Back in the '80s, when we needed a beat and didn't have a drummer present, we used to have analog and digital drum machines to keep time. They were rarely confused with real drums, but some had a quality that earned them time in the studio due to charm (e.g., Trio's Casio VL-1), intense sonic signatures (Cocteau Twins' E-MU Drumulator), or punchy abuse (Big Black's Roland TR-606, which they credited as "Roland"). But back then, you'd also come across albums where a drum machine was attempting to take the place of real drums on some songwriter's album or such, and usually failing miserably.
These days, it's unlikely to find anyone trying to pass off a drum machine beat as real, as we have many DAW-based choices, ranging from real, recorded drum loops, to MIDI- programmable drum production software, like EZdrummer 2. This is a world I'd long ignored, but in the middle of mixing a hip-hop album where I was stuck with a lack of multitracks, I decided I should learn MIDI and bolster up the beats. I downloaded a free "plug-in drum instrument" and started adding in kick and snare, and of course I saved the day with excellent mixes. I was also on the threshold of an album that I knew would need to originate from drum loops or such, so I started looking around for a solution. After a few emails to Andy and Scott here at Tape Op, I soon was in touch with Toontrack and had a copy of Superior Drummer 2.0 ($349) and many expansion packs in my hands. I installed SD, and it looked to be very professional and deep, but before I got to using it, I was given a copy of EZdrummer 2 to try out before its general release.
The original EZdrummer [Tape Op #61] has been around since 2006 and is very popular and affordable. But the folks at Toontrack could not sit still, it seems, so they rebuilt their flagship product from the ground up. First off, they commissioned new recordings from Chuck Ainlay [#97], which were done at British Grove Studios in London. Drum sounds feature variations on modern and vintage kits, plus percussion. Chuck's an ace recording engineer, and the Neve 88R and EMI TG12345 and REDD.51 consoles at British Grove don't hurt either; these sounds are pretty amazing, versatile, and most importantly are usable. Parts of the drum kit can be subbed out easily through the visual representation of the kit in the plug-in; a feature I've found more than helpful while building a track or mixing. Speaking of that, the mixer window allows you to control parts of the kit, room ambience, and other elements (e.g., bleed in the OH and bottom snare mics) for each kit, but you can also assign kick, snare, etc. to individual outputs for analog mixing. In the past, being restricted to a two- channel mix was one of the things that always scared me away from drum-production plug-ins, and now I've learned that a lot of programs can do this. Duh.
When you have the plug-in open, you can use the Song Creator window to essentially build a MIDI pattern, preview it, and then drop it into your MIDI or instrument track in your DAW. In the Search window is Tap2Find, one of the coolest things they've added to EZdrummer 2. Here you can tap a tempo and find patterns that are similar. Several windows allow you to search and audition drum patterns quickly, and as you can imagine, this helps get a project on its way.
EZdrummer 2 runs as an Audio Unit, VST, AAX, or RTAS plug-in, and I found it simple to install and get running in Pro Tools 10 on a Mac. All of the features in this plug-in are aimed at giving a songwriter or recordist a quick and simple way to get high-quality drum patterns up and running quickly, painlessly, and with a level of sonic quality that frankly shocked an old-timer like me. Whether you need to simply grab a beat for songwriting, add beats to a project, upgrade someone's MIDI drums while mixing, or build an album up from scratch, this is a powerful and excellent tool. I may have scoffed at the idea of drum plug- ins for years, but now I keep EZdrummer 2 in mind as a tool for future studio situations I may find myself in.
($179 MSRP, $99 upgrade; www.toontrack.com)