Toontrack’s EZdrummer just gets better and better.
If I had to hazard a guess at the world’s most popular virtual drummer, I’d go with Toontrack‘s EZdrummer, and while its second incarnation was released back in 2014, it has remained a firm favourite ever since. However, seven years is a long time, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Toontrack felt EZdrummer was due some R&D TLC. So, how does EZdrummer 3 improve on EZdrummer 2? And, importantly, is it still EZ to use?
EZdrummer’s success has been built upon three fundamental elements. First, it offers high‑quality, sample‑based drum sounds (mostly various flavours of acoustic drums but there are electronic sounds available as expansion packs). Second, while you can obviously create your own drum patterns using your host sequencer, it provides the user with an excellent (and expandable) collection of genre‑based MIDI grooves that can easily be arranged into a song format. Third, it provides tools that let you quickly finesse those preset grooves by changing their dynamics, intensity and timing to suit both your song’s structure and to dial the exact degree of ‘human’ required in the performance.
As we will see in a minute, Toontrack have brought enhancements in all three of these key areas but, on first sight, the most obvious change is the visual refresh to bring the EZdrummer UI into line with that introduced by EZbass in 2020. This visual consistency will be welcomed from a workflow perspective, and the new UI is also fully resizable. However, existing users should feel reassured; this is still very much EZdrummer, with a familiar workflow and full compatibility with all your existing EZdrummer 2 sample and MIDI groove content. In addition, EZdrummer 2 and EZdrummer 3 can coexist quite happily, so older projects need not be disturbed by a change of drummer unless you choose to do so.
In terms of the first of the fundamental elements outlined above, I think it’s safe to say EZdrummer 3 was placed into some very safe (read ‘exceptional’) hands. My personal favourite SDX is The Rooms Of Hansa (see the June 2020 review), recorded in the various acoustic spaces of Berlin’s legendary Hansa Tonstudio with recording/mixing engineer Michael Ilbert in charge. Toontrack have returned to the same combination to generate new samples specifically for the EZdrummer 3 core library, recording seven full kits alongside some percussion and a number of additional snares, kicks and cymbals. Three of Hansa’s rooms were used in these new recordings and the core library is divided on this basis into Main Room, Bright Room and Tight Room categories that provide three distinct natural ambiences.
The core library clocks in at 18GB. That’s almost modest in comparison with the Hansa SDX’s 122GB (which offers more kits, more rooms, more mics and, well, more of everything) but, having worked my way through EZdrummer’s new (and plentiful) kit presets, two things are very obvious. First, in terms of both sonics and dynamic detail, these samples are absolutely good enough for even the most demanding of commercial contexts. Second, given the diverse selection of kits, and the different room combinations, the library can span a very broad range of musical styles.
...in terms of both sonics and dynamic detail, these samples are absolutely good enough for even the most demanding of commercial contexts.
This is exemplified by the snares and kicks. The former go from super‑tight, through crisp and clean into deep and punchy, while the latter go from clicky and percussive, through to full, natural and punchy, and into big, deep and powerful. Yes, Toontrack will be more than happy to sell you some genre‑specific EZX sound expansions, but the core library will cover rock, pop, metal, singer‑songwriter, hip‑hop, country and, if you keep a light hand on the MIDI velocities, jazz, with absolute ease. The percussion sounds — claps, shakers and tambourines included — sound great and, within the Drums window, the drum selection drop‑down menu for a particular kit piece now includes an Import Audio File option; yes, it’s only a single sample per drum (although you do get velocity‑based volume response), but if you want to build a custom kit from your own 808 samples (for example), that’s perfectly possible.
You can, of course, adjust the sound of your kit within EZdrummer 3’s Mixer, and you can also mix‑and‑match individual kit pieces across any of the rooms to build your own custom kits. The mixing experience remains a simple and effective means of balancing the drums and amount of ambience. Each EZdrummer 3 preset brings its own set of macro effects controls within the Mixer with options including tape drive, reverb settings, bleed and ambience, EQ, compression and saturation, allowing you to coax further flexibility from the sound set. If you want more specific control, then EZdrummer 3 offers up to 16 stereo outputs, allowing you to route audio to channels in your host DAW’s own mixer for further processing.
EZdrummer 3 is also well‑stocked for the second key element, the MIDI groove content. Measured in MB rather than GB, it’s all too easy to underestimate the value of the MIDI grooves but, if drums are not your first instrument, the performance content is just as critical as the sample base.
The grooves are well organised into genre‑based categories and then song style, tempo and feel sub‑folders. The collection features a good crop of pop/rock/singer‑songwriter grooves and then smaller selections of styles spanning Soul, RnB, Blues, Funk, Disco, Jazz, Latin, various flavours of Rock, Metal, Reggae, Punk, Indie, Hip‑Hop, EDM, Electric Pop and various odd meters. You could put together a lot of song projects before you exhausted the possibilities. There is a very useful separate collection of grooves for use with the percussion sounds.
Finding and auditioning patterns works pretty much as before, including the excellent Tap2Find feature where you play a basic kick/snare groove to a click and EZdrummer 3 then searches all of your groove content to find patterns that provide a close match. However, as with EZbass, this now also includes a step sequencer where you can manually create a kick/snare pattern to use as the basis of the search.
With grooves that you have already placed on the EZdrummer 3 Song Track, you also get another new feature that considerably expands the mileage you can get out of your groove content: Mix & Match. With MIDI Replace activated, any groove you select in the Browser will automatically be auditioned in place of the selected groove within the Song Track. However, the Groove Parts tab (which can be popped open at the right side of the browser) allows you to choose between auditioning the whole groove as a potential replacement or just one drum element such as the snare, kick or hi‑hat. As you do this, the other elements of the groove within the Song Track play back as before and the hits for the potential replacement kit piece are highlighted within the mini grid display. This is a super‑cool feature and, as well as letting you mix and match elements between your grooves, is also a great way to audition the percussion grooves within a standard drum groove. And, when you find some combination you like, you just click on Save Changes and the clip on the Song Track gets updated. While v2 allowed you to copy elements between grooves, this is a much more intuitive and user‑friendly approach to the process.
Of course, the Song Track and the Song Creator — both of which were an established part of the EZdrummer 2 feature set — start to get us into the third of the key areas I mentioned earlier: building a full drum performance that provides the variation and performance dynamics required by your song/project and the appropriate degree of ‘human’. EZdrummer 2 already offered some excellent features of these fronts, but the new release moves these options forward in a number of different ways.
For example, as in v2, the Edit Play Style function allows you to adjust the dynamics and number of hits within the pattern from each drum piece or the kit as a whole. However, for the snare, you now get the option to add ghost notes within the pattern and to control their number and intensity. There is some clever drummer‑based AI sitting behind this feature and, to my ears at least, it created some very natural and authentic results. The Power Hand feature has also been expanded, making it much easier to switch the Power Hand from, for example, the hi‑hat to the ride cymbal and to add variety to the cymbal articulation.
However, perhaps the most obvious highlight on this front is the new Bandmate window. In essence, this combines the functionality found in EZbass’s separate Drums & Keys and Audio Tracker windows. It provides a single window within which you can drag and drop either existing MIDI parts or audio performances into EZdrummer 3. The software then uses these as a starting point to search your groove catalogue and, as with Tap2Find, you are then presented with a selection of grooves that provide the best match categorised by musical genre. In the upper portion of the window, you can then audition these grooves directly against your original MIDI or audio source. Having tried this with a range of guitar and keyboard‑based audio parts, this proved to be an excellent way to find a groove starting point. Yes, the quality of the musical ‘fit’ is obviously constrained by how well stocked your EZdrummer MIDI groove library is, but the results are impressively good; getting a groove suggestion that instantly locks to the timing of some other musical element within your project is going to be incredibly useful — and seem slightly magical — to the non‑drummer users of EZdrummer 3.
It doesn’t end there though. Having found a groove starting point, the bottom section of the window lets you adjust the number of snare, kick and hi‑hat hits within the pattern. Again, there seems to be some clever decision‑making going on behind the scenes as you adjust these controls so, for example, kick drum hits are added to match the obvious transients/hits within the source. Applied to a percussive modern metal guitar part, for example, it was able to produce what felt like an amazing lock between guitar and drums.
Toontrack liken this process to getting your drummer to ‘talk’ to his/her bandmates. It’s an apt enough analogy and it’s now possible to approach the interaction between your own audio performances and the performances of Toontack’s virtual musicians — EZdrummer 3, EZbass and EZkeys — in some new and interesting ways. Incidentally, I think combining this audio and MIDI ‘matching’ functionality into a single Bandmate window is a very good move; hopefully the same approach can be brought to both EZbass and EZkeys at some stage.
The other obvious addition to the EZdrummer specification is the Grid Editor window. As in SD3, you can now perform manual editing of your patterns without needing to drag and drop the MIDI into your DAW host. This was a key distinction between the SD and EZ line but it’s now gone. In terms of functionality, EZdrummer 3’s Grid Editor follows pretty standard practice and contains all the usual tools for adding, deleting and editing hits, velocity adjustment, and quantising the patterns.
However, the Grid Editor also provides you with some additional options for further adjusting the ‘human’ of the performance. Beneath the grid itself, these include the ability to adjust the overall MIDI velocity, the velocity dynamics, add a degree of randomisation and to apply velocity slopes to create a crescendo or diminuendo, while above the grid you can adjust the timing via Quantize, Swing and Nudge controls (again with a randomisation option). The Humanize options provide additional velocity ‘styles’ that can be applied to just selected notes. It’s powerful stuff.
You can, of course, create your own patterns within the Grid Editor, either manually or by recording MIDI data from your MIDI keyboard. MIDI triggering/recording from electronic drums is also very well supported with lots of preset configurations provided for a range of e‑drum makes and models. I got my own Roland TD‑11 kit working perfectly with EZdrummer 3 in a matter of seconds; no faff, it just worked.
If you can record better drums in your own studio space then, absolutely, go for it; for everyone else, there is EZdrummer 3.
If you have read this far, I suspect you already realise that I’m very impressed with EZdrummer 3. While v3 has undoubtedly added to the available functionality, it’s been achieved in a way that’s not detrimental to the EZ workflow. Perhaps only UJAM provide an even simpler drum track production process and, while this might be ideal for particular types of user, EZdrummer 3 manages to combine an easy workflow with outstanding results and considerable flexibility.
If we go to the other end of the virtual drummer spectrum, it’s difficult to argue that Toontrack’s own SD3 isn’t the product to beat. However, in pushing EZdrummer 3 forward on all fronts, I’d be very surprised if Toontrack don’t now lose some SD3 sales to EZdrummer 3. The gap has certainly narrowed and the key remaining differences — SD3’s superior sampling base and super‑deep control over mixing, ambience and bleed control — may only be critical to the most particular of users. Yes, you might easily argue that the deeper sampling available to SD3 results in a higher fidelity but EZdrummer 3’s core library is so far above the bar labelled ‘excellent’ that this is a subtle difference the vast majority of users will comfortably live with.
We have waited a good while for EZdrummer 3, but Toontrack have absolutely nailed it. I’ve no idea what the big brains inside the company might be working on next but I hope one item is a similar refresh for EZkeys and, personally, I can’t wait. Given just what you can do with EZdrummer 3, how great it sounds, and the ‘enhanced but still EZ’ workflow, the asking price is an absolute steal. For regular users of EZdrummer 2 the upgrade is a no‑brainer and, if you are in the market for your first virtual acoustic drummer, EZdrummer 3 should be the product you compare everything else to, including SD3. If you can record better drums in your own studio space then, absolutely, go for it; for everyone else, there is EZdrummer 3. This is already my personal choice for virtual instrument of the year. EZdrummer 3 is fantastic!
- Fabulous new core sample library.
- Excellent collection of MIDI grooves covering a wide range of musical styles.
- Powerful new options for finding and customising just the right grooves for your project.
- Enhanced communication options between the EZ line‑up.
- It’s still EZ to use.
- Might upset makers of other virtual drum instruments, and actual session drummers.
- Oh, and I want to see EZkeys get a similar makeover.
EZdrummer 3 is simply brilliant!
£165 including VAT. Upgrade pricing available.
$179. Upgrade pricing available.