays your currently selected kit. Each Cell represents a sample, or collection of samples assigned to a specific MIDI note number, or range of notes. Up to 128 samples can be held in a Cell and these are layered, or split across velocity ranges (with or without crossfades) as required.
The number of Cells is no longer fixed, as it was in the previous version. You can add or delete rows up to a maximum of 72 Cells and view them in rows of six or 12 Cells. Individual Cells may be soloed or muted, or you can select non-contiguous Cells with combinations of modifier keys. Selecting, muting, or soloing rows and columns of Cells is a one-click task, and you can similarly combine the selection of both rows and columns. Personally, I like to separate kicks, snares, cymbals, toms, percussion and loops onto separate rows for selective muting/soloing. A pair of indicators at Cell, row and column level show whether they are muted or soloed.
Just to the right of the mute/solo buttons in each Cell is a field that can display one parameter, such as volume, pan position, filter cutoff, or one of many other values. This parameter can be fixed, or can change depending on the parameter you are currently editing. One feature that I sorely miss from the earlier version of Battery is the ability to see a Cell's full key range in this display field. You can now see either the low or high key value in there, but not both simultaneously. This is no doubt down to screen space restrictions, but it's certainly going to slow me down, and I'll wager I'm not alone. However, it is possible to move, copy and swap Cells, with or without their associated key range. This is the real strength of Battery 's ability to organise drum kits quickly and easily.
The Edit Pane is where detailed sample editing takes place. Here, Cells can be treated to an array of editing options and individual samples can be tweaked into shape. And when I say 'tweaked' you can read 'mangled beyond all recognition'! Firstly, setting up sample layers is much easier than it was with the original Battery, and is helped enormously by the user-friendly, Kontakt-like assignment display (shown on page 209). I'd still balk at the thought of mapping 128 velocity layers in a Cell, but if you've got the time, Battery 2 will allow you to do it.
The basic editing features are familiar from the original version of Battery, including all the typical features you'd expect, such as volume, pitch, and also amplitude and pitch envelopes. A bit-reduction control has been added, in case you long for the days of the Akai S900, and there's a sample-frequency reduction control if you really want to get back to the days of the Sinclair Spectrum! Gone is the 'Shape' control of Battery 1, but the 'Saturation' knob does a similar job, adding distorted higher harmonics, as its name suggests, and is always worth a turn if you feel that your drums need a little more energy.
If there's one feature I always felt was missing from Battery 's armoury it was a dynamic filter. I have quite a few old samples that have a great attack phase, but become very noisy once the signal level starts to fall away. In the past I used the old Battery 's volume envelope to deal with this, but this inevitably leads to some 'choking' of the sound, and this is particularly unwelcome when the after-ring or ambience forms an important part of the sample. Fortunately, Battery 2 arrives with a freely assignable modulation envelope. I can simply apply an envelope to the filter cutoff frequency and with a little tweaking, that nasty noise is removed while retaining the character of the sample's decay. The filter's pretty flexible, too — there are 15 types, including low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, three-band EQ, phase and vowel variants.
Battery 2 also adds a built-in compressor, and this is welcome, removing the need for external processors in many cases. It doesn't have all the control and flexibility of a dedicated dynamics processor, but I believe it would get the job done in all but the most critical cases. More importantly, it can be applied on a Cell-by-Cell basis, rather than across the output of the entire instrument, so it may allow you to avoid having to tie up outputs simply to add compression to one sound. Controls are provided for Threshold, Ratio, Gain, Attack and Decay.
If you found Battery a little lacking in modulation features, then Battery 2 should be more to your taste. Up to eight modulation paths can be created, with controls to determine the modulation source, destination and amount in positive or negative values. The list of modulation sources is impressive, including velocity, the mod wheel, mono/poly aftertouch, key position, LFO or any of Battery 2 's envelopes (there's even a dedicated AHDSR modulation envelope). You can also define up to eight global MIDI controllers to act as modulation sources across any of Battery 2 's Cells. The modulation destinations are no less impressive, taking in such staples as volume, pan, filter cutoff and resonance, but there are also more esoteric options, such as bit depth, saturation, loop start/length and pitch envelope. Battery 2 's LFO is also surprisingly flexible, with controls for waveform (a choice of sine, sawtooth and square), fade-in and pulse width (on the square wave only). The LFO can be made to re-trigger when the Cell is played, and you can also make the LFO speed sync to the host sequencer's tempo.
Battery has never been a loop player in the way of tools such as Phatmatik or Intakt, and that hasn't really changed (although there's absolutely no reason why you can't use Battery to trigger loops), but NI have added some simple looping tools. Up to four loops can be created within a sample, with crossfades and variable tuning. Each loop can repeat a fixed number of times, or infinitely. While we're on the subject, I often use Battery to split a single-hit drum sound from a loop by setting the sample start position and using the volume envelope to isolate a particular sound. Using this method means you can keep the loop as a single sample, but use variants across a range of Cells to pick out other drum hits you want to use. Battery 2 makes this very easy. Finally, each Cell now has the choice of being sent to one of up to 16 mono and eight stereo outputs. This number of outputs is a vast improvement over the previous version and wins another big smile from this reviewer.
All in all, I'm a big fan of Battery 2 and its many enhancements. I'm still not keen on the Browser window in its current form, and I am going to miss the simultaneous high/low note display in the matrix. If I were to compile a wish list I would suggest the ability to use one or two outputs as aux/effects sends. I'd also like to be able to choose the colour of Cells to assist my brain in finding its way around — no matter how I arrange the matrix, I can't seem to find things quickly enough. A mixer page with faders would assist when balancing kits, perhaps with the ability to choose the parameter (other than simply volume) that the faders are currently controlling — balancing tom tunings, for example, can be a bit long-winded on a Cell-by-Cell basis. The library material, although high on quality, is somewhat lacking in breadth. I would really have liked some Simmons drums, classic analogue drum machines or some more 'produced' acoustic kits. I've often used Battery 's simple interface to play bass lines and vocal samples, so some more examples of this nature would be useful to show off Battery 's potential.
I liked the original Battery so much that I had it plugged into my default song, so that it fired up with Cubase. The best praise I can give to Battery 2 is that it is so good that it makes Battery seem cumbersome and inflexible! Battery 2 is now loading with my default song, and I doubt I'll ever look back. In my opinion, there is simply no easier way to get your drum samples into a host sequencer than by using Battery 2.