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15 November 2010


Three heavies ship from Sweden...

  • EZdrummer 1.2.1 | £99*

  • Drumkit From Hell EZX | £49*

  • Metalheads EZX | £49

  • Melodically, heavy metal was invented by the Christian church. Honest. At least, the perfect fifths of chanting monks underpin the genre. No, they do. A powerchord is typically a root-note and fifth. Slide it all over a guitar fretboard and you’re riffing. OK, so it’s more complicated than that, but it is reasonable to argue that rhythmically, HM, like much modern music, is rooted in the sounds of nature and aided by technology.

    Hitting a hollow log with a stick, mimicking a rapid heartbeat and encouraging people to groove, is technology and nature in cahoots. Kill a mammoth, stretch its skin over the end of a hollow log and you’ve a drum. While it may have taken until the Bronze Age to devise cymbals, rhythm instruments changed little until the early 1930s when Léon Theremin devised perhaps the world’s first rhythm machine, the photo-electro-mechanical Rythmicon. Let’s skip a few decades to land, with a satisfying thud, in the late 1960s and the origins of HM lyricism.

    Metal was a reaction against the loved-up, happy-lah-lah of hippiedom; something to remind us that life has a darker side and whatever it was you saw while on LSD might not have been The Truth. Heavy-metal drummers pounded their way through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s gradually taking up more and more space on stage with twin-kickdrum kits sporting an ever more ludicrous number of toms and cymbals, all while happily oblivious to the technological strides being taken in dance music. A company called Ace Tone, later Roland, had set the ball rolling in ‘67 with the mass-market launch of the Rhythm Ace FR-1. This rhythm machine was a synthesis-based, preset-only affair, hence comparatively limited, but it proved a hit among contemporary musicians and so development continued.

    It took until 1980 for digital sound sources to appear. The digital Linn LM-1 prompted many drummers to get a handle on rhythm programming for fear of unemployment, but more significant that year was the launch of another Roland product, the TR-808. This synthesis-based drum machine, along with its successor the TR-909 and, everyone’s favourite squelch-box, the TB-303 Bass Line, propelled multiple genres of dance music into the 21st Century. However, something a little more trick was necessary to turn the heads of metal-heads. The output of Roland’s synthetic gadgets can hardly be described as very metal and if it came down to a fight between them and a metal-drummer’s kit, my money would be on the 10-tom Tama.

    What metal demands are big-sounding kicks, snares and toms with enough of a diaphragm-wobbling thwack to induce emesis and sufficient midrange click to cut through the wall of sound generated by the guitarist/s and bass. Add splashy, sploshy cymbals plus some tricky-to-master, twin-kickdrum playing technique and you’ve the basis of a solid, driving HM percussion section. For that to be reproduced sans drummer, we need a sophisticated programming environment and sampled sound sources. Let’s see how Toontrack has managed to deliver the goods to your DAW by stuffing all that massive, meaty metal power into a laptop-friendly software trio.

    It’s clear that folk at Swedish developer Toontrack learnt American, not English, at school. After all, ‘ee-zed’ drummer, as a Brit would have it, doesn’t make much sense and there’s nothing much ‘eased’ about metal beats, unless the drummer’s stoned. The product has been out since 2006, so it’s worthwhile trawling online forums and casting an eye over reviews that have gone before to see how it’s got along since launch and to assess the impact of a number of version updates. Well, I have done, but we’ll come to all that presently. First, if you’ve yet to make Ee-Zee-drummer’s acquaintance, slurp this vid for an idea of Toontrack’s intent.

    That’s the developer’s take. We’ve a velocity-layered collection of more than 7,000 drum and cymbal samples that can be triggered from a MIDI keyboard, or other hardware controller, and from a DAW. Velocity layering, combined with the Humanize function, avoids a 1980s’ burp-gun sound on drum rolls and drags, as used to irritating effect by New Order on 1982 single Blue Monday. The levels and pan positions of drumkit pieces are adjustable via a mixer, as are the levels of mic bleed and room ambience, while individual items can be swapped using the drop-down menus in the main interface. Or you can hurry things up when straying from default settings by choosing Tight, Ambient or Basic configurations that are applied globally. Usefully, you can store any edits you do make to mixer settings, such as relative levels, pan positions and ambience from the overhead and room mics, all ready for later recall.
    More than 8,000 MIDI files present a bucketload of grooves in 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 and more - just click on the Play icon to audition the files selected in the Grooves interface. Further, there’s also the means to point EZdrummer at your own MIDI file collection, making for a near limitless library of performances. Listen to files loop at 1/2x, 1x or 2x tempo, then drag-and-drop your selection into a sequencer track, or spread it across eight tracks, ready for further editing. And here’s where our first whinge crops up. EZdrummer is a VST/AU plugin (PPC/Intel Mac OS X 10.4.11+ and PC Windows XP SP3+) and cannot be used standalone. Well, quit yer whining and head for freebie download Toontrack solo which, as the name implies, provides a standalone environment that’ll host the many EZX expansion packs available. Which brings us to our second gripe du jour: The bundled Pop/Rock kit sounds rubbish. I disagree. Toontrack has already part-processed the percussion with compression and EQ so that the product sounds OK straight out of the box. But it’s up to you to get busy with the DAW’s built-in sound-sculpting facilities and/or 3rd-party processing plugs, beefing things up to heavy metal proportions. This, however, is missing the point. By itself, EZdrummer/Pop/Rock is more of a songwriter’s sketchpad than a full-on production tool. It enables you to extemporize percussion arrangements rapidly and EZ-ly, perhaps while away from the studio and toting just a laptop. And even when in the studio, it’s a handy thing to have on hand when sketching ideas in the DAW. Toontrack Percussion Compression means that it doesn’t hog system resources while sitting about waiting for your muse to wake up and, because the sounds are loaded into RAM, it’ll respond without glitch when creative juices start to dribble. My only major moan is that, while EZdrummer works just fine as a 64-bit plug on Windows 7 (Cubase 5.5.1), Toontrack is yet to develop it for 64-bit on OS X Snow Leopard for Mac. Launched in Apple Logic 9.1.2, there it sits in the 32-bit Instruments menu relying on Logic’s 32-bit Bridge to enable communication with the host. Also, during the test period, the Bridge had a habit of crashing. Whether this is to do with a Windows to OS X porting problem, 64-bit unfriendliness or something more sinister, I know not as yet. If you've had similar difficulty, let me know and I’ll investigate further - tell me in the Comments field.
    Those wanting full-on production sounds, but who can’t afford to hire a real drummer and studio space for the inevitable mess of kit, mics, cables and drummer's girlfriend, that’s where the EZX expansion range steps in, as you’ll see from the items below. Of the few oft-posted gripes with which I do agree is that EZdrummer does take quite a while to load samples. And you can’t swap elements between them. Of course, if you’ve a computer of adequate specification, you could invoke two instances loaded with different expansions, but you’ll need a fair bit of patience as you wait for their samples to read into RAM. As for those samples, we’ve no envelope shapers or editing tools by which to sculpt them and they’re only 44.1kHz, 16-bit. But again, let’s remind ourselves that a basic installation makes for a very cost-effective songwriting tool. Should you wish to follow through and use EZdrummer for the master mix, indulge in EZX expansions, the timbres of which are available for audition on Toontrack’s website and UK distributor Time+Space’s product page. Meantime, the Pop/Rock kit is right here... Straight up The default EZdrummer kit tasked with a straightforward rhythm pattern Laid back A turn-of-the-Millennium, slow rockin' groove. Could this be emo-core? Strut your stuff Here's a sharp-riffing strut that could easily have come from the late 1970s Metallic aftertaste Grinding guitar and HM bass over a hard-rocking beat - woo-(as it were)-aargh! EZ shuffle Sliding and shuffling along - we've just drums and cymbals this time When managing expansions, it’s good practice to hive the files off onto a fast external drive, for which you’d use the included SoundMover utility. I’d suggest, however, that while you may want to hoik the bundled Cocktail EZX off the System drive, leave the Pop/Rock kit in its default location if aiming to be a peripatetic percussionist. That way, you won’t have to pack both laptop and external drive, and you take advantage of the internal drive’s speedy SATA interface. The full range of Pop/Rock kit items is to be found at Toontrack’s website, but in brief, batter-headed bits are from GMS, Rogers and Slngerland while cymbals are by Sabian and Zildjian. Cocktail, meanwhile, comprises samples from Yamaha instruments, along with a tasty 14-inch Zildjian hi-hat and a Mikaelsson custom ride. In all, the EZdrummer package is an affordable percussion solution for the sketching songwriter and can be expanded for grander productions with EZX packs bringing fresh samples into play, as well as Toontrack’s Monster MIDI Packs which I’ll examine in future features. For all the limitations of the basic installation, it’s hard to be picky at the price and regarding ease of use, EZdrummer’s slick interface makes falling off a log look decidedly complicated. If yet more is truly needed, then you should really be looking at Superior Drummer, a feature on the latest update of which I’ll be posting soon. Meantime, let’s see how EZ it is to get what’s already to hand sounding a tad more metal... TOONTRACK DRUMKIT FROM HELL EZX | £49* Bit of a heavy product name, so I’ll call it DFH from hereon in. At the heart of DFH EZX is another sample library that’s been around for a while - longer than EZdrummer, in fact. The critically acclaimed collection was originally devised to assuage Toontrack’s need for heavier drum sounds and has made its way into an EZX expansion for seamless integration with the host software. Want a quick taster? Here we go... Rather more pokey, no? Metal connoisseurs might like to note that the samples for DFH were captured and produced by Meshugga’s Tomas Haake and Fredrik Thordendal, along with Daniel Bergstrand and Mattias Eklund. Thordendal and Haake also contributed MIDI files to the collection, as did Owe Lingvall (Nocturnal Rites), Mattias Grahn (Naglfar) and Efraim Juntunen - a stellar selection of Scandinavian smithies, then. To save me blithering on about the finer points of DFH’s tone and implementation, I’ll leave it for your ears to decide. No EQ or compression has been applied to the following clips. Actually, I didn't even normalize them, so you may have to turn your sound system up a bit... DFH medium - from Hell! A mid-paced taste of DFH's default kit with much sploshy cymbal to boot DFH heavy - from Hades! DFH goes all speed-metal - hear the dual kickdrums rattling away at the bottom end DFH fast - as the Wings of Death! Tribal tom patterns evoke a brutish metal mood DFH Haake's horror-fest! Cool fills and grooves played by Meshuggah's Tomas Haake (video interview below) DFH Lingvall - Lord of All Darkness! Foot-tapping, head-nodding stuff from Nocturnal Rites' Owe Lingvall
    Rather more metal, nej? As you’d expect, more items in the kit means that a bigger mixing desk is needed. And lo! We’ve 12 channels available in DFH, including dedicated channels for room and overhead mics. What really does stand out, however, is the snare collection. It’s almost worth acquiring DFH solely for access to multi-layered samples of this lot: Atotte 4x14-inch maple shell, Ludwig 8x14-inch, Pearl Sensitone 6.5x14-inch bronze shell, Tomas Haake engineering 7x14-inch pockenholz shell and a trio of Sonor maple-shell models. Incidentally, if you’re wondering, pockenholz, or lignum vitae, is the same wood used to make the old-style British police truncheon and is just as stunning sound-wise. Cymbals are Sabian throughout, toms are Sonor and you’ve a choice between Sonor Designer Series 18x22-inch damped and undamped kick drums with neutral or extreme EQ, or Ludwig wood-fibreglass 24-inch diameter kicks.
    Having been on the market for so long, DFH has already received plenty of review coverage online and, in the main, has been showered with plaudits. It still deserves them, despite a good many alternative sample-based rhythm products having come to market since DFH’s launch. It’s heartening to see that the original kit along with a subsequent expansion, plus extra MIDI bits, have found their way into the EZX incarnation. DFH goes a long way towards quelling qualms concerning the Pop/Rock kit’s efficacy as a production tool. Arrangements in need of more rhythmic thrutch will benefit from a heavier, livelier sound, although the plug responds well to being reined in when something more laid-back is called for. Twin kickdrums, five toms, splashy hats and 11 cymbals, supplemented by the aforementioned variety of snares, add up to a versatile percussion-sample selection. In combination with the Pop/Rock kit’s library, you’ve thousands of MIDI files to dig through when seeking an inspired pattern to drive the song along, including a huge number of fills for punctuation and rhythmic variation. Such is DFH EZX’s usefulness, I’ve left my copy on the laptop’s System drive, along with a licensed installation on the studio workstation, so I can cart it with me when on the road. The punchy, characterful tone of this EZX proves that Hell ain’t no bad place for beats. *If you’re reading this in November 2010, note that UK distributor Time+Space is running a special offer until the end of the month. Buy EZdrummer and DFH together for only £89, as opposed to the usual price of £148 for both. Quite a saving.
    TOONTRACK METALHEADS EZX | £49 It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a metal head in possession of a small tune must be in want of giving it life. And, despite the typically doom-laden riffs and morbid lyrics, heavy metal is one of the more lively musical genres. Toontrack set out to bring the exuberance, richness and penetrating tone of a metal rhythm section, including a huge dollop of the more tricksy, technical patterns employed by metal drummers, to users of EZdrummer. And to get the job done, Mushuggah’s Tomas Haake was appointed to head up the performance aspect of Metalheads EZX; to batter heads, smash cymbals and create a heady, multi-layered melange of metal samples, plus MIDI files, to which to mosh. A full rundown of the kit bits contained in this EZX can be found at the developer’s product page. As for what they sound like, once Metalheads' samples are loaded (snooze...) it takes but a trice to map the DFH MIDI files used in the review piece above (in fact, they’re already mapped) so you can make a direct comparison of the two more metallic expansions in Toontrack's product line. The Sonor kit features here (because I like its boinginess) and, as ever, these clips are straight from the plugin with no additional processing. Hence zero normalization, so do touch that dial, do touch that knob... Metalheads medium mayhem A MIDI clip from the DFH collection applied to Sonor-ic samples Metalheads heavy, not petal You wouldn't think this ripping bit of speed-drumming is scored at 120bpm, but it is Metalheads as fast as the Nazgûl on ProPlus The Sonor toms sound as if they're playing a tune, such is their body Metalheads Haake - sticks from the Styx A good workout for the cymbals here, demonstrating the variety of metal on offer Metalheads - Lingvall launches in Here's where the drummer's feet pretty well dictate a bassline Lite mer kraftfull, ja? Well, yes. The metal drummer’s craft, full of thunderous tonality and pounding passages, is well represented and made easily accessible thanks to the slick, EZ interface. You’ll have gathered that EZdrummer is not the most versatile sample-playback engine, but for solid rock and metal percussion performances, it does wobble your drivers in fine style when loaded with Metalheads. But no matter which flavour of genre you favour, this expansion brings a lot of useful hits and phrases to the party. Rather than delivering MIDI as a library of short, yet diverse phrases, as with the Pop/Rock selection and DFH, Haake has pounded his way through a number of full songs. The production team subsequently chopped up the resulting MIDI files into Intro, Verse, Chorus and so forth, as well a some variations, so you can mix and match elements from various songs, creating your own rhythm tracks in a HM stylee, all the while having access to the Pop/Rockp library and your own MIDI file collection for yet more variation. Having heard what Metalheads EZX makes of a selection from DFH’s library, here’s a trio of edits direct from this expansion pack’s offerings, plus a two-part interview with Mr Haake himself on what he makes of today’s rhythm-rousing technology... Bleed The bundled DW kit has more click than the Sonor, helping it cut through a busy mix Lethargica Nowt much lethargic about this tom-hammering, cymbal-smashing lark with the DW Combustion Haake rounds off the demo of MIDI phrases by taking once more to the Sonor
    Thank you Tomas. Other highlights include an extended mixing desk - 14 channels to accommodate an extended kit, plus finer control over the behaviour of the snares - and a quality selection of sample sources. Two drumkits were used during the capture sessions, so you’ve predominantly Sabian cymbals, Sonor Haake Custom and DW Collectors Series toms, Sonor and Ludwig kickdrums, plus snares by Ludwig and Pearl. Top marks for top marques indeed. At a mere £49 (€69), Metalheads EZX is an affordable must-buy for metal muthas and rockers already equipped with EZdrummer or Toontrack’s flagship rhythm production tool Superior Drummer. Those running commercial, computer based studios will find it a boon when dealing with hard-rocking clients, and it’s also well worth considering if you need to enliven songs written in diverse additional modern genres. I’d prefer to see the MIDI components presented in the same format as the Pop/Rock library, but it’s quite possible to arrive at such by hacking away in the DAW and saving the results as user files. As for sonic potential, the samples bed well into wall-of-sound productions, the DW kit in particular having enough low-end and midrange energy to cut through cacophonous arrangements. I doubt we’ll see many bands replacing their big, shiny drumkits with a laptop sat atop the drum riser - it just wouldn’t look right for a metal gig - but in the studio, Metalheads is a more-than-welcome guest artist.
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