FXpansion has made a lot of friends with its BFD drum instrument. This program, which runs in standalone mode or works as a plug-in within a DAW, lets you build virtual drum kits by selecting drums from a large and expandable sample library, mike them in various ways, mix them, add effects, and create completed drum mixes using MIDI grooves to play them, all without a real drummer in sight. We've reviewed BFD and its sound expansion packs a number of times since its inception; our latest review was of BFD 2, in August 2009.
FXpansion's latest release in the world of BFD is BFD Eco, an entry-level version of the program that covers the basics of virtual drum kit construction and mixing at an affordable price. It's available as a boxed product on DVD.
Since the first BFD review, I've watched in envy as Paul Vnuk Jr. got to play with BFD and all its cool tricks, and I jumped at the chance to review BFD Eco as a beginner... since, as far as this paradigm is concerned, I was.
BFD Eco is installed from DVD and places two distinct entities on your computer: the application itself, and the Data folder that contains all the drum samples and groove files. While most modern hard drives will have plenty of room for the samples, FXpansion nevertheless offers users the option of installing a small, medium, or large data set, using anywhere from 2 to 5.5 GB of hard disk space. The smaller sets offer fewer velocity levels for the drums, saving space at the cost of coarser playback resolution with respect to performance dynamics. All of the drum samples are 24-bit WAV files. The installation app lets you choose the Standalone, VST, RTAS, and/or AU versions of the product.
Authorization is done online through a special program called License Manager, where you establish a user account on the FXpansion website and can activate and deactivate authorizations easily. You don't have to be connected to the Internet to complete the installation process, but it does speed things up a lot.
Once that's done, getting started in BFD Eco is very easy; the program uses many of BFD's basic concepts, but presents them in a simplified form that's aimed at beginners or users with simpler needs than those of top-end BFD users. Don't feel shortchanged, though, as these "basic" features cover a lot of ground.
The highest level of organization in BFD Eco is the Preset, which contains all of the data in a Kit, a Mix, and a Groove—the drum samples, how they're mixed and layered, and the MIDI data used to play them back. Each of these subsets has presets of its own, and in fact each drum in a Kit, called a Kit-Piece, can be saved as a preset, so mixing and matching sounds, grooves, and mixes is very simple.
The upper part of the BFD Eco user interface window changes depending on which of the three operating modes you select: in Kit mode it shows the generic drum kit with each drum lighting up as it's triggered, in Channels mode it shows the settings for each piece of the Kit as part of a Mix, and in Grooves mode it shows the menu system for auditioning and selecting Grooves from the program's library and building them into songs. (See the screenshots.)
The lower part of the screen never changes; it's the Mixer, which shows all of the elements that make up a Kit. Unlike BFD, where you can drag and drop new channels to mix in different miking options and the like, BFD Eco's Mixer is fixed in size: you get 12 channels for the Kit-Pieces, two busses for the Overhead and Room sounds, two Aux busses, and a Master bus.
When you build a Kit in BFD Eco, you choose a sound source for each of the 12 Kit-Pieces from a popup menu that shows pictures of the available choices and lets you audition the different articulations they offer. Note that "articulation" refers to where and how the drum is struck, not how hard; each articulation will have multiple samples at different striking forces, triggered by MIDI velocity data to provide realistic dynamics. Hit the key or drum pad harder (yes, BFD Eco can be played from a keyboard or a MIDI drum trigger set), and you don't just get more volume, you get a louder, brighter, or harsher sample than the one you'd get with a lighter touch. BFD can also be told to force changes in sample selection to avoid the "machine gun" effect when playing multiple hits on the same drum.
How many articulations you get depends on the drum type. Toms have only one articulation; Percussion items offer one or two; Cymbals have Hit, Bell, and Edge; the Kick has hits with and without snare bleed; the Snare has Hit, Sidestick, Half-edge, Rim, and Drag; and there are up to 11 articulations for the Hi-Hat, with varying amounts of openness, tip or shank strike, and pedal action. Not all articulations are available for all drums in all styles.
While there's nowhere near as many drums to choose from as in the full version of BFD, you might still be daunted by the many choices you do have. There are several options within the "picker" popup to help you sort and find what you want; for example, you can sort by RAM load or number of available articulations, or set a "star rating" for your favorites so they're easier to find. You can even press a button to go online and buy new drum sound expansion sets from the FXpansion website. Most BFD expansion sets, from FXpansion or third-party firms like Platinum Samples, are compatible with BFD Eco, although not all the samples' articulations and miking options may be available.
Unlike the larger program, BFD Eco limits your miking choices to a set of basic but very useful options. Every Kit-Piece, of course, has its own direct channel in the mix; in addition, within the Snare channel you can blend top and bottom miking, and within the Kick channel you can blend mics from the beater side and back of the kick for "snap" vs. "boom".
In addition to those direct-miked samples, you can blend in the Overheads and Room, two stereo submixes that add ambience and realism to the kit sound when blended in appropriately. An engineer who's used to delicately tweaking the relative miking levels of a dozen or more mics on a kit will want the full version of BFD, but for many users these two simple settings are plenty. They're quick to implement, easy to understand, and lots of fun, because you can easily hear your changes with the touch of a fader.
When in Channels mode, the upper part of the window lets you set up the sonic character of each drum—top vs. bottom snare mic, for example, or how much of each piece's signal is routed to the Overheads and Room busses. Each drum then has three optional insert effects: a 4-band parametric eq and two user-selectable inserts in series, each with its own parameters and graphic interface. There are 14 algorithms available, from simple gain adjustment to compressors, time delay effects, special effects like a bitcrusher and ring modulator, and a lovely plate reverb from Overloud's BREVERB plug-in (reviewed February 2008). Once you have all your settings to your liking, the Kit-Piece can quickly be named and saved as a preset for future use.
This was my favorite part of BFD Eco, because I'm such a freak for sound design; I took an ordinary snare, threw on some bass-heavy eq, lined up the plate reverb and a gate with appropriate settings, and had the Hugh Padgham/Phil Collins Gated Snare Of Doom within about 30 seconds, all without cracking the manual. Sweet!
...and the Groove
BFD Eco's Grooves mode has a dropdown selector for a variety of MIDI grooves to play back your drum sounds once they're tweaked (or while you're tweaking them). You're not limited to what the program gives you, of course; it's easy to feed MIDI data from your DAW of choice and trigger the sounds in BFD that way, and you can quickly build key maps to control the kits the way you want to, with all the usual tricks like choke notes etc.
Grooves are sorted by genre, time signature, BPM range, and grooves vs. fills; you can drag and drop your selections to the Drum Track timeline below the menus and build up and save entire song structures that way. Grooves can be moved, shortened, etc., just by dragging and dropping, and you can export them to your DAW for fine editing, but you can't edit them event by event within BFD Eco. Simple controls are provided to loop playback, adjust the complexity of the MIDI data in a groove, alter the swing, and humanize the rhythm of the playback.
Extras and final thoughts
I haven't even touched on the many little touches that help turn BFD Eco into a very full-featured drum creation setup, like adjustable mic bleed via a simple one-knob interface, MIDI Learn mode, an extensive key mapping utility, handy mixer features like mute, solo, and the two Aux buss routings for send/return processing and/or subgrouping, multiple audio channel support, and so forth. There's a lot going on here!
If you're getting the impression that I really enjoyed BFD Eco, you'd be right. As I worked with the program, people kept stopping by my studio and borrowing my headphones to listen to the sounds and grooves I was whipping up, and more than one walked away saying, "That's so much fun, I've got to get it for myself." What more can I say?
More from: FXpansion, www.fxpansion.com.