Virtual drum instruments are mighty powerful these days as they enable us to produce realistic sounding drum sections with minimal fuss and effort. Many boast some form of built-in groove engine which enable us to get amazing sounding drum parts down quickly in our songs. This feature alone is a valuable one for those with no access to a real drum kit as well as all the gear needed to record it.
Drum VI's are the perfect tool for self producing songwriters who need rhythmical ideas to help them write a song or a groove to produce a track to. Many of the top drum VI's today sound as good as the real thing, if not better in some cases as many drum VI’s have radio ready sounding mix presets included but what are the best drum libraries and instruments? In this article we feature a selection of the most popular virtual drum plug-ins on the market today.
Toontrack EZ Drummer 2
EZ Drummer 2 by Toontrack is bundled with a great selection of kits accessible through what we feel is one of the most straight forward drum virtual instrument UIs around. The EZ Drummer 2 internal mixer is a no-nonsense approach to mixing featuring basic volume & pan control with varying fixed dynamic processes such as compression and other tone shapers. The dynamic options vary depending on whatever kit preset is loaded.
The EZ Drummer 2 mixer makes it very easy to route each drum channel output to Aux tracks in a DAW. Many hardcore drum VI users like to work this way as they prefer to use their third party plug-ins in their DAW domain for mixing. EZ Drummer 2 is not just one collection of drums, it is an expandable system with countless expansion packs available that all sound absolutely amazing, good value for money as well. These packages are titled with the acronym of EZX. The EZX packages I find I use all the time are:
EZX Traditional County
EZX Seventies Rock
EZ Drummer 2 Modern (bundled free with EZ Drummer 2)
One of the best user features in the EZ Drummer system is the stand alone Toontrack Application Manager. It's by far one of the best Pro Audio application managers around. It's a simple three-click process for downloading, installing, updating and authorising purchases within a single window.
Here are a selection of EZX expansion packs we’ve reviewed.
A stand out feature of EZ Drummer 2 is the Song Creator. Users simply play a kick and snare pattern on a MIDI controller and the engine will provide a selection of MIDI grooves that either match closely the pattern or resemble in some way. This is a great way of getting drum parts arranged fast. Users that have limited abilities in either performing or sequencing MIDI drum grooves will also get a lot out of the Song Creator.
Native Instruments Abbey Road Drums
Using the Abbey Road drum library collection by Native Instruments is like taking a trip down memory lane. Each seminal music pop period has been covered with each having a unique library available in Kontakt:
Abbey Road 50s
Abbey Road 60s
Abbey Road 70s
Abbey Road 80s
Abbey Road Modern Drums
Like EZ Drummer 2, each library has a built-in mixer which feature sophisticated EQ, compression and saturation controls. A feature set I adore in these libraries are the humanise controls. These impart slight human vibes to the MIDI parts by delaying the timing in random fashions ever so slightly off the beat like real drummers do naturally when performing and recording to ridged click tracks. A neat trick is to automate the timing of the humanise feature so that the drum performances are slightly looser in verses than in chorus sections.
The 70’s Abbey Road drum library well worth checking out as it includes two sets of very punchy dry kits. Listen to the example song below to hear these in action with the timing humanise feature automating between 10% to 15% off the click.
Native Instruments Battery 4
Sometimes a song doesn't require realistic sounding acoustic drums. Native Instruments Battery is the drum virtual instrument I use when I need electronic sounding drum parts fast. It comes bundled with a vast selection of drum hits and the UI is laid out like a drum pad.
The effects engine in Battery is well kitted out which is great for mangling hits and samples to perfection. In short, this is an electric drum VI that has no creative limits for getting unique drum sounds from.
UVI Beatbox Anthology
Beatbox Anthology 2 by UVI features over 11,000 drum samples across 111 kits which demands a reasonable 3GB of hard drive space (2GB download). Like Battery, Beatbox Anthology is a one-stop-shop for electronic drum production. We awarded UVI BeatBox Anthology 2 an Expert Choice award because we felt this package delivers a great deal of sonic variety for electronic music production. The UI clearly took some inspiration from UVI's over anthology product, that being Synth Anthology 2 - and we liked that a lot as well.
What makes Beatbox Anthology 2 special is the ability to layer two drum samples along with a tone pulse, perfect for sculpting precious kick samples. A built in sequencer with groove engine makes this a powerful creative tool either in songwriting or full production stages. All in all, Beatbox Anthology 2 has it all.
AIR Boom is an old favourite of ours which is also bundled free with Pro Tools. It’s a great stand alone drum instrument but it’s also very good at thickening up main drum parts in a production. The 808 sounds in Boom work well as supporting samples for acoustic drum VI kick and snare notes. Listen to the example below as you'll hear the snare and kick are very bold in the mix. This was achieved by copying the snare and kick MIDI notes from the acoustic drums MIDI and running them through Boom.
Superior Drummer 3 By Toontrack
Recorded at Galaxy Studios, described as probably the world’s quietest and ideal location for sampling, the core sound library boasts in excess of 230 GB of raw sound material captured in immersive 11:1 audio by award-winning engineer George Massenburg.
Six (6) kits (Ayotte, Gretsch, Pearl, Premier, Ludwig, Yamaha)
Tom shell dimensions cover ranges from 6” to 20”
Optional tool selection available on select kits and instruments (sticks, brushes, rods, felt mallets)
Optional drum head selection available on select kits and instruments
Approx. 350 electronic drum sounds, sampled from vintage and classic drum machines
25 unique acoustic snares, 35 recorded configurations
16 unique acoustic kicks, 27 different recorded configurations
If you are looking for an all-in-one drum production suite then look no further, Superior Drummer 3 will have you covered. This features the same clever Song Creator that EZ Drummer 2 boasts, all be it more advanced, as well as a full mixer with dynamic and effect modules, deep routing capabilities as well as a drum replacement section called Tracker which totally rethinks how we augment the sound of live multitrack drum recordings.
Watch our first look video showing the headline features of Superior Drummer 3
Learn how to get drum parts down quickly using Superior Drummer 3
Steven Slate Drums 5
SSD 5 is Slate’s latest drum VI rebuilt from the ground up, that’s what we’ve been told. SSD 5 might be new on the inside but the basic layout of the UI is a nice familiar place to be. The basic functionality is the same, which means we were able to get up and running quickly with it.
SSD 5 does give us new stuff though. The new Deluxe 2 kits are very nice. SSD 5 loads fast and is not all that heavy on CPU or RAM usage. There are plenty of new and original drums to choose from and in total we get 77 Snares, 84 Kicks, 58 Toms, 11 Hi-Hats, 14 Crashes, 6 Rides, 4 Splashes, 3 Chinas, 9 Percussion Instruments including 1 Clap, 1 Tambourine and the all important Cowbell. Everything a growing audio professional could need.
One of the best features of SSD 5 is the Edit Instrument Window. Here we have access to all the tweakable stuff for each drum or cymbal. Special note goes to the tune control. We like there to be a good interval between Tom Toms but tuning the drum more than 10% in some drum samplers causes nasty artefacts in the tail of the sound. Not so in SSD 5, we were able to tune the drums as we wanted them.
SOLID is a virtual drum instrument which bucks the trend by embracing simplicity over comprehensive control and proves that this approach can set us free to get on the what's really important - creating music, without compromising the results.
Simple UI, Lots Of Features
SOLID offers a library of kits and patterns with a standard layout of patterns across a MIDI keyboard with access to individual hits for those who wish to dive deeper into programming.
5 meticulously recorded kits.
30 styles, 720 patterns (intro, verse, chorus, ending).
Full control over tempo, timbre and variations.
Custom FX algorithms.