Slate’s evolution

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 12:17 pm

It’s been five years since the release of Steven Slate Drums 4 – and in that time, we have seen huge leaps forward among its competitors. So there has been a lot of pent-up expectation about SSD5, heightened by early word of its “release soon” dating back to 2015.

Well, it’s finally here and the big question is “was it worth the wait”? Allan Leibowitz checked it out.


What’s in the box?

As is becoming commonplace these days, there is no “box”: SSD5 is a 14 GB download that transferred quite quickly, even with my third-world Internet connection.

Installation was fairly straight-forward, and while Slate uses the much-detested iLok licensing system, it is possible to authorise your copy without having to splash out on a dongle. For me, the irritation is not the cost of the iLok hardware; it’s giving up a USB port on my two-port MacBook Pro that’s annoying. Anyway, that is no longer an issue – and SSD5 gets a tick for that.

Given the advanced VSTs out there now, Slate had two choices – join in the race for the flashiest GUI and the most powerful standalone host or “take another path”. They opted for the latter, keeping SSD5 as a hosted instrument with the same look and feel as its predecessors. Where they have aimed their efforts was at the sounds!

While it’s billed as an “All New User Interface Built from the Ground Up”, SSD5 looks remarkably like SSD4 – some would say that’s a good thing as past users will know exactly how to make the most of the new sounds and other enhancements lurking below.


The sounds

The new offering boasts about two dozen new Deluxe 2 kits and scores of enhanced versions of the kits from the previous SSD4 packs.

The new Deluxe 2 drum library has more than 50 new instruments including 10 new kicks, 10 new snares and a few percussion instruments. All the drums are unique and have two stereo room layers each. 

In total, the pack has 84 kicks, 77 snares, 58 toms, 11 hi-hats, six rides, 14 crashes, four splashes, three Chinas, nine percussion sounds and four effects sounds – but no partridge in a pear tree. There are no brushes, rods or mallet articulations – if those are important to you. You won’t find a Latin kit either. But SSD5 is a vast collection by any standard and should meet most needs. 

All the kits use a new “physically modelled drum playback algorithm”. I compared the SSD4 and SSD5 versions of a number of kits and found the new ones to feel and sound far more “natural”. In their raw stock form, the drums and cymbals seemed more subtle and less harsh than the previous incarnation, although the plethora of editing options made it easy to emulate the “original” sounds.

The new plug-in also adds new articulations like tom rim clicks for an even broader sonic palette.


Digging deeper

Most e-drummers will probably load kits, mess with some individual instrument volumes and get on with playing. And to that end, the new SSD5 offers plenty of kits for most genres – and all of them sound pretty damn good right out of the box. But if you venture into the Mixer screen, there are a host of options which can make a huge difference. For example, I was enjoying one of the new kits with stock presets before I boosted the overhead (OH) mic and the room mics, and the sound suddenly took on an extra dimension – full, detailed and resonant. And that was before I even tucked into the four snare mic options, or the attack and sustain.

Anyone with any sound design experience will instantly be at home with the instrument screen, where you refine the sounds of individual drums and cymbals – altering the pitch, panning and individual volume. There is quite a wide pitch range, so if you wanted to create an array of several toms with regular tone spaces, you can easily dial them in and they sound totally natural.

There are a lot of features which will appeal to producers and tinkerers and which probably escape the attention of those of us who want to connect our drum module, select the appropriate MIDI preset (and yes, it does have a mimicPRO preset as well as common Roland, Alesis and Yamaha maps), choose a kit and start playing.

For example, you can now grab a bunch of mixers and adjust parameters of different mics simultaneously. I can see some more enlightened users really digging into the enhanced shaping section where they can adjust the attack, release, delay and sustain to emulate transient shapers and compressors. In the right hands, these tools further expand the possibilities with this VST pack – far beyond the vast array of stock kits and instruments.


Overall

The recent spate of next-generation VSTs has raised the bar – and the expectations for SSD5. I will admit I was initially disappointed to see what looked like a minor cosmetic update of the last Slate offering. But appearances are deceptive. Rather than investing in a new stand-alone engine or showy 3D representations of kits, the Slate team focused on two main areas – improved, realistic and dynamic sounds and easy-to-use tools to shape and customise them. And there was probably another focus: keeping the product affordable. Where the other VSTs have grown in Gigabytes and dollars, SSD5 was launched at the very reasonable price of $149, with owners of previous versions able to upgrade for less than $100. There’s even a fully functional free version – featuring one of the new Deluxe 2 kits.

Of course, you’ll need a host or DAW to use SSD5, and I got great results with Reaper (available to try for free) and the popular Logic Pro X.

If you’re after flashy graphics and ultra-sophisticated tweaking, SSD5 will probably not be your first choice. But if you’re interested in great sounds and flexible editing with an easy learning curve, you’ll have to look far and wide for more bang for your buck than you get with SSD5. I was surprised and impressed – and that’s not something that happens often these days.