If you don't fancy programming drums from scratch, but you find pre-recorded drum loops too inflexible, perhaps what you need is Steinberg's virtual drummer...
Groove Agent is a VST Instrument designed to do for drums what Virtual Guitarist did for guitar parts; and like Virtual Guitarist, it was produced by Sven Bornemark in collaboration with some great musicians and rather clever programmers. All the acoustic drum sounds were recorded in Sweden by top drummer Mats-Erik Bjorklund, whereas electronic sounds came from Primesounds in Stockholm. In some respects, Groove Agent is like a software drum machine, but rather than using REX file samples like Virtual Guitarist, it uses separate drum samples arranged into patterns by 13 different musicians specialising in different musical styles. Unlike a drum machine, Groove Agent can be played interactively, with a MIDI keyboard used to switch between related drum patterns of differing complexity, or to initiate fills and so on.
In order to provide plenty of sonic flexibility, the drums were recorded simultaneously with close mics, overheads, distant mics at 2 metres and distant mics at 7 metres. This is important, as Groove Agent includes a variable ambience control that uses this information to move from a dry drum sound to a very live room without using synthetic reverb.
Groove Agent runs on any recent Mac (OS 9 to 10.2) or PC; there's no Audio Units version, so Logic OS X users will either have to wait or try a VST-to-AU wrapper. While Groove Agent doesn't demand a cutting-edge computer, it does take up lots of memory, so the minimum recommended is 512MB. Installation takes around 300MB of hard drive space and is from a copy-protected CD-ROM.
In Logic, Groove Agent is inserted in an Instrument track in the normal way and comes up with a main window that looks like a retro drum machine. This has a Styles slider at the top and a Complexity slider below it. Closer inspection reveals that each slider has two handles that are normally linked, but they can be unlinked, the upper one allowing drum patterns to be played using kits other than those for which they are designed, while unlinking the lower handle on the lower slider allows different fill to be used than the ones that normally go with the selected pattern. Each drumming style features 25 related patterns of various complexity, which may be selected on the fly using a couple of octaves of notes on a MIDI keyboard.
Below the Styles and Complexity sliders are four knobs to control Shuffle percentage, Humanization (a kind of virtual lager knob, though to be accurate, there should be a sampled sound of a drummer falling off his stool when you get up to 11!), Limiter and Ambience. Limiter works like a normal studio limiter to squash peaks and increase the overall level, while Ambience brings in the distant room mics for a big, live room sound. The type of ambience added is optimised for each kit.
Eight drum kit groups are also furnished, along with mute buttons, and of course there are Start and Stop buttons. When used with a sequencer, the Start button can be used to 'prime' Groove Agent so that it starts when the sequencer starts. When Groove Agent is running, four on-screen 'LEDs' show that the pattern is stepping through. There's also a virtual LCD screen showing the style type, tempo (as read from the host software), suggested tempo range, currently playing pattern variation and the amount of memory being used. Further buttons enable the snare sound to be switched to sidestick and allow accents to be added manually in real time. Accent triggers a kick and crash together, and if you hold this button down for around a quarter note after you hit it on an off beat, it produces a realistic syncopation. A dedicated button brings in fills, while another strips down the pattern to give a half-speed feel. The Fill button is interesting because if you hit it part of the way through a bar, you only get part of the fill, which provides a useful degree of extra variation. Patterns may also be started with a fill by 'arming' the Fill button before starting playback. Selecting Random wanders through pattern variations based on two patterns either side of the complexity level selected (randomly, as you might expect), while Random Fill does a similar thing for fills, selecting randomly from fills two patterns either side of the selected one whenever you trigger a fill. An Auto Fill button is also available and brings in a fill whenever you switch from one complexity level to another.
The panel surrounding the 'LCD' window can be opened by pressing the Edit tab to reveal extra functions including a mixer-like matrix that allows you to audition and edit individual drum group sounds. The velocity levels of the parts can be scaled, drums or drum groups can be tuned up or down by up to an octave and the decay and ambience of each drum can also be adjusted along with its volume.
Groove Agent also has a 10-slot memory that can be used to store snapshots of the panel settings for later instant recall. If a memory button shows dark it is empty, while one glowing red contains data and a brightly glowing one is currently active. Memories may also be copied from one location to another so that refinements can be made using the panel controls before resaving them.
Also lurking under the lid is a further hatch called Setup. Lift this and you see a few wires and switches as well as a Reset All button. The four switches activate MIDI Output, GM Output, Ambience to Output 4 and Vintage Mode. Used in Cubase or Nuendo (it may work in some other sequencers but the result is not guaranteed), Groove Agent can output MIDI data corresponding to the drum patterns enabling you to trigger your own samples, but sadly this feature isn't available in Logic. GM switches the drum output data to conform to a GM map while 'Ambience to Output 4' routes the dry drum parts to outputs 1 to 3 and the ambience to output 4 (assuming your VST Instrument host supports multiple outputs) where it can be processed separately.
Finally, Vintage mode narrows the stereo width and uses EQ to warm up the sound. Groove Agent also functions as a drum sound playback module, and sounds within each kit are mapped to MIDI notes. The Reset All button lets you clear out the memory and set the controls to their default positions.
Once I'd managed to get Groove Agent to work in Logic, getting impressive results out of it was no problem. The drum styles are arranged along a timeline starting in 1950 and they encompass Latin, Big Band, Jazz, Shuffle, Tamla, Soul, Pop, Funk and Disco as well as a number of rock genres and Reggae. Newer styles such as Hip-hop, Breakbeat, Ethnic, Techno, House, Trance, Modern Soul and Trip-hop are also represented, to name but about a quarter of them. All these beats have 25 further variations ranging from over-simple to seriously over-played, and the trick is to mix and match them throughout a song to get a natural feel. A different fill goes with each complexity variation, and as remarked upon earlier, you can randomise the fills that are applied and add humanity to the timing (another form of randomisation) to loosen up the feel.
On the whole, the acoustic kit sound is impressive, though I found the sameness of ride cymbals within any pattern that used them eight to the bar soon became wearing and made the patterns sound more drum machine-like. Randomly selecting from a handful of similar but not identical samples would have improved this. Each of the genres is represented with a viable playing style, but despite the huge range of options, I found it quite difficult to find 'normal' rhythms that a real drummer might use when playing blues, rock & roll or straight-ahead pop. In some cases I felt that adding more variations on a theme rather than more levels of complexity might have been more useful, especially in the area of kick drum patterns, which are very important when tying in with a bass player. To be fair, this is what happens on some patterns, such as the 3/4 time variant, but I felt that in other instances many of the variations were needlessly fussy, almost as though the drummer/programmer was trying really hard to come up with 25 variations on each pattern. The same is true of the more complex fills — most people would probably never use them, so why not have more varieties of usable fills? Of course products like this are upgradeable so, based on user feedback, these are issues that could easily be addressed.
These admittedly subjective observations aside, it doesn't take too much skill with a keyboard to get Groove Agent sounding like a real drum track, and the effect of adjusting the ambience to bring up a real room sound just adds to the realism. In general I preferred the sound with the vintage mode switched off, but I can see that it would suit a number of styles. The trick is to switch between similar complexity variations throughout a song, adding fills at the point where a real drummer would. This way the track sounds effortlessly natural. You only have to decide where you want changes — Groove Agent can decide what sort of changes they should be if you don't want the responsibility!
Everything that can be accessed from the on-screen front panel can also be controlled over MIDI using Continuous Controllers to operate the various switches and buttons as well as to control levels, ambience depth and so on. The mod wheel can be used to trigger a fill, though Controller 66 does the same thing and MIDI note B3 stops Groove Agent playing. MIDI notes B0 to A3 play the internal sounds so you can add to the patterns if you wish, and if the MIDI channel is set to 10, the mapping changes to GM mapping. Where the MIDI channel is an odd number, C4 to C6 select the complexity level, and if you hit with a velocity of harder than 90, you can trigger a fill, which is pretty intuitive. Alternatively, if Groove Agent is set to run on an even-numbered MIDI channel, the white notes C4 to B4 may be used to mute and unmute individual sound groups, while the black keys above C4 select the 10 memory locations.
While all these options could be confusing, it's a simple matter to stick with the one that suits you and make that your way of working. I chose to leave Groove Agent running on MIDI channel 1 so that I could use two octaves of the keyboard to select complexity levels and to trigger fills, and in most cases, the random option produces good results by switching between subtly different complexity levels. No operational problems were discovered other than those peculiar to Logic.
Groove Agent is probably the first serious attempt to make a virtual drum machine instrument that sounds, or more importantly, plays like a real drummer without the user having to do an awful lot of programming, and in this respect it succeeds well on most counts. My own view is that there are too many 'frilly' pattern variations and not enough real-world 'bread and butter' rhythms, but the way the pattern variations are handled to create a realistic sound is most impressive, as are the various ways in which fills can be introduced. The installation problem with Logic is easily got around using the modified preference file as described in the box, left, though the sooner this is fixed properly the better.
By way of sound, there's plenty of variation amongst the acoustic kits, all with adjustable ambience, and the overall quality of drum recording is excellent. The choice of electronic sounds is also creditable, and because you can mix and match styles and drum kits, there are many more variations than you might at first imagine. If you like the idea of real drums but prefer the convenience of software, then Groove Agent is a must-have package, though expect to have to bend some of your song styles slightly to fit in with the drum rhythms on offer. Ultimately Groove Agent is exactly what many people have been waiting for — a drummer that does as it is told and plays in time, doesn't play between songs, doesn't try to get off with your girlfriend and doesn't throw the TV set out of the window.
£179.99 including VAT.
I used Emagic's Logic running under Mac OS 9.2 for my tests, and although the installation appeared to go flawlessly, when I tried to open Groove Agent I was greeted with a message showing me a file path and telling me that a key file could not be found. This is very reminiscent of what happened in Logic with early versions of Virtual Guitarist, so I emailed the manufacturers for advice. I got a reply almost immediately to the effect that this is a known Logic/Groove Agent problem for which they are developing a proper solution, but in the meantime, they suggested a workaround. This consisted of using Simpletext to write out the file path to my Vstplugins folder and naming the file 'Groove Agent location'. This, I was told, was to be placed in the Mac's Preferences folder. I'd never heard of this kind of trick before, and to be honest I thought it smacked of trying to cure a clapped-out car by writing 'Please Start!' on a piece of paper and jamming it through the radiator grille. Anyhow, I went along with it and to my utter disbelief it worked first time!