digitalDrummer checks whether a drum machine can be deployed as a module.
We are seeing more and more MIDI controllers in the market – instruments like the trapKAT and Zendrum, as well as multipad offerings like the Avatar PD705. These devices need a sound source – or a better sound source than the stock version.
Options to date have ranged from drum modules to VSTs, but both can be costly and complicated.
At the same time, access to multi-layer drum samples is increasing, and with a couple of third-party tools out there, it’s possible to generate fantastic samples relatively cheaply and easily.
Both Zendrum and Alternate Mode have offered dedicated sound modules for their instruments – the StompBlock for Zendrum and the gigKAT for trapKATs – and both work well.
However, e-drummers are notorious tinkerers, always looking for alternative solutions.
A new option
It all started with California e-drummer Andrew Sisco who shared his experience with a BeatBuddy on the Zendrummers Facebook group.
Sisco augmented his StompBlock with a BB to “add a ‘B’ kit or extra/alternative sounds that can be panned in and out”.
Indiana Zendrummer Patrick Petro took Sisco’s advice onboard and added a BB to his rig, and wasn’t disappointed.
“No noticeable latency with triggering. Works flawlessly with my ZDS shifter Pro. And the sounds of the included kits are absolutely incredible. I also purchased a couple of additional kits which were not at all expensive and sound really freaking great. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with this decision,” he wrote.
Interestingly, e-drum pioneer John Emrich, who produced a sample pack for the StompBlock, is now “100% in” on the BB.
So, what is the BB and how does it work with e-drums?
What’s in the box
BeatBuddy is a “drum machine pedal”. It delivers “authentic, studio-quality drum beats” spanning more than 220 styles and 24 genres.
The beat generation function is probably irrelevant to 99% of the digitalDrummer audience. We don’t need drum machines because we ARE drum machines!
But the beauty of the little box is its 24-bit studio-grade sound and the ability to add a huge number of drum samples via an accessible SD card.
The BB ships without a power supply (standard 9 V pedal source required), but you do get a small preloaded SD card (which you will need to upgrade if you plan on adding a lot of samples). What is also not included is the MIDI Adapter Cable which you’ll need to connect to your trigger device. Instead of using a standard five-pin MIDI port, BB has opted for a PS/2 port, so you’ll need the dedicated cable, which, at around $30, is not cheap – especially since there are no-name versions on eBay for a fraction of the price. However, I didn’t want to take a chance that the generics have the correct wiring configuration.
When you buy a BB, you also get access to a couple of handy software tools – for arranging samples and for loading them onto the SD card.
For this review, we ignored all the beat creation functionality and focused purely on the MIDI to audio capability.
In theory, the BB should be plug and play with your MIDI controller. The first step, obviously, is to connect the MIDI Out from your instrument to the BB using the adapter cable.
Then, you’ll need to check that you’re outputting MIDI on Channel 10.
On the BB, you’ll have to choose from one of the 10 stock kits and, in theory, you should be good to go. The kits range from a standard rock kit to jazz, brushes, Latin, percussion and dance kits.
I tested the BeatBuddy primarily with a Zendrum, starting with the stock kits. I initially connected via a ZDS Shifter which both powers the Zendrum and also acts as USB interface, which makes it easier to edit the Zendrum settings using a computer.
The mapping on one of my Zendrum User Programs was pretty accurate, so I simply edited that to match the default BB map.
When I started playing, the first thing that became apparent was the need to get my head around the drum machine commands even though I had no intention of using the BB’s inbuilt accompaniment. Alas, if you tap the wrong part of the box inadvertently, you start a loop – and that would be disastrous under certain circumstances, so it’s important to know how to stop it!
In practice, all you’ll need is the Drum Set dial, where you select the kit you want to use and push to load.
The BB is equipped with a 1/8” headphone jack (with independent volume control) and two ¼” audio outs (left and right) – as well as two audio inputs, which is useful for play-alongs or backing tracks. Overall output level is controlled with the Volume dial.
As Sisco and Petro have noted, the stock sounds are very good. Given the number of solo musicians using BBs to back their performances, the sounds are clearly gig-worthy.
The stock kits include a kick, two snares (head and xstick), four toms, open and closed hi-hat plus foot splash, ride bow and bell, a couple of crashes, two splashes, a cowbell and a tambourine.
That’s quite a lot of instruments if you consider that there’s a 100 MB limit per kit.
That limit means the programmers have had to be super-smart in allocating the samples – hence, if you look at the root files, you’ll see as few as four samples for the splashes and up to 15 for the snares. (More about this later).
The Zendrum has an impressive dynamic response, and even with this limited sample pool, the BB produced excellent sounds with the stock kits. It was almost impossible to spot machinegunning, even when attempting to hit with constant force.
In short, it was possible to allocate sufficient samples across my 24 triggers to play full, rich drum tracks, complete with cowbell, shakers and handclaps.
One of the reasons drummers choose MIDI controllers is sonic versatility. After all, MIDI enables you to tap into almost limitless sound potential, especially with the plethora of sample offerings in the market.
To make the most of those opportunities, e-drummers can use the free BB Manager tool. Available for both Windows and Mac, the software allows you to edit the stock kits and create new ones, including kits using your own samples.
Compared to the sample loading apps I’ve used in the past, BB certainly looks and feels “old school”. It’s almost like an Excel spreadsheet – unlike the visually appealing and intuitive 2box Sound Editor, one of the first and, in my opinion, still one of the best tools of its type.
BB Manager doesn’t look like a 21st century program, and the developers admit they’re working on improvements, but it does the job for now.
But before you even use the tool, you need to carefully plan how you can best use the 100 MB kit limit. For example, do you need a cowbell, shaker and handclaps? If not, that can free up 5 or 6 MB that can be better deployed for snare samples, for example.
Then you need to consider how many velocity levels and how many round robins you would like for each instrument.
BB Manager doesn’t have a specific round robin option, but instead allows you to allocate samples to velocity ranges. And users can determine the ranges themselves. For example, you could allocate one sample to each MIDI velocity level (0-127) or you can assign them to designated velocity bands (0-19; 20-39; 40-59, for example). When you import the .wav samples, you can allocate as many or as few as you like to each velocity level or band. BB then cycles through the samples at each velocity. Note, however, that there is a limit of 15 samples per instrument.
Unfortunately, the process of importing and allocating samples is very labour intensive, with a lot of dragging and dropping required. If the developers only do one thing, my request would be to automate the sample loading – as we do with the mimicPRO editor.
So, it doesn’t look pretty and it’s not particularly intuitive, but the BB Manager does allow you to import samples relatively easily when you understand the process and workflow and if you have done some prep before starting.
I created a couple of kits from VST plug-ins (using Xtractpler to generate the .wav files) and stacked the snares with multiple velocity bands and extra round robins around the middle layers. I also limited the number of kick drum and crash samples – with no noticeable impact on the overall sounds.
When I started this review, it felt a bit like buying a Ferrari just to check out the airconditioner. As an e-drummer, I have no use for 90% of the functionality of the BeatBuddy; but unfortunately, it’s not possible to buy just the 10% that drummers would need.
However, once I got started, it became apparent that the parts I needed were good enough to overlook the rest of the Ferrari.
The BB is easy to use and produces excellent sounds right out of the box (if you buy the appropriate add-on cable).
The stock kits are versatile enough for most common musical genres – including metal, jazz and world percussion.
And if the included sounds don’t suit your needs, BB offers additional kit packs from as little as $8, covering a huge range of music styles from a Phil Collins ‘80s kit to a dedicated mallets kit. There’s also a very active forum where users share their kits and samples for free, adding even more options.
But more importantly, the hardware comes with usable (if at times frustrating) software that allows you to load your own samples and create your own kits.
Yes, there are limitations, like the 100 MB file restriction, but with some thought and planning, you can work around that.
Functionally, the BB is pretty much plug and play, even though it is not designed for the Zendrum ecosystem in the way the StompBlock was.
It also can’t power your Zendrum as the StompBlock does.
But it does have more audio output options, independent headphone monitoring and a Mix In option for backing tracks.
It also has an easily accessed SD card, as opposed to the micro-SD encased inside the StompBlock.
The BB also allows drummers to access almost unlimited kits on the fly – significantly more than you could get from the StompBlock which holds just 128 instrument samples.
Price wise, the BB, at $379, is cheaper than the Zendrum option which retails for $499 (plus shipping). And if that’s beyond your budget, keep an eye on the BB website because they do offer refurbished units from time to time, often at half the price of a new one – and with full warranty. The BB software is free, as is the basic online StompBlock editor, but you’ll really need the Zendrum Restomp app ($60) to do any serious editing or to add your own samples.
So, all up, this Buddy is hard to beat!