by Stuart McConaghy
Recording live drums can be a real pain in the neck, especially if you're on a budget. First you have to buy or borrow all the microphones you need. Then there's the bother of dealing with mic' placement and muddy sound, since most rooms aren't optimal for drum recording. And, if you're not lucky, you'll have the sound of the neighboring Interstate traffic leaking through the walls onto your tape. Yuck!
Electronic drums provide a solution, but most of their built-in sounds are...well...not very acoustic. Here's where some nice blokes from Sweden, collectively known as Toontrack, come to your rescue.
DfH Superior is the big brother to Toontrack's popular Drumkit From Hell sample set, which gained recognition for its pristine sound quality and attention to detail. Superior offers five complete drumsets (Sonor, Premier, DW, Fibes, and a '67 Ludwig), more snares than a studio drummer can schlep, and an abundant collection of cymbals in all shapes and sizes. To round things off, Superior also includes a full setup of percussion instruments and toys, as well as a Yamaha cocktail kit.
Altogether, DfH Superior contains close to 85,000 (you read it right) individual samples, covering all of the included drums and cymbals, each played at different velocity levels and with different striking tools (including sticks, brushes, and multi-rods on drums and cymbals, and felt, wood, and plastic beaters for the bass drums). Some of the snare drums feature additional snares on/off settings.
Of course, all of this sample depth translates into a huge installation. You'll need 40 gigabytes of available hard disk space to accommodate it. The installation went smoothly for me. But be warned: It is very time-consuming. Copying close to 40 gigs of data from nine DVDs to your hard drive can take a few hours.
After installation, DfH Superior is available as a total of three VST or AudioUnit plug-ins, which means it needs a VST- or AudioUnit-capable host program such as Garageband, Logic, or Cubase in order to run. Pro Tools users shouldn't worry, though. DfH Superior can also be used as a ReWire slave in those programs that can't use VST or AU plug-ins. I tested it as a plug-in on a Mac G4 (running OS X 10.3.9 using Ableton Live 4 and Apple Logic Pro 7 as my plug-in hosts), and also as a ReWire slave inside Live 4 and Pro Tools M-Powered 6.9.
DfH Superior works with the computer's memory, using it as a cache for storing samples. The most commonly used samples of a kit are loaded into memory in advance, to prevent hard disk access and possible system lag. Toontrack recommends keeping the cache on for sequencing (non real-time) work, but turning it off for real-time playing and triggering.
A nice touch is that DfH Superior is split into three parts: Cocktail, Drummer, and Percussionist. This keeps load times down and goes easy on the system's memory needs. A downside to this, however, is that because of this split, you'd have to load the entire Cocktail and Drummer plug-ins if you wanted to use, for example, the cocktail kit's 8" snare drum sound with the Sonor drumset. I would have preferred a bit more flexibility there.
Also, while I'm complaining, it would have been nice to be able to pick and choose sets in the installer—like installing only the Premier set, with a DW snare and a select cymbal setup—instead of taking an install–all–or–nothing approach. This might be something for Toontrack to consider, especially for the fearless e-drummers that would like to use DfH on stage. I would also like to see a stand-alone mode.
The new addition to the DfH family is the Superior Custom & Vintage set. Here, studio great Chris Whitten (Paul McCartney, Julian Cope, Edie Brickell, Dire Straits) brought in his vast collection of drums. It includes the solid-shell Noble & Cooley Star series set Chris took on tour with Paul McCartney and Dire Straits, an old Camco Oaklawn kit, and a Nashville-era Slingerland set, as well as vintage Slingerland, Ludwig, and Canopus snares, and some beautiful vintage Zildjian and Paiste cymbals.
Toontrack used the same attention to detail here as with DfH Superior. In fact, the Custom & Vintage library integrates seamlessly with Superior, but it also doubles the required hard disk space to close to 80 GB. You don't need DfH Superior to run Superior Custom & Vintage, but together they make up more than a studio drummer's arsenal of weapons. I believe "formidable" is the word I'm looking for here.
DfH Superior boasts templates for easy use with existing electronic drum systems. Most of the included templates are for systems on the market today, including Yamaha's DTXpress, most Roland kits, Alternate Mode's drumKAT and trapKAT controllers, and the ddrum4. A generic template is also included for unsupported systems.
Armed with the generic template, I decided to see how simple it would be to put together a working template for my controller of choice, the Roland HPD15 Handsonic. I work with music software all the time, but I was still amazed at how quickly I could put together my own configuration by simply changing the MIDI note numbers on the Handsonic to correspond to the DfH template. And I was blown away by the sensitivity. Notes at all dynamic levels were picked up beautifully, even though I was playing with my hands (my weak point). And there was no noticeable lag.
I plugged some Roland mesh-head pads into the Handsonic's trigger input, and then played some buzz rolls and fast rudiments. Again, no dropped notes, and an amazingly smooth transition from pianissimo to "have you met the anvil, Mr. Hammer?" velocities. I dialed up a Ludwig 1920s Black Beauty snare, and proceeded to play the snare part for Ravel's "Bolero," which spans a huge dynamic range. Even at the quietest I could play, every note triggered reliably, and the sound would fool anyone into thinking they were actually hearing the real instrument.
I'm a sequencer nut, so I have several installed on my Mac. As previously mentioned, DfH Superior is a plug-in, so it needs a host program to run. I tested it as an AU (Apple's AudioUnit format) plug-in in Apple Logic Pro 7 and Apple Garageband, and as both an AU and a VSTi (Virtual Studio Technology instrument) plug-in inside Ableton Live 4. I also briefly tested DfH Superior as a ReWire slave inside Pro Tools LE and Ableton Live 4. In all cases, it came across as reliable and stable. I was unable to crash the plug-in or the host in all cases.
One small problem I encountered was DfH Superior's use of system resources on my computer inside Live 4 when used as a plug-in (which was higher than inside Logic Pro 7). However, the ReWire slave proved less resource-hungry than its plug-in twin. To be fair, my computer isn't exactly a spring chicken, although it's probably close to what the average musician has at home. More up-to-date computers will show better results.
DfH displays an option at startup, which lets the user choose a General MIDI (GM)–compatible kit layout. So Standard MIDI files play back with the appropriate sounds.
All instruments can have their own dedicated virtual output. This means that you can assign bass drum, snare, toms, hats, or anything else on your kit to their own dedicated channels inside the host's virtual mixer, and use different effects and equalizer settings on each one. The most practical application of this is EQ, by which each part of the kit becomes moldable and adaptable to your song. But using different compression levels and adding atypical effects can emphasize different parts of the kit in different sections of the song. Now there's nothing standing in your way (other than personal taste) of putting different delays on your bass drum and hi-hats, and putting phasers on your toms.
What I particularly liked was the ability to control the "microphone leakage" effect. Turning it off altogether when building tracks saved a lot of system resources while still enabling me to hear the kit in its full glory. Turning the leakage back on at the end of the production was like turning on the Christmas lights at Rockefeller Center. The kit, which already sounded beautiful, became three-dimensional.
Towards the end of writing this review, I found myself running out of superlatives to describe DfH Superior, and I sort of wished that I could find more fault than I already had. Well, my wish came true.
During the testing, Toontrack issued an upgrade to the core software that... well...didn't work at all! All of a sudden I couldn't start DfH, and all existing projects I had used DfH for would crash the software upon opening. But—and this goes to show how dedicated these Swedes are—a bugfix was issued a mere couple of days later.
All in all, Toontrack has made an amazing sample collection: well thought out, meticulously executed, and simple enough to be used by folks who have little computer recording experience. Beyond my nitpicking, I couldn't find serious fault with DfH Superior or the Custom & Vintage collection. The price is more than right, and I wouldn't hesitate to use these collections on my own projects. In fact, I'm not giving my review copies back!
www.toontrack.com; distr. through EastWest SoundsOnline