Drum re‑synthesizer instrument or sound designer’s new best friend?
Steinberg’s latest addition to their virtual instrument line, Backbone, launched with a tagline of ‘drum re‑synthesizer’ that would undoubtedly get the attention of electronic music makers. However, while the title suggests that the design and playback of drum sounds might have been the over‑arching intention is Backbone’s development, fundamentally, it is an environment within which multiple audio samples can be combined, layered, re‑synthesized, processed and then played. In short, exactly the kind of software instrument that might appeal to cinematic or game audio sound designers and not just beat creators. So, is there more to Backbone than creating drum sounds? Let’s find out...
In essence, Backbone is a layer‑based sampler environment for creating new sounds. A Backbone preset is built from up to eight layers (samples) and the instrument is supplied with around 2GB of sample content, presets and layer presets to get you started. These include lots of drum and percussion‑based options but, equally, plenty of other possibilities that make it clear Backbone is about much more than drums. Playback can be monophonic or polyphonic and you get to define all the usual pitch‑bend, key‑range and glide parameters.
You can, of course, also import your own samples into Backbone and export your new sample creations for use elsewhere (for example, by dragging and dropping to an audio track) or play them directly from within Backbone. The playback engine provides plenty of opportunities to modulate properties in any/all layers via MIDI velocity, MIDI note (key follow), envelopes and parameter automation (there is a comprehensive MIDI Learn system) for adding performance expression to your sounds.
While obviously running smoothly within Cubase, Backbone supports VST3, AU or AAX hosts, so most other DAWs are in play. I did the bulk of my own testing using Cubase Pro 10.5, but Backbone seemed to run well in Logic Pro X, for example. The other introductory observation to make is that a single instance of Backbone allows you to create a single sound, albeit perhaps a very complex one built from up to eight sample layers. Therefore, if you want to build a complete drum kit with Backbone, you would need separate instances for each kit element (kick, snare, hi‑hat, etc). I happily ran multiple instances of the plug‑in within a fairly busy Cubase project even on my now long‑in‑the‑tooth OS X host system without noticing any CPU resource issues.
As shown in the main screen (above), Backbone’s UI is divided into a number of sections. Both the Browser and Effects panels can be toggled open/closed as required. The rest of the UI allows you to navigate between the eight sample slots (far‑left, with mute and solo options for each layer), offers some global controls and the Decompose section (more on this in a moment) along the top. You then get a ‘macro’ view of the five main editing sections (Waveform, Resynth, Pitch, Filter and Amp) and that changes focus depending upon which specific pair of layers are currently highlighted in the Layers panel. These macro controls provide plenty of editing options but, if you click on the coloured banner of any of them, the UI zooms in on that panel allowing deeper editing. Overall, the design is slick and generally very easy to navigate.
Space prevents a comprehensive description of all these editing possibilities but, whether you are designing drum sounds, crafting a unique melodic instrument, or generating sci‑fi sound effects, the potential is considerable. The expanded Waveform window allows you to trim the sample, apply fades, low‑ and high‑pass filters, define a loop region and to analyse (and then adjust) the core pitch (great for creating tuned drum sounds amongst other things). You can also set a sample to trigger on a ‘note off’ event and this is great for the triggering the ‘impact’ element of riser‑style sound effects.
As shown for the Filter panel, the Pitch, Filter and Amp sections provide editable envelopes to modulate the sample during playback. On the right you can define an envelope for the filter while the control panel provides a comprehensive choice of filter types, the usual cutoff and resonance parameters, distortion (five different types to choose between) and options to adjust envelope sensitivity to both MIDI velocity and MIDI pitch. This impressive level of control is mirrored in the other panels and, yes, each layer offers a completely independent set of these modules.
Also noteworthy is the ability to deconstruct a sample into its tonal and noise components (within the top panel). Yes, other software can do this (including Steinberg’s own SpectraLayers) but it is nicely implemented here with options to pre‑listen to the two components, adjust the separation and mix balance, and to render each component to a separate layer within Backbone for further processing. It’s a powerful tool with drum sounds allowing you to extract all sorts of sonic possibilities from even the humblest of drum samples.
The Resynth module also contains a plethora of sonic manipulation possibilities. As well as defining looping behaviour, adjusting velocity/key follow sensitivity, controlling the Purity (this adjusts the spectral properties of the sample as reflected in the lower panel of the Resynth module), you can apply a user‑defined filter curve to the spectral distribution with (again) options for adding velocity and MIDI pitch sensitivity to the filter. In short, you can utterly transform a sound here.
All these processing options for each layer are then complemented by a comprehensive set of more conventional effects options split across two effects chains. It’s difficult to imagine anyone running out of ways to tweak combinations of samples within Backbone.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Backbone’s included content features a sizeable crop of kick, snare, hi‑hat, tom and cymbal presets amongst its drum and percussion collection. These span a broad spectrum from conventional electronic drum sounds through to more experimental hybrid sounds and provide a good demonstration of Backbone’s potential for crafting your own signature drum sounds.
What perhaps did surprise me — on first encounter at least and given the ‘drum re‑synthesizer’ label — was how many non‑drum presets were provided. These include some impressive sound effects such as impacts, risers, whooshes and drones, for example, but also some very playable, pitched instruments such as bass and mallet sounds. These sounds illustrate that Backbone is much more than a custom drum sound designer. Indeed, Steinberg’s website includes excellent videos by Robert Dudzic and Dom Sigalas that demonstrate both sound effects and pitched instrument design within Backbone. Having watched these, and spent some time exploring this type of sound creation for myself during the review period, I do wonder whether the ‘drum re‑synthesizer’ tag line might sell Backbone a little short; it’s most certainly slick and very capable in that context, but it’s also a powerful environment for non‑drum sound and instrument design duties.
Steinberg have done an excellent job of blending all those sound design options into a slick and very creative workflow.
Of course, there are plenty of excellent virtual instruments that allow you to create custom drum sounds from samples and lots of sampler‑style instruments that can be used for sound design. Equally, there is perhaps nothing particularly revolutionary about any of the individual processing and sample manipulation options that Backbone offers. However, for me at least, Backbone is very much a ‘sum of the parts’ instrument. Steinberg have done an excellent job of blending all those sound design options into a slick and very creative workflow.
Who might it appeal to? Well, certainly electronic musicians looking for a platform to expand their drum design options. However, sound designers and media composers should also be interested. Whether its custom percussion sounds for those tension cues, full‑on sci‑fi scare‑fest sound effects, or risers and impacts, Backbone can do it all, either with the included samples or your own. While powerful and flexible, Backbone also manages to be easy to use and a lot of fun; perhaps a sound design tool that will also appeal to people who don’t generally like sound design tools? Anyway, while DIY sound design is generally something of a niche activity, if creating sounds — drums or otherwise — appeals, then Backbone is well worth a look. A trial version is available for download from Steinberg’s website.
Backbone combines some established sound‑shaping tools in a very clever fashion to create a sound design instrument that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Undoubtedly good for creating custom drum and percussion sounds but also capable of much more.