How do you improve on the ultimate drum studio? Steinberg attempt just that with the latest version of Groove Agent.
Back in 2015 Steinberg tagged Groove Agent 4 as the 'ultimate drum studio'. GA4 was certainly a very significant change from previous GA-badged virtual instruments. With a very deep feature set, and multiple 'Agents' covering electronic drums, percussion and acoustic drums available within a single instance, it certainly staked a pretty good claim for the 'best all-round drum tool', combining elements found in the likes of virtual drummer products such as Superior Drummer/EZ Drummer and virtual MPC-style drum machines.
So, if GA4 was the 'ultimate drum studio', where do you go from there? With Groove Agent 5 now with us, what have Steinberg done to take their flagship drum tool to an 'even more ultimate' status?
With software as deep as Groove Agent, any review is only likely to scratch the surface of what's possible. The focus here will obviously fall on the new and improved features in the v5 release. However, the core functionality found in v4 — and summarised in the June 2015 SOS review — remains intact. In brief, that means you get three different drum Agents — Acoustic, Beat and Percussion — any combination of which can be loaded into the four Agent slots in a single instance of Groove Agent. As well as a substantial collection of sounds, there is an excellent set of 'styles' (collections of preset MIDI patterns) in various musical genres, and these can also be assigned to a pad system for triggering. There is also a very neat Style Player system for easy triggering and performance creation as well as a comprehensive MIDI pattern editing environment. If you want additional content, Steinberg have a series of genre-based expansion packs for sounds, patterns and styles.
For the Acoustic and Percussion Agents, the user gets plenty of mix options for tweaking the sounds (although not direct access to editing the samples themselves), while the Beat Agent provides very detailed sample editing, support for velocity layering, sample import and excellent options for slicing audio loops. You can, therefore, build your own kits — acoustic or electronic — within Beat Agent. Multiple audio outputs are also supported. In short, for users looking for a single solution for all their drum needs, GA4 was already a good bet and, in retaining that core functionality, GA5 remains so.
The overall look of GA hasn't really changed. That's great for existing users familiar with the interface but, equally, means that it can still be somewhat daunting on first encounter. However, GA5 brings two significant UI changes that, in different ways, help on this front. First, the UI is now fully resizable, whether used stand-alone or as a plug-in. While this doesn't do much to counter the 'compact' nature of some of the controls and buttons, it does mean that you can, for example, make more room for detailed sample editing or for the pattern editor.
Second, the UI now offers an integrated browser (called the Load Panel) which can be docked or floated. It does take a little while to get your head around what's possible, but the new Load Panel is both flexible and powerful. The ease with which you can audition, for example, a number of different kick or snare sounds in place, while your project is in playback, is incredibly useful.
Of course, the first thing most potential new users or upgraders might look for is new sonic content. GA5 certainly ticks that box and the highlight is a new acoustic drum kit simply called The Kit. This is based around a combination of Pearl and Yamaha drums and predominantly Zildjian cymbals. It was sampled with high-end equipment in an equally high-end room. GA5's increased velocity layer limit is made good use of (some sounds have up to 20 velocity layers) and a good collection of presets configure GA5's mixing options to deliver a wide range of acoustic drum styles. It sounds very good indeed; if you want a great‑sounding acoustic kit with a minimum of fuss, The Kit is just the job.
That's not it, of course. There are also some 30 new sample sets for the Beat Agent, many supplied by up-and-coming electronic music producers, and a range of new pattern collections. There is plenty here for budding EDM producers to get their teeth into and many of the kits include loops, bass or melody parts plus various sound effects and hits.
GA5 also brings some new features under the hood. The number of available stereo outputs has been increased from 16 to 32. Users who regularly operate multiple Agents will appreciate the extra flexibility when routing their GA sounds into their host DAW's mixer. Perhaps of more general significance is the increase in the number of supported velocity layers from 8 to 32. No, it might not match the technical specification found in the very top-end of the virtual drummer world but, as demonstrated by The Kit, it is going to be more than enough to satisfy all but the geekiest of drum sound geeks.
The Sample Editor tab itself has some useful new options. When auditioning a multi-layered pad, you can now solo a single layer. In addition, when editing the pitch, filter and amplitude envelopes, you can now toggle on a waveform display for the sample being edited underneath the envelope itself. As you make edits to the envelope, the waveform display automatically adjusts, providing some very useful visual feedback.
It remains true that all the detailed sample editing is only available within Beat Agent and you still can't edit Acoustic Agent or Percussion Agent kits at the sample level. Both of these Agents do have very useful mixer and performance options, though, so, whatever selection of Steinberg's sample content you have available for these Agents, you can still coax a huge range of sounds from them.
And talking of the mixer options, for the Acoustic Agent and Percussion Agent, Cubase users now get the option to export their GA5 mixer settings, with or without all the plug-in settings, to equivalent channels in the Cubase MixConsole. If you prefer to keep all your mixing tasks in one place, this is very useful and, in my own testing, worked a treat. Unfortunately, this export feature does not, as yet, apply to Beat Agent. Here's hoping that is something that Steinberg have on their 'to do' list. However, one other very welcome change is that the excellent Style Player — previously only available with the Acoustic Agent — now also works with the Beat Agent including, of course, with all the new Style content.
Beat Agent's Instrument Edit page's sample editing has two further interesting new features. The Decompose tab allows you to split samples into their pitched and noise components. The Sensitivity, Cutoff and Duration knobs provide you with some control over how the two components are separated and, if you both enable the Pre-listen button and use the Solo buttons for the Tonal and Noise components, you can audition the two elements of the sound as you adjust these controls.
Clicking the Apply button will then replace the original sample with two separate samples or, if you also engage the Mix button, a single sample with whatever volume balance is set. The Options button gives you control over where any new samples are stored. If you create two samples — a tonal and a noise one — you can then engage the SEL button (located top-right above the waveform display) and that lets you apply further edits to just the selected sample. This means you could, for example, apply a pitch envelope to the tonal component but leave the noise component unaffected. By default, the two samples are mapped ready for velocity-based triggering but you can, of course, switch a pad's triggering to Layer mode (via the Main tab accessed via the button top-left above the waveform display), and that mode simply plays all of the samples mapped to a pad when the pad is triggered, regardless of their velocity mapping.
If you are into sculpting your own drum sounds, or into more general, sample-based, sound design, there is a lot of potential here. Indeed, there is also scope for creating some cool 'playable' pitched instruments by copying tonal and noise samples to multiple pads and simply adjusting the pitch of the tonal elements (leaving the noise element unchanged) on each pad. Or simply creating some downright weird noises... the choice is yours.
And talking of creating your own instruments, the second new element within the Instrument Edit page's options is the Recorder tab. This essentially allows you to record samples live into GA5 and automatically assign those samples to pads in various ways. This is derived from the same feature set in Steinberg's dedicated sample instrument, Halion.
The sampling in GA5 is surprisingly comprehensive, though, and there are two particularly cool elements. First, you can live sample from either an audio input or from a sound source within your DAW. The latter can be an audio track or another virtual instrument and this is made possible via GA5's side-chain audio input.
Second, the Recorder tab provides enough features to automate the sample recording process so that capturing multiple samples to build a complete instrument — whether various pitch or velocity layers — is a streamlined experience. For example, I fed the audio output from Superior Drummer 3 into GA5's side-chain input, set the recording process to use a threshold level for starting and stopping the recording of each sample, and set the mapping mode to Fixed (all samples end up velocity mapped on the same pad; a chromatic mapping option is also included for pitched instruments). I then programmed a series of 30 kick hits in SD3, starting at low velocities and gradually increasing. When I enabled recording in GA5, and set my programmed hits to playback, GA5 simply captured each hit and velocity mapped them for me to the chosen GA5 pad. You could, of course, do exactly the same thing with any virtual instrument, recorded sample, or from a 'real' instrument such as an acoustic drum kit or synth. This new feature is super-simple to use and very effective.
Groove Agent is undoubtedly a very powerful drum production environment, and this latest release simply adds to what was already a very rich feature set. For electronic drum production, GA5 is competitive with the obvious alternatives (for example, NI's Battery 4) and, with The Kit, can also provide high-quality acoustic drums for those that are not yet ready for something like Superior Drummer 3.
Existing users, providing they can justify the price of the upgrade, will undoubtedly find much to like in all the new highlight features. That said, Groove Agent does remain a complex beast and, while it is competitively priced, new users should go in with their eyes open; there is a learning curve to be tackled. However, for those searching for a powerful, comprehensive, all-in-one drum solution, GA5 is certainly a step worth taking. And if you want to dip your toe into the GA5 waters, Steinberg have very sensibly made a free 30-day trial version available for download. Well worth a look provided you are prepared to invest some time mastering the comprehensive suite of options.
- An incredibly rich feature set for drum production.
- Some great new content including The Kit.
- New live sampling feature simplifies DIY instrument creation.
- User interface is pretty intense.
- Initial learning curve to be faced.
If you are looking for your first serious drum production tool, and want a well-specified, all-in-one solution, Groove Agent 5 makes a great candidate.
Groove Agent 5 £153; upgrades from £85. Prices include VAT.
Groove Agent 5 $179.99; upgrades from $99.99.