Review – Groove Agent 4 by Steinberg
Finally we have a fancy virtual version of a drum-oriented Swiss Army knife, a magic all-in-all pack that could cover your every drum need – impressive functionality for a surprisingly low price.
by Alex Arsov, Nov. 2014
We at SoundBytes always talk about the software that we are working on at the moment. When I mentioned in an email how satisfied I was with a Groove Agent 4, Suleiman, our drum expert, wrote me that he hadn’t tried it yet. But in going through the specifications, he noticed that it has only eight layers per pad. He thought this could not be enough, at least for such a good instrument, as I claimed that Groove Agent 4 was.
More or less, this is the main story about Groove Agent 4. You can find better-equipped or more highly-specialized VST instrument for every particular section or function of Groove Agent 4 – e.g. Rayzon Jamstick mimicking behavior of a real drummer. Superior Drummer or Steven Slate Drums are a bit snappier when a rock kits start to groove. Fxpansion Geist has more advanced loop manipulation tools and so on. But all those tools cover just small specialized niche or function, all of which Groove Agent 4 has. Being a reviewer for so many years, you can imagine that I have all those specialized tools, but no matter. It happens that since I got Groove Agent 4, it has become my main tool for all percussion and drum tasks. It has proven to be the most complete drum workstation available at the moment, with a really big and versatile library, a great collection of MIDI grooves and an almost endless, deep collection of tools and controllers covering almost every aspect of drum manipulation and programming. It simply offers a great number of tools for working with drum loops, MIDI clips or separate hits and kits.
Installation is pretty straightforward. Of course, as this is a Steinberg product, you must have a USB licenser. If you own Cubase, then you already have it; if not, you can buy it from Steinberg. The only minus is that installation program doesn’t ask you where to install the VST 2 version of the program, so I’ve spent a few days trying to figure how to make it work with other DAWs. After finding the VST 2 version and copying it to my common VST directory, it worked as it should.
I’m not familiar with any of the older versions, but even being a novice in Groove Agent series, it is not difficult to figure how to get started. There are two facts that you will notice after first few minutes of toying with Groove Agent 4. The first one is that the included kits and loops sound really good: crisp on the highs, clear and “attacky” in the mid-range and having a fine defined, punchy low end, all in all fitting perfectly in a mix. The second fact is that the whole workstation is outfitted with a massive selection of options. Thankfully everything is logically ordered, so you can go deeper and deeper from one window to another one without losing yourself. Groove Agent 4 is obsessively detailed. Looks like Steinberg locked a few programmers in a basement for a year and half, letting them out only if a Steinberg inquisition inspector squad couldn’t find any bad spots. (OK, I found one, Groove Agent 4 doesn’t support MIDI out, so you can’t record your MIDI manipulations in real time directly into sequencer – but as the previous version supported that, according to some forum posts, I presume this is just a temporary fault that might be corrected in next update.)
All in all, it is very impressive that Groove Agent 4 not only covers every drum manipulation aspect that we can find in the market in various third party plug-ins (loop manipulation with slicing, and auto-classifying hits based on a frequency range inside the imported loop, MIDI pattern editing, building kits, sample editing, programming a virtual drummer, mixing kits or even separate hits internally with a great arsenal of implemented effects, and so on … ), but it goes really deep in every named separate aspect, offering a great number of additional controllers and tools which add plenty of new sub-windows, allowing editing of details that are mostly expected from specialized plug-ins. Groove Agent 4 is a drum Swiss Army knife. You name it and Groove Agent 4 will frame it.
Bible in Details
Groove Agent 4 allows us to load up to four different engines, or different kits or loops at once. Actually, it is four-channel multi-timbral, as we used to say in the old sampler days. That means that you can have a real drum kit with additional MIDI pattern on the first channel, percussions along with MIDI patterns that come with specific preset on a second channel and two additional loops on other two channels – or even loop elements ranked over the pads ready to trigger them through a Rex-like MIDI clip that you can drag it on a track. You just need to press a slice button after you import your loop and it is done – of course, all four channels could be independently controlled through four different MIDI channels in your sequencer and all four channels can carry any combination of the described elements, so, you can have four different percussion presets or two acoustic along with two percussions and so on.
The whole Groove Agent 4 structure is divided into three essential parts, or agents as they call them. Acoustic agent brings three different acoustic kits: Studio, Rock and Retro Kit. There are 55 different presets, styles for those three kits with appropriate preprogramed MIDI clips, bringing intros, ends, separate elements of the rhythm and whole rhythm patterns. Second one is a Percussion Agent bringing a large number of various percussion instruments along with 125 different presets, styles and great number of MIDI pattern loops. The last one is a Beat agent with 102 different presets and great number of (as far as I know over 100) different kits for all sort of electro RnB Dance and all other “beat machine” styles along with even bigger number of MIDI grooves. All three Agents have over 3800 various MIDI patterns, being divided into loops, intros endings and separate loop elements. Not to mention that you can drag and drop your MIDI patterns from DAW directly to any of the 128 pads saving them as a Pattern group for further use for any other song or a kit.
Every agent brings different set of controllers specific to that agent. In Acoustic agent, the most specific controller is a XY controller allowing you to balance between two parameters; intensity and complexity. The first one determines how hard the hits will be played inside the MIDI pattern. The other, Complexity, determines the pattern, adding or taking away some elements to the MIDI pattern, like additional drum hits, more hats for a chorus. It differs from pattern to pattern according to the selected style. There are a nice number of styles that determine that behavior and can be implemented to any pattern. Most are predefined, but with a single click you can open style window for any pattern changing that style.
Each of the three agents also brings a large number of additional controllers that you can reach through hierarchically ranked editing buttons. I have been using Groove Agent 4 for almost a month, using it daily, but I’m still discovering more new things. I’m not so sure what developer manager had chewed during the developing phase but I presume it was something extra strong (no offense please) because I haven’t seen so complex instrument for a long, long time. Thankfully the whole structure is logical and straightforward. So you can easily start using this instrument, finding all basic elements without any trouble, but when you start digging a bit deeper … it is like exploring ancient catacombs or sitting in a Jumbo Jet’s cockpit.
At the main window we can see two buttons that determine editing field, dividing all further editing depending whether you chose the Instrument or Pattern section. That is common to all three agents, the first one, the Instrument section, is a place where you can fine tuning all kit elements using a set of basic parameters differing from agent to agent. Acoustic and Percussion agents have a set of ADSR controllers for most of the kit elements along with additional room, tune, bleed and overhead controller knobs for every kit element along with a few specific additional ones for hats, like a knob for controlling the bow, tip and edge level, while most of the percussion instruments contain only tune and room knobs along with attack, decay and release knobs. Of course there is also an additional MIDI FX section where you can set some additional MIDI controlling elements for some of the kit elements.
The Instrument section becomes far more complicated for a Beat agent, where the arsenal of tools goes much deeper for any selected sample (or loop) from the kit. The editing window has got seven additional sub-windows where you can fine tune any aspect of the selected hit. Main, pitch, filter, slice, amp, sample and MIDI FX sub-windows offer a great number of editing possibilities that go far beyond just basic tuning every kit element. It is also pretty straightforward to set layers for a single pad, if you import up to eight different samples to one of the sixteen pads, all samples will be automatically ranked over the velocity range from the first to the last one. Of course, one preset can contain up to eight pad windows, so it is possible to load up to 128 different samples (without counting layered sounds) in one kit.
In the Pattern section, the main feature, at least for me, is a Pattern editor, a drum MIDI-editing-like window, where you can edit selected pattern changing, adding or deleting some MIDI elements. This pattern editing window is common to all three agents. There are also few other editors that can be found inside Pattern section, where you can edit some other parameters, like defining the swing amount or adding, deleting or saving some other patterns.
More and More
On the right we have another four buttons where the Edit button opens a different window depending on whether we are in the Instrument or Pattern section, while other three are common, no matter which section we have selected. The Load button opens a small but mighty browser where you can load kits, changing pattern groups getting new interesting combinations or even browse through separate kit elements replacing just a snare or any other instrument. The Next button opens a Mixer window where you can add up to 29 different types of effects to any of the selected output – as Groove Agent 4 offers up to 16 channels – right click on a drum pad and you get an option to select output to that pad or to select different effects for to any of the used Agents. Regarding effects – don’t make me start naming them as there are almost more effects than you can find on average DAW, and every effect has additional parameters for fine tuning the processed sound. The last button opens Options window for optimizing some essential parameters, like selecting how much RAM should be reserved for kit use, an optional bit rate, and few similar general things.
We should not forget one function of a virtual drummer, one similar to something we could find on Jamstix. With this function you can trigger patterns with your MIDI keyboard, setting auto complexity of how often some randomizing elements should apply, a number of bars before one of the breaks will appear, level of quantization, swing level, when crash should appear and similar things. More or less, it works as it should. I miss ability here to record the end result as a MIDI file, doing some further editing, changing this and that. But as we mentioned in the first part of the article, I presume this feature should appear in some future update.
It Could Become an Endless Story
This is just a review, so we really can’t go through all details that are implemented in this comprehensive workstation. It is a fact that Groove Agent 4 offers far more than just an essential set of options and tools for all sort of drum manipulation, no matter if we are talking about live kits, percussion, rhythm machines or even drum samples or third party loops. In most cases you will not run out of editing capabilities no matter how much picky you are regarding the end result. For me, it is an ideal tool to achieve end results in a far less time than I’ve become accustomed to. At the moment, it is the most complete drum workstation on the market. The main advantage is not just the level of editing possibilities, but also ability to work with different tools or even approaches and techniques under the same roof, being able to combine them without constantly switching between different tracks and plug-ins. In times past, I wasn’t especially keen to use just one tool for all those tasks, as there was always the problem of mixing all those different elements. If they were in the same box, having insufficient control over the separate elements was the price paid. But as most of the included kits, patterns and presets are already optimized in advance …
Groove Agent 4 sounds so good and offers an almost endless number of options in its menus, assembling so much diverse functionality under the same roof, that you could easily forget some extra abilities that you can find in some other, more specialized instruments or plug-ins. Actually, you can’t believe what everything Steinberg squeezed inside that small window of a Groove Agent 4 considering it’s more than reasonable price of €179 EUR.
At the time I’m writing this article, we already have gotten the first Groove Agent 4 extension. I presume there will be much more in a near future.
Until then, enjoy the first-class drum Babylonia, where thousands of different sounds sound like one drum pattern. Ladies and Gentleman (a short break with a drum roll at the end) – The Groove Agent 4!
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