We are blessed with some excellent iOS drum apps whether you want to create acoustic drum parts of rock/pop/indie styles or electronic drums for more… well… electronic music styles. Personally, I think the latter of these two categories is brilliantly served with apps that are just as good as the options available on the desktop. However, when it comes to the former, then virtual drummer software such as Toontrack’s Superior Drummer (or the entry-level version EZ Drummer) or BFD from FXpansion undoubtedly offer something that, at present, isn’t matched on the iOS platform.
In part, the reasons for this are obvious; SD2 and BFD3 are built upon huge sample-based libraries offering many sample layers for each piece of the drum kit in order to reproduce the massive tonal and dynamic range of a real acoustic kit. And, in our current iOS technology at least, storage space for something similar comes at a premium price from Apple. We are seeing some larger sample-based virtual instruments appear (Crudebyte’s Colossus Piano is perhaps the most obvious recent example) but, as yet, not really an equivalent to, for example, EZ Drummer for iOS.
We have a few apps that perhaps get close and the most obvious candidate is DrumPerfect Pro. This side-steps the issue of mega-sampling by using a very clever bit of sample manipulation to recreate the tonal changes generated by hitting drums with different amounts of energy. DrumPerfect Pro certainly sounds great and it has some equally clever ‘humanise’ options so that the performances can sound very realistic…. but the workflow and level of control is perhaps not quite up to Toontrack’s desktop offering just yet.
All of which is quite a long preamble into a new ‘virtual drummer’ app; Drum Session… and which appeared on the App Store a few days ago. The app represents a collaboration between well-known iOS musician Derek Buddemeyer and the Blue Mangoo team (of iFretless fame) and has been known to been in development for some time.
If you have followed any of the online discussion around the app, you will have read that EZ Drummer was, in broad terms at least, the sort of ethos behind Drum Session. That’s not to say that Drum Session is an EZ Drummer clone – it is not – but some of the underlying concepts, most particularly in terms of the library of MIDI grooves in a range of different music styles and the ease with which those grooves can be editing and chained together to form a song structure, are similar in nature (if not appearance) to Toontrack’s highly regarded virtual drummer tools.
All the right kit
Drum Session requires iOS9.0 or later, is iPad-only at present, offers Audiobus, IAA, MIDI in/out and export options for both MIDI and audio. You can connect the app to an external MIDI keyboard or electronic drum kit to trigger the sounds if you wish.
Around 30 complete acoustic kits are included. I’m not sure under the hood just how the sound engine works but I suspect it is based around some multi-layer samples and some clever EQ/filtering of the sounds to give the resulting ‘real’ dynamics and tonal response of the drums.
The latter element of this would not, in principle, be a million miles away from how Roland squeeze out such a realistic sound from their V-Drum electronic kits where a single sample per drum is manipulated/processed in various ways to create the dynamic response. OK, so while the V-Drum kits are very (very) good indeed, if you are serious about your drum sounds in the studio, then most drummers would simply use their V-Drum kit to trigger samples in something like Superior Drummer – the detailed sampling in this level of desktop virtual drum instrument is simply better, and creates a more realistic dynamic performance than is possible with anything but the very top-end of the V-Drum line – so an iOS app is going to have to do something pretty special if it is to match that level of performance. I’ll come back to this point again in a minute….
There are over 3500 preset MIDI patterns included in Drum Session and these are categorised into a number of different music styles provided. These include main grooves and fills plus lots of variations…. plenty of choice when building a song structure… and if you want more, then there is a piano-roll style MIDI editor built into the app. Creating that song structure just requires drag and drop actions from the pattern browser onto a simple timeline feature.
That is all very EZ Drummer in concept. However, having exchanged a few emails with both Derek and Hans, they were at pains to say this is very much early stages in the app’s development, and that there is a plan for further developments and/or features for the app. Watch this space….
The app launches at UK££18.99/US$24.99 and there would appear to be a lot of promise here. If you use acoustic drums in your iOS music production, then Drum Session is bound to be of interest.
Drummers vs non-drummers?
I’ll get to the more detailed description of the various features in a minute… but this broad-brush outline of the key features is a good context for a question about exactly who Drum Session might most obviously appeal to.
Virtual acoustic drum instruments perhaps have two obvious – and very different – audiences (although they may well overlap). First, as hinted at above, we might have drummers themselves looking for a virtual instrument that can create sample-based drum sounds that are simply better (in terms of audio quality or range of sounds) than they can currently record with their own drum kits. This might simply be that they don’t have a top-of-the-line acoustic kit, or perhaps lack the hardware (mics, etc.) or recording space within which to properly record their kit, or even that they only own one such kit but want a more varied sound palette to work with…. For drummers, therefore, perhaps the most important feature they are looking for in their virtual drummer is ultra-realistic sounds and plenty of ‘kit variety’.
The second likely audience for the app are non-drummers. These are the folks who are interested in adding acoustic drum tracks to their recording projects but can’t actually play drums (and therefore probably don’t own a real drum kit). For this audience, while the realistic nature of the sounds will still be an important consideration, they are probably just as interested in (or maybe even more interested in) whether the virtual drummer comes with an impressive collection of pre-programmed drum patterns – hopefully covering a range of different musical genres – and makes it very easy to piece these preset patterns together into a complete – and hopefully realistic – drum track. Oh, and that preset pattern collection needs to include intro, fills and outros… oh again, and hopefully the option to edit the patterns in a basic way to create variations…. and, oh number three, a good range of kits to suit different styles would be very welcome.
What I’m getting at here is that the priorities of these two different audiences are themselves different…. EZ Drummer, and certainly products such as Superior Drummer or BFD3, are comprehensive enough to meet the needs of both groups (and some). As we will see in a minute, in it’s current form at least, I think Drum Session hits the needs of this second group pretty much spot on. However, for those in the first group, if they are expecting something that (at present anyway) matches EZ Drummer, etc. toe-to-toe, then I think they might still be left a little wanting…. but that is perhaps a comment that could be made about any iOS virtual drummer app currently on the market.
Tour of the kit
The vast majority of the Drum Session experience is contained within a single main screen. This includes a tool/menu bar along the top, with a song/pattern arrangement/timeline strip immediately beneath that. The central strip contains the kit/pattern browser and the bottom-most strip shows a virtual piano keyboard where you can trigger your drum sounds from.
In this last area, each key is labelled and you can scroll left/right for additional sounds and drum articulations. Don’t miss out on this feature as there are all sorts of excellent additional performance choices here if you want to add some playing variations for extra realism. Equally, you can toggle to a drum pad display if you prefer and also opt for a ‘double’ display with either two sets of key, two sets of pads and one of each.
In terms of sounds and patterns – the features at the heart of what might appeal to those two user identified above – it is the central panel that is likely to attract the most initial interest. On the left is a list of the 30 or so drum kits supplied with Drum Session. These are organised on a basis of musical style but, in general, what you are getting here is a very good variety of acoustic drum kits that could easily span the pop/rock/indie/jazz/metal/blues genres. And, yes, they do sound very good indeed. Do they match what’s available in EZ Drummer? Well, I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The rest of this central browser section provides access to the preset MIDI drum patterns supplied with Drum Session. This really is a pretty impressive collection; some 3600 patterns spread across about a dozen broad musical styles…. and, while the patterns are also organised by their intended tempo, this is all MIDI0based, so there is nothing to stop you using any of the patterns at any tempo you prefer providing they ‘work’ musically.
Within each genre-based group, you get a number of ‘grooves’ and, within each groove, are a collection of related patterns that can easily be linked together to form a song structure. That said, there is also nothing to stop you mixing and matching between patterns from different groove sets; the choice is yours. Each genre also includes some groove sets that contain fills and these can easily be slotted in alongside the main loops as required.
The bottom line here is that there is a huge range of pattern content supplied with Drum Session and it is one of the real highlights of the app. If the development team get a positive response from the initial release, then it would be great to think that additional loops packs – presumably available via IAP – might be forthcoming, mimicking the sorts of expansion packs that are available for the top-end desktop virtual drummers.
On a roll
The fills can also form the basis of any intro or outro patterns you might need but, if you can’t quite find what you want in terms of either a main pattern or a fill, intro or outro, then you can always edit a pattern to suit or even create your own from scratch. That’s because Drum Session also includes its own MIDI editing environment.
If you select an individual pattern, and then start to drag it, prompts appear in both the upper timeline section of the display and in the lower keyboard display. Drag to the upper layer and you cam simply add the pattern to the song’s timeline – yep, building a song is pretty much just a case of drag and drop with simple tools for rearranging, deleting and duplicating patterns. The area can also be ‘pinched’ to zoom in/out although you soon lose the pattern label text that helps you follow where you are within your arrangement. That said, it works well enough in a functional sort of way.
If you drag the pattern to the lower part of the display, it then opens a new window that fills the lower 2/3 of the screen; the piano-roll editor. In visual terms, this is going to be pretty familiar stuff to most users, with a piano keyboard located down the left and the pattern timeline running left/right. Again, you can zoom in out along the timeline if required.
The editor includes all the usual options you might expect – deleting, copy and moving notes, selection tool for selecting multiple notes for editing and a ‘snap to grid’ option for example – but I’m not quite sure I’d describe it as ‘slick’ in its present form at least. For example, velocity editing uses a slider at the top of the sub-window and the note selection process involves a couple of rather clumsy steps rather than just a tap and drag action…. It’s functional but not always a super-slick workflow.
There are some obvious suggestions that could be made here and, in truth, I suspect Derek and Hans are well aware that this element of the app could easily be improved upon. My personal favourite drum pattern editor is the MIDI Drum Editor window contained within Cubase. This modifies the piano-roll concept in some rather nice ways (including how the drum list is presented), but, like some other piano-roll editors, also includes a MIDI CC editing lane where MIDI velocity data can be displayed and edited within first needing to go through too many note selection hoops. Anyway, here’s hoping that Drum Session might get a few tweaks in this area. As I’ve already said, it works well enough… it just could be more refined for a better workflow.
Once you have editing your pattern, as you close the editor, you get prompted to save your changes or discard them. You can chose to save to the editing pattern or create a new one. There is a ‘user’ pattern folder available – and you can create categories within this – so feel free to build your own collection should you wish.
Incidentally, you can also import MIDI patterns via the pattern browser and using iTunes File Sharing but these are, currently at least, confined to Drum Sessions own MIDI file format rather than generic MIDI patterns. That is something that might be on the development horizon at some point. However, if you have a collection of MIDI drum patterns from another source, then a workaround might be to import them into your DAW (for example, Cubasis) and the stream them into Drum Session and record them there. Yes, this would be a bit of a faff, but it could be made to get the job done. It might involve a little bit of editing in order to get things working as intended but the Edit Key Assignment button should let you tweak the layout of your Drum Session kit. Unfortunately, the few times I tried in, I got booted out of the app and back to my Home screen, so I guess this is still a bit of a work in progress…. but it is obviously something that is coming.
In and outs
Drum Session does, of course, allow you to use its drum tracks in a wider iOS music-making workflow. I had no problems, for example, using the app via IAA and inserted into a Cubasis project. Once done, I also had no problems recording Drum Session’s MIDI (from the song I had created on the timeline) into Cubasis. Indeed, as I think the MIDI editing within Cubasis is perhaps a little more refined (including the velocity editing), that would probably become my preferred workflow for any final tweaks once I had the basic structure of the drum performance created in Drum Session. Once the MIDI was in Cubasis, it played back to Drum Session without issue.
Drum Session also works well with an external MIDI keyboard (or electronic drum kit, although I didn’t try this myself). Again, I had no issues hooking up my Alesis QX25 to the app and triggering sounds from that. Aside from simply confirming the technical operation of external MIDI in though, the velocity response of the app to an external keyboard was revealing in terms of the drum sounds themselves.
The first thing to say on this front is that the sounds are impressive. There are some big, beefy, kicks and some excellent crisp snares. The cymbals sizzle and chime very well and the toms boom and ring very convincingly. And, across the 30 or so kits, you get plenty of variation on these characteristics. There are drum sounds here that, in the correct mix context, would happily work for me in a commercial context.
What’s perhaps more interesting is some observations about the playing dynamics. When I quizzed Hans at Blue Mangoo about the sound engine used within the app, he was (understandably) not prepared to reveal all the details other than to imply there were multiple samples layers employed. Having given a careful listen to a few of the kits – and in particular the kick and snare drums – I think you can certainly hear that that is the case; what I’m less sure about is exactly how many. I suspect the answer is a fairly modest number (maybe more than 2 but less than 5 at a guess?) and there may well be some other audio processing going on as per my comments earlier about Roland’s V-Drum technology.
The point I’m getting at here is that, in terms of the dynamics of the drum sounds available in Drum Session, they respond very well to playing intensity (MIDI velocity), and perhaps as well as anything else I’ve heard under iOS to date, but if you are expecting something that already matches the level of detail possible in an EZ Drummer or Superior Drummer… well, we are not their quite yet. These sounds are very (very) good but (again, understandably) not quite as ultra-detailed as the best the desktop can offer.
During testing, I did set up Drum Session and Superior Drummer (although loaded with a few kits from EZ Drummer expansion rather than the full version of SD) through my studio monitors to do a direct comparison. The sounds themselves are not a million miles apart and Drum Session – at its very modest price tag – punches some considerable distance above its weight – but the differences in playing dynamics that those extra sample layers make was pretty obvious when auditioned in isolation.
Let’s keep this in perspective though; that technical detail will perhaps be of concern to those who are really particular about their drum sounds (and that’s an admirable thing to be) but, for the majority of us, if we add in a decent dollop of pragmatism, the sounds in Drum Session are still going to be better than anything most of us can record with a real kit in our own home and project studios…. they might not be right up there with the very best desktop virtual drummer software just yet but, for many practical purposes, they are plenty good enough.
On a somewhat different ‘in and out’ tack, do note that Drum Session also allows you to export your Drum Session songs as either standard MIDI files or audio…. if you are happy to use the app to build your complete drum track before then moving it on elsewhere for the rest of the project to come together, then that’s perfectly possible.
Missing a mixer
So far so good…. Drum Session can do lots of the things that something like EZ drummer is capable of, albeit without the absolute finesse of those uber-multi-sample layers. There a few other areas, however, where Drum Session isn’t quiet a match for the desktop favourites.
Perhaps the two most obvious things are (a) you can’t, at present anyway, change the sound of the preset drum kits or (b) build your own drum kit from the sounds included. The second of these might (I’m not sure about this?) be possible once the Edit Key Assignment feature is fully working? However, the first is perhaps, at this point, something that more users are likely to be clamouring for.
Once you have picked one of the preset kits then, in terms of the sounds available, you are pretty much stuck with what’s provided. You can’t (unless I’ve missed something obvious), adjust the balance of the various drums (other than via MIDI velocity), change their panning, fine-tune the pitch of individual drums or change the amount of room ambience (reverb) applied. All the presets kits are sensibly mixed as they stand, and there are some nice choices in terms of just how ‘roomy’ the various kits are, but some sort of mixing environment would, I’m sure, be a popular additional feature so that users could fine-tune all these sorts of features for themselves…. and it would be a significant step for Drum Session towards matching that desktop feature set.
Are we there yet?
What about some conclusions then? Is Drum Session very good? Yes it is…. It is up there with the very best virtual drum apps we have under iOS. In terms of ‘realism’, up until this point, that has been DrumPerfect Pro. Marinus Molencraft hasn’t updated this app since January and, while it runs well enough as a standalone app on my current iOS10 system, I’ve had issues with the IAA support over recent months; it would be great to see an update to address these at some stage soon.
There are things that DrumPerfect Pro offers (in terms of building your own kits and the probability-based pattern variations) that are not currently part of the Drum Session feature set. However, sonically, I’m not sure there is much to choose between them; both are very capable. Song construction is perhaps a little easier in Drum Session and the MIDI editing is perhaps more to my own taste even if it could still be refined further.
In terms of whether Drum Session is at the level of something like EZ drummer on the desktop… well, I think the truthful answer is ‘not quite yet’. It has a number of the key feature requirements – a good selection of very useable drum kits, an excellent collection of preset MIDI patterns and simple song construction, for example – but it lacks the ‘build your own kit’ or kit mixing features that some users would undoubtedly like. The sounds themselves are very good and, while further refinements on that front would always be welcome, only those who are looking for the very best in sample-based drums are going to find much to be critical at in an app that costs less than a decent Friday night out.
At an iOS technical level, then (obviously) Ableton Link support would be good to see at some stage and, of course, support for AU, although both of these features are not shop-stoppers in terms of actually getting the job don right here and right now.
My only other comment would be a purely cosmetic one; the app is all rather grey, and not in an interesting ‘50 shades of grey’ sense. OK, this is always a matter of taste, but the subdued colours and contrast are not something that I find particularly appealing. Each to his own on this front of course….
Drum Session is an interesting release. For those non-drummer iOS musicians looking for some excellent acoustic drum sounds and easy song construction (that is, they want a great drum part with a minimum of effort to slot into their song-based project) it has a lot to offer. It sounds great and the huge collection of well-programmed MIDI patterns will do lots of the heavy lifting for you. For users less concerned about the finest of nuances in the drum sampling, Drum Session is a great, easy to use, option. Add in the mixing and kit building tools, and it would be a complete no-brainer.
For those hoping for something to match the drum sounds found in the best desktop virtual drummers, then perhaps we are not quite there yet. Drum Session sounds great – big, powerful, crisp and plenty of kit choices. Where it doesn’t quite come up to the desktop mark is in the finer detail of the sounds through their dynamic range. It does a very good job in this regard but not, as yet, as good a job as that OTT multi-sampling allows in EZ Drummer, SD2 or BFD3 (for example). Will it get there? Well, we shall just have to wait and see….
Of course, context is everything…. I’d have no problems using Drum Session in my own projects, including my commercial recordings. Unless the audience is a drum nut, I really don’t think they are going to start their critique with a comment that ‘well, the drums suck….’ because they won’t (or, if they do, it’s down to me and not Drum Session!).
Equally, we all must remind ourselves on a regular basis, this is an iOS music app we are discussing here. EZ Drummer 2 is around the €140 mark while Drum Session – at the current launch price – is just UK£18.99/US$24.99 and so considerably less expensive. For 20% of the price it is way more than 20% of the product.
I’m really hoping that the development team behind Drum Session get the support required to move forwards with their development plan for the app. No, it’s not perfect, but Drum Session is an excellent start and, while I’ve made some comments about features that are not currently included or that might be improved, this is an impressive base upon which to build.
If you are the kind of music producer who simply want to get to a solid, realistic, acoustic drum track with a minimum of fuss, Drum Session is already a very attractive proposition. It’s not yet ‘EZ Drummer for iOS’ but nor is it a million miles away…. this is a solid, and very useable, foundation. I can’t wait to see what might come next but, in the meantime, I think lots of iOS musicians (myself included) should simply appreciate what we have already got…. and get Drum Session busy on some iPad tracks of our own……..