by Craig Anderton
Toontrack has garnered a reputation for easy-to-use virtual drum software and a fine collection of sounds, but they also throw a little whimsy in to the mix - just check out the company name.
Beatstation is the company's latest program, and we were able to get our hands on a copy (don't worry, it's legitimate!) that will be released to the public on 6/16/10. It's a bit of a new direction in virtual drum software, as it bridges the gap between serious desktop tool and fun laptop beats creator...and does a fine job with both.
Beatstation works in stand-alone mode, or as a plug-in for VST- (Windows) and AU- (Mac) compatible hosts, including 64-bit operating systems. Unlike most drum software, it also includes bass and synth lead capabilities. So, you can flesh out your beats with other instruments, or design beats in a musical context.
The design philosophy revolves around making Beatstation highly customizable and flexible, but also, easy to use. The copy I received didn't have a manual other than a Quick Start document that was more like a description of features - but no matter, as I was able to figure out 95\\\% just by playing around (a Toontrack representative made me aware of the other 5\\\%). Note that Beatstation makes it easy to import your own material, but it comes with a 1.63GB core library out of the box, so you can get going immediately.
Speaking of getting going immediately, Toontrack uses a new authorization/registration system that you can do entirely from within the plug-in, as long as you're connected to the internet.
Burger King's slogan for the past few years has been "have it your way," and that slogan would work well for Beatstation, too. The program comes with 11 skins, although Toontrack will be creating a web site where you can create your own skins, then import them into Beatstation. You can also set the browser's brightness and color, even inverting the colors, as well as modify other elements of the overall look (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Here's the "A-maze Me" skin. Note the dialog box for customizing colors even further.
Let's look at one more skin: This is the "Outer Space" skin, which is my current favorite.
Fig. 2: The "Outer Space" skin, with a blue planet-type motif.
But it doesn't stop with the skinning, as you can also change pads around. The pad setup in Fig. 3 is the same as in Fig. 2, but looks completely different. Oh, and I threw in another skin ("Camouflage") just to make it interesting. Note the little colored stripe toward the bottom of each pad; you can also customize this so that, for example, all the toms are the same color. The dialog box in the upper right has been opened to show how you edit the pad size and color.
Fig. 3: You can lay out the pads anyway you want. Note the transparent look to the GTRFX-Hit; this means that no sound has been loaded into the pad yet.
As you might expect, if you come up with a pad setup you like, you can save it - as well as save the kit independently for a particular pad setup.
Each pad is also highly editable (Fig. 4). You'll find two fx send controls for feeding two send effects, mute/solo buttons, volume control, the ability to assign a pad to a mute group (e.g., if you assign drums to a group, hitting one will cut off any that are ringing - this is commonly used for hi-hats), and an insert effect slot (more on this later).
Fig. 4: Editing pad samples is straightforward, but there's also lots of flexibility.
The lower Sounds tab is where you can load up to five samples - just drag and drop MP3, WAV, or AIF files from the desktop or the Beatstation browser. You can also mute individual samples, and adjust volume, pitch, pan, envelope, reverse, start time offset, and other parameters independently for each sample.
Note that if a sample has loop points, Beatstation will play back the loop within those points rather than looping the entire file.
The browser is a permanent fixture of the interface - there's no show/hide, as it's something you'll use frequently. It includes four main categories, corresponding to different elements available in the core library: Instruments, REX files, MIDI grooves, and sounds. You can restrict the view to a particular category (Fig. 5) - for example, if you're looking to import a MIDI file ("groove"), you can see just MIDI files - or see all content at once. Yes, have it your way.
Fig. 5: The browser is being filtered to show only sounds from the core library. As you can see, there are lots of available sounds.
Browser drag and drop is quite evolved. You can drag MIDI Grooves from Beatstation into your host, and vice-versa; even drop REX files into hosts that support REX file import, and drag REX files into Beatstation from your desktop or host. If you drag a REX file to a pad you can set it to play in different modes: standard (from beginning to end), sequential (plays one slice at the time each time you trigger the pad), and Random (same as sequential, but randomly choose REX file slices. And, you can even drag individual REX slices onto pads. Imagine what can happen if you take slices from five different REX files and load them into a single pad...you can make some pretty interesting sounds, to say the least.
There's also a cool feature for the REX or MIDI files where if you click on a little magnifying glass in the file window, you can see the filenames highlighted in the browser. However, note that if you bring in content from outside the core library (e.g., dragged from the desktop), this feature won't work for those files as they "live" outside of the plug-in.
The little Bass and Lead keyboards are "special" pads that respond to MIDI notes below and above the drum notes, respectively. As with the drum pads, you can drag and drop audio files in from the browser or desktop, and again, layer up to five samples if you want to build up complex sounds. Play them in real time from a controller, or drive them from the Standard MIDI File section in the lower left.
Beatstation has plenty of effects (Fig. 6). Each pad accommodates an insert effect, but there are also two send effects and a master effect. There's quite a rich roster of signal processors:
Fig. 6: If you like processing the living daylights out of your drums, Beatstation is glad to oblige.
But that's not all: There are also sidechainable compressor, gate, and master chains, and you can choose any pad to provide the sidechain signal. This is an extremely hip feature that is still somewhat rare in DAW-land, let alone a plug-in.
Not only can you import sounds of your choosing, Beatstation is compatible with Toontrack's expansion packs (including SDX and EZX programs); if installed, they'll show up in the browser. With Beatstation Toontrack also introduces the BTX expansion format, which defines complete Beatstation programs.
And in stand-alone mode, you can actually sample new sounds thanks to the Sample Recorder window (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: Use the Sample Recorder to record, trim, fade, etc. samples you record up to l0 seconds long.
This connects to your default audio input for recording, so it accepts whatever audio your computer can accept. You can trim the sample's start and end point, do a fade in and fade out, zoom in and out on the waveform, normalize levels, set loop points, change gain, set a level for automatic triggering (i.e., recording starts when the sample exceeds a particular level), and when you're done, drag the resulting sound onto a Beatstation pad.
If you've read up to this point, then you've probably figured out I really like this program, and you'd be right. It has a really high "fun factor," not just because it's fun to play with, but because it sure seems to me that this program was designed by people who love what they do. I got a demo of a very early version from a Toontrack representative at the 2010 Winter NAMM, and every time he showed me a new feature his eyes would light up (and to be fair, there was also the occasional maniacal laugh).
Then when you consider the price, well, that's something else altogether. It wasn't that long ago a sample library of drum hits cost about the same, if not more, than the price of the entire Beatstation system.
Yes, there are some "pro" features that are missing, like individual audio outputs for the pads, ReWire support, and MIDI learn mode for tying parameters to hardware control (although according to Toontrack, this is high on the list for a future update). Also, direct audio export is limited to either bouncing within the host then exporting, or dragging MIDI as audio to the host or desktop (which is actually a very cool feature). So is this a problem? Not for me, because Beatstation is all about getting beats down fast, having fun, and ending up with groovy sounds - not agonizing over a billion different options.
I have a lot of virtual drum programs, some of them pretty high end, and they all have their uses. But I have to say, I'll be calling on Beatstation a lot in the future. There's something about it that just makes you want to play with it, and that's a pretty strong recommendation right there.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.