Strike: Your New Virtual Drummer
By Jim Batcho
Plug-ins like this frighten me.
Digidesign’s brand-new instrument plug-in Strike is, in essence, a virtual drummer. But all I can think of is imagery from 1950s horror films. You know, the ones where something terrifying and powerful is going on in a dark lab, with flashes of electricity and a Theremin humming away. If you put a talented and versatile studio drummer into one of these labs and somehow extracted all of his or her knowledge, ability, and good taste, you might end up with something like Strike.
There’s more to this new plug-in than any one article can hope to cover. So with this introduction, I’ll give an overview of the Strike aesthetic and explain how you can export your work from Strike into the Pro Tools mixer as either audio or MIDI tracks.
"The hits in Strike's patterns have
been captured with sample-level
accuracy at a dynamic
resolution much higher than
MIDI velocity could represent."
Consider what you’d want when engineering a live drum session. You want a good player who can play in a variety of styles, and who brings in a good-sounding drum kit. You want a player who can vary his/her style to play simpler or busier, and you want to be able to experiment with microphone technique and placement.
The Ideal Drummer
Strike takes all of this into account by offering an extensive and highly editable series of settings that incorporate three types of data: Kits, Styles, and Mixes. These are available in the Browser Section on the left side of the Strike interface (see figure 1). They are also interchangeable — for example, you can choose a country kit with a reggae style and a rock-flavored mix. You can also save and load your own user settings in each of these categories. Finally, you can edit all of these attributes through a series of intuitive, easy-to-use controls.
Figure 1: The Browser section includes all preset |
and user Settings, plus preset and user
categories for Styles, Kits, and Mixes.
Inside Strike’s Settings
Strike is different from other drum plug-ins, like Native Instruments Battery and the like, in that you’re not limited to recording individual MIDI instrument notes (kick, snare, etc.) into Pro Tools. Instead, Strike’s instruments are contained in Settings that you load and manage inside the plug-in. Each Setting has multiple complementary loops (called “patterns”) that are triggered by MIDI notes on your keyboard controller. So when you hit note G2 on your controller while recording, you’re recording that single G2 MIDI note in Pro Tools, which corresponds to a particular pattern in Strike. You can tweak individual note characteristics in the Style Editor, but it’s all contained within the plug-in. Strike can also be used like a typical drum module, but there’s so much more to the plug-in than that.
In the Keyboard Section at the bottom of the Strike interface, there’s a series of oval-shaped buttons that correspond to 72 notes on a keyboard controller. While the blue buttons on the far right can be used to trigger individual components of the currently loaded kit (hi-hat, tambourine, ride, snare, and so on), the white and black buttons trigger the aforementioned patterns and fills. And these patterns and fills aren’t based on a series of MIDI notes playing back individual hits in the kit. Rather, they’re actual recorded drum performances that have — according to the brains behind the plug-in — been “vectorized” by a proprietary tool developed by the Advanced Instrument Research group. The upshot of this tech talk: The hits in Strike’s patterns have been captured with sample-level accuracy at a dynamic resolution much higher than MIDI velocity could represent. In essence, these performance loops are real multitrack recordings of actual drum performances — but with much more editing flexibility.
Let’s go back to Pro Tools and see how this all works. Record-enable an Instrument track with Strike open on it and with a Preset Setting loaded (for example, “Brit Rock 95”). Start Record and hold key C2 on your keyboard, then move to the D2 key and note the change in the pattern’s feel. What you’ve recorded in Pro Tools is two MIDI notes, but what you’ve done in Strike is trigger two separate but complementary patterns. Imagine how helpful this can be when developing a song arrangement: You have instant access to many variations of a single setting through the use of these multiple patterns. Once you’ve developed your song structure, recording it is a simple matter of tracking the MIDI notes that correspond to each section.
So where does MIDI editing and mixing come into play? Instead of manipulating individual notes in an Instrument track, you instead manipulate the performance in the Strike interface. This is where the various control sections come into play.
Strike features four appropriately named pages, or Sections, that relate to the previously mentioned Settings: Main, Style, Kit, and Mix. The Main section is an overview of the central components of the other sections. In the Style section, you can manipulate your virtual studio drummer’s playing style. He/she can be humanized or mechanized by changing playing intensity (loud/soft), dynamics, complexity (busy/simple), hit variance (note variety), offset (ahead of/behind the beat), timing (tight/loose feel), and grid (notes actually heard for that particular instrument).
Figure 2: Each instrument shown in the Strike Mix |
window is set to its own separate output. In the
Pro Tools Mix window, I can stream these
instruments to recordable tracks by setting
the Strike outputs as Pro Tools plug-in inputs.
The Kit section is the drum kit that your virtual studio ace brings to the session. Here is where you adjust tunings, kit timbre, and the attack/decay/start of each instrument. Finally, the Mix section is where the drummer packs up and leaves the session and the mixing engineer takes over. You have typical channel-strip control over all instruments in a kit, with a full complement of effects for each instrument.
But it goes beyond simple mixing. The Mix section also features my favorite aspect of this plug-in: the microphone section. You can actually adjust mic placement on any instrument in Strike. Move a mic more on- or off-axis, and — here’s the really cool thing — adjust the balance among three separate close mics plus their associated overhead and room mics for each individual instrument. That’s something you can’t even do in a standard recording session! Normally a room mic represents the kit as a whole, but here you can adjust the level of room signal of the kick drum independently of the other instruments.
A Different Kind of Control
You can see how Strike takes a different approach to massaging the notes of a drum performance. It doesn’t happen in a Pro Tools track — instead, you can control each performance, down to the finest details, through the plug-in’s comprehensive controls.
"You can adjust the mic
placement on any
instrument in Strike."
Strike also represents a breakthrough for DJs and laptop performers. You can set the performance parameters in advance, then strike the keys that correspond to your musical changes. Strike also has a MIDI “learn” function, so you can assign your controller’s rotary knobs to alter the styles. Back in the studio, of course, you’ll probably want to export your work as either a MIDI file or an audio multitrack. (See Tips 2 and 3 in the sidebar for instructions on how to do each.)
Top Three Strike Tips
|Tip One: Audition Kits at Any Tempo in Real Time
This comes in handy if you’re starting a song from scratch, and your
first step is laying down a drum performance. Strike automatically syncs
to the Pro Tools tempo grid. To audition the tempo settings of a selected
kit, click the Latch button in Strike’s Keyboard Section so that
the selected pattern loops indefinitely. Next, expand the Tempo Editor
in Strike’s Edit window and drag the green tempo bar up and down.
Strike will adjust to your changes in real time until you find the tempo
Tip Two: Print a Multitrack Using Strike’s Output Assignments
At some point you’ll want to print a multitrack drum performance
to discrete audio tracks. Even if you do your drum kit mixing within Strike
all the way to final mixdown, printing to tracks is good practice, if for
no other reason than to archive your session. Another possible scenario
is when you want to bypass Strike’s internal effects and print the
raw audio files, then process them later with your favorite EQs, compression,
and ‘verb plug-ins or outboard processors.
Assuming you’ve got a performance recorded to a MIDI or Instrument
track, first set each instrument in your kit to its own output. (Strike
supports up to eight total outputs.) This is done in Strike’s Mix
section. The kick can go to output 1, snare to 2, and so on. Next, create
an equal number of stereo audio tracks for each corresponding Strike output,
and name each track according to its kit instrument (for example, “kick”).
Strike outputs only work as stereo pairs, or L/R mono signals, so make
sure you’re using stereo tracks.
Beginning with Pro Tools 7, you can set Pro Tools inputs to correspond
to plug-in instruments that support this feature. On the Pro Tools mixer,
set your kick drum track’s channel strip input to Plug-in > Strike
Inst 1 > Out 1 (see figure 2). Repeat the process for all other instruments
in your kit. Record-enable all the new tracks in your mixer, and hit Control-spacebar
(Win) or Command-spacebar (Mac) to record individual Strike instruments
to separate tracks in Pro Tools.
Keep in mind that because of the realism in Strike, there may be mic
bleed that creeps into other tracks. This is not necessarily a bad thing,
but it is something to adjust according to taste. Incidentally, if you
only want to mix outside of Strike and not print to disk, you can use
Aux returns instead of audio tracks, and follow the same instructions
above (without recording, of course).
Tip Three: Export MIDI Tracks
To export patterns from Strike as individual MIDI instruments on discrete
tracks, use the Export MIDI function. This allows you to take a performance
(that is, a series of Strike patterns) and pull it into MIDI playlists
quickly and easily. Click on the Main page, make sure you’re not
in Latch mode, and “play” a performance you’ve massaged
in Strike (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). When you’re done, click
and hold the Export MIDI button and drag the data to the timeline of
the Edit window. (Don’t drag it into any existing playlists, as
this will simply place the MIDI files in these playlists; instead, drag
into an open area, such as the Tempo editor.)
Figure 3: Dragging a performance into the |
Pro Tools Edit window creates discrete MIDI tracks,
automatically named by instrument, note, and MIDI
Click OK in the resulting pop-up window, and Pro Tools does the rest:
Your performance will appear as multiple MIDI tracks, auto-named by instrument
type, keyboard note, and MIDI channel. You may now use this MIDI data
for any number of purposes. To trigger back to Strike, set each MIDI
track’s output to a corresponding Strike channel assignment (see
figure 3). This is easily done, since the appropriate channel is part
of each MIDI track name. Make sure you’ve got your routing set
up properly by feeding your MIDI tracks through an auxiliary channel.
Have fun being your own virtual Steve Gadd. Next time, we’ll dig into some of Strike’s deeper features, such as the Style section and the Style Editor.
Jim Batcho is a San Francisco–based drummer, rhythm programmer, freelance writer, and sound and music editor for television and experimental film. He has a Master’s degree in electronic communication arts with a focus on the representational potential of ambient sound in TV and film. For more information, visit