Superior Drummer 3 Might Be the Most Human Sounding Drum Machine Ever Created

The history of home music recording is a timeline of increasingly realistic drum sounds. The original cassette four-track era of the 1980s coincided with the debut of Roland’s cheesy-sounding  TR-606  and CR-78 (the latter was the tiny sounding drum machine before Phil Collins’ real kit thunders into 1981’s “In The Air Tonight”). By the end of the 1980s, affordable drum machines such as Alesis’ HR-16 were using digital samples of real drum hits. The following decade saw software versions of the classic drum machines, plus the birth of Sonic Foundry’s Acid drum loops (later acquired by Sony), which used recordings of professional drummers in high-quality recording studios. These can be tempo-synced and are highly editable. However, Acid drum loops become increasingly “swimmy” sounding when played at tempos much below the tempo of the drummer during the original recording.

Real drums are the toughest instrument to record in home studio due to both mechanics of amateur drummers, and the wide frequency range of the instrument. Because the drum kit ranges from a kick drum producing 60 hertz to cymbals generating over three kilohertz, how well a professional studio records drums is in many ways its sonic signature. When I built my home studio, it was designed in anticipation that I wouldn’t be recording real drums, with the exception of small hand percussion such as tambourines and shakers.

Instead, I’ve been relying on Acid loops for the drums on my home recordings since the early 2000s. That is until Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 came along. The first version of Superior Drummer debuted in 2005, followed three years later by version 2. The third iteration of Superior Drummer, which streets for $399, debuted last fall. It ships with a 230 GB of drum samples, a mammoth collection which is fortunately available on a separate hard drive, an option I highly recommend for all but those with the very fastest Internet connections.

So What Does It Sound Like?

Those drum samples, representing a variety of kits, were recorded by Grammy award-winning producer-engineer-studio designer George Massenburg in Belgium’s high-end Galaxy Studios. The kits also feature a variety of optional acoustic environments, ranging from the very dead Al Green-style drum sounds of the early 1970s, to an extremely ambient-sounding oversized kit called simply “John,” named after Led Zeppelin’s legendary drummer John Bonham:

“John” brilliantly recreates the enormous drum sound that he, Jimmy Page and engineer Andy John crafted while recording “When the Levee Breaks” at Hampshire, England’s Headley Grange, as Page explained in the 2009 documentary It Might Get Loud:

Superior Drummer 3 ships with a wide variety of MIDI loops, and many more are available for downloading from Toontrack. Superior Drummer 3 will also play loops that Toontrack created for their EZ Drummer software and is backwards compatible with Superior Drummer 2 loops.

MIDI loops give Superior Drummer 3 an enormous advantage over Acid-style loops.  The former allows for a much wider range of usable tempos, whereas Acid loops begin to generate increasingly noticeable artifacts (that “swimmy” sound) when played at tempos slower than their intended use. However,  anyone used to rifling through a directory of Acid drum loops to find a pattern to begin a song will be right at home with Superior Drummer’s directory of MIDI loops, and how they can be pasted together and edited to create patterns for verses, choruses, drum fills, and cymbal crashes. Editing these loops while still in MIDI format is often easier than slicing and dicing Acid loops and pasting in one shot cymbal crashes and flams. Additionally, Superior Drummer 3 has an adjustable “randomize” function built in, to add subtle inflections on drum hits, since in real-life a human drummer cannot hit his kit with precisely the same force on every beat.

The Replacements

Superior Drummer 3 also has tracking software built-in, which makes it an extremely useful tool for replacing drums recorded in an inferior room, and/or when a drummer is forced to use electronic drums while playing with his band, as Sound on Sound magazine’s October 2017 review notes, under the subhead, “Replacement Therapy:”

Superior Drummer has always excelled in the creation of a complete drum performance from scratch with no actual drummer required. However, in SD3, it can also perform another valuable role: drum replacement. This functionality is contained within the Tracker screen, and I think it is fair to say that Toontrack have knocked it right out of the park first time with this brand-new element.

The process starts by simply dragging and dropping your own multitrack drum recordings into the Tracker window (just use the main, close mics, for the clearest and cleanest drum/transient identification). Tracker then uses some very sophisticated AI-based algorithms, first to identify the type of drum (kick, snare, hi-hat, tom and so on) that dominates each track and, second, to detect the transients for that drum sound while ignoring transients from other sounds that have bled into that track. Having tried this with a few multitrack drum recordings of my own, I was very impressed with the results that SD3 achieved without any intervention on my part and, in particular, by how well the algorithm handles multiple hi-hat articulations and captures the playing dynamics of the original performance.

A Few Minor Drawbacks, Not Least of Which, SD3 Won’t Party Like Keith Moon

I did find a few minor drawbacks while using Superior Drummer 3 with Cakewalk’s Sonar Platinum (now Cakewalk by Bandlab). As with learning any new GUI, there’s the initial learning curve. Superior Drummer’s workflow is very intuitive, and while I’m someone who hates learning new interfaces, I quickly got the gist of things.

The normal Windows ctrl-X and control-V commands to cut and paste loops aren’t present in SD3, which takes a bit of getting used to. And I wish the loops had the same feature that Acid loops have, where a single loop can be dragged to infinity to lay down say, 48 bars to get started jamming on a song. Barring that, I wish SD3 had the command that Cakewalk’s Sonar has, to specify say, pasting a bar of MIDI 48 times. However, a neat function of SD3 is the ability specify a drum pattern can be looped, which makes it easy to find a pattern as a starting point, and then jam on top of it, until enough of a song structure is established, at which point, the looped pattern can be replaced with much more finely edited drums. Also, at least in Sonar, Superior Drummer 3 won’t allow you to go backwards in the timeline within its GUI. That must be done using the DAW’s transport controls. This take a little bit of getting used to, and can be frustrating when wanting to fine tune a small section of music, but it become relatively intuitive after a while.

When it comes time to mix down a completely song, while it’s possible to output the drums from within Superior Drummer, for stability and allowing maximum computer processing power available to effects plugins, I always render all of the material from software synthesizers and virtual instruments such as Superior Drummer 3 as audio tracks. This also helps to ensure that recordings are still playable even if a DAW, software synthesizer, or virtual instrument has been upgraded, possibly making a previous version unusable. Superior Drummer 3’s mixer allows most instruments to be isolated to be recorded as individual audio tracks for maximum flexibility in terms of mixing and effects, except, as far as I can tell, its virtual cymbals. I ended up temporarily deleting other instruments in the kit to output a set of isolated cymbals, and the hitting undo in SD3 to restore the rest of the kit.

Still though, these are all minor complaints. In addition to being an inspiring practice tool – would you rather play to a great sounding drummer, or a clicking metronome? — Superior Drummer 3 is a powerful program for anyone wishing to have great sounding real drums, with perfect timing, in their project studio.