Why take three virtual rhythm plug-ins into the studio when you can just take one? Steinberg’s Groove Agent 4 attempts to do it all.
Back in the dim and distant past (well, 2003 to be precise), Steinberg released their first iteration of Groove Agent. It eventually sat alongside two other virtual instruments (Virtual Guitarist and Virtual Bassist), all of which shared a similar approach. They were, in essence, computer-based musicians and, provided you were happy to work within the constraints of the supplied sounds/performances, capable of doing a decent turn if you needed quick results or didn’t have access to ‘real’ musicians to fill these roles on your projects.
For their time, these were novel and innovative products and Steinberg deserve a respectful nod for taking some of these initial steps along a road that other developers have now followed. While Virtual Guitarist and Virtual Bassist no longer have a place in Steinberg’s product line, Groove Agent does. It evolved through v.2 (2005) and v.3 (2008), both of which expanded upon what was essentially the same format. However, if you are familiar with Cubase 5 or later, you will have encountered Groove Agent ONE and perhaps Groove Agent SE4, both of which are more in the MPC-style drum-machine mould. It might not come as a surprise, therefore, that the long-awaited Groove Agent 4, while it may be the next number in the sequence, appears to be a very different beast. It’s also perhaps not surprising that Steinberg felt this significant overhaul was required if Groove Agent was going to stay relevant given the abundance of excellent drum tools, whether virtual drummers or MPC-style drum machines, that are now available.
These categories are not, of course, mutually exclusive and, for example, with the right samples, something like EZDrummer can do urban just as easily as it can do rock. However, with Groove Agent 4, Steinberg seem to be on a bit of a mission to bring these kinds of tools together. Indeed, in Groove Agent 4, we get three different drum tools; Acoustic Agent, Beat Agent and Percussion Agent, and Steinberg’s tag-line for GA4 is ‘ultimate drum studio’. That’s quite a label, so does three into one go?
Not So Secret Agents
For the purposes of this review, I installed GA4 from a download (around 9GB — pour a drink and wait), although there is a boxed version available. Software front-end aside, the library includes over 22,000 samples and some 3800 MIDI grooves, the combination of which covers a huge range of musical styles. Amongst the samples are three sampled acoustic drum kits (Studio, Rock and Vintage and featuring quite detailed sampling), around 100 Beat Agent kits and over 20 percussion kits. While the integration with Cubase is obviously very tight, GA4 will work with any suitable VST or AU host.
GA4 provides you with four independent ‘kit slots’ (located top-right) into which you can place instances of the three different Agents in any combination you prefer. Above them, and running the full length of the main window, is a control strip that includes access to the global-level preset system, CPU, disk and memory use indicators and various buttons to tweak global MIDI settings, bypass effects and (thankfully) undo/redo buttons. The preset browser mimics the approach found in Cubase’s MediaBay, so there are lots of ways to refine your search and to categorise your content. To the left of the kit slots you get access to the preset system for the currently selected kit slot and some settings — polyphony, MIDI channel, etc — that are specific to that kit slot.
At the very base of the window you can toggle on/off the display of a virtual keyboard. This allows you to see how things are mapped to MIDI notes for the currently selected kit slot and can also be used to trigger both pads and patterns via the mouse if required. The rest of the display is split into two areas, both of which are tabbed to allow access to multiple functions. On the left are the banks of pads that can hold both samples and MIDI patterns, while on the right you can access the various kits, sample and pattern editing, the sample/pattern browser features and the mixer system with its various effects options.
In the ‘pad’ pane, you can toggle between Instrument view and Pattern view. In Instrument view you can explore, edit and play whatever samples are currently assigned to any of the eight banks of 16 pads for the currently selected kit slot. Pattern view provides you with a similar set of eight banks/16 pads per bank where you can store MIDI patterns to be triggered, and these also apply to the currently selected kit slot. By default, the instrument pads for each kit slot respond on MIDI channels 1 to 4 while the pattern pads respond to any MIDI channel, but there is plenty of flexibility here and even a completely separate virtual MIDI port that can be activated for the pattern pads if required.
The options available to you in the right side of the display depends upon whether you have the Pattern or Instrument tab selected in the left pane and, to a certain degree, upon which Agent you have in the currently selected kit slot (the features offered are different for each Agent). For example, under the Edit tab with the Acoustic Agent you get a drum kit graphic that allows you to tweak the settings for each kit piece, including the amount of room/overhead mics and the bleed. You also get to pick between two different snare and kick sounds. You can’t, though, dig in and tweak the samples themselves or swap the samples out for one of the kit pieces with those from a different kit. The Percussion Agent works in a similar fashion.
However, for the Beat Agent, the Edit tab shows the sample (or samples — each pad can contain up to eight velocity layers) for the currently selected pad. Here you get a range of editing options including loading/replacing samples (including your own samples), adjusting the pitch, pan, filter, time-stretching, loop points and amplitude envelope plus a whole lot more. If you like to get down and dirty with your drum-machine samples, you can certainly do it here.
Indeed, in a review of this length, it is very difficult to do justice to exactly just how many options this right-side pane can cough up as you work your way through the different Agents and the various tabs on offer. The level of control might, to some new users, seem quite daunting, and this is perhaps not helped by just how compact (er, small) some of the controls, buttons and settings are. Providing your eyesight is up to the task, everything is perfectly usable, it’s just that there is a lot of it and finding your way around takes an investment of time — be prepared.
Drum sampling has come a long way over the last few years, and software such as BFD3 boasts astounding attention to detail in this regard. By comparison, GA4’s 9GB core library seems positively modest. However, don’t be in any doubt about the quality of the sounds on offer here. The three acoustic kits sound very good indeed and each kit piece provides plenty of dynamic response.
The three acoustic kits within Acoustic Agent each have a distinct character and, between them, and with a willingness to experiment with the mixing and effects options GA4 puts at your disposal, you could cover a very wide range of musical styles spanning jazz to metal. For Percussion Agent, the 20 or so presets give you variations of the same basic percussion set, but this includes a diverse selection of instruments from the humble triangle to some impressive congas and, where appropriate, different articulations based upon strikes with the palm, finger tap and so on, each triggered via separate MIDI notes.
When it comes to Beat Agent, the diversity of the 100 or so kits is staggering, including electronic and urban music styles of all genres with both ‘vintage’ and ‘modern’ sound sets. Perhaps the obvious omission is a collection of sounds aimed more at orchestral and/or film use, but, if you need to fill that gap, Steinberg are already releasing sound sets for GA4 and, for example, the Metronomic Cinema expansion pack would seem like a good choice for those involved in music-to-picture work.
I’ll come to the MIDI patterns in a minute, but, in terms of samples, GA4 is not just about drum hits; Beat Agent is also well equipped to deal with loops. You can drag and drop a sliced audio part from Cubase/Nuendo or a REX file onto an empty Beat Agent GA4 pad and it will automatically be mapped across subsequent pads (providing they are empty). Alternatively, if you drag and drop an unsliced loop onto an empty pad, you can then open the Slice tab and hit the Create Slices button. This both slices the loop and spreads the slices across consecutive empty pads.
Whichever route you opt for, you then get the full set of Beat Agent editing tools to tweak the samples — filter it, reverse it, process with effects, adjust the amplitude envelope, pitch-shift it — so you can get as creative as you like. You also get the option to drag and drop a MIDI pattern back to your host DAW that will replay the original loop from the slices, but the Create Slices function also places the same MIDI pattern onto the first empty pattern pad, so you can trigger it from there if you prefer.
Amongst the other options here is the Classify Slices feature. This will automatically attempt to place the slices into one of five basic classes — kick, snare, hi-hat, tom and percussion — and these then appear colour coded within the display. You can manually adjust the classification if required. You can also automatically assign all notes of a specific class within a pattern to be played by the same slice; pick the best kick or snare slice and use this for all the kick or snare hits within the loop for a more consistent sound.
Switch to pattern mode and GA4 allows you to assign patterns to the eight banks of 16 pads and these can be triggered directly from the pads or via MIDI. GA4 also has a fully featured pattern editor built in with a controller lane and a tool-set that is on a par with the Cubase drum editor. Pattern triggering offers different modes so the transition from one pattern to another can be handled in various ways, patterns from different pads can be layered and patterns can also be configured as ‘exclusive’, meaning that they stop the playback of other patterns within an exclusive group.
However, the really interesting element is that, for each of the 128 pattern pads, you can assign a pattern for each of the four kit slots. A single pad can, therefore, trigger up to four simultaneous patterns, allowing you to layer sounds from any of the Agents you currently have loaded. The Overview panel (within the Edit tab) provides a very efficient way to see which pattern is assigned to which pad/kit slot combination, load or delete patterns and copy or move patterns between pads.
The ability to layer acoustic drums, percussion and electronic drum samples into a hybrid rhythm using this pattern system is both a lot of fun and hugely creative. Whether you produce contemporary pop/electronic music or music for picture, I could imagine this feature generating all sorts of interesting and inspiring musical starting points.
There are numerous other features tucked away within the pattern system — indeed, too many to do justice to in a review of this length — but the ‘styles’ (groups of MIDI patterns that can be used to create a song structure) and the Jam Mode (which allows GA4 to move between a set of patterns while you play along) both have considerable potential. That said, despite the GA4 reference manual running to 180 pages, neither feature is perhaps explained as clearly as it might be for the new user.
I did the bulk of my own testing using GA4 as a plug-in within Cubase Pro 8 and, as you might expect, this proved a pretty smooth experience. I did, however, use GA4 as a stand-alone application without problems and also did some very brief testing in both Digital Performer and Reaper. In both cases, GA4 functioned well.
Putting the front-end aside for a moment, the sample and pattern content of GA4 is impressive and the review took a lot longer to write than it might have done simply because I found myself getting inspired while exploring the sounds and preset patterns. While each of the Agents is impressive in its own right — and Beat Agent, in particular, is amazingly deep — it was the ability to layer the different Agents within a single virtual instrument that really caught my creative imagination. I can see GA4 becoming a very firm favourite in my own musical productions.
I will, however, qualify what is otherwise an overwhelmingly positive response to GA4 with three comments. First, as outlined above, GA4 is stuffed full of features and, in reality, I’ve only scratched at the surface of what’s available here. For example, I’ve barely mentioned the fully featured mixing and effects options or the comprehensive automation system. However, this power, sophistication and feature-rich specification also means there is a learning curve to be tackled if you are going to fully exploit what’s on offer.
Second, while both Acoustic Agent and Percussion Agent sound fabulous and offer plenty of features, when it comes to the absolute geek-level of control over your virtual acoustic drummer, GA4 is perhaps not a match for something like BFD3. For the majority of (non-geek) users, however, what’s here will be more than enough to do a very good job.
Third, the interface itself is perhaps best described as utilitarian rather than as a thing of great beauty. At times the various screen layouts are rather busy with some miniscule controls stuffed into very small places. GA4 is not going to win any awards from those whose eyesight isn’t in decent shape.
Despite these qualifications, however, I think Groove Agent 4 is one heck of a piece of software and the rewards for digging in and getting to grips with the vast array of tools and features available are considerable. By combining those three Agents under one hood, each of which is very capable in its own right, GA4 covers a huge range of sounds in sonic terms. This really is an ‘all-in-one’ virtual rhythm device.
Steinberg use the phrase ‘Ultimate Drum Studio’ as the tag line for GA4. Maybe that’s a bold claim (what would be the point of GA5 then?), but they have delivered a bit of a monster of a drum tool. If you like the idea of a single virtual instrument for all your drum and percussion needs, GA4 is a hugely impressive contender and, at the current asking price, represents fabulous value for money. Just be prepared for a bit of a learning curve.
I’ve mentioned some of the other obvious competition within the main text. For acoustic drums, BFD3, Superior Drummer 2 and Addictive Drums 2 would be obvious candidates, while EZDrummer might make a more budget choice. For electronic drum sounds, there are numerous options but, while most sample-based drum tools can span the acoustic/percussion/electronic drum spectrum with appropriate samples, I’m not sure there is anything else on the market that attempts to provide three dedicated tools within a single instrument in the same way that GA4 does. ‘Ultimate’ might be a nice marketing word but ‘unique’ is perhaps more appropriate.
- Mac OS 10.8 or higher; VST3 or AU host, 4GB RAM, dual-core CPU, 10GB free HD space, DVD-ROM drive (for boxed product), USB eLicenser (not included).
- Windows 7 SP1 or later; VST2.4 or VST3 host, 4GB RAM, dual-core CPU, 10GB free HD space, DVD-ROM drive (for boxed product), USB eLicenser (not included).
- The three Agents bring almost any rhythmic need into a single virtual instrument.
- Very deep and detailed feature set.
- Sample and pattern library are very impressive.
- The ability to combine multiple Agents is hugely creative.
- User interface is very busy.
- Documentation could be (even more) detailed.
- Quite a learning curve for new users.
Groove Agent 4 is a massive step up from the previous version. The interface may take some learning but this is a very impressive and powerful tool for almost any style of drum or rhythm production and represents very good value for money.
Steinberg +49 (0)40 210 350
- Groove Agent 4 (v.2.2.6, build 104).
- Apple iMac: OS 10.9.5, 3.5GHz quad core i7, 32GB RAM.
- Focusrite Scarlett 8i6.
- Cubase Pro 8.0.5.
- Digital Performer 8.05.
- Reaper 4.75.