Review – Attack of the Slice Masters: Geist 2 and Drum Direktor
It’s 2016 and beat slicing and sequencing has two new heroes Loop Loft’s Drum Direktor and FXpansion’s Geist 2.
by Suleiman Ali, Sept 2016
At a certain point in my youth, I actually frowned upon loops/sampling and all that they stood for. It seemed (for me at that naive age) to be a shortcut designed for people with zero musical talent, and pissed off a lot of musicians because now these Johnny-come-lately-s could easily produce semi-professional sounding tracks (based on stolen motifs) without any headaches involving mic-ing, DI-ing and the other numerous pains involved in recording real instruments. That all changed quickly when I heard artists like Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares as well as the third wave of industrial related genres coming out of Europe. Now, I view loops and samplers as an essential part of any self-respecting music producer’s arsenal. What makes or breaks your loops is what interface and functionality is available to you in terms of manipulation (as well as that crazy little thing called “talent”). That includes everything from basic samplers to beat slicers, glitchers/manglers and full on production suites. Combine that with my unhealthy obsession with drum software in general, I could not pass up the two new products reviewed here.
This is going to be an interesting review as it juxtaposes two extremes in terms of beat slicing / loops, both in terms of capability and price. Weighing in at $199 USD we have FXpansion’s Geist 2, an eagerly awaited successor to their original (and quite popular) Geist from a few years back. It is a behemoth of functionality and content, and maybe the final world in beat-slicers/loop-manipulators. Yes, just like BFD3 is for virtual acoustic drum software. This is one company that does not believe in half measures.
In the other corner, weighing in at $99 USD, is Loop Loft’s Drum Direktor, a fast and efficient groove/loop/drum instrument. It is a relatively new entry (but the company has been providing excellent drum and instrument loops for a while). What makes it an interesting contender is that it harnesses the power of Kontakt, yet even at $99, it works with Kontakt Player. There are 2 versions available (FNK-4 and Cinematik), which differ only in terms of loop content, while the interface and capabilities remain the same for both. You can both as a bundle for $149 which is pretty good bang for your buck.
I must state (before the critics chime in) that it is definitely an unfair comparison. One seeks to be the be-all-end-all of slicers/loop-manipulators, while the other hopes to be a nifty little loop tool in your arsenal. The biggest difference in this regard is that Geist 2 allows user loops to be imported/sliced/manipulated while Drum Direktor does not. The other thing is the sheer number of options, effects and loops/samples in Geist 2 are going to result in me spending slightly more words on it.
Normally, I give the product links at the end of a review but in this case it would be better if the user took a detour to the respective web pages at this point, to read what the companies say as well as the quite illustrative videos available for both:
Off We Go
Installation and authorization for Geist 2 followed the standard conventions laid down by FXpansion, including the separate license manager utility for downloading and installing/authorizing in one go.
Drum Direktor was a standard download followed by authorization through the Native Instruments’ Service Center. In essence, both downloaded and installed without any issues at all and I was up and running in a surprisingly short time.
Once the interface opens up, your jaw will hit the floor with the number of options right there on the welcome window. This is truer for Geist 2 but Drum Direktor’s interface is pretty impressive in its own right. A little playing around (with the well written PDF manuals at hand) is required to understand the workflow, routing and the general “WTF is this” of the GUI (especially for Geist 2). There is no reliance on emulating classic or hardware interfaces, and this will be a brave new world for many, although Geist 1 users will have a distinct advantage using Geist 2, while Maschine users will have an edge with Drum Direktor.
One thing I quickly realized is that with the included content and the ridiculous amount of processing/slicing options, it will be a long while before you start using your own loops. I was lost for days playing around on Geist 2 and at least a couple of hours each on the two Drum Direktor versions, once I got the hang of their respective work flows. Both provide pretty straight forward MIDI based controls so you can start banging out beats on a controller of your choice right away or use the killer step sequencers included in both. But to be honest, in terms of depth, Drum Direktor was a large lake while Geist 2 was like an ocean (I am still discovering new things every day). Like most lakes, it’s easy to jump in and start swimming with Drum Direktor, while Geist 2 may lead to tweak-mania (and not getting work done).
The Drum Direktor bundle has around 1.8 GB of content, and combined with the huge amount of patterns and slices, it truly provides instant gratification. The quality is top notch for drum loops, which is what you would expect from a company of Loop Loft’s standing. The parameters/tweakers for each pad/slice are right there on the interface that opens up by default, with a graphical representation of the loop wave showing what is playing. This is the “Drum” tab, and there are 3 others (illustratively titled “Seq”, “Mixer” and “Config”). The grouping option (color-coded) for each pad (and subsequently, each sequencer lane) is very well implemented and facilitates ease of use. Each group has a full list of effects (and I can happily say they sound pretty great).
The two versions (FNK-4 and Cinematik) are presented in slightly different configurations in terms of Kontakt instruments. But the interface for all included instruments is exactly the same. FNK-4 is full of bread and butter breaks, loops and hits to get you started on your beats quick while Cinematik definitely has a flair for the dramatic and more textural loops.
Geist 2 has around 6.4 GB of content including the two free expander packs (and here I implore you to get “BFD Remixed” as one of your choices) with abundant variety. This is complemented with an interesting architecture: eight engines, with each engine having up to 64 pads, with each pad able to hold a maximum of eight layers (which can be edited in detail including velocity based switching or round robin among other options). Each engine has 24 patterns associated with it. If you can’t make good beats with it, let’s be fair – it’s not the instrument, it’s your skills.
I have included screen shots for most of the major GUI sections to show the incredible amount of options Geist 2 throws at you. The truly adventurous will be weeping with joy at the frankly outrageous amount of modulation options in this crazy software (the “Transmod” section gives you access to sixteen assignable modulation sources, also shown at the bottom along with eight macros) and its nifty implementation which allows you set min/max and depth in the knobs themselves. The included effects are enough to do any job you can think off. You could fire up this software as standalone and basically do a whole track in it without using anything else at all. Honestly, I would have to write a small book to review every single feature, but I will throw in the towel with a few words about the sequencer. Each lane in each pattern can have options ranging from velocity to pitch and considerably more. Furthermore, a simple drag operation (set by default to velocity) allows pattern events to be adjusted in a dazzling number of ways. All this is captured in the screen shots.
At times the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach seems a bit much in the case of Geist 2 and seems to answer the question “what if Umberto Eco wrote the code for a beat slicer/sequencer and kept it on intravenously fed steroids for a year?” Its options have options, and can do things most people never even thought of doing or abandoned because the technology had not quite caught up yet. Well, now there’s no excuse. A simple mode or basic GUI might have been helpful for some users to get started, but I like the details.
The “included content only” clause seems to be one major drawback with Drum Direktor. I, like most music producers, have massive numbers of loops on my hard drive and was left wondering a lot of what-if questions that could never be materialized. Just the fact that I was curious about what it could do for my loop library goes to show how well thought out the instrument itself is. Seriously, that one option to import user loops and samples could suddenly make it attractive to a lot more people in one mighty swoop. I also wish there was an end marker and envelope to show what happens when you tweak the controls, but you get the hang of the controls pretty fast even without it. If you cannot hear it, there’s no point in tweaking it.
In terms of competition, there is actually less than there was a decade ago as far as pure slicers go (a long and depressing article in there, no doubt). Your best bet would be semi-DAW’s (flame on!) like Reason and FL Studio. If it’s just the slicing/sampling you are after, TX16WX (free and paid versions available) is a pretty good bet (with regular updates and unlimited pads) as is the ever reliable Poise (limited pads and honestly looking a bit long in the teeth, but still a lesson in usable fast interfaces). If it’s the loop mangling capabilities you are after, Glitch2, Sequent, Effectrix, Loop Drive (now abandoned but still available as a FREE 32 bit VST) and Replicant are all decent (but no transient based slicing). But to be honest, I cannot think of any fully featured VST instruments that have a transient based slicer, massive amounts of loop content and a good sequencer built in with sufficient effects and options to make it your one stop for beats. So in that regard Geist 2 and (to an extent) Drum Direktor are pretty unique.
I would say that if you are testing the waters with beat slicing and loops (or are a Kontakt / Maschine aficiando), Drum Direktor is a pretty sweet deal, but if you are a beat maestro looking for the holy grail of slicing / sequencing and not afraid to part with the additional moolah, Geist 2 is a no-brainer.