Ocean Way Drums offers 19 drum kits, recorded in a world-famous studio by a world‑renowned engineer. Is this the best drum sample library money can buy?
There are few studios that enjoy the cachet of Ocean Way, and few engineers who can match the credits of the studio's owner Allen Sides, so surely only the most jaded of studio denizens could fail to take notice when both the studio and its head honcho became involved with the same software sound library. The product in question is Sonic Reality's Ocean Way Drums, a meticulously multisampled and multi‑miked selection of drum instruments that is available in two forms: the 40GB 24‑bit/48kHz Gold edition on six DVDs and the 80GB 24‑bit/96kHz Platinum HD edition on a 10,000rpm hard drive. (More entry‑level Ocean Way Drums Silver and DL Edition products are also apparently in the works, too — and may well be available by the time you read this.) Both operate using a customised version of Native Instruments' widely‑used Kontakt Player virtual instrument, which is now compatible with most major sequencers.
In collaboration with another highly‑respected engineer, Steven Miller, Allen has sourced 19 different custom drum kits (of unknown provenance, but apparently including some pieces courtesy of high‑profile recording artists), set them up in Ocean Way's near‑legendary Studio B drum-room, and then thrown a collection of the world's most sought‑after recording equipment at the problem of capturing their every nuance. So you not only get Allen's personal favourites from the Aladdin's Cave‑style mic locker, but also his own custom‑modified 'minimum signal path' recording console and a number of carefully modified rack classics from Neve, API, Urei and Fairchild.
Various drum performance techniques were recorded, including snare rolls, ghost notes, rimshots and side‑sticks; various stages of hi‑hat open‑ness, closed‑ness, and, er, pedal‑ness; and rolled and choked cymbals. Multiple velocity levels (32, to be precise) have been used, as you'd expect, and all the drums and cymbals have alternate samples available to help avoid 'machine‑gunning' when playing repeated hits in rapid succession. Separate kick‑drum and tom recordings were captured with and without the sympathetic rattling of the snare, something that makes a surprisingly large amount of difference.
You trigger all these samples in a two different ways. The first is from a MIDI keyboard using Sonic Reality's Extended IMAP layout, whereby each type of hit is assigned its own individual key. Much is made by Sonic Reality of the intuitiveness of this keyboard layout, and you can check it out for yourself on the dedicated Ocean Way Drums web site, but I have to say I found it rather confusing, particularly in the way the alternate samples were laid out. For example, where the main snare edge and centre hits have alternate samples on the same keys an octave below, the side‑stick and rimshot hits on the black keys directly above them have their alternate samples two octaves below. If you try playing those black keys one octave below you get a couple of hi‑hat samples which themselves seem strangely dislocated from the main body of the hi‑hat hits an octave and a half above them. I can accept that perhaps this layout is quicker to use in the long run (in much the same way as the non‑alphabetical layout of the letters on a QWERTY keyboard), but not everybody has the time to learn a new kind of touch‑typing for every new virtual instrument they buy, and I would certainly have appreciated a more straightforward layout for those programming MIDI, rather than playing it in live. As it was, I got so fed up squinting at the manual's key allocation diagram that in the end I stuck masking‑tape across the top of my controller keyboard and wrote out all the sample allocations by hand!
The other key‑mapping is for the TD20 version of Roland's V‑Drum system, and although I didn't have a V‑Drum system on hand to try this out, it looks to me a much better way to trigger Ocean Way Drums than a MIDI keyboard, as the variety of different hit types are allocated fairly intuitively, so that the kit responds to different stick‑hit positions in much the way you'd expect. Sonic Reality have also programmed Kontakt Player in this instance to automatically cycle between the available alternate hits on the fly. In some respects, MIDI programmers may find the V‑Drum keymapping easier to use for basic duties, even though some of the more unusual performance options (such as the rolls) won't then be accessible to you. Apparently, a planned update will include a GM keymap, which might help, although whether this will then provide access to the extended performance techniques is open to question.
While the miking setup features many first‑call mic choices (AKG's D12/D112 and Neumann's U47 FET on kick, for example, as well as Shure's SM57 on the snare), there are also aspects of it that are unusual. The first thing that stands out is the three sets of stereo room mics, which all have very different characters and give a lot of flexibility, but then there's also the six‑mic snare setup. Yes, that's right. Six mics on the snare: two modified SM57s two inches from the head, two AKG C12As 18 inches away, and two Sony C55P condensers five inches under the bottom head. A selection of Kontakt Instrument presets presents these mics in a variety of stereo and mono configurations, but the level and panning of all those mics is completely adjustable if you delve into the settings. A couple of other options are occasionally provided too: a ridiculously compressed 'Thwack' channel for adding aggression and character, and a reverb return from one of those '80s effects stalwarts, the early AMS RMX16 reverb unit. Both are a bit 'suck it and see', but fun to play with nonetheless.
Instrument presets are used to provide a quick and dirty kind of 'dry/wet' control for each kit component and, indeed, the kit as a whole — as you step through the six numbered presets (which you can do remotely from either of the key maps), the virtual hand of Allen Sides adjusts the balance between near and far mics to give you a progressively roomier sound. One other set of controls is also worth a mention: the envelope parameters. Most importantly, these allow you to set the release time of the samples following a MIDI Note Off message being received, and there are independent controls for the close mics and the more ambient mics — very handy for dampening down some of the more enthusiastically resonant or reverberant sounds on occasion.
Within Kontakt Player, the whole kit is set up as a Multi, with each kit component playing from a separate Instrument within it. The multi‑mic audio from each Instrument is then combined into six channels in the Kontakt Multi's mixer (kick, snare, hat, toms, overheads and ambience) for passing through to the host sequencer. These can be accepted by the host sequencer in multi‑channel format or as an appropriate downmix, depending on how you set up Kontakt Player's outputs. Because of the way the spill of every instrument can appear on the overhead and room mics in the setup, the experience of mixing the multi‑channel output streams from Ocean Way Drums is much like mixing a typical drum recording, albeit without any spill from other instruments on the close mics (something that's more often a hindrance than a blessing with real drum recordings).
With up to 13 mono and stereo mic sources running simultaneously for every component in the entire kit, there is a bewildering array of sonic options, because you can mix and match all of the mic sources for each individual kit component and, indeed, freely swap different instruments in from other kits. However, as The Incredible Samplerman might have said: with great power comes great polyphony. For example, I programmed up an only moderately busy drum pattern comprising kick, snare, hat and crash cymbal, and found that with all the possible audio streams active for each Instrument I was reaching around 140 voices on Kontakt's polyphony counter. As you can imagine, it makes sense to be running this monster on a fast machine with lots of RAM and a fast audio drive if you want to get the most out of it in practice. What is nice to see, though, is that Sonic Reality have sensibly scripted Kontakt Player in this case so that any audio streams not being used (those which have their level controls down all the way) take up no polyphony.
Given that Ocean Way Drums was put together by one of the greatest audio engineers of our time, it should be little surprise that the audio quality is beyond reproach. The 19 kits on offer here are all excellent professional specimens that would grace any recording you cared to put them on: clean, clear, fast and larger than life. The dynamic response of the hits is musical and appealing, and the hint of snare rattle on the kick and tom hits is great at gluing the kit together as a whole. The range of sounds on offer is also good, with each different kit having plenty of unique character to set it apart from the others. I reckon you could find something here for most eventualities, although by the very nature of Allen and Steven's emphasis on high production values and pristine audio quality, the raw sounds are kept within the bounds of fairly conservative taste, so you'll need to do a bit of mix processing if you want to stray outside acoustic, country, pop or MOR rock styles. Some may miss a brush kit, but this didn't fuss me too much; Sonic Reality had to stop sampling somewhere, and finishing 'after the stick hits' has a certain logic to it.
However, no matter what sound you're looking for, the scope you have in this library to manipulate the raw recordings is phenomenal, just by rebalancing all the audio streams of each drum‑kit component, either statically by manipulating each Instrument's controls directly, or dynamically by using Kontakt Player's MIDI controller assignments or sequencer automation facilities. This can be expanded further using Kontakt Player's range of onboard effects and any plug‑ins within your sequencer (which can, of course, operate on Kontakt Player's multi‑channel audio outputs for extra control). And if you have the full version of Kontakt, you can go further still in terms of processing and routing individual samples. To start with such fantastic recordings and then to have so much scope to adjust them is brilliant, and I can't think what more I'd want from a drum instrument on this front, to be honest. In this respect, Ocean Way Drums is a godsend for mixdown drum‑replacement in particular, because the sounds are so good, you can tweak them so much more than you can a straight sample, and you can adjust the sound dynamically to match different sections of your mix.
Blistering sonics aside, though, I think the real‑world usability of Ocean Way Drums as a virtual instrument could definitely be improved. First of all, there's no description whatsoever of the instruments that make up each of the 19 kits, or of how they might have been tuned and damped to create the final sound. Some might argue that this makes you more likely to choose suitable sounds with your ears rather than relying on preconceived notions of what specific drums sound like, an argument that has more than the usual weight here in the light of the mixing flexibility on offer within the Kontakt Player interface. However, what rather hamstrings this viewpoint in Ocean Way Drums is that the instruments and kits take so long to load — for example, a typical snare‑drum Instrument takes around 30 seconds to load in on my machine, even though it's considerably more powerful than the required spec. This makes surfing through the 19 kits looking for a suitable patch a somewhat sedate pastime! Even if the developers decided to take the view that writing about timbre is like dancing about flavour, and eschewed descriptive text entirely, then they could at least provide some kind of 'menu' Instrument to showcase representative mixes of the different kits side‑by‑side. As it is, the only way I'm going to get regular use out of Ocean Way Drums on my system is if I decide to manually bounce out audio files of each kit for comparison purposes. When I get a moment... (When I contacted Sonic Reality about this, they admitted that the size of the full kits did mean that loading times were high. However, they are apparently in the process of developing lightweight stereo‑only Multis for quicker auditioning purposes, as well as MP3 demos of each kit.)
One other issue that may concern some users is that although Ocean Way Drums can produce incredibly realistic drum realisations given the right MIDI input, it makes no attempt to help you generate a musical MIDI part in the first place. There are lots of software drum instruments on the market, and many of them now include libraries of preset grooves to get you started, but there's nothing like that here. So unless you're already a seasoned drum programmer, or a drummer with a V‑Drum kit, you may struggle to achieve musically satisfying results despite the platinum‑coated sound quality that this virtual instrument brings within reach. That said, Sonic Reality are apparently in the process of producing a library of over 200 pre‑programmed MIDI grooves for Ocean Way Drums, which they say will be made available as a free download for all customers.
Niggles aside, though, there is simply no getting away from the fact that this is a library from a studio that's sold more than a billion records — and it sounds like it. So if audio fidelity and mixing flexibility are at the top of your list of requirements, then this library should amply justify its high‑end price point.
When it comes to drum instruments, there's masses of choice: Toontrack's Superior 2, FXpansion's BFD2, XLN Addictive Drums... and that's without even considering the more automatic drum performance instruments such as Steinberg's Groove Agent 3 or Digidesign's Strike. In this context, the unique selling points of Ocean Way Drums are its sonic lineage and the tremendous amount of mixing flexibility. However, the pricing of both Gold and Platinum bundles is in a different league to that of most other instruments, so if your sonic demands aren't as great (and, indeed, if your need for speed is paramount) an instrument of the quality and range of Ocean Way Drums might simply be overkill. (That said, though, given that more slimline versions of OWD seem to be on the cards, ditherers might be well advised to hold off making a choice and see what kind of price/performance these new options offer.) Mixosaurus DAW Drums Kit A is probably the most direct competitor, approaching Ocean Way Drums Gold in terms of price but out‑gunning it in terms of sampling detail. Whether this is likely to be a better bet for you will depend on whether you want some different kits (as in Ocean Way Drums) or whether you're happy with a single kit but want the most extravagant multisampling and the greatest number of different playing articulations (as in Mixosaurus DAW Drums Kit A).