Best Beat Making Plugins for Serious Groove Production (2017)
Beat making is often seen as the domain of the hardware groove box but computers have been making beats since the very first time they could record a note. From the Atari ST to the Fairlight, people have been putting computerized grooves together on screens for decades. The first virtual instrument of the modern PC and Mac era was arguably the Propellerhead Rebirth RB-338. It was a beat and bassline masterpiece of Roland hardware in virtual space that cost a fraction of the real thing.
It gave birth to a whole generation of mouse-driven beat making for which computers were ideally suited. Free from the physical limitations of hardware, the sound palette bloomed, creativity and possibility blossomed, and music evolved. And while the recent reemergence of hardware beat making brings a certain feel back to our fingertips, our computers still harbor an enormous potential for programmed and performed beats.
Many brands of music and audio production software contain integrated abilities to create grooves and patterns. Image Line’s FL Studio began life as a beat making step sequencer. Ableton Live’s use of the Max For Live platform has brought in many creative beat making devices. Steinberg’s Cubase has drum machines and loop mashing all built in. But the focus of this roundup of beat making plugins is to highlight those drum and percussive groove machines that can run in whatever VST or AU host platform you’re using. We’re not talking about sound libraries or loops; we’re talking about plugins that let you create and sequence the beats themselves. So, whether it’s StudioOne, Reason, Cubase, Ableton, Reaper, FL Studio or one of many others, you’ll be able to plug in these virtual machines and start making beats with our picks for the best beat making plugins.
Our 2017 Picks
D16 – Nepheton, Drumazon, Nithonat
Street Price: $99 (at time of writing)
Let’s start with three drum machines from the masters of emulation, D16. They have a passion for old Roland boxes, and these are the finest examples you’ll find of the legendary TR808, TR909, and TR606 drum machines.
Nepheton unpacks the heart of an 808 and puts it on your computer. It contains 17 fully synthesized instruments (no samples) with all the nuance and detail of the original machine. But, this being software, they’ve added in a load more control. There are tone, tuning, and decay for every sound along with mute and solo buttons. There’s additional filtering on the kick, snare, and toms for crafting that perfect tone. The internal sequencer can recall 16 extended and 96 simple patterns. Extended patterns have 4 parts — variation A/B and part 1/2 — which neatly bring together intros and fills within the pattern. Nepheton has all the charm and usability of the 808 drum machine with the integration and routing potential of your DAW.
Drumazon does the same thing for the 909. Again, it’s all synthesized, like the original hardware, with all the same attention to detail and editing potential of the Nepheton. The internal sequencer is a little more advanced, storing 8 banks of 12 patterns and being able to chain patterns up into entire songs.
Nithonat brings the D16 treatment to the simpler 606 drum machine. All synthesized, all parameters extended and ready for tweaking, the sequencer is more comprehensive than the one found in the other plugins but works in a similar way.
All three share similar attributes in the design, the additional parameters and extra features like randomization. If you are looking for virtual versions of these classic Roland drum machines, then D16 have the answer.
- Specs: Mac OSX or Windows 7+
- Format: VST, AU, 32 or 64 bit
Nepheton has all the charm and usability of the 808 drum machine with the integration and routing potential of your DAW.
Wave Alchemy Revolution
Street Price: $149 (at time of writing)
If authentic synthesis is not your thing, then how about the authentic sound of sampling? Revolution from Wave Alchemy faithfully sampled 14 of the world’s most iconic drum machines. This includes all the Rolands, of course (808, 909, etc.), but also Linndrum, Drumtraks and OB-DX. Revolution is powered by tens of thousands of samples, capturing every nuance of the original machines. The sounds are great, but that’s not the whole deal. There’s a whole suite of effects, filters, and dynamics. There are transient shapers, EQ’s and tape saturation, each available independently, per sound. You can use all this tweakable power to craft your own versions of these sounds and build your own kits.
When it comes to making the beats, the first stop is the 16 button TR style sequencer. It has accent control, host sync, swing/shuffle and a MIDI input. Behind the buttons is a 32 step multi-track sequencer with individual per step modulation routings. It comes with 1000 patterns to get you started, and you can drag patterns and drop them directly onto your DAW’s timeline.
Beyond the usual MIDI controller options, there’s additional integration available for Ableton Live and the Push 2 hardware. It’s also compatible with the Native Instrument NKS format so if you have one of their keyboards it will all lay itself out for you.
Revolution is a comprehensive source of drum sounds and killer hybrid kits. The integrated sequencing, mixing, and tweaking makes it an immensely powerful beat making machine.
- Specs: Mac OSX (64bit only), Windows 32 or 64bit
- Format: Runs in Native Instrument Kontakt or the free Kontakt Player for stand-alone or VST/AU operation.
Street Price: $249 (at time of writing)
Although it’s been around for a couple of years, if you want to flex your creativity beyond the usual vintage drum machines, then check out BreakTweaker, the “Future Beat Machine.” Designed by Producer and Grammy-nominated Composer BT, BreakTweaker hopes to change your concept of rhythm, beat, and drum programming. It’s a drum sculpting and beat sequencing environment that blurs the lines between rhythm and melody.
Breaktweaker consists of three main modules. The Generator synthesizer gives you the power to craft your own killer drum sounds. The 32 step Sequencer then lets you layout your created sounds on a grid. And then the MicroEdit engine takes your sounds apart and infuses them with micro-rhythmic content.
Your sounds can be created using either morphing wavetable synthesis or the simplicity of one shot samples. It’s a full-on synthesizer with multiple waveforms, modulation, envelopes, filtering, and editing. It comes with a ton of sample content and presets so if it seems all a little daunting then you’ve got plenty to play with right from the get-go.
The Sequencer is isorhythmic, meaning each track can have its owns tempo and step length. The beats will then begin to evolve and transform the longer it plays. You can have up to 24 patterns synced directly to your DAW where they can be launched, triggered, latched, and switched. Each track can route out individually for optimum mixing and processing through your DAW for a completely finished production.
And finally, the MicroEdit engine takes it down to the granular level. It can slice up your sounds to a ridiculous level and sweep through with pitch, arpeggiation, and texture control. And this is all per step. Add in the randomization button, and you’ll never be short of new ideas.
BreakTweaker is very blue and very full-on, but it will take you in very different directions to your standard 808/909 emulations.
- Specs: Mac OSX and Windows
- Format: VST, VST3, AAX, RTAS and AU formats
Without a doubt, Reaktor will be mind-boggling to the novice who just wants to bang out some beats. But for the discerning and musically invested individual looking to expand their music making horizons then Reaktor is where you should be spending your time.
Fxpansion Geist 2
Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)
Geist 2 is a streamlined environment for beat creation and sound sculpting. Or, in other words, it’s a sample based groovebox. It has everything you need in here for complex beat production. You can start with some of the included samples or sample your own sounds directly into the software. Trim it and slice it up, dump it all or just extract the chosen slices to pads for performance. Morph and modulate your sounds, time stretch, filter and apply all sorts of sound bending effects. There are 64 pads and each one gets a sequencer track with individual lengths, timing and really cool things like event probability. But probably the feature missing from many of the other groove machines is the arranger. This is a simple way of laying out your patterns and sequences to create entire songs without having to transfer your patterns to your DAW.
Geist really brings movement to your beats. The “TransMod” system lets you automate any parameter with any modulator. These can be step-sequencers, LFOs, envelopes, math functions or morphing between all sorts of parameters. Nothing has to remain static — unless you want it to. And when you’re done messing about with modulation you can then twist it all into new forms of sound with the “Transform” effects engine. You can layer up samples with individual effects and filters. You can get into granular freezing, time stretching, frequency shifting, reverb, compression and bit crushing. It really is a powerhouse of sample manipulation and beat production.
- Specs: Mac OSX and Windows
- Format: AAX, AU, VST 32 and 64 bit
Native Instruments Reaktor 6
Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)
Reaktor is not a dedicated beat making platform. It’s a synthesis environment capable of generating an enormous range of sounds. You could call it a sonic playground or modular laboratory. However, it also contains a number of diverse and creative groove making devices.
There are some seriously crazy noise and glitch generators, lo-fi sequence crushers, visual matrix painters and banging beat bouncers. And if you don’t quite find what you need, then you can always build your own. The open format combined with the lively community of users means there’s a whole library of user-made beat making tools to play with.
A recent addition in Reaktor 6 is the Blocks format. This is an easier way to navigate the modular nature of Reaktor by providing “modules” you can link together as you do with hardware modular synthesizers. Within this part of Reaktor, new beat making machines have emerged with a growing library of community contributions.
Without a doubt, Reaktor will be mind-boggling to the novice who just wants to bang out some beats. But for the discerning and musically invested individual looking to expand their music making horizons then Reaktor is where you should be spending your time. There’s a free Reaktor Player which comes with a few Blocks patches to try and a 30-minute demo of the rest of what Reaktor has to offer. It’s a great place to start.
- Specs: Mac OSX and Windows
- Format: Stand alone, VST, AU and AAX
The iOS factor
In compiling this list of currently awesome beat making plugins I was struck by how few simpler and cheaper ones existed. All of the ones in the list are complete beat making production studios with price tags to match. It seems all the more entry-level, casual beat making apps are to be found on the iOS platform of the iPad or iPhone. It is a great place for beat making as it incorporates some of the touch and feel of hardware along with an easily deliverable and cheap source of software. So if you need to make beats on a budget and already have an iOS device then, perhaps, the App Store is where you need to go. However, if you’re seriously into your beat production, then creating grooves with plugins within a professional DAW environment is going to take you far, far further.
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