Review: Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0 by Zach McNees

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PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN: In his eponymous autobiography, Slash recollects a story about legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain who’d been originally hired to mix the Guns N’ Roses recordings that became the Illusions albums. Slash recalls that he had discovered a notebook where Clearmountain “had notated all of the drum samples he planned to mix in over Matt’s drum tracks…he’d brought in samples that would change Matt’s sound drastically. We showed it to Matt who had no idea and he wasn’t too pleased at all.”

Zach McNees. Photo by Rosco Weber.

Because each hit was essentially the same exact sample repeated endlessly, drum sampling technology during its infancy in the 1990’s significantly altered the sound of the instruments recorded on tape – creating a robotic, clunky sound. Today, the quality and detail of drum samples available has changed all that, allowing for seamless blending of the original drums with variable, natural sounding multi-track samples.

So while the idea of drum sampling was heresy in the early 90’s, today many drummers assume that their drum sounds can and will be augmented with high quality samples to enhance the overall sound.

Today, there are a great deal of high quality drum sampling software platforms and audio packs available to engineers and producers. At the head of the class is Toontrack who has revolutionized drum sampling with the Superior Drummer software engine. Employing multi-hit and multitrack capabilities, Superior Drummer is by far the most detailed and comprehensive platform I’ve come across for creating, replacing or augmenting acoustic drums and percussion.

TECH SPECS

Superior Drummer 2.0 is available in RTAS, VST and Audio Units formats at 32-bit and 64-bit for both PC and MAC. Superior Drummer 2.0 comes bundled with the NYC Vol.1 Avatar recording studio pack and is available for $349. A great deal of available hard drive space is recommended as full installers can run upwards of 25GB.

WHAT IT DOES

Superior Drummer 2.0 (or SD2) is a full production multitrack drum-sampling platform. SD2 utilizes thousands of drum and cymbal hits corresponding to different MIDI velocities to create a detailed yet user-friendly system for engineers and producers to create and supplement acoustic drums. Each session sold as an SDX pack for SD2 was recorded in a world-class studio with top tier engineers and drummers. For the included Avatar Pack, Toontrack employed Grammy-winning engineer and producer Neil Dorfsman as well as engineer Pat Thrall and drummer Nir Z to shape the sounds.

THE INTERFACE

SD2’s interface is a veritable Starship Enterprise of controls and displays. In standard view, the construct window features a graphical display of a drum kit and cymbals corresponding to the available instruments. Sections for Instrument, Envelope, Pitch, Volume, EZ mixer and Memory & Status as well as drop downs for tool settings and library access provide a wealth of controls for working with the different sounds that SD2 has to offer. Other panels within SD2 provide controls for the full DAW style Mixer, Grooves, Mapping, Bouncing and internal settings.

Superior Drummer 2.0 GUI in Mapping mode

Although SD2 houses a complex and detailed set of tools and features, it’s never too overwhelming or difficult to use after viewing a few short tutorials and a quick glance through the manual.

SD2 offers an enormous range of features and capabilities that I will detail step by step.

Let’s take a look…

THE BRAIN

What sets Toontrack and SD2 apart, in my opinion, from other drum sampling platforms is the sheer detail. Toontrack has captured every possible nuance of a real drummer playing a drum kit just as it would exist if recorded in your favorite DAW at the studio.

How does SD2 make this possible? Rather than focusing solely on the close mics on individual drums, SD2 allows every individual microphone on the entire drum kit and in the room to be open and useable for any drum strike. In addition, each drum and cymbal strike has been recorded at least 60 times at differing volumes to correspond to the velocities available in the MIDI world (0-127).  From the quietest tap to the loudest rim shot, SD2 has captured every instrument in their arsenal with unparalleled detail to give users the ability to recreate the most nuanced, human sounding drum patterns imaginable.

Additionally, SD2 provides a wide range of variables to swap in and out as needed.  While each SDX drum pack available has slightly different capabilities, the Avatar pack with SD2 includes the following:

  • Clear or coated tom heads
  • Each instrument struck with drum sticks, brushes, hot rods and felt mallets
  • Felt or plastic kick drum beater
  • Bottom snare wires on or off. (Particularly noticeable when sampling toms)

SD2 has also provided nearly every possible type of hit on each of the instruments available. These include:

Snare Drum: Center, Edge, Rimshot, Sidestick, Rim Only, Muted, Flams, Roll, and Ruffs. (Swirls also in brush mode)

Toms: Center, Rimshot, Rim Only

Hi Hats: Closed Edge, Closed Tip, Tight Edge, Tight Tip, Seq Hard, Seq Soft, Open 1-5, Closed Bell, Open Bell 1-2, Open Pedal, Closed Pedal

Crash Cymbals: Crash or Mute

Ride Cymbals: Ride, Bell or Edge

To give you an example of what this means, taking into account just one of the seven snare drums available with the Avatar pack:

60 separate velocity hits x 9 types of drum strikes = 540 hits.

Those hits are each struck every way possible with a hard stick (540), brushes (360), rods (480) and felt mallets (300) totaling 1,680 hits. Finally, all of the drumstick and felt mallet hits were also struck with the bottom snare wires off (3,360). Based on my rough calculations, there are over 5,000 hits for just the first of seven snare drums available in the SD2 Avatar pack! That is truly extraordinary. Variations of this are seen all across SD2 on the toms, hats and cymbals piling up to a mind-boggling amount of organized data.

One final note on the detail available in SD2 is the humanize section. Humanize provides a thorough mix-up of hits to be added in at random from the available pool allowing for the most natural sound possible. Considerations such as differing between left and right hand/foot and volume relative to velocity we’re all taken into consideration for Humanize.

Simply put, no two consecutive hits are ever the exact same strike. To me, this is one of the features that has put SD2 in a class of its own.

CONSTRUCT

The Construct window is the home screen for SD2 where you have access to the main controls. In standard view is a graphical depiction of a drum kit surrounded by the many controls used to manipulate the sound. Each drum and cymbal on the kit can be clicked on to preview its sound and via the small triangle indicating a pull down menu, you can select from a list of available drums.

SD 2.0 Construct Window

For instance, the following snares are included and available with the stock SD2 Avatar pack:

• Nir-Z GMS

• Ludwig Black Beauty

• GMS Piccolo 13″

• Slingerland 70s 6.5×14″

• Rogers Wood 4.5×14″

• GMS Ash Shell 6.5×14″

• GMS 5×10″

Once you’ve selected your drums and cymbals you can head to the “Tool Settings” pull down to select all the stick and beater combinations. It should be noted here that not every possible variable has been recorded for each drum. Whenever a variable is not available the drum is highlighted by a red exclamation point and the pull down label has an asterisk.

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  • PsychoG

    Clearmountain was brought in to mix the Illusion albums, not Appetite. Matt Sorum wasn’t even involved with Guns when they recorded Appetite. Slash is referring to the Illusion sessions in his book when he talks about the incident you mention in your lead paragraph.

  • You are absolutely correct!  Humble apologies and will be changed asap.  -Z-

  • PsychoG

    Thank you, sir!

  • not worked