Computer Music Magazine, July 2004
Awarded Computer Music Performance Award
Getting sampled drums to sound like the real thing has always been a challenge. A real drum kit has all sorts of resonances which add significantly to the overall tone of the kit. In 2002, a company called ToonTrack produced what was to become a best-selling drum sample CD – the curiously named Drumkit From Hell. This comprised a customisable drum kit recorded with scrupulous attention to detail. All of the drum hits were recorded in stereo and represented a mix of the entire kit with all of its subtle resonant interactions. A corresponding set of samples was recorded simultaneously from far-back ambient microphones.
Using both sample sets fed from the same MIDI track, you could control the mix of direct and ambient drums and create a remarkably life-like sound. However, you could not control the level of mic leakage and resonance between drums.
In an innovative and somewhat brave move, ToonTrack have now decided to solve this problem by recording thousands of drum samples in different playing styles and velocities through every single microphone in an entire drum rig. This includes the ‘wrong’ microphones, such as the sound of the snare as heard through the tom mics, or the distant sound of the bass drum as heard through the snare microphone. When you consider all the different combinations, that’s a serious number of WAV files – more than 85,000 in total! Fortunately, ToonTrack have created a custom plug-in that mixes and maps these WAV files together for you via a friendly user interface. In tribute to the original best-selling sample CD, this new product is called DFH Superior.
Big audio dynamite
Inside the obligatory oversized, glossy box is a slim manual and the installation DVDs. At first glance you might think that some of the DVDs are missing, but further investigation reveals that four of them are actually double-sided – you have to flip them over during installation.
Installation of the plug-in itself is fairly straightforward, although the manual is incorrect about the name of the folder where the installation package is located. Installation of the sound library is somewhat more fiddly, as you have to manually drag a folder from each DVD to the chosen location on your hard drive. This isn’t difficult, but because of the incredible size of the audio data, installation can take a long time indeed. On our system, it took a full three hours to copy all 85,000 WAV files, so you might consider borrowing the fastest DVD drive that you can get hold of.
The DVDs aren’t required after installation, and there’s no copy-protection system. Given that DFH Superior contains more than 35 gigabytes of data, we’re hardly likely to see pirate copies appearing on the internet in the near future!
Three different plug-ins are installed: Drummer (the standard plug-in); Percussionist (an impressive collection of different percussion instruments); and Cocktail (a small, specialised Yamaha drum kit). They all work in basically the same way. On loading, you pass through a couple of dialogs so you can choose what sort of beaters you want the drums to be hit with. Next, the large Construction window enables you to select a drum kit and further refine it by selecting individual drums. This is simple and intuitive – you just select each one from a drop-down list, before moving onto the main window.
Beat out of Hell
The main window bears more than a passing resemblance to other drum samplers (such as Native Instruments’ Battery). Despite the conventional functionality here – for example, the setting of drum pitch, and a Fade facility for rudimentary envelope shaping – this window is more sophisticated than it looks. The drum pads on screen are known as Superpads; you can select what sort of hitting technique results from clicking on the pad, and where you click on the pad also affects the velocity of the hit. On each pad is a small fader which adjusts the amount of leakage into the microphone selected at the top of the screen. So for every microphone in the list (which includes separate top and bottom snare drum mics), you can create a completely separate mix using the Superpads. There’s another Fade setting next to the mic selection that applies a simple decay envelope and can reduce noise levels or be used to produce spectacular gated ambience effects. Four status indicators show whether individual sound samples have been correctly loaded and mapped.
It’s not possible to hold every sample in RAM, so after you have finished programming your drum part, you have to activate a special Bounce function in order to render the final drum tracks into your song; pressing ‘VSTi Freeze’ in your sequencer won’t work. Unfortunately, Superior’s built-in bounce feature is the one aspect of the plug-in that feels rather messy and awkward. Firstly, you have to play your entire song so that the plug-in can grab the MIDI data (although there is a rather bizarre workaround to speed things up). Next you have to perform the bounce itself. This involves waiting for DFH Superior to calculate the WAV files that represent the final drum tracks, and if an overload is displayed, you have to turn down the master volume by the displayed amount and press the Bounce button again. This feels like something the plug-in ought to do automatically. Finally, you import the rendered WAV files back into your sequencer, setting up mixer channels as appropriate. Clearly, if you change your drum part, you have to go through this procedure all over again. It would be better if the plug-in could manage these WAV files internally so that you didn’t need different sets of mixing channels for programming and playback.
Leakage is what the sound of DFH Superior is all about. The use of additional recordings of drums heard from the perspective of different microphones adds tremendous realism because you hear the sympathetic resonance of each drum. Toms gently ‘sing’ in time with the bass drum, and snares rattle subtly as other drums are hit. The finished result is truly identical to a multitracked live session recording: check out the audio demo on the CD if you don’t believe us. But unlike on a real drum kit, leakage is completely controllable. For any sound engineer who has battled with the dilemma of too much hi-hat blasting into the snare microphone, this degree of control is a dream come true. You can also perform tricks that would be impossible in real life, such as eliminating all cymbals from the ambience mics to create a huge drum sound without harsh, thrashy cymbals.
Using DFH Superior is a positively spooky experience. When you listen to the rendered mic channels after a bounce, you could swear that there was a real drummer next door playing your part for you. The sound you hear is completely unprocessed – every recording in DFH Superior’s audio library comes straight from top-of-the-range microphones with no EQ or other adjustment – that’s left entirely for you to do in your sequencer. But before you go reaching for your credit card, you need to be aware that DFH Superior is designed purely for realistic-sounding drum parts, and so is mainly appropriate for music styles where bringing in a real-life drummer would be a natural choice. It isn’t designed to load your own samples – it can’t be used as casually as you would perhaps a generic drum sampler – and the most realistic results are obtained if you put great effort into composing a varied and interesting drum part. It’s also important to note that the sound output is raw, and if you are inexperienced in mixing real drums, it may take you some time to build up the necessary skills in the art of reverb design and EQ before you get a highly polished finished result.
If on the other hand, you’re confident in your sound engineering abilities and have long-craved the concept of having a quality, customisable drum kit, perfectly mic’d up in your studio 24 hours a day – but you simply don’t have the space (or obliging enough neighbours) to accommodate that particular dream – then DFH Superior is what you’re looking for.
- Flawless reproduction of live drum sounds
- Fully adjustable cross-mic leakage
- Large percussion library included
- Remarkably easy to use
Customisable memory requirements*
- Massive hard disk requirements
- Awkward bounce procedure for mixing Memory Management
What really sets DFH Superior apart from other drum samplers are its leakage control facilities. However, no desktop computer has enough RAM to hold all the necessary samples at once as literally thousands of them are used at once – even streaming from disk would be impossible. So, the Construction window enables you to create a workable subset in RAM by switching leakage on or off for each individual drum or microphone using a grid of switches. When you render the drum track using the Bounce function, all leakage samples are used directly from disk in the offline construction of the final WAV files for import into your sequencer. To further reduce the amount of RAM required, you can go through each drum separately and choose whether you want the full range of samples at different velocities, or just a reduced subset. After programming your drum part, you can go back to the Construction window and request the full velocity range of samples in combination with cached loading. Cached loading is a technique whereby the sampler plug-in loads only the drum samples actually used in your song. This means that the first time a drum is hit at a particular velocity, there is a brief delay while that sample is loaded in the background, but once the whole part has been played through once this isn’t a problem, as all the requested samples will have been loaded into RAM.
Music Connection Magazine, By Barry Rudolph
dfh Superior is a software-based acoustic drum module that runs in DAW platforms as a VST instrument or a ReWire client on Mac OS X and Windows 2000/XP computers. dfh comes with three plug-ins called Drummer, Percussionist and Cocktail and over 85,000 samples stored on one DVD-ROM and four, double-sided DVD-ROMs. The reason for the over 35GB of data is the elaborate detail ToonTrack has taken with sampling each drum, cymbal, and percussion instrument to achieve the most realistic and human sounding drum performances possible with MIDI programming.
Each of the drums and cymbals of the five drum kits included are sampled in multiple velocity layers--sometimes as many as fifteen soft hits, fifteen gradient hits and fifteen hard hits. Because drummers use both hands when playing snare and toms, this process is repeated for both left and right hands and also left/right feet on some bass drums. Since all the drum kits and percussion were sampled (recorded) using real kits with actual drummers and conventional multi-miked studio recording techniques, you also get access and complete control over the attendant "bleed" or sound leakage of one drum's sound into another drum's microphone.
Management and editing of all these samples is made possible with the Sampler GUI which lets you: construct any kit from libraries of kicks (6), snares (17), cymbals (60), hats (8) and much more; choose the "tool" with which a drummer hits drums (stick, rods, brushes, felt bass drum beater etc); map out all samples to MIDI and control velocity ranges for full dynamics to none; allow mixing and selection of bleed of every drum into every other drum; tune any drum and corresponding bleed; and control the amount of room ambience on any of the drum kits' parts--i.e. you can have ambience only on the snare hits.
Once you've created your dream kit, program your beats just like any MIDI sequencer (we used Nuendo) except you'll have more choices with regard to realistic drum playing--left and right hand hits, full velocity, randomize hits (or not), then use Bounce To Disk to render all drums and leakage to separate audio tracks.
We found the drum sounds the best of any of the current, new drum modules and the additional percussion (tambourines, shakers, cowbells) excellent!