Can Cubase’s Groove Agent SE4 take care of all your virtual drummer needs?
Back in SOS October 2017, I reviewed Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 (SD3), and diving into that wonderful instrument got me wondering just how capable Cubase’s bundled Groove Agent SE4 (I’ll call it GA SE4) might prove in comparison. In this column, then, I’ll consider how well GA SE4 can do three things that really impressed me about SD3: its ability to stack sounds; options for adding room ambience to a drum mix; and its workflow for generating a complete drum track.
Amongst the SD3 features is a very neat ‘stacking’ system, which allows you to combine, for example, multiple snare or kick samples. GA SE4 can do this too, albeit with less ease and elegance. Let’s assume we want to layer two kick instruments, a multi-velocity acoustic kick and an electronic sub-kick, over an Acoustic Agent kit. Unfortunately, the Acoustic Agent doesn’t let you drop samples on to an empty Instrument pad (I suspect there’s a technical reason for this, related to the way this Agent handles room/overhead mics). However, the Beat Agent does allow this, so a simple workaround is to run a Beat Agent GA SE4 instance alongside the main Acoustic Agent one.
When you create the second instance, it should default to an empty Beat Agent (if it doesn’t, right-click the Beat Agent icon and select ‘Remove Kit’ from the menu), and you can drag and drop samples from almost anywhere onto the Instrument pads. For Screen 1 above, I dropped a set of seven acoustic kick samples on the C1 Instrument pad. In doing this, be careful exactly where on the pad (top, middle or bottom) you drop the sample, as each position forces Beat Agent to handle the incoming samples in a certain way. Here, I dropped them on the top third of the pad so that Beat Agent would arrange the samples as velocity layers (up to eight layers are allowed per pad). The default order of the velocity layers is determined by the sample file names, but you can reorder the layers for a pad using the Edit page. Right-clicking on each pad allows you to rename them too.
For ease of triggering, ensure the kick samples in both GA SE4 instances are triggered by the same MIDI note (C1 is the Acoustic Agent default for kicks, as shown in Screen 2). In the second instance, activate the Use Hardware Controller mapping switch (the small e-drum icon, bottom-right beneath the bottom row of pads), then right-click a pad to change its MIDI note (multiple pads can be set to the same note). Finally, copy your Acoustic Agent track’s MIDI part to the Beat Agent track. Any C1 notes will trigger all your ‘stacked’ kick drum samples; as the other Beat Agent Instrument pads are empty, other notes will effectively be ignored. The Beat Agent editing options and the channel faders for each GA SE4 instance allow you to control the balance of your stacked sounds.
When mixing acoustic drums, a key decision is how much ‘room’ you blend into the mix, and SD3 offers endless options. Thankfully, GA SE4’s Acoustic Agent is no slouch either! The Mixer tab of the Acoustic Agent shows stereo channels for both overhead and room mics (Screen 3). The rest of the channels in the Acoustic Agent mixer represent the close mics, with a much drier sound. You can adjust the faders, of course, but you actually have more control than when recording a real kit, as you can also adjust the amount of each individual drum/cymbal picked up by the overhead and room mics — via a pair of rotary knobs on the Edit screen for each kit piece (Screen 4).
You can, therefore, reduce the amount of kick appearing in the ambience mics to keep the kick sounding fairly dry relative to the rest of the kit without resorting to high-pass filtering, which can affect the phase relationship between the mics. The only ‘catch’ is that these virtual room mics are only available for the Acoustic Agent; for our ‘stacking’ example, you’d need to add suitable reverb to the Beat Agent drums if you want them to sound like they’re in the same room as the Acoustic Agent kit.
SD3’s options for building a complete drum track, with intro, verse, bridge, chorus, outro and suitable fills, are truly impressive, and GA SE4 can’t match it (to be fair, I don’t think any other VI drummer can!). But as Matt Houghton demonstrated in SOS August 2016, GA SE4 ships with various groups of style-based patterns and, making use of these, some very useful song-construction tools. Once loaded, these patterns can be triggered via the Pattern pads. Each set of patterns includes a main groove, fills, intros and endings, with variations offered for the main pattern via the very clever Intensity/Complexity X-Y pad. This gives you control over performance variation of the underlying pattern, so that it sounds less robotic and more ‘real’. As Matt explained, this makes the construction of full song-style drum performances easy.
But it’s worth exploring this in more detail. The GA SE4 styles (which you can browse and load via the Pattern section of the Edit screen) each contain one main groove plus four intros, four endings and eight fills — a total of 17 individual patterns. When you load a ‘kit + patterns’ preset, you are in fact loading the same basic pattern onto all the Pattern pads, but with the Agent’s settings varying for each one. GA SE4 only offers 16 Performance pads (the full version, GA4, boasts 128) and the ‘kit + patterns’ presets load to give you easy access to four fills, two intros, two endings and perhaps eight variations of the main groove. By default, then, you don’t have all the intros, endings and fills on dedicated pads.
But if you select a pad, the performance dial will adjust to show its current settings (Screen 5), indicating which pattern is being triggered, and you can change these by adjusting the dial. As each main groove variation is created from a single pattern with different Intensity/Complexity settings, then if you’re prepared to automate the Intensity/Complexity slider (as Matt described), it’s well worth tweaking the pad settings so that only one pad triggers the main groove pattern. You can use the other 15 pads to give instant access to almost all the other intro/ending/fill patterns.
A few more Performance panel features are worth exploring. For example, if you’re happy to let GA SE4 provide subtle variations for your main groove pads automatically, then engage the AC (Auto Complexity) function for any pads you wish. If you click and hold, you can set different time-bases for this variability (the 1/1 setting, in which the Complexity setting is tweaked automatically every bar, is a good place to start). In addition, the AF (Auto Fill) buttons automatically add a random choice of drum fill pattern, and you can control how often the fills appear. Toggling on the Break button gives you a further alternative to a fill, with the drums just dropping out for a bar — a very dramatic and effective performance ‘trick’.
So, while Toontrack’s flagship drum instrument can outperform GA SE4 without breaking a sweat, Steinberg’s bundled drummer nonetheless boasts an impressively deep feature set. Used to its full potential it should take quite some time before you run out of drumming inspiration for your personal songwriting and production projects.