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XLN Audio AD & ADpak Retro

Jan 25, 2008 - by sleepless
As a newcomer in the little world of drum samplers and to distance itself from BFD, Battery, DFH, EZDrummer, Groove Agent, Strike and other rhythm "boxes", XLN Audio has designed Addictive Drums as a complete solution, offering high-quality samples, a huge MIDI grooves library and a complete mixing-producing environment. Addictive Drums allows the user to handle drums sounds and sequences, while always working in one and only one interface, with a quality, an ergonomy and an ease of use which have certainly made people jealous, then give them some ideas. BFD2 and DF2 have been clearly influenced by the Addictive Drums concept, which was itself coming from BFD and DFH one's. Seems like things have come full circle...
The editor has just released the first extension pack for Addictive Drums (AD, from now on in this review), the ADpak Retro, together with the 1.1 update, whose main novelty is the extension support. Let's review them!
    Review specs
    Addictive Drums 1.1 & ADpak Retro
    (XLN Audio)

    Mac PPC G5 2 x 2 GHz
    OS 10.5.1
    4 GB RAM
    Logic Pro 8.0.1
    RME HDSP Multiface
    AD is a Mac (10.4 and 10.5, G5 minimum) and PC (XP and Vista, PIV 2 GHz minimum) plug-in, AU, VST and RTAS compatible host applications (no standalone, alas). You'll authorize the plug by challenge/response. AD comes with a 1.82 GB sample and MIDIfile library, ADpak Retro with a 953.7 Mo library. The installer installs the libraries on the system disk. You may want to change their locations; there you'll need to make a symbolic link of the folder, because a simple alias doesn't work.

    The software is divided into three parts. From left to right, the top section groups together the loading indicator, the preset selection and save menus, the AD logo displays a classic "About page", then you'll find six buttons: Play, four Page Select and Help (brings up manual, Key mapping, link to the editor site, etc.). The lower part is the Mixer section. There you'll find eight mono channels for the instruments, BD, Snare, HiHat, Xtra (named CowBell before 1.1 update) and four Toms. Then you have two stereo channels, Overhead (two mics over the kit), Room (two mics to capture the room sound) and a stereo Bus, a convenient way to do parallel compression or other sound treatments, then the stereo Master.

    Each channel has its select button, Pan, fader and several other buttons. Ins activate the insert effects, FX allows to send the signal to two stereo reverbs, then you'll find the usual Mute, Solo, phase reverse and Routing, which send the signal to its factory implemented separated output. Yes, AD can work as a multi-output instrument, with, guess what, eight mono and four stereo outputs. Thanks to the 1.1 update, you can now use the multi-outs in Logic Pro 8.
      The central part named Page section displays successively the Kit Page, where you'll see the loaded kit (there are 126 presets in AD, and 77 in Retro), the Edit page (one per instrument), the FX page and the Beats page. The Kit page displays the 18 KitPieces (KPs), in which you load the kit instrument. Sadly, they are factory assigned, meaning you can't load a snare in a tom KP, for instance. Each KP has same parameters: L, for Load, which brings up the KitPiece List window where you'll be able to listen the instruments before loading (nice function, a true time-saver), E for Edit, which opens up the... Edit page, Mute, Solo, a volume fader (with a slightly magnetic step on the 0dB, bravo!) and two arrows which allow to load the elements without opening the KP List window.

      If you click the kit element image in a KP, you can hear its sound at all velocities (play from the bottom of the picture to the high). There's way more articulations than the one you'll hear in the KP. As for the mapping, XLN Audio hasn't been able to make it GM compatible: the only way to hear all of them is to trigger them by MIDI notes (keyboard, sequence, e-drum, etc.). If you want to use a e-drum, you'll need to create a specific drum map, a function that almost all DAWs are capable of. A llitle detail: with the 1.1 update, you can now choose from different plug-in backgrounds (different drum kits).
      There's a lot of different strokes for each element: eight for snares, twelve for HiHats, eight for the Toms, etc. with alternating sample. Thus, you can make realistic rolls and paradiddles, without the infamous "machine gun" effect. I just regret that you have only one MIDI note (C1, as usual) for the bass drum: you can have more realism when using two or three notes to play fast figures, or to have different velocities.

        Kits galore
        AD offer three kits: a Sonor Designer (Kick, Snare, 5 toms), a DW Collector's Series (Kick, Snare, 5 toms) and a Tama Starclassic (Kick, Snare, 3 toms). There's also separate elements: 2 Pearl snares, a Signature Ferrone and a Masterworks Piccolo, a Pearl Masterworks kick and 2 LPs cowbells.
        Cymbalwise, you'll find only Sabian and Paiste, with 3 Hihats, 4 Rides, 9 Crashes, 3 Splashes and 2 Chinas.
        The ADpak Retro adds 3 Ludwig kits, a Black Oyster (Kick, Snare, 3 toms), a Blue Oyster (2 Kicks, 2 Snares, 4 Toms) and a Vistalite (2 Kicks, Snare, 4 toms). And 4 HiHats, 2 Rides, 5 Cymbals, 3 Cowbells, 3 Tambourines and Handclap.
        You may want to listen to AD kitpieces HERE, and to Retro kitpieces HERE.
        The Edit page is the core of AD. That's where you'll make all the sonic modifications, all the FX treatments, given that XLN Audio has done things on the grand scale. Thanks to a lot of parameters and effects, you can transform virtually any factory kit into another, from tight and sharp Steely Dan kits to experimental delirium la Mike Patton, from jazz softness (sadly, there are no brushes) to Jon Brion's hyper-acoustic sound.
        In the upper row, the KP is back, in what is called the Sampler. There you'll set the Overhead and Room volume and their respective Pan (reversible). Then you can modify the sample (kit element) Pitch, and add an envelope and velocity response to these modifications. Last of these first modifiers, an ADSR envelope and a filter (20Hz to 20kHz).
        Kick and Snare have a balance setting between the mics used for their recordings (respecteively Beater/Front and Top/Bottom). The snare drum also has a parameter named Buzz, which emulates the sound of the snare wires vibrating when the kick or toms are played. Each KP has its own insert effects : Compressor (with AutoGain), a 3-band parametric EQ, a Distortion with four algorithms (with selection of the frequency range to be distorted), then a brickwall limiter with soft clipping and a master volume. The Bus and Master benefit exactly from the same effects, plus a tape sat emulation and a filter.

        All these effects are high-quality, as XLN Audio has partnered with PSP Audioware to create them. Usually, when you have effects included in virtual instruments, either they are cheap sounding or too CPU hungry, in both cases unusables. Here they are as good and as optimized as the best you can find included in VIs, but surely not as good as some top-notch external plugs. But they do a pretty convincing job of completing their mission: ameliorate or drastically modify the sound of the included drum elements. Maybe two wishes for an update: a delay and different compressor topologies.

          Time to go to the FX page, which includes two reverbs. They have both the same settings : four algorithms (Ambience, Room, Hall and Plate), PreDelay, RT60, Damping, 2-banbd parametric EQ, Volume, Pan and Pre or Post Master Effects. When you click on the Edit button in the Send FX section, two send sliders appear on top of each channel, making Send visual monitoring easy. As AD can be extremely inspiring to make strange sounds from simple drum elements, it could have been nice to have a Pre- and Post-fader setting for the reverbs, in order to choose the balance between dry and wet sound, not to say no dry sound at all. The only solution to achieve this is to use multi-outputs and to turn down the fader on the instrument channel in the host.

          Evereything can be set with the mouse and mouse wheel (no access by alphanumeric pad). The automation is almost complete, but there's sadly no MIDI learn for the missing assignations. Having said that, AD has an ergonomy beyond reproach, no clics or artefacts when you manipulate or automate settings, and there's a lot of shorcuts to go from a section to another. For example, if you click on the little MIDI icon, the pages of an instrument will open up each time you send its MIDI note. There's also two C and P buttons, for copying/pasting whole settings from a KP to another. And even from an AD to another...
          Such possibilities usually imply lots of CPU. XLN Audio surely has done an excellent job of optimizing CPU usage in AD: a basic pattern, with sends on the two reverbs and insert effects for each instrument and bus (52 insert effets...) makes the CPU monitor in Logic jumps to a third of only one CPU. Until now, functionalities, ergonomy, richness of settings, everything deserves "magna cum laude".

            Beats, the page dedicated to MIDI patterns offers a file browser with several filters: by library (where you discover there are four empty slots...), by category, rhythmic signature, factory or user patterns, beats or fills. Sadly you can't enter words in the dedicated field when using AD in Logic. It seems that Apple's DAW "steels" the keyboard action. But it works in other hosts (Peak, Live, DSP Quattro, etc.). The browser itself allows to class the grooves bundles by Name, Category, BPM, Signature or numbers of Bars.
            A Favorites folder will exempt you from scrolling in the never-ending list of grooves, a player allows to immediately listen to the patterns, at their own tempo or synced to the host one's. You'll find mainly pop and rock patterns, with a few examples of jazz, funk, reggae and metal groove. Retro adds Motown, Rock 60's, Rock'n'Roll and Heavy Rock styles.
            With more than 4 000 patterns, you have great chances to find the one you're looking for, into the stylistic limits already mentioned. If the loop isn't exactly to your taste, but could be a good start to build something else, then just drag'n'drop it into the host, to AD track and edit the MIDI datas.

              If AD offers modern kits, Retro, as its name implies, is dedicated to vintage drums, with kits made famous by John Bonham, Ringo Starr or Keith Moon. Hence the huge bass drums (24x16 or 26x14), dull sounding toms (the "cardboard" sound...), snare drums with lots of wires, but without the high harmonics that are the nowadays sonic signature. HiHats are a bit "squashed", with a narrow spectrum content, and two models have the typical tambourine on top of the sliding rod. The Cymbals are long, detailed, and played as were AD Cymbals: normal, on the bell, or as if they were crashes. Chokes are particularly accomplished, with their action according to the velocity of the cymbal stroke.
              Enough talk, let's listen to some audio samples.

              Here is the factory Vistalite preset.

              Thanks to pitch, effects and envelopes, this Vistalite has now a very tight and kind of dull sound.

              As this one, sounding even lower, but still in the West Coast 1970's mood.

              When going to the extremes, you can produce that, where you don't really know what you're hitting...

              Now it's the Ludwig Black Oyster, as says the editor, which "mimics the setup of legendary drummer John Bonham".

              Same kits, with some tweakings, parallel compression and reverbs.

              The Vistalite Compressed preset.

              A Motown groove played by a "used" Ludwig Blue Oyster...

              Same groove, this time with a Black Oyster, strongly muffled.

              The Ludwig Black Oyster with a contemporary snare, a Pearl Signature Steve Ferrone.

              The Ludwig Black Oyster Dry preset.

              A kit without snare's Buzz.

              Same kit with snare's Buzz.

              Another sonic traffic, with a kind of echo made by reverb predelay.
                If AD sounds can't compete in terms of details with BFD(1 and2) or DFH sounds, they're definitely equal or superior to EZdrummer's or other softwares. Its all-in-one concept allows AD to be a complete sounddesigning and producing station dedicated to drum sounds and parts, without having to open lots of tracks and plugs in the host software. All the more so as the quality and versatility of the effects allow to be really creative.
                XLN Audio has made a terrific job of optimizing its plug, as regards ergonomy, which is beyond reproach. Loading times are good for a sample-based instrument, AD has never crashed or make crashed Logic et CPU handling is also quite good. There's some things to fix, and we are personnaly waiting for MIDI Learn implementation, creation of mixer presets and effects presets, as well as new sample libraries. Brushes or unusual kits will be welcome. Competitors are doing great products as regards these kind of libraries, and they do it fast... Some categories of sounds (i.e other great drum manufacturers) could also be included. Last, the groove library has to open to all the numerous drum styles, from Europe, Africa, South America, etc.
                However, AD is a recent product, and its first version was already a mature version. So it can only progress and get better and better. Its big advantages are its extreme simplicity, its stability, its own sonic color, its all-in-one concept (even if you can use it as a multi-out instrument for more sophisticated results) and its groove library. A solution that surely can be seen as an ideal complement, to open to other sonic horizons. And above all, a solution that can be the one and only you'll need.


                Addictive Drums and ADpak Retro are XLN Audio products.
              About the author: sleepless
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