For nearly 20 years now, I've followed the submissions to our Readers' Tapes column, looking for relationships between the gear used and the end results. I'm particularly interested in the fact that many of our readers don't play drums themselves, or have a live drummer in their bands; they need to get their rhythm tracks from somewhere else.
Some use drum machines, some drag and drop loops from libraries and arrange them in their DAWs, some use built-in rhythm box plug-ins... and the results are all over the map, sometimes quite realistic, sometimes frankly unbelievable. Whether it's bad samples, unrealistic mixing, sloppy effects, or a groove no real drummer would play, these less-than-stellar drum tracks can drag an entire song down. I started to wonder: were there particular "virtual drummers" that produced good, listenable, musical results consistently more often than they didn't?
There were. Comparing gear lists to critique results, a small handful of products could be traced consistently to excellent drum tracks. You've read reviews of them in our pages, and will continue to do so. But the one I want to talk about today is the one that was not only among the most consistent of the virtual drummers but also among the most affordable: Toontrack's EZdrummer.
This all-in-one program, available as a plug-in virtual instrument for any DAW, combines an expandable drum library, a collection of stylistically appropriate MIDI grooves, and a mixer, for a complete drum solution that works and sounds great, yet avoided the complexity and cost of more comprehensive drum instruments. Those products, like Toontrack's own Superior Drummer, allow fine tuning of mixes, virtual mic placement, and a whole lot more; EZdrummer simplified the process and delivered great drum tracks at an approachable price for the neophyte, and did so in a way that was easy and fun.
With the release of EZdrummer 2, Toontrack has answered the question, "How can you make such a sweet little program even better? What would you change?" with the answer, "Almost everything." The new EZdrummer is more powerful, more fun, more flexible, and sounds better than its predecessor, all without sacrificing basic ease of use.
While Recording usually avoids reviewing beta releases, I was privileged to get my hands on a copy of EZdrummer 188.8.131.52, an essentially finished pre-release version of the software that was finalized about six weeks before the official release date of version 2.0 -- May 6, 2014, right around the time that our subscribers will be getting this issue. While my version lacked a user manual (clicking on the Manual option brought up a New Features PDF instead), I didn't hit a single bug or snag in my work with the program, and I'm fairly confident that my experience will parallel that of buyers when they try EZdrummer 2 for themselves.
Oh, and if you're wondering -- yes, I was able to teach myself EZdrummer 2 in no time flat, even without a manual. Keep that in mind as we dive in...
New kits, new look, new sounds
When you launch EZdrummer, you start in the Drums tab, as shown above. It's very welcoming: a brand-new drum kit in a photorealistic layout and a timeline for assembly of drum grooves piece by piece.
There are two basic kits in EZdrummer 2: Modern and Vintage. The Modern kit can be one of three sample sets -- the default DW kit, a Gretsch kit, or a Yamaha kit -- with kick, snare, three rack toms, two floor toms, hi-hat, ride, and four cymbals. The Vintage kit can be one of two Ludwig setups -- a vintage kit from the 1960s or a Vistalite kit -- with kick, snare, rack tom, floor tom, hi-hat, ride, and two cymbals. Click on any drum to audition it, or on its dropdown menu to change it -- many other elements that aren't available in the default kits can be selected, such as Sabian vs. Paiste cymbals, adding a Gretsch kick to the Vintage kit, dropping custom elements into the Modern Gretsch kit to make up for the fact that its default layout has fewer cymbals and toms than the DW or Yamaha, etc..
In addition to the kit elements themselves, every EZdrummer 2 kit also includes three hand-percussion elements that are shown in small windows in the corner of the display: hand claps/finger snaps/cowbell, shaker/maracas, and tambourine. This is a lovely touch, letting you add percussive accents to any track without having to load a special kit.
New mixer, new effects
If you're keeping count, that's up to 16 sound sources at a time! They're all accessible in the Mixer tab, which offers metering and control of level, pan, solo, mute, and output channel for each drum. You can output a stereo mix to your DAW, or up to 16 channels of separated audio (vs. EZdrummer's 8) for later processing.
But the Mixer tab doesn't just offer raw sound sources! When you call up a particular mix preset for a kit, the Mixer will include extra channels for things like reverb and delay returns, ambient mics (in mono, stereo, or both) with adjustable mic bleed, and effects chains. These effects chains are preset as well; they're laid out intelligently so that certain drums are sent to them while others are not (e.g. EQ applied only to the kick or delay applied only to overheads), and each effect will have one or two simple knobs to tweak to your taste.
At first, the idea of someone doing your effects routing and tweaking for you might seem intrusive, but the idea here is to give you musical results in a hurry. You can always upgrade to Superior Drummer if you insist on controlling everything (and you don't want to do it in your DAW). And anyone who's used EZmix will immediately have confidence in Toontrack's ability to offer realistic channel strip settings right out of the box.
By the way, if you're wondering where these kits come from, they were recorded specifically for EZdrummer 2 by Chuck Ainlay at Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London, using a variety of mics and processors through Neve and EMI consoles -- the latter for its particular saturation characteristics, which lend the Vintage kit a lot of its distinctive sound. The end results are simply gorgeous; a nice range of usable tones for rock, pop, and indie styles, with a range of mix/effects presets named either by genre or particular effect (Prog Rock, Tape Filter, etc.) for quick reference and access.
New grooves, new browser
So we've established that EZdrummer 2 has great sounds. How do we put those sounds to work? There are tools right in the Drums tab, plus the Browser and Search tabs, to turn kits into songs in a jiffy.
EZdrummer's basic building block for sequences is the MidiBlock, which is essentially a chunk of a song with drum hit data in it. These MidiBlocks can be color-coded and tagged as one of eight Song Parts -- Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Pre-Chorus, Outro, Fill, or Ending. You just open the Browser tab, select from a column-based browser (which can include your own folders of MIDI data if you wish), and drag MidiBlocks onto the timeline, building a song piece by piece. MidiBlocks can be moved, removed, split in two, and seamlessly overlaid in whole or in part by other MidiBlocks. This means you can drop a short fill onto the end of a verse and the verse will automatically shorten itself to make room for the fill without any fuss.
While you can't edit drum hits one by one, there's a great tool for altering grooves at the MidiBlock level. It's called Edit Play Style, and it allows you to quickly select the Power Hand (the instrument where the drummer's dominant hand is playing) and dial in the Amount (density) and Velocity (relative energy) for each drum playing in a MidiBlock. This lets you quickly change a snare-heavy groove into one that focuses on the ride cymbal, for example. It's a lot of fun to play with and gets you great results in a hurry... and, as with any other editing operation, there's Undo/Redo to clean up if you go too far.
The Search tab lets you filter available grooves by a variety of criteria -- Library, Instrument, Power Hand, Time Signature, Genre, Type, Play Style, and Resolution. You can use any or all of these criteria, and EZdrummer will display a list of matches for you, with a variety of displayable criteria -- the Name of the MidiBlock (often just Chorus 01 or Variation 02 or the like), but more usefully, the Family (sublibrary) it came from, its Intensity (busy-ness and energy level), number of instruments in use, tempo, and much more. You can decide which filter and result criteria are on display at any given time, to customize the Search tab to your needs.
Another cool new feature is Tap2Find, where you can simply "play" into EZdrummer 2 with a controller or even just with the mouse, and EZdrummer 2 will find all the grooves that match or nearly match what you played. Got a really cool kick pattern repeating in your head? Play it into Tap2Find and you'll have a whole list of MidiBlocks that feature it (or something very close to it, scored by a percentage), ready to drag and drop into your song.
If you're in a real hurry to sketch out a full song, use Song Creator -- a pop-up window that accepts one MidiBlock of your choice and offers you a full selection of intros, verses, choruses, etc., that are complementary to it. You can drag and drop from the list of offerings, or drag/drop a full-on song arrangement (called a Structure) and then mix and match its parts. You can even create your own Structures, name them, and save them, so if (for example) you do a lot of songs in ABACAB format, you can start from scratch with one click.
Nearly all the features of EZdrummer's original version are here too, although they may have been moved from their original location -- for example, halftime/doubletime options are now on a popup menu rather than having their own control.
New life in old expansion options
All the stuff we've talked about so far is in the basic version of EZdrummer 2, right out of the package. But as with the original version, EZdrummer 2 offers users the chance to expand on their sound choices and grooves by adding EZX Expansion Packs. Toontrack reports that all 20 of the existing EZX products are being updated to offer integration with EZdrummer 2's new features, and that all these updates will be available free to owners of the EZX Packs who upgrade to the new version. And fear not -- all the sounds and mixes of the original EZdrummer are available too, so you won't lose your old work when you upgrade.
I didn't have a chance to try out every updated EZX Pack -- and a proper discussion of their sounds and capabilities is really for a separate review at a later date -- but I did dive into a few of my favorites and swim around a bit. There are some amazing choices here, particularly if you're into a very specific genre like pop, metal, jazz, blues, or Americana; adding an EZX gives you an entirely new kit layout, new sounds... and now in EZdrummer 2, new mixer presets and effects, all suitable for the material you're trying to convey.
Far more than a "select and drag grooves into your DAW" tool, EZdrummer 2 is a powerful virtual drum studio with great sounds, powerful mix options, intensely musical grooves, and fun and easy ways to make a song your own. It offers much of the flexibility of a full-on virtual drum studio, but is so much easier to use when you just want great drums in a hurry.
I've never been one to downplay the value of a real drummer... if you can find a good one to work with, in an environment where he or she can be properly tracked and mixed. If those are out of reach, then you simply must check out EZdrummer 2. It doesn't raise the bar for virtual drummer software... it tosses it halfway into the next county.
Price: $179 (upgrade from EZdrummer, $99); EZX Packs, $89 each
More from: Toontrack, www.toontrack.com