Review of Fxpansion BFD2 Drum Workstation

Introduction

In the last few years there’s been a war of sorts brewing, but it’s not a war the mainstream media covers. This war is about who produces the best drum sampling solution.

With the advent of computer-based recording, the rapid advances in DAW solutions, and the subsequent explosion of home studios, musicians have been looking for acoustically-accurate drum sounds they can produce songs with. But most home studios lack both the proper equipment and the environment to record drums in. Who can afford the mics, drums, pre-amps and other necessary gear to get good drum sounds? Until recently this meant that while technology enabled small studios to compete with larger ones, drums were always a dead give-away about the quality of the recording environment. You had a choice, use precorded drum loops or do your best to produce drum tracks with the limited resources on hand.

When Toontrack released Drum Kit From Hell, a 2-disc sample CD of Meshuggah drummer Tomas Haake's massive kit, the music industry buzzed. Never before had drum samples been available to the home studio producer at such an affordable price point. Capitalizing on this excitement, Toontrack followed up with DKFH Superior and Fxpansion released the first version of BFD. Both programs provided an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy in drum sampling. Consumers asked each other which was better solution, and die-hard users on both sides lined up to support their drum instrument of choice. XLN Audio entered the fray with Addictive Drums, which had a much smaller footprint than DKFHS and BFD and offered on-board effects and a storehouse of MIDI files to boot.

2008 saw the release of both BFD2 and Superior2, the next-generation drum workstations that take off from the first versions and offer built-in effects and advanced MIDI capabilities. BFD2 was the first in this new, radically upgraded series, and the instrument has opened the door to the future of drum sampling.

Installation

The program comes on 5 DVDs, and it took about an hour and a half for me to install. The installation itself was very straightforward and I experienced no problems. There are options for a full install or lighter installations that don't use bigger kits. After installing the software, it is authorized with a challenge and response system (no dongle). After the program is loaded, it asks how you primarily use it, as a stand-alone host or a plug-in. I found this option confusing. Why should it matter whether it is stand-alone or plug-in? The samples are in the same location whether it is used for either purpose. Since most people will be using this as a plug-in in a DAW environment, I chose "plug-in".

Kit Window
kitWindowThe kit window is where, as you'd expect, you load and save kit pieces. To the left there are three checkboxes. Each of these renders a kind of "ghost" diagram that represents the size of the kit you will be editing. You can load factory-defined presets of pre-matched kits, build on those kits, or start from scratch and create your own kit.

Once a kit is loaded (or you've created your own kit), you can tweak it on the same screen. The controls on the bottom right of the window are global and affect the entire kit. The controls on the top right of the window are settings for the individual drums, hi-hats, cymbals, and other kit pieces. To edit individual drums, you select the drum you want to edit by clicking on its picture in the rows of pieces at the bottom of the window. One little nit here is that you have to have the piece you want to edit selected in the bottom of the window. It would be nice if you could just hit the drum you want to tweak and edit that way as well.

One of the things I find very frustrating about BFD2 is the lack of big kits. The kits that come with BFD2 are matched well, but limited in size - most being between 4 and 6 pieces for the drums. If you start out with a 10-piece template and switch to a larger kit because you want more drums, you have to be aware that just because you have available slots for drums doesn't mean you'll find drums that match that kit. If you want more toms for your chosen kit, you either have to load an existing tom and tune it to a different pitch or load a tom of a different size and manufacturer, which creates a kind of cobbled kit sound. I wish there were at least a few full-size kits (and by that I mean with enough sampled drums to fill all of the drum slots). FXpansion has provided a nice array of bass drums, snares, hi-hats, and cymbals, but is pretty weak in the tom department.

What I love about BFD2, though, is the tweakability of the pieces. You can adjust, on a per drum basis, everything from the amount of ambience to the amount of pitch variation and damping. You can even adjust the amount of randomness or humanization in the velocity of hits. Because the drums, particularly the snares, have an insane amount of velocity layers, the variation you can produce is simply amazing. In addition to overhead and room ambience, you can also enable bleeding between drum microphones. In short, the drums are very life-like and you have an amazing amount of control at your fingertips -- the kind of control that would take ages in a real mix environment.

Kits and Kit pieces

There are two famous kits included in BFD2, a classic Ludwig "spiral" Vistalite, once owned by Jon Bonham, and a Ludwig blue oyster kit (played by Ringo Starr on a number of Beatles albums).

Toms: DW Collector's, hi and mid toms, floor tom; Fibes, hi and mid toms, floor tom; Gretsch Dixie land, hi tom and floor tom; Ludwig Black Oyster, hi tom and floor tom; Ludwig Vistalite, mid tom and two floor toms; Orange County Maple, hi and mid toms, floor tom; Pearl Masterworks, hi and mid toms, floor tom; Porkpie, hi tom and floor tom; Rogers, hi and mid toms, floor tom; Tamburo Opera, hi and mid toms, floor tom

Bass Drums: DW Collectors, Fibes Maple, Gretsch Dixie Land, Ludwig Black Oyster, Ludwig Vistalite, Orange County Maple, Pearl Masterworks, Pork Pie, Rogers, 2 different sized Tamburo, and 2 drum machine BDs.

Snares: Ayotte and Kepplinger, Bleifus Custom, Brady Block, Craviatto Bird's eye, DW Collector's, Gretsch Dixie Land, Ludwig Black Beauty, Ludwig Black Oyster, Ludwig Supraphonic, Noble and Cooley SS Classic, Noble and Cooley Alloy Classic, Orange County vented, Pearl Masterworks, Slingerland Studio King, Tamburo Opera, Trick Aluminum, Carol tambourine, Sequential Drumtracks.

Cymbals and Hi-hats are Sabian and Zildjian. There are also cowbells, jam blocks, handclaps, a tambourine, and a cabasa.

grooveWindow

 

Built-in Sequencer

One of the new features in this version is a built-in sequencer. Though this is not a feature that I especially need, it can be useful to trigger sections live or as a composition aid. On the far right of the window is a keyboard UI. You can either load pre-existing MIDI files, which are pretty weak in terms of sophisticated programming (a necessary evil when you are allowed to create your own drum maps), or program your own patterns. Each of these patterns can then be assigned a key to trigger via MIDI. On the plus side, this makes shifting segments very easy. You can easily program various sequences and try different arrangements by simply pressing or sequencing different keystrokes. Want to quickly add a prechorus to the chorus? Just assign a pattern to a key and insert the keystroke four bars before the chorus. Another plus for this method of composition is you can load pre-defined grooves that add another dimension of humanization.

On the minus side, every key added for this purpose makes it unavailable to map a drum to. By default these keys are placed right next to the mapped drums. This is convenient, of course, but if you start out with a small kit and then add drums and cymbals, it can make mapping a nightmare, especially when you start thinking of the articulations (for example, a choke, versus a cymbal edge). My advice would be to plan ahead and set the keyzones for mapping patterns far apart from the mapped drums.

mixWindow

Mixing (or console) View and Effects

BFD2 was truly designed with flexibility in mind. As a multi-output instrument, it has sixteen mono outputs and eight stereo. You can do all your effect routing internally and just use the master outs (either in stand-alone mode or in a stereo DAW channel), you can route drums through submixes and further process those outputs, or you can run the drums without effects at all and do all your processing on the host or outboard end. For bigger kit setups, you will need to do a little planning to do the most efficient routing (using sends and auxiliary busses, for example). The possible variations are staggering. And because you can save every element in the chain -- from the kit to the mix to the groove -- once you've setup kits you love, every setting can be recalled by saving and loading your own presets.

The included effects are very good and cover the basics of good drum processing. EQ, compression, delay, flangers, filters, bit crushing, and distortion. Each of the effects has a broad range of generally useful presets. You can also load and tweak pre-configured mixing setups. The reverbs, in my opinion, aren't the greatest, but by routing the tracks to individual stereo or mono busses on the host end, you can use load your own reverbs and blend them into the mix. I've found, too, that using a BBE effect as a group insert between the drums and the master adds some serious punch and clarity.

RAM versus CPU

Early versions of BFD2 were very RAM intensive. I loaded a stock DW kit, added one more tom and one cymbal (to make the kit a 12-piece) and my DAW performance meter showed the kit was taking up 1.8 GBs of memory. The trade-off for this was CPU performance. Sequencing and playing the kit, it was taking up around 13% of system resources, which is amazing considering that I was playing a complete kit (albeit a medium-sized kit) with effects. Subsequent updates to the instrument have dramatically improved RAM use and still maintain CPU efficiency. The minimum requirement is 1 GB of RAM, but I don't think you'll be satisfied with performance at that level. You'll want to follow the recommendation and have at least 2GB available. I'd personally recommend 3GB, so if you're using a 32-bit OS, you'll want to look into adding a 3GB switch to your boot ini.

System Requirements

Minimum:

Windows XP SP1 or higher, Vista 32, P4 or better CPU (Windows)

OSX 10.4, G5 or Intel CPU (Mac)

1 GB of RAM

60 gig HD, 7200 rpm

DVD drive

Internet connection for product authorization*

Recommended:

2 GB of RAM or more

Fast, multi-core modern Intel or AMD CPU

Dedicated hard drive

VST, RTAS or AU compatible plugin host

Low latency audio interface

*Host computer does not have to be connected to the internet, there just has to be an available connection somewhere in the house for a challenge-response activation.

Some Final Thoughts

BFD2 is a very flexible and powerful drum workstation that sounds great and is fairly easy to use once you understand how everything fits together. The included effects, each with a wide array of usable presets, ensure that users have the tools to create outstanding drum sounds. Flexibility in design ensures that drum programmers are not tied to the onboard effects (or any feature that they don't want to use); it can be configured to use everything from only the master channel and routing internal effects to manually routing the drums through any of 8 stereo and/or 16 mono channels and using completely different effect chains. I can't stress enough how useful this is.

I do wish there were a few larger kits included, though. Loading multiple instances of the same tom and tuning the drums differently is a suitable workaround, but it would be better to have separate drums. My guess is that they were planning ahead for add-ons, libraries that have bigger kits, and third-party developers. I also think that the groove pallet could have been implemented better, perhaps as some sort of scene bank with an option to quickly define the lowest note and note range for the scenes. This would be especially useful, for example, if a performer wanted to control the sequences via a pad-based MIDI controller. It would also be nice to have a more robust MIDI groove implementation. This is difficult given the variety of mapping drums, but there could be some sort of auto-remap of the pieces included in the kit so that the grooves could take advantage of the wide range of possible articulations.

Having said this, the sound of the instrument is light years ahead of the earlier version, and I have a feeling that version three will work through some of the UI issues. I don't know how BFD2 compares to Superior2, but BFD2 is a sophisticated, mature instrument that is well suited to creating very realistic drum tracks.

There is an upgrade path available for BFD1 users, and you can load and use kits from that version as well as version 2.

8 out of 10 stars

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About The Author

Steve Mueske (müesk) is an electronic musician and poet from the Minneapolis area of the American Midwest. His two albums include "Hello Cruel World" and "Eventual." The author of a chapbook and two collections of poetry, he can be found online on Twitter: @SteveMueske For those who would like to support his efforts to release music free of charge, click on his Patreon page icon on the left or go to http://www.patreon.com/muesk

If I don't practice for one day, I know it;if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it.”
Ignacy Paderewski