Can Rob Papen's new virtual instrument deliver the knockout blow?
The latest virtual instrument to emerge from Rob Papen's stable is Punch, a drum machine that places synthesis and sound‑design at the top of its priority list. With sample playback, effects and a pattern sequencer too, this is one Punch that could easily sneak under your guard.
In common with other instruments produced in conjunction with software developer Jon Ayres, Punch arrives stocked with Rob Papen sounds to add polish to your productions. But it's when you dig in and discover how extensively tailorable they are that the penny drops. This is no ordinary drum machine slavishly regurgitating Roland's past glories. Not that anyone will complain when they discover that classic and contemporary drum tones are equally well represented.
Punch is available in two separate versions suitable for 32‑ or 64‑bit Mac or PC hosts. It doesn't run stand‑alone but as a VST, AU or RTAS plug‑in. I've never seen this as a major issue — an instrument of this type complements rather than replaces a DAW. Having downloaded the version(s) required (or, if you have the boxed edition, popped the DVD into the drive) installation proceeds uneventfully. Having entered the serial number, it's worth going straight to Rob's web site, where you can register and check for updates.
The version under the spotlight here is the second revision, 1.0.2. This includes several minor enhancements and bug fixes, plus support for Mac Lion (OS 10.7). One of the additions was a 'big screen' mode, which expands Punch to a whopping 40 percent above the standard size. It's so large it overflows my Mac's chosen resolution (1280 x 800), but fortunately I was content with the standard size.
Punch has a neat and ordered appearance based around a 'brushed metal' panel with rendered knobs and subtle turquoise shading. Functionality mostly trumps cosmetics, although reading the positions of those rendered knobs wasn't always easy. In all editing operations, you first select the drum to be edited by a click on its pad. Assuming 'Dyn Select' mode is active, you can click anywhere on the pad, otherwise you have to click the small blue LED, which is a bit of a subtle distinction in practice. You can only make this selection by mouse — one negative point in an otherwise extensive MIDI remote implementation. It would, admittedly, be an impressive (not to mention huge) hardware controller that had a knob for everything Punch offers.
The display is divided into regions, with an upper area for bank and preset selection; the lower half is occupied by three columns of eight pads and the sequencer grid. The pads represent instruments available to each kit, while the sequencer's eight buttons activate patterns within the current Preset. We'll be looking at these and at the sequencer a little later. First, let's concentrate on the main part of the display. This changes dynamically as you click the options: Easy, Pads, Mixer, Mod/FX and Manager.
A click on 'Easy' reveals a simplified means of tweaking your chosen drum. Essentially, it's a row of friendly sliders for making fast, sweeping, instantly‑visible changes. Later on, when you view the other screens and their dense clusters of knobs, you'll look back on this page with affection. Using the pitch, decay, filter, pitch envelope and LFO sliders, you often needn't dig any deeper than this. There's a slider for the level of each effect, plus bypass buttons for each effect — often a blessing when you need to curb the mayhem.
The Pads page contains the real meat of Punch, primarily in the form of a large selection of analogue models, fine‑tuned according to the type of drum selected. Sample playback is the alternate means of sound generation, sourced from factory or user libraries.
Each kit consists of 24 different drums and just two fixed keyboard maps to play them with (GM and Standard). I chose Standard because it maps the pads in the order they appear on‑screen, starting at C1. From middle C onwards (assuming this as C3), you can trigger the sequencer's grooves and breaks.
With only three exceptions, all pads are fixed in the roles they perform. The first two are reserved for bass drums, the second two for snares, followed by hi-hats, claps and so on. Included in the list are half a dozen 'user' drums, offering either model‑based or factory sample‑based choices. Finally eight pads are exclusively reserved for samples, and these alone offer the importing of user samples.
It's an arrangement that simplifies operation but it also feels a little restrictive. If I prefer to be clap‑free, it seems a shame I can't reassign both of those pads for other duties. Fortunately, the models allow pretty drastic transformations, so although you're stuck with the pad labels, you can still get pretty wild and creative with the underlying synthesis.
Wildness and creativity is very much encouraged, and in spite of the apparent complexity, I found programming to be both fun and fast. During editing, you can click the 'Orig' button at any time and hear the original sound. To return to your edit is also just one click away. I've banged and thudded with a succession of drum machines lately, but with Punch I hit the ground running and never looked back.
To better grasp Punch's power, let's check out one of the busier models — Snare Model 2. It has no less than 27 knobs to shape and perfect the ultimate snare, which should be plenty! The manual documents them all, but as the panel labelling is self‑explanatory, there's nothing to prevent you diving in right away. The knobs are sub‑divided into sections: oscillator frequency plus envelope, noise, noise filter plus envelope, and click. Considering just the noise component of our snare, the attention to detail is impressive: you are given control over the noise's filter, envelope, response to velocity and other important stuff. I, for one, would be unlikely to get bored anytime soon — and remember, this is just one model of one type of drum.
Keeping sound designers amused is all very well, but what about when there's no time for fiddling about? Fortunately, a small Preset window serves up pre‑programmed drums suited to the current pad, ready to try. These are of immense value as you begin building your own kits. I especially loved the selection of kicks, some sourced from bass-drum models, others from classic samples. A range of models are supplied for the user pads; these behave like mini synthesizers, using filtered noise as source, or perhaps an oscillator with FM, a multi‑mode filter and LFO.
It's easy to get sidetracked by the many models (I did), but Punch's Sample modules are equally useful, whether they're based on the 250‑plus samples supplied or on user libraries. There are several methods of spicing up sample playback, including rapid retriggering, filtering and LFO or envelope control. Just don't expect to find any sample‑editing tools, sample slicing or indeed much provision for drum-loop handling. Nevertheless, each pad can trigger one or two samples and play them back looped, reversed or offset from the start point. You can drag and drop AIFF or Wav files directly to the sample file screen ready for import and — as of version 1.0.2 — you can store a user‑defined sample library location, which is a helpful time‑saver. I'd personally have liked more than two samples per pad, but at least they have some worthwhile playback options, such as being triggered alternately on each hit or switched according to velocity.
Finally, regardless of the drum's origin, there is always a distortion unit available — one for every drum of a kit. Distortion comes in 19 varied, gritty flavours that include bit reduction, fuzz, overdrive, saturation, limiting, and so on, and each has two significant parameters to tweak. I spent far longer trying these out than I'm reflecting in words, but I definitely began to understand the biting presence behind many of the factory kits.
Anyone still harbouring doubts over Punch's synthesis power would do well to check out the Mod/FX page, with its two envelopes, two LFOs and six‑way modulation matrix. Furthermore, each effect has two free modulation connections with 60 modulation sources, and any effect parameter as potential destination.
Punch offers four simultaneous effects with a number of serial and parallel arrangements on tap to shift their order around. Drums are routed through effects as inserts, and even though you can route multiple drums through the same effect, what is really missing is some form of effects bus on the mixer, with individual sends for each drum. This limitation is tempered by the quality of the effects, though, which are far better than expected for a drum box, and more on a par with previous Rob Papen synths. The expected delay, flanger and so on are found next to less common sculpting tools such as comb filter, 'Low‑fi', Amp Simulation, Waveshaper and Gator, the last offering sequenced gating par excellence. The list continues with ring modulator, filter, EQ and compressor, not forgetting noise gate, multi‑distortion and a very tasty reverb. The reverb goes well with big, booming drums; indeed, the effects are good enough for most occasions, but if you do want to leave the box (and your audio interface can handle it), Punch supports eight stereo outputs.
The Mixer page is a dazzling collection of knobs with not a slider in sight. Its layout doesn't give an instantly clear overview of the mix — you have to scan the panel and those subtle knob markings. In the recent update, each channel gained solo and mute abilities, although not via buttons but with a right‑click of the mouse.
As seen in other Papen virtual instruments, the Manager page is the central point for bank, preset and pattern activity. Each bank contains up to 32 Presets and the manual advises you to begin by creating your own, thus keeping the factory banks intact. These are worth preserving, because they show off splendidly what Punch can do, particularly if you're into huge, deep or contemporary kits (who isn't?). There are a couple of dance banks, Hip Hop and RnB, plus 'Filmscore & TV', 'Perc & Drums' and more. Within some, you'll find bongos, ethnic percussion and so forth, while others offer subterranean kicks, metallic hits, reverses, and percussion steeped in luxurious reverb.
Perhaps the most instantly ear‑catching are the glitchy and doom‑ridden kits with their phenomenal bottom end, but for more everyday use, the Xonos Soundworks collection includes 808 and 909 kits, plus a smattering of Latin House, Hard Rock, Drum & Bass and Techno. Finally, the BD1 Hardcore banks contain some of the most seriously fat, distorted and in‑your‑face kicks that my monitor speakers have handled in a long time.
If Punch is sonically a heavyweight, its sequencer remains confined to the bantamweight division. It has just eight patterns of up to 16 steps; these are known as Groove 1‑4 and Break 1‑4. Each pattern handles a maximum of four drums, which isn't many. The idea is that you build patterns containing separate rhythmic elements. These are then combined dynamically in performance. Functionally, there's no difference between grooves and breaks — you can fill them any way you please.
Each of the four drum tracks has rows of numeric input fields so you can tweak velocity, panning, pitch, envelope speed, flams (retriggers) and time offset. There's also a row assignable to any destination in the modulation matrix — ideal for automating a little of the freakiness.
Surprisingly, the only way to create a pattern is one drum at a time, using the mouse. You can't record notes in from a keyboard or controller and when you want to assemble a song, your DAW is the place to do it. Patterns can be exported to help this process along.
Whenever you trigger a pattern via the keyboard or by clicking its pad, it restarts. To keep several going, there's a handy latch button, but that's practically all the control you have over playback. True, you can vary the swing, shorten the loop and add humanisation of step lengths, but even so, I can't see the sequencer holding the attention of many users — it's just too basic. If you wanted to perform an entire song, eight patterns won't go very far, but they are fine for auditioning kits and for simple improvisation.
Rob Papen's programming chops have been an asset to electronic instruments for years. Drums from his Proteus 2000 Techno board still get regular use in my studio, which is why I eagerly anticipated the next percussive chapter. I wasn't disappointed. Punch sits comfortably alongside Papen's Predator and Blue (virtual analogue and FM-based synths), like the corner piece of a sonic jigsaw. It brings deeper than expected drum synthesis, uncomplicated sample playback and better than average effects to the world of drum machines, and all for a good price.
It's fair to say that the sequencer is not Punch's most addictive component, but the independent control of up to eight simultaneous patterns isn't without its pleasures. And even though I'd like to see a reworked mixer with conventional sliders and auxiliary sends for effects, I can't honestly say the current system really held me back. Punch's character is what matters most — and to this judge, at least, it's another Papen knockout!
With its purely sample‑based approach, FXpansion's Geist is either an alternative to Punch or the ideal complement to it. Geist is a little more expensive but can run stand‑alone, and features sampling, sample slicing and a song mode, plus it has a more elaborate effects structure. Punch scores for its immediacy but mostly for its in‑depth synthesis.
- A deep, powerful‑sounding, yet easy‑to‑use drum machine.
- Sample playback and analogue modelling make a powerful alliance.
- Has factory sound banks you'll want to use.
- The sequencer is very basic.
- No sample slicing or time‑stretching.
Punch is a drum synthesizer on steroids, its huge sonic palette brought to you by analogue modelling, sample playback and some superior effects.
Time + Space +44 (0)1837 55200.
- Apple Mac Pro, 2x2.66GHz quad‑core Intel Xeon running in 64‑bit mode, 12GB RAM, OS 10.6.8.
- Logic 9.1.4.