Of all the virtual drum instruments out there, Beatstation carves out its own niche by seeking the sweet spot between ease of use and depth. How easy is it? I figured out 95% of the program without a manual. How deep? Keep reading.
Of particular interest to keyboardists, Beatstation includes bass and lead line modules that respond to notes above and below the drums, respectively. If you’re better on the ivories than the skins, the program comes with a library of MIDI grooves to kick-start your creativity.
As You Like It
Beatstation is big on customization: You can change the pad layout, save custom layouts, and re-skin the whole look. The pads are also highly editable; each has two effects sends, volume (for mixing— there’s no separate mixer window), five layers to which you can drag-and-drop samples (in WAV, AIFF, or MP3 format), mute and solo buttons, the ability to assign a pad to a mute group (where hitting one pad of the group cuts off others that are ringing, as commonly used for hi-hats), and an insert effect slot. For each layer (sample), you can edit volume, pitch, pan, envelope, reverse, start time offset, and various other parameters.
The core library includes four categories—instruments, REX files, MIDI grooves, and sounds—which you access through the browser, then drag-and-drop onto pads and players (e.g., REX or MIDI file player). You can filter these to see, say, only MIDI grooves, as well as drag-and-drop from the desktop.
Browser drag-and-drop is bidirectional, as you can drag MIDI Grooves or REX files from Beatstation into your host and vice-versa, assuming your host supports REX file import. A pad can play a REX file from beginning to end, play through each slice sequentially when you trigger the pad multiple times, or play sequentially but choose random REX slices. In addition, you can drag individual slices onto pads, thus transforming any REX slice into a potential drum sound—and remember, you can have five layers of these slices. You even display where in the browser a REX file (or MIDI file) originates by highlighting it and clicking a magnifying glass button.
Beatstation has the traditional three effects slots, namely an insert effect for each pad, two send effects, and a master effect. There’s a lot to choose from: three lo-fi effects, four choruses, 13 compressors, 23 delays, four distortions, 13 EQs, five gates, 20 reverbs, and lots of effects chains (including six master insert chains and 13 time-based chains). Surprisingly, you’ll also find sidechain-able compressor, gate, and master chains, where any pad can provide the sidechain signal. This is great for gating the bass and lead lines with particular drum pads for synchronized effects, like “chopping” the bass with the kick drum, as Francis Preve discusses in his Dance column this month.
In standalone mode, a sample recorder window becomes available. This listens to your computer’s default audio input, and records up to ten seconds of audio. Since it edits as well as records, you can trim the sample’s start and end points, fade in and out, set loop points, zoom the waveform view, normalize levels, change gain, and set a threshold for recording to start automatically when the audio exceeds a certain level. When you’re done, simply drag the resulting sound from the recorder to a Beatstation pad’s layer.
For even more sounds, any installed Toontrack expansion packs show up in the browser. There’s also the new BTX file format, which defines all elements of a Beatstation setup.
Bass and Leads
These are simple polyphonic synths that share characteristics with pads, except that they respond to incoming notes so you can play melodic lines. Since you can layer up to five samples, single pads can play back chords, Korg KARMA-style. While you can of course play these modules from a standard keyboard controller, you can also drive them from Beatstation’s Standard MIDI File player. The ability to include bass and leads means you can create not just beats but entire mini-compositions; it’s easy to export these by using the “Drag MIDI as Audio” function to drag files to the host or desktop. The result is beat software that lets a keyboard not only trigger drum sounds, but actually play keyboard parts.
Just because Beatstation is fun, easy to use, and inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight. Toontrack is known for fine software, and that lineage made it into this “budget” program. Sure, Beatstation lacks a few pro features like individual pad audio outputs, a dedicated mixer, and ReWire support. There’s also no MIDI learn, but it’s on the list for an upcoming update.
The program definitely doesn’t skimp on the core library. The wide variety of sounds leans towards dance and hip-hop, but not to the exclusion of other genres, and the easy browser access is a plus. It’s painless to come up with cool beats, not just because the program is easy to learn, but because you don’t have to agonize over finding sounds—there’s plenty of useful raw material.
If Toontrack’s goal was to bring quality to the masses while keeping the end result loose and fun, they’ve certainly succeeded. Don’t let the low cost fool you; this is a serious tool for creating beats. You just don’t have to be serious while you’re doing it!
Pros Does more than just drums. Very cost-effective. High fun factor. Large 1.63GB core library. Highly customizable. Includes sample recorder. Accommodates 64-bit operating systems.
Cons Per-pad mixing only—no main mixer. MIDI learn not yet implemented. No ReWire.
CONCEPT Drum module with bass and lead synths, as well as MIDI grooves.
FORMATS Mac or PC. AU, VST, RTAS, and standalone.
SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Mac: OS X 10.4.11 or higher (supports only 32-bit hosts under Snow Leopard). PC: Windows XP SP3, Vista, 7, 32- or 64- bit systems. Both: 512MB RAM, 2GB hard disk space.
Approx. street: $100