NATIVE INSTRUMENTS BATTERY
By Len Sasso
A percussion section is sometimes called a battery. Native Instruments’ Battery puts a percussion section on your desktop, and in this case, the batteries are definitely included. Battery comes with 20 Kits (more than 600 MB of percussion samples) covering a broad range of styles. In addition to its own Kits, Battery can load Kits in Akai, LM-4, LoopAZoid, Reaktor, and SoundFont2 formats. Software-sample players, percussion-oriented ones in particular, are not exactly in short supply these days. But Battery stands apart from the crowd in its ease of use, its thoughtfully designed user interface, and its extensive real-time sample processing. You can download a limited demo version of Battery from the company’s Web site.
Battery includes standalone and VST Instrument plug-in versions. Because the standalone version does not provide a MIDI-file player or hard-disk recorder, it’s mainly useful for studio sequencing, live performance, and Kits setup. Used with a percussion controller and a well-endowed laptop computer, Battery is certainly gig ready. The plug-in version is better suited for use in a desktop studio because there, the audio can be kept in the digital domain and Battery can be more accurately synchronized to other MIDI and audio tracks.
Sound quality and latency — the vital issues with any software synthesizer or sample player — depend on the CPU’s speed and the quality of the audio card and its drivers. For this review, I tested the standalone and VST versions on a Mac G3/300 MHz. I used the built-in Sound Manager audio as well as an Emagic AW8 audio card. The VST host was Logic Audio 4.7. I experienced low latency and excellent sound quality in all configurations. Because the samples are held in RAM, a large chunk of memory is required to load some of the bigger Kits. I had to assign 128 MB to the standalone version and 192 MB to Logic Audio to load the largest Kit.
Battery ‘s user interface consists of a single screen. Fifty-four pads, called Cells, are arranged in a six-row-by-nine-column configuration called the Matrix. Each Cell can hold as many as 128 samples, called Layers, which can be Velocity switched, Velocity crossfaded, or simply layered (played simultaneously).
The Matrix arrangement of Cells facilitates two useful operations: drag-and-drop copying, swapping, and rearranging of samples and Cell muting and soloing. Drag and drop is supported from the computer desktop as well as within the Matrix. From the desktop, you can grab any number of AIFF or WAV files and drag them to any Cell in the Matrix. Multiple samples are automatically distributed throughout consecutive Cells.
From within the Matrix, you can drag and drop individual Cells as well as whole rows and columns. You can choose what Cell data is to be dragged: everything, everything but MIDI data, just MIDI data, or a specific section of Cell parameters. Furthermore, dragging within the Matrix can copy the source to the destination or swap the two, the only minor inconvenience being that you have to change Options settings rather than toggle between drag modes with a key command. Battery ‘s drag-and-drop features make creating, rearranging, and combining Kits an absolute breeze.
Each Matrix Cell has its own Mute and Solo button. Soloing a Cell temporarily mutes all other Cells. Multiple Cells can be soloed, and any previous muting is restored once soloing is deactivated on all Cells. Rows and columns have their own Mute and Solo buttons for toggling all Cells in that row or column. In addition to being useful for auditioning and tweaking Cells while a MIDI file is playing, the Mute and Solo buttons are useful for managing multiple Kits. Space permitting, you can load several Kits (they must use the same MIDI notes) into different parts of the Matrix and then use the Mute buttons to select which Cells are used from each Kit. Unfortunately, you can’t control the Mute and Solo buttons with MIDI.
Located below the Matrix, Battery ‘s individual Cell controls are organized in six sections: Cell, Layer, Modulation, FX-Loop, Tune/Shape, and Envelope/Waveform Display. Except for the Layer section, which controls the layering of individual samples within a Cell, each section’s controls affect all Layers (samples) within the Cell. At first it seemed odd that controls for loop points, tuning, and envelopes would affect every sample simultaneously, but as I worked with Battery, that arrangement was often what I wanted. When I needed a work-around, I simply assigned samples to separate Cells so that I could control the parameters individually.
The Cell, Layer, and Modulation sections located on the left side of the control area are mainly concerned with MIDI control. That is where you assign note ranges, mute groups, and Velocity zones; control keyboard tracking, looping, crossfading, and reverse playback; and assign MIDI Controller routings. The FX-Loop, Tune/Shape, and Envelope sections affect sample playback. They allow you to set up a custom loop to play back a specific number of times, modify a sample’s tuning, distort a sample with waveshaping, change its bit depth, move the sample start point, and create pitch and volume envelopes. Furthermore, all the parameters in these sections are also available as modulation destinations.
The FX-Loop is one of Battery ‘s more unusual features. It allows you to define a second loop and specify the number of times it repeats. The FX-Loop always takes precedence over the internal loop (the loop defined in the sample). Once the FX-Loop plays its requisite number of times, the internal loop takes over or the sample plays to the end, depending on whether the Cell section’s Loop parameter is turned on. You can use FX-Loop for everything from flams to subloops within loops. Combined with other effects, such as reverse playback and pitch enveloping, it can produce mind-boggling results.
Battery 1.0’s Volume Envelope is straightforward. It has Attack-Hold-Decay (AHD) and Attack-Hold-Decay-Sustain-Release (AHDSR) modes. The Pitch Envelope is slightly more unusual; it is a two-ramp envelope with a movable break-point. You set the initial pitch, the break-point pitch, and the time for each ramp. The Pitch Envelope is independent of the FX-Loop, which means that you can apply an envelope to the pitch of the entire FX-Loop and then play the remainder of the sample. You could use that, for example, to create an accelerating sequence of kicks at the beginning of a beat-loop sample. Fig. 2 shows Battery ‘s Envelope and Wave Display section with both an AHD Volume Envelope (shaded green) and a Pitch Envelope (red line). FX-Loop is turned on, which produces the four kicks to the left of the vertical green line.
The Tune/Shape section has controls for sample tuning, waveshaping, bit-depth reduction, and sample start point. Distortion techniques such as waveshaping and bit-depth reduction can add a lot of grit to a percussion sample. Three scales are available for tuning adjustments: pitch (±3 octaves in cents), percent, and note value (quarter notes to 16th-note triplets). The note-value scale, which is available only when Battery is synced to MIDI Clock, is convenient for adjusting loop tempo by simple pitch shifting. This handy option is also provided for setting the FX-Loop length. I often found myself wishing for an internal tempo setting so I could use note values in standalone operation.
Battery ‘s Modulation section provides six modulation routings for each Cell. Modulation sources include MIDI Velocity, Pitch Bend, Note Number, Aftertouch, and any MIDI controller. You can also assign a constant, a random value, or the current loop count as a source. Destinations include volume, pan, pitch, and all of the effects sections’ parameters. You can save Modulation presets to disk (although that doesn’t work on the Mac) as well as drag them between Cells. You can also apply Modulation positively or negatively, so, for example, you can, set up a footpedal-to-volume crossfade between two Cells triggered by the same note.
Percussion-sample players are like plumbers: they do an important job, but not a particularly glamorous one. Battery does its job well indeed, but the real surprise is that it also offers room for a great deal of creative manipulation. That is largely because of the ample supply of Cells, the ease with which you can dispatch the drudgery of setting up Kits, and the unusually robust effects and modulation sections.
You can use Battery for more than basic percussion. It’s an excellent loop-sequencing and layering tool, even to the point of simple remixing. It is also a good tool for managing sound effects, again because of its effects and real-time modulation controls. In a pinch, it could even fill in for your keyboard sampler. With the cost of software percussion-sample players typically ranging from free to cheap, Battery ‘s $199 price tag does not put it at the low end of the buying spectrum. However, when you consider its unique features, the premium seems well justified.
Len Sasso is a writer and composer living on California’s Central Coast. Contact him through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com .
MAC: PPC/300; 64 MB RAM; OS 8.6; OMS; Sound Manager-compatible audio interface
PC: Pentium II/300; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000; compatible sound card
Battery 1.0 (Mac/Win)
|EASE OF USE||4.0|
|QUALITY OF SOUNDS||4.5|
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent user interface. Easy Kit assembly. Extensive real-time sample manipulation.
CONS: Requires a fast computer and lots of RAM