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Superior Drummer 3 Orchestral Edition Review

Jeff Burger

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Can one percussion instrument handle both drum set and orchestral percussion well?

Toontrack’s Super Drummer 3 has evolved over the years into a complete percussion ecosystem. There are now numerous signature SDX expansion packs extending the core library with a range of kits, studios, styles and engineers.

The most uncommon of these is the Orchestral SDX, which incorporates an exhaustive range of orchestral percussion. In fact, this collection is so different from its siblings that Toontrack offers the Super Drummer 3 Orchestral Edition as a bundle.

SD3 Kit Basics

The SD3 core system is required for any of the SDX expansions. It features seven kits, 25 snares, 16 kicks, 350 drum machine sounds, and more, all recorded in Belgium’s revered Galaxy Studios by all-star engineer George Massenburg. You can swap out pieces of kit, tune them, stack them for more complex sounds, and also import your own samples.

SD3 is notable for its detail, as well as depth and breadth of sonic options. There are numerous velocity layers for each instrument (up to 25 in some cases!), often along with articulations for different areas of the drumheads or cymbals. A randomization engine helps add organic nuance to things like serial snare hits. There are even alts for sticks including brushes, rods, and mallets, offering a treasure chest of percussive options.

Moreover, Massenburg recorded all this using a formidable array of world-class mics for true audio nerd mixing flexibility all the way up to 11.1. Since the full monty can place higher demands on system resources, SD3 comes with separate installers for the room mics, basic surround mics, and height surround mics. Notably, the surround channels can be used as additional ambient mics even in regular 2-channel stereo mixes.

The orchestral percussion consists of an additional 120 instruments.

As with the core drums, Toontrack recorded the Orchestral Edition back at Galaxy Studios. Even though Massenburg wasn’t at the helm, it’s hard to imagine the recordings being any better.

The complement of instruments is so large that Toontrack divided it into two collections.

Orchestral Percussion 1 delivers staples including orchestral bass drum, toms, cymbals, as well as timpani, gongs, Japanese taiko drums, and tubular bells. Orchestral Percussion 2 consists of congos, bongos, boobams, wind chimes, shakers and—well, just about every other mounted or hand-percussion instrument you can think of. There are even whips, stomps, and finger snaps.

Where appropriate, these added sounds afford the same control as the core library, such as instrument swapping, stacking, tuning, different striking tools, and so forth. Similarly, articulations in the Orchestral Edition are over the top. As an example, there are no less than eight different MIDI notes assigned to different nuances of each bongo. If you need more than that, you probably need some professional help—whether percussive or therapeutic.

The Orchestral Edition installer lets you install just the close mics, conductor’s position, and/or the audience position, all of which can be useful in even stereo mixes. Those options are welcome, because as with SD3’s core, the various optional mic arrays can require additional processing power and disk space (nearly 300 GB total for the complete installation). You insert separate plug-ins for the core kits, Orchestral Percussion 1, and/or Orchestral Percussion 2. 

SD3’s full-featured mixer comes with a complete armada of 35 effects for processing complete drum mixes.

Depending on the options you’ve installed, you can dial in how much bleed from each of every other instrument’s direct mics you want—something that goes a long way in adding realism.

For instant gratitude, the core library features presets from Massenburg, Bob Rock, and Richard Devine. These combinations of kits, settings, and pro mix goodness span most popular styles.

The orchestral collections have fewer engineered presets—and they’re mostly dry—but that’s pretty much in keeping with the purity inherent to the genre. That said, you can always delve into sonic sculpting using the core effects.

While you can certainly route or bounce each of SD3’s instruments directly to DAW channels/tracks, mixing inside the plug-in has advantages. The professionally engineered presets are one, but with so many instruments, mic positions and bleeds, it’s quite practical to use SD3’s mixer as a percussion submix, complete with its own window.

Behind the Groove tab is a vast library of approximately 1600 MIDI phrases played by professional drummers. 

These MIDI grooves are independent from whatever SDX or drum sounds you have dialed up. Toontrack also offers an extensive library of optional MIDI groove packs, spanning a wide spectrum of styles. 

To help navigate the library, there are filters for genre, style, time signature, and other parameters. Grooves are also classified by the song section for which they’re primarily intended. The very useful Tap2Find feature even lets you use a MIDI controller to tap in a beat for SD3 to suggest library matches.

Due to the genre, the additional grooves in the Orchestral Edition are understandably less extensive than those in the core system. However, there’s plenty to be grateful for. For example, it takes just a second to grab one of several professionally played tympani rolls, compared to the time and effort it might take you to perfect one.

SD3’s Tracker function can also convert existing audio tracks into MIDI, ideal for replacing acoustic drum recordings with better ones. There are a number of controls for fine-tuning SD3’s timing interpretation, and it usually requires minimal manual editing.

Drag and drop grooves into SD3’s Song track to assemble a full tune. You can use the Song Creator function to automatically extrapolate a selected groove into a choice of common song structures.

Once a groove is in the timeline, there’s a full-featured MIDI editor for making each groove your own. Of course, you can also create your own grooves from scratch.

SD3’s MIDI editor is specifically designed for drums. Each instrument has its own clearly labeled lane, so there’s no mystery about which notes on a traditional piano roll might map to given instruments. You can even reveal sub-lanes for each articulation such as center, rim, etc. – 15 in the case of the Orchestral Editions snares, for example.

There’s plenty more to love about the dedicated editor. You can quantize with the click of one button and dial in the amount with the strength slider. In addition to a master velocity slider that preserves relative values, there’s also a dynamics control that acts as a MIDI compressor/expander. These features and more may make you rethink ever editing drums in your DAW again.

Superior Drummer 3 is a tour de force platform for anyone needing a software drummer, and its ability to expand both the instrument and groove libraries leaves no style behind.

If your productions span both contemporary and scoring work, the Orchestral Edition rounds out the core system with a roomful of classical percussion of equal caliber—saving you $99 out of the gate and falling squarely in the no-brainer department.

Websites: toontrack.com

Supported platforms: 64-bit Windows 7 or newer, Mac OS X 10.6 or higher, 64-bit Intel-based Mac (64-bit VST, AU, AAX and standalone)

Price: Superior Drummer 3 Orchestral Edition, $599; Superior Drummer 3 alone, $419; Orchestral Percussion SDX alone, $279

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