Toontrack EZDrummer 2 Review: Virtual Drums at their Best
This review is tailored towards those who are familiar with the original EZDrummer and/or people with an existing "know-how" philosophy when it comes to playing with MIDI drums. If terms like VST, DAW, or even "EZDrummer" sound completely foreign to you, feel free to skim through this (much) older hub dedicated to the original EZDrummer.
I was deeply in love with the original Toontrack EZDrummer. Seriously, it was borderline unhealthy--but I had good reasons to pursue romantic endeavors such as this. Before that wonderful virtual drum plug-in had come along into my home recording rig, my songs were plagued with the type of amateurish percussion one would expect from cheap MIDI drums: unsatisfying digital "pang," lifeless transitions, laughable breakdowns--you name it, they had it. Then after one fateful day in the spring of 2007, we crossed paths on Musicians Friend, and I purchased EZDrummer purely on impulse. I was totally hooked after figuring out how to use the software, and from that day onward my demo recordings never again suffered from overt fakeness. Yes, it was true: my digital MIDI percussion sounded like actual drum tracks. Well, they were close enough, at the very least, and in my mind (at the time) not a single piece of drumming software was capable of doing what EZ Drummer did at such an affordable price point.
Enter EZDrummer 2--introduced by developer Toontrack in March 2014, it was touted as an entirely new experience, written from the ground up with features that allegedly blew the original version completely out of the water. Given my feelings towards the original version, I naturally had to have a copy of EZDrummer 2, and had no hesitations paying the $99 upgrade premium to make it happen. I downloaded EZDrummer 2 on launch day and have spent a majority of my home recording time playing around with it, learning how to use all the new features, and integrating it with my newest batch of original recordings. After two months of non-stop use, it became absolutely apparent: EZDrummer 2 was completely worth the long wait, and it is probably the best drumming software available for less than $200.
Then again, my overall opinion is based solely on how I make music and as with anything else in the vast world of digital music creation, there is never a "one-size-fits-all" program for anything. EZDrummer 2 has a long list of extremely useful features, but they may not seem especially practical for those who need absolute and transparent flexibility with their drum track creation. While EZDrummer 2 is an affordable virtual drum option, $150 is still nothing to scoff at, and it's important to know what you're getting into before committing to any kind of purchase. To help you make that ever-so-important informed purchase, the remainder of this review will take a look at several of the new features introduced with EZDrummer 2, with a little bit of "how-to" thrown in for good measure.
Freedom from your DAW
This first thing you'll notice about EZDrummer 2 is that it is completely and absolutely useful as a stand- alone program, and this is because of one amazing key feature: the software acts as a music creation system. Opening the original version without a DAW gave users access to a deep library of MIDI grooves, but without a separate MIDI sequencer, they had nowhere to go. EZDrummer 2 introduces a built-in sequencer of its own, and to make matters even sweeter, it gives users the option to export their newly created drum tracks as WAV or MIDI file, which single-handedly eliminates the need to open it as a plug-in. Naturally, you're still going to need a DAW for the remainder of your recording sessions so this may seem like faint praise, but consider this: not all DAWs have VST support, and those that do support virtual instrumentation tend to cost a pretty penny compared to less powerful multi-track options. This also opens up the ability to dust off that old digital recording device you stashed away in the closet and completely break free of finishing your song in front of a computer, since you can easily import WAV files onto just about anything.
This isn't to suggest that EZDrummer 2 doesn't work inside a VST-friendly DAW--it most certainly does, and it works just as well as a virtual drum plug-in. The layout is identical either way, so the learning curve is going to be the same no matter how you choose to use the program. For my uses, I tend to do a mish-mash of the two methods: I typically create drum tracks with the standalone executable version of the program, save what I have, and then open EZDrummer 2 in Logic Pro X and load the saved file within the plug-in so that I can make changes if need be while recording the other tracks. It sounds a little redundant, I know, but the stand-alone EZDrummer 2 uses far less computational resources than Logic Pro X on my aging MacBook Pro, so the risk of a crash is far less likely this way.
Creating Drum Tracks Like a Boss
Now the really fun stuff: creating virtual drum tracks with EZDrummer 2. The original EZDrummer had a great collection of ready-to-use drum groove MIDI files, but as I mentioned in the last section, they didn't do anyone a whole lot of good without a separate sequencing program. The sequencer included with the new program makes up the core of EZDrummer 2, and it's so chock full of features that I could seriously ramble on about it for days. To make things easier on the both of us, I have divided this section into several sub-sections detailing several of the most useful features.
The Groove Browser
Users of the original EZDrummer will feel right at home here, since the layout of the groove browser inside EZDrummer 2 is pretty much the same, but with welcome additions. Instead of simply naming the new grooves by number, the MIDI files that come with EZ Drummer 2 are categorized by playing style and genre. Things are then broken down even further, and grooves are then divided by individual song parts: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, fills, and endings. Each song part is then given a certain number of variations, so the mix-and-match potential is high. Once a groove pattern is picked, users simply have to drag them down into the sequencer and--voila!--it appears as a MIDI block.
Searching for the Right Groove
The browser is easy enough to use, but it's not always to quickest way to find the perfect groove that your song so dearly requires, and things can quickly get out of hand when you have years of acquiring MIDI expansions under your belt. This problem is remedied by clicking on the "Search" tab and opening up the search screen. The top part of the search screen provides a six selectable criteria lists: library, genre, groove type, play style, power hand, and musical sign. Once you choose your search criteria, the remainder of the search screen populates with results, each indicating the intensity of the groove and a suggested tempo.
The search feature is a great, intuitive addition, but things get even more awesome when you factor in the "Tap 2 Find" feature on the upper left of the search screen. Clicking "Tap 2 Find" opens up an interactive drum image that allows users to play their desired beat via mouse-click (or with a MIDI controller, if that's how you roll). EZDrummer 2 then quantizes the beat and provides a list of grooves that show a percentage as to how closely they match what you're looking for. Users can also simply drag MIDI beats into the "MIDI Drop Zone" that rests directly below "Tap 2 Find" for similar results.
Once you found a groove that works for you, simply drag it into the sequencer at the bottom--just like with the browser function.
Using the Sequencer
Since you've gotten this far, it's probably safe to assume that you've figured out how to add grooves to the sequencer at the bottom of the program. If you've skimmed onto this, well, tough luck. Just kidding--either way I'm sure you'd figure it all out, considering how darn intuitive EZDrummer 2 really is. The answer is: by clicking and dragging them in! If you got it right, go ahead and buy yourself a cookie...you deserve it.
Sequencers act as the heart of any decent virtual drumming software, and the one included with EZDrummer 2 is as simple as they get. Dragging a groove into the sequencer creates a block of MIDI, and each of these blocks can be arranged to your hearts (or more specifically, to your songs) desire. You can also change the length of each MIDI block by clicking on its edge and dragging the size. To further customize the patterns of your drum track, the scissors tool to the left of sequencer allows you to splice up any given block into smaller blocks, which can then in turn be arranged within the sequencer independent of the "parent" block. If little blocks aren't your thing, you can join them together by highlighting the blocks in question, right-clicking them and choosing "merge." Once you have arranged the blocks, you can assign each individual part it's own color by right-clicking any one of the blocks and assign a "song part."
Phew! That's a lot of blocks!
Making Your Drum Parts Unique
Let's face it: no one is likely going to call you out for using a pre-made drum groove. If that was the case, then thousands of original home recording musicians would be caught and labeled as fraudulent thieves, given the ubiquitous nature of the original EZDrummer and its then-massive groove library. With that said, more often than not you'll come across times when the songs to drive the groove, and not vice versa, so pre-made virtual drum MIDI files aren't always the way to go. To remedy this situation, EZDrummer 2 includes editing features that allow users to make each individual groove their own. Editing grooves is a cinch--once a groove has been "blockified" into the sequencer, opening the "edit play style" feature by simply click on the small "up-arrow" on left part of the MIDI block. The "edit play style" screen opens up an interactive drum image that highlights the particular parts of the kit that are used in the selected groove. Clicking each part of the kit allows you to adjust how many times that piece is hit within the groove, and it also allows for adjustments to the the individual velocity. You can add or replace pieces by double clicking them and adding or removing how many times the particular piece of the kit it played. The "edit play style" screen also allows you to choose which piece of the kit is the "power hand" (the one that keeps a steady beat) by clicking the "power hand" label and dragging it to whichever piece you'd like.
While the editing abilities of EZDrummer 2 don't offer the absolute flexibility of writing a MIDI virtual drum track from scratch, chances are high that they will work splendidly well for anyone who creates music within the scope of pop and rock, especially when used in conjunction with the "Tap 2 Find" feature. Either way, if your fears of getting discovered as an "EZDrum" user tip towards a higher part of the scale, take heed in knowing that it's going to take someone with an incredibly keen ear to decipher your freshly-edited MIDI grooves as strictly pre-made fare.
Taking Shortcuts with the Song Creator
As if things weren't simplified enough, EZDrummer 2 includes yet another feature designed to streamline the songwriting process: the song creator. The song creator can be accessed by clicking the "song creator" button at the bottom right of the sequencer, and using it, is, well, this is getting pretty redundant, I do apologize--easy. The song creator rises above the sequencer once activated, and it requires you to have a MIDI groove already picked out, which shouldn't be a problem since you've already played around with the browser and search functions. Simply drag the groove into the allocated "MIDI drop zone," and EZDrummer 2 will then take the MIDI information and translate it into a variety of virtual drum song parts, each of them with their own variation. Unlike the pre-made grooves that exist within the browser, the MIDI parts created by the song creator are specifically derived from the single groove that was chosen. In other words, they are unique to the already designed genre-based grooves.
From this point, you can test out each part by clicking the play arrow assigned to each variation, and then add them to your track by dragging and dropping them into the sequencer. If speed is what you need, the "song structures" menu to the right of the song creator has pre-made arrangements that can also be dragged into the sequencer. You can then use the "edit play style" screen for each individual block to adjust the grooves to your specific needs.
Mixing it Up
As with the original version of the program, EZDrummer 2 includes a mixing window so that you can get the drums sounding exactly how you want them too. It's all pretty standard fare here; the included mixer looks suspiciously like any other mixer you have likely run into, with level indicators and panning controls for each individual piece of the kit. New to EZDrummer 2 is the inclusion of reverb and compression controls, with a little pitch adjustment thrown in for good measure. I don't tend to fiddle too much with this particular screen--the preset mixing is usually good enough for my needs. Your mileage may vary though, and playing around with settings isn't the least bit dangerous given the inclusion of a "reset mixer" command.
Something I do happen to change a lot, though, is the actual pieces of the kit being used. Changing the kit pieces is done by clicking the "drums" tab at the top of the program, which you should be familiar with given the fact that it's the default screen and thus the first one you will encounter. There are two ways to change to kit: you can change the entire kit by clicking on the drop down menu at the top right of the screen (it defaults to "basic") and choosing a kit from here, and you can also change individual pieces by clicking on the "down arrow" associated with each individual piece. The menu that pops up by clicking the "down arrow" also allows for changes in volume and pitch.
Odds and Ends
So there you have it, a breakdown of several of the key features included with the awesome EZDrummer 2. Here are some things that I didn't want to cover in too great of detail, but should nevertheless be mentioned.
- It's a VST! This was mentioned earlier, but I want to stress this point: EZDrummer 2 works as a VST within a DAW. This means that even if you don't want to use it a songwriting tool, EZDrummer 2 can still be opened up in a compatible DAW and "color" the sound of a MIDI track made from scratch.
- It's MIDI Controller Ready. EZDrummer 2 works with MIDI controllers, both as a standalone program and as a VST plug-in. It's okay if you want to get your hands dirty physically create drum beats. My Rockband 3 Controller can attest to this.
- MIDI Grooves Can be Edited Within a DAW. The MIDI creation abilities of EZDrummer 2 run pretty deep when considering all factors, but those who want absolute control can still drag the MIDI into a compatible DAW and arrange them in away way they would like.
- It's Cheaper When Purchased Elsewhere. Toontrack, the developers of EZDrummer 2, charge a bit more from their programs when buying directly from their website. Save some money and pick it from another fine online retailer.
- It's Compatible With EZDrummer Expansions. If you're like me and you've spent the past few years purchasing MIDI expansions for the original EZDrummer, take comfort in knowing that they all work with EZDrummer 2--even the EZX drum expansions.
- It's Still Not as Good as Superior Drummer. Toontrack's Superior Drummer is still considered "industry standard" virtual drum, and it costs a great deal more than EZDrummer 2. So no, it's not "better" than Superior Drummer, but for most home recording needs it's probably more than ideal.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I absolutely love EZDrummer 2. It acts as a significant evolution within the realm of at-home drum creation, and it adds features that many users will never have likely dreamed of needing, but can't live without once having them. Is it a perfect piece of software, though? Well, no. The inability to actually edit MIDI files at their core is still something I'm sure many home recording musicians would like to see, especially given the fact that a sequencer is included within the program. And while the program as a whole is incredibly intuitive to use, those who have no experience with EZDrummer in any way, shape or form may struggle to figure things out at first. It's still a wonderful program, and I for one can't wait to see what Toontrack does with the next one. Until then, though, I'm sure EZDrummer 2 will be getting years of use on this end.
Sound quality is incredible
In-depth MIDI editing can't be done solely through program
The sequencer is both easy to use and powerful
Upgrades can get costly over time
Song creator is truly revolutionary
Might be too expensive for frugal home recording musicians
It works both as a standalone executable and as a VST
There's a slight learning curve
© 2014 Sam Islam
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