You are here

Sunrise Software PC Drummer

Drum Programming Software
Published April 1994

This inexpensive program lets you add the advantages of pattern‑based drum programming to your setup, without abandoning your full‑blown sequencer. Brian Heywood gives it a battering...

One of the nice things about Windows is that it is a multitasking environment; this means that you should be able to run a number of applications at the same time. For the computer‑based musician, this has a number of advantages — for instance, you could run a MIDI sequencer and a patch editor/librarian at the same time, and thus be able to program your synthesizer as you develop your music. Another advantage is that offered by the PC Drummer application from Sunrise Software.

So why do you need PC Drummer? Well, most sequencers — like Cakewalk or Cubase — let you record and edit a MIDI performance as a linear track, rather like a multitrack tape recorder. However, unless you are a drummer and can record the percussion as a single track, you are far more likely to create a one‑ or two‑bar drum phrase for each section of the song and then repeat this as many times as you need it. Having created the basic rhythm track, you would complete it by adding drum rolls and other percussive 'special effects' as necessary.

Enter Stage Left

PC Drummer allows you to add a pattern‑based drum 'machine' to your existing track‑based sequencing setup without buying a completely new sequencing application. And since Windows is multi‑tasking, you can run it alongside your existing application — with certain caveats (see 'Multitasking MIDI under Windows' box). You can also use it as a stand‑alone drum machine for generating an entire drum track by stringing together patterns into a complete song.

As Time Goes By

The heart of the software is the Pattern Definition window, which lets you enter the drum hits on a grid representing a bar of music. You can either select one of the 50 pre‑defined rhythms or one of the blank patterns and start programming from scratch. The grid is made up of rows of little boxes that represent time divisions in the horizontal direction, with each row representing a different instrument — in this case a drum, cymbal or percussion instrument. Each drum hit is shown as a 'filled in' box on the grid, colour coded to indicate its loudness (MIDI velocity). The pattern can be altered while it is playing, but you must stop and restart playback to hear the effect of the changes. The instrument rows are assigned when you create the pattern, so you can have them in any order that suits you, selected from a list of General MIDI drums in the Instrument List window.

The Pattern Window can only handle patterns of one or two bars in simple time (2/4, 3/4 or 4/4) with each beat being divided into 12 or 16 divisions. If you work in compound time (6/8, 9/8, etc.) this is no problem; however, I can't see a way of getting 7/8 or 5/4. Each beat is separated by a blank space to clarify the display and only one bar is displayed in the window; you use a 'radio button' to switch between bars if you have chosen to work on a two‑bar pattern. To change the tempo of playback, you have to go to the Song Definition window, which defines the tempo for the entire song.

Saving Graces

Once you're satisfied with the pattern, you must save it back to the pattern list before you can use it. I found this procedure a little over complicated: PC Drummer insists that you create a section and then a song before you can use the pattern. While this is fine if you want to create a complete song, if you're just creating a two‑bar pattern to use in a sequencer then it's a bit non‑intuitive. One other irritation is that it's awkward to load up a pattern, make a few changes and then save it back to a new location to give a variation on the pattern. According to PC Services, it is possible to save a pattern to a new location in the pattern list, but it's not particularly straightforward.

The patterns can then be compiled into sections, using the Section Definition window to create the basic units of the song — verse, chorus, introduction and so on — which can then be compiled into a complete song using the Song Definition Window. This arrangement makes it easy to create intricate arrangements while keeping complications to a minimum. Once you've created a song you can save it in PC Drummer 's native format or as a MIDI file to be imported into a sequencer. One interesting feature is the ability to update an existing MIDI File, so, for instance, you can use a PC Drummer MIDI file as the basis of a sequence. If you decide to make a change to the song you can save the changed sequence as a MIDI file, update it with PC Drummer (rather than editing the drum track in the sequencer) and then re‑import it into the sequencer.

Take It To The Bridge

PC Drummer is a useful, if somewhat basic drum programming tool. Its main strength is that it gives a pattern‑based, graphic representation of a percussion/drum part; its main failings are the limitation to a single tempo and inability to create patterns with more complicated time signatures. At just around £58, I think it's a tad over‑priced — I would have expected a program of this type to cost less than £50. There is a new version due out in the summer, which will add more real‑time features, and to which existing users will be able to upgrade for a nominal fee. Some features I'd like to see added would be the facility to synchronise with other MIDI applications, the ability to alter the tempo from the Pattern Window, and the chance to use more complicated time signatures. Basically, PC Drummer is a nice little program with a few bits missing.

Multitasking MIDI Under Windows

There are two important issues when running multiple MIDI applications: MIDI output and synchronisation. To be able to use multiple MIDI applications, the Windows drivers need to be 'multi‑client'; this means that the driver has to merge the two (or more) data streams before sending it out to your MIDI synthesizers and sound modules. This merge function can be provided by the Windows drivers or by something like Lowrie Woolf Associate's (LWA) MIDI Master, which inserts itself between the MIDI applications and the Windows drivers.

The second vital issue is that of synchronising the various MIDI applications. This is done by making one application the timing master and then 'slaving' the other applications, so that they follow the master applications clock. Some applications come with their own pseudo‑MIDI devices (Digidesign's Session 8 and DAL's EdDitor) or again the LWA MIDI Master can help out by providing MIDI 'pipes' that connect the output of one application to the input of another.

Multitasking: The Future Of Computer MIDI?

Personal computers have traditionally been single tasking, which meant that you could only run one program at a time. If you wanted to use another application you'd have to exit from the current program — not forgetting to save your work! — and then load the new one. Although most computers had ways to load one or more programs into memory — TSRs under DOS, Desk Accessories for the Atari ST and Apple Mac, and various task switchers — only one program would actually be running at any time. With the advent of Windows 3 (enhanced mode) and Apple System 7, PCs became able to run a number of programs at once. Although these two systems don't give the sort of performance you'd expect from a large mainframe computer, they do allow the computer musician to run a number of applications at once, for instance a MIDI sequencer and a hard disk recorder.

Under DOS, programmers had to cram as many features as possible into one application so that the user didn't have to keep chopping and changing between programs. So Voyetra's Sequencer Plus had its Patch Librarian and Cakewalk its patch handling tools. In short, professional DOS MIDI programs tended to be very large and have loads of features that you might never use. This 'everything and the kitchen sink' approach is no longer necessary with Windows, since you can have a number of programs active at any one time. So, with any luck, Windows MIDI programs will become smaller and simpler (and cheaper), tightly focused at performing a particular task. An example of this approach is the Big Noise Max Pak, which bundles a number of simple MIDI utilities that work together to give a comprehensive music system.


  • Pattern‑based drum programming.
  • Can update MIDI files' drum tracks.
  • Relatively cheap.


  • Limited to a single tempo per song.
  • No synchronisation facilities.
  • Only offers simple time signatures.


Nice add‑on program for those who prefer pattern‑based drum programming but whose sequencers do not provide it. Update due in the summer should cover some of PC Drummer's missing features.