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Getting those beats right is a massive part of our music production workflow.

Whether we’re looking for an authentic acoustic experience or electronic sounds that cut through our mix, finding a good source of sounds and the tools needed to express our rhythmic ideas is really important. Assuming you don’t have space or equipment to mic up and record a drum kit then we need the best software drummer or beat-focused sound library we can find.

So, in this article, I’ve pulled in the best drum plug-ins and virtual drummers to give you that perfect rhythm track. The first four are all about authentic acoustic drums and massive libraries of fantastic drum sounds and the rest are focused on electronic drum sounds.

Our picks for the best drum VST plugins in 2021 include:

  • Superior Drummer 3
  • XLN Audio Addictive Drums 2
  • Toontrack EZDrummer 2
  • Steven Slate Drums 5
  • Nerve Xfer Records
  • iZoptope BreakTweaker
  • Trax Drum Machine
  • Fxpansion Geist 2

Superior Drummer 3

Superior Drummer from Toontrack is an immensely deep drumming experience with more control and processing than you’d ever have time for. It is packed with over 230 GB of raw drum goodness and will not only respond correctly to MIDI but, using the Tracker technology, it can pull rhythms off audio tracks and use artificial intelligence to replace the drum sounds with its own.

The included 7 drum kits were recorded with multiple microphones, dozens of different placements and up to 11-channel surround sound for a totally immersive experience. You can mix and match your drums from different kits and from the library of 25 snares and 16 kits plus hundreds of electronic possibilities.

The core library was recorded by award-winning Engineer George Massenburg at the environmentally silent Galaxy Studios in Belgium.

But it’s not all about the sounds. Superior Drummer also has a comprehensive MIDI library of styles, patterns and fills to inspire your tracks. You can get stuck into the multi-track grid editor and start crafting your own grooves. You can build your entire drum track within Superior Drummer rather than writing it in your DAW’s piano roll.

And once you’re ready you can start mixing and blending sounds in the virtual mixing studio, complete with channel strips, 35 mixer effects and a wide range of presets for every drum type. So, if you don’t want to do all the work yourself let Superior Drummer show you what usually works best.

It’s an immense drum studio in a single piece of software that you can keep on expanding with further sound packs. It doesn’t get better than this.

Street Price: $399

XLN Audio Addictive Drums 2

Addictive Drums is slightly less intimidating than Superior Drummer. It has a friendly (if slightly dated-looking) interface that is happy to provide you with fantastic sounds, kits, and grooves without you having to understand drum engineering — unless you want to.

The highlight is that it comes with three amazing sounding drum kits and a huge library of MIDI grooves recorded by some of the best Drummers in the business. The Fairfax kits were recorded at the legendary Los Angeles studio formerly known as Sound City. The XLN Audio Engineers have produced 130 presets setups, ranging from highly polished through to heavily processed and distorted.

While many of AD2’s best features revolve around the ease of use for the non-Engineer there’s plenty of depth you can go to if you want to tweak and craft the sounds. There’s a 10-channel mixer plus overheads, room and bus channels with individual EQ and transient shaping, compression, and distortion. You have control over how the drums respond, the envelope and noise content. You can also add delay and reverb.

With the integrated MIDI groove system you can audition beats and rhythms and then drag-and-drop them as audio or MIDI directly into your DAW’s timeline.

I really like the immediacy of AD2 and how well the kits fit into the music I’m already working on without me having to spend loads of time mixing and processing them.

Street Price: $149

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Toontrack EZDrummer 2

Toontrack realized that not everyone can cope with the depth and complexity of Superior Drummer and so they came up with the simpler, groovier and individually fantastic EZDrummer. Now in version two, it reflects some of the power and look of Superior Drummer but is a lot less scary.

EZDrummer comes with 5 complete drum kits split into modern and vintage setups, recorded at the British Grove Studios by award-winning Engineer and Producer Chuck Ainlay. The improved mixer and effects processor give instant hands-on control over the mix of the drum sounds and you can add EQ, reverbs, compressors, delays and EQs or chose from the library of mixer presets.

For groove creation, you can start tapping on drums and EZDrummer will pull up MIDI grooves that match what you’re playing. In Song Mode, you can pull them together into a structure and let the software fill in the blanks. The standard software comes with 4GB of library but there’s also a huge collection of expansions available in terms of kits, styles, grooves, presets and anything else you could want to add.

If you just need a half-decent drummer you can rely on without all the fuss and mess of crafting sounds and composing rhythms then EZDrummer is definitely for you.

Street Price: $199

Steven Slate Drums 5

It was a long time coming but version 5 of Steven Slate Drums has been rebuilt from the ground up and offers some interesting features alongside stunning drum sounds.

It has a new physically modeled algorithm that recreates the sound of a drummer hitting a drum. So it’s not just triggering the drums, it’s playing the drums with a very natural and realistic response.

SSD5 takes a different approach to constructing kits. They’ve used the individual recording of 84 kicks, 77 snares, 58 toms and so on to create many different and varying kits that give a whole range of flavors. You can build your own, of course, but you can also browse through expertly constructed kits to find the feel and character that you’re after.

There’s plenty of depth here with microphone customization, routing options and tuning. You can customize the velocity and dynamic curves for each drum and tweak the tone to be exactly what you want. In the mixer page, you can bring in ambient microphones, change panning positions and get the blend of sounds exactly right before routing to your DAW.

SSD5 is quick and easy to use with fantastic and immediately usable sounds and functions. Although it’s less of a focus it does also come with hundreds of MIDI grooves to get the drums pumping. You can also download the software with an entire kit for free and use it right now.

Street Price: $149

Nerve Xfer Records

Let’s move over to the more electronic side of things (although there’s plenty of places where they cross over). Nerve is a powerful beat manipulator and pattern created with a diverse and interesting sample library. It was designed by what they call “veteran dance music producers” and that should give you a clue as to what this plugin is all about.

Nerve comes with a 2GB library of presets, drumkits, patterns, hits and loops from world-class Sound Designers crossing many genre boundaries. Or you can import your own samples just by dropping them onto any one of the 16 pads in a kit. You can slice and dice samples across those pads, set loop points, stretch, sculpt, resynthesize and do a lot of other sample processing.

Sequencing is easy and it occupies the top half of the interface. It combines nicely with modulation pages, velocity, filtering and other processes that you can apply to the track for the selected pad. You can extract grooves from other places like REX files to apply directly to your tracks. There are some great performance features where you can re-trigger pads on-the-fly, create fills and variations and enabled the Repeater function to keep things moving.

Each pad has a fat-sounding filter with flexible LFO modulation, multi-stage envelopes, gates, and an internal side-chain compressor to pump those kicks.

Nerve has been around a long time but it remains one of the most engaging beat-making and manipulating plugins around.

Street Price: $149

iZotope BreakTweaker

BreakTweaker is a whole load of fun. It’s like a rollercoaster of beat-making, manipulation and sample wrangling. You shred, slice and slam and then let BreakTweaker completely reinvent your rhythm in ways you hadn’t thought of.

It combines sampling with a powerful synthesis engine bringing in all sorts of sounds and sound design possibilities. BreakTweaker was designed with Producer BT who also brought in a lot of the sound library and presets.

Beyond the sampling, there’s a whole synthesized drum designer in here with two wavetable oscillators that can take sounds from simple beginnings to complex movements. You can get as deep, percussive and weird as you like.

The sequencer is a wonderfully creative place. Just when you think you’ve got things sorted out it evolves and transforms your patterns into some other place.

In MicroEdit you can chop up each sequencer step into ridiculous resolutions, create stuttering beats and mangle the effects. And it’s in the micro-editing that BreakTweaker really sets itself apart. It generates movement and subtlety that you don’t often find while being on-point and powerful enough to rip beats through your entire track.

In some ways, it has a very classic drum machine approach to rhythm-making, but maybe one that’s come to us from the future.

Street Price: $249 (expanded version)

Trax Drum Machine

Trax drum machine from Thenatan is as simple and fabulous as it looks. It jumps out at you with its orange and black color scheme, the pair of tubes glowing away and how you’ve just got a bunch of faders to play with.

The first to know is that Trax is not actually a drum machine — there are no MIDI loops or rhythms, you can’t step sequence patterns or get it to play itself. Trax is a super source of drum sounds into which you feed your own patterns from your DAW. And the reason why it’s on this list is that those sounds and your interaction with them are totally excellent.

It comes with over 400 hard-hitting drum sounds that have been perfectly EQ’d and setup for dropping into your tracks. They are split into 50 kits with 8 channels of sound per kit relating to the 8 faders on the interface. The first two channels are the kick drums, the next two channels are the snares, next are the stick/clap sounds, hi-hats and on the last two channels, we have some interesting FX samples.

You then get to play with the levels, you can adjust the attack and release on the dynamics, add a bit of reverb and dial in the distortion and vintage lo-fi effects. And there are 4 layers of effects.

Trax is dead easy to use and comes with hundreds of really usable sounds for modern Hip-Hop, Trap, RnB, EDM or whatever you’re into. It runs as a VST or AU plug-in directly inside your DAW.

Street Price: $49

Fxpansion Geist 2

Geist is going to take you deep into beat production. It’s a sampling rhythm production environment that works with sample sculpting and pattern sequencing.

You can load in samples or record directly to the pads. You can slice loops, spread them across up to 64 pads and then work them with the filters and process them through effects and crunch them down with authentic lo-fi modes. You can use hits, loops, slices and trigger sounds in any way you choose. You can time stretch and pitch shift, layer samples and sculpt sounds, resample and capture before you get stuck into the powerful modulation and sequencing engine.

A simple pattern is just a start. You can drop in LFOs, mini sequencers, Sample & Hold modules and other modulators to mess about with the parameters in the TransMod system. You have 64 tracks to play with, each with 24 pattern memories and individual track lengths. There’s no end to the shifts and grooves you can push these tracks into with each step lining up with layers of manipulation.

In Song Mode, you can build complex arrangements of sounds, melodies, rhythms, and craziness. And then pour in the filters, the reverbs, granular freezing, drive, and distortion.

Geist is not for the faint-hearted or casual beat maker; it’s for people who want to sample and take their ideas beyond their limits.

Street Price: $199

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