Attack Drums review – Waldorf’s highly anticipated drum synth app hits the App Store

Download from iTunes App Storeattack drums logoAs I posted a few days ago, Waldorf’s new drum synth app Attack Drums – and which many iOS musicians have been eagerly anticipating since it was first announced some months ago – has now arrived on the App Store.

Having now had a few days to explore the new app, has Attack Drums been worth the wait? Let’s find out….

Pedigree chums

Waldorf Music are a company with quite a musical legacy. They have been responsible for some highly regarded hardware instruments and, over more recent years, have transitioned that expertise into the software-based virtual instrument field as well. Back in June 2013, they also stuck a fairly substantial toe in the iOS water with the introduction of Nave and, for those new to iOS-based music making, Nave was (and still is) a bit of an iOS synth monster. Based upon wavetable synthesis, and with some very interesting elements to the user interface for sound creation, Nave has been hugely popular amongst iOS synth heads.

Attack drums - worthy of the pre-release buzz?

Attack Drums – worthy of the pre-release buzz?

Indeed, the iOS app version has been successful enough that, within the last week or so, Waldorf have launched a port of Nave for desktop operating systems. Rather like Positive Grid’s BIAS Amps, this is another example of the (currently) rather rare phenomenon of music tech software going from iOS to desktop (as opposed to the other direction which is more common) and, while the new VST/AU/AAX plugin form of Nave is for desktop music producers, I do hope to do a review of it on the blog at some stage over the next week or so as it is interesting to see an iOS app spreading its wings in this way.

If you have used any of Waldorf’s software instruments – including Nave on the iPad – then you will know that the company tend to do ‘deep’; Nave is a sophisticated synthesiser with a powerful and complex sound engine. Yes, you can just load a preset or three from the excellent collection supplied with the app but the reality is that it is an instrument that perhaps appeals more to the synth-geek who likes to get their programming hands dirty rather than the causal player.

Attack Drums main menu provides access to some of the app's further settings.

Attack Drums main menu provides access to some of the app’s further settings.

It doesn’t take much time with Attack Drums to realise that it is from the same sort of design ethos. I don’t think it benefits quite so much by way of the user having post-graduate qualifications in synthesis as Nave does (!) but Attack Drums is – in terms of the sound production element of the app at least – quite a sophisticated beast.

At the practical level, the app currently priced at UK£10.99 (this is a launch price; it wll increase at some stage soon), is an 80MB download and requires iOS7.0 or later. It is listed as compatible with iPad and, presumably, this means any iPad that can support iOS7. Given that you can run up to 24 sounds at the same time, and that each sound has its own instance of the synth engine, I think I’d like to own a more recent iPad if I was trying to run the app alongside other iOS music apps and wanted to get the very best from it. That said, in principle, it ought to run on pretty much anything from the iPad 2 upwards. Do note, that some users have reported initial issues with some older devices in the first few days after release…. and Waldorf already have an update in review with Apple that hopefully will address this.

Attack Drums ships with a small set of example sounds and some very varied drum kits and individual sound presets.

Attack Drums ships with a small set of example sounds and some very varied drum kits and individual sound presets.

Patterns can be up to 16 steps in length and, for most folk, that’s going to represent a single bar in 4/4 time. There are double/half time options but not, at present, options for ‘multi-bar’ patterns. While you can chain patterns into a ‘song’ (and this works very well), some users might like the option for creating longer patterns as their basic building block.

Launch an attack

Attack’s user interface is spread across six main pages – Sound, Effects, Pattern, Song, Pads and Mixer – each accessed via the appropriate button located in the ever-present top-strip of controls. This strip includes access to the preset system, tempo setting, pattern selection and the transport controls. The ‘I’ button located top-right brings up a menu of various options that includes access to some global settings and the (rather good) PDF manual. The ‘chain icon’ button toggles playback between the single (currently selected) pattern and ‘song’ modes; more on the latter will follow below.

By default, on first launch, the Sounds page is opened. If you are a bit apprehensive about the depth of Attack Drums and whether it might be just a bit much for you… well, I’m not sure that this screen full of controls will help much :-) Do be reassured, however, that this is actually about as busy as things get so, once you get comfortable with this screen, the rest of the app will feel (and is) pretty straightforward.

The Sounds page is where all Attack Drums goes deep.

The Sounds page is where all Attack Drums goes deep.

There are a number of different elements to this screen. Down the left edge are the 24 sound slots arranged on what Waldorf refer to as ‘blades’. If you tap on any one of these, this becomes the currently selected sound and, if that blade already contains a sound, it will be auditioned. More significantly, however, the synthesis engine settings for that sound are then displayed within the bulk of the rest of the screen; pick a different blade and you get a different set of settings.

Along the base of the screen is a single lane of the pattern grid for whichever pattern is currently selected or in playback. This shows the pattern for the sound in the currently selected blade. The Soft, Mid and Hard buttons here allow you to apply three different velocity levels as you create hits within this lane. Tap the small virtual keyboard icon located next to them and up pops a fairly standard virtual piano keyboard window.

The PDF manual is well worth a read at this point… and it does a pretty good job (translation permitting) of explaining how the sound engine works. In essence, however, each of the 24 sound slots has its own set of these engine controls. So, for each sound, you get a pair of oscillators, a filter (which includes a rather nice Drive option), twin envelopes for use in sound moduation, an amplifier section, options to flavour the sound with a touch of FM synthesis and Ring Modulation and the option to add additional noise (via the Crack section).

Within this control set are plenty of modulation options whether that is through the two envelopes, keytracking, velocity sensitivity or the built-in LFO for the filter. There are various options for sync’ing these modulation options to the currently set tempo if required. The mixer section allows you to blend to output of the two oscillators and, within the Amplifier section, you can also select which of the four effects slots a sound is to be processed through.

Again, it is worth repeating that each of the 24 sound has completely independent settings for all the controls upon this page.

While the app does drum synthesis, it can also do sample-based sounds.

While the app does drum synthesis, it can also do sample-based sounds.

While Attack Drums is primarily being sold on the basis of this pretty sophisticated drum synthesis engine, a couple of points are worth mentioning. First, while the two oscillators offer a choice of six different waveforms – Triangle, Sine, Pulse, Sawtooth, Sample & Hold and Noise – you can also replace the oscillator with a sample-based sound source; tap the sample button and up pops a suitable list of preset samples and you also get the option to import your own. This option opens up the possibilities for Attack Drums considerably. The synthesis engine is excellent in it’s own right but does, of course, encourage you to create electronic drum sounds. By including the option for sample-based sounds, if you want to create an acoustic kit via Attack, then that’s perfectly possible also (and there are a few presets included to demonstrate the fact).

The second thing to note is that this a ‘synth engine’ and not just a ‘drum synth engine’. If you want to include a bass or lead synth sound (or three) amongst your 24 sounds, then that’s also possible. Indeed, load up almost any of the preset songs and you will hear not just drums but also some instrument sounds. Yes, while Attack Drums is primarily a drum tool, it can do a turn as a full electronic music production system.

Attack Drums features a virtual keyboard - so you can easily add melodic or chord lines to your patterns.

Attack Drums features a virtual keyboard – so you can easily add melodic or chord lines to your patterns.

It’s here that the virtual keyboard mentioned above comes into the equation and you can play parts in live to the current pattern (engage the record button in the upper strip)… and, yes, you can play chords as well as single note melodies… but, as patterns are a maximum of 16 steps long (generally 1 bar), then you are limited in terms of creating melodic phrases. This is not quite as limiting as you might think, however, as you can record via the virtual keyboard (or an external MIDI keyboard) while in ‘song’ mode. With a little care, therefore, you can create longer melodic or chord sequences… just watch that the song section you do it in doesn’t contain multiple instances of the same pattern otherwise you will end up in a bit of a muddle.

While I’m certain I have not yet got my head around all that the Sound page has to offer or the subtleties of the synth engine, one thing is clear; this is a powerful tool. If you are a keen programmer, then you are going to find plenty to keep you occupied with Attack Drums and, importantly, it’s not just a lot of tools for the sake ot it; if you stick your iPad’s output through some decent studio monitors or a PA system, Attack Drums can make some huge sounds. Indeed, do keep you levels down until you know exactly what’s coming or some of the sounds here might have your speaker cones for breakfast :-)

In terms of the sound engine then, while it will take some mastering, it’s a big thumbs up to Waldorf.

Effect the attack

While the rest of what’s on offer in this initial release is very good, it also has to be said that the remaining set of five screens are also a much more straightforward proposition that the Sound page (phew!).

In the Effects page you get four effects slots, each with the same selection of effects to choose from. There is also a global reverb (each of the four effects slots can be passed through this – or not – as required) and compressor that can be applied to your sounds. Most of the effects are – well – quite effective and I particularly like the Delay and Drive options. Each effect offers a reasonable number of controls and the Delay is quite nicely featured.

The Effects options include the very interesting Phrase Vocoder effect.

The Effects options include the very interesting Phrase Vocoder effect.

The odd-one-out is, of course, the Phrase Vocoder. This is a very novel option and, for some potential users, might be reason enough to consider Attack Drums on its own. Essentially this effect allows you to type in a text phrase and then, as notes are triggered for any sound that is using the Phrase Vocoder, a new syllable from the phrase is heard.

This really is quite an interesting option and I managed to get suitably side-tracked making Attack Drums say all sorts of (very predictable) phrases just for the fun of it. It does take some experimentation though and the vocal sound produced – while very much in the vocoder style – interacts with whatever else is going on with any sound passing through the effect. I’m not sure I’d want to try an build a full vocal part from this effect (too much work might be involved as you have to do a good deal of tweaking if you want the words to be clearly understood) but for the occasional bit of vocal-based ear-candy, it really is rather good. The ability to adjust the Gender and Speed settings – amongst the other controls – does encourage experimentation though.

Attack pattern

When it comes to the Pattern page, this is pretty much what you might suspect and, if you have used any other pattern-based drum machine, this will seem like fairly familiar territory.

Attack's pattern editor provides a fairly standard grid editing system...  but there are some deeper options here is you want to exploit them.

Attack’s pattern editor provides a fairly standard grid editing system… but there are some deeper options here is you want to exploit them.

Down the right-edge of the screen you get controls to set the pattern length (this is on a per-pattern basis) and you can adjust the Swing and Delay settings on a per-track basis (so your hi-hat can swing while your kick doesn’t). Both of these sections include a Tools button and these provide access to a set of further options. For the Pattern Tools, this includes options for copying and pasting patterns, humanizing and creating ramps in/out (amongst other things). Similar sorts of options appear in the Track tools but, of course, these apply just at the Track level.

The drop down menus in this right-hand strip provides some additional features.

The drop down menus in this right-hand strip provides some additional features.

The Step section of this panel starts by just showing the Soft, Mid and Hard buttons seen in the Sound screen and used for setting note velocity. However, tap the ‘more’ icon and a much more comprehensive set of options appear allowing you to pre-configure all sorts of settings for a step including MIDI note, velocity, pitch-bend and mod-wheel settings. With up to eight Step slots available, you can define multiple notes within this system if you want to add chords.

The Edit/Select Mode button allows you to flip between either simply selecting steps (so you can edit their properties) or adding/deleting steps (and, if added, they take on the properties set in the panel). Indeed, there are quite a lot of rather powerful options built into this small panel if you care to dig in. It wouldn’t make for the fastest means of create a drum pattern that you have ever used but, in terms of crafting and tweaking to the nth degree, this is step-level editing at its most geeky.

If you want to get full-on, then you can co for some detailed per-step editing.

If you want to get full-on, then you can co for some detailed per-step editing.

Going for a song

Once you have created a few patterns (with or without getting right into the step-level programming options), then the Song page allows you to arrange those patterns into a timeline-based structure. This screen is rather neatly laid out with the Pattern Bay (all your patterns) at the bottom and the Song Timeline section along the top.

You can simply drag and drop patterns into the timeline and, if you want to insert a pattern between two existing patterns, then simply hover in the right place and a suitable space will appear by shuffling all the later patterns along a little. You also get the usual tools for clearing, cutting and copying patterns on the timeline.

Patterns can be dragged and dropped into the Song Timeline 9as is being done in this screenshot) so song construction is pretty straightforward.

Patterns can be dragged and dropped into the Song Timeline (as is being done in this screenshot) so song construction is pretty straightforward.

This page also includes the Export Audio button and its here that you can get you complete arrangement exported via either AudioCopy or to an audio file using a 44.1kHz/16-bit WAV format. The latter will allow you to use iTunes file sharing to access the rendered audio on your desktop computer.

This whole system is both easy to use and nicely implemented…. and will be instantly familiar if you have used other iOS pattern-based drum apps.

Launch pads

The same can probably be said of the Pads page… expect that you obviously get a set of 24 pads here rather than the more usual 16. While you can use the pads simply for auditioning sounds and trying out a few ideas, if you engage Record mode (top-right in the Transport controls), you can add hits as the current pattern cycles through. Done one pattern at a time – and one drum at a time – this is a very easy way to quickly get a nice groove going.

The Pads screen gives you a fairly standard set of trigger pads for live playing or programming.

The Pads screen gives you a fairly standard set of trigger pads for live playing or programming.

The only other observation worth making here is that the Settings section of the main menu includes a toggle switch for Pad velocity. This turns on/off the velocity response of the pads. Like all attempts to use how hard you hit your iPad screen to generate MIDI velocity data, this is no substitute for a top-notch set of hardware drum pads or a decent MIDI keyboard…. but it is nice to have the option.

Mix the attack up

Attack Drum’s Mixer page is equally straightforward. You get the 24 blades arranged along the base of the screen (and you can tap these to audition the sound) plus a channel strip of volume fader, solo and mute buttons, pan control and then two buttons at the top of each strip where you can set (a) which of the four effects slots the channel will pass through (if any) and (b) whether the sound belongs to an XOR group (where only one sound from the group can play at any one time). These last two settings can be configured on the Sound page also but it is probably easier to do it here where you can see settings for all 24 instruments at the same time.

The Mixer screen is basic in terms of functions but does a solid job.

The Mixer screen is basic in terms of functions but does a solid job.

Other than that, you get a Master volume fader… see, I told you it was straightforward.

Attack at peace

Used as a standalone app, Attack Drums worked very smoothly on my iPad Air 1 test system and the hardware certainly didn’t seem to be struggling to keep up. Equally, used within Audiobus, and sending its output on to Cubasis, Attack also behaved nicely and you get the usual Audiobus control strip displayed within Attack while you work.

I had no issues using Attack Drums via Audiobus on my iPad test system.

I had no issues using Attack Drums via Audiobus on my iPad test system.

The app also worked well enough via IAA as an audio app inserted on an audio track within Cubasis. However, used via IAA, Attack doesn’t show any form of IAA control panel so I suspect the IAA support is, at this stage, quite basic in nature. However, audio recorded from the app into Cubasis was crisp and clean so I’d have no complaints on that front.

IAA support is perhaps best described as 'basic' but I had no problems getting audio into Cubasis via this route.

IAA support is perhaps best described as ‘basic’ but I had no problems getting audio into Cubasis via this route.

What’s not to like?

So where are we so far? Well, Attack has a very good synth engine that, while intended primarily as a source of drum sounds, is actually capable of much more. The options provide within the engine are plentiful and, as you also have the choice of using samples as a sound source within the two oscillators slots, if you want to create some acoustic drum sounds – or even bring in melodic instrument sounds – then that’s perfectly possible. The drum sounds themselves are excellent.

The effects options are solid if, bar the Phrase Vocoder, perhaps a little conservative. They do a decent job through and things like the delay, overdrive and compressor are very effective. The Phrase Vocoder is also very interesting and, while it does take some experimentation to get your head around the various options it offers – and how those options interact with what’s going on in the rest of the sound chain – I can imagine users having a lot of fun dropping some robotic phrases into their electronic music tracks.

Pattern and song creation is, at one level, very straightforward and the workflow on a par with other virtual drum machine apps. You can dig in a bit deeper if you wish – that per-step panel in the Pattern page makes that possible – but you don’t have to. The Pads page means you can also create your patterns by playing rather than programming if you so wish… and as those patterns can include melodic or chord parts (and you get a neat if basic virtual piano keyboard for the job) then Attack Drums can easily do a turn at a full production rather than just handling your electronic drum needs.

Oh, and the app plays nicely enough via Audiobus and IAA….

While the Audiobus support works well - and you get the usual Audiobus transport/switch strip, there are some areas where Attack's technical spec could do with expanding....

While the Audiobus support works well – and you get the usual Audiobus transport/switch strip, there are some areas where Attack’s technical spec could do with expanding….

So is there anything not to like? Well, aside from MIDI in, you might have noticed a distinct lack of any commentary in the review so far about MIDI Learn (or remote control/parameter automation in general) or MIDI Sync. The reason is that, in this initial release at least, Attack Drums doesn’t offer either of these things, nor can you select the MIDI channel/port combination used for the MIDI input.

I think it must be safe to assume that these features are all on Waldorf’s ‘to do’ list for Attack Drums. Do also recall that a couple of our other iOS drum machine apps – Elastic Drums and Diode-108 – both of which are excellent in their own right, launched with some ‘obvious’ features that were AWOL. In those cases, the developers involved did make it clear to potential purchasers what the road map for development of those features was and, true to their word, delivered them very promptly.

A full and flexible MIDI spec is pretty much essential in a modern virtual instrument and, for a drum machine, MIDI Clock sync is something the majority of users are going to want to see. At present, using Attack Drums within a wider music production workflow is going to have to be a little ‘old school’, with some tempo matching and lining up of audio from Attack within your DAW. It’s not the end of the world…. but a more comprehensive MIDI spec would obviously make things much slicker. Here’s hoping Waldorf can deliver that fairly promptly….

The Export Audio option from the Song page can be used to render your completed song.

The Export Audio option from the Song page can be used to render your completed song.

In summary

That’s not to say that I don’t think Waldorf have done a great job with Attack Drums. As summarised above, they have got a great many things right and, from the perspective of its sound, powerful synth engine, and the pattern/song workflow, Attack is top-notch… it’s just that this initial release is missing some MIDI features that most users will, eventually, want to see added.

I don’t have any insider knowledge to know what Waldorf’s plans are for development work on Attack Drums. I would, however, be very surprised if they did not include a fuller MIDI implementation. That said, until the position on that front is made clear, users to whom that functionality is important may hesitate in taking a punt.

All that said, at the launch price of UK£10.99 (25% off what will become the full price), I’m inclined to think Attack Drums is well worth that punt. You might already have a ‘go to’ drum machine app, whether sample-based or synth-based, but Attack Drums, bar that MIDI spec, is right up there with the best iOS has to offer.

In terms of synth-based drum sounds, for me, the obvious competition comes from Elastic Drums (or, if you want something a little less deep, perhaps even an app like SeekBeats?). Elastic Drums is a little cheaper than Attack Drums but you only get 6 channels of sound at any one time. And while neither app is perhaps something I’d suggest for the novice music technology newbie, Elastic Drums is perhaps a little less challenging (particularly in terms of the sound engine) on first encounter. In contrast, with 24 sounds, sample options and that rather interesting Phrase Vocoder, Attack Drums manages to be deep (in the engine department) while straightforward (in the pattern/song creation department) at the same time.

If you are really a fan of drum synthesis, then I suspect you may want to own Attack Drums whether you have other apps that cover this ground anyway. If budgets are tight, however, picking between the various obvious competition and the new arrival is a tricky call. Those missing MIDI features might, initially, put some users off but, if Waldorf do deal with that issue in a prompt and comprehensive fashion, Attack Drums – already impressive on many levels – is going to be hard to ignore. Waldorf have got lots right with this app…. here’s hoping they can close the deal sooner rather than later.

Attack Drums



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    Comments

    1. Great read as usual. This is pretty much the only place on the Internets that does these very in depth and comprehensive reviews. Love it.

      BUT!! I do have to say that the depth comparison w/ Seekbeats is…well wrong. :) It’s the other way around, Seekbeats is obviously the more… moorer drum synth. But, in your defense John, I know you mixed it up with TweakyBeat. Yep. (Lol) ;)

      • Hi Chris… thanks for the kind words…. In terms of the comparison with SeekBeats I was simply meaning that I felt that Attack’s synth engine has a bit more depth and/or versatility to it for programming (although the SeekBeats engine is very good in its own right and, as you say, it is ‘just’ about drum synthesis rather than sample-based sounds)… anyway, a very personal observation on my part so feel free to tell me I’m ‘wrong’ when the need arises :-) best wishes, John

        • Yep I was goofing around a bit (and I was thinking more Elastic-Seekbeats:). Attack is a bit closer to Seekbeats in how they work purely from a synthesis perspective (at least parts of them). Honestly have no clear cut winner myself. They are all quite powerful, and so different to each other in terms of what sounds you can squeeze out of’em, I personally just see them all as complements to each other I guess. :)

    2. Great in depth review. This app sounds amazing. Well worth the price. However, the MIDI implementation is not that great, which is something essential for a drum synth in my opinion. They have included MIDI Clock in the end. However, the velocity sensitivity is weird and it doesn’t respond well to MIDI messages from other sequencers such as the Patterning App.. The Velocities ate very low even at full 127 values.. don’t understand why!
      A real shame.. No Ableton Link either..
      C’mon Waldorf do your homework and finalise this App please!
      It’s just about time right??

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